Thursday, January 31

America's Housing Patterns

John Hill has put together an interesting article highlighting some of the United States' most conspicuous housing development patterns. Witness that land patterns that are us:

Golf course housing:

Greenfield exurbia:

Desert sprawl:

Mobile home parks:

Wednesday, January 30

Scholars hopeful about fate of Timbuktu manuscripts

The Islamic militants who burned the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, in an effort to destroy treasured historic manuscripts, seem strikingly similar to the U.S. Christian fundamentalists behind intellectual affronts like The Creation Museum: They are both enemies of knowledge and history.

Thankfully, it seems that locals were thinking ahead and sequestered many of the documents in anticipation of violence:
"As French-led forces consolidated their hold on northern Mali, international scholars feared the worst: that retreating Islamic militants had torched the Ahmed Baba Institute, home to 30,000 priceless items of scholarship dating back to the 13th century.
"But many volumes may have escaped destruction by being hidden from fundamentalist forces that seized the north last year. The militants launched a campaign to eradicate historic vestiges of a medieval Muslim civilization that they deemed un-Islamic. 
"South African researchers involved in a project to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts have had word that most of the treasures survived in private libraries and secure locations. 
"Mohamed Mathee of the University of Johannesburg told eNews Channel Africa, 'It seems most of the manuscripts are OK. These manuscripts are with families and are safe.' 
"National Geographic News quoted Sidi Ahmed, a reporter who fled Timbuktu during its occupation, as saying: 'The people here have long memories. They are used to hiding their manuscripts. They go into the desert and bury them until it is safe.'"
Mali's Culture War: The Fate of the Timbuktu Manuscripts

Tuesday, January 29

When capitalism strays too far from meeting real human needs, we're in trouble

I'm pro-free-markets (for the most part), but when capitalism strays too far from meeting real human needs, we're in trouble. The financial sector is dominating the economy—people making money not based on trade, on natural supply and demand—but rather making what some might even call 'theoretical' profits, based purely on financial transactions.

The 'Mostly Economics' blog has an excellent post on this topic from a couple years ago called '[The] Financial Sector and its growing excesses'. It's worthwhile to bring these thoughts to the foreground again. Here are a few key excerpts (some of which are from the original articles linked within the blog post):
  • "When we say that the top one percent of tax filers now receive something over 17 percent of all taxable income, it will not surprise you that a significant fraction of that top 1 percent comes from the financial sector."
  • "The consumer financial services industry has been the single biggest contributor in the 2000 election cycle, in the 2002 election cycle, and they’re on target to do it again in the 2004 election cycle. George W. Bush’s single biggest contributor to his [2000] presidential campaign was MBNA, the second biggest credit card issuer in the country."
  • "...the last two decades have been characterized by rapid and accelerating world growth, with the trend interrupted three times: around 1997, around 2001 and now again around 2008, although we do not know yet how serious this interruption will be. These recent interruptions are not associated with wars or periods of trade disintegration. Instead all three of them have been caused by financial sector difficulties of a more or less global nature. ... In all three cases it was a certain “irrational exuberance” in the financial sector that led to the shock."
  • "...capitalism in the rich countries has increasingly changed its nature from one where the lead sector was manufacturing, to one where the role of traditional industries has declined, the share of services has increased and the financial sector is playing a leading role."
  • "...the pre-eminence of the financial sector also imparts a greater amount of 'short-termism' to the system with immediate profits a more important driver than long term considerations."
  • "...the financial sector can never be a purely private affair. It is at the heart of the modern market economy and plays an organizing role that is a public good. Its failure affects the whole economy and all citizens. The public policy maker cannot let the financial sector fail in a systemic manner and has to, in one way or another, rescue it. It is important and fair, therefore, that it is regulated in a way that encourages responsibility, a longer term horizon and an evaluation of risk by its managers, that is not truncated by the unavoidable need for the socialization of large losses."
Financial Sector and its growing excesses (Mostly Economics)

Putting away childish things—by being willing to be childish

Inspiration from C. S. Lewis:
"Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Friday, January 25

The Future of Atheism

Recently, the New York Times published a 'discussion' among six writers on the topic of religion and atheism. If you missed it, it's worth taking the time to read all the responses. Here are excerpts from a couple of the more interesting ones:
Penn Jillette: "Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing. . . . Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share. Feeling love is beautiful. Feeling the earth is 6,000 years old is stupid."
Cord Jefferson: "Unfortunately, a great number of atheists do seem to cling to heterodoxy the way the most toxic of believers cling to orthodoxy, turning their irreverence into a stubborn religion unto itself. These are the people you see in online forums calling churchgoers 'morons' or 'brainless', displaying the same hubristic arrogance they claim to despise when it comes from the other side. Still, I think the lion’s share of the new era of atheists understand that atheism should be less about the degradation of religion and more about a celebration of the power and potential of the human being sans any omnipotent higher authority."
Is Atheism a Religion? (New York Times)

Tuesday, January 22

"These officers planted weapons"

"Most notably, even though Richard Brown wasn't a drug dealer; even though he never fired at the Miami SWAT team, as they said he did; even though he never even had a gun; even though they recklessly fired more than 100 rounds into his house, killing him; even though they had no idea there was also a 14-year-old girl inside; despite all of that, all of the officers involved in the raid on Richard Brown were acquitted of all criminal charges."
From Radley Balko's new Police Raid of the Day.
Read, follow, and learn how common such raids are.

Ray Kurzweil plans to use his new job at Google to build a better AI

Ray Kurzweil the author, inventor and futurist took a job a Google last year, and he has some interesting plans.

"Famed AI researcher and incorrigable singularity forecaster Ray Kurzweil recently shed some more light on what his new job at Google will entail. It seems that he does, indeed, plan to build a prodigious artificial intelligence, which he hopes will understand the world to a much more sophisticated degree than anything built before–or at least that will act as if it does. 
"Kurzweil’s AI will be designed to analyze the vast quantities of information Google collects and to then serve as a super-intelligent personal assistant. He suggests it could eavesdrop on your every phone conversation and email exchange and then provide interesting and important information before you ever knew you wanted it."
Ray Kurzweil Plans to Create a Mind at Google—and Have it Serve You

Monday, January 21

Human rights activists and bloggers have mapped a vast system of prison camps in North Korea using Google Earth

"Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's visit to North Korea this week has been met with sharp criticism, but the global Internet search giant indirectly is helping to make history by revealing one of the reclusive country's darkest secrets. 
"Google Earth, the company's popular satellite imagery product, might be the last thing Mr Schmidt will want to showcase for his hosts, because it presents a bird's eye view of many things that secretive North Korea wants to keep hidden. 
"Human rights activists and bloggers have taken a Google program used mostly for recreation, education and marketing and applied it to map a vast system of dozens of prison camps that span North Korea, a country slightly smaller in area than Greece and home to 23 million people. 
"As many as 250,000 political prisoners and their families toil on starvation rations in the mostly remote mountain camps, according to estimates by international human rights groups."
Google Earth puts North Korea labour camps on the map

Friday, January 18

The Stock Market Likes Populist Presidents

A picture is worth a thousand words. Take a look at the S&P 500 performance under the last three presidents:

One reason the stock market may like populist (i.e., Democratic) presidents so much is that GDP is driven primarily by consumer spending, and when "the people" (as opposed to "the elites") have spending power, the market expects growth in the economy going forward.

Previously on this topic.

Thursday, January 17

Zack Kopplin is fighting to keep public money from supporting the teaching of creationism

If you don't yet know about Zack Kopplin and his efforts to stem the tide of creationist teaching, you should.
"…creationist vouchers aren't just a Louisiana problem—they're an American problem. School vouchers are, as James Gill recently wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, 'the answer to a creationist’s prayer.'"
According to the website, more than 300 schools in the United States currently use PUBLIC money to support the teaching of creationism.

Creationism spreading in schools, thanks to vouchers (MSNBC)

Follow Zack on Twitter here, and there's more on the topic at io9.

The Intellectual Protection of Skepticism (Image)

Via Reddit (modified from original work by artist: Haxagor).

Wednesday, January 16

New NRA ad makes political pawns of Obama's daughters

The neurons are not all firing in the brains of the leaders at the NRA. They continue to criticize Obama for not supporting armed guards in schools, citing the fact that his daughters' school has armed guards.

There's a critical flaw in their logic: Most Americans are not celebrities. It's perfectly reasonable for celebrities and public figures to have security. What is it about this that the NRA doesn't understand?

We just need to stop for a moment and say: "DUH!"

From Politico:
"The National Rifle Association on Tuesday released a controversial new ad that makes reference to President Barack Obama's daughters - sparking outrage from critics who charged that the spot is over the line. 
"'Most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as pawns in a political fight,' White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. 'But to go so far as to make the safety of the President's children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly. 
"The video calls Obama an 'elitist hypocrite' for not embracing armed guards in schools even as his daughters enjoy armed protection at their schools."
NRA ad attacked for including President Obama's daughters

The Republicans decided that they needed to fight Obama on everything.

"On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration. 
"'The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,' Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE. 
"Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan. 
"After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning."
Inside Obama's Presidency (Frontline)

Thursday, January 10

Absolutism carries a high cost

"...suspicion of government is behind the growth in homeschooling, that narrows the education of children, deprives them of a sense of community, and diminishes their social skills. ... Hostility to government also ensures that health care is unnecessarily expensive. The average cost of American health care is $8,233 per person per year, the most expensive in the developed world."
Tea Party Absolutism: The High Cost Of Hating Government

Wednesday, January 9

Senator Elizabeth Warren's sharp criticism for AIG

AIG is considering joining a $25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the government rescue "deprived shareholders of tens of billions of dollars and violated the Fifth Amendment," which prohibits the taking of private property for "public use, without just compensation."

Senator Warren's response:
"Beginning in 2008, the federal government poured billions of dollars into AIG to save it from bankruptcy. AIG’s reckless bets nearly crashed our entire economy. Taxpayers across this country saved AIG from ruin, and it would be outrageous for this company to turn around and sue the federal government because they think the deal wasn’t generous enough. Even today, the government provides an ongoing, stealth bailout, propping up AIG with special tax breaks — tax breaks that Congress should stop. AIG should thank American taxpayers for their help, not bite the hand that fed them for helping them out in a crisis."
Senator Elizabeth Warren gears up (Washington Post)

Further reading: Rescued by a Bailout, A.I.G. May Sue Its Savior (New York Times)

Tuesday, January 8

Understanding the U.S. Defense Budget

In 2011, the United States spent more on its military than the next 13 nations combined.

This and other very interesting analysis of the U.S. military budget can be found in Brad Plumer's recent Washington Post article. To add some additional perspective, I always like to mention the number of active aircraft carriers that the United States maintains: 10 (compared to all other nations with 2 or 1).

Monday, January 7

The Church of Scientology's not-so-secret fortress in the New Mexico desert

 A recent article is renewing attention on 'Trementina Base', the Church of Scientology's not-so-secret fortress in the New Mexico desert.
"A secret bunker hidden deep within the deserts of New Mexico is reported to be the 'alien space cathedral"'of the Church of Scientology, according to the author of a new book on Scientology. 
"The site is marked by a large symbol etched onto the desert floor: two diamonds surrounded by a pair of overlapping circles, according to the British newspaper The Sun. A private airstrip, built to serve the controversial church's leaders, is within walking distance of the symbol."
Scientologists' Alleged 'Alien Space Cathedral' Found

Older article in Washington Post on Trementina.

Google Maps Link - Aerial View

Thursday, January 3

Hobby Lobby to defy federal birth control mandate

"An attorney for Hobby Lobby Stores said Thursday that the arts and crafts chain plans to defy a federal mandate requiring it to offer employees health coverage that includes access to the morning-after pill, despite risking potential fines of up to $1.3 million per day."
Atty: Hobby Lobby Won't Offer Morning-After Pill (ABC News)

As the voice of the Internet puts it:
"If Hobby Lobby can opt out of birth control covered by insurance because it conflicts with their religious beliefs, then a Scientologist employer can deny psychiatric coverage; a Jehovah's Witness can deny blood transfusions; a Mormon can refuse to cover medicine with alcohol in it. Just because you employ a person, you are not entitled to make that person's medical decisions."