Déjà entendu

From today’s news:

In an interview broadcast Friday, Bush said there could well be a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, but it would be on the invitation of the Iraqi government.

Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, right. I think it was August 20, 1968:

Although on the night of the invasion, the Czechoslovak Presidium declared that Warsaw Pact troops had crossed the border without knowledge of the ÄŒSSR Government, the Soviet Press printed an unsigned request, allegedly by Czechoslovak party and state leaders, for “immediate assistance, including assistance with armed forces.”

Looks like the USSR won the Cold War after all.

Airport Security: Annoying or Pointless?

First, here’s an opinion piece by Patrick Smith at the NYT’s “Jet Lagged” weblog, pointing out a lot of the problems with airport security procedures.

At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away.

We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.

If you’ve read that and gotten your blood pressure up, you won’t be doing your cardiovascular system any favors by reading this article by the always-excellent Bruce Schneier about a study (well, a meta-study, really) by the Harvard School of Public Health that went looking for evidence of the effectiveness of TSA screening procedures.

I’m going to disagree with Schneier on one point: he summarizes the study as

Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn’t helping

From the articles he links to, I’d say it’d be more fair to say “Airport security procedures are costing us a lot, and we don’t even know whether they’re doing any good.”

But he’s right when he says:

The goal isn’t to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that’s a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats. The TSA is reacting to false alarms. Now you can argue that this level of failures is necessary to make people safer, but it’s certainly not evidence that people are safer.

(Update: Punkwalrus imagines the future of air travel, in grainy black and white, with cheesy upbeat music.)

Continue reading “Airport Security: Annoying or Pointless?”

Innate Social Skills

CNN has a story about an experiment that suggests that 6- to 10-month-old infants have at least some innate social skills:

The infants watched a googly eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Obviously, this needs to be confirmed by other researchers, and one shouldn’t place too much trust in the result of one experiment, but it’s still interesting: it suggests that babies have an innate sense of “this person is friendly” and “that person is unfriendly”, based on observation of people’s behavior.

Now, this does not mean that babies or young children have any idea of “I should be friendly”, nor does it suggest that these babies can judge whether they themselves are being friendly.

The article does mention, though, that

A study last year out of Germany showed that babies as young as 18 months old overwhelmingly helped out when they could, such as by picking up toys that researchers dropped.

Note the 8-month difference between this study and the German one: presumably in that time, children learn that if they act in a friendly or helpful way, then others will be friendly in return.

So if confirmed, this should form a fairly solid basis for morality as an emergent phenomenon. We’re social creatures who want to be liked by those around us. This experiment suggests that we’re born with the ability to figure out whom to like (or at least can work it out at a very early age). We can also start modeling other people’s minds (in the sense of “if I do X, will it please that person?”) early on as well. In short, we have the capability to work out a set of behaviors that will allow us to get along, as well as the desire to do so.

Now, it’s true that we also want base self-gratification (e.g., “I want to play with that toy, so I’m going to take it away from you, and I don’t care whether it annoys you or not”). But wanting to get along with others plays a part as well. And of course children tend to believe what their parents tell them, and presumably the parents tend to teach children their own values, like playing nice with others.

So it’s a noisy and chaotic process, but over time, people can figure out what sorts of moral rules work and which ones don’t, and improve morality.

It’s sort of like Wikipedia, in which lots and lots of people making changes, some good and some bad, can nonetheless gradually improve.

(HT Martin Wagner for the link.)

Australia Starts the War on Christmas

According to News.com.au, Nov. 11:

SANTAS working in shopping centres across Australia have been banned from bellowing “ho ho ho” because it might frighten children.

“The reason behind that is we find that in some cases the little kids can get a little bit scared of the deep ‘ho, ho, hos’ and we ask them to be mindful of keeping their voices to a lower level,” [Westaff national operations manager Glen Jansz] said.

According to AFP,

One disgruntled Santa told the newspaper a recruitment firm warned him not to use “ho ho ho” because it could frighten children and was too close to “ho”, a US slang term for prostitute.

Thankfully, today we have:

Recruitment firm Westaff, which supplies hundreds of Santas for events around Australia, has backed down from its ban on the traditional greeting following a backlash from employees.

The company wanted to ban “Ho, ho, ho” for fear it might scare some of the children.

A Myer spokesman said store management believed the expression was an important Christmas tradition.

The Mainstream Media’s Fluff Bias

If you watch TV news, you may have found yourself wondering why they’re going on and on and on about Paris or Britney or Lindsey or whoever, instead of, like, news that you care about.

Russell Glasser, a student at U Texas at Austin, is currently writing a thesis on this subject. His basic approach was to data-mine both Google News and Digg, the idea being that the former gives a representative sample of what the news media are talking about, and the latter gives insight into what people are actually interested in. You can read more about this, as well as a draft of the thesis, here.

The basic idea is fairly simple: let’s say that in a given month, there are 99 news stories about Britney Spears and one about Tiger Woods; but on Digg, a lot of people recommend the one Tiger Woods story and ignore the 99 Britney Spears stories. It seems reasonable to conclude that the news-reading public cares a lot more about Tiger than about Britney.

And, in fact, his conclusion is that there’s a definite bias towards fluff in the media.

The whole thing is also an interesting exercise in teasing information out of noisy data: any given datum could easily be wrong: someone might Digg every story he reads; or a newspaper might run two Paris Hilton stories in one day because the news editor and entertainment editor didn’t realize that the other one was already covering the story. But if you have a lot of such noisy data (and nowadays, thanks to the Spew, we do), then you can still tease information out of it.

The GOP Is Getting Predictable

EDGE Boston gives us the setup:

[Richard] Curtis, elected to the [Washington] state House three years ago, voted in the spring against a measure to provide domestic partnerships to gays and lesbians.

In 2006, Curtis came out against an anti-discrimination bill to protect GLBT people from being discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality.

I’m sure you can guess the punchline. Check your answer below the fold. Continue reading “The GOP Is Getting Predictable”

Figuring Out the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on teh innertubes. But recently, H.R. 2826 was introduced (you can search for it at thomas.loc.gov). Dubbed the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act, it’s been all over the leftosphere, so I figured I should try to figure out what it’s all about.

Summary: the preamble pretty much says it all:


To amend titles 28 and 10, United States Code, to restore habeas corpus for individuals detained by the United States at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for other purposes.

Note that habeas corpus is pretty much all that the bill restores (AFAICT).

(Update, Sep. 19: I guess this is mostly moot, since the bill has been defeated.)

Continue reading “Figuring Out the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act”

Octogenarian Sex

By now, I think everyone’s heard the news that older people are having a lot more sex than one might think. But am I the only one who thought “good for them!” rather than “ewwww!”?

No, a random sixty- or seventy-year-old woman doesn’t fire up my libido, but:

a) No one’s making you look at photos of naked grandparents. And if you don’t like the mental image, think of something else, get over it, and move on.

b) In the majority of cases, I’m sure we’re not talking about random people. Most of these people are in a relationship, either marriage or friendship or something. If you think it’s normal for a boyfriend and girlfriend to have sex, why should that change just because they’re in their sixties or beyond? And yes, this is personal: my grandmother found a boyfriend after my grandfather died, and they were good for each other. If they wanted to get it on, who am I to say they shouldn’t? Sex is fun. Why shouldn’t grandma get some? Hell, I don’t care if she’s into leather and butt-plugs.

c) I hope to grow old some day (it sure beats the alternative), and I don’t plan on giving a rat’s ass what anyone thinks about my sex life.

The real news in the report, from my point of view, was that the sex drive doesn’t diminish as rapidly as I (and probably many others) had thought. If this grosses you out, get over it. Oh, and your parents had sex, too. Once again, get over it.