Battlepanda: September 2007


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

show some emotion

Whoa! My feature on Taiwanese emoticon usage habits made it to the front page!
Smilies are so 1990s. Emoticons have evolved to another level in Taiwan after users started making their own animated GIF files and swapping them through chat programs such as the popular MSN Messenger.
To give you a taste of Taiwanese emoticon (ab)use in action, take a look at a screencapture of a recent IM conversation I had, username blurred.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Introducing Lars

My new roommate, Lars, is a pretty interesting guy. Not only has he helped me with my computer troubles, he's really shockingly well-versed in US politics for a 22 year-old Norwegian.

So I've invited him to be a guest blogger to Battlepanda where he might share his thoughts on technology, life, politics...whatever really.

Be nice to him now...

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Mummy of John Wilkes Booth

The cover story of the Memphis Flyer this week is a macabre history article on the alleged mummy of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and how it ended up, for a time, in a garage in Memphis.
Sweating furiously, the old man pried open the wooden crate and peered inside. Memphis attorney Finis Bates breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the fragile contents were undamaged.

"John, my old friend," he said. "You're home at last!"

Lying inside was the mummified body of an elderly man Bates believed was John Wilkes Booth. How the corpse of Abraham Lincoln's assassin came to rest in a Central Gardens garage remains one of the strangest episodes of our city's past.

John Wilkes Booth's mummy?

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Monday, September 17, 2007

"Harebrained fiscal policy schemes"

Most of the economics blogs are abuzz with reviews and comments on Alan Greenspan's new book.

There's Brad DeLong's review in the LA Times; Paul Krugman's harsh commentary in the NY Times; and Mark Thoma on Greenspan's role (however minor) in justifying the Iraq war to the Bush adminstration.

I'll just take note of one little bit from Daniel Okrent's review in Fortune Magazine.

Surprisingly for a self-described "lifelong Republican," Greenspan was happiest as Fed chairman when Clinton was in the White House. (He also liked his time running Ford's Council of Economic Advisors, where it was his pleasant responsibility "to shoot down harebrained fiscal policy schemes.")

Harebrained fiscal policy schemes like Whip Inflation Now?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Say it ain't so. But how?

Human beings are stupid in interesting ways:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.[snip]

...once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Basically, until people start paying attention, we're doomed as a democracy. When information is absorbed passively in a peripheral manner, strong denials of untruths might have a counterproductive effect of strengthening the untruth instead of debunking it.

This reminds me of that Far Side cartoon where the exasperated owner is telling off his dog, saying "Ginger, you bad dog, if you keep misbehaving like this then you won't be getting any more yummy food..." and all the dog can hear is "Ginger...yummy food." Fill in analogous example with "Saddam" and "9/11" here.

An interview with the reporter who wrote the article above, Shankar Vedantam, from On The Media:

By the way, a collection of Vedantam's Department of Human Nature columns can be found here.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Notes from a weird island

A few strange stories from recent editions of the TT.

Infants given extra month to disavow inherited debt:

The Ministry of Justice said yesterday it plans to amend the Civil Code to give infants a better chance of avoiding debts inherited from parents or grandparents.

Director of the Ministry's Department of Legal Affairs, Chang Ching-yun (張清雲), yesterday told a press conference that the Chiayi District Court last week saddled a three-month-old infant with debts from his dead grandfather.

In order to prevent these kind of incidents from occurring again, the ministry had decided to amend the Civil Code, he said.

Chang said that the current Civil Code stipulates that an heir must plead for an abandonment of debts from his or her dead parents or grandparents within two months of their death if the heir is aware of the debts.

He said the proposed amendment would extend the two month period to three months, giving people more time to decide whether to abandon inherited debt.

Chang added the proposed amendment stipulates that infants or secondary inheritors would be allowed to define their inheritance, which means that if infants or secondary inheritors inherit more debt than property, they can plead to define their inheritance and not have to use property to pay off the debt.

Chang said that the amendment stipulates that infants or secondary inheritors could do so within four months of their parents' or grandparents' death.

It was unclear how the ministry expected infants to plead on their own behalf.
Now that'll really be news...

Taiwanese version of wedgies considerably more exterme:

It was Alex's 16th birthday, and he had just treated his classmates to a round of cold beverages to celebrate when it happened.

"A bunch of my friends hoisted me up in the classroom and gave me an aluba on an open window," said Alex, who declined to be identified by his full name.

Alex was not referring to a misspelling of the Caribbean resort island, but a schoolyard "game" that is popular among local high school boys, as well as those in military service.

In aluba, a boy is lifted off the ground by a group of his peers. His legs are forcibly parted, and the crowd shouts "aluba" as they ram the struggling victim crotch-first into any nearby upright object, such as a lamp post, an open door or a coconut tree.
I wrote this one, haha.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

We really are different

Liberals kick ass at the most boring computer game in the world. WooT!:
Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." They were instructed to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W.

M appeared four times more frequently than W, conditioning participants to press a key in knee-jerk fashion whenever they saw a letter.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W, researchers said. Liberals and conservatives were equally accurate in recognizing M.

How to interpret results like this?

First of all, it's fascinating because it's just so unexpected. We like to think that the way we arrive at our political orientations is a complex journey. "I read so-and-so, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes"; "it was then I realized that x value was the most important to me" etc etc. It's rather startling to find that, in the aggregate at least, a factor as simple as "how likely are you to incorporate new information versus acting upon established patterns?" can predict where we are on the left-right spectrum. Since I'm very fond of clever-clever psych experiments that cut through complexity despite simple parameters, I say kudos, UCLA team.

Secondly, tempting as it may be, liberals shouldn't be smug about the results. The important thing this study showed is that liberals and conservatives have different thinking styles, not that one is superior to the other. I'm sure there can be other games where the conservative style trumps. Maybe it will be interesting to rig the same game to see under what conditions conservatives start to win (perhaps increase the frequency of the flashing letters to the point where thinking too much about it decreases performance?).

Thirdly, even though I just said liberals shouldn't be smug, I think there is one instance where it is totally legitimate to use this study to beat the conservatives with like a stick. Next time I hear any variant to that old "Conservatives are from Mars and Liberals are from Venus" trope, I'm going to say "You know there's another way to explain why conservatives and liberals think the way they do..."

(Via the Drumstir)

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Would you like swabs with that?

I am somewhat horrified that I'm signing a petition on the Lifetime TV network site, but not horrified enough not to pass it on, because it genuinely seem kinda important.

In January 2007, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) reintroduced the Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act of 2007 (S. 459/H.R.758). The bill would allow a woman and her doctor to decide whether she should recuperate for at least 48 hours in the hospital or whether she has enough support to get quality care at home following this emotionally and physically difficult surgery.
I first heard of the issue from an email sent to me by a good friend just the other day. However, a little googling revealed that some lawmakers have been banging on this issue since at least 1997, and got nowhere. According to Blondesensethey tried to pass a bill addressing this last year too, which didn't pass. Try, try and try again, I guess.

Training for journalists, continued.

Elevated from the comments. By reader "sab":
John S Knight, the grandfather of the late lamented Knight Ridder News, and also publisher of my hometown paper (a tiny paper, but the Knight Ridder flagship) used to say that he really didn't want to hire journalism majors at all, but that he thought it was a bad idea to exclude from his hiring pool so many applicants who had always wanted to be journalists (i.e. journalism majors.)

In other words he thought their training was not helpful, but he hoped their desire to be journalists and their own personal efforts could overcome the limitations in knowledge and training caused by majoring in journalism instead of something more useful (history, economics, any science degree.)

I haven't been to journalism school, so I don't really know what they offer and whether it is of value. But I do know that whenever I ask people whether or not I should go back to school in journalism to further my career I am always told to save my time and money -- even by somebody who has a masters in journalism.

I think that colleges should certainly offer classes in journalism. I think some training would have helped me immensely. Just not years of it. If there are workshops covering different areas of the craft and ethics of reporting, I'd take them. Degrees? Not so much.


Two jaws are better than one?

photo by Jeff Jeffords

Do click through. The video on the NPR website has to be seen to be believed.
Morning Edition, September 6, 2007 · Scientists in California have reported that Moray eels have a set of teeth within a second set of jaws, called the pharyngeal jaws, that help them capture their prey.

Once the Moray eel secures its prey with its first set of jaws, the pharyngeal jaws reach up from its throat, grabbing and pulling the prey down through its esophagus.
Other Moray eel-related fun facts:

  • In addition to their extra jaw, some species of Moray eels are poisonous.
  • "Publius Vedius (died 15 BC), was the son of a freedman from Beneventum. He amassed a large fortune, gaining equestrian status and serving Augustus in the province of Asia; he had a repuation for cruelty, punishing slaves by throwing them to his moray eels." -- Who's who in the Roman World by John Hazel
  • Despite all this, some Moray eels become very friendly and tame after being fed by divers. The eels "An An" and "Ping Ping" were star attractions at a popular diving site on Taiwan's Green Island, until media reports attracted the unwelcome attention of fishermen and the pair promptly "disappeared". Here's a video of divers swimming with a friendly Moray.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Organization will set me free

Good reading for me, as I'm going through a massive de-cluttering effort before roommates can move in.

Last year, Americans spent $7 billion on organizational products for their homes, closets, and garages.

Container Store staff are trained to develop an "emotional connection" with customers. Says a salesperson, "When someone comes in to organize belts or shoes, there is usually a bigger problem."

1 in 3 ikea customers say they get more satisfaction from cleaning out their closets than from having sex.

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