Battlepanda: May 2007


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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Whisky Bottle PC

They leave the screwtop off for heat dissappation. Note the fan in the bottle neck.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pachyderm shakedown artist

Reuters reports on an elephant in India who is shaking down motorists for food.
An elephant in eastern India has sparked complaints from motorists who accuse it of blocking traffic and refusing to allow vehicles to pass unless drivers give it food, a newspaper has reported.

The Hindustan Times said Monday the elephant was scouting for food on a highway in the eastern state of Orissa, forcing motorists to roll down their windows and get out of the car.

"The tusker then inserts its trunk inside the vehicle and sniffs for food," local resident Prabodh Mohanty, who has come across the elephant twice, was quoted as saying.

"If you are carrying vegetables and banana inside your vehicle, then it will gulp them and allow you to go."

If a commuter does not wind down his window or resists opening the vehicle door, the elephant stands in front of the car until the driver allows him to carry out his routine inspection.

Forestry officials told the newspaper that the elephant is old and is therefore looking for easy food.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Economic diversity at Amherst

Proud of my Alma Mater today...
AMHERST, Mass. — The discussion in the States of Poverty seminar here at Amherst College was getting a little theoretical. Then Anthony Abraham Jack, a junior from Miami, asked pointedly, “Has anyone here ever actually seen a food stamp?”

To Mr. Jack, unlike many of his classmates, food stamps are not an abstraction. His family has had to use them in emergencies. His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a year’s tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jack’s class was close to $48,000.

So when Mr. Jack, now 22 and a senior, graduated with honors here on Sunday, he was not just the first in his family to earn a college degree, but a success story in the effort by Amherst and a growing number of elite colleges to open their doors to talented low-income students.
The article also an interesting point -- race-based affirmative action would not have helped Jack since most of those that benefit are middle-class/affluent blacks. This supports my long-time position that affirmative action needs to be class-based, not race-based.

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One fish, two fish, monkfish, bluefish

Litbrit, blogging chez Ezra's, have been all over the issue of unsafe food imports from China. The latest fiasco would be funny if it were not so...potentially deadly.
WASHINGTON -- A frozen product labeled monkfish distributed in three states is being recalled after two Chicago area people became ill after eating it, the importer announced Thursday.

Hong Chang Corporation of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., said it is recalling the product labeled as monkfish because it may contain tetrodotoxin, a potent toxin.

While the frozen fish imported from China was labeled monkfish, the company said it is concerned that it may be pufferfish because this toxin is usually associated with certain types of pufferfish.

Eating foods containing tetrodotoxin can result in life-threatening illness or death and the toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing.

The company said two people in the Chicago area became ill after eating soup containing the fish. Analysis by the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the presence of the toxin.
What really disturbs me about the recent spate of unsafe foods from China is the horrible disproportionality of value gained (slightly cheaper prices for consumer, the thin sliver of value for producers) and the horrible downside. It would be one thing to risk death by fugu in a fancy Japanese restaurant where the risk is low and the pleasure it (presumably) high. It is another to do so while just making some soup.

They're coming to get you, Barbara!

The 2007 Memphis Zombie Walk was held on Beale Street Friday night.

More zombie pictures on Flickr.

UPDATE: Here's a short documentary on the zombie walk by Daniel Lee. (HT theology&geometry.)

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2 cute 2 eat?

One man's Fluffy is another man's feast?
A group of rabbit lovers, distressed by a Council of Agriculture (COA) initiative to promote rabbit meat as a healthy and delicious addition to the nation's diet, yesterday appealed to the agency not to put Thumper on the menu.

The rabbit owners, including members of Rabbit SOS, Taiwan's first rabbit rescue organization, made the call at a press conference held by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lwo Shih-hsiung (羅世雄).

Lwo said he decided to take up the cause of the fluffy creatures after receiving a petition from a concerned rabbit owner.

"I have no rabbits myself. But they are my daughter's favorite animals," he said. "They are our friends, not something we take from the fridge to the oven."

Lwo said he will fight to amend the Protection Act (動物保護法) to include rabbits as a pet that cannot be eaten, just like a cat or a dog. Laboratory testing will not be affected, he added.
By the way, note the picture. This is typical of Taiwanese press conferences in the legislature. It's not enough to have a press release and relevant participants, you have to have props. In this case cute, fluffy props. The real story here for me though, is not the rabbit-lover's demands but the Council of Agriculture's response:
Representatives of the COA were low-key at the press conference about their efforts to encourage the consumption of rabbit meat.
Lee Shan-nan (李善男), deputy director of the COA's Taiwan livestock research institute (TLRI) was asked by reporters whether the COA really released recipes featuring rabbit in order to encourage consumption.
"No, not recipes as such," Lee said. "What we've provided is some technical guidance as to the edible applications of rabbits."

At a institute conference on May 3, however, TLRI director Wang Cheng-taung (王政騰) was singing the praises of rabbit as a food.

Wang described rabbit meat as low in fat and cholesterol yet high in protein.

Wang recommended those who are trying to lose weight to eat more rabbit, and even suggested that it might have impotence-fighting properties according to the theories of Chinese medicine. Edible applications highlighted at the event included curried rabbit, fried rabbit, rabbit braised in sesame oil and cold rabbit salad.
Who does he think he is? Alton Brown? For everybody else in the world, a "technical guidelline" that relates to the "edible applications" of anything is called a recipe. Unfortunately, I've seen too much of this kind of soft stonewalling of angry people from government officials.

As for the rabbit lovers. Do they have a case? The law against the eating of pets animals are really not grounded in morality but public sentiment, so I guess if there's enough of them and they feel strongly enough about it, maybe.

The blog against COA rabbit-eating initiative sticker

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Taiwan's BSP nightmare

I decided to start a blog in Chinese now that a good proportion of my friends and contacts now read Chinese better than they read English. As soon as I started telling people this, it began.

"Yeah! Starting a blog sounds like a great idea. Come get one at Yahoo!" "Everybody have their blog at Yahoo. Consider it." "Yahoo! Get Yahoo! Join us!"

"If you choose an unpopular platform, you might be left admiring your posts yourself," warned one.

Umm. No thanks. Taking a quick look at some Yahoo blogs revealed some butt-ugly templates and really long URLs. "You can change the picture that becomes your blog's background," advocated one friend. But why would you ever want to do that. It inevitably makes your blog look hidious.

The stepfordian championing of Yahoo became explicable when I tried to leave a comment on somebody's Yahoo blog. Ah. I see. Can't leave a comment unless you're an Yahoo user. That's annoying but OK. It took me five minutes to get an account. The serious part is, once I get a blog with blogspot or any other service none of those who have Yahoo blogs will be able to link me on their blogroll. They will be able to link me in their posts like any other website, but nowhere permanent on their blog.

Imagine if all wordpress blogs only linked to wordpress or all blogger blogs only linked to blogger and they only allowed comments from members. Their functionality will be so compromised that it's hard to imagine anybody choosing them over a comparable service, nevermind the other gewgaws. But now that Yahoo managed to somehow gather an initial critical mass of users of their system her in Taiwan, it has become a self-perpetuating machine. If I have a yahoo blog, the usefulness of my blog goes down if my social peers are not all useing Yahoo. So I become Yahoo's biggest fan, telling friends about how great it is that I can choose a picture background to my blog. I might even play the emotional blackmail card -- you're my friend and I want to link to your blog, but I can't do it unless you're on Yahoo!

If all I cared about was social networking, I might grin and bear it. Most people I know who blog in Taiwan have chosen (or have been strongarmed into) Yahoo. But to me blogging is so much more than that. It's a platform to get your thoughts out there and meet interesting new people as well as keeping in touch with old friends. I can't have that in a closed system.

As for how Yahoo was able to get a toehold that enable the pernicious cycle of friends pressuring friends into joining an inferior service, one has to consider the chaotic state of BSPs in Taiwan in recent years. Things I've never heard of before happened here -- losing whole blogs because the BSP was sold or because the user was not updating enough, one BSP attacking another's server. It's ugly and stupid and I'm wondering if Yahoo got its opening because of the bad service provided by some of its main competitors (and it must be said it seems to be really good at pushing traffic to blogs in its network).

It positively makes blogspot look like a shining paragon, and I feel very cutting edge and kamakazi-ish for using it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Breaking the Curse

Hat Tip Amanda

What do all tampon/pad/other-assorted-menstral-blood-catching-thingamajigs have in common? The way they're marketed. Whhhhhooaaaoooooh! Bodyform! Bodyformed for youuuuuu! (cue woman in white capri pants running through the sand discarding her jacket along the way as if all her care flew off her body with the jacket.) They do not sell absorbant chunks of cotton, they are selling freedom.

However, when it turns out women really can have freedom or near-freedom from periods just by popping a pill, turns out it's supposed to make us unfeminine.

Unfeminine baby-exterminators.

I hope that Lybrel is safe and reliable, because if it is, it is going to take off and it will be a prescription drug that is worth the money to many women. I have seen so many women who are unfortunate in that their period hurts them like hell. It doesn't make them turn into the PMS-ing harpies of popular mythology, but it does make them want to shut themselves in a darken room and curl up into a ball until its over. Letting those women, and others who simply want the convenience, to skip out on their period is the right thing to do. Those who define their womanliness by whether or not they have a period must be really insecure in their own femininity.

Oh, and talking about unnatural, don't you think nature made older men less horny for a reason? Yet I don't see anybody railing against viagra and levitra. Oh yeah, it is only women who are defined by our bodily infirmities.

Hot shots part Deux

Reader Biomed Tim questioned the article I wrote detailing the case of a man who got more than a dozen ulcers after going on a hot-pepper regime in an attempt to lose weight. His doctors maintained that the chili diet gave him the ulcers and that they cleared up soon after he was told to lay off the hot stuff. Tim disagreed with the diagnosis in the comments to this post:
Hmm...unlike you, I do NOT trust the doctor's judgment on this one...'cuz it's BAD SCIENCE. [snip]

There is no evidence that hot-pepper diet can lead to weight loss by itself, but NOR is there any evidence that the diet causes ulcers, as the Taipei Times article seems to suggest. (in fact, ulcers are often caused by bacterial infection)
After doing some web searching, it seems that WebMD and some other sites have Tim's back.

So to get to the bottom of this, I decided to get some second docs, can eating hot peppers lead to ulcers?

(Doc 1: Chief gastroenterologist, Taipei area medical center): It's possible. It's not a leading cause like Helicobacter Pylori, but I have seen it in some individuals. (When asked why no study supports this) When you're practicing you come across a lot of individual cases who are not explained by large-scale studies.

(Doc 2: Chief gastroenterologist, Taipei area medical clinic): Hot peppers are among a wide number of irritants that can lead to ulcers in some individuals. Not everybody is sensitive to it just as nobody is sensitive to aspirin. If the timeline is as the doctor in your story summerized, I would believe him. (When asked why no study supports this) Individuals vary very widely when it comes to sensitivity. I have seen a patient so sensitive to aspirin he developed ulcers after one isolated dose.

(Doc 3: Gastroenterologist, Taipei area big-ass hospital. OK I'll say it. It's Taida.): Seventy percent of ulcers are caused by H. Pylori and the rest are caused by a variety of factors. Usually with H. Pylori, you get one or two ulcers. It is more common to find more smaller ulcers where irritants is the cause. (When asked whether the Dr. Hsiao is warrented in saying that the chili diet caused the man's ulcers)However, there is no literature whatsoever supporting the contention that chiles cause ulcers. If the heat of the peppers caused the ulcers, why no ulceration in the mouth? Why don't people in Sechuan have more ulcers? (So is Dr. Hsiao wrong?) I don't know. But his word is not evidence. How do we know that there were not some contributing factors that coincided with the chili consumption? It is true that many doctors encounter what look like cases of ulcers caused by hot-peppers in their practise. But can we say for sure that that it is truly a cause? Not without scientific studies. (Would you ever advise an ulcer patient to lay off the pepper?)Only after I have ruled out H. Pylori, painkillers, smoking and stress.

And finally I got through to Dr. Hsiao again. He confirmed that the patient was not taking painkillers and had no H. Pylori infection and reiterated his belief that chili, though not a major cause, do indeed irritate the stomach lining enough to cause ulcers in a small minority. "I myself cannot tolerate a spoonful without painful irritation," he said.

So, do hot pepper cause ulcers in a small minority of the population? I guess it depends who you ask. But unless you're pooping black stools and can find no other reason why you might have ulcers, keep eating it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bookblogging: Them

Jon Ronson's Them is a book that I just wasn't able to put down. I cannot recommend it highly enough, both for some delightful character studies of those we are usually content to write off as wackos ("one of Them!") as well as some adventures along the way that delves into exactly divides 'them' and 'us' and why the line might not be as bright as it first appears.

Ronson does not just get close to his sources or do meticulous research. He becomes buddies with them, or even become their fellow conspirators on many occasions. As a Jew, this leads to some interesting tensions both internally (what is he doing, as a Jew, helping Omar Bakri guard his Jihad funds while the man dubbed 'the Tottenham Ayatollah' goes back to the house to get his coat?) and externally (things get hairy when members of the Aryan Brotherhood start scrutinizing his profile for semetic features). The book is strongly reminiscent of Confederates in the Attic, another book written by a Jew who is one of us masquerading as one of them.

Here's a chunk from the book that should give you a good sense of its flavor.
Omar's plan for the morning was to distribute leaflets outside the Holborn underground station entitled "Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Adultery, Fornication and Bestiality: THE DEADLY DISEASES." He said he'd planned to travel by public transportation, but he couldn't help but notice my car in his driveway, so perhaps I would give him a lift instead?
"OK," I said."
I dropped him off near the tube station. I went to park the car. Ten minutes later, I found him standing in the middle of the pavement with a stack of leaflets in his hand.
"How's it going, Omar?" I asked.
"Oh, very good," he smiled. "The message is getting across that there are some deadly diseases here and there."
He turned to the passersby.
"Homosexuality!" he yelled. "Beware the deadly disease! Beware the hour!"
Some time passed.
"Homosexuality!" yelled Omar. "Beware! There are homosexuals everywhere!"
I expected to see some hostility to Omar's leaflets from the passersby. But the shoppers and tourists and office workers seemed to regard him with a kindly bemusement. Nonetheless, after ten minutes nobody had actually taken a leaflet.
"Beware the hour! There are homosexuals everywhere! Beware the hour!" continued Omar, cheerfully. "Be careful from homosexuality! It is not good for your tummy!"
Omar Bakri was unlike my image of a Muslim extremist.
Then he told me that he had a good idea.
"Just watch this," he said.
He turned the leaflets upside down.
"Help the orphans!" he yelled. "Help the orphans!"
"Omar!" I exclaimed, scandalized.
The passersby started to accept his leaflets.
"This is good," chuckled Omar. "This is good. You see, if I wasn't a Muslim I'd be working you say...Saatchi and Saatchi."
Somehow, through befriending Omar, with his ugly, murderous philosophy, and describing his quirks like he's just another human being, Ronson took away his power. It would be interesting to hear the reaction of some of the bigots (others are just wacky or born into wackiness) profiled if they read their own portrayals.

Jon Ronson is also a documentary filmmaker who captured many of the episodes he described in his book on film. However, I have never seen his films. Yet.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Don't do the Pepper

No matter how much you think you want to be skinny like Utada Hikari, the hot-pepper diet is just not worth it, man.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

What does the WWF and the Taiwanese legislature have in common?


Just what I've always suspected.
Politicians know how to put on a good show.

But the brawling and histrionics in parliament that have put Taiwan politics on the world map for the past 20 years are staged acts, legislators and political observers say.

They are planned in advance to generate media attention and garner favor with voters who like to see their representatives fight as hard as they can on tough issues.

Lawmakers even call up allies to ask that they wear sports shoes ahead of the choreographed clashes. They have been known to meet up afterwards for drinks.

There's a video of the incident in the above photo, by the way. It's a blast from the past from January.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

photoblogging: Memphis

Did I mention that I went to visit Brock on a side-trip to Memphis while I was back in the states? Brock prefers to remain mysterious, so no pictures of him. But I did take lots of other pictures. We went to Graceland!

Me in my poncho outside graceland. I'm wearing that poncho in about half the pictures on the trip.

Elvis' three TVs

Only in Graceland.

Elvis' hall of records.

He was a man of many jumpsuits

and magnificent belts

"He was a fine lookin' man. MMMMM mmmm MMMM MMM Mmmmmm" -- random woman on tour. That he was, ma'am.

We also went to the zoo


Brock's camera had good zoom lens

And of course, we saw Pandas!

One's YaYa and the other is LeLe. I don't remember which is which

Although Brock is adamand that he wants his online identity and his private life as a crime-busting superhero strictly separate, I don't think he'll mind me telling you that I thoroughly enjoyed staying at his house, meeting his lovely wife, Miss Panther, Miss Monkey and playing lots of Dance Dance Revolution.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

We're number one!

If you're talking about the number one worst and most expensive healthcare, that is...

WASHINGTON - Americans get the poorest health care and yet pay the most compared to five other rich countries, according to a report released on Tuesday.

Germany, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada all provide better care for less money, the Commonwealth Fund report found.

“The U.S. health care system ranks last compared with five other nations on measures of quality, access, efficiency, equity, and outcomes,” the non-profit group, which studies health care issues, said in a statement.

Canada rates second worst out of the six overall. Germany scored highest, followed by Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

“The United States is not getting value for the money that is spent on health care,” Commonwealth Fund president Karen Davis said in a telephone interview.

The group has consistently found that the United States, the only one of the six nations that does not provide universal health care, scores more poorly than the others on many measures of health care.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ameriquest is scum

Morning Edition, May 14, 2007 · Some former employees of the nation's leading subprime lender say the company encouraged them to conceal rate terms and make fake fixed-loan documents that pushed customers into loans they couldn't afford.

Did those former employees who are now coming forwards to rat on Ameriquest suddenly grow a conscience or did the thrill of raking in money make them oblivious of the kind of inethical and frankly illegal hijinks they were told to do? My favorite is the employee who didn't realize they were doing something that might be screwing customers over big time until the office got death threats.

Hint: If any company makes you watch 'the boiler room' on orientation day, run in the opposite direction.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Globalization comes to the news room

PASADENA, Calif. - The job posting was a head-scratcher: "We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA."

A reporter half a world away covering local street-light contracts and sewer repairs? A reporter who has never gotten closer to Pasadena than the telecast of the Rose Bowl parade?

Outsourcing first claimed manufacturing jobs, then hit services such as technical support, airline reservations and tax preparation. Now comes the next frontier: local journalism.

James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the two-year-old Web site, acknowledged it sounds strange to have journalists in India cover news in this wealthy city just outside Los Angeles.

Of course, when I think about how much of my job is absolutely reliant on the internet and phones as opposed to shoeleather, I have to admit the article is not quite as onion-ish as it appears at first glance. I have written and filed stories from the U.S. while on holiday, using skype to do the interviews.

Still, it's an oddly horrifying article. Macpherson certainly got a bargain as far as the salary is concerned -- two reporters, one a graduate from UC Berkeley journalism school, for $20,800 a year. However, I wonder how his plans for them to start doing investigative reporting will pan out.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Late, late, late to this one. What can I say, I'm a lazy blogger.

I was rather surprised that three among my favorite bloggers (Ezra, Matt and Kevin) decided that the takeaway point of the Marilee Jones debacle was that credentialism has run amok. She so obviously had to go down. I seem to remember no problem with accomplished writers, artists etc. teaching while I was at Amherst without advanced degrees. It's the lying that's the big problem. However, having said that, credentialism is an interesting issue to me.

I stumble into journalism. I came back to Taiwan to teach English, was an absolute disaster in the classroom and ended up interview for my current job as a reporter after seeing it in the classified. After I got the job, I took my first day at work to take care of administrative stuff. Then my editor gave me an assignment for the next day. "Write 300 words on it," was about the extent to which I was instructed. I attended the event, wrote my 300 words, and was told to compare the printed version to my original the next day. Needless to say it was an unimportant news item tucked way the heck in the corner. It was also quite different to what I handed in. After several weeks of this, less and less stuff got changed. That's how I knew I was getting better. OK, there might have been a couple of occasions where I was pulled aside by one of the editors and told "you see this paragraph that begins your story? It's called a 'lead' and we don't like it to be too long" but for the most part I was left to sink or swim.

I can do my job adequately now. Maybe one day I will even do it well, despite the fact that I've no formal training and precious little instruction on the job. Thoughts...

1) I'm all for things I can do to learn how to become a better reporter. Reading books? Great. Workshops? All for them. Conferences and more socializing with other reporters in general? Where do I sign up. Years of classes at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars? No thank you.

2) I cannot think of another journalist I know of who does not work for an english newspaper who did not study journalism in college. In some cases they regretted their choice and wanted to do something else, but no, they were stuck.

If I had lived in Taiwan all my life and not have been bilingual, I could still do what I do now quite adequately for a Chinese paper (asking questions, writing stories, organizing contacts...) but I would probably not have gotten hired as a journalist without my advantage as a bilingual worker.

Would I have learned valuable things in journalism school that would put me in good stead as a reporter, undoubtedly. Would the amount of learning I'd do be worth the cost both in tuition and lost opportunity to work? Hmmm...

Estimated M.A. and Ph.D. Tuition and Fees 2006-2007 - 9 months
Tuition $33,574
Admission deposit $950
Books/Laptop $2,000
University, Health Service & Insurance fees $2,827
Transcript fee $45
Total 1st year charge $39,396

Including living expenses, the Ph.D. and M.A. student budget is estimated at $55,906.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

You are what they call you

Are girls with girly names girlier?
Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

An interesting counterpoint to the Levitt and Dubner position that "black" names do not make a difference in life outcome. Obviously what must come next is a twin study that compares black twins with names of different degrees of "blackness". I wonder what they linguistic scale they use to determine that.

(via omnibrain)