Friday, August 27, 2004

Calif. to Vote on $3B Stem Cell Project

In the last big CA election, Californi citizens recently authorized a $15 billion (principle only) bond sale to refinance California's deficit spending. The interest payments on those bonds alone are estimated to come to $2000 per CA family. Roughly $10B of the $15B was to cover a single year's deficit spending. This was on top of $73B of bond already authorized. So gues what's the latest initiative for the upcoming ballot...

Let's take out another $3B in loans for stem cell research. The plan is to distribute the money in grants over roughly ten years and pay it off over the next 30 years. The interest would cause this $3B of funding to cost CA taxpayers roughly $6B.

What will it take for people to understand that CA needs to be making hard choices about painful budget cuts, not finding new discresionary spending opportunities? If Bill Gates, Silicon valley tycoons, and Hollywood celebrities want to fund stem cell research, then why don't they fund it themselves? Instead they're choosing to bankroll a campaign to get all of CA to pay for it.

They can use their money buy TV ads to promote the idea. But where's the money to fund the campagin against the initiative going to come from? So far, there aren't a lot of big donors.

Maybe I should start an initiative to require all people who give money to support an inititative's promotion give an equal ammount to support the anti-inititive campain. :)

Call me a cynic, but this is so outrageous, I have to wonder if the rich folks backing this are just trying to drive up the yields on tax-free CA municipal bonds And they get to act like they're working for the public good.

Yahoo! News - Calif. to Vote on $3B Stem Cell Project

Electoral race

With the presidential election only a couple of months away, it's time to start making predictions about the outcome. The LA Times has a cool Flash utility to let you examine poll results and do your own red-state/blue-state analysis. (registration required?)

The present electoral picture with electoral votes is as follows:

Bush: AL (9), AK (3), GA (15), IN (11), ID (4), KS (6), LA (9), MS (6), MT (3), NE (3+1+1), ND (3), OK (7), SC (8), SD (3), TX (34), UT (5), VA (13), WY (3) = 147.

Kerry: CA (55), CT (7), DC (3), IL (21), MD (10), MA (12), NJ (15), NY (31), RI (4), VT (3) = 161.

Swing: AZ (10), AR (6), CO (9), DE (3), FL (27), HI (4), IA (7), KY (8), ME (3+1), MI (17), MN (10), MO (11), NH (4), NM (5), NV (5), NC (15), OR (7), OH (20), PA (21), TN (11), WA (11), WV (5), WI (10) = 230. Slate is doing an in-depth look at most of these states (example).

I'll go on record predicting that Bush will win AR, TN, NC, KY, and CO (196 total). Kerry will take WA, OR, NH, HI, at least 3 of the 4 votes from ME, and NM (195 + 1? total). I predict that Florida will have more problems this election. Anyone care to guess how the remaining states (and therefore the election) will go?

Dr. Susan Hockfield selected MIT's 16th president

What do people think of MIT choosing a life scientist for their president? Can a provost from Yale understand Nerd Pride?

Dr. Susan Hockfield selected 16th president - MIT's 16th President

Monday, August 23, 2004

Gymnastics: The new figure skating

Watching Olympic gymnastics has brought back a familiar feeling: disgust. As in figure skating at the Salt Lake City games, it is clear that the gymnastics judging system is fundamentally broken. But while the international skating union eventually dealt with its internal corruption and made amends to some of the affected athletes, the international gymnastics federation (FIG) is in denial.

American Paul Hamm won the men's all-around gold medal in gymnastics, but it was later discovered that the judges used an incorrect start value for South Korean Yang Tae-young's parallel bars routine. South Korea filed a protest, since the additional tenth of a point would have given Tae-young the gold. The FIG suspended the judges that made the error but refuses to change the standings of the competition or to recommend that a second gold medal be awarded (story). Quoth FIG spokesman Philippe Silacci, "This is the end of the discussion. There was a mistake, an analysis and sanctions." No, Philippe, this is not the end of the discussion, but the beginning. Your organization readily admits that its error cost an athlete the gold medal he deserved, yet it refuses to take the one appropriate action that could set things right. If fundamental issues of fairness have no place in the FIG, artistic gymnastics has no place in the Olympic games.

Canada has objected to the scoring in the men's vault finals after Canadian Kyle Shewfelt lost the bronze medal to Romanian Marian Dragulescu, who fell on his second vault. Dragulescu received a score of 9.325 on his vault, an impossibly high score given the automatic deductions required in the situation. The judges scores, which ranged from 9.1 to 9.5, also spanned too large of a range; when scores from the various judges are that disparate, another judge is supposed to confer with the judges to try to reduce the discrepancy. Canada raised the issue with the chairman of the men's technical committee (a Romanian), who dismissed the protest without consideration.

In the men's horizontal bar final, Russian Alexei Nemov managed a spectacular routine that wowed the audience. When his score of 9.725 was revealed (landing him behind two other competitors), the crowd booed and expressed their anger for several minutes. His mark was then raised to 9.762, a change which didn't affect his standing. This brings up several issues. First, judges should not be influenced by crowd reactions. Second, the current system of judging is out of touch with what constitutes a good routine. Calculating start values and assessing execution deductions clearly doesn't leave enough room for judges to rate performances on their artistic value as well.

Several remedies are necessary in order to restore gymnastics' credibility as a legitimate sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympics. 1) The judging errors need to be corrected, even if that means awarding additional medals. It is not sufficient, as suggested in this USA Today article, to sanction the judges yet not honour the athletes with the medals they've rightfully earned. 2) There should be mass resignations and/or firings at the FIG (and possibly the IOC). Anyone who thinks that judges' errors should not be corrected is a disgrace to gymnastics and has no business being associated with it at any level, much less the international level. 3) Gymnastics scoring should include an artistic component, possibly separate from technical merit. National biases aside, the crowd knows a good routine when they see one. It's a sad statement that the only people who can't recognize a good routine are the ones giving out the scores.

Pirahã language

Several media outlets have a story such as this one regarding the oddities of the Pirahã language. The language has no words for numbers or colours, and embedding is not possible within the constraints of the language. Pirahã natives are unable to learn to count or do simple arithmetic, which has led to a revival of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that certain thoughts are inaccessible to speakers of certain languages.

Why must one's language be brought into an explanation at all? Here's an alternate hypothesis: the concepts of numbers and arithmetic must be learned as a child; having missed the opportunity to acquire these skills at an early age, one cannot acquire them later in life, independent of language. This is not as odd an explanation as it might sound. People who are born blind but have eyesight restored later in life (as through surgery) often are overwhelmed by the input, since they haven't had the opportunity to develop the part of their brain that processes visual input. What if there is a "counting organ" in the brain, much the same way that there is a "language organ" that needs to be developed in childhood? The strange case of the Pirahã doesn't offer a chance to distinguish between these hypotheses. A culture that is innumerate would necessarily speak a numberless language, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn't need to be invoked to explain their innumeracy.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Opening ceremony roundup

So, what did you guys think of the Olympic opening ceremony?

I thought that it was pretty good overall. I really liked the Greek historical tableaux, and most of the things they did with the water and levitating statues were really nice. Bjork's performance was a bit of a low point (though still better than the chrome pickup trucks of Atlanta). I also wasn't all that impressed with the Olympic torch, but perhaps my expectations are just too high after the flaming arrow in Barcelona.

I watched live coverage on the CBC. The one thing that really irked me was that they failed to show some countries in the parade of nations, opting for commercial breaks or cell phone interviews with Canadian Olympic athletes. Honestly, I don't fault them for either decision, but it would have been nice if they had shown brief highlights of the countries we missed when they rejoined parade coverage. Many of those countries are not competitive to win a medal, and it's dishonourable to deny them their moment in the spotlight. (Plus, I just like some of the cool national costumes.) I didn't watch the coverage on NBC, which wasn't aired until the evening. Did they also leave out countries in the parade of nations, as they've done in the past?

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

For me to poop on!

Late Night with Conan O'Brien has released a DVD set of the 10th anniversary special and clips of Triumph the insult comic dog. Now you can watch him insult Star Wars nerds or Quebeckers over and over again!

Sunday, August 08, 2004

What do you get when you combine crazy people and entrepenuership?

"The peak time for dates from h--- in New York City is Friday at 8 p.m. — judging by the cell phone calls delivering emergency excuses to bolt. Truth is, they're fake "rescue" calls — now being offered by two cell phone providers..."

Yahoo! News - Via Cell, Help's on the Way for Bad Dates

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Sharia in Canada

Thanks to the Ontario Arbitration Act of 1991, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice has been set up to allow Canadian Muslims to enter into arbitration based on the principles of Muslim sharia law. Supporters argue that other religious and cultural communities are allowed to arbitrate civil disputes among themselves. Opponents argue that Muslim women may be pressured by their community to submit to sharia arbitration, which is inherently discriminatory against women. Facing these concerns, the Ontario goverment is reviewing its decision.

More information: Aljazeera.net article, Toronto Star article, CBC viewpoint, Humanist Association of Toronto position

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Pentagon Looks to Directed-Energy Weapons

This sounds a bit scary to me. And I'm really curious why someone would volunteer to be a test subject for these things.
Yahoo! News - Pentagon Looks to Directed-Energy Weapons