Devolution in Texas

Texas School Board Set to Vote on Challenge to Evolution

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation.

The proposed curriculum change would prompt teachers to raise doubts that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry. Texas is such a huge textbook market that many publishers write to the states standards, then market those books nationwide.

“This is the most specific assault Ive seen against evolution and modern science,” said Steven Newton, a project director at the National Center for Science Education, which promotes teaching of evolution.

Four key decisions that led to the crisis

Slate magazine is running a series on  Making sense of the credit debacle. Recently Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture blog, listed a couple of key decisions that he thinks contributed to the crisis.

What led to the current situation were numerous legislative, ideological, and business decisions that worked together to create a systemic failure. Consider each of the following:

  • The Commodities Futures Modernization Act 2000 allowed unregulated derivatives to run wild.
  • The repeal of Glass-Steagall 1999 allowed depository banks to become far more intertwined with Wall Street.
  • From 2001-03, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan took rates down to unprecedented levels, causing 1 a mad scramble for yield and 2 an enormous housing boom.
  • In 2004 the SEC allowed the five big investment banks to leverage up from 12-to-1 to 35-to-1 or more.

If it worked, I would look like beef jerky

This is brilliant. How do you raise awareness for a common, but boring health danger? Put up a hoax website that appeals to people’s vanity. And just wait for the suckers to sign up.

A new technology that harnesses the rays of a computer screen to give office workers a tan while they type was today revealed as a charity hoax, after 30,000 people visited the ComputerTan website in 24 hours to register their interest.

The aim of the campaign, […] is to make British people more aware of the damage that tanning and sunbathing may be doing to their bodies.

via Over 30,000 people fall for ComputerTan hoax

That’s why they call it money

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from National Public Radio. One of my favorites is “Planet Money“, which is the best practical explanation I’ve heard of what’s going on in the economy. They don’t track the market, or hype investments, or all that stuff you get on CNBC.

But they ask much more interesting questions like:
“How should a bailout work?”
“What is money, really?”
“How did Madoff do it?”

Just like in physics, sometimes, it’s the simplest questions that really have deep answers.

After listening to some recent podcasts, I’m now convinced that all economists are political.
When you don’t have scientific experiments to rely on, and the facts are all open to interpretation, academics tend to group by ideology. Back when I got disgusted with macro-economics back in the early eighties, it was during a battle royal between the Keynesian school and the Chicago school of economics. The Chicago school won, and dominated US economic policy for about 25 years. Now that federal monetary policy has failed, politicians are turning to those forgotten Keynesians again.

Planet Money was started last year by the guys who did “The Giant Pool of Money” episode for This American Life. And if you haven’t heard that program, it’s definitely worth an hour of your time.They recorded it back in May of 2008, as the sub-prime crisis was taking down more and more of the financial industry.

They somehow managed to make the entire mortgage industry comprehensible – by following the money trail. They talk to a guy with no income who got a $700,000 mortgage, and to a vet who was tricked into taking a sub-prime loan. They interview a kid who worked for a sleazy mortgage broker in Las Vegas, and got bigger bonuses for worse loans. At the top of the chain was the young turk working for an investment bank, who earned $50-$70K a month, and partied with celebrities. He says he knew things were bad the month he only pulled in $25K. “And that didn’t even cover my expenses”. In the end, he lost his penthouse to foreclosure, and ended up moving in with his parents.

Yeah, I know, it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy like that. I just hope Paulsen didn’t pay his bonus with my bailout dollars.

FBI saw mortgage fraud early

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: FBI saw mortgage fraud early

“We knew that the mortgage-brokerage industry was corrupt,” the first of the retired FBI officials told the Seattle P-I. “Where we would have gotten a sense of what was really going on was the point where the mortgage was sold knowing that it was a piece of dung and it would be turned into a security. But the agents with the expertise had been diverted to counterterrorism.”

Yet another victim of Cheney era priorities. Osama Bin Laden wanted to destroy America’s  financial center and its economy. It seems that by chasing his shadow around the world, we did the job for him.

Like a breath of fresh air

Obama’s Inaugural Address

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man — a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

Where’s my eight-track?

Just when did Compact Disc players disappear?

Sure, I know that kids these days don’t buy CDs anymore. In fact, they won’t even accept them as gifts!
“Gee, thanks for that shiny plastic platter, Gramps. I’ll keep it with the writing paper you gave me last year.”

But it was a real shock over the holidays to find out that you can’t even buy a CD player in stores. I was visiting my parents in Canada. They had a ten year old CD player attached to their stereo receiver. Remember those? The kind that doesn’t come with earbuds or an iPod dock? Anyway, the player went all Theremin on me – generating otherworldly noises when I waved my hands above the unit.

Like the helpful son I am, I volunteered to go buy them a new CD player, and install it for them. “Should only cost 30 or 40 bucks”, I assured them. “A bit more if you want a multi-disc player”.

The first sign of trouble was when I consulted Amazon for some quick product reviews. Sure, they list CD players in their electronics section. And you can find cheap portable CD players, or integrated compact stereo systems, or extremely expensive high-end audiophile players. But you can’t buy basic single disc players.  Unless you want to try eBay.

So off I went to the local mall. In an ice-storm. And this was just after Boxing Day – the busiest shopping day of the year. The big-box stores were still mobbed with bargain hunters, and looked like New Orleans convenience stores after looting. But they hadn’t sold out of CD players. They just never had any. And the retail drones just looked at me with disdain. “Maybe you should get them an iPod instead”.

No, this is my parents we’re talking about. They’re not exactly cutting-edge. They value ease of use, and consistency. My mom is still using a 20-year old coffee maker. And a film camera for gosh sakes.

After going through four stores, I finally found a reasonable alternative. I bought them a small Sony DVD player. Sure it had component video outputs and upscaling, which we’ll never need. But it had stereo audio output, and a nice bright LED display.

I brought it home and hooked it up to their old system. Hopefully this one will last until the next big consumer electronics revolution. And in the meantime, they can still listen to Billie Holiday. I just hope their turntable doesn’t break down next.

Come upstairs to look at my code fragments

Adam over at derwiki talks about the beauty and creative process of programming. Why, he asks, do we say someone could have a passion for painting, or a photography hobby, but not be driven to program in their spare time?

A well designed component or architecture has elegance and sophistication; simplicity yet robustness. You step back, look at the code, say “Damn, that’s gorgeous”, and you know when you’ve created beauty instead of just hacking out a quick fix. This element of beauty is something that I’ve found lacking in a lot of code and with a lot of programmers. Too often programming is treated like a boring job of necessity than the passionate job of creativity that it can be.

Researching the spam economy

An amazing experiment to map the spam economy – by hijacking 75,000 computers in Storm Worm’s botnet! Surprisingly, researchers estimate that spam campaigns still earn a profit, even at a response rate less than 1 in 107!

Researchers Hijack Storm Worm to Track Profits

A single response from 12 million e-mails is all it takes for spammers to turn annual profits of millions of dollars promoting knockoff pharmaceuticals, according to an unprecedented new study on the economics of spam.

The research team estimates that about three-quarters of all e-mail sent by the Storm worm was snagged by junk e-mail filters, ISP blacklists, and other e-mail security applications.

“Under the assumption that our measurements are representative over time, we can extrapolate that… Storm-generated pharmaceutical spam would produce roughly $3.5 million dollars of revenue a year,” the team concluded.

“By the same logic, we estimate that Storm self-propagation campaigns can produce between 3,500 and 8,500 new bots per day.”