Friday, February 24, 2006

Popularity contest

The February 24th edition of The Kansas City Star has an interesting note on Page 2:

"A coalition of former lawmakers launched a campaign Thursday to revamp the Electoral College system, saying winners should be determined by the nationwide popular vote. The Campaign for the National Popular Vote includes former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and John Anderson, the former representative and 1980 indy presidential candidate.

The group hopes to create a 'state electoral vote compact'. Basically, if Illinois passes this law, it wouldn't take effect until enough states (totaling 270 electoral votes) join the compact and pass the same law. It' a way around trying to amend the Constitution itself."

This brings up two questions: first do you like the idea, second (and more thought-provoking to me) is this feasible?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Georgia on my mind

I thought people might be getting tired of the hardcore posts that have been coming up, so for a change of pace, I decided to post on something I read from the Volokh Conspiracy. Apparently, the Georgia State Legislature has decided the higher education is exempt from sexual obscenity laws. Specifically:

Georgia's law banning the distribution and advertising of "obscene material" — including "[a]ny device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs," as well as hard-core porn of the sort that the law describes as "obscenity" — and found this exception:

(e) It is an affirmative defense under this Code section that dissemination of the material was restricted to:

(f) A person associated with an institution of higher learning, either as a member of the faculty or a matriculated student, teaching or pursuing a course of study related to such material

Now we know what and where to study for graduate work!

Be sure to read the comment posted by A. Nonymous-its as razor sharp as Twain.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

You're Putin U.S. in a difficult position!

Genius or insane? Russian leader Vladmir Putin has decided to recognize Hamas. Some think this is an attempt to position Russia as diplomatic mediator between the West and Islam. Others see it as a mere ploy to place Russia back near the center of international power. Either way, who is this good for? Will it help Western--Islamic relations? Will it help Jewish--Palestinian relations? Where does Iran fall in this discussion?

I'll offer my McLaughlin style interpretation (absolutely crazy, but with enough sense that you can't dismiss it out of hand):

Putin is reaching out to Hamas for one reason (with twofold benefit), to quell fundamentalist Islamic concerns. This is an excellent PR move for Russia (from a Muslim perspective) because it allies him closer with his most dangerous (immediacy) neighbor in the Muslim area to his south (Iran/Caucauses/Afghanistan). It also helps in the immediate Iranian nuclear dispute (Iran sees Russia as a maverick nation, rather than a powerful western puppet), allowing them leverage in uranium enrichment bargaining, immediately quelling EU and US concerns.

Sucks to be Israel right now.

Other thoughts?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Data Mining and Wiretaps

Bob Cringley has been astounding my world for more than a year now. I thought I should go trolling for comments here on a snippet from his most recent article.

http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20060202.html

The last part discusses using data mining techniques on massive traffic flows. If you check out the two previous articles he discusses this more indepth, but this one really touches on my point. When you have enough traffic you can find any pattern you want. It is a natural human tendency to look for patterns in chaos (not with a q).

I posit that with correct mathematical techniques and an understanding of the limitation of data mining, new information can be found. Computer science is hammering away in this field right now, but from the class work I've taken and research I've done, it still seems a limited field. From my experience, unless you already know what you are looking for it is difficult to find the correct patterns. I know this is not always the case, but in general I believe it is. Most people use traffic to justify a belief they already have, even though the traffic may not show that (WMD's in Iraq for example).

So should we be creeped out by the fact that people are looking for patterns that may not exist?

I'm worried that this is being passed off as a legitimate groundwork for starting possible criminal investigations.

Monday, February 06, 2006

D00d Nvidia Rox my Box

As you've all heard, and probally expected, companies are now hiring people to masquerade on message boards to build support for products. (title contains link)

I am actually a little upset about this. While I have no real love for the community, I have used message boards before for research, and have found useful information before. Of course there was a lot of posts that had to be filtered through (which is the price for open posting), but that took little effort.

What I'm interested in (and for the purpose of a light minded discussion):
-Is it possible to have an open peer only review system?
-How would someone with "complete" anonymity be able to gain validity and status in this situation?
-Can anyone give a positive review of anything again without being called a "plant?"
-How long until this evolves to sabotaging (negative reviews against competitors)?
-Will infiltration destroy the forums? If no one can trust anyone...
-Will I ever be able to post on here and not sound like a conspiracy theorist? (although it would let me change my name to Dark Engel... wait.. damn...)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Last.fm vs. Pandora

I've blogged about/pushed Pandora before, but I haven't mentioned Last.fm. This is odd, since I use Last.fm all the time, and rarely use Pandora. I'm just always reticent to recommend anything that requires any installation, as Last.fm does, no matter how unimaginably valuable I think it is.

Here's the breakdown:

With Pandora, you voluntarily submit artists/tracks you like or dislike. Pandora consults a bunch of data assembled by a staff of experts. It then recommends (and plays) music that the experts have determined to have similar properties as the songs you like.

Last.fm, on the other hand, has no experts, the expertise comes from the crowd. Last.fm's "audioscrobbler" determines what you like by monitoring your behavior, by continually monitoring what you actually listen to on your music player. It takes this data and blindly compares you to others who listen to the same tracks to determine some recommendations (and can also function as a personalized radio station).

I think the reason I prefer Last.fm is because "statistics will triumph over design, no matter how knowledgeable a group of musicologists you assemble." But there are definitely arguments in Pandora's favor. Steve Krause provides a pretty detailed analysis

A final thought: What Last.fm and Pandora do is hard, and the people who built these services deserve a lot of credit. Given the ambitious scope, it's easy to find examples where each of the services comes up short. However, it's worth considering what the yardstick should be. Should we expect spot-on recommendations like a pro bowler expects a strike every time? Or is this more like the baseball batter, who is happy to get a hit one in three times? Whatever the metaphor, the fact that these services do enough right to retain a substantial number of users is good news, because the features and quality will only get better.


The Long Tail* provides another breakdown of where they fit conceptually, along with Amazon and eBay ratings.

*The Long Tail is named for an interesting cultural theory, basically that as means of production improve, we naturally shift from generalized products to specialized ones... we move from newspapers to magazines. It might predict that the feasibility of personalizable radio stations sharply undermines the need for commercial radio stations.

UPDATE:
This is a test:
Get Songbird!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Partisan man

While reading the Kansas City Star this morning I noticed that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito managed to make it to President Bush's state of the Union. I read that it was the most hotly contested vote since Clarence Thomas (52-48), but even during the Justice Thomas vote, there was less partisanship (11 Democrats voted for Thomas, but only 4 Democrats voted for Alito). Are our political institutions becoming more partisan than ever before? The past five years would have yielded a strong "no" vote from me, but several issues have changed this to a gray area for me.

First, the catch-all argument: the Civil War. When someone mentions partisanship being worse than at anytime in our nation's history I point out the time that Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina used his cane to physically beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusettes to a bloody pulp in the Senate chamber. Nothing (I used to argue) would happen like that today, therefore politics couldn't nearly be as partisan. Unfortunately, this very incident occured (sans cane) in a Jackson County legislative meeting. Legislator Bob Stringfield rushed fellow legislator Dan Tarwater after the meeting and attacked him on public access television for nearly two minutes.

The second argument usually used: Presidential campaigns have been run with smear tactics from the very beginning of our countries existence. John Adams was painted as a loyalist to King George III by Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike, even though he almost single-handedly brought about recognition of the United States on a diplomatic level throughout Europe (according to noted historian David McCullough). In addition, the growing power of PACs and lobbyists has helped to keep the actual politicians from personally making attacks (as the PACs can now create their own messages of varying credibility), thereby decreasing the partisan tension between lawmakers. Is this happening though, or is malevolence on the rise due to PAC intervention?

I ask you for comments and evidence where possible.