Misc: October 2009 Archives


October 31, 2009

Another Halloween, another bowl full of candy, and another night when only a few kids show up. Tonight we had 3 groups of kids, each in the 5-7 range. It's not clear to me why Halloween in the Bay Area is so lame; when I was a kid and went out trick or treating the streets would be thick with other trick-or-treaters to the point where you actually had to wait in line at some houses. Here, though, the streets are empty and in a good year we'll see maybe 5 groups. One of my friends lives in San Francisco and says that in the 10 year he's been there he's never had anyone come by. I would understand it this were some crime-ridden area, but I actually live in suburban Palo Alto about 5 blocks from the local elementary school. It's a totally safe neighborhood with lots of kids living nearby. Moreover, this year Halloween is on a Saturday, so you'd think that it would be especially hot.

One theory—popular with the denizens of Fark—is that overprotective parents have ruined trick-or-treating. See, for instance, this article and the related Fark thread. However, this doesn't seem to be correct: no less authoritative a source than the National Confectioners Assoction reported in 2005 that 95% of children intended to go out. I would be interested in hearing reports from people in other parts of the country about their flow rates.

Another explanation is that it's a collective action problem: It's only worth trick-or-treating when enough houses dispense candy to make it worthwhile. [I've written about this before]. Similarly, it's only worth dispensing candy when enough kids come by: I was invited to several Halloween parties and stayed home to give out candy, but I'm not sure I would do that again. So, if you have a neighborhood which is in a no-trick-or-treating equilibrium, it's hard for it to take hold. I'm sure there's some effect here. For instance, Belvedere street in San Francisco has a huge party every year with the result that kids come by from across the city and residents put in huge amounts of effort decorating their houses. On the other hand, when I went out at 5:30 to pick up some more candy (ending up with way more than I needed), I had to stand in line at the register, so obviously people are giving out candy, and that means I don't have a good explanation.


October 11, 2009

Earlier today I was listening to an NPR report on the early winter snowstorms in Alberta and Manitoba. Apparently there's been a lot of snow and people are driving off the roads, rolling their cars, etc. Anyway, at the end of the report, what do I hear but "This is Dan Karpenchuk in Toronto." Now, this makes sense until you realize that Alberta is in Western Canada, roughly North of Montana. Even Manitoba is somewhere North of Minnesota. In terms of flight time, Calgary is over an hour closer to San Francisco than Toronto is (2:35 versus 3:40). Winnipeg is closer to Toronto, but it's still over 2 hrs away by air and someting over 2000 km away. There's no good reason to think that someone in Toronto is going to be particularly well informed about events in Calgary or Winnipeg than someone located in San Francisco unless you conveniently forget that Canada is a huge country. (This isn't particularly uncommon for NPR: I'm pretty sure I've heard reports about Northern Africa from their correspondent in Johannesburg).

More generally, it's not entirely clear to me what value NPR's foreign correspondents bring to the party. Generally, they spend 20-30 seconds delivering some report that could just as well have been delivered by someone in the US reading whatever came over AP or Reuters. I suppose it lends an air of authority to the proceedings, but as far as I can tell it's primarily false authority.


October 10, 2009

This isn't my ordinary type of science fiction but I was recently looking for something light to read and grabbed Walter Jon Williams's Rock Of Ages, the third in his Drake Maijstral, which I originally picked up for half price at the used book store. Williams has written a lot of straight SF, including the rather good Days of Atonement and Aristoi, but the Maijstral novels are something different, kind of a cross between science fiction, restoration comedy and a Donald Westlake caper novel.

The setting is that the human race has been conquered by some extremely stuffy humanoid aliens called the Khosali. The Khosali have reconstructed human society in their image with behavior mostly bound by "High Custom". Drake Maijstral, is an impoverished human aristocrat who takes up a life of crime of sorts, becoming an "Allowed Burglar", one of the odder pieces of High Custom. It seems a previous Khosali Emperor was a kleptomaniac and since the Emperor defines High Custom, the Khosali rationalized it by creating the institution of Allowed Burglary: Allowed Burglars are allowed to steal as long as they keep the loot in their possession for 24 hours after the theft and don't get caught within that 24 hour period. Because Allowed Burglars record their capers and broadcast them, Maijstral (together with his long-suffering manservant Roman [think Jeeves]) is a huge celebrity, with an admiring fan base and a video program based on his exploits.

One of the recurring elements in the novels is the complete distortion of Earth's history and culture resulting from centuries of Khosali domination. For instance:

Once in his suite, Maijstral settled his unease by watching a Western till it was time to dress. This one, The Long Night of Billy The Kid, was an old-fashioned trajedy featuring the legendary rivary between Billy and Elvis Presley for the affections of Katie Elder. Katie's Heart belonged to Billy, but despite her tearful pleadings Billy rode the outlaw trail; and finally, brokenhearted Katie left Billy to go on tour with Elvis as a backup singer, while Billy rode on to his long-foreshadowed death at the hands of Greenhorn inventor-turned lawman Nikola Tesla.

There are three Maijstral novels: The Crown Jewels, House of Shards, and Rock of Ages. Unfortunately, they all seem to be out of print, but you can get them used. Highly recommended.


October 3, 2009

For obvious reasons, California law forbids cities from sharing revenue from red light cameras with the vendors who operate the cameras. Apparently, cities have found a way to get around this restriction:
California law explicitly bans local jurisdictions from rewarding red light camera companies with payments based on the number of citations issued or as a percentage of fines generated. At least fifty cities have attempted to skirt this requirement with a clever arrangement known as cost neutrality. These contract provisions allow a city to pay the contractor based on the number of citations issued up to a certain monthly amount. After this cap is reached, the city keeps all of the revenue generated. The provisions are designed to ensure that cities can only profit from photo ticketing and will never pay to operate the program.

"If the total compensation paid to Redflex pursuant to this agreement exceeds that portion of fines received by customer for citations issued during the same twelve (12) month period, then Redflex agrees to absorb, eliminate, or reimburse customer for the excess expense thereby covering the cost for system operation so that the customer achieves cost neutrality in accordance with the representation that the system(s) shall pay for themselves," Section 6.5 of San Mateo's contract states.

This pretty clearly gives the vendor an incentive to issue more tickets, and the judge in the case linked above concluded that it violated the law and struck down the program. With that said, I'm not aware of any evidence that red light camera companies do anything to issue bogus tickets. There likely are some ways to issue tickets when people weren't really violating the red light (e.g., by issuing bogus timestamps; I don't think the photos include the light in the frame), but that isn't to say that the companies which operate the cameras do anything like that.


October 2, 2009

Those of you from the US may know the Civil War-era marching song "John Brown's Body" ("John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave ... but his soul goes marching on." etc.) which was later rewritten as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". I'd always assumed that this song was about the John Brown, i.e., this dude:

This seemed like a logical assumption, but apparently that's unclear at best. Wikipedia has two origin stories, at least one of which is only tenuously connected to the famous John Brown:
The tune arose out of the folk hymn tradition of the American camp meeting movement of the 1800s. During the American Civil War the lyrics referenced Sergeant John Brown of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia, a Boston based unit. Later, people mistakenly believed it referenced the abolitionist John Brown and later verses were added referencing him.[1]


Maine songwriter, musician, band leader, and Union soldier Thomas Brigham Bishop (1835-1905) has also been credited as the originator of the John Brown Song.[19] Bishop's biographer and friend James MacIntyre, in an interview with Time Magazine in 1935, stated that this version was first published by John Church of Cincinnati in 1861.[20] Bishop, who would later command a company of black troops in the American Civil War, was in nearby Martinsburg when Brown was hanged at Charles Town in 1859 and, according to MacIntyre, Bishop wrote the first four verses of the song at the time. The "Jeff Davis" verse was added later when it caught on as a Union marching song. According to MacIntyre, Bishop's account was that he based the song on an earlier hymn he had written for, or in mockery of, a pious brother-in-law, taking from this earlier song the "glory hallelujah" chorus, the phrase "to be a soldier in the army of the Lord", and the tune. According to MacIntyre, this hymn became popular at religious meetings in Maine.[21] The phrase "to be a soldier in the army of the Lord" is not found in any extant copies of "Say, Brothers"--either those published before or after 1860. [22]

Hard to see how to reconcile these two stories, but the first version seems to at least have some reasonable sourcing, and is certainly more amusing.


October 1, 2009

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh asks people to weigh in on whether 0 is even or odd. This is, as they say, a simple question with a simple answer: 0 is even. Despite this, nearly half the people in Volokh's poll (around 1500) get the answer wrong. (Most of those people say it's neither odd nor even). Moreover, this question spawned two threads of over 100 comments each, with people seriously arguing—despite extremely clear arguments to the contrary from people with real mathematical expertise—that zero was not even.

Part of the problem is educational: apparently some schools, textbooks, etc. teach that zero is neither odd nor even. Volokh cites McGraw Hill's Catholic High School Entrance Exams:

An integer is even if it is a member of the following set: [...,-6,-4,-2,2,4,6,...]. An integer is odd if it is a member [of] the following set: [...,-5,-3,-1,1,3,5,...]. The number zero (0) is neither even nor odd.

Reading the comments, though, there seems to be something else going on: many of the commenters seem to assume that they can just reason out the answer from (incorrect) first principles, and that expert opinion doesn't matter. For no doubt bad reasons (primarily boredom), I have read through a number of Volokh Conspiracy threads on other scientific topics and this seems to be a fairly common pattern. Usually, though it's usually confined to discussions where the scientific questions have some political implications (global warming, evolution, etc.), but in this case it just seems to be that people have the wrong intuitions and don't want to listen to anything that contradicts them—and at some level are actively hostile to being told that actual expertise might count for something... I'd be interested to see whether there's any correlation between commenter's positions on the zero parity issue and issues with more political weight behind them.