Funny Spam

It seems like the blog has been getting more spam-comments recently, or maybe just making up a greater percentage of comments overall.

Most of them are pretty dumb, along the lines of "hey great blog thank you so much I will favorite it" with at least two misspellings, but a few make me laugh out loud... like this one:

IT WILL BE EPIC!!! QWERTY KEYBORD FTW!

This on a post about Google taking over the world. Not really on topic, but the sheer randomness was entertaining. I could have pounded on a keyboard for a long time without being clever enough to come up with "Qwerty keyboard FTW".

  

I am not an astronomer

Since Nathaniel is otherwise occupied, I figure it's my turn to report on astronomy-related news.

In today's segment, an interesting application of crowdsourcing has resulted in the discovery of a previously-undiscovered (duh) pit crater on Mars... by a class of 7th graders.

The students were participating in the Mars Student Imaging Program. This special program lets students use NASA's technology inside their classrooms... [they] are asked to think of a geological question about Mars to research. Then students can adjust the cameras on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft to help answer their question.

"The students developed a research project focused on finding the most common locations of lava tubes on Mars," said their teacher, Dennis Mitchell. "Do they occur most often near the summit of a volcano, on its flanks, or the plains surrounding it?"

So the class pointed Mars Odyssey's cameras at lava flows near Pavonis Mons, a large volcano on Mars. That area of the Red Planet is rarely photographed. Their photos revealed lava flows, as the class had hoped. But they also showed the unexpected crater.

  

Bad Plots

A coworker pointed out this plot to me yesterday, and while it's not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, the issue has kept bugging me.

Here is the offending item:

On one hand, it does a good job of illustrating the variation of temperature and density throughout the atmosphere. On the other hand, what the heck is going on with the two ordinate axes? The mixture of linear and log scales is okay, but tricky with the horizontal grid lines. Trying to have a log-scale ticking system between three orders of magnitude, however, just makes my head hurt.

  

Death of Democracy

Last week a St Thomas cabbie laughed at me when I was moaning about having to go home to California, and he had a good point - there are many nice things about SoCal, and the Golden State in general. We have great weather, a stunning coastline with equally majestic mountain ranges, inspiring Redwood groves, fertile soil, the global center of technology (Silicon Valley) and entertainment (Hollywood), and the best public university system in the world.

So why then is CA's state budget in the crapper? I think there are a couple reasons, both of which are legislatively self-inflicted, and both of which sound like good ideas on the surface but instead serve to destroy democratic representation. Firstly, a two-thirds majority is required to pass state legislation. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, instead it means that small group legislators can hold the entire state hostage, a tyranny of the minority where a budget supported by a majority is held in limbo.

This is bad, but pales in comparison the what I view as the main problem: ballot initiatives. Again, allowing the people of California to be directly involved in governance is a great idea - that's pure democracy, right? Instead, it's a mess, and one reason why our founding fathers went with representative democracy.

There are two big problems with ballot initiatives. First, the referenda are confusing and necessitate the reduction of complex issues down to a simple yes/no vote. In order to make an educated decision, each individual citizen must attempt to be an expert on the subject at hand, be it clean energy technology, education reform, tax law reform, etc. Would we want all Americans to vote on which design NASA should adopt for the new Shuttle replacement, or to decide our foreign policy towards North Korea? Could we trust the entire American voting populace to educate themselves on the ramifications of a change to affirmative action? No, we elect people to study an issue and then make an informed decision.

The second, and to my mind more insidious problem with ballot initiatives is that they completely circumvent any kind of campaign finance regulation. There's no point in trying to limit the degree to which lobbyists can pay/influence a particular legislator if they can just pay for their own ballot initiative - why both buying a legislator when you can buy a law directly? We had two examples of this in last week's election, Props 16 and 17 (luckily they both failed), which were very clear power grabs by PG&E and Mercury Insurance, the kind of which could never be achieved if the companies had to lobby the entire legislature. Technically there are limits as to how advertising for a ballot initiative can be paid for, and you're not supposed to pay people to collect the requisite signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, but these have not been adequately enforced. So, in the end, it's not "one person, one vote", it's "one million dollars, one vote".

There are other problems with the system, clearly, but the two items above I think have served to put California its current broke/indebted position. When California's economy was humming along happily, the uber-rich were able to slowly chip away at the state tax system, and so slowly the margin for error was eroded. Then whenever it was evident that some kind of reform or visionary legislation might be needed, a 1/3 minority of state senators was able to hamstring the process. Thus, progress was halted, even as special interests were able to buy specific ballot initiatives. Combine this with the foolishly-short term limits (a lifetime limit of 6 years in the General Assembly and 8 years in state Senate), by the time a legislature finally figures out how to actually govern, he's kicked out, and a new greenhorn has to learn the ropes all over again. I can't imagine the same policy catching on in corporate America, for example Steve Jobs being booted from AAPL after 8 years? Not happening.

Clearly the state (and nation) are increasingly polarized and reluctant to even engage in legitimate debate, but that's all the more reason to allow our legislators to actually do their job.

  

Church Of England

The English media/public have an odd and complex relationship with their national football (soccer) team. They are quite certain that England is inherently the best football nation in the world, but simultaneously have a strong inferiority complex given recent World Cup results (or lack thereof). Thus, leading up to Saturday's England-USA match, "they" are very quick to belittle America and the US team, but almost in a self-aggrandizing way, as if to reassure themselves of their superiority. I understand it, but this is honestly kinda annoying - kinda like the way that the UK media is pretending that there's this huge animosity towards the British people just because we're pissed at BP for fucking up the Gulf.