31 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Making Movies in the Bananas - Kibbutz Yechiam, Israel (Photo by Esther)

30 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Market Streets - Old City, Jerusalem

27 August 2008

Juxtaposition in Jerusalem

Imagine a city that's the host nation considers its capital but lacks foreign embassies. A city that is almost completely segregated between its two primary demographic groups. The city was physically sepated a few decades ago of which half has since been officially annexed by the host country, but is still considered to be an occupied territory according to some accounts.

Make that city the home of the holiest sites of two major religions and home to very holy sites for a third. Between these religions, add some talk about a "war of civilizations" and "existential struggle" just to heat things up a bit. Don't only put these sites close to one another, but litterally layer them in some cases.

Visit these holy sites and you'll see devout pilgrims rubbing oil onto a slab of marble, tourist snapping pictures of the fragment of a rock, trash-strewn courtyards with middle-aged men sipping tea, barriers seperating the sexes and the religions, as well as metal detectors, cardboard yarmulkes, and guards with assault rifles to keep everything in order.

The atmosphere is tense but rarely boils over. Encroachment is the favorite passtime, inevitably a zero-sum game in a city hemmed in by walls and mountains.. The struggle is constant and often (though not always) subtle; it's rarely a punch in the face, more often an elbow to the ribs in a crowded elevator.

It's inextricably complicated and will presumably remain so for centuries to come. It's Jersusalem; the center of the world for some, the end of the world for others.

24 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Lovers on the Beach - Beach near Nahariyya, Israel (Photo by Yona Rozenkier)

21 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Streets of Nazareth, Israel

18 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Tunnel of the Templars - Underneath Acre, Israel

Israel: First Impressions

Dusty and humid, a complex mixture of American, European and Middle Eastern cultures. You walk two steps and you go from Miami Beach to Amman, Jordan. Drive twenty minutes and you're at the closed border to Lebanon. You can talk about the depth of history in a literal sense; there are layers of history dating back thousands of years that are still reflected in the current layers of food, habit, and language.

An Step in the Right Direction

A researcher at MIT may have made a major step forward in making solar and wind energy practical on a large, industrial scale. One of the obvious problems with solar is that it doesn't work so well when the sun doesn't shine. It's the same story for wind; on a calm day you're left with nothing but a forest of thirty-story modern art sculptures.

In this case, the MIT researcher may have found a way to use electricity to efficiently split water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, a process the smart kids call electrolysis. These gases can then be stored for later use in a fuel cell giving you energy even on the calmest, darkest of nights.

Is this the solution to the global energy problem? Almost certainly, no, but it could be another step on the long path towards cheap, clean energy.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

17 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Gods of the Sun - Tel Aviv Beach

16 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Above the sunset - Somewhere between Paris and Tel Aviv

15 August 2008

Holy Land Blogging

We're off to Israel for two and a half weeks, whenever I have a chance I'll post pictures and wry commentary.

From Potty to Potable

A very good article in the New York Times about the system which reintroduces treated waste water into California's drinking water supply. The sewage is collected and put through a multi-step process that renders it nearly pure. It is then pumped into a man-made reservoir where it mixes with naturally-collected drinking water, percolates through several hundred feet of sand and gravel, and replenishes the aquifer. About 18 months later, it's pumped back above-ground where it's chlorinated and is brought back into the drinking supply

In addition to the technical specifications, there are several interesting observations, the first being how the issue is typically framed:

If you like the idea, you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.
Also interesting is the range of possible fresh water to waste water ratios in various systems around the world (think of it as the supply of tolerance relative to the demand for water):
Singapore mixes 1 percent treated wastewater with 99 percent fresh water in its reservoirs. (In Orange County, the final product will contain 17 percent recycled water.) Residents of Windhoek, Namibia, one of the driest places on earth, drink 100 percent treated wastewater.
There is a reminder of the many hidden uses of energy, noting that "about a fifth of California’s energy is used to move water from north to south".

Finally, an example of the technical absurdity that the human psyche makes necessary:
It’s one of the many pardoxes of indirect potable reuse that the water leaving the plant in Fountain Valley is far cleaner than the water that it mingles with. Yes, the water entering the sewage-treatment plant in Fountain Valley is 100 percent wastewater and has a T.D.S. — a measure of water purity, T.D.S. stands for total dissolved solids and refers to the amount of trace elements in the water — of 1,000 parts per million. But after microfiltration and reverse osmosis, the T.D.S. is down to 30. (Poland Spring water has a T.D.S. of between 35 and 46.) By contrast, the “raw” water in the Anaheim basins has a T.D.S. of 600.

If everything in the Fountain Valley plant is in perfect working order, its finished water will contain no detectable levels of bacteria, pharmaceuticals or agricultural and industrial chemicals. The same can be said of very few water sources in this country. But once the Fountain Valley water mingles with the county’s other sources, its purity goes downhill. Filtering it through sand and gravel removes some contaminants, but it also adds bacteria (not necessarily harmful, and local utilities will eventually knock them out them with chlorine) and possibly pharmaceuticals.
The main message is, of course, that rising demand pressures on available resources and the consequences of consumption mean that it is becoming economically and morally necessary to look to the waste stream as a potential resource stream. Thankfully, this is an arena in which technology can play a large role (indeed, that is the subject of this article). I tend to have greater faith in our potential to create new technologies rather than our ability to curb our consumption. That's not to say that I think that this reality is morally defensible, only that it's historical trend which appears very difficult to change. Call it realenvironment.

14 August 2008

Photo of the Day

14th of July Picnic - Parc de Belleville

13 August 2008

Photo of the Day

Call it "Urban" - Marché aux Puces

Mythology and Victimhood

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written an excellent reflection on "the false nobility of victimhood". It's a concept that I've long thought about, often in the context of Israel/Palestine, and he puts it to words extremely well.

Key point:

All of us need some sort of mythology and no group is immune to nationalism, to the need to believe that we are special.
The consequences of this aspect of human nature are difficult to overstate. Read the whole post, it's worth the time.

Order of Operations

I'd imgaine that there is a much lower incidence of bank cards being left in ATMs in France. One simple reason: they return your card before your cash. Leave the ATM without collecting your card, maybe. Leave without taking your cash? Very unlikely.

Top Three

Add this to my top three favorite videos of all time:

I long ago accepted the fact that they would be better than me at climbing trees and eating bananas, peel and all, but it looks like I now need to concede ice skating as well. Who would have thought that the word "graceful" would be appropriately applied to a chimpanzee?

12 August 2008

Photo of the Day

A Question of Scale - Jardin du Luxembourg

11 August 2008

Commenting: Now Even Easier!

Dear Loyal Readers,

It is now even easier to post comments, you were previously redirected to some strange site asking you to jump through all sorts of hoops to get you comment posted.

Now just click on the "Comments" link below any post. A box will appear where you can type your comments. In the drop-down box below that, if you don't have any of the accounts offered (Google, OpenID, etc...) you can select Name/URL and enter just your name (if you don't have a website that you want to share you can leave the URL field empty). Click on "Post Comment" and your comment will appear immediately!

No moderation, no indecipherable words to type in, just pain-free commenting. I hope this encourages all of you to comment more frequently, blogs are best when they're two-way discussions.

Your loyal blogger,

P.S. Feel free to try out the new commenting function on this post; go ahead, write anything you'd like! Trust me, it's really easy!

Photo of the Day

River Seine from Pont L.S. Senghor

I'm going to do my best to post a photo every day. It will, most likely, not have been taken that day, rather it is simply something that I've seen that I'd like to share. Enjoy!

Makes Me Move

Gnarls Barkley - Going On


I told Esther yesterday about the Edward's affair and it's implications for his future political career (in short, there's not much left). I was met with a certain incomprehension on her part, aren't politicians supposed to have mistresses? Isn't it just part of the job?

Right, of course, things are different over here.

10 August 2008

From Whence My Confidence Cometh

Zac's comment to a previous post has prompted my to do what I've been meaning to do for a long time and lay out the reasons that I'm confident for an Obama win in November. Here's the relevant part of Zac's comment:

Obama's lead has apparently vanished as a result of these inane attacks. I think it could go either way at this point (including a massive landslide for McCain).
Zac sees the possibility for things going either way or even a McCain landslide, I see that as highly improbable. Here's why:

First, why does current polling show the race to be "so" close? According to our assumptions, any Democratic candidate should be clobbering any Republican candidate and, indeed, polls have shown a 10 to 15 point lead for "Generic Democrat" against "Generic Republican". This is normal; after all we're mired in an unpopular (but potentially improving) war, the Republican President is rocking a 30% approval rating and, if I can engage in a little understatement, the economy is not doing so hot these days. So why is Obama under-performing his store-brand party mate? I would say that the fact that he is a new-to-the-stage, 46 year-old black guy named Barack Hussein Obama is likely to have something to do with it. Compare that to his opponent, a familiar, moderate (maverick!) war-hero with what Unidentified Male in Copperhill, TN might call an "Anglo-Saxon sounding name." To hear a McCain pollster endorse this line of thinking, you can read this IHT article.

This, of course, doesn't guarantee that Obama will win in November. In fact, it simply says that the polling is accurate given the candidates and that Obama has a 3.5% lead. One point that should be made, with qualifications, is that a 3.5% popular vote (PV) lead is actually a very large electoral vote (EV) win. Historically, a 3.5% win in the PV correlates to a 100 vote (18.5%) win in the EV. Not a landslide, but certainly a comfortable margin. The obvious qualification is that we're still several months out from the election and that, historically, there is a lot of movement during this time, especially around the conventions and debates. Here is the current election compared to that of 2000 and 2004:
Political Arithmetik

To briefly recap, let's look at the argument up to this point:
  1. Polling shows Obama with a narrow lead.
  2. This is probably pretty accurate.
  3. This could easily change

  4. Therefore:
  5. Kurt is Confident that Obama will win
  6. QED QED w00t w00t QED!!!1
Now, you don't need to have read The Complete Works of Aristotle to see that that doesn't follow. The missing piece is what we can reasonably expect to happen between now and November and what that means for the election.

Barring major, unexpected events (terrorist attack, resurgent economy, etc...) the two main contributing factors to the November outcome are major public events (namely the conventions and the debates) followed by campaign organization and the "get out the vote" drives of the two campaigns. Both factors are largely in favor of Obama.

First, the conventions. What will be a better image; McCain playing the "cottage cheese in the lime jello" or the first black candidate giving his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Certainly, there is a very fine line to be walked when giving a speech so rich in historical allusion and pretext before 75,000 people but I think that Obama has proved himself quite capable in walking fine lines.

Second, the debates. Admittedly, Obama proved himself to be one of the weaker debaters among the other pretenders to the Democratic throne but, up against McCain, there will be a very strong advantage to Obama. To put it quite bluntly, McCain seems to have a very hard time recalling facts, getting his words out, and staying on message, all of which are vital in a debate format. Sure, Obama may be better with a teleprompter than he is off the cuff, but compared to McCain, there's no contest.

Third, and most importantly, organization and get out the vote. First, recall the correlation between popular vote and electoral votes and remember that a few percentage points in the PV makes for a much larger advantage in the EV. If you can get more people interested and involved in your campaign and then get them to the polls on Nov. 4, you can reap a considerable advantage. One way to get people motivated is to have a charismatic and popular candidate (do I need to specify that this is advantage Obama?). Another, often complimentary way, is to have people make phone calls and go door to door talking up your candidate. How do the campaigns match up. To quote Sean at fivethirtyeight.com, "One is an NFL team and the other is now a high school JV team." In terms of numbers, what does that mean? From the same post at fivethirtyeight.com:
Let’s do some quick math. Martin’s reporting suggests to us based on that ratio that nationwide, in one week, the McCain campaign talked to approximately 81,000 voters. The Obama campaign talked to about 27,000 in one state in one night. If we make a reasonable guess that Ohio has something like one-fifteenth of Obama organizers and volunteers, that’d be 405,000 voters contacted in one night nationwide. In 7 days, that’s 2,835,000 voters contacted, compared to the McCain 81,000, a thirty-five-fold edge.
That's a big advantage, if Obama can walk into election day knowing that he has a built in 1-3% advantage, that is quite literally game changing.

That's why I'm confident that Obama will win. How confident? As of today I would buy Obama contracts at Intrade up until 70 which means, I give him a 70% chance of winning if the election were today. Assuming things go as I expect them to over the next few months that will go up considerably.

That said, I'm not expecting an Obama landslide and I agree with Matt Yglesias in thinking that elections should tend to be close. An election is a market like any other and an efficient market will tend towards equilibrium. This is one of the few possible elections where a traditionally liberal black guy named Barack Hussein Obama could be a legitimate nominee. In that respect, the Democrats did well in nominating him as he represents the closest they could get to the "market clearing" nominee, that is, the most extreme nominee that can still win (just as the market clearing price is the highest price where you can sell all or enough of your merchandise). Similarly, the Republicans did well to nominate McCain, the moderate, trusted war hero. He is their best chance at victory. Close elections are a sign of a healthy democracy and, as such, are a good thing.

To close with a video, here's Nate from fivethirtyeight.com talking about their methods and his take on the election. It's a very solid method that they use in their predictions and has been a favorite source of information for me.

09 August 2008

Tour de France - Come and Gone

OK, it's been two weeks, would you believe me that it has taken this long to recover from the intense excitement? Well, you shouldn't I just haven't gotten around to processing the photos until now.

I feel that the Tour de France is the closest that this country gets to NASCAR, especially in la France profonde. There is intense excitement, press coverage, and pre-partying followed by a relatively boring passing of events. Keep in mind that in all of the stages except for the last few miles in Paris, you wait for several hours to witness the group pass your position one time. If it's a mountain stage it may last 20 minutes, but in a faster stage they will have come and gone in five minutes or less.

In Paris, where we were, of course, they pass eight times giving you three to four hours of waiting for about ten minutes of watching the riders spread over an hour. I have to admit that, for me, it has little more appeal than comes from the curiosity of watching a large, public spectacle. At the very least, it gave me the chance to test my new lens (NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED AF-S DX VR: OMG!!! Look at all those letters, it's so awesome!!!) under somewhat challenging conditions. It performed admirably.

We put ourselves at the corner of the Tuileries garden at the end of the Louvre and had a commanding view of the corner. Here's where we were standing:

View Larger Map

This level of cycling is similar to motorsports in another respect; the precision and speed of the "pit crew" which is, in this case, the chase Skoda. One of the teams suffered a rear wheel flat and swapped it out in a matter of seconds, it was over before I realized what was happening.

All in all it was a pleasant experience, it's always impressive to see athletes at the absolute top of their skill.

Full album:

Tour de France 2008

01 August 2008

A Libertarian on Veganism

Libertarian blogger of economics Megan McArdle explains her response to people who seemingly take offense when they learn that she is vegan. It pretty much sums up my view of the issue and thus gets a "Recommended Reading" star. A brief quote:

Is it possible to be a vegan without judging other people? It had better be, because I just don't have time to pass judgment on the overwhelming majority of people in the world who eat animal products. Obviously, having decided that it's morally wrong to eat animal products, I can't exactly say that I think it's perfectly okay for other people to do so. On the other hand, I recognize that the universe is a complicated place, and my moral judgements are imperfect.
Naturally, this idea that "I can believe something is wrong for me without judging those who disagree" raises complaints of moral relativism from the commenters, but I feel that commenter Jay gets it right, saying:
Come on, people. You can have your own sense of right without feeling compelled to impose that sense on everyone around you. That isn't moral relativism and it doesn't just reduce it to a preference, let's instead call it living in a pluralistic society. The notion that in order to hold a moral judgment you must therefore attempt to impose that judgement on all others is vaguely totalitarian.
It's interesting to see the quantity of craziness that many of the other commenters produce which, in turn, serves as a clear reflection of exactly the kind of reaction that McArdle is talking about in the first place.

Obama: The Anti-Fun Candidate?

From his remarks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa today,

But the time for game-playing is over. That's why I'm running for President.
Hmmn... Not sure how that's going to play in Marvin Gardens, to say nothing of St. James Place.

I must admit that I derive a certain pleasure from watching the McCain camp continue to spin in circles, throwing incoherent, inconsistent, and frequently dishonest messages into the media "chatter" in the hopes that some of it sticks. Since the beginning of my political consciousness (ca. 2000) it is a practice that I had assumed belonged in its entirety to Democrats.

I think that Obama's full response, from which I extracted the quote above, is a solid response to it all. (Via Marc Ambinder.)
We want to have a serious debate. But so far, we've been hearing about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I do have to ask my opponent: is that the best you can come up with? Is that really what the election is about? Is that worthy of the American people? Even the media has pointed out...that McCain has fallen back into ... predictable political attacks and demonstratively false statements... Spending all this time talking about me instead of talking about what he's going to do. That's not going to lower your gas prices. That's's not going...to help you find a job if it's been shipped overseas. It doesn't do a single thing to help the American people. It's the politics of the game. But the time for game-playing is over. That's why I'm running for President.....
Given the media response that I've seen in reaction to McCain's lowbrow antics, I think that the message will get through.