2012 - %3, January

Me and my iPad

| Sat Mar. 31, 2012 5:54 PM EDT

You've probably all been wondering about me and my new toy. "I wonder how Kevin likes reading on an iPad?" you've been asking yourself. "I sure wish he'd write a blog post telling us."

OK, fine. I will. I'm not sure if I'm surprised by this or not, but I like it a lot. I bought a Kindle a few years ago and used it for several months, and while I didn't hate it, I never really warmed to it either. But the iPad feels entirely different. Partly it's the larger screen. Partly it's the faster page turning. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's just enough to make it feel a lot more comfortable than the Kindle. Having readable graphics in nonfiction is a huge plus too. (Though I wish Amazon would make their inline graphics a little higher resolution. I know that would make file sizes bigger, but it would be worth it.)

But what about eyestrain? One of the reasons I waited so long to try a tablet was because I was afraid that long reading stints on a low-res display would make my eyes ache. I don't know if that would have been a problem since I never tried it, but the retina display on the iPad is as good as advertised, and so far hasn't caused any eye fatigue at all.

I'm also pleased with Readability, an Instapaper-like app that allows you to easily save long magazine articles and then read them later on the iPad. Everybody told me I'd love this, and everybody was right. I'm way more likely to read long-form stuff if I can do it in my easy chair instead of sitting in front of my desktop display. (I'm using Readability because for some reason Instapaper wouldn't work properly for me. But it works great and the app is free, so I guess this was a blessing in disguise.)

I ended up buying a leather cover for the iPad, and although that probably marks me as terminally unhip, it's been great. For me, reading is partially a tactile experience, and I don't like to read on a device that's cool and slick to the touch. The leather cover gives the iPad a warmer, friendlier quality that just feels more like a book. Besides, the leather cover also has a flip stand thingie that props up the iPad when I'm reading at a table, and that's something I like a lot too.

It's still possible that I'll get bored with the iPad at some point and drift back to dead-tree books. But so far I'm a convert.

POSTSCRIPT: Is there anything I don't like about the iPad? Well, it takes a helluva long time to charge, but that's not too big a deal. And it's all but impossible to move files on and off the iPad unless you have a handy copy of iTunes running on a desktop machine. That's a pain in the ass, and especially annoying because it's a deliberate design decision, not a sad but necessary compromise. Still, I don't have a big need to do this, so I can live with it.

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Facebook and the Creep Factor

| Sat Mar. 31, 2012 2:17 PM EDT

A few days ago I finished reading Rule 34, which reminded me once again that I should probably read Charlie Stross's blog more regularly. But of course, I did nothing about this because I'm a lazy sod and I had other things on my mind. Now Brad DeLong reminds me again, by linking to Stross, who in turn links to John Brownlee, who is obsessed these days with an iPhone app called Girls Around Me. Why? Because it demonstrates just how much privacy we've given up, either voluntarily or accidentally, in the era of Facebook and social networking:

“Okay, so here’s the way the app works,” I explained to my friends.

Girls Around Me is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity: whether it be parties, clubs, deals, or what have you. When you load it up, the first thing Girls Around Me does is figure out where you are and load up a Google Map centered around your location....It’s when you push the radar button that Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin. I pressed the button for my friends. Immediately, Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area.

....“How does it know where these girls are? Do you know all these girls? Is it plucking data from your address book or something?” another friend asked.

“Not at all. These are all girls with publicly visible Facebook profiles who have checked into these locations recently using Foursquare....The pictures you are seeing are their social network profile pictures.”

“Okay, so they know that their data can be used like this for anyone to see? They’re okay with it? ”

“Probably not, actually. The settings determining how visible your Facebook and Foursquare data is are complicated, and tend to be meaningless to people who don’t really understand issues about privacy,” I explained. “Most privacy settings on social networks default to share everything with everyone, and since most people never change those... well, they end up getting sucked up into apps like this.”

....One of my less computer-affable friends actually went pale, and kept on shooting her boyfriend looks for assurance. A Linux aficionado who was the only person in our group without a Facebook account (and one of the few people I’d ever met who actually endorsed Diaspora), the look he returned was one of comical smugness.

“But wait! It gets worse!” I said, ramping things up.

Click the link to see how it gets worse. And then click on Charlie's blog post to find out what it all means. Then, when you're done, for God's sake, take some time to go into your Facebook profile and make sure you're not sharing anything more than you really want to. It's not as easy to do this as it should be, but the good news is that it's at least a little easier than it used to be. So go do it.

UPDATE: ProPublica reporter Jake Bernstein tweets that this app no longer works. Good news! But there will be many, many more just like it, so go update your Facebook profile anyway.

New Map Helps Women Track Down Rapists in Syria

| Sat Mar. 31, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Women protest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Earlier this week, the US advocacy group Women Under Siege launched an open-source crowdmapping site that tracks incidents of sexual violence in the ongoing conflict. Since the anti-regime uprising began a year ago, rape has been a common tactic used by Syrian forces against the opposition. But sexual violence in Syria largely remains an underreported topic, and the project—funded by the New York-based Women's Media Center—hopes to change that.

The site's map enables users to record locations where they or someone they know was raped—becoming a real-time sexual crime tracker. The platform is notable since it gives victims and witnesses a means to anonymously report assaults with a simple tweet (#RapeInSyria), text, email, or comment on the site. Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, hopes the map will point her team to the areas where survivor services are needed most. And once the security situation on the ground becomes more stable, she says, the group will work with researchers to verify the reports and build a database of evidence to hopefully pursue war crimes charges.

Women Under Siege

Women Under Siege

Still, there are kinks to be worked out. "The difficulty rests in people coming forward in the first place," says Wolfe. "There are so many reasons for them not to say anything." Her team is still building up multiple layers of precautions, like constructing a secure server and SMS number, so women don't have to fear shame or retribution. 

Maybe We Really Do Have the Government We Deserve

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 8:49 PM EDT

I just turned on the TV for a few minutes and switched to MSNBC. Where I found Rachel Maddow going on and on about the fact that Mitt Romney once called the residents of Afghanistan "Afghanis" instead of Afghans. That got tedious after the fifth or sixth bit of snark, so I switched over to Fox. Where Sean Hannity and a pair of guests were guffawing over the fact that Barack Obama once referred to the "Austrian" language and mispronounced "corpsman." Yuck yuck.

This is why I hate politics sometimes. And it's why I hate TV almost all the time.

Milwaukee Mayor Jumps Into Wisconsin Recall Rumble

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 5:40 PM EDT
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Scott Walker in Wisconsin's 2010 gubernatorial race by 125,000 votes, wants another shot at governor.

On Friday afternoon, Barrett announced he would seek the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin's recall race. Barrett faces former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a union favorite; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout; and Secretary of State Doug LaFollette. Barrett said in a statement that Gov. Walker has "divided our state like never before and presided over a Wisconsin economy that last year lost more jobs than any state in the country."

He continued: "He 'dropped the bomb,' as he said, and ended 50 years of labor peace and worker protections—something he never said he'd do during the 2010 campaign. I know, because I was there. As governor, I will fight to restore collective bargaining rights, because it's the right thing to do, and it's necessary to heal Wisconsin."

Recent polls show Barrett heading to victory in a hypothetical Democratic primary. A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed Barrett with 36 percent of support, Falk with 29 percent, Vinehout and LaFollette with 8 percent each. A late February survey by Public Policy Polling showed Barrett beating Falk 45 percent to 18 percent. (That was an improvement for Barrett: a January PPP survey put him ahead of Falk 46-27.) In that same February PPP survey, Barrett led Walker by three percentage points in a hypothetical general election, 49-46. A Marquette University Law School poll published last week showed Barrett trailing Walker 49-47.

Barrett's entry sets up a bruising fight for the Democratic nomination in the Walker recall rumble. There is no love lost between Barrett and Wisconsin's labor unions, a bastion of Democratic support, and in recent weeks, union officials have quietly sought to undermine Barrett's standing in Wisconsin and work against a possible recall candidacy. In an interview with Mother Jones, Falk questioned the wisdom of a late entry by Barrett into the recall fray. She said she hoped Barrett would support her recall candidacy just as she supported his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. "I think it's his turn to support me and I hope he does," Falk said.

While Falk boasts of her many union endorsements, Barrett is a fixture in Milwaukee and Wisconsin politics, and already counts former Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wisc.) as a high-profile supporter in the race. Barrett's candidacy will make it harder for Falk to win widespread support in Milwaukee, a Democratic hotbed, says Charles Franklin, a visiting political scientist at Marquette University. Yet Barrett, Franklin adds, bears the burden of having already lost a governor's race to Walker in 2010. (Barrett also lost in the 2002 gubernatorial primary.)

In a statement, Falk responded to Barrett's announcement by saying, "I welcome Tom to this important race."

This story has been updated.

How Mitt Romney Funded an Effort to Divide Blacks and Gays

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 2:39 PM EDT
Mitt Romney gave $10,000 to the National Organization for Marriage in 2008.

We've known that Mitt Romney helped bankroll California's anti-gay-marriage campaign in 2008. But on Friday, Huffington Post's Sam Stein presented new details—specifically that Romney's $10,000 donation (did he lose a bet?) to National Organization for Marriage, the nation's leading stop-gay-marriage outfit, came via his network of state PACs that we reported on last July:

Records filed by Romney's Free and Strong America PAC with the Federal Election Commission did not include details of that $10,000 donation. Nor did NOM's public 990 form. In fact, record of the payment was only uncovered Friday when the pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign was sent a private IRS filing from NOM via a whistleblower. The Human Rights Campaign shared the filing with The Huffington Post.

Asked for comment, an aide to Romney said that the donation was made through the Alabama chapter of the Free and Strong America PAC. State records confirm this. However, the 990 NOM filed lists the donation as having come from PO Box 79226 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Belmont, of course, is where Romney maintains his nominal address, in the basement of his son's house.

The NOM donation is particularly dicey given another recent development. On Tuesday, Buzzfeed reported on an internal NOM document detailing the group's aim to "drive a wedge between gays and blacks" in order to knock down gay marriage efforts. Those documents date back to 2008. Put another way, Romney donated $10,000 to an effort geared at "fanning the hostility" between gays and black voters.

Here's the full document, via HRC: 

NOMSched2008PDF

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WATCH: What Trayvon's Shooter Says v. the Evidence

Fri Mar. 30, 2012 2:15 PM EDT

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll appeared on Current TV's Countdown to discuss the latest developments in the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman claims that Martin attacked him, punched him in the face, and "repeatedly slammed his head into the sidewalk" before Zimmerman shot him. But police surveillance video of Zimmerman recorded the night of the shooting shows Zimmerman without any visible blood or wounds. Andy Kroll analyzes what this new evidence could mean for the outcome of the investigation.

 

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 March 2012

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 1:58 PM EDT

On the left we have a cat and her shadow. On the right, we have a shadowy cat. Or, more accurately, a snoozing cat who wants to know when I'm going to put my stupid human toy away and let him get back to his nap.

Need more cats? Coming right up. Here's the story of Vincent, a homeless stray who made it big in New York and is now trying for the big time in Hollywood. And here's a cat playing with dolphins. It oozes so much cuteness you might need an insulin shot after you watch it.

Why Are American Conservatives More Anti-Science Than European Conservatives?

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 1:11 PM EDT

Chris Mooney has a new book out, The Republican Brain, which I haven't read yet. But he has a long piece over on the right which says, basically, that conservatives are wrong about a lot of stuff, and they're wrong because their brains are wired differently than liberal brains:

As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence—from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics—that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Broadly speaking, I don't really have any issue with this. I've long been sold on the idea that liberalism and conservatism are at least partly temperaments, and it's those temperaments that lead us to different political conclusions rather than any kind of rational thinking process.

But the problem I have with Chris's piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it's Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don't. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don't generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.

I'm going to keep this post short because, as I said, I haven't read the book. Maybe Chris addresses this at greater length there. But in the MoJo piece, at least, he doesn't really address the question of why differences in brain wiring have produced such extreme anti-science views in American conservatives but not in European conservatives. So consider this an invitation, Chris. Is your contention that American conservatives are unique in some way? Or that American brains are wired differently? Or am I wrong about European conservatives? One way or another, though, it strikes me that international comparisons are critical here. If we're talking about brains, we're talking about the human race, not just our little chunk of North America.

"Game of Thrones": Come At the Hand of the King, You Best Not Miss

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 12:00 PM EDT
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones.

This review contains major spoilers for the first season of Game of Thrones and minor spoilers for the second season.

When the second season of Game of Thrones, the fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin's bestselling books, premieres this Sunday on HBO, it will do so without first-season protagonist Ned Stark. That's because (spoiler alert) Stark was publicly beheaded at the whim of tween megalomaniac King Joffrey Lannister at the end of last season. 

Shortly after being appointed to replace Stark as Hand of the King, sort of a prime minister with dictatorial powers, Tyrion Lannister, played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage, explains to Varys, the kingdom of Westeros' spymaster, why he won't also lose his head.

"I'm not Ned Stark. I understand how this game is played," Tyrion says.

"Ned Stark is a man of honor," Varys replies with feigned shock.

"And I am not, threaten me again and I'll have you thrown into the sea."

The second season of Game of Thrones is an ensemble show, but it does not, strictly speaking, lack a protagonist. Although technically based on A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R.R. Martin's fantasy series, through which the absence of Ned Stark loomed like a shadow over the entire narrative, the second season has embraced Tyrion as its main character, and all the better for it. We see Tyrion succeed everywhere Stark failed, carefully identifying and uprooting spies for his sister, the devious Queen Cersei, manipulating his rivals on Westeros' governing body, the small council, and trying desperately to mitigate the consequences of his nephew King Joffrey's sociopathic tendencies. 

That we have shifted from identifying with the patriarch of the Stark family to the black sheep of their sworn enemies, the Lannisters, is more than in keeping with Martin's themes of moral ambiguity and conflicting motivations. It's one of several areas in the series where the shift from the written word to the small screen actually improves on the original story. It helps that Tyrion is no less devoted to his family than Stark—it simply happens that his family is full of moral monsters. Sean Bean's Ned Stark was the archetypical fantasy protagonist: Strong, loyal to a fault, capable in combat. Tyrion, a dwarf, requires the constant protection of his sarcastic and capable sellsword Bronn and has only a utilitarian commitment to social mores. Yet it becomes immediately apparent that he is more suited to running a kingdom than Ned Stark could ever have hoped to be.