Friday, February 29, 2008

Thinking about silence

Weekday had an interesting program yesterday about silence. There were a lot of interesting parts, especially around how true silence is so hard to find, how people measure really quiet noises etc, but I was most interested by a story told by Stephen Orfield, who founded a lab that measures noises and is apparently listed as the quietest place on earth in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Mr. Orfield’s lab was hired by Harley to help them figure out how they could lower the amount of noise made by their motorcycles to meet European standards without losing market share, which their focus groups had shown would happen if their bikes were less loud. Mr. Orfield managed to record all the different bits of the current Harley noise and played these sounds for people to ask whether they saw them as powerful, weak, fun, lame, etc. He said that although when people came in they said they loved the whole Harley noise and when they left they said the same, the actual data showed that there were lots of individual parts of the noises that customers found unpleasant. By removing just those but maintaining the parts that people really associated with Harley’s image, they were able to lower their overall noise but keep people happy. I thought this was really fascinating because it just goes to show that we don’t know what happens in our own heads. Just like in so many other areas, when it comes to sound, we have opinions that aren’t based on what we think.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I always thought that there was nothing more despicable than someone who convinces someone else to become a terrorist. Now I've been proven wrong - Peter Kenyon last night reported on All Things Considered how there's suspicion that the head of a psychiatric hospital conspired to hook up unstable women with terrorist recruiters, culminating in a suicide bomber attack earlier this month which killed almost 100 people.

Brainwashing young people and convincing them that their lives will hold more value, not if they go to school and find a cure for cancer, but if they blow up as many innocent people as possible, and then paying them off so they know for certain that their families would be better off with them blown up than alive, is horrific, much more horrific than the poor brainwashed young men and women themselves. But preying on people who are mentally ill and convincing them to do the same takes appalling to the next level.

I really do try to get into the heads of people who disagree with me - I get that people who consider abortion murder want to prevent other people from having them, even if I disagree. Same for embryonic stem cells. But I just can't wrap my head around the motivation of these terrorist recruiters and the people who help them. I think what mystifies me the most is that these people are rational enough not to go blow themselves up, but then logic fails me when I try to understand what cause can possibly be important enough to make it worth convincing people to kill themselves and hordes of others. Any suggestions to help me comprehend would be welcome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Faux Russian Candidate

Yesterday on Morning Edition Gregory Feifer reported on what I think is a brilliant and scary plot by Putin to create a fake opposition candidate. All the candidates that have any chance of getting significant backing or media (like Garry Kasparov) have been blocked at every turn with claims that the signatures they needed to make it on the ballot were forged. However, now there's a new candidate, Andrei Bogdanov, whom no one has ever heard of but who had no problem getting his candidacy approved. Mr. Feifer interviewed plenty of Russians who had no idea who this guy was either, and his interviews with the candidate made him sound like an absolute novice who was really excited because, although no one showed up to see him on his campaign stop, a few people in the street recognized him.

Personally, I think this sounds like it's right out of a novel. Not only does Putin have pretty much absolute power to go with his popular support, but he's not content with that and needs to exert complete control by actually creating a fake candidate to consolidate the opposition on someone harmless. How much do you want to bet that right before the election Mr. Bogdanov comes out and says that he supports Putin after all?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Firming up my status as a wannabe Canadian

It's not NPR, but after spending the weekend in Montreal with C and her sister J, I now have a favorite CBC radio catchphrase, "this show will be on at 8pm, or 8:30 Newfoundland". Apparently everything in Newfoundland happens a half hour later.

Also, in Canadian-wannabe-ness news, I went to the primaries today to vote in our election that doesn't count. I had to declare a party when I signed in, but then received a ballot that, though it had both party options on it, was as close to Canadian in simplicity as any I have seen. I think even C would have been happy to vote on this one!(Sorry for the fuzziness and strange yellow lines; I only had my cell phone camera with me.)

Publisher's Point of View

Earlier this month I heard Lynn Neary on All Things Considered talking about a publishing house called Publishers 12. Their gimmick is that instead of publishing loads of books, they just pick one per month and focus all their attention on it. It was an interesting take on the publishing industry as a whole; one of the people interviewed for the story called book publishing "legalized gambling" and I can see why - for a new author, it's impossible to predict what books will be successful. (I was going to say, "or which ones will fail" there, but actually I think you can be pretty sure that a coffee table book on broomsticks, even though it might interest a strange few, will soon be found in the bargain bin of your local Barnes and Noble.)

Anyway, it seems like a reasonable idea to pick just a few really good books - this is great for the environment because it doesn't waste paper on crappy books that no one will buy (and will end up with their cover ripped off, sent back to the publisher), and it allows the publisher to give a lot of personal attention to the marketing and editing of each book. However, the idea is also worrisome because I certainly don't want some person I don't even know to make the call on what book is worth reading. I especially don't want one who, like the owner of Publishers 12, judges their success by saying that several of their books are on the NYTimes bestseller list, since that seems to me to be entirely about advertising rather than book quality.

But most of all during this All Things Considered piece, I wondered how on earth Publishers 12 makes enough money off its one publication a month to justify all the attention placed on each book. I just hope Marketplace picks this up someday and fills me in.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In which the Democrats teach us to do math

So the caucus was pretty interesting – although in our precinct the votes went 1 for Clinton and 4 for Obama, I was glad I was there and it was great to see so many people there all excited about electing a Democrat to the White House!

I got there an hour and a half beforehand to help set up. In our Legislative District, six precincts met in one big auditorium and had what they call an “area caucus” where the Area Captain (AC) read the rules for everyone before we were going to discuss and vote as individual precincts. To make it more obvious where to go, we set up colored balloons for each area and then I stood outside with a map helping people figure out which color they needed to go to. I also put up a bunch of Hillary signs – it was frustrating because I was the only one of the early volunteers who was a Hillary supporter, and when I asked the AC to make sure it was okay to put up signs in the auditorium she said, “as long as there’s an Obama sign there too” and was mildly rude to me all day. But eventually J showed up with our official “International Observers” C and E (I’d given the AC a heads up that they were coming and she actually called them out as “our Canadian friends who wanted to see how their wacky friends down south do politics” – it was pretty funny) and we got started.

At that point the AC let one speaker for each candidate give a two-minute speech. I’d spoken with another woman supporting Hillary and agreed that she should give that speech because she had a background in marketing and really wanted to do it, but unfortunately she wasn’t super-eloquent. The Obama speaker talked about how he’s so much more electable amongst swing voters and how he was inspirational. (We heard that a lot, and as E said, “what’s wrong with these people’s lives that they need to be inspired by a candidate? Can’t they find inspiration themselves and look for someone who can actually get the job done??”) We then broke up into our precincts to write down our names and initial votes, and I ended up giving my one-minute speech for Hillary at this level. They’d asked us to focus on one issue that was especially important to us, so for those who are curious, this is more or less what I said:

I work at Microsoft, so I see every day how hard it is for us to find and hire college students with a strong foundation in science. And that’s a problem, because maintaining our leadership in science and technology is what’s going to keep America strong and thriving, grow our economy, and help us start making a dent in fixing our environment.
So when I read Science magazine’s rave reviews of Senator Clinton’s science platform, I knew I had to support her. She’ll raise funding for the NSF and NIH, she’s got a bunch of creative ways to motivate more research in the right areas, and most importantly to me, she’s made a 100% commitment to take politics out of science.
I’m supporting Hillary because she’s smart, she can hit the ground running, she’s wildly competent, and she can win in November. Please come join me!

I got a lot of applause, but no one changed their vote because of my speech or any other discussions. It was interesting to see how different the various precincts were – some of them had long, long discussions and arguments back and forth; ours just had my speech and a response speech for Obama, something along the lines of, “I’m not just supporting Obama because I’m black; I’m supporting him because I have a friend who knows him and says he’s really nice.” I'm not sure about you, but I wasn’t super impressed. Then one woman got up and said she was voting for Hillary because we’ve been dealing with the politics of fear for so long, and people need to stop fearing that Hillary can’t win in November and should vote for her because she will make a better president. Finally someone else got up and gave another “Obama didn’t vote for the Iraq war” speech. That speech seemed to be very popular in the other precincts too, which just goes to show that math is not people's strong suit since Obama was not actually a Senator during the vote and wouldn't have been able to vote either way. C says she supports Hillary because she didn't vote for the war in Vietnam.

Anyway, next they tallied the votes (this was done by all the precincts at once with instructions from the AC – “copy column A to column C. Now multiply column C by column B. Now…”. It felt like a huge elementary-school group math lesson) and asked if anyone wanted to change their votes given the speeches (no one did) and then we chose delegates. I would have run as the one Clinton delegate or alternate, but there was a woman who really, really wanted to be a delegate and someone else who wanted to quite a lot, and I didn’t want to get in the way of energized people getting involved.

Overall, I’m happy I was there. J's been griping about the whole primary system because Florida and Michigan got disenfranchised (he has a good point; I think that’s appalling) but he seemed to have a fun time hanging out with a couple of our neighbors and cracking jokes with E and C about how the Democrats were teaching us to do math.

However, I’m also glad it’s over – I went a little overboard in my time and mental energy investment. I’m bummed about Obama’s win, but Clinton’s still got a chance overall and really the most important thing is that one of them winds up in the White House. And on that front, after all my phone calls trying to get some people to speak for Clinton at the caucus (that was horrible – I will never again agree to do cold calls) I saw a couple of people I’d talked to who were at the caucus because of my call, and interested in participating more between now and November, and my friend A ended up running her precinct’s caucus and getting elected to be a Clinton delegate after the training she attended with me a few weeks ago, so I guess I’m helping that goal at least.

With my caucus report complete, I'm going to do my best to stop writing about politics for a bit. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Numbers I Can Work With

Today on Weekday Steve Scher interviewed several people about campaigns and politics, including Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics. She shared information on individual donations by people in Washington, grouped by the company where they work. Microsoft employees donated the most in the state, and specifically the top donation-getter was Senator Clinton (by quite a bit, actually - something like $130,000 to $80,000) while the top Republican was - are you ready - Ron Paul! That must explain all the Ron Paul signs I've seen around campus. Romney was next in line for Republican donations, but the best news was that Microsoft employees were the top donators to every Republican except Huckabee.

It makes me feel pretty good to know that the majority of employees here are not falling for the articulate but content-lacking hype which is Senator Obama. I'll get behind him if he's the eventual nominee, but if I have the choice give me someone who can hit the ground running, who is intelligent and thoughtful, who is practical and will get stuff done - I'll take Hillary Clinton any day.

And while you're at it, read this for an awesome articulation of what I've been thinking when I hear all the arguments and media coverage against her (thanks S for the link!).