As You Were

Devin Coughlin's blog.
Styles: Serious Spare

March 18, 2005

Breaking News: Congress Compels Brain-Dead Woman to Testify

No, it's not from The Onion.

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Lucky Squirrel

Today I saw a squirrel eating a Cheeto oustide the Math department.
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March 16, 2005

Tastes like . . .

Mix equal parts orange juice and Silk. It sounds awful, but it's great. Tastes almost like an orange julius. They give this to the kids at the preschool where Jonah works.

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March 10, 2005

Scott's Blog

Scott has started a blog. Its location is, perhaps, temporary, but you should check it out.

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Terrorism, Safety, and the Transfer of Risk

It has become an increasingly common practice in the post-9/11 world for public officials to promulgate seemingly absurd new rules, ostensibly to protect the public from the threat of a terror attack. In reality, though, these aren't intended to make us more safe — instead, public officials, worried that they'll be fingered as scapegoats, enact these "reforms" in order to cover their own asses in the event of a terror attack.

The calculus is not "do the benefits of this security precaution outweigh the costs" nor even the overly simplistic "will this security precaution save lives" but "how will it look if there is an attack and we haven't implemented this security precaution."

In most cases, the results of this type of institutional stupidity are mild: banning photos on NYC subways was a stupid idea, one that unnecessarily infringed on the rights of citizens, but all things considered it is not something to get too worked up over.

But this New York Times article, "Efforts to Hide Sensitive Data Pit 9/11 Concerns Against Safety", shows that there are real dangers in this kind of thinking. Government officials have already restricted access to data about flood plains, fallout danger from nuclear and chemical plants, and GIS data of all stripes and colors. Now they want to remove warning labels from train cars carrying dangerous chemicals. The thinking, they say, is that labeling dangerous cars will make it easier for terrorists to find them.

This is true of course, but just because something makes the lives of terrorists easier doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad thing (after all, one way to prevent terrorism would be to kill everyone on the planet). Clearly, there has to be a cost benefit analysis here. But the question is: costs to whom and benefits to whom?

Dangerous chemicals are labeled precisely because they are dangerous. First responders (firemen, police officers, EMTs) need to know what that smelly substance leaking from crashed car is. They need to know whether spraying water on the fire will put it out or only make it worse. They need to know whether to evacuate the area or notify people down stream. In an ideal world, we would weigh the risk of giving terrorists easier access to dangerous materials against the risk from having uninformed first responders. Quite a few of the NTSB's studied railroad accidents have involved hazardous materials. There would have to be a pretty big decrease in terrorist attacks using hazardous materials from rail cars to justify the costs to the public resulting from first responders being unable to identify the chemicals involved in accidents immediately.

It seems exceeding unlikely that this is a net win for public safety.

In order to secure their careers, government officials are transferring risk from themselves to the very people they are supposed to protect. This is not just a question of stupid rules, of a disproportionate response: it's criminal. It is ironic (in the Alanis Morissette sense) that the bureaucrats' attempt to insulate themselves from the potential political fallout of an attack increases the risk to the rest of us from actual chemical fallout.

We live in an era when CYA is the name of the game and where we reward politicians who provide a sense of security rather than the real thing — still, this goes beyond the pale.

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March 1, 2005

Things to Do in Denver

On Sunday, Jonah and I made a pilgrimage to Denver to go to the Tattered Cover Bookstore.

First, though, we stopped by my Mom's house and surveyed the damage across the street. Some kids drove a car full-speed through the neighbor's fence and into the porch. I was actually surprised at how little damage there was. A car slamming full-speed can wreak a lot of havoc, if properly targeted (believe me, I should know).

The Tattered Cover is one of the most famous independent bookstores in the United States. I remember being regaled with tales of its four-story indie bookseller goodness. It successfully argued before the Colorado Supreme Court that law enforcement can't force booksellers to hand over their records without first considering the harm this would do to society. Jonah said we'd been there once in elementary school to give a poetry reading, but I had no recollection of that. But when I walked through the children's section, I suddenly remembered being there. The twisting maze of wooden shelves, the nauseating green decor, the worn carpet — at once it all seemed familiar.

Unfortunately, the Tattered Cover isn't the bookstore mecca I had imagined. It's certainly the biggest independent bookstore I've ever been in — but I was disappointed. It has a pretty big selection, but it was so sparsely spread out that I couldn't gauge how big it really was. Barnes and Noble, for example, is always packed to the gills with books, but the Tattered Cover had so many holes in its shelves it seemed a little pathetic. They have a really big cooking section, though.

Frankly, it seemed like a metaphor for the state of independent bookstores in general. The bathrooms were a mess, the selection was spotty, there was a display of about 300 copies of Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo. Most of the nonfiction was shelved by title rather than by author. This really sucks for trying to find a book with a title like The Sallow Clouds of Yesterday: One Man's Fateful Journey Through Pre-Industrial China. Or, in my case, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. I memorized the author, instead of the title, and never managed to find the goddamn book.

Then we went to the Apple Store, which is always fun, but it was a bit of a disappointment, too. Jonah asked a salesperson whether he could get an Aiport Extreme Card for his laptop and the guy said maybe, they don't work with all laptops. He didn't ask what kind of laptop he had, how big the screen was, how fast the computer was. He just said: "Make sure it works with your computer." Oops. Then a saleswoman started to give a presentation about GarageBand in the little movie theater. Only no one was sitting down, or even listening. She demoed the program for fifteen minutes, at least, over the PA and no one paid her any attention. When she got to a spot where she needed audience participation, she asked another employee to play the part. Oops. Then Jonah asked what he could do on one of the demo units to see how much faster it was than his laptop. The salesperson suggested opening all the programs in the Applications folder to see how fast it was. We did this on one of the dual 2.5GHz G5s. We watched as a bunch of Apps started opening: various helper apps, Final Cut Pro, Motion, etc. Of course the damn thing started to thrash almost immediately. The dock icons froze mid-bounce. After a while (five minutes or so) it started to calm down. Not the best performance demo. Oops.

Then we went to have dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant Jonah had seen out by DU. It turns out, it was Jerusalem — a restaurant I'd been to with Seth and his family. I had Sheesh Kifta (not so good — I don't really like mediterranean-style meat, anyway) and stuffed grape leaves (always very good).

And then it was back to Boulder.

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Well, it's About Time!

I mean, for fuck's sake. So much for solidarity with our co-executionists Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, and Yemen.

One thing I don't understand: we've signed and ratified several treaties which ban juvenile execution — these treaties carry the same weight as federal law. Why, then, did we have to wait for a cruel and unusual punishment argument before the Supreme Court to outlaw execution for crimes committed by a juvenile? It seems like the federal courts could have taken care of this years ago.

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