Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Objects in Space

Further to my series on Extinction Level Events—specifically, Comets & The Oort Cloud—I found this amazing video today:

If you want to get the full effect, go here and click on "Watch in HD" in the lower right side beneath the video.

Frankly, I can think of nothing more terrifying than knowing about, and living through, something of this magnitude.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

iPhones storm the market

When the first iPhones were released in July 2007, I was not a fan. However, I've had a change of heart since then because I see the iPhone in a different light now.

As a mere cell phone, an iPhone is extremely expensive, but if you see the iPhone for what it really is—a telecommunications mini-computer seamlessly synchronized with your desktop/laptop—then the iPhone is just about the best thing ever invented. Planning your trip? Get directions and check out traffic on the fly. Buying a book or DVD? Check out reviews online—or even buy it online—while you're still in the store. Listen to podcasts or music while you workout. Play a game while you're waiting in the dentist's office. Read the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence. Tune your guitar. Take photos. Read wikis. Keep your grocery list. Check news from AP. Read email. Text. Oh, and it also works as a telephone.

Since the iPhone was introduced in July 2007, it's rocketed from 4% market share to 23% market share. Most of that seems to be from dissatisfied Palm users, which feels accurate: I used to own a Palm, but I've since moved all my address management to my iPhone. Although Blackberry's market share is pretty much holding steady, iPhones are slowly chipping that lead as well. Link.

My prediction: in 6 months, iPhones will overtake the Blackberry'market share and in a year, Blackberry's market share will dip below 30%.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Now the AG says it's Unconstitutional

California's Attorney General Jerry Brown once said he would defend Prop 8 against those who support gay marriage... but now he's changed his mind, saying it's unconstitutional. Whoa, really? Why?

"[U]pon further reflection and a deeper probing into all the aspects of our Constitution," Brown said during an interview, "[i]t became evident that the Article 1 provision guaranteeing basic liberty, which includes the right to marry, took precedence over the initiative.... Based on my duty to defend the law and the entire Constitution, I concluded the court should protect the right to marry even in the face of the 52 percent vote."

A popular vote is not the best way to guarantee equal rights because the majority is always going to win a popular vote. Had a popular vote been taken in the 1950s, racial segregation would probably have passed. Had a popular vote been taken about woman's suffrage, it also would have passed... because women couldn't even vote. Laws are created to protect minority groups—by "minority", I mean any group not in the popular majority, not necessarily racial minorities—and if 52% of voters think gays don't have an equal right to marry doesn't mean that isn't also unconstitutional.

I'm relieved a prominent lawyer has finally come forward to say something which I feel is so glaringly obvious. What's more is that he personally voted for Prop 8 and has since said he would defend Prop 8 in his role as Attorney General. Whenever a person absorbs new information, applies thoughtful reasoning and arrives at a conclusion contradicting their previous beliefs, changing one's mind isn't "wishy-washy" or being a "flip-flop"—it's called being enlightened. I admire those with the courage to stand by their convictions, especially when their reasoning is insightful and argued well, but I abhor those who remain opinionated in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary.

You've got to hand it to Jerry Brown. Not only did he arrive at a different conclusion, but a conclusion which completely contradicted his personal beliefs. Not only should this lend further credence to Brown legal argument, but it speaks to his integrity as a public servant. Brown might personally still object to gay marriage but, as a lawyer, he can't deny that it's unfair discrimination violating equal rights guaranteed in the constitution.

Full article below:
Jerry Brown urges court to void Prop. 8
Associated Press Writer
Published: Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- California Attorney General Jerry Brown changed course on the state's new same-sex marriage ban Friday and urged the state Supreme Court to void Proposition 8.

In a dramatic reversal, Brown filed a legal brief saying the measure that amended the California Constitution to limit marriage to a man and a woman is itself unconstitutional because it deprives a minority group of a fundamental right. Earlier, Brown had said he would defend the ballot measure against legal challenges from gay marriage supporters.

But Brown said he reached a different conclusion "upon further reflection and a deeper probing into all the aspects of our Constitution."

"It became evident that the Article 1 provision guaranteeing basic liberty, which includes the right to marry, took precedence over the initiative," he said in an interview Friday night. "Based on my duty to defend the law and the entire Constitution, I concluded the court should protect the right to marry even in the face of the 52 percent vote."

Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, is considering seeking the office again in 2010. After California voters passed Proposition 8 on Nov. 4, Brown said he personally voted against it but would fight to uphold it as the state's top lawyer.

The litigation over Proposition 8 is shaping up, Brown said, as a high-stakes conflict between the electorate's right to direct democracy and rights of minorities to equal treatment.

Brown submitted his brief in one of the three legal challenges to Proposition 8 brought by same-sex marriage supporters. The measure, a constitutional amendment that passed with 52 percent of the vote, overruled the Supreme Court decision last spring that briefly legalized gay marriage in the nation's most populous state.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the attorney general's change of strategy "a major development."

"The fact that after looking at this he shifted his position and is really bucking convention by not defending Prop. 8 signals very clearly that this proposition can not be defended," Minter said.

The sponsors of Proposition 8 on Friday argued for the first time that the court should undo the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who exchanged vows before voters banned gay marriage at the ballot box last month.

The Yes on 8 campaign filed a brief telling the court that because the new law holds that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized or valid in California, the state can no longer recognize the existing same-sex unions.

"Proposition 8's brevity is matched by its clarity. There are no conditional clauses, exceptions, exemptions or exclusions," reads the brief co-written by Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine University's law school and the former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.

Both Brown and gay rights groups maintain that the gay marriage ban may not be applied retroactively.

The Supreme Court could hear arguments in the litigation as soon as March. The measure's backers announced Friday that Starr, a former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general, had signed on as their lead counsel and would argue the cases.

The new brief provides a preview of how Proposition 8's supporters plan to defend the measure. It asserts that the Supreme Court lacks the authority or historical precedent to throw out Proposition 8.

"For this court to rule otherwise would be to tear asunder a lavish body of jurisprudence," the court papers state. "That body of decisional law commands judges - as servants of the people - to bow to the will of those whom they serve - even if the substantive result of what people have wrought in constitution-amending is deemed unenlightened."

Starr declined comment Friday, but co-counsel Andrew Pugno said the brief was filed in response to a question the court's seven justices posed to lawyers on both sides, not as an attack on the gay married couples. "The people passed Prop. 8," he said. "We are defending that."

Pugno called Brown's decision to challenge the voter-approved measure, as well as the argument advanced by the attorney general, "totally unprecedented."

"His legal duty as attorney general of the state is to defend initiatives passed by the voters," he said. "Oftentimes, attorneys general have defended measures they personally opposed."

Jesse Choper, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Berkeley Boalt School of Law, said Brown has to show that there is a right to marry or to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that cannot be taken away by a constitutional amendment. "It is not an easy argument, but that doesn't mean it's not going to win," Choper said.

The cases are Strauss v. Horton, S168047; City and County of San Francisco v. Horton, S168078; and Tyler v. State of California, S168066. Link.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Perils of Introspection

Heard a fascinating interview of Malcolm Galdwell on NPR this weekend. He mentioned a couple of different psychological tests which question the foundations of our understanding about free will.

The first test was called the Poster Test, which Gladwell explains here:

[A]sking people to think about what they want causes them to change their opinion of what they want, in fact it screws up their ability to understand and recognize what they want. This problem in psychology is called the Perils of Introspection Problem, and a lot of research has been done by a guy named Tim Wilson at U.V.A. and he once did this very simple experiment called the Poster Test.

And the Poster Test is you got a bunch of posters in a room, you bring in some college students in, and you say ‘pick any poster you want, take it home’. And they do that. Second group is brought in and you say, ‘pick any poster you want, tell me why you want it, and then go home’. Couple of months passes, and he calls up all the students, and he asks, “That poster you got a couple of months back, do you like it?’ and the kids, who in the first group didn’t have to explain their choice, all liked their poster. And the kids in the second group who did have to explain, now they hate their poster. And not only that, the kids who had to explain their poster picked a very different kind of poster then the kids who didn’t have to explain their poster. So making people explain what they want changes their preference and changes their preference in a negative way, it causes them to gravitate toward something they actually weren’t interested in in the first place.

Now, there’s a wonderful little detail in this—that there were two kinds of posters in the room, there where Impressionist prints and then there were these photos of, you know, kitten hanging by bars that said, ‘Hang in there baby’. And the students who were asked to explain their preference overwhelmingly chose the kitten. And the ones who weren’t asked to explain overwhelmingly chose the Impressionist poster. And they were happy with their choice obviously, who could be happy with a kitten on their wall after 3 months? Now, why is that?

Why when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate toward the least sophisticated of the offerings? Cause it’s a language problem. You’re someone, you know in your heart that you prefer the Impressionists but now you have to come up with a reason for your choice, and you really don’t have the language to say why you like the Impressionist photo. What you do have the language for is to say, ‘Well, I like the kitten cause I had a kitten when I was growing up,’ and you know … so forcing you to explain something when you don’t necessarily have the vocabulary and the tools to explain your preference automatically shifts you toward the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice. Now you see this time and time again in for example, market research.

That the act of getting someone in a room and asking them to explain their preference causes them to move away from the more sophisticated, more daring, more radical ideas. The classic example is All in the Family. When the first pilot was made back in the 70s, it was taken to ABC and ABC had a big room full of people, as many people as this, and they showed them the test and they asked them to rate the pilot, asked them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 100. You need 70 to get on the air basically. This All in the Family pilot got 40. An unbelievably low score. And the comments were, ‘well, the real problem is Archie Bunker, he needs to be a little softer, more nurturing, more of a caring father.’ That was people’s response. So what did ABC do? They passed on it. Guys went to CBS, CBS tested it, did really poorly, but some guy at the top of CBS really liked it, and said, well why not, let’s just play it, they put it on the air and it was one of the most lucrative sitcom franchises in the history of television. So what does this mean?

Does this mean we can’t trust people at all? Maybe. What is really means, though, is that there is a class of products that are difficult for people to interpret. Some things really are ugly and when we say that they’re ugly they really are ugly and we’re always gonna think their ugly. They’re never going to be beautiful. But there’s another class of products which we see and we don’t really know what we think, they challenge us, we don’t know how to describe them, and we end up, if we’re forced to explain ourselves, in calling them ugly because we can’t think of a better was to describe our feelings. And the real problem with asking people what they think about something is that we don’t have a good way to distinguish between these two states. We don’t have a good way of distinguishing between the thing that really is ugly and the thing that is radical and challenging and simply new and unusual.

And so often when we use the evidence of what people say, to determine what we ought to do, what we ought to go forward [with], we end up throwing out not just the things that ought to be thrown out, but the very things that are most meaningful, and have the potential to be most revolutionary.

There are, I think, two important lessons in that; the first is the one I dwell on in my book, which is simply that because of this fact people who come up with new ideas and new products or radical new things need to be very careful in how they interpret the evidence of consumers, the people that they ask about, random people whose opinions they seek. That we need to be very skeptical of ‘no’ and very skeptical of ‘ugly’ and very skeptical of ‘I don’t like that’. Particularly when we’re dealing with something that is radical and in some way challenging and difficult for someone to completely explain their feelings about. That’s one implication.

But the second implication, which is really one that’s more relevant to this discussion here, is that we’ve gotten really really good in recent years at describing all kinds of things about the way that human beings work and the way the mind operates. We understand genetics, we understand physiology, we have a whole vast array of knowledge now about why we do the things we do. But there is one area, perhaps the most important area of all, where we remain really really bad, and that is interpreting the contents of our own hearts, and as we go forward and learn more and more about human beings, I think we need to remember this fact, and to be humbled, because I’m not sure this is a mystery that we’re gonna solve.

The second experiment was simple. Take a person off the street and ask them to look at a picture of an average guy and ask them, "This is Joe. Do you like Joe or not?" They are also asked to hold a cup of coffee, although they are not let to believe that the coffee is part of the test. By outward appearances, everyone is given the same test, with no variation. However, there is one subtle variation: one group is given hot coffee and the other is given cold coffee. Few people believe the results, but time and again, people given the hot coffee say they like Joe and the people given cold coffee say they don't like Joe. (The inference here being that we subconsciously associate Joe the person with Joe, the nickname for coffee.)

Gladwell points out that we are vulnerable to racial bias when using the colors white and black to describe race. Though Gladwell is half-black, he was shocked to learn he himself has a negative bias against blacks. (Though Gladwell's book Blink deals with this in part, he added that Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will deals with the issue of racial bias more completely.)

The implications of these simple tests are staggering. How much of our decision making are we really in control of? How many of our choices are sculpted by mere circumstance? More concretely, how much of our entertainment is greenlit, or cancelled, based on poorly interpreted focus groups?

Finally, one has to wonder how John Stuart Mill and all the other 19th century philosophers who obsessed about the question of free will would respond when presented with these 21st century test results...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Here I go supporting independent film again. This feature is from Jamin Winans's Double Edge Films which I blogged about back in March 2006 for making a very clever short film, Spin, with shooting costs under $500.

Here's the trailer for his new feature, Ink:

Oh, and here's Spin: