Friday, June 30, 2006

Anime Expo here we come!

Anime Expo sign, without people

Anime Expo, a four day convention on all things anime, begins this Saturday morning. Early registration was today, so we drove down and registered. Last year we heard that registration lines even for people who had pre-paid were hours long; this year I'm pleased to report that there was no registration line. We were in and out in less than 10 minutes (thanks largely to Anime Expo mailing out printed badges to people ahead of time).

Last year we went for one day (see my summary post here); we loved it, so this year we have a four-day pass. At the top of our list of things to do is seeing CLAMP, the four-woman team behind many of our favorite manga (Tokyo Babylon, X, Card Captor Sakura, Wish). The CLAMP women rarely appear in public, even more rarely appear together, and have never appeared at a convention in the United States before. Suffice to say, we're thrilled that we might get to see them on Saturday (and, if we're lucky, get autographs on Sunday).

So, expect things to be a bit quiet around here while I go be a fanboy for a few days.



Orac has responded to my comments on doctor salaries. He adds some bits of information I'll admit that I didn't know, which I appreciate. Before I get into a more detailed response, let me clarify one thing. Of course doctors should be paid for what they do, and given that they (especially surgeons) do some amazing things, they should be paid well. Believe me, I don't want my doctor worrying about where her next meal is coming from when she is operating on me.

However, I have two responses to Orac:

1) Orac commented that I had underestimated a physician's debt, as interest accumulates on medical school debt while new doctors are going through low-paying residencies and fellowships. Thus, a $100,000 debt rises (due to interest) before a doctor is actually earning enough money to start paying it off. A $100,000 loan at 5% interest will accumulate about $62,000 worth of interest in 10 years; at 7% it gains about $100,000 worth of interest. Thus, the debt of the average starting doctor is likely to be about $160,000 to $200,000. I will kindly direct Orac to my prior post, and point out that even with this interest, this is still much less than two year's income worth of debt (and, at $160,000, is still less than one year's salary for the average physician). The median income earner trying to buy a median priced house must still take on a far greater debt load.

Orac also points out that $100,000 is only the mean debt for newly minted doctors, and there is variation around that mean He is, most certainly, correct. However, I'll also point out that the $213,900 median home price also has variation around it. For instance, at least six counties in the Southern California region have a median home price of more than $350,000; some are nearly triple the national average (Orange County's median house price is $635,000; data from here). I can easily confirm that salaries in Southern California are not double or triple that of the national average. Ever tried buying a $600,000 fixer-upper house while earning less than $50,000 a year?

2) Orac also commented that students are not going into specific medical disciplines as a result (potentially) of the salaries. Commenters on his posts have also said that lowering salaries might scare the "best and brightest" students away from medical school. While I can't argue with these statements (though I would like to see the data, especially regarding medical school applications), I can share my own perspective as a community college biology instructor.

Many of the students who walk through my lab door want to go to medical school (though pharmacy is a close second; precious few are actually interested in biology for its own sake). The "best and brightest" almost always end up trying to go to medical school (though dental school gives medical school a run for its money among a few of the best of the best). These premeds jump through dozens of hoops and work insanely hard to try to make themselves the best candidates they can be, even knowing what awaits them in medical school and afterwards. Many will, however, fail to get into medical school (though some of those are, admittedly, not the best of the best). This makes me wonder if Orac's supply problem might not be dealt with better by letting more students into medical schools and training more doctors. At least from my side of things, there's no shortage of potential doctors out there.

If there is a shortage of doctors choosing to go into specific disciplines, then that is something we need to seriously examine. I am troubled by Orac's statements that surgical residencies are ending up with unfilled positions. However, I question whether salary is the only factor that matters; after all, Orac himself has said that few doctors go into medicine for the money. If this is the case, will worrying about salaries really help? Might doing things like training more doctors, reducing the workload on doctors (both during training and during their careers), and adding more perks to their jobs be a more fruitful method of approaching the problem?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those poor doctors

Orac posted about a survey showing that doctors' salaries are decreasing (when adjusted for inflation). Here are the quotes he includes:
Doctors may be well off compared with the bulk of their patients, but a new study says fees physicians get from the government and private insurers aren't keeping up with inflation. Last week, the Center for Studying Health System Change said net incomes for physicians fell from an average of $180,930 in 1995 to $168,122 in 2003, a decline of about 7 percent, when adjusted for inflation.

Medicals pecialists fared better, the study said. Their incomes slipped an average of 2.1 percent, from $178,840 to $175,011 over the period.


But primary-care physicians -- the doctors most people see most often -- saw their incomes drop an average of 10.2 percent, from $135,036 to $121,262 a year.
Now, I know that doctors have to go through an incredible amount of training, and most work extremely hard, but I have a hard time feeling sympathy for someone complaining about their salary when they make more than $100,000 a year. Why? Well, let's take a look at some US income statistics from 2005 (data from the US Census Bureau's 2005 Current Population Survey; data table here):
  • There were 230,425,000 people over the age of 15 in 2005; of those, 205,146,000 were earning income.
  • The median income was $23,186 (with a standard error of $91)
  • The mean income was $33,846 (with a standard error of $123)
  • There were 9.39 million people making $100,000 or more (the highest income bracket included) in 2005; this is 4% of the population over 15, and 4.5% of all income earners.
  • There were more than 60,000,000 people making less than $12,500 a year, and more than 100,000,000 people making less than $22,500 a year (non-income earners are not included in either total).
Orac, of course, plays the "rare is the newly minted doctor who doesn't finish with a six-figure debt" card. This article reports that in 2001 the average debt for medical school students was just around $100,000. Yes, that is indeed a large number. However, even assuming that number has risen to $125,000, that's still less than one year's salary for the average physician.

Now let's add house prices into the mix. CNN reports, "The median home price in the United States jumped 13.6 percent last year ... [b]y the fourth quarter [of 2005] ... the median home sold for $213,900." So, a person earning the median income buying a median priced house must take on more than nine years' worth of income as debt. Leaving medical school with less than one year's income worth of debt somehow seems like much less of a burden.

I think I'll spend my time worrying about the incomes of the tens of millions of Americans who earn less than 1/10th that of the average doctor, rather than those who are in the top 5% of all income earners. Sorry, Orac.

The arthropod invasion begins

BoingBoing has linked to an exceptionally cool video of a centipede catching a bat.

Soon, all the arthropods will join together, flex the joints in their exoskeletons, and decide that these lousy chordates are just too annoying. At that point, it'll be all over for the little lineage that thought it was big. After all, if centipedes can catch a bat (and we all know how well bats fly), catching F-14s can't be far behind.

Oh, and for those who aren't sure about the difference between centipedes and millipedes, centipedes are predatory (and have one pair of legs per body segment) while most millipedes are detritivores (and have two pairs of legs per body segment). So, it's the centipedes we'll have to look out for in the invasion; the millipedes will just empty out all of our compost bins.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A few links

Science / Biology:




Stumbling into that minefield was sure fun ...

I have gotten some good fun out of reading the digg comments on my Windows vs. Ubuntu piece; there are currently about a hundred-some of them. As with comments on any site like /., I recommend reading them for entertainment value only.

What's particularly amusing about the comments is how contradictory they are. Many people (probably Windows supporters) are saying things like
  • "This is abysmally biased and inaccurate." or
  • "This article was very biased, it was the users first time installing Windows XP, and they seemed like they've used Ubuntu before."
while others (probably Linux supporters) are commenting on how much of an obvious Linux novice I am, saying things like
  • "Move home directory to new partition ... That cant take more than 30 secounds?" and
  • "Why did he even do that [move the home directory to /data]? He should have just created/used a partition just for /home.He could have done that at install time. At any rate....that isn't a problem someone else would have and shouldn't be included in the time."
It's amazing how stating facts (yes, those are the actual times it took me to install things, and no, I'm not lying) can get people so worked up.

Of course, what's also interesting about the comments that I'm "obviously biased" is that nowhere in the piece do I conclude that one operating system is better than the other. All I'm doing is reporting the time it took me to get (what I consider to be) a fully functioning operating system (/ computer). I just explained what I did and let people draw their own conclusions based on the data presented. If you think that an OS that installs in half the time (for one user on one machine) is inherently superior, well, OK. Personally, I think other factors should come into the equation.

Oh, and I can't help but share my favorite comment of all from digg:
this felt like one of those fake articles you see in the paper that have 'advertising feature' written above it in small letters.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Welcome visitor 100,000

I was still more than a thousand visits away from the milestone as of Monday morning (normally about a week's worth of traffic), but then my Ubuntu vs. Windows post got picked up by tuxmachines, Debian News, and digg. In the past hour I've gotten more than 1,100 hits. Yikes. (note to self: if I ever want to generate traffic, write more posts that Linux zealots will like)

It's been a fun two and a half years, and a lot of that fun has come from interacting with those of you who've been around here for a while. So, this seems as good a time as any to thank all of my regular readers and commenters for, well, hanging around. I appreciate it.

When I started this blog I wasn't sure I'd get any visitors. I remember being thrilled at getting 30 visits in a day. Now I have 100,000 total. Hard to believe.

Since I've got Ubuntu on the mind ...

While searching for a bug in Ubuntu's bug tracking database, I came across the very first bug filed for Ubuntu: bug #1 - Microsoft has a majority market share.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Installing Ubuntu: A comparison of Ubuntu 6.06 and Windows XP

Last Thursday night I installed my new hard drive and set up my computer so that it would dual-boot between Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake). Given that Debian (the Linux distribution Ubuntu is based on) had taken me days to install and configure, I figured that this might end up being a weekend-long project. It wasn’t; both Ubuntu and Windows XP were fully functioning after less than 5 hours of work.

Since I had to install both Windows and Ubuntu from scratch, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to compare the two operating systems' basic installation procedures. Thus, I tracked the time it took to carry out all installation tasks for both operating systems, and report the results below.

Partitioning plan

As I'm configuring my computer to dual-boot between two operating systems, partitioning the hard drive is not as simple as if I was installing a single operating system. I spent a while planning my partitions, and here's what I decided on (if you don't care about partitions, skip to the “installation comparision” section):

  • Hard drive 1 (120GB):
    • 38GB NTFS partition for Windows XP
    • 12GB ext3 partition for / (Ubuntu’s root directory; equivalent to C:\ in Windows)
    • 12GB ext3 partition for /data (a directory I will use to keep my home directory in)
    • 39GB FAT32 partition for sharing data
    • 12GB blank partition, for future Linux installs (so I don’t have to format over my current install if/when I upgrade)
  • Hard drive 2 (120GB)
    • 120GB FAT32 partition for sharing data

The /data partition is a separate partition I’ll use to hold my /home directory. Most user configuration files in Linux are saved in the /home/username directory, and thus by putting /home on a separate partition, future upgrades (and/or installing other Linux distributions) will be easier (since the entire root directory can be reformatted without losing most user files). However, mounting the partition as /home itself would mean that I could only have one installation’s configuration files in that partition at once (somewhat defeating the purpose); by mounting it as /data I can have multiple home directories in that partition (e.g., /data/homedapper, /data/homedebian) without them affecting each other. To do this, I first installed the entire operating system to the / partition, then later booted into a LiveCD, mounted the two partitions (/ and /data), and moved the home directory from / to /data/homedapper (creating a link from /home to /data/homedapper). Long story short, this partitioning plan makes installing Ubuntu a bit harder, but should make long-term maintenance of the system easier (thanks to metoo from this Ubuntu Forums thread for this plan).

Installation comparison

I started the install shortly after 11:30 pm; by 4:00am I had functioning installations of both Ubuntu and Windows XP. By functioning installation I mean that I had a working operating system, network access, office suite, photo editor, and virus scanner (in Windows) that were all up-to-date on security patches. I did not have to contact support or consult additional resources (outside of what I already knew or had researched) for either installation. My computer is an approximately 3-year-old Dell Dimension 4600, which I've upgraded with additional (non-Dell) memory, hard drives, and DVD drives. For a comparison of the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the installation procedures, see tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Amount of time (in minutes) specific tasks took while installing either Windows XP (SP2, from CD) or Ubuntu 6.06 (via the graphical installer on the LiveCD). Default options were selected wherever possible.
Task Windows XP (min) Ubuntu 6.06 (min)
Install OS (including partitioning) 51 29
Update OS 13 8 1
Install and run virus scanner 12 0 (not needed)
Install and update office suite 29 2 0 3
Install photo editor, IM client(s), Firefox 10
0 3
Move home directory to new partition
- (not possible attempted) 22
Total install time (start to finish) 120 62
1 Ubuntu's auto-downloading application automatically searched for, downloaded, and installed updates for all programs on the computer.
2 Due to not owning Office XP's version of PowerPoint, I had to install both Office 2000 (for PowerPoint) and Office XP (for Word and Excel). This approximately doubled the install time.
3 Programs were installed by default with the OS.

Windows XP:

Since Windows wants to think it’s the only operating system on a computer, most guides suggest installing Windows first (Windows overwrites the master boot record during its install, which would prevent an existing Ubuntu installation from booting). Thus, I installed Windows first.

This was the first time that I’d installed Windows XP from CD (though I’d installed Windows 98, 95, 3.1, and DOS from scratch before). The installer was simple to use (easier than Windows 98 / 95); other than partitioning the drive, there were no technically complex menus anywhere in the process.

Unfortunately, the Windows XP installer left me without a working network connection or sound. After a bit of searching, I discovered that Windows had not installed drivers for either my network card or sound card (which were Dell defaults); to install the drivers, I had to break out one of my Dell system CDs and fight through some awkward menus to figure out which drivers I had to install. It was a non-intuitive process, partially because the Dell system CD didn't list my computer model in its list of supported computers, but also because Windows never made it clear that it hadn't loaded drivers for the cards.

After installing the operating system, I installed Microsoft Office; this was more complicated than it could have been because the Office XP set that came with my computer lacked PowerPoint (which I use for writing lectures). Thus, I had to install both Office 2000 (which I have PowerPoint in), and then subsequently install Office XP. After installing each version, I had to go to Office Update and download security updates for Microsoft Office. I never got any notice or warning that there were security updates for Office (and, in fact, had to find the Office Update site on my own); I just knew from prior experience that there probably were updates available. Sure enough, both Office 2000 and Office XP had numerous security updates that needed to be downloaded.

To finish the installation I had to install Photoshop from CD, and download and install my instant messenger clients and Firefox. All told, the Windows XP installation took about 2 hours from start to finish.

Ubuntu 6.06:

Ubuntu is a free Linux-based operating system. I obtained the most recent desktop release of Ubuntu from their download page; it's distributed as a LiveCD image, which I downloaded and burned to a CD. This does require a computer with a working CD burner and net connection; however, Ubuntu also ships free CDs to anyone who wants them (and, if you must spend money on an operating system to be happy, you can buy DVDs of Ubuntu 6.06 at Amazon).

The first step of installing Ubuntu is to boot your computer with Ubuntu's LiveCD; this brings you into a fully functioning Ubuntu installation without modifying anything on your hard drive. Thus, you immediately know if Ubuntu doesn't work with any of your hardware, and can figure out how to work around any problems before doing the actual installation. I tried out the LiveCD a few days before doing the installation, and didn't find any hardware recognition issues (the system worked perfectly).

Ubuntu's installation procedure is about as simple as can be; all the questions are well-worded and easy to answer (e.g., what username do you want to use, where are you located, what do you want to call your computer). There wasn't a single question about hardware, which was refreshing.

The most complicated portion of the installation was setting up the partitions, though the partitioner Ubuntu uses (QTParted GParted) was extremely easy to use. As long as you've planned out your partitions ahead of time, you should have no problems at all. And, if you're just installing Ubuntu alone (or don't want to do the wacky /data partition separation I was doing), partitioning should be as easy as it is in Windows XP. The one issue I had with the partitioning process is that it didn't format my small shared space as FAT32. When I set up the partition I selected FAT32 as the filesystem I wanted to use, but then when it came time to format the partition it reported that it was going to format it as ext3. I continued with the process (it did have a “back” button), figuring that I could reformat that partition later as FAT32 (by unmounting the drive and using QTParted once the system was installed). In fact, I'd been waffling between using ext3 and FAT32 for my shared space anyway, so once I'd gotten the system working I just decided to stick with ext3 for that portion of the shared space.

After the installation was finished, the computer rebooted into Ubuntu. At this point the system was working perfectly, and most of the software I wanted was already installed. Open Office 2.0 (an open-source equivalent to MS Office), The Gimp (an open-source equivalent to Photoshop), Gaim (an open-source instant messaging client), and Firefox were all installed (and properly configured) right out of the box. Ubuntu also installed the Grub boot loader to deal with the dual-boot situation; no configuration on my part was required.

Security updates were much easier to manage in Ubuntu than in Windows XP. In Windows XP, the operating system's basic updates were automatically downloaded in two separate chunks (requiring me to install the first batch, reboot, then reboot again later once more had been downloaded). However, updates for Office and other programs were not automatically downloaded (and I was not even notified of their presence). In contrast, Ubuntu's automatic updater application notified me shortly after booting that a number of updates were available; the updater had searched for and found updates for all programs installed on my computer. After reviewing the list of updates, all I had to do was click “OK,” and Ubuntu downloaded and installed all the updates. The system suggested (but did not require) that I reboot after they were installed; after rebooting, the updater application notified me that my system was completely up to date.

From start to finish, the entire Ubuntu install took approximately one hour, including the time it took me to boot into a LiveCD and move the home directory to the /data partition. Assuming that all hardware was recognized and supported by Ubuntu (which would be easy to check via a LiveCD), I have no doubt that a computer novice could easily install Ubuntu by themselves.

Table 2: Comparison of Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06's install procedures.
Item Windows XP Ubuntu 6.06
Most technically demanding part of install Installing drivers from Dell's CD Partitioning
Number of reboots required
6 3
Number of CDs used during entire install 6 1
System status after base OS install Network and sound not functioning System fully functional
Minutes to first program-based ad popping up 56 (McAfee attempted to sell me additional security services after I installed their virus scanner) n/a (no ads)
Minutes to first junk desktop items being placed 155 (Microsoft Money added desktop icons for commercial banking and lending services) n/a (no junk desktop items placed)


Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06 were both quick to install; each install was complete in less than two hours. Windows took about twice as long as Ubuntu to install, primarily because of the additional time required to install (and update) non-OS software packages.

The largest potential problem with both operating system installations is hardware recognition (as I encountered with Windows XP). Ubuntu's use of a LiveCD is an advantage here, as it allows new users to test their system before formatting their hard drive. However, more hardware is generally supported in Windows than in Ubuntu, as many manufacturers build Windows-specific drivers (but do not make Linux drivers).

Window's reliance on commercial software adds to the difficulty and annoyance of its install. In Ubuntu, a lot of software is installed by default, and additional packages can be searched for and installed (for free) from an easy-to-use “add/remove programs” menu (note: the primary exception to this are programs to play specific media formats, some of which suffer from patent issues and thus can be more difficult to obtain in Linux than in Windows, though EasyUbuntu and Ubuntu's help pages deal with this). In Windows, many basic software packages (e.g., office suite, photo editing software, IM clients) are not installed by default, and must be downloaded or purchased from a variety of websites or companies. This commercial software also increases the chances of ads appearing on the computer, as happened to me many times during the Windows installation, but never in Ubuntu.

Linux is typically considered to be an extremely difficult operating system to install. I believe Ubuntu challenges that perception.

As a final note, this post is based on the experiences of one person installing these operating systems on a single machine; it is unclear how generalizable these data are. Additionally, users should not underestimate the potential difficulty of switching from Windows to Linux; troubleshooting and administering Linux installations is vastly different from (though not necessarily more difficult than) troubleshooting and administering Windows systems.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Radagast and SO's basic tomato pasta sauce

There's nothing terribly special about this; it's just a typical tomato sauce flavored with onions, garlic, and spices. However, this is what we always cook up whenever we're in the mood for some tomato pasta sauce; we find it much tastier than the cheapo canned sauces we used to buy at the supermarket, and much more customizable than the expensive sauces (that we don't buy anyway, because they're too expensive). Since we just made a batch of this last week, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

~1 pound Italian sausage (optional, see notes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 large onions, chopped (2-3 cups, chopped)
6 cloves garlic, coarsely or finely chopped, or pressed with a garlic press
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 cup red wine
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes
1/4 cup tomato paste
Salt, to taste

0. Sometime before step 5, prepare the tomatoes. If you want a chunky sauce, you can squish the tomatoes with your bare hands (caution: this may spray tomato juice), chop them with a knife, or process the tomatoes for a second in a food processor. If you want a smoother sauce, process the tomatoes until smooth in a food processor.
1. Remove the skin from the sausage and break into a few large pieces. Fry sausage over medium-high (or high) heat in a large, heavy-bottomed non-stick pot until it is browned and cooked through (~5-10 minutes, stirring frequently). Break the sausage into bite-sized pieces while cooking.
2. Add the chopped onions to the pot, and continue frying, stirring frequently, until the onions turn translucent and begin to brown, ~5 minutes.
3. Add the garlic and cook another minute, stirring frequently.
4. Mix in the spices, cook for a few seconds, and then add the red wine to deglaze the pot. Cook until most of the wine has boiled off.
5. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste to the sauce, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer.
6. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, partially covered, for 20 minutes to 2 hours (depending on how long you can stand to wait). The longer the sauce simmers, the thicker it will be. Stir the sauce every 5-15 minutes (more frequently if you're worried about it burning, or are using a thin-bottomed pot) while it simmers to ensure the sauce doesn't burn on the bottom of the pot.
7. Test for salt level and adjust if necessary; we often don't add any salt (since we use salted tomatoes).
8. Serve over freshly cooked pasta with plenty of grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese. Do not rinse the pasta after cooking; unrinsed pasta holds sauce better than rinsed pasta.


Makes enough sauce for at least 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of dry pasta, cooked. We typically cook up a pound of dry pasta the day we make the sauce, then cook up more pasta a few days later to finish off the remainder of the sauce. Leftover sauce freezes well, and the recipe can easily be scaled up or down to suit your needs.

We almost never measure the amounts of the ingredients for this recipe. Just adding a sploosh of wine, a sprinkling of spices, and about the right amount of onions, garlic, and tomato paste should be fine. Feel free to customize the recipe to better suit your own tastes: if you love garlic, add more; if you want a thinner sauce, use a few extra cans of tomatoes or some water; if you want a meatier sauce, add more meat; if you want a spicier sauce, add more spices; if you want more vegetables, add some carrots or bell peppers. It's up to you!

This recipe does not need to be made with meat (we often make it meatless), though we find that meat does add a satisfying savory note to the sauce. Substituting just about any ground tetrapod (pork, turkey, beef, etc.) or 1/2 pound chopped bacon for the Italian sausage should work just fine.

We use canned whole tomatoes because Joy of Cooking reports that they're typically better than chopped or blended canned tomatoes. Using canned whole tomatoes also lets you choose how chunky you want the sauce.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Political news of the week take 15

[See also: political news of the week takes 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Due to traveling for the past few weeks, I haven't posted a news of the week for a while. The first few of these articles come from the week of May 29; the rest come from the past weeks (June 12 & 19).

The children of Guantanamo Bay:
The notorious US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay has been hit by fresh allegations of human rights abuses, with claims that dozens of children were sent there - some as young as 14 years old.

Lawyers in London estimate that more than 60 detainees held at the terrorists' prison camp were boys under 18 when they were captured.

They include at least 10 detainees still held at the US base in Cuba who were 14 or 15 when they were seized - including child soldiers who were held in solitary confinement, repeatedly interrogated and allegedly tortured.


Because the detainees have been held in Cuba for four years, all the teenagers are now thought to have reached their 18th birthdays in Guantanamo Bay and some have since been released.

The latest figures emerged after the Department of Defense (DoD) in Washington was forced to release the first ever list of Guantanamo detainees earlier this month. Although lawyers say it is riddled with errors - getting numerous names and dates of birth wrong - they were able to confirm that 17 detainees on the list were under 18 when taken to the camp, and another seven were probably juveniles.

In addition, said Mr Stafford Smith, they had credible evidence from other detainees, lawyers and the International Red Cross that another 37 inmates were under 18 when they were seized. One detainee, an al-Jazeera journalist called Sami el Hajj, has identified 36 juveniles in Guantanamo.
Bush 'planted fake news stories on American TV':
Federal authorities are actively investigating dozens of American television stations for broadcasting items produced by the Bush administration and major corporations, and passing them off as normal news. Some of the fake news segments talked up success in the war in Iraq, or promoted the companies' products.


The report, by the non-profit group Centre for Media and Democracy, found that over a 10-month period at least 77 television stations were making use of the faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs). Not one told viewers who had produced the items.

"We know we only had partial access to these VNRs and yet we found 77 stations using them," said Diana Farsetta, one of the group's researchers. ...


The range of VNR is wide. Among items provided by the Bush administration to news stations was one in which an Iraqi-American in Kansas City was seen saying "Thank you Bush. Thank you USA" in response to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The footage was actually produced by the State Department, one of 20 federal agencies that have produced and distributed such items.
Corps' Levee Work Is Faulted:
A wide range of design and construction defects in levees around New Orleans raise serious doubts that the system can withstand the pounding of another hurricane the size of Katrina, even after $3.1 billion in repairs are completed, a team of independent investigators led by UC Berkeley's civil engineering school said Sunday.

The findings undermine assurances by the Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers that the federal levee repair program due to be completed in June will provide a higher level of protection to New Orleans, which sustained 1,293 deaths and more than $100 billion in property loss from Katrina.


The Berkeley team found that the defects that caused breaches during Katrina — including thin layers of soil with the consistency of jelly and sections of levees built with crushed seashells — had gone undetected and could be widespread.

The above posts were stored before my trip to Canada; the following ones are primarily from the past week:

Lawmaker: Hurricane aid spent on jewelry, erotica an 'affront':
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found at least $1 billion in disaster relief payments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were improper and potentially fraudulent because the recipients provided incomplete or incorrect information when they registered for assistance. (GAO report)


In FEMA's defense, top official Donna Daniels testified the agency was simply overwhelmed by the scale of the disasters, forcing it to choose between providing help quickly or delaying aid until information could be verified.

"We just made the calculated decision that we were going to help as many people as we could, and that we would have to go back and identify those people who we either paid in error or that defrauded us, and deal with that," said Daniels, FEMA's acting director of recovery operations.

Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, the House panel's ranking Democrat, said he appreciated FEMA and other relief agencies were under "tremendous pressure to register storm victims as quickly as possible."

"However, that is no excuse for the lack of preparation, the lack of internal controls and the lack of decisive and professional leadership," Etheridge said.

Seeking an Exit Strategy for Guantánamo:
"I'd like to close Guantánamo," the president [Bush] told a press conference Tuesday, and acknowledged what even close allies like the British have argued for some time: "No question, Guantánamo sends a signal to some of our friends — provides an excuse, for example, to say the United States is not upholding the values that they're trying to encourage other countries to adhere to."

Yet Mr. Bush insisted that some Guantánamo prisoners are too dangerous to set free, and even the camp's fiercest critics admit that shutting Guantánamo and deciding what to do with the remaining 460 prisoners would not be easy. Still more problematic is deciding the fate of as many as three dozen so-called "high value" Al Qaeda prisoners held in overseas jails overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency.

In fact, the "end game" for detainees, as some in the government call it, requires grappling with problems posed by a war with no conventional enemy soldiers, no rules and no clear conclusion.

The challenges include gauging how dangerous it would be to set a particular Islamist radical free; devising trials that offer a measure of military justice but not the full protections of civilian courts, and deciding whether to transfer prisoners to countries that might free a hardened jihadist or torture a political dissident.

Whatever Happened to the Buck Stops Here? Brownie Email Says Bush Happy FEMA Head took Katrina Flak: A blog post by Rep. Conyers.
CNN caught an important email released by former FEMA Head Michael Brown the other day. According to the story, "The September 2005 e-mail reads: 'I did hear of one reference to you, at the Cabinet meeting yesterday. I wasn't there, but I heard someone commented that the press was sure beating up on Mike Brown, to which the president replied, 'I'd rather they beat up on him than me or Chertoff.' The sender adds, 'Congratulations on doing a great job of diverting hostile fire away from the leader.'"

Here Illegally, Working Hard and Paying Taxes:
... In contrast to the typical image of an illegal immigrant — paid in cash, working under the table for small-scale labor contractors on a California farm or a suburban construction site — a majority [of illegal immigrants] now work for mainstream companies, not fly-by-night operators, and are hired and paid like any other American worker.


More than half of the estimated seven million immigrants toiling illegally in the United States get a regular paycheck every week or two, experts say. At the end of the year they receive a W-2 form. Come April 15, many file income tax returns using special ID numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service so foreigners can pay taxes. Some even get a refund check in the mail.

And they are now present in low-skilled jobs across the country. Illegal immigrants account for 12 percent of workers in food preparation occupations, for instance, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. In total, they account for an estimated one in 20 workers in the United States.

The building maintenance industry — a highly competitive business where the company with the lowest labor costs tends to win the contract — has welcomed them with open arms. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than a quarter of a million illegal immigrants are janitors, 350,000 are maids and housekeepers and 300,000 are groundskeepers.

Army Cancels Contract for Iraqi Prison:
The Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that it had canceled a $99.1 million contract with Parsons, one of the largest companies working in Iraq, to build a prison north of Baghdad after the firm fell more than two years behind schedule, threatened to go millions of dollars over budget and essentially abandoned the construction site.

The move is another harsh rebuke for Parsons, only weeks after the corps canceled more than $300 million of the company's contracts to build and refurbish hospitals and clinics across Iraq. A federal oversight office had found that some of the clinics were little more than empty shells and that only 20 of 150 called for in the contract would be completed without new financing.

But the prison, originally scheduled to be completed this month, appears to be the largest single rebuilding project canceled for failing to achieve its goals under the $45 billion American rebuilding program for Iraq. The corps said Parsons officials had recently estimated that it could not be completed before September 2008, and would cost an additional $13.5 million.


The corps says it intends to complete 3,700 rebuilding projects. But that number is much smaller than once planned and there is no independent overall assessment of their success. For example, among the water and sanitation projects, only 49 of the 136 projects originally envisioned are expected to be completed, according to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who leads the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent federal oversight office.

Police bypass subpoenas to get Americans' phone records:
Federal and local police across the country -- as well as some of the nation's best-known companies -- have been gathering Americans' phone records from private data brokers without subpoenas or warrants.

These brokers, many of whom market aggressively across the Internet, have broken into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and sometimes acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Legal experts and privacy advocates said police reliance on private vendors who commit such acts raises civil liberties questions.

Those using data brokers include agencies of the Homeland Security and Justice departments -- including the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service -- and municipal police departments in California, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services.

Bid to increase minimum wage nixed
The Republican-controlled Senate refused Wednesday to raise the minimum wage, rejecting an election-year proposal from Democrats for the first increase in nearly a decade.

The vote was 52-46, eight short of the 60 needed.

"I don't think the Republicans get it," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who backed a proposal for a three-step increase in the current wage floor to $7.25 an hour. The federal minimum wage has been fixed at $5.15 an hour since 1997.


Underscoring the political context of the debate, he said if Democrats win the Senate this November, a minimum wage increase will be one of the first pieces of legislation to be considered.

Cheney Assails Press on Report on Bank Data:
Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday vigorously defended a secret program that examines banking records of Americans and others in a vast international database, and harshly criticized the news media for disclosing an operation he said was legal and "absolutely essential" to fighting terrorism.


The financial tracking program was disclosed Thursday by The New York Times and other news organizations. American officials had expressed concerns that the Brussels banking consortium that provides access to the database might withdraw from the program if its role were disclosed, particularly in light of anti-American sentiment in some parts of Europe.


The program, run out of the Central Intelligence Agency and overseen by the Treasury Department, has allowed counterterrorism authorities to gain access to millions of records of transactions routed through Swift from individual banks and financial institutions around the world. The data is obtained using broad administrative subpoenas, not court warrants.

Investigators have used the data to do "at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of searches" of people and institutions suspected of having ties to terrorists, Stuart Levey, an under secretary at the Treasury Department, told reporters at a briefing on Friday. Officials say the program has proven valuable in a number of foreign and domestic terrorism investigations, and led to the 2003 capture of the most wanted Qaeda fugitive in Southeast Asia, known as Hambali.

F.B.I. Killed Plot in Talking Stage, a Top Aide Says:
A plot to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago and attack the F.B.I. headquarters in Miami was "more aspirational than operational," a top bureau official said Friday, a day after seven Florida men were arrested on terrorism charges.

The official, John S. Pistole, deputy director of the F.B.I., and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said at a news conference that authorities chose to head off the would-be plot, involving scouting potential targets in Florida, when it was largely at the discussion stage.

Mr. Gonzales acknowledged that the men, who had neither weapons nor explosives, posed "no immediate threat." But he added, "they did take sufficient steps that we believe does support this prosecution."

No end in sight for Africa's suffering masses - A CNN article by Jeff Koinange
And just when it seemed things couldn't get more depressing on a continent where misery and hardship are an every day occurrence, I landed in a refugee camp in the town of Bukavu in eastern Congo. I walked into a hospital filled with victims of rape and mutilation and broke down.

The women here had been forced to flee their villages by marauding soldiers who weren't satisfied with just raping them -- they wanted to annihilate a generation of newborns -- mutilating their mothers by inserting knives, machetes and even pistols and rifles into their private parts after gang-raping them for days.

I have never seen such inhumanity in all my years as a reporter. And to add insult to injury, when some of these women returned to their villages, they were either shunned by their families for "allowing" themselves to be violated, or they were gang-raped again by some of the same men in uniform.

If I've ever felt helpless as a reporter, it was in Bukavu -- for these women had nowhere to run, nowhere to call home, and a bleak future that will deprive them of the ability to feel like women again.

In all of my journalistic travels, I can't help but see the images of Africa's helpless and hopeless, and I can't help but think about what is it that drives man's inhumanity.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


The latest Skeptics' Circle (#37) has been posted by Autism Diva, the latest Tangled Bank (#56; scroll down to read it) has been posted at Centrerion, and the latest Carnival of Education (#72) has been posted at Why Homeschool.

Cuteness ahoy!

My SO just found an amazingly cute blog: Cute Overload. It focuses on, as you might guess, cute pictures of animals. It's amazingly fun to browse, as you can find hamsters licking fingers, sugargliders nibbling ears, extreme closeups of cat faces, rats and hedgehogs checking each other out, cats in boxes, and dozens of other insanely cute pictures. If you need a quick pick-me-up, just go there.

[Update: How could I have forgotten to link to these baby possum pictures???]

Installing Ubuntu on my primary home machine - partition planning

I've been running Debian Linux on an older machine for more than a year and a half. I like using Linux for many reasons (it's free, stable, fast, open-source, and has thousands of programs freely available for it that don't feature ads and tend towards user-friendly feature sets), but have found that the machine gets less use than it otherwise would because all of my primary data files are still stored on my Windows box.

That will hopefully change soon, as I plan to turn my primary home box into a dual-boot that can switch between Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06. This switch is largely motivated by my desire to try using Linux full-time, though it also has a practical basis as well: I just got a new hard drive that will replace my current primary drive, so I'll have to reinstall my entire operating system anyway (and thus might as well build it as a dual-boot).

I've been reading up on creating dual-boot machines, and have found some useful resources:
One of the problems of a dual-boot setup is that it can be difficult to share user files between the different operating systems. Linux typically formats hard drives to use either the ext2/ext3 or ReiserFS file systems, while Windows XP prefers to use the NTFS file system. Linux can read from, but not reliably write to, NTFS file systems, and Windows has no native support at all for reading from or writing to ext2/3 file systems. In other words, Linux and Windows don't get along too well (shock there, I know).

However, there are two ways to get Windows and Linux to access the same files:
  • Create a partition for both Windows and Linux (NTFS and ext3, respectively), and then create a third partition using FAT32, an older file system that both Linux and Windows (and Macs) have native support for (i.e., both can read and write to partitions formatted with FAT32 without problem). This extra partition can then be used to store data that both operating systems can access without issue.
  • Install third-party drivers for Windows that allow Windows to access ext2/3 partitions (e.g., or Thus, by installing these drivers I could simply store files in a Linux formatted partition, and access them from both operating systems. However, the drivers don't appear to be extremely widely used, and while reports about them are generally positive (most forum posts report no problems), it appears that they may not be perfect quite yet (as has been reported in these three threads, which report crashes or problems by individual users).
Unfortunately, FAT32 filesystems lack some useful features (e.g., no file ownership, files cannot be larger than 4GB). However, considering that I want this machine to be as error-free as possible, I'll be sticking with FAT32 for the shared space until either Windows supports ext2/3 natively or Linux supports NTFS natively (or I can confirm that the ext2 drivers work well on my machine).

So, hopefully I'll be writing this blog from a brand-new Ubuntu install sometime soon.

As a side note, since I'm going to have to reinstall Windows, I need a Windows XP CD. Windows came installed on my Dell by default, but this wiki post indicates that Dell sometimes doesn't send out full Windows XP CDs with their new computers (they store a copy of Windows XP in a partition on the drive and ship software that simply retrieves it). So, as suggested by the wiki, I contacted Dell's support and requested that they send out a CD. They did; by next day air. Impressive.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bad data analysis: motorcycle helmet effectiveness

My SO came across a Florida newspaper article (Yahoo! News version) that looks at the effect of Jeb Bush's repeal (in 2000) of Florida's motorcycle helmet law. The article (Neale 2006) is based on an analysis of federal traffic statistics; included below is the article's primary data (and graph):
A FLORIDA TODAY analysis of federal crash statistics for Florida revealed a drastic upward spike in motorcycle fatalities involving riders without helmets since the repeal took effect. Annual statewide "unhelmeted" fatalities mushroomed from 22 deaths in both 1998 and 1999 to 250 deaths in 2004, the most recent data available.

That represents an 11-fold increase. By comparison, 270 Florida riders without helmets were killed during the entire 1990s, when the practice was illegal.

But by the same token, motorcycle registrations shot upward 87 percent since the helmet repeal took effect. Annual registrations increased from 238,229 to 445,896 from 2000-04, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported.

Total Florida motorcycle fatalities have increased statewide since the helmet law's repeal. The yearly death toll leaped from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004 -- a 67 percent jump -- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows.
Data figure from the Florida Today newspaper article

Let's take a look at this in a bit more detail. The newspaper is attempting to test two contrasting hypotheses:
  1. Riders who wear motorcycle helmets are less likely to die in accidents than riders who do not wear helmets (and thus Bush's repeal of the 2000 law has led to more motorcyclist deaths).
  2. Riders who wear helmets are equally or more likely to die in accidents than riders who do not wear helmets (and thus factors other than Bush's repeal of the 2000 law explain the increase in motorcycle mortality).
The number of deaths of non-helmeted riders has risen since the repeal of the law in 2000, and thus hypothesis 1 seems to be supported. However, there are multiple confounding factors that the newspaper has not taken into account, the two largest of which are:
  • The frequency of riders who wore helmets may have changed across the study period
  • The number of miles driven by motorcyclists may have changed across the study period
Since the motorcycle helmet law was repealed in 2000, it's logical to expect that a much larger fraction of riders are now riding without helmets; this could explain the change in proportion of riders dying with and without helmets. And, if the number of motorcycle miles being driven increased over the study period (as the number of registrations did), there would likely be a proportional increase in the number of fatalities, which could explain the increase in total mortality over the study period.

The article doesn't include any data that adequately address these confounding factors. The only attempt at addressing these comes in the number of motorcycle registrations, but registrations may or may not be related to miles driven. Without information on these confounding factors, the data presented are functionally meaningless; we can't use them to differentiate between the two hypotheses.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has published many reports on the effectiveness of helmets; these reports include datasets that circumvent (or control for) common confounding factors. In their most recent analysis (Deutermann 2004), the NHTSA collated data on fatalities in motorcycle accidents between 1993 and 2002 that involved two people riding on the same motorcycle. When two people ride on the same motorcycle, there are four possible helmet-wearing combinations:
  • Neither the rider (person in control of the motorcycle) nor the passenger is wearing a helmet
  • The rider is not wearing a helmet, but the passenger is
  • The rider is wearing a helmet, but the passenger is not
  • Both the rider and the passenger are wearing helmets
Since both individuals are involved in the same accident, by comparing the ratio of rider to passenger deaths across the four conditions it's possible to test the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets in preventing death. This is exactly what Deutermann (2004) did; these results can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1: Data from a 2004 Department of Transportation analysis (Deutermann 2004) of fatalities when there was a pair of riders on a single motorcycle in a single accident. Data are organized by which (if any) of the occupants of the motorcycle were wearing helmets at the time of the accident.

Helmet Used
Number of Deaths
Fatality Ratio

While riders (the person in control of the motorcycle) appear to be somewhat more likely to die in an accident (rider / passenger fatality ratios where neither or both wore a helmet are both slightly above 1.0), we can see that when only one of the two people on the motorcycle wears a helmet, the person wearing the helmet is much less likely to die. Thus, hypothesis 1 (that helmets prevent deaths) is clearly supported.

The Florida newspaper article never makes a clear statement on whether helmets are actually effective; it draws no conclusions from its own dataset, and most of the article just quotes from various people on either side of the debate. The author seems to be doing the (now typical) "I'll stay out of it and just let pundits from either side say things" style of reporting. This is just as annoying here as it is with evolution vs. creationism reporting; when there are datasets of such high quality as the NHTSA's, it seems ridiculous to leave them out of an article to which they would add so much.

By using slipshod presentation, the Florida newspaper is making it just that much easier for anti-helmet advocates to argue their position. After all, many readers of this Florida paper will likely use these data to justify helmet laws, yet anti-helmet advocates can justifiably bring the entire analysis into question. Sometimes bad data analysis is worse than no data analysis at all.


Deutermann, William. 2004. Motorcycle Helmet Effectiveness Revisited. Technical report prepared for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA). DOT HS 809 715 (HTML, PDF, entrance page)

Neale, Rick. 2006. Death rate soars for bikers: Player's crash drags debate over helmets back into the spotlight. Florida Today, June 18, 2006.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Radagast meets a fan of chelation therapy

My SO and I went to donate blood today, and were pleased to see that our regular donation center was packed with people (a contrast to some of our prior experiences).

After donating, I sat down to enjoy the free juice and cookies (the real reason to donate blood). At the same table were a number of other people, one of whom was an older man chatting with a fellow donor about their health problems (see, even people with some health problems can donate blood). Within a minute or two of my sitting down, however, the gentleman started talking about his latest miracle cure: chelation therapy with EDTA. To listen to him talk about it, chelation therapy cured just about all ills known to mankind. He spouted off a bunch of "information" about it, which I'll share here:
  • By undergoing regular chelation therapy his cholesterol had dropped from near 300 to the mid 100s.
  • He had a "scan" of his carotid arteries done before beginning chelation therapy, and after only a few weeks of the therapy he went in for another scan. The results? He now had 25% more blood flowing to his brain.
  • It removes plaque from arteries.
  • It works like a roto-rooter, and cleans out your plumbing.
  • Thanks to chelation therapy, he'll "never have to see a cardiologist again."
  • Even though it's expensive, it's preventive maintenance, which we all know is something we should do.
The woman he was talking to said that she'd ask her doctor about the therapy. He replied that "Oh, your doctor will say it's worthless, but don't trust him," and proceeded into a discussion rant about how the AMA and doctors were hiding the truth about chelation therapy because "if everyone knew about chelation therapy, the doctors would go out of business. It's all about the money."

And it was, indeed, all about the money. He reported that when he first started treatment he had to go in for 32 chelation treatments in a 16-week period, and then had to have at least 12 treatments a year for maintenance. The total cost? $100 per treatment (that's $3,200 in the first four months, then $1,200 every year after that).

The woman then asked him how chelation therapy worked. About all he could explain was that some kids were dying in the 1920's and that the doctors couldn't figure out why, except that the kids were eating lead. Then the doctors tried this therapy, and the kids survived. Oh, and it clears out your arteries.

An excellent explanation, indeed.

For those who don't know, chelation therapy has exactly one proven medical application: treatment of heavy metal (e.g., mercury, lead, arsenic) poisoning. The idea is to intravenously inject a chemical (e.g., DMSA) that binds to heavy metals so that they can be excreted by the kidneys. Chelation therapy does nothing for any cardiovascular condition, autism, aches and pains, or anything else an altie might suggest it to you for.

Thankfully, Orac has already written an excellent (and detailed) debunking of chelation therapy's use for treating atherosclerotic vascular disease (and other conditions, including autism), and Quackwatch has two good pieces debunking its use in alternative medicine. Go read those articles if you want to learn more.

Thanks to reading Orac's posts in the past, I could hardly stand to listen to this guy talk, and was worried that he might be convincing the woman to try chelation therapy. I left at the same time as the woman, and so was able to share my (more skeptical, and more evidence-based) viewpoint on chelation therapy with her on the way to the parking lot. Thankfully, it turned out that she hadn't bought a word of what he was saying, and was just being polite in listening to him. Or at least that's what she told me. I tried.

Cooking Tip #23

Don't invert and shake a sealed container of hot, freshly made soy milk. If you do, the near boiling contents of the container may become pressurized and spray everywhere, including:
  • All over the counter
  • Onto the floor
  • Onto the cabinets
  • Onto the bags of fruit you just unloaded from your trip to the store
  • Into the opened dishwasher full of clean, drying dishes
  • Onto the drainer full of more clean dishes
  • All over your and your SO's clothes and legs
And, don't forget the most fun consequence: a strong spray of hot liquid and steam will be propelled directly onto the bottom of your wrist (which was attached to the hand you were using to hold the container). This will cause your skin to turn a nice rosy red, and it will feel as though someone taped the contents of a few dozen habanero peppers onto your wrist for the next two hours.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Warm chickpea salad with onions and lemon juice

We've decided to clear out some of our older kitchen stores, and thus last night my SO cooked up a pound of dried chickpeas. We weren't sure what to do with them, and after looking at a number of recipes online (and in our cookbooks), we didn't find anything that struck our fancy. We were hungry, however, so we decided to just average a few of the recipes together and toss the chickpeas with some garlic, onions, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Prior to having this dish, my SO and I believed the following combination of characteristics was impossible to obtain in a recipe:
  • Tastiness
  • Simplicity / ease
  • Frugality
  • Healthfulness
But now we have a recipe that has achieved the holy quartet of cooking: chickpea salad. Dried chickpeas are insanely cheap (less than a dollar a pound), easy to cook (plop in water, boil for a couple of hours), pretty darn healthy (high in fiber, protein, minerals, and vitamins; see here), and amazingly tasty1 when mixed with a few other ingredients. Thus this recipe is this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 pound dried chickpeas
Enough water to cover the chickpeas by a couple of inches
1-2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 lemons, juiced
1/2 - 2/3 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed with a garlic press
1/4 cup olive oil

1. Rinse the chickpeas, discarding any bad ones.
2. Put the chickpeas in a large pot, cover by a few inches of water, and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, covered, for one hour.
4. Mix in the salt and continue simmering, covered, until the chickpeas are completely tender (test for this by eating a chickpea or two every now and then); they will probably need about another hour of cooking. If you're not sure how much salt to add, use just 1 tablespoon and taste the chickpeas once they're nearly done cooking (when properly salted, they should be fairly tasty right out of the pot).
5. Drain the chickpeas and transfer to a large bowl.
6. Add the lemon juice, onions, garlic, and olive oil to the chickpeas while they're still hot, and stir to mix. Taste, and adjust the seasoning (salt and lemon juice levels in particular may need adjusting).
7. Serve warm.


Vary the amounts of each ingredient (and add other ingredients, e.g., a grinding of pepper, chopped tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, or some fresh parsley or cilantro) to suit your own tastes; this is an extremely flexible recipe.

Most recipes say to soak chickpeas (and other beans) before cooking; we've found that this is typically unnecessary (as long as we cook the beans for a bit longer than might otherwise be called for), and thus generally don't soak beans before cooking. However, if you're a fan of soaking legumes, by all means soak the chickpeas in this recipe.

1 - As a disclaimer, I'll say up front that this is not quite as divinely delicious as creamy Brussels sprout gratin, Bolognese lasagne, or royal braised vegetables in cardamom nut sauce, but considering how healthy and easy to cook it is, it's darn good.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

If they're so important ...

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Georgia) has co-sponsored multiple resolutions that would require the display of the ten commandments in the US Capitol. H. RES. 214 states
That if the Supreme Court of the United States holds in either the case of Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500 (TX) or the case of McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693 (KY) that the display of the Ten Commandments in public places by State and local governments constitutes a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, thereby ruling against religious freedom and diminishing the importance of the Ten Commandments to the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall provide for the display of the Ten Commandments in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
And H. CON. RES. 12 "directs that a copy of the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed in the United States Capitol at such place and in such manner as the Architect of the Capitol shall designate." Both resolutions are still in committee (information from Thomas).

However, in an interview with Stephen Colbert (of the famed April press corps speech), Rep. Westmoreland could not name even half of the ten commandments. Don't believe me? See for yourself:

(Video from YouTube, full interview here; alternate video source here. Via BoingBoing)

Friday, June 16, 2006

I did say I wanted time to work on projects around the house ...

It seems like going on vacation is bad for our house. Last year our fence fell down shortly after returning from Canada, and this year our dishwasher died the day we got back. So, yesterday I got to learn how dishwashers work. I was greatly aided by's "What is wrong with your dishwasher?" page, and Kenmore's excellent (if terse) repair instructions (intended for service people only) that were included inside the housing of the dishwasher.

Since taking the thing apart involved working with complicated connections in extremely tight spaces, I took pictures while I worked to aid in reassembly. While most of the pictures are boring (and weren't helpful, as the dishwasher was easy to reassemble), one came out cooler than I had planned:

Electrical connector
Electrical connector inside a dishwasher

We spent about four hours tearing the thing apart (removing the sump and motor assembly, parts of which were held together with Torx screws), fiddling with all the parts, and reassembling it, but it still didn't work. It would fill with water and drain the water, but wouldn't swoosh the water around. Instead it just buzzed.

We thus figured that the motor had burned out or permanently frozen up (despite our efforts to unfreeze it). We proceeded to go online, find the appropriate replacement motor, and were about to order it (literally less than 30 seconds away from clicking "confirm order") when I decided to give our current motor one last chance. I turned the dishwasher on, and within a minute the buzz was replaced with the sound of swooshing water.

So, I have thus discovered the secret to repairing appliances: threaten them with replacement.

Actually, this flawed reasoning is similar to how alternative medicine treatments are sometimes justified. Instead of crediting their recovery to the hard work (founded on years of experience and training) by a qualified medical doctor, patients are all too ready to attribute their newfound health to an alternative treatment they received just before their symptoms subsided. Nope, that surgery and chemotherapy had nothing to do with your cancer going into remission; it was all that carrot juice you drank.

[Update July 2006: Read the next installment of our dishwasher saga here.]

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Scattered memories of a trip to Canada

My SO and I are now back from our trip to Canada. We decided that we wanted to spend more time at home this summer (to work on remodeling our house), so we made this trip shorter that prior years' trips. As a result, we didn't take much time to sightsee or visit neat places (like we've done in the past few years); however, we do have some fun memories to report:

Welcome to Oregon: It had not rained at all on our trip north through California, but within five seconds (literally!) of passing the "Welcome to Oregon" sign, we were greeted with the "splat" "splat" "splat" of raindrops on our windshield. Later that night we ended up having to stop earlier than we had planned, thanks to extremely heavy rain that made I-5 virtually unnavigable.

Ubuntu saves the net: I brought my Ubuntu 5.10 live CD (which allows me to boot my old Windows laptop into Linux) on the trip. On one night we stayed in a hotel that had free wireless, but when I attempted to connect to the network with Windows XP I kept getting "failed to connect" messages. I fiddled with everything I knew how to fiddle with, but nothing worked. So, I popped in the live CD, booted up into Ubuntu, and within five minutes was happily surfing the net (albeit slowly, thanks to the fact that my laptop has about as much memory as a nematode). Three cheers for Linux!

The credit card of conversation: I've had a Motley Fool credit card for a while now, and its most notable feature (besides getting 1% cash back on all purchases) is that a large and colorful jester decorates the front of the card (see the top of this page). I use this card regularly in the US, and probably fewer than 5% of the people who see it make any kind of comment. However, up in Canada virtually everyone who looks at it goes "Ooooh, isn't that cute?" and starts asking me about it. Conclusion: If you ever want to start a conversation with a Canadian, go get a Motley Fool credit card.

AAA's Oregon directions suck: We typically rely on AAA's tourbooks to find motels and restaurants in the cities we're driving through. In southern Oregon they failed us. As we were driving north on I-5, we decided that we wanted to eat dinner in Ashland; we found a few restaurants in the AAA book, which reported that they were located downtown on Main St. "just s. of plaza." So, we drove along I-5 looking for Main Street (or an exit labeled "downtown" or "plaza"), only to watch Ashland pass by on our left as we drove through the city and out to the forested lands north of it. There was no Main St., downtown, or plaza exit that we could find.

AAA's Oregon directions really suck: So, giving up on Ashland, we proceeded to locate a restaurant (Vinny's Italian Kitchen) that the AAA book said was in Medford. The directions were as simple as could be: "I-5, exit 27, 2.1 mi w on Barnett Rd, then just s; in Larson Creek Shopping Center". Happy that we finally had a freeway exit to look for, we proceeded to exit and headed west on Barnett. Unfortunately, Barnett dead-ended into a high school. See Google Map's satellite map here if you don't believe me; when traveling west on Barnett from I-5, Barnett changes into Panther road (which is a "road" going through the campus that's blocked off), continues for one block west of the high school as Barnett Rd., then just ends in a housing development. It appears that the directions should have directed us east, not west. Great proofreading.

Oregon and Washington's rest stops are amazing: I'm used to California's rest stops on Interstate 5; while they're functional, they're not the type of place I'd typically choose to have a picnic. Even when there are picnic tables, they're all crammed together in one little area right next to the parking lots and restrooms. However, every rest stop we visited in Oregon and Washington seemed like a little park: there were tons of trees, lots of other greenery, and many little paths leading to tables that were scattered throughout the trees. I almost felt bad for not spending more time at them.

Haultain's was open: Last year (as noted on our exercise blog) we walked more than five miles in a fruitless attempt to get fish and chips at Haultain's; this year we were more successful (and drove).

Making ferry reservations helps (empty one's pocketbook): To get to and from Vancouver Island we had to take a car ferry. Last year we ended up having to wait hours in line for each ferry; this year we made reservations for both legs of our trip, and never had to wait more than 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the ferry companies have figured out that people like being on time, and thus charge for the privilege of making reservations.

Relaxation after stress is a good idea: We spent two nights in a bed and breakfast in Victoria once my course was over. We did little other than eat, read, and sleep; it was time well spent.