Saturday, December 29

Race, Crime, and DNA

The Inconvenient Science of Racial DNA Profiling (Wired)
A condensed version of this article (Wired)

DNAWitness, a test offered by the Florida genetics company DNAPrint Genomics, claims to be able to identify (with 99% accuracy) the ancestry of a human based on a sample of their DNA. It has been used in over 150 criminal cases to help the police narrow down their suspect lists based on race. In the case described in this article, a serial killer in Baton Rouge was only found after DNAWitness determined that he was Afro-Carribean or African American; until then, the police had been focusing exclusively on Caucasians.

Such a tool would seem to be of great utility to law enforcement, and yet it appears that this test has failed to gain acceptance in the field. Price is cited as a barrier, but a $1500 to $3000 price tag would hardly seem to be prohibitive, especially for assistance is solving a case that has already been worked on substantially. Accuracy is obviously a concern, but blind trials have apparently shown the test to be highly accurate. The real issue here is whether this test represents a type of "racial profiling" that we should use to assist law enforcement. Even using the term "racial profiling" in this context seems questionable: not only because of the highly emotional associations we all have with the term, but also because narrowing the scope of an investigation based solely upon generic assumptions about which races commit which crimes is a far cry from basing that decision upon the genetic markers contained in DNA found at a specific crime scene.

Unfortunately, I think it's unlikely that such a tool will take off in the near future given the very sensitive racial climate we inhabit, in which emotion (sometimes rightfully so) comes first and reason comes second. In the long term, however, I hope that these tests will be proven highly and consistently accurate, and will ultimately become one more tool in the arsenal of effective law enforcement.

Tuesday, December 25

Quintuple your money, for free!

Now That a Penny Isn't Worth Much, It's Time to Make It Worth 5 Cents (New York Times)

How do you deal with the fact that our pennies and nickels are currently worth more as raw materials than as coins? Melting down the coins for their metals is now illegal, for one, but still the problem remains that we are minting money at a loss, and the problem will only get worse with inflation.

Economist Francois R. Velde of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago argues that we should abolish the existence of a one-cent coin, and pennies should be reassigned a value of five cents.

As far as I can tell, the plan he proposes would indeed save hundreds of millions of dollars (and also help the poor), with minimal adverse effects. How clever!

Japanese ingenuity

Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place (New York Times)

I have always been fascinated by the oddball ideas that originate in Japan. (Perhaps the Japanese would say the same thing about our ideas!) I appreciate that kind of inventiveness, creativity, and out-of-box thinking. The manhole bag seems to have some merit, but the image of a child pretending to be a fire hydrant is simply priceless.

For a much more bizarre look at a slice of Japanese culture, check out this list of "baffling toys from around the world" from; it appears that most of them are from Japan. Warning: you may find some of these toys to be offensive, especially if you have trouble with the idea of a "poop hat."

Sunday, December 23

Elections we can trust

Ohio Elections Official Calls Machines Flawed (New York Times)

It has become increasingly well-known and accepted that the electronic voting machines many states have relied on are just a sad piece of technology. Those who have studied these machines have known for years that many popular models of these machines are both unreliable and insecure, but election officials have long ignored the available evidence, and the public has been left with election results that are literally unverifiable.

This New York Times opinion piece from January 2007 has an excellent history of how the tide has turned in favor of verifiable election results, mostly due to the work of a successful grassroots reform movement.

Saturday, December 22

Ladies' Night

A Las Vegas Gym Faces a "Ladies' Night" Bias Case (New York Times)

Following in the footsteps of those who have sued bars to end the practice of "ladies' nights" (which has had mixed results), a Las Vegas man is suing a gym that offered a cheaper sign-up rate for women as well as a special workout area for women, claiming sex discrimination. He makes the claim that such a policy is just as bad as giving a price break to a certain race, and that if race-based discrimination offends you, so should discounts for women.

I can't help but feel that at least at bars, ladies' nights are not only good business but are in the public interest. My argument is that interaction between the sexes is an inherent purpose of most bars, and if those bars want to use price differentiation to achieve that goal, then it should be allowed.

But on the other hand, I am having a really hard time justifying how that scenario is legally and morally different from a bar hosting a "whites' night", which I would not at all support. Is it simply that we have gotten so used to ladies' nights, senior citizen discounts, and admission discounts for children that they 'seem' okay, even if they are not materially different from race-based discrimination?

I welcome your arguments in the comments section!

Friday, December 21

Hacking climate change

Global Climate Engineering: Who Controls the Thermostat? (Wired)
The Year's 10 Craziest Ways to Hack the Earth (Wired)

A great introductory article about the risks of "geo-engineering" the planet in order to avoid disastrous global climate change, and a companion article about ten of the more radical ideas currently being investigated. (My favorite idea: Feeding garlic to cows.)

Thursday, December 13

Saved by... mirror bees?

The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid (New York Times Magazine)

A two-year study by a Scottish researcher rated the "mirror bees" method as the best way to protect Earth from an asteroid impact, should one of sufficient size be headed in our direction. This method involves sending mirror-equipped satellites into space to surround the asteroid, reflecting sunlight onto a single spot on the asteroid in order to burn a hole in it and release a stream of gases that will move it off-course.


The Engineer has a much more in-depth article about the study, and Wikipedia's article about asteroid deflection strategies provides some additional background.

The New York Times Magazine article about asteroids is actually part of their quirky cover story this week, "The 7th Annual Year in Ideas." Some of my favorites:

Sunday, December 9


Why don't American kids respect their parents more? (Marginal Revolution)

This is why I love economists and their ability to dissect issues. A bit of a tongue-in-cheek post by Tyler Cowen (an economics professor at George Mason), but thought provoking nonetheless. I like #1 and #2 the best, but Britney leads me to take a closer look at #8.

Hummers for environmentalists

Motorhead Messiah (Fast Company)

"Professional car hacker" Johnathan Goodwin spends his days converting monstrous, power-hungry vehicles into fuel efficient, clean burning, even-more-powerful vehicles. He does what Detroit has always said can't be done: Produce vehicles that are clean enough to please environmentalists, yet large and powerful enough to satisfy the American consumer market.

Thursday, November 22

Kidneys for sale?

Kidney Shortage Inspires A Radical Idea: Organ Sales (Wall Street Journal)
Flesh Trade (New York Times Magazine)

Two great articles about the lack of kidneys available for transplant in the U.S., and the potential solution of a regulated organ market. While I haven't completely made up my mind about organ markets, I am definitely a big fan of two other ideas: paired exchange (graphical explanation), and changing to an opt-out system of organ donation.

One of the main arguments against a market for organs is that the poor might feel unduly pressured into selling a kidney. Stephen J. Dubner argues the opposite, that the poor would actually benefit the most from a kidney market.

A costly war

What Does Iraq Cost? Even More Than You Think. (Washington Post)

Economics professor and blogger Tyler Cowen argues that besides the actual monetary cost of the Iraq war, there are also huge opportunity costs we face that will have even greater effects on the future of our country.

Six million surnames

In U.S. Name Count, Garcias Are Catching Up With Joneses (New York Times)

The article focuses on the recent entry of two Hispanic surnames into the top ten list of surnames in the U.S., but my family spent much more time discussing and debating this paragraph:

"Altogether, the census found six million surnames in the United States. Among those, 151,000 were shared by a hundred or more Americans. Four million were held by only one person."

Two-thirds of the surnames in the U.S. are held by only one person? How could that be? These are the best reasons we could come up with:
  1. Young immigrants who recently entered the country and are not yet married, many of whom could have a unique last name because of the myriad of ways you could translate their surname into English
  2. Married women who change their legal name to include a hyphen
  3. Others who change their surnames to be unique
  4. Uncommon variations of otherwise common names
  5. Data input errors by the Census Bureau
What do you think?

Western Union

Western Union Empire Moves Migrant Cash Home (New York Times)

This is fascinating stuff -- from the size and scope of their operation, to their creative marketing tactics, to their focus on promoting illegal immigration as way to maintain a customer base.

Earlier: Illegal immigration

Wednesday, November 21

Food for thought

You Call That Health Food? (Men's Health)

It can be hard to walk through a grocery store and actually understand what is good for you. Setting aside misleading food marketing, you've got a media that picks up on every new food-related scientific study and reports it as fact, and you've got a community of scientists and nutritionists that can't even agree on what type of fat you need or what the latest additive (aspartame, olestra, etc.) will do to your body.

Author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) offers the following nugget of wisdom, as a way to cut through all of the confusion: If your grandmother wouldn't recognize what you're eating, it's probably not good for you.

The laptop of the future?

Amazon's Breakthrough E-book (BusinessWeek)

Every e-book reader released to date has failed, and this reader (manufactured by may very well follow that trend. However, I'm convinced that something similar to this will eventually prove to be the "killer" convergence device -- one that causes you to abandon a number of other devices. Its size and weight, its seamless integration with the Internet via the cell phone data network, and its non-eyestrain-inducing screen ("electronic paper") are key features of what should eventually replace the laptop computer.

Learn more about the "Kindle wireless reading device" on Amazon's product page, or in this detailed review from Computerworld that calls the Kindle "revolutionary."

Saturday, November 10

The "all-volunteer" military?

I Want You ... Badly (Slate Magazine)

What does it say about the future of the American military, if it takes a ridiculous incentive package and a relaxing of standards to meet our present-day needs?

Something's gotta give.

Friday, November 9

Game theory

How to Win at Monopoly - a Surefire Strategy (

Perhaps you think that using the results of a statistical analysis to inform how you play a game is cheating, takes too much work, or violates the spirit of what a "game" is supposed to be -- but I just think this is fascinating stuff. (Oh those Railroads... I knew it all along!)

The end of capital punishment?

The machinery of death (Economist)

The U.S. Supreme Court has essentially imposed a national moratorium on the death penalty, resting on the question of whether the most common method of execution -- lethal injection -- is "cruel and unusual punishment." The Economist speculates that even if the Supreme Court bans the particular combination of drugs that is currently used, states will simply come up with other drug combinations. This sarcastic (but quite effective) commentary from Wired Magazine disagrees.

It has always seemed strange to me that the question of whether state-sponsored execution is legal rests upon whether the person being executed is in pain right before death. But such is our legal system, for better or worse, sidestepping the larger moral questions to address only the precise details.

Sunday, November 4

Image manipulation

Image resize (YouTube, 4:27)

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of manipulating digital images, in which software tools are used to adjust images in any number of ways. This is a short video demonstrating some cutting edge research into "seam carving," a new software technique that goes beyond basic image editing and fundamentally alters the content of images. Watch this video, and you will never again fully trust any digital image. This is amazing stuff, just as much for its sophistication as for its simplicity.

On a similar note, Dove created a campaign about a year ago centered around a video called "evolution" (YouTube, 1:14) that was designed to demonstrate how "our perception of beauty is distorted" by the (highly manipulated) images we see on billboards and in magazines. It's a worthwhile watch, as is this fantastic parody (YouTube, 1:16).

Wednesday, October 31

Spinning dancer

The Right Brain vs. Left Brain Test (PerthNow)

This is one of the coolest optical illusions I have seen in a while. I challenge you to find ways to trick your brain into seeing her spin in the opposite direction. I've had the most success at this by scrolling down in my web browser so that I only see her foot, convincing myself that her foot is spinning in the opposite direction from what I naturally see, and then scrolling back up.

Yale neurologist Steven Novella has a good explanation for how this illusion works. He also completely debunks the claim that this is a "right brain vs. left brain" test (which sounded pretty silly to me from the get-go).

If you're still having trouble seeing her spin in both directions, check out these images.

Monday, October 29

Suicide hotlines

Wrong Answer (Boston Globe)

Summarizes some of the recent research on the effectiveness suicide hotlines. CrisisLink (where I volunteer) is one of the crisis centers affiliated with 1-800-SUICIDE, and was actually part of the Mishara study that is referenced in the article. Based on my experience this year, I have confidence that we are one of the "good centers" he mentions.

WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

WISQARS is a database of injury-related data published by the CDC. It's shocking to see that suicide is the second or third leading cause of death for Americans aged 10-34.

Just click "Submit Request" to see the basic data, though you can customize the report based on race, sex, etc. using the dropdown boxes.

Illegal immigration

What Part of 'Illegal' Don't You Understand? (New York Times)

A smart, incisive editorial about everyone's favorite topic.

The Case for Open Immigration (Freakonomics Blog)

British economist Philippe Legrain argues passionately for open immigration in this long, Q&A-style article. I have no doubt that many of his points are debatable, but I think he makes a lot of sense.


I love to gather and share information. I'd like to think of myself as a bit of a maven -- digging through endless amounts of information, and picking out the most interesting tidbits to pass along to others.

Back in the day, when I used to read Harper's Magazine, I would tear out interesting articles and mail them to friends or family. These days, I find myself emailing a lot of articles to those same folks. My goals remain the same: To share the enjoyment of learning about a fascinating topic with others, and to spark debate in order to enhance my own understanding.

You'd think it wouldn't have taken a computer engineer like me so long to realize that a blog is the perfect forum for such a discussion. Well... better late than never.

Anyway... welcome! I look forward to your opinions, corrections, speculation, meditations, notions, perceptions and the like.