The most disappointing fact I learned today

Basically, it’s probably not possible to get enough Ricin into a single Stevia packet to ensure lethality in a 125 pound victim.

While staggeringly lethal when inhaled or injected — like, less than 2 milligrams for the average adult human — Ricin is WAY less toxic when eaten. You need 30-40 milligrams per kilogram, which works out for about 2 and a quarter grams.

Stevia packets are light; they contain only a gram of the sweetener. I can see doubling the weight and not tipping your mark, but slipping in more than 225% additional weight to a single packet strikes me as troublesome to the point of implausible.

Oh well.

How is it that James Clapper still has a job?

From TechDirt:

Once again: the director of the intelligence community flat out lied to Congress about it, admitted it, and there have been no consequences at all. What that teaches Clapper and others is that they can continue to lie, and, in fact, that they are effectively encouraged to lie, because there’s no downside risk in doing so.

Here’s a better question: Why is Clapper not in jail?

The Border Patrol are Criminals

Read this and tell me if you come to any other conclusion.

Everyone they detained was an American citizen, coming back to the US after attending a wedding of a cousin. They were treated terribly, put in a cold room with no food or drinks, and no information on what was going on. CBP demanded they hand over their electronics, and made it clear they might not get them back. The thing is, this isn’t a unique situation. As the report notes, there’s almost no oversight over CBP actions, allowing them to act with impunity. In the report, the story is told of a 4-year-old girl, an American citizen, who was detained for 14 hours, in a cold room, without being allowed to speak to her parents and given no food beyond a cookie. And then she was deported. Even though she was a US citizen. She was allowed to come back weeks later, but now has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Abdurrahman’s own story is perhaps not that crazy, but is still ridiculous. She tried to find out information during the detainment, but was repeatedly told “it’s not your right to know.” She wasn’t even allowed to know the names of the CBP agents who detained them. When she asked, agents turned their backs to her so she couldn’t see their name tags. Multiple attempts at getting Homeland Security or CBP to respond to questions failed.

These people are TSA agents with the power to arbitrarily confiscate your belongings — with or without suspicion — and have effectively no accountability to anyone, least of all US citizens they mistreat. These goons should be personally liable for damages.

Hey, look! Abuse of warrantless searches! Surprise, Surprise!

Remember how the border goons insist that they can confiscate and search your electronics whenever you enter the US, even without suspicion?

Yeah, turns out the Feds are actively exploiting this loophole. They watched airline manifests until someone they wanted to search, but had no legal reason to detain or search, was coming back from overseas — and then used this border bullshit to sift through his shit.

That about covers it: Jon Stewart sums up Fox News

And I get that Fox opposes a Syria peace plan because its modus operandi is to foment dissent in the form of a relentless and irrational contrarianism to Barack Obama and all things Democratic to advance its ultimate objective of creating a deliberately misinformed body politic whose fear, anger, mistrust and discontent is the manna upon which it sustains its parasitic succubus-like existence.

Form here, about 8 minutes in.

Today in Minor Improvements

My super-goofy yet awesome keyboard has returned from its hospitalization rejuvenated and shockingly clean. It’s possible that they were able to build their own Wiggins out of the hair I’m sure they found inside it.

This caps a series of home/office logistical tasks I feel inordinately happy about sorting out, including:

  • Something called “mudjacking”;
  • Getting the retarded tablet fixed;
  • Repairing the front door lock;
  • Returning a client laptop to the client 8 months late;
  • Acquiring a haircut;
  • Getting an annual eye exam;
  • Having AT&T hook up the goddamn cable; and
  • Having AT&T come back out and fix the broken cable box 2 days after installation.

Because Republicans HATE the poor…

…they shoved through a measure in the House that cuts $39 billion from the SNAP program, i.e. food aid for the poor. Most of those impacted will be children.

Every single person who voted for this measure should be ostracized from polite society. They are heartless, horrible individuals, and are the truest example of “enemies of the people” I have heard of lately.

Yes, I mean every single one of the 217 Republicans who voted for this. All of them. The fifteen Republicans who voted against the measure get a pass.

The next headline I expect to see is Bill Donohue and the Catholic League denouncing this apostate

TPM: “Pope Francis Criticizes ‘Obsessed’ Church Focus On Abortion, Gay marriage, Contraception

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is warning that the Catholic Church’s moral edifice might “fall like a house of cards” if it doesn’t balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make the church a merciful, more welcoming place for all.

In a word: whoa.

Smart Analysis on the NSA

Via Schneier, we find this bit:

We have learned that in pursuit of its bureaucratic mission to obtain signals intelligence in a pervasively networked world, the NSA has mounted a systematic campaign against the foundations of American power: constitutional checks and balances, technological leadership, and market entrepreneurship. The NSA scandal is no longer about privacy, or a particular violation of constitutional or legislative obligations. The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.

Full essay here.

HOWTO: Recognize Different Painters

This is sort of brilliant. Examples are included, but the captions are awesome.

  • “If the images have a dark background and everyone has tortured expressions on their faces, it’s Titian.”
  • “If the paintings have tons of little people in them but otherwise seem normal, it’s Bruegel.”
  • “If the paintings have lots of little people in them but also have a ton of crazy bullshit, it’s Bosch.”
  • “If everyone looks like hobos illuminated only by a dim streetlamp, it’s Rembrandt. “

We are SO fucked

George R. R. Martin is apparently a big Breaking Bad fan.

The man who gave us Walder Frey, the Lannisters, and fucking Joffrey (plus all manner of as-yet-unseen vileness) believes that Walter White is a worse monster than anyone or anything in his books.

And so he’s apparently setting out to top him.

Syncing your watch in 19th Century London

Obviously, your go-to source for the accurate time was, and remains, Big Ben — even if you can’t see it, you can HEAR it, right?

But what if you wanted to be as accurate as possible? Obviously, if you’re far from Ben, you’d hear the chimes later than someone quite close to it — with the speed of sound being about 1,126 feet per second, it matters.

Fortunately, there’s a map you can consult, with concentric rings showing the delay from “true” time.


iPhones and AAPL prices

Apple is, at this point, sort of like Alabama. They’ve been so good for so long that the press in both cases just can’t wait for some imagined comeuppance, and so the new pattern we see after every Apple event is a litany of folks explaining how much the company has lost its way post-Jobs, and how it’s obviously drifting and leaderless, and how they’re completely over. Indeed, after the event yesterday, Apple shares fell 5%, and they remain significantly below their 52-week high of $705.

Well, if this is what “over” looks like, I’ll damn sure take it. Apple remains one of the most profitable companies in the world — in fact #2, behind Exxon Mobil, and the dollar gap is less than 10% despite the fact that Exxon has 2.5 times the revenue of Apple. They continue to sell just about as many phones, tablets, and laptops as they can make. As a consequence of being a money-printing machine, they’re also sitting on a cash mountain of about $147 billion.

And yet, as I write this, a single share of AAPL sells for about $470, which values the company at only about $427 billion. That’s still enough to make it the most valuable public company in the world (ahead of Exxon, Google, GE, etc.; its old rival from Redmond is waaaay down the list), but it strikes me as low.

Why? At this price, the firm’s P/E ratio is 11.7. That’s a rate that implies an over-the-hill firm in a mature market (e.g., it’s not far from Exxon’s P/E, or Microsoft’s). And note further that this ratio includes in the value of the firm all that cash, which (when factored in) would depress the P/E even further (to less than 8, if my math is right). That’s absurd in a world where Apple prints money at this rate. Google’s astoundingly less profitable, and its P/E is 26. Even at Apple’s lofty $700+ price per share last year, its P/E didn’t suggest it was too expensive.

I’m certainly no investment advisor. Make no mistake. It sure seems to me, though, that nitwits claiming Apple is over are riding backlash and not meaningful analysis.

Arcade Fire, Again

Three years ago, we were blown away by Arcade Fire’s amazing HTML5 experimental “video” for The Wilderness Downtown. You may recall it involved superimposing their video plot on your own hometown, via Google Maps and Google Earth, which sounds way less impressive than it actually was (and is).

Apparently, innovative online content is a core value for Arcade Fire, because what they’re doing with Reflektor is something else again; using your smartphone as a controller, you can affect the video as it plays, but that’s a super-reductive way to describe what’s going on here. Here’s a behind the scenes bit that helps explain what’s happening here. (Now, as then, you need Chrome for this to work.)

The record drops 10/28. Mark your calendars.

Books of 2013, # 40: Kill City Blues, by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim is back for more in book 5 of Kadrey’s reliably entertaining urban fantasy series. He’s not the devil anymore, so it’s back to LA to work at thwarting the arrival of some pesky old gods; you know, the usual sort of thing.

Plenty of authors are playing in this space, but for my money Kadrey is doing the best job. He’s clearly a student of the noir/hardboiled tradition, and that shows through; our hero — his actual name is James Stark — has much in common with the gumshoes written by Chandler and Hammett and Crumley, to say nothing of the character’s namesake. If angels, devils, supernatural mysteries, and tales of revenge aren’t interesting, this isn’t the series for you, but if you’re into both noir and modern fantasy, you might want to look into the first book — you absolutely don’t want to read them out of order.

Books of 2013, #39: The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

After discussing The Big Sleep at a friend’s house not long ago, I was enthusiastically loaned a copy of The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. I’d never heard of either book or author, but Mrs Heathen — an alum of a mystery bookstore — nodded sagely as John handed me the book. It’s a good one; neither John nor Erin steered me wrong here.

I’m apparently the last one to know this, but Crumley was a great inheritor of the noir/hardboiled tradition. I’m just sorry I didn’t read him sooner (had I read his 2008 obituary in the Times, I’m sure I would have; therein he’s described as the literary offspring of Chandler and Heathen patron saint Hunter Thompson). His books are placed later (Kiss is in the 1970s), but still honor the form pioneered by Hammett and Chandler. He was never hugely successful, but he’s on the short list of “favorite writers” for a whole host of more modern American crime novelists, including folks like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s for good reason; Kiss is a hell of a yarn, and carries itself with such poise and style that I really didn’t mind the somewhat abrupt ending.

This one’s worth picking up if the world of hard(ish) boiled detectives appeals to you at all. Here’s how it begins:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Beat that.

Dept. of Holy Crap: The NSA stuff is worse than you thought.

Apparently, the NSA, in their zeal to listen to everyone, has been successfully inserting back doors into encryption protocols for years, ProPublica has learned.

How’d they learn this?

Many users assume — or have been assured by Internet companies — that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.

Thank you, Edward Snowden. Back doors are horrible ideas, because they invariably fall to nefarious use. Even, as we’ve seen, inside supposedly trusted organizations like the NSA.

Among the technologies compromised by the NSA is SSL, which you rely on every day to keep your browser traffic safe when banking, shopping, or accessing other private services online. I am reminded of what former Lavabit CEO Ladar Levison wrote when he shut down his secure email service out of the fear that the spooks would infest it: “Without Congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

The Feds are, obviously, not happy about the publication of this information, but you know what? Fuck them. This is security apparatus run wild, and it must be both disclosed and stopped. ProPublica, for their part, published a clear and well reasoned article detailing why they chose to publish:

The story, we believe, is an important one. It shows that the expectations of millions of Internet users regarding the privacy of their electronic communications are mistaken. These expectations guide the practices of private individuals and businesses, most of them innocent of any wrongdoing. The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including for political purposes, is considerable. The government insists it has put in place checks and balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected representatives if the basic facts are revealed.


There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea — championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort of work ProPublica does — watchdog journalism — is a key element in helping the public play this role.

Finally: What to do now?

Good question. It’s not completely clear which implementations have been compromised by the NSA, but Bruce Schneier has a great bit in the Guardian today about placing this in perspective, and about what you can do to keep your own data safe from prying eyes — even eyes ostensibly on the same side as you are. The gist is this:

First, Properly implemented strong cryptography still works as advertised. The NSA doesn’t have special math it can deploy; trap-door algorithms are still trap doors. Multiplication is and will remain orders of magnitude easier than factoring.

Second and no less important: Open source security software is better. The NSA has obviously been influencing proprietary solutions, and will continue to do so; with open source software, though, an army of privacy-advocate neckbeards are perusing every commit. This is a good thing.

Bruce has, obviously, more concrete suggestions; go read the bit.

“Just a dugout that my dad built / in case the Reds decide to push the button down.”

FOR SALE: 2-story 1970s Las Vegas home, complete with 15,200 underground basement finished as an entirely extra three-bedroom home. The lower home is fit for a king, or a hobbit king anyway: fake “yard”, swimming pool, putting green, BBQ grill, 360-degree mural approximating an outdoor view, and even “exterior” lighting to simulate sunset, day, or night — all 26 feet below ground. And it could be yours for the low, low price of $1.7MM.

It’s been a long time since I was this sorry I’m not stupid rich.

Via MeFi/

“Are You My Mother?”, Amazon Edition

David Good’s parents come from different countries – hardly unusual in the US where he was raised. But the 25-year-old’s family is far from ordinary – while his father is American, his mother is a tribeswoman living in a remote part of the Amazon. Two decades after she left, David realised he had to find her.

Go. Read. Now. This is extraordinary.

Via MeFi.

Books of 2013, #38: Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, by Rob Lowe

Let me get this right out of the way: HOLY CRAP I CAN’T BELIEVE I READ AND LOVED A CELEB BIO.

There. I said it.

Mrs Heathen read this a year or more ago, when it came out, and was laughing out loud and reading bits to me so often that I eventually agreed I’d have to read it. I’m not sorry. Lowe — who did not have a ghostwriter here, I should note — has written a surprisingly warm and self-aware (and, in places, unflinching) book about going from nowhere, Ohio, to California, and about getting his fondest dream granted when he became a a no-shit movie star at a terribly young age (in The Outsiders). Madcap hilarity, at least in hindsight, ensues with remarkable regularity.

Lowe is both aware of and cautious of his profound luck and privilege, but at the same time manages to let us into his own perspective as an insecure actor auditioning with other folks just starting out at the time (recall a guy named Tom Cruise was also in The Outsiders). His California neighborhood was also home to a couple sets of brothers of some note — the Crazy Dad in the area was Martin Sheen, fresh off Apocalypse Now and a long way from Bartletian gravitas. The Estevez and Lowe brothers ran around with Sean, Matthew, and Chris Penn, which must’ve made for some very odd pick-up baseball.

This wasn’t the first bit of right time/right place Lowe had; his early career intertwined with many others, and afforded him a wealth of hilarious stories (some with absolute Hollywood royalty) I won’t spoil here. It’s enough to say that Stories is really just about the ultimate summer read, and that, if you’re bashful, in this age of miracles and wonders you can load it on your Kindle if you don’t want anyone to think you’re “slumming.” Recommended.

Books of 2013, #37: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

This is the guy who won the publicity lottery a while ago when some numbskull Fox commentator (who is, unaccountably, their religion correspondent) couldn’t get past the fact that Aslan, a Muslim, wrote a book about the historical Jesus. Fox followed by stirring up all manner of bullshit controversy around the book, and sales skyrocketed. Fox probably doesn’t care either way, and just saw an opportunity to shout “LOOKOUT! MUSLIMS!” at its sadly credulous base again, so I guess everyone’s a winner here.

Anyway, Aslan’s book is actually pretty NON-controversial outside of rabid fundie circles. His entire point, which is made abundantly clear several times, is that he’s seeking evidence and analysis about the historical Jesus only. He’s not interested at all in matters of faith, in Jesus’ divinity, or in the religious implications of his research; he’s just gathering together what scholars generally agree on regarding this particular exceedingly influential resident of first century Palestine.

The resulting book is a treasure, and one that I think nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity should probably read — believer, agnostic, and atheist alike, because it’s fascinating. Aslan places the events of Jesus’ life in the historical context that is typically missing from Sunday School. What were the geopolitics like in Palestine 2,000 years ago? How did Rome treat the area? Who had power and influence? We know Jesus was crucified; what did that mean, in the world of that era? And when the gospels and other New Testament books get written — and by whom? That the gospels were likely not written by their titular apostles is no longer an even remotely controversial statement, but what may surprise many readers is the sort of “doctrinal drift” that occurs as one moves from the earlier gospels to the later ones — possibly, in Aslan’s view, to render a revolutionary movement into something more palatable to Rome.

Also covered in detail is the ascension of the former Saul of Tarsus — better known by his post-conversion name Paul — as the effective head of the faith. How’d that happen, when those who actually traveled with Jesus were still around?

Aslan provides the missing backdrop, and does it in a compulsively readable style. I can’t overstate this, but most people in churches learn in a silo; I certainly did. There’s “Christian” publishing, and then there’s everything else, and never the twain shall meet. Additional historical texts and sources are almost never introduced in religious instruction, at least not in the mainline Southern Baptist church of my youth; it’s sola scriptura all the way down. Aslan’s book provides more context in a few hundred pages than I got in 20 years of church instruction.

Moreover, the latter third of the book is given over to notes and sources, lest ye think this “dangerous mooslim” is simply trying to tear down Christianity with his book and interpretations (he’s absolutely NOT doing that, I assure you). I’m sure some folks at very conservative seminaries and “bible colleges” may take issue with some of what he says, but the broad academic response to the book has been (mostly) “yeah, that’s pretty much what we’ve been saying for years.” Aslan just puts it in an accessible format.

I don’t mean to say it’s all settled fact, obviously, or that Aslan’s sources and analysis are the only ones possible. Obviously, there’s little we know to be absolutely true, in a historical sense, about the life of Jesus, beyond his crucifixion (which, according to Aslan, tells us quite a lot). Much is extrapolation and conjecture, or is based on accounts written long after the fact (e.g., the gospels themselves). But Aslan’s book does provide an excellent opportunity to start a conversation about that context both within and outside communities of faith, and that’s a very good thing.