Topix.net

While we’re on the subject of Bloglines, I should mention a new service called Topix.net. Bloglines users may have noticed its addition to the “add subscription” page.

Topix.net scours a wide variety of news sources and sorts them into categories. These are then published as XML feeds. The categories range from the very general (U.S. news) to the specific (Paul Simon). I’ve been using it for the past week and have found it to be a great way to keep up with events and find blog fodder I would have otherwise missed.

Topix content is also available in the form of webpages and email updates.

[Update: The Topix system works through automated programs, so sometimes mistakes creep in. Tonight I got my first. This article about holiday shopping scams showed up on the astronomy news feed because the first scam listed is about how companies claiming to be able to name a star for you have no legitimate standing. It's an understandable mistake and that's an interesting fact I didn't know, so I don't consider the occassional miscategorization to be much of a problem.]

Thanks to Lessig

Everyone’s excited about the new Becker-Posner weblog, myself included. It looks like we can thank Lawrence Lessig for making this happen. He’s the one who got Posner guest blogging back in August and a whois search shows that he registered the domain for them. Subscribing with Bloglines has also revealed this cute explanatory note left he left, now replaced with a “coming soon” entry:

Demo entry

By Lessig on misc.

This is an example of what an entry will look like. I have a link here to my blog.

Prediction: The Becker-Posner Blog will have more Bloglines subscribers before it launches than this blog has earned in eighteen months of existence.

[Update 11/30/04: That was fast! As of this morning, it's Becker-Posner 31, Eternal Recurrence 18. The good news is my prediction was right. The bad news is there are more people reading a non-existent weblog than are reading my own. Huzzah!]

Guest Agitating

For the next four to six weeks I’ll be guest blogging over Radley Balko’s excellent site, The Agitator. Some of the content will be cross-posted here, some will not, so be sure to check in at both places (as you should be doing anyway).

My talented co-Agitators will be Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings, Pete Guither of Drug War Rant, and Joshua Claybourn of In the Agora.

And to answer Radley’s question: the word “barista” applies to both male and female practitioners of the art, all of whom engage in such masculine activities as tamping with thirty lbs. of pressure, serving espresso in tiny ceramic cups, and drawing leaf-shaped designs into the foam of a latte. Like driving a Mack truck, baby.

From the mouths of babes

So I’m getting coffee the other day and I somehow strike up a conversation with a guy who claims to be a writer. I figured he leaned a bit to the left when I saw him reading Barbara Ehrenreich, but that was just scratching the surface. Soon I was hearing about how all the good jobs were going overseas, we’re headed toward environmental crisis, and the United States is just four or five years away from going the way of the Roman Empire. I think he might have said that the U. S. government must have surely known about 9/11 before it happened, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what he meant so I won’t go casting aspersions. Suffice it to say that this guy had all the talking points of the far left down pat.

When he then mentioned that he had been a practicing physician for many years and was writing a book about how to fix American healthcare, I was all set to hear the argument for socializing it. I was therefore rather surprised when he said roughly the following:

“The problems all began with the development of Blue Cross and Blue Shield. These were originally meant just to insure against surgeries and long hospital stays, but were later expanded to cover nearly everything. Now no one pays directly for their healthcare, so there’s no working of supply and demand and the prices have all gone up ridiculously high.”

I eventually learned that these escalating costs were the main reason he gave up on private practice a few years ago. Now, it may be that his solution to the problem is to have the government buy and distribute everything on a low cost basis, but he was at least able to see how the lack of markets had negatively impacted the field he worked in. If we could get leftists like him to start applying that reasoning to everything else, we liberals would be in a much better position to make good policy.

Thanksgiving with the Hemingway Star

“Ernest Questions” returns as The Hemingway Star asks the big names in Washington what they’re thankful for this year. Crack reporters Mike Mott and Jacob Grier have the results of the interviews right here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Videoblogging?

Programs such as WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, and MovableType have made it easy for non-techies like me to put together a reasonably nice-looking website. Just about anyone can now start up a weblog, find or create a good template for it, and implement photos to accompany their entries. Video, however, is out of reach for most bloggers. For instance, when I wanted to post the Hand Pants Man video I had to ask The Slant to host it for me (their site is down as of this typing, but do watch the video for a laugh when you get the chance).

The main obstacle is bandwidth. If a file becomes popular or is linked to by a major weblog, a site can easily exceed the amount it is allotted. A peer-to-peer program called BitTorrent provides a solution: as a file becomes popular, the computers downloading it are enlisted to help host it. Downloaders become simultaneous uploaders, making the process completely scalable. The BitTorrent homepage explains this in two simple diagrams.

What does this have to do with weblogs? A new freeware program called Blog Torrent brings this technology within reach of the average blogger. From the creators:

For all the hype about “peer-to-peer”, most peer-to-peer content is the same mainstream commercial content. And a big part of why that’s true is because filesharing tools are much better at helping you search for something you already know about than they are at presenting things that you don’t know about. For that problem, blogs are the perfect solution, but video (and even audio) is simply too big for most websites. BitTorrent is web-based p2p and can solve the presentation challenge, but has it’s own weakness: it’s difficult to setup a website to ‘track’ files and it’s tedious to create a .torrent file and post it to your website. Blog Torrent solves that problem by making installation simpler and by making the process of creating and posting a torrent effortless. We hope this will encourage people to create and share more original video.

Bloggers with direct access to their servers can try the program out now. People using hosted services like TypePad or Blogger will have to wait until a service like this is offered to them or a free site for posting the files is created.

And the best news of all? With Blog Torrent perhaps we can finally get started with Queso Crusader: First Blood… and by Blood we Mean Cheese!

Isemmelweis

My fellow former Catoite and Torch writer Trapper Michael has entered the blogosphere with his new, obscurely named weblog Isemmelweis. Trapper’s specialty is market-based health care reform and he’s updating his page daily with news, commentary, and book reviews. Good stuff!

Congrats to Peter the Elf

Readers may remember the mysterious Peter the Elf from back when The Hemingway Star broke the story about the Swift Sleigh Elves for Truth. Peter and I have exchanged a few emails since then and it turns out he’s been working on a very neat website called Elfster.com. I got to try it out in beta phase last month and thought it was a great idea; today it made it as a featured item on PC World.

The idea behind Elfster is to use the Internet to facilitate Secret Santa gift exchanges, doing for the holidays what evite did for parties. If you want to have an exchange, you just upload a list of friends (or “elves” as the site calls them) and Elfster sends out the invitations. It then takes the names of the participating elves and draws them out of a hat, keeping who gets whom confidential. If two of the elves shouldn’t draw each other’s name because of some decades old blood feud, the organizer can set the draw so that doesn’t happen.

That’s just the beginning, though. Elves can ask each other anonymous questions to get hints on gifts, create wishlists, or even create a list of items they don’t need. The site is easy to use, often quite funny, and helps support selected charities. If you’re having a Secret Santa gift exchange this year, Elfster is the way to do it in the Internet Age.

For the curious: my wishlist currently consists of queso and Skyline Chili and I have a “Naughtiness Factor” of 36.

Machina ex Deo

murky coffee in Clarendon (yeah, the name officially has no caps) closed early Sunday night to install a new espresso machine, the amazing Synesso Cyncra. I’ve been looking forward to getting this machine for weeks now. Check out the photo gallery (murky has the three group version). Oooh… excuse me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.

weatbvfhibkol/;’,

There, that’s better. Admittedly, as an entry level barista my reaction is probably much like the average readers’: “Wow, that’s shiny.” But it’s more than shiny. Nick says:

Mark Barnett, an espresso machine engineer with 12 years in the business, has basically built a “Monster Garage” creation of an espresso machine, called the Synesso Cyncra.

The best way I can explain it is this: if espresso-making is surgery, behold… the scalpel is born. “Average” espresso machines (like the one at Common Grounds) perform like a big, unwieldy axe.

“Who cares! Why is this important?” you may ask.

murky coffee arlington will have the Synesso Cyncra in within the next couple of weeks [That time has arrived -- Jacob]. It will be the first Cyncra in commercial operation on the east coast. This machine will provide us the stability necessary to deliver our promised “best damn coffee” in a way previously not possible.

Among the improvements are much, much better thermal stability in the water, greater control for the barista, and lots of technical things I don’t know about yet. Coffee geeks can read the list of features here. If you’ve been waiting to try the murky espresso, wait no longer. I just finished a double shot and a latte and they were excellent.

Excuse me while I change my pants.

Blogging recommences

I’ve been MIA due to long work hours at the Murk and visiting friends who kept me imbibing non-coffee drinks well into the early mornings. If more bars had free wi-fi you may have been treated to a few incoherent ramblings and lots of inside jokes — in other words, business as usual here at Eternal Recurrence. Blogging recommences now that friends and hangovers have gone their merry way.

Playing with food

The next time I throw a party, the guests will be eating hot dog sharks.

Yevgeny Vilensky is not an expert on gay orgies

This has been a public service announcement.

It’s not Alumni Lawn, but…

One of the downsides of being a barista is sometimes having to work on a Friday night or bright and early Sunday mornings. An upside is that on beautiful days like today I can get outside and play. Just like in college, I was able lure a friend out for a little catch, soccer, hackeysack, and…

dcaerobie.gif

The National Mall has now been claimed for Aerobie.

More on Neuticles

What have I started? Just when I thought and hoped there was nothing more to be said about Neuticles, David Tufte of voluntaryXchange proves me wrong. It turns out that they don’t exist for purely aesthetic reasons. He explains how asymmetric information in the dog show world creates a financial incentive for advertising false virility. Neat!

Neuticles have taken the blogosphere from humor to medicine to biology to economics in just a few days. Who knew an artificial testicle could bear so much fruit?

The FedEx subliminal logo

Did you know that the FedEx logo has a secret object embedded within it? Despite the logo’s ubiquity, I’ve never noticed it. Steven at The Sneeze has the story and an interview with its award-winning designer. Now that I know the object is there, it leaps out at me every time I look.

The logo reminds me of this photo by Richard Gregory, instantly recognizable to anyone who took a neuro course in college:

rgregory.jpg

Can you see what it is? Give it thirty seconds. That’s just a preview, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Click here [link corrected] for an explanation embedded within an interesting lecture on neuroaesthetics by Vilayanur Ramachandran; scroll down and you’ll see it, though the entire article is worth reading. Looking at the picture now, more than a year after when I first saw it, it’s hard to believe the subject was so elusive at first look.

Monster of God


Perhaps it was beginning to look like the “freelance writer” part of my weblog subtitle was just a big scam to lend some credibility to the site, but I’ve finally gotten around to the business of being published. No longer can the naysayers claim the only way my stuff would see print is if I started my own paper and named myself editor!

Today my review of David Quammen’s Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind was published on www.aBetterEarth.org, the environmental policy site run by the Institute for Humane Studies. The book is about our uneasy relationship with fearsome alpha predators and what the prospects are for their survival. Quammen is an excellent writer (see his cover story in this month’s National Geographic) and Monster of God is an engrossing read. Check my review for further details.

Incidentally, books I’m reading for review won’t be listed on the sidebar. I already have a few other science books lined up that I’ll hopefully get to review in the near future.

The Mystery of the Five-Inch Bull Balls

Earlier last week, Radley linked to an article I sent him about a man who wanted to be implanted with Neuticles. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these amazing devices, Neuticles are prosthetic testicles that dog owners can have implanted in their emasculated pooches to help give them a spring in their steps, a smile on their faces, and a song in their hearts. As the motto on the official t-shirt says, “It’s like nothing ever changed.”

A short time later I came across another article that talked about Neuticles and their inventor, Gregg Miller, founder of the Canine Testicular Implant Corporation (Gregg’s official motto: “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client.”). The article includes this intriguing fact:

The company reached a milestone in February, when a man bought Neuticles for his bull. If inquiring minds want to know: Each lifelike bull orb is 5 inches high and 2 1/2 inches wide.

“The guy didn’t want to say much about the purchase… He didn’t let us use his name in a press release,” says Miller. “But at $695, it’s a great direction for us.”

Most readers are probably wondering what the story is behind this mysterious guy buying the bull Neuticles. Indeed, that is a very good question. But what really shocked me is the size of the things. To be frank, I was surprised that the typical bull would have me at such a disadvantage.

I realize that may sound a bit immodest, not to mention inappropriate, so please allow me to clarify. It’s a principle of biology that you can tell a lot about a species’ mating habits by the size of its testes. If they are large relative to body mass, it’s a good bet that females of the species are promiscuous. Since they’re mating with multiple males, the evolutionary arms race favors males who can, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a larger deposit. Thus, they need larger testes. The opposite is true for the lesser-endowed animals. If males are assured of having monopoly access to their mates, then there’s no reason for them to waste resources on large testicles.

This explains the surprising fact that human men are significantly better endowed than their gorilla counterparts. A successful gorilla male wins exclusive access to a harem of females, resulting in practically zero need for seminal competition. Of course, the imbalance that this creates leads to considerable physical competition among the males, which is why gorillas exhibit such sexual dimorphism: males are much, much larger than females.

Before the guys in the audience get inflated egos from this discussion, I should mention that the smaller chimpanzee has us completely outclassed. Since chimps live in highly promiscuous social groups, sperm competition is quite intense. What does this tell us that we can bring up the next time we’re stuck at a boring cocktail party? That humans are by nature much more monogamous than our nearest living evolutionary cousins, but not completely monogamous. [Note: With this blog entry I will probably get myself deleted from about a dozen cocktail party invitations.]

For further discussion of these matters, check out Jared Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee. Alternatively, take a look at this post about another form of sperm competition on the excellent evolution blog The Panda’s Thumb.

But we were talking about bulls. My impression of bulls’ mating behavior was that it was closer to that of the gorilla than that of the chimpanzee: one dominant bull pushing and shoving his way to nearly exclusive access to the most fetching of cows. If this were the case, even allowing for body size I wouldn’t have expected the whopping five inches reported in the Neuticles article. My presumption was backed up by the fact that I’ve actually partaken of the Rocky Mountain oyster, and my memory is of something more golf ball sized. So what gives? My curiosity piqued, I spent some time this afternoon searching the Internet for answers. [Note: If this isn't a sign that I really need a girlfriend, I don't know what is.]

The first thing I learned is that one should be very careful about what links one clicks when searching for online information about “cattle” and “mating.” I’ll spare you the details.

The second thing I learned was that my impression of bull’s mating behavior wasn’t too far off the mark. A page on the gaur, a wild ox found in Asia, reports that the dominant male will mate with about ten different females in a given mating season, but that the dominance hierarchy changes frequently.

A more thorough and interesting report comes from a study [.ppt] performed by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan. In that study, riders on horseback observed a herd of bulls and cows from a distance to record their mating behavior. The results shed some light on the Mystery of the Five-Inch Bull Balls.

One of the observations reported in the study is that though there is a hierarchy among the bulls, the dominant ones have to constantly chase off their younger challengers. Young bulls often initiate copulation with females only to be disturbed by the bigger elders, who follow a forceful strategy of, shall we say, cow-itus interruptus.

A second observation is that the dominant bulls often rely upon the lower ranking males to act as “heat detectors,” allowing the young bulls to identify receptive females before moving in themselves. This time saving strategy has its human parallel in the hiring process of Capitol Hill interns.

The net result of all of this jockeying for position is that there is no difference in the frequency of copulation between the dominant and low ranking males, even though there is a definite hierarchy when it comes to mating privileges. So, contrary to my initial impression, it might be the case that bulls have to deal with significant sperm competition.

What of the Rocky Mountain oysters? Checking the restaurant menu, it turns out that what I had assumed to be a “whole ball” appetizer may have actually been precut. The description is “small bites battered and fried to a golden brown and served with a tangy ‘cocktail’ sauce.” On the other hand, the “Fear Factor” website, of all places, reports that the things do tend to shrink when cooked. Either way, their size was misleadingly small.

It’s also possible that humans have artificially selected for large testicals in domesticated cattle since breeders sensibly take size into consideration when purchasing sires. Of course, it’s also possible that their size isn’t at all out of line for such massive animals; I’ve got no way of knowing. Perhaps further research from the University of Saskatchewan could decide the issue.

For now it’s time to put this mystery to rest and return this weblog to less testicular topics. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into the biological side of things. As for me, it’s like I said after eating my first Rocky Mountain oyster: “I’ve had a ball.”