Out of the great Pacific Northwest last week came the story of Jim Zumbo, a well-renown outdoorsman, wildlife biologist, and hunting evangelist, whose career has essentially come to an abrupt halt as a result of him daring to speak his mind and disapprove of the trend towards using military-style assault rifles in hunting. In a nutshell, Zumbo — who wrote his first article for Outdoor Life in 1962, has published over 1,500 articles in outdoor magazines, has authored over 20 books, and has served on a half-dozen forestry and animal society boards over his career — wrote an entry on the Outdoor Life weblog questioning the use of assault rifles in hunting and referring to the class of weapons as “‘terrorist’ rifles.” The backlash was instant and unrelenting; before the weblog post was pulled by the folks at OL, it had apparently garnered 4,000+ comments (most of which called for Zumbo’s firing, and a not-unsubstantial number of which called for much worse for him), and hundreds and hundreds of posts all over the web indicting the man’s opinions. Within a few days, Outdoor Life had fired Zumbo, his show on the Outdoor Channel had been cancelled, most of his corporate associations (like with Remington Arms) had been terminated, the NRA suspended all ties to him, and he’s more or less had to go into hiding. We’re talking about a man who has stumped for the NRA and its causes nearly a hundred times over the course of his career, and a single word in a single opinion piece has led to a hysteria that, in the gun world, appears tantamount to Watergate or Mark Foley’s diddling of Congressional pages.

This is one of the more insane reactions I think I’ve ever seen. It seems odd to me that a publication like Outdoor Life — owned by Time, Inc., one of the more staunch defenders and beneficiaries of First Amendment rights in this country — would suddenly end the career of a storied and prolific writer because he took advantage of the benefits the First Amendment grant him and uttered an opinion that riles people’s notions of what they feel their own Second Amendment protections are. There’s a valid argument to be made that, in writing his opinion on the OL-sponsored weblog, Zumbo bore some increased responsibility to OL for tailoring his opinions appropriate to their restrictions — but within a day of his posting, the magazine added a standard disclaimer to the weblog entry appropriating the views to him and him alone, and yet they still canned him a few days later.

All that being said, I doubt that this has all played out yet, and likewise, I doubt that we’ve seen the final tone this debate will take. I’d hazard a guess that there are a crapload of hunters out there who feel similarly to Zumbo, and by alienating him, organizations like the NRA are increasing the likelihood that when he gets his voice back, he’s not going to be all that friendly to them anymore. Incidents like this tend to expose the true fault lines that run through issues like gun ownership (a quick perusal of some of the more fanatical gun ownership forums even this morning demonstrates how true that is), and as this brouhaha dies down, those fault lines don’t close up.

Our narrow new hallway bench

Hey, lookie there — our new hallway bench is on Apartment Therapy NYC! (The actual Flickr page for the photo they posted is here; I’m not sure why the folks at AT:NYC chose not to link to the photo page.)

Shannon and I found the bench when we randomly popped into an antique shop across the street from our favorite neighborhood hardware store; it was lining one of the walls behind the main display area, and we immediately asked if we could borrow a tape measure and check the dimensions. We trotted home afterwards, measured the hallway space, and knew that we’d probably never find as ideal a piece of furniture for that space again. The owner of the shop said that she found it during a renovation of another Capitol Hill home, along with a few shorter benches of the same narrow depth, all of which she had already sold. We both love how weathered this one is, and most importantly, how it doesn’t take any additional width from the hallway. The only thing I’ll really have to do is anchor the back legs down (since the floor joists are typical of 100+ year-old joists in that they bow up just slightly at the walls), and it’ll be perfect.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a bit of an obsession with man-made projects that are created on a scale which has to take into account things we’d never, ever need to worry about on a daily basis. For example, I’ve been fascinated by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge ever since I learned that its builders had to take into account the curvature of the earth when they built it; as a result, the tops of the bridge’s two towers are nearly two inches further apart than the bases. (Could you imagine if every homebuilder and roadworker had to worry about the curvature of the earth in their projects?) It’s because of this obsession that I’m amazed I never knew that GPS has to take into account the theory of relativity in about a half-dozen different ways in order to function correctly — and if the engineers who designed it had failed to account for both general and special relativity, the locations given by our GPS receivers would be off by dozens of miles, and would get worse every day. That’s just damn cool.

A few weekend short takes:

Chains of affection

I’m not sure how I missed this when it came out, but two years ago, Peter Bearman (go Columbia!) and colleagues used extremely detailed data gathered as part of the Adolescent Health Project to map the romantic and sexual network of 832 of the 1,000 students at a large high school somewhere in the Midwest. The results of their research is the American Journal of Sociology article “Chains of Affection” (the full PDF of the article available here, from the home page of one of the other sociologists who was involved in the study), and it’s a hell of an interesting read. The relationship map was put together with the dual intents of getting a better sense of the disease transmission risks faced by high school students and of figuring out optimal strategies for implementing social policy changes, and there are a few things that came out of the study that are pretty amazing to me.

The most noticeable part of the map is that there is a huge, interconnected network containing more than half of the romantically-involved students in the school — all in all, there are 288 students who share common links in their relationships. Within this subgroup, students were separated by as many as 37 steps, and while some members of the subgroup only had one other partner, others had as many as nine. (Fascinating to me is that the 37-degree separation actually forms a completely circular core of this network — you can start with any of the 37 students, start tracking that individual’s relationships, and end up coming right back to that same individual.)

While those 288 students all formed a large, branching relationship network, 126 others formed 63 separate monogamous relationships, and 63 students formed 21 three-person networks. That’s interesting in and of itself, since it reflects nearly 200 students who were relatively isolated from sexual risks. There were also only two same-sex relationships identified in the network (one within the large network, and one within a much smaller grouping of relationships); that number is small enough to make me at least wonder whether the researchers identified every single relationship in the school. Due to the design of the study’s data-gathering methods, students weren’t asked about relationships that they had with non-students, so that’s probably another place where there are a couple unknown links in the network.

All in all, Bearman and his study group put together a pretty amazing look at the sexuality of students in an average high school, and effectively drive home the real risks that parents, educators, and public health officials need to acknowledge.

Holy crap — Dianne Odell, a 60 year old woman in Tennessee, contracted polio at the age of three and has spent the last 57 years living inside an iron lung. I had no idea any iron lungs were still in use, but according to that article, there are 30 to 40 of them still delivering breaths to people in the United States. Minnesotan Marilyn Rogers has spent nearly the same amount of time dependent on her iron lung, as has Dolores Thompson in California, both of which, like Odell, have tried more modern ventilators and been unable to tolerate the switch. Unfortunately, the only company which was able to repair iron lungs discontinued its service guarantees in the middle of 2004, leaving all these people on pretty thin ice.

I’m not sure there’s any stronger an argument for the importance of the polio vaccine than this whole story — polio is a nasty disease, and its eradication is one of the true miracles of 20th century medicine.

For all of you who are using the occasion of Window Vista’s release to rekindle old Mac-vs-PC flames, I suggest you take a little time to read Jeff Atwood’s post from yesterday. I don’t think I can agree with him strongly enough; while I live my life surrounded by computers (literally — a half-dozen in the home, a research career centered around them, a few hobbies dependent on them), they certainly are enormous pains in the ass half the time.

Take this weekend, when I found myself in the basement at my workbench and needed to look something up on the web. My old laptop — a Powerbook G4 I haven’t used in a few months — was sitting on top of the workbench, so I opened it up and launched Firefox. The first thing I was greeted with was “Firefox is now installing all your updates”; that process ended up taking nearly three minutes to complete. During this, I launched Safari, but as I was typing in the address bar, a window popped up alerting me to a slew of operating system updates waiting to be downloaded and installed. I ignored that, searched for and found the tool manual I was looking for, and clicked on the link to the PDF, after which I was greeted with a warning from Acrobat Reader telling me that the file had features that were too new to be supported in that version of the application. It was five or ten minutes of sheer frustration, all in the name of finding a freaking piece of information on the web.

Jeff is right on when he says that these days, the best electronic devices out there are special-purpose ones that do a small handful of things incredibly well; the more functionality and geegaws a manufacturer adds to a device, the less stable, reliable, and usable that device will be. And when push comes to shove, all these devices are just tools, and they matter far, far less than what we do with them. In Jeff’s words:

That’s the other problem with the Mac vs. PC debate: it completely misses the point. Computers aren’t couture, they’re screwdrivers. Your screwdriver rocks, and our screwdriver sucks. So what? They’re screwdrivers. If you really want to convince us, stop talking about your screwdriver, and show us what you’ve created with it.

What a smart idea! If you live within WiFi range of any Starbucks, the folks at FON want to give you a free wireless router so that you can share your connection with the customers at Starbucks. The bonus feature of the offer is that while the coffee chain’s own WiFi service costs $10 a day to use, using the FON connection would only cost people $2 a day, half of which goes to the user providing the wireless connection. Seems like a great way for FON to increase the reach of their social WiFi network, and for Starbucks customers to get access to the net for a hell of a lot cheaper — a win-win any way you look at it.

If you don’t live near a Starbucks but still want in on the free FON router action, don’t fear; it also looks like every registered FON user has three invitations to send which entitle the recipient to a freebie. So go find yourself a Fonero and ask for an invite!

(One caveat: while I have a FON router which works fine, I’ve heard a few horror stories about the setting the routers up, killing them dead with things as simple as a firmware upgrade, and wanting to throw them out of windows. The configuration interface also leaves quite a bit to be desired — it’s this totally weird mix where part of the config is done via a local interface to the router, and the other half is done via FON’s reasonably slow website which then sends it back to your router. I’m hopeful that it’s this sort of stuff that’s more indicative of them being new to the business and growing quickly…)

For those of you out there who are just starting to wade into the high-definition TV waters, it doesn’t take long to find out that the recommended method of connecting some component or another of yours to your TV is via an HDMI cable. (It’s a single, moderately-thin, simple-to-connect cable that carries both audio and video in a pure digital format.) Let this be a warning to you: when you go shopping for a cable, be very wary of the amount you’re being asked to pay — many retailers look to be charging 300-plus percent markups on the cables, for no reason other than to increase profit margins. Rather than fall for that scam, hop online and grab a cable for under $20… your wallet will thank you.

(One important bit of info to know about HDMI is that the data transmitted by the cable truly is digital — it’s ones and zeros. And that means that digital cables either work or they don’t, unlike analog cables like the other video and audio cables we’re all used to which can degrade the signals they carry if they’re of poor-enough quality. So if a $20 cable works, it’s the exact same as a $100 cable which works… except $80 cheaper.)

Ugh — a man who appears to have leapt to his death from a 15th-story New York City apartment yesterday impaled himself on a parking sign pole, and the pole had to be cut down and removed with the body. I’d say that this’ll inspire a Law & Order episode if I wasn’t reasonably sure it’s happened on the show before…

There’s no denying that I have a pretty generous place in my heart for New York City, but one specific thing I love about spending the weekend in the City is how I always get a heads-up on new fashion trends. For example, after seeing four people in the past 36 hours wearing Vans, I’m pretty sure that the slip-on sneakers have woken up from the cryogenic coma they were put into in the 1980s; I’m equally sure that if it weren’t 30 degrees out, I’d be seeing a lot of Ocean Pacific surf shirts and Jams. What’s old is new again…

Over the past half-decade, there’s no denying that for all the amazing things the internet has brought us, it’s also been the source of quite a bit of annoying crap in everyone’s lives. From spam (\/|@GR@, anyone?) to phishing attempts to search results polluted with splogs to malware, a lot of people are out there exploiting the inherent trust model on which the fundamental internet protocols were based. What we’re all left with is an email system in which more than 9 out of 10 messages sent are spam, and with commerce websites and other online communities that have no way to trust their users other than to force us to create entire new identities on each of them if we want to use them. I don’t think it’s that wild a guess to say that many of us spend as much time each day dealing with all of these issues as we did performing their analogs in the non-internet-enabled world (driving to stores, writing letters, making phone calls), but today, the stakes are a lot higher — our family photos, bank accounts, and credit card numbers are all out there waiting for someone to exploit a hole in the armor and scurry off with them.

It’s because of this that I’m so happy to see an initiative like OpenID succeeding. A few years ago, the idea of OpenID was floated by the inestimable Brad Fitzpatrick (the father of LiveJournal, now a Six Apart property) as a way for people to carry around virtual identity cards on the net, and to securely use those credentials as a way of demonstrating to others on the internet who they really are. Between then and now, OpenID’s development has taken place out in the open, on mailing lists and wikis and web forums, and the result is a technology that Microsoft adopted last week and AOL has been quietly rolling out to its online service and instant messenger users for a few months now. That’s a great adoption rate, and I’d like to think that it’s because it’s a technology that’s sorely needed on today’s web. I’m not naive enough to think that it’s a salve to cure all the net’s wounds — for example, there’s still work to be done to make sure that anonymous ID providers don’t become the way spammers and miscreants get around the system — but I’m hopefuly enough to recognize that OpenID might be one of the more important building blocks to us all being able to trust our online interactions just a bit more.

I mean, who the hell knew that Tim Hardaway was such a complete homophobic jackass? All I can say is… wow.

Scott LaFee wrote up a great little history of the petri dish in the San Diego Union-Tribune — it’s a fascinating piece about a piece of scientific equipment that’s so important and pervasive that pretty much every lay person out there knows its name and function. And in addition to the simple dish’s role driving science forward a million different times a day, it’s also been the palette for some pretty cool art, some mathematical theories about fractal development, and even the appearance of a major diety; there are literally a million derivatives of the petri dish, from three-dimensional ones to ones that fit on the head of a pin. Very cool indeed, especially given that it’s an invention by a scientist whose career was otherwise unremarkable.

(One note: while doing a few searches to write this post, I stumbled across this Flickr posting of a petri dish, and immediately recognized it as stolen from this scientist’s online gallery of his own petri dishes. The part of it that I find the most galling is that the Flickr user, Jack Mottram, assigned a Creative Commons license to the photo that demands that others attribute any reuse of the image back to him, as if he has any rights to the photo to begin with. That’s severely broken.) Update: he appears to have added a credit for the photo and removed the CC license… but I’d argue that it’s still not kosher to have the image in his Flickr photostream at all.

Wow — how long do you think it’ll take the folks at Google to realize that their custom Valentine’s Day logo is missing the letter “l”?

Google Missing L


In a shocking, shocking bit of news, the New York Times has an article talking about how better real estate listing photos help sell homes. From the buyer’s perspective, I can back this up about one kajillion percent; Shannon and I spent countless hours of our homebuying experience hysterically laughing at the godawful pictures that people were willing to attach to their half-million-dollar home listings. What’s sad to me is that most of the time, it appears that it’s the agents themselves who are taking and publishing the horrid pictures — I’m pretty sure that when the day comes that Shannon and I find ourselves in the market to sell our house, one thing we’ll be doing is looking at any prospective agents’ other listings and seeing how good (or awful!) the images are.

Seriously, how much do you have to hate having a medical license to take a call from someone having 105-degree fevers and hallucinations, offer up a diagnosis, and prescribe medicine all without asking the person to come in to be examined? What if the dude had meningitis? What if he was septic? How would you defend your choice to just prescribe and forget?

Dear Yahoo:

As requested, this week I decided to merge my Flickr old-skool login with my Yahoo account. The process was painless and trivial to do, as advertised, and despite the massive how-dare-you-make-us-merge freakout that’s been flowing across the web, no part of my soul died in the process.

Once I was back in the folds of my Yahoo account, I decided to check my email and found that my account had been deactivated due to disuse. (This is not too surprising, seeing as how that account became a spam vacuum within moments of me opening it however long ago I did so.) What was odd to me was the way in which you offered me the various reactivation options — you did so without warning me in any way, shape, or form that one of the options costs money, and you provided me with no links to pages which might help me discover this fact. In many ways, this felt purposeful, as if you might want people to be lacking this bit of information while making what otherwise would be an obvious choice.

Yahoo's deceptive reactivation options

(Wily as I am, I managed to defeat your Jedi mind tricks by opening another browser tab and using Google to search for the truth before making my choice. And yes, the use of Google rather than your own search engine was purposeful; after all, I figured that not providing the information right there in the context of asking me to make the choice was a clear indication that Yahoo might not have the information to begin with, and thus it was unlikely to show up in your own search engine.) And therein I learned that opting for the first of the two choices would cost me 20 smackeroos, a fact that definitely shifted the balance a bit.

So I guess my point in all this is: while I was certainly glad to give you all the benefit of the doubt on the whole Flickr account merge issue, it didn’t help when you betrayed that trust by trying to trick me into a premium email service by withholding information at the precise moment I would need it in order to make an informed choice. You were this close to having a customer who was solidly baffled by the group of folks who question their ability to trust Yahoo with their Flickr accounts; instead, you managed to make me question whether it’s reasonable to trust you as a company. If you notice me keeping you at arm’s length for the next little while, even as you release cool new services I’m sure I’d love to play with, I hope you understand…


I admit to not paying much attention to the whole fracas around the Boston Police Department shutting down parts of the city to “disarm” what turned out to be guerrilla art marketing geegaws, but thankfully, a bunch of other have been doing so… and they’re thus now in a position to point out the overt idiocy of the Boston Police and prosecutorial machinery. First stop is Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s post, which puts this event in the context of another genius move by the BPD, the 2006 “bomb scare” arrest of a man who was protesting by reenacting the famous Abu Ghraib photo outside an Army recruiting center. Then comes Bruce Schneier, who reminds us that the only terrorizing that was done came at the hands of the BPD, not the artists; the devices were up for over three weeks in Boston, and over ten weeks in other cities, and all of a sudden the BPD decided that it had to panic and go apeshit. And finally, Wired’s John Browne with a look at the laws involved, concluding that the only way the Boston prosecutors will be able to fulfill their promise to throw the book at the artists is if they demonstrate both that they intended to instill fear and that anyone would reasonably believe the devices to constitute some threat… something that the whole up-for-many-weeks-without-incident thing probably contradicts. (some via the inestimable Rafe)