Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Early trains

I got to the train station a healthy two minutes before the train was due to leave this morning.

Unfortunately, the train got to the station three minutes early, so I got to wave good-bye to it as it left.

I'm not one of these people who think their world is collapsing if their train is three minutes late, but trains leaving early is another story. There are all sorts of reasons a train can be late for circumstances out of their control: mechanical difficulty, sick or aggressive passengers, cows walking across the track. But early? There's no excuse for the train leaving early, not ever. If the train makes better time than expected and arrives early, wait at the damn station for the clock to tick over. It isn't a race and there is no prize for leaving the station without the passengers. A time-table is a promise, and while I can forgive running late due to circumstances beyond their control, I can't forgive deliberately leaving before the promised time.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Where are the prices?

I had an interesting time trying to place a stationery order today. Seems that the latest price list from Paul John Office National ... has no prices in it.

That's both the paper catalog and their on-line ordering website. What are they thinking? Do they really think people want to talk to a sales-rep just to order some paper and pencils? Do they expect people to just randomly order products with no idea of what price they'll be? I don't think so.

There's a new price list due out soon. If it doesn't have prices, I'll seriously consider changing stationery suppliers. Like Moist von Lipwig says, always make it easy for people to give you money. Making it impossible for them to compare prices between products is not making it easy for them, and neither is expecting them to pick up the phone to ask how much for a box of staples.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Atheists out

A friend sent me this clipping of a letter to the editor from a US newspaper; unfortunately I didn't get the details of which paper or the date it was sent.
Atheists out
[Click image for full-sized view.]

For the benefit of search engines and those using screen readers, here is the text:

It's time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country.

The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc., which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.

I don't recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says "In God We Trust." So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.

Atheists have caused the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don't care if they have never committed a crime, atheists are the reason crime is rampant.

Alice Shannon

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Backing up blogger

Some time ago, I wrote about the relatively painless transition from original Blogger to the new Blogger. I mentioned that I backed up my posts with wget, and intended to come back and write about the command I used.

It's only taken a month and a bit, but here it is.

wget --wait=3 -r --level=2 --span-hosts \, \
--timestamping --backup-converted \
--referer= \

Change "MY-BLOG" in all three places to whatever the name of your blog is.

For those who want an explanation of the command-line options:

  1. Be a good Internet citizen and don't hammer Blogger's servers (not to mention your own Internet link). Use the --wait=3 option to pause three seconds between downloads. If you like, you can also add a --random-wait option to make wget look more like a human browsing than a robot.

  2. The -r option tells wget to download recursively, rather than just a single webpage; --level=2 tells it how deep to go.

  3. The --span-hosts option tells wget that it is okay to download from domains other than the original webpage; the --domains lists the domains to download from.

  4. One of those domains is; that's where old Blogger stored your uploaded images. The other domain is, naturally, your own blog.

  5. We use the --timestamping to make sure we only download new files; --backup-converted ensures we backup local files on our hard disk before they are overwritten.

  6. The --referer option adds a "referer" header to the HTTP request. Some web servers play silly games if you don't include a referer, like sending you to the home page instead of the page you want.

  7. Last but not least, you need to tell wget where to start the downloading. That would be your blog's main page.

I don't expect this to work for new Blogger. Once I've worked out the changes needed to make it work, I'll post updated instructions.

Chimpanzees using spears

Zoologists working in Senegal on the west coast of Africa have discovered chimpanzees making and using wooden spears to hunt for monkeys.

The BBC reports that Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani have published a paper documenting 22 cases of chimps making spears. The chimps use the spears as hunting weapons, not probes, jabbing them into hollows in trees to catch bushbabies.

Chimpanzee Lessor bushbaby

Although male chimps have long been regarded as the hunters, it was females (particularly adolescents) and not the males who made and used the spears.

Hunting by chimpanzees is not a new discovery, but this is the first time chimps have been found to make weapons, reinforcing their status as one of the tool-making as well as tool-using species. The chimps in this study live in an area of Senegal without their usual prey, the red colobus monkey, and the researchers suggest that having to hunt for a different sort of prey has encouraged the chimps to develop new technology.

More information can be found here.

Friday, February 23, 2007


I wish to complain about the user interface of the KDE screensaver used under Centos 4.4. The relevant part of the screensaver control panel is this:

screensaver settings
Notice that you can set the start time in minutes, but the password locking must be entered in seconds? WTF? And no, you can't just type over "seconds" and replace it with "minutes" -- I've tried.

Some tasks really do need to be specified down to the second, but starting a screensaver is not one of them. Why would anyone seriously need to specify that the screensaver locks the screen in 121 seconds instead of two minutes? As functionality goes, allowing the user to specify the time in seconds is silly, but it doesn't do any harm. But requiring the user to use seconds is just ludicrous.

And bad luck if you don't want the screen saver to lock for two hours, because 1800 seconds -- 30 minutes -- is the maximum value it will accept.

The good thing and the bad thing about Linux is that you can pick any one of many different distributions. No doubt other distributions have more sensible screensaver configuration screens. But Centos is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which is aimed squarely at the corporate market. If you're a corporate user, chances are good that you'll be using this unimpressive interface rather than the nicer versions found in (say) Fedora Core 5 or Ubuntu. And that just reinforces the meme that Linux isn't ready for the desktop yet -- which simply isn't true.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Why didn't I know about this?

I like to consider that I'm fairly well-read, that I know more about history than the most obvious. Most people know about World War One and the Russian Revolution; but few know about the more than 170 thousand Allied troops (mostly American and Japanese) who took part in the Allied Powers' military intervention in Russia during 1918-1920.

But every now and again, I come across something which I should have know but didn't. When we think about the Indian wars in the USA, we think of the stereotypical "Western": John Wayne against the Apaches. Sometimes, if we're especially well-read, we might even think of The Last of the Mohicans.

But why had I never heard of the Seminoles before?

After you read this post, you won’t look at a 20 dollar bill - the one with Andrew Jackson’s face on it - the same way again. When you think of the wars in American history, a standard list - including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq - come to mind. What about the Pequot War, King Philip’s War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Creek War, or the Black Hawk War? These were also wars we fought (King Philip’s War was the bloodiest, pound for pound, in our history), but they’re invisible. The reason - the “enemy” was native American. In this episode, I will discuss how the Seminole Indians fought three wars in Florida, holding the United States Army at bay for nearly 4 decades, resisting the Indian removal policy. The Seminoles, in fact, were never defeated in the field.

Forty years. Imagine that.

Testing Star Wars

It's times like this that I actually have to force myself to look in a dictionary to reassure myself that "Conservative" isn't a synonym for "idiot".

Taylor Dinerman, writing for Pajamas Media, has an exclusive story of President Bush's alleged plans to build an orbital battle station, and the dastardly, treasonous plans of the Democrats to ... test the missile defence technology before deployment.

Shock horror gasp!!!

Democratic leaders are poised to gut America’s missile defense - at the same time North Korea and Iran are testing long-range missiles that can strike the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, Japan and Britain.

[Emphasis in original.]

Yes folks, you saw it here. The party of "fiscal restraint" (ha ha!), the Republicans, intend to spend possibly hundreds of billions of dollars deploying military technology that has never been tested, and Dinerman considers this not only a reasonable thing to do but a good thing.

Certainly testing sounds reasonable. Why not make sure the stuff works before blowing billions on it? But the testing fixation ignores that, like software, most successful weapons systems are best debugged after being deployed.

As anyone in software development will tell you, that is completely false.

Of course, some companies have made money by skimping on testing and using their customers as inadvertent guinea pigs and testers. Buggy releases of software are very common. But while the worst culprits may be guilty of inadequate, half-hearted testing, even they don't release software with no testing. "It compiles? Quick, ship it!" is just a joke, it doesn't really happen.

One can often get away with inadequate testing in software. The consequences of your word processor crashing or your Internet browser using the wrong size for text is not particularly dire. But when your untested missile defence system shoots down a passenger plane over Texas instead of a nuclear missile heading for New York, people tend to complain.

Dinerman misrepresents the historical situation, claiming that Britain's 1940s air defences had never been tested. Of course, they had never been tested in combat until the first time they saw combat, but to say they had not been tested is ludicrous. Does Dinerman really think that the British anti-aircraft guns had never been test fired to see if they would hit what they were aimed at? Dinerman is completely wrong: the British air defences had a long and rigorous testing program, not only leading up to the war but through the war. See, for instance, the book Sigh for a Merlin which describes the career of test-pilot Alex Henshaw:

Thousands of Spitfires were tested and manufactured at this site throughout the war, by the end of which 37,000 test flights had been made...

or the BBC's "People's Museum":

We all know the story of the dashing fighter pilots but we rarely hear about the test pilots. Testing a newly designed plane was a highly dangerous task and a huge responsibility, and it was thanks to these men that the Spitfire became the plane it was.

Dinerman's understanding of the purpose of testing has cause and effect completely backwards:

Yet test failures are a normal part of the development process of any weapon system. Consider the M-1 tank. Its early tests were riddled with failures, yet now it is one of the most effective tanks in the world.

Rather than the M-1 being so effective despite the test failures, it is effective because of the test failures. All the major bugs were ironed out before combat. Imagine if Dinerman got his way: the first time bugs in the M-1 were discovered would have been when they were under attack. Trust me, the last thing you want to discover in full combat is unexpected bugs.

I could spend another few thousand words going through Dinerman's article, point by point, but of more interest is the comments -- by my estimate, something like fifteen times as many words written by readers than in the article itself.

What strikes me as significant about the comments is the amount of with fear and hate (not to mention a lot of wishful thinking and ignorance) they display. Just a few examples:

[Ed: They're in a race? Like, "First one to destroy the Damn Yankies wins a medal"?]

"If a city goes up in a nuclear cloud, I sure hope it's a 'blue' one."

"Yes, I'm Christian, and I think war is good. Watch youselves, you better believe I'm counting the 'aye' votes in the rush to Armageddon."

"Peace is not the absence of hostility but is what is achieved through complete and absolute victory."
[Ed: The USA and the UK (or Canada if you prefer) are at peace, and have been for almost 200 years. There was no "complete and absolute victory" the last time they were at war, the War of 1812. [1]]

"The future election map resulting from their [the Democrats] folly will eventually look like this: No blue states. Six red states. Forty-four blackened and smoldering states."

My nomination for "Spoke Too Soon Award" of the year goes to Ralph Drury, for his comment written on December 1 2006:

... nobody but the good ol' US of A has the technology to have even the remotest chance of hitting any orbiting body. China today would have a difficult time even hitting Los Angeles, let alone a moving target 1,000,000's of times smaller and alot further away.

On January 11 2007, China made a successful test of an anti-satellite missile by destroying one of their aging satellites in orbit.

Thanks to Mokka mit Schlag.

[1] (And the White House burned burned burned...) Back

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Headline news

Police Disarm Man With Chainsaw.

That's just so wrong. Funny, but wrong.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dominance rituals, the President and the Terrorist

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published a review of "Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait" by Israeli journalist Uri Dan. Dan was the former adviser, close confidant and friend of the late Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon.

In the book, Uri Dan discusses a meeting between Sharon and US President Bush, and Bush's fantasy for what he would do to Osama bin Laden if he every got his hands on him. Because I'm trying to keep this blog nannyware-safe, I'll just point you here for the description of what Bush would do if he caught bin Laden. But here's a couple of hints:

The President used to be a frat boy.

What Bush would do to bin Laden
There's some serious analysis as well, not just cheap gags. Dominance and sexuality are intimately linked in our species.

(An interesting aside: in the book, Dan also hints obliquely that Palestinian President Yassar Arafat may not have died of natural causes, and that Sharon may have been involved.)

Wibble wibble wibble.

Perhaps this is making fun of the afflicted, but I still think it is funny. Here is a transcript of comments from Live Journal, by some fan-girls having a squeebolism[1] over an American police soap. Apparently, some characters called Grissom and Sara were going to kiss each other. (No, I have no idea who they are either.)

Names have been changed to protect the guilty. Other than that, I swear to the deity or deities of your choice, I haven't edited a word! There may be some slight confusion as to who said what to whom when. But, sweet baby jeebus in his crib, in this particular case does correct attribution really matter???

jane wrote @ 2006-10-09 23:24:00
According to a spoiler-source (whom I will love forever) over at YTDAW,
there will most definitely WITHOUT A DOUBT be a kiss this season!


lightspeed wrote @ 2006-10-09 11:37 pm UTC


cardboard wrote @ 2006-10-09 11:54 pm UTC

ashes wrote @ 2006-10-10 12:43 am UTC

*FANGASM* *DIES* This news has totally made my month!

greencats wrote @ 2006-10-10 12:47 am UTC
ZOMGBFJKRFhluefh3iuqhfvkwqb98EY!!!!!111!11oneoneone SERIOUSLY

*eminates hearts onto TPTB*

sybill wrote @ 2006-10-11 12:47 am UTC
I didn't want to read spoilers but........!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


[1] Thanks to Mrs Impala for pointing this one out to me, and especially for inventing the term squeebolism. Back

Monday, February 19, 2007

Crime and punishment

Two entries about crime and punishment...

First, a form of inner-city crime prevention that, according to the evidence from the US, really does work. No draconian "getting tough on crime" or zero tolerance, or fantasies about "super predators". Nor does it treat criminals as victims. Instead, it treats them as adult human beings, people capable of making choices, but needing to break out of the toxic culture they find themselves in.

The violent inner-city gang culture truly is toxic, with a culture of machismo that forces men to welcome the brutality of prison and punishment instead of fearing it, to die rather than live, to murder for the smallest disrespect.

In High Point, law enforcement spoke honestly to communities: that enforcement was not succeeding, and they knew it; that they had never meant to do harm through relentless enforcement, but had come to realize that they had; that they would like to act differently. Communities looked inward and realized that in their anger over historic and present ills, they had not made it clear to their own young people that gang and drug activity was wrong and deeply damaging to the community. Both law enforcement and community came to understand that what they were dealing with was not so much depraved individuals as it was out-of-control peer, group, and street dynamics. So when the partnership met with High Point’s drug dealers, the community voice was clear and amazingly powerful. Scores of community members, including many immediate family, told the dealers that they were loved, needed, vital to the future of the community, would be helped: but were doing wrong, hurting themselves and others, and had to stop. Overwhelmingly, they heard, and they did. Law enforcement was uncompromising that continued criminality would bring sure consequences, but very few had to be arrested subsequently, and many are now living very different lives.

[Emphasis added.]

Secondly, a question from Mark Kleiman: when there is a humane, safe, simple form of execution, why do those in favour of capital punishment insist on inhumane, unsafe (to those administering it), complex and unreliable execution methods?

I'm very ambivalent about capital punishment. Over the years, I've come to decide that I fear the government's misuse of capital punishment more than I fear criminals, but if Kleiman is right, at least we can avoid those horrific botched executions. [Warning: may contain images and descriptions which are distressing.]

Dollar coin sadness

For those of us in civilized countries, it can sometimes come as a shock to deal with American hard currency. The US one and five cent coins are still in circulation, despite containing more than their own face value in metal. (Nickels contain seven cents worth of metal; pennies a fraction more than one cent.) All their notes are the same size and colour, making it a nightmare for the blind and partially-sighted people, not to mention a boon to counter-fitters. And the government still throws hundreds of millions of dollars away each year by making short-lived paper $1 notes. Given this background, the Reality-Based Community's Michael O'Hare's The Sad Story of the Dollar Coin makes interesting reading.

Russia hits out at Microsoft

It's probably too much to hope for a nuclear first strike against Redmond, but the Russian Deputy IT minister, Dmitry Milovantsev, had a go at Microsoft recently:

He said the low average income of people in Russia is one of the factors in the relatively widespread use of cheaper pirated copies of software. But he also laid some of the blame on the behavior of the large software vendors for their restrictive and expensive licensing policies.

In particular he singled out Microsoft for its policy of not allowing partners to sell computers without copies of Windows pre-installed in Russia.

"If you want to install Linux you have to erase Microsoft, and that increases the cost of each computer by $50."

Microsoft sure have got the distribution channel locked up tight: it costs more to not buy their product than to buy it. I feel like Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) must have felt in Animal Crackers listening to Ravelli (Chico Marx) play the piano:

[Warning: May Contain Puns]

Spaulding: What do you fellas get an hour?
Ravelli: For playing, we get-a ten dollars an hour.
Spaulding: I see. What do you get for not playing?
Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.
Spaulding: Well, clip me off a piece of that.
Ravelli: Now for rehearsing, we make special rate. That's-a fifteen dollars an hour...That's-a for rehearsing.
Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?
Ravelli: You couldn't afford it. You see, if we don't rehearse, we a-don't play, and if we don't play (he snaps his finger) - that runs into money.
Spaulding: How much would you want to run into an open manhole?
Ravelli: Just-a the cover charge! Ha, ha, ha.
Spaulding: Well, drop in some time.
Ravelli: Sewer.
Spaulding: Well, we cleaned that up pretty well.
Ravelli: Well, let's see how-a we stand.
Spaulding: Flat-footed.
Ravelli: Yesterday, we didn't come. (To Mrs. Rittenhouse) You remember, yesterday we didn't come?
Spaulding: Oh, I remember.
Ravelli: Yes, that's three hundred dollars.
Spaulding: Yesterday, you didn't come, that's three hundred dollars?
Ravelli: Yes, three hundred dollars.
Spaulding: Well, that's reasonable. I can see that alright.
Ravelli: Now today, we did come. That's-a (pause)..
Spaulding: That's a hundred you owe us.
Ravelli: Hey, I bet I'm gonna lose on the deal. Tomorrow we leave. That's worth about (pause)..
Spaulding: A million dollars.


The Reverend Thomas J. Euteneuer from Spirit & Life blog has a couple of bones to pick with the movie The Nativity Story.

[Disclaimer: I have not seen the movie.]

He's upset that young Mary was portrayed as being in pain during child-birth:

First and foremost, any portrayal of Mary as giving birth in pain is simply contrary to the Christian Church's long tradition of Mary as virginal before, during and after birth. In this view, Her intact physical integrity during birth was accompanied by a psychic integrity that admitted of no pains during childbirth in any form. That may be a surprise to some, but it is nonetheless the historical Christian view of this event. The movie's portrayal of Her childbirth is thus not the Church's mainstream understanding and qualifies as a strictly private interpretation of the event. In fact, the movie had a chance to contrast the painful childbirth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth with the miraculous birth of Jesus to Mary, and it missed the perfect opportunity to provoke a good theological debate!

What is a good theological debate? Perhaps it is unfair of me to suggest that it is a bunch of know-nothing ignoramuses utterly lacking in real-world knowledge yelling at each other "Is too!" "Is not!", but based on the justification Euteneuer gives, I think that (unfair or not) it is probably accurate. The winning opinion was that belonging to those with the loudest voice.

Think about it: what sort of evidence could the Church fathers have gathered to determine whether or not Mary experienced pain during childbirth? Mary herself was long-dead, and so were anyone who knew her. What sort of evidence could they have gathered?

There is no evidence they could have found, and so naturally they didn't have any. So instead of evidence, they fell back on reasoning.

Now, non-theologians would have thought about the biology of the female birth canal, and the transmission of nerve impulses, and the likely size of Jesus' head, and concluded that there was no physical reason to think Mary felt no pain.

But theologians don't reason like that. They start with their conclusion, and then reason backwards: Jesus was magical, right? He's God, or the Son of God, or both. (One wonders why Catholics never seem to notice that if Jesus is the Son of God as well as God, doesn't that mean that Jesus is his own father? Put it like that and, well, it just doesn't make sense.) How do we know he was magical? Because of all the magical things that happened to him, like being born from a virgin mother who felt no pain. How do you know she felt no pain? Because Jesus is magical, naturally.

Euteneuer explains the reasoning:

Biblical Christians should know that there is a Scriptural reason for this doctrine. The virtually unanimous opinion of the Fathers of the Church in the first six centuries was that Mary is the "New Eve," the necessary counterpart to Christ, the New Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-14). Just as the old Eve collaborated in the sin of Adam, so the New Eve, with the New Adam, reverses the original disobedience and undoes the curse brought upon the human race by the first sinners. That same curse also brought about the grim consequence of labor pains for all of Eve's daughters (cf. Gen 3:16), but the New Eve who broke the curse was not subject to its dictates.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Mary didn't scream like a banshee when Jesus was born, and nowhere does it say that God magicked Jesus out of the womb leaving Mary's (mistranslated) virginity intact. The justification given basically boils down to this:

A committee of theologians, secure in their ivory tower, said it was so.

Oh, Euteneuer doesn't quite put it like that, but that is its essence, with all the verbiage stripped away. There isn't any real evidence for the position, nor is there any convincing logical reason to think that Mary felt no pain. The theologians merely reasoned that, for no good reason, Mary was the New Eve (never mind whether Eve actually existed or not), and "everybody knows" Eve felt no pain (except when she did), so therefore Mary must have felt no pain, because God likes symmetry. Except when he doesn't.

But look even a tiny bit more closely, and the logic behind the reasoning falls apart. If Mary reversed the "original disobedience" and undid the curse, why do women still have labor pains today? How naive and illogical were these "Fathers of the Church" (notice that the Mothers didn't get a say?) not to notice that labor pains are still around? Since labor pains still exist, the whole argument falls apart: whatever Mary did, she didn't break the so-called curse, and if she didn't undo the curse, there's no reason to believe she was the New Eve.

No reason, that is, except that some guy said she was.

The reasoning behind the Church's opinion is more to do with mythology than reality or logic. The story of little baby Jesus popping out of virginal Mary while leaving her intact has more to do with the misogynistic Virgin/Whore attitudes of the early Christian Church, and of the myth of Pallas Athena being born fully-grown from the forehead of Zeus, than anything to do with a real woman.

But none of this matters to the Catholics reading Euteneuer's blog. Instead, we get comments like these:

"Does the Protestantism in the film mean that it should be condemned and boycotted?"

"Thank you for proclaiming the truth about the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are not many that are doing so. God Bless you!"

" could God-made-Man enter into the womb of anyone less than 1000% pure?"

"Portraying Mary with labor pains contradicts the divinely realed [sic] dogma of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception inasmuch as labor pains is a result of original sin"

Since labor pains are not a result of original sin, but of the relative size of the child's head and the woman's birth canal and the nature of mammalian contractions, the whole argument is silly. Millions of Catholics can be wrong. All the theologians arguing whether or not Jesus passed through Mary's body "as the light goes through a glass without breaking it" are doing nothing more significant than Trekkies arguing whether or not Captain Kirk ate eggs for breakfast on his fifth birthday. (Fried or scrambled?)

Theology. Don't talk to me about theology. Of the millions of words written and spoken by theologians, the thousands of man-hours spent in debate about angels on pins and whether or not Jesus every laughed, the people who died in agony because they thought Jesus was merely flesh made into a divine being instead of a divine being made flesh, is there one single thing of significance?

Pro-Life community prefers cancer to sex

...and I smell a rat on both sides of the debate.

The Human Papilloma Virus (actually a number of different viruses) or HPV, causes genital warts and about 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. It is not fully blocked by condoms, and doesn't require full penetrative intercourse for transmission. Infection rates are very high, and while the infection rate increases with the number of sexual partners, it doesn't take many to give a very high risk: one study found that over a third of school girls who had only a single sexual partner were infected. Admittedly, they were a high-risk cohort, and that figure probably doesn't hold for the wider population. Nevertheless, the HPV virus is moderately dangerous, and really, really good at spreading, and the virus doesn't care what your morals are. The overall infection rate for the general population in the USA is probably somewhere between twenty and forty percent. (Statistics suggest that infection rates are significantly lower amongst liberal nations with a positive attitude towards sex, like Finland. I'm just saying.)

So why is the HPV vaccine controversial?

Naturally, the "Culture of Life" is up in arms against it. As Mark Kleiman from the Reality-Based Community points out, Right To Lifers have come out from under their rocks to either oppose it outright, or to defend the right of irresponsible parents to let their daughters get cancer by making the vaccine Opt In rather than Opt Out. The argument I see again and again and again is "it will reduce the consequences of having sex" -- like that's a bad thing.

Imagine the "Culture of Life" arguing against refrigerators and pasteurization, because they reduce the harmful consequences of food poisoning. Imagine they argued against seat belts and air bags and ABS braking systems, because they reduce the harmful consequences of car crashes. Wouldn't people say "Of course they reduce the consequences, that's the whole point you moron!"?

It just goes to show our crazy attitudes to sex that even the supporters of the HPV vaccine merely argue that the vaccine won't necessarily encourage women to have sex, instead of coming right out and saying that it is a good thing that it will reduce the harmful consequences of having sex.

But naturally, things aren't always as they seem... if you scratch beneath the surface of the HPV controversy, things become a little murkier. Yes, the wingnuts are against it for all the wrong reasons. But I wonder whether being against it is the right position to take?

Libertarian Jane Galt wonders why there is so much opposition to the vaccine. Naturally, most of the responses on her blog are from libertarians, so the arguments basically boil down to four kinds:

  • "My body, you won't tell me what to do, I'll cut my daughter's nose of to spite her face if you try!"

  • "Nobody tells me what I should spend my money on!"

  • "If the sluts would just keep their legs closed, this wouldn't be a problem."

  • Misunderstandings of the medical evidence and faulty analogies with thalidomide.

But buried within the mass of bad reasoning and emotive arguments are a few disquieting facts about the way the vaccination campaign has been handled by the pharmaceutical company behind it, Merck. The push for mass HPV vaccinations seems to have been handled with unseemly haste, given the actual risk of cervical cancer from HPV. I'm hardly one of those luddites who see thalidomide behind every medical advance, but I'd like to see a little more long-term data on the vaccine before we rush off and give it to every schoolgirl over the age of nine.

And then there is the stink of corruption: Texas governor Rick Perry (who has close ties with Merck) has pushed mandatory vaccination through under a very curious condition: under the law, the Legislature is prevented from repealing the law.

Hmmm. Something is rotten in the state of Texas. I'm in favour of vaccination, I'm even in favour of compulsory vaccination in principle (although compulsion isn't on the table here -- the "mandatory" is a poorly chosen term meaning Opt Out). But the way this is being handled just smells wrong to me.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I subscribe to's Word of the Day newsletter. Saturday's word was "doyen". From the newsletter:

doyen \DOY-en; DWAH-yan\, noun:

1. The senior member of a body or group.
2. One who is knowledgeable or uniquely skilled as a result of long
experience in some field of endeavor.
3. A woman who is a doyen.

A woman who is a doyen? How come they don't include "a man who is a doyen"?

I think definition number three is actually from "doyenne", although that begs the question for why there needs to be a separate word for a male doyen and a female doyenne.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The market for free software

Software developers are sometimes concerned that open source software will lead to the collapse of the market for software. If everyone gives software away, how can the programmers make a living?

The usual assumption behind these fears is that software is sold. The image these developers often have in their mind is that of proprietary, shrink-wrapped software like Microsoft Office: the end-user pays money for a copy.

But in reality, software for sale in that fashion is only one small part of the software marketplace, and a very small part at that. The fears of developers seems to be mostly unfounded. IP-Watch has details about the size of the software industry:

In the software market, by far the most money is made in services and the development of tailor-made software. In the EU and in the US, under one fifth of software investment is in (proprietary) packaged software; the rest is in custom software and in-house software.

In terms of jobs, firms selling proprietary packaged software account for well below 10 percent of employment of software developers in the US. Custom software developers and service providers account for about a third. But the majority of programmers work for "user" organizations such as banks, the retail and manufacturing sectors and government.


Most organizations - and a vast majority of programmers - make money selling their time spent writing or supporting software, but not selling the software itself. This is in fact the economic model of free software: sell potentially everything other than the software itself. The report shows that it is the proprietary software industry that is an anomaly in today's software market, with which the economics of free software is more in tune.

More information can be found in a recent report by the European Commission, the FLOSSIMPACT report.

The EU found that free and open source software is already a huge part of the IT landscape: to replace the free software in common use in the IT industry would need 160,000 person-years costing 12 billion euro or more. IT firms have invested an estimated 1.2 billion euro to develop free software. For every euro spent on open source by industry, open source developers have effectively donated nine dollars worth in their own time and effort. That's a huge return on investment.

The Internet is a great example of how this works in practice. Most of the technologies used in the Internet were built, not by corporations or even governments, but by software developers and programmers who had an itch to scratch. They built the tools for free, not necessarily because of altruism but because they needed the tools for their own use, and getting the tool was more important than waiting for some Good Samaritan to offer to pay them for it. By giving the tools away for free, they encouraged other people to use the same technology. This is an especially powerful factor in the rise of the Internet. Networks like the Internet are useless if only one or a few people use it: the real value from the Internet comes from network effects of many users. Fragmenting the network into mutually incompatible pieces is a losing strategy, and anything which discourages more people from adding themselves to the network is going to keep it fragmented.

While the free and open source status of the Internet encouraged connectivity, commercial IT companies were building fragmented, mutually incompatible, proprietary networks, such as CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy, and AOL. Of these, only AOL has survived, and only by reinventing itself as an Internet Service Provider. Similarly, both Microsoft and Apple tried to create their own networks, MSN and eWorld. eWorld disappeared after only a few years, and the "MicroSoft Network" became a mere part of the Internet.

While all these proprietary, expensive networks were collapsing, the Internet, built cheaply from free software, was going from strength to strength. Today, companies like Microsoft and Apple who invested nothing in the creation of the Internet, have made the free software behind the Internet into critical parts of their business plan. Outside of the IT industry, the Internet is now essential to companies in hundreds of industries.

Charlie and Pirate Princess

For all those who thought I only ever blogged about politics, here's a people-watching post.

(Disclaimer: any resemblance to real people is probably an exaggeration.)

On Valentine's Day, Mrs Impala and I went out for dinner at the local pizzeria, where we enjoyed a nice seafood pasta and chicken salad. But that's not what I wish to write about today. I wish to write about our waitress.

There should be a term for somebody who is "just like" another person, despite looking and sounding completely different. The waitress was one of the people: she was just like Charlie from Heroes, despite being an Italian-Australian, olive-skinned brunette instead of an untanned, red-headed Texan. But there was something about the way she carried herself and her friendly manner that just screamed "Charlie". It's a type.

(Okay, so that isn't the most significant thing I've ever written about. I just wanted an excuse to mention Charlie from Heroes *grin*)

A few days prior to that, Mrs Impala and I went out for drinks with the Kitten and her beau, to celebrate his birthday and referee their latest flaming row. One of the people there was Kitten's flatmate, who I'll just call the Pirate Princess.

Mrs Impala has met Pirate Princess before, but I hadn't, and I can honesty say that my brain is still spinning. She's one of those amazing people who are a tangle of contradictions and contrasts and I for one didn't know whether to be impressed or to back away slowly.

Possibly a little of both is appropriate.

On the one hand I don't think she's especially made anything significant of her life, apart from possibly a mess, although she's still young and she's not in prison so it can't be all bad. On the other hand she's one of those over-achievers who cleans the house twice a day, and goes to the gym, and holds down a job, and bakes cakes, and makes her own mayonnaise, and dresses, and probably leather boots for all I know, and yet still has time to Par-tay!!! like an extra from Animal House. (And here I am, struggling to update my blog once a day.)

Under-achiever and over-achiever, at the same time.

Her body language says that she should have been born in the USA, where she would have run for Homecoming Queen and won by a landslide after bribing the entire school with muffins. As much as she's a dinkum Aussie (now there's a phrase I haven't heard for a long time! -- not since watching a Goodies episode) she carries herself like an American princess, and she doesn't have any time for false modesty. I can just imagine her as captain of the cheerleader squad. Oh. yes.

But she's not just all eye-candy, even with legs all the way up her legs. Pirate Princess is also fond of cleaning. Quite fond indeed. One might even say that cleaning is her passion.

At one stage during birthday drinks, Pirate Princess explained at length about the millions of microscopic bacteria crawling over every single inch of your skin. I was expecting her to launch into a full blown rendition of Weird Al Yankovic's Germs when she surprised me by suddenly declaring that people shouldn't use all those commercial disinfectants and cleaning products, because we need all that flora and fauna in and on our bodies for good health, and that excessive cleanliness leads to immune problems and asthma and other illness.

I'd hate to see what Pirate Princess considers excessive cleanliness.

All joking aside, what struck me was the fact that just when I thought I had her pegged (slightly off-square peg in a slightly off-round hole) she said something which caused me to completely rethink my opinion of her. I love it when stereotypes are broken and people are pleasantly surprising.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The problems with the US economy

The fundamental problem with the US economy is debt, debt and stagnant wages.

The two fundamental problems with the US economy are debt, stagnant wages, and the lack of household savings.

The three fundamental problems with the US economy are debt, stagnant wages, the lack of household savings, and the trade deficit.

The four fundamental problems with the US economy are debt, stagnant wages, the lack of household savings, the trade deficit, and people who say there are five fundamental problems with the US economy.

Bonddad from the Argonist discusses the problems with the US economy. Apart from the missing problem, his post is very insightful, based on hard economic data with nary an anecdote to be found. And lots of easy-to-grasp graphs. What especially stands out is the exponential rise in household debt, and the serious discrepancy between increased productivity and real wages increases. It is becoming more and more obvious that the average Americans aren't working for themselves, they're working for their bosses' profits, and surviving only on ever-increasing levels of debt.

If you've bought $US, think long and hard about whether they are such a good investment.

Windows Vista, DRM and security

Some interesting (as in the Chinese curse) things happening with Windows Vista and DRM:

Bruce Schneier writes:

Windows Vista includes an array of "features" that you don't want. These features will make your computer less reliable and less secure. They'll make your computer less stable and run slower. They will cause technical support problems. They may even require you to upgrade some of your peripheral hardware and existing software. And these features won't do anything useful. In fact, they're working against you. They're digital rights management (DRM) features built into Vista at the behest of the entertainment industry.


It's all complete nonsense. Microsoft could have easily told the entertainment industry that it was not going to deliberately cripple its operating system, take it or leave it. With 95% of the operating system market, where else would Hollywood go? Sure, Big Media has been pushing DRM, but recently some -- Sony after their 2005 debacle and now EMI Group -- are having second thoughts.

It seems also that Microsoft's commitment to increased security isn't necessarily a commitment as such... after Joanna Rutkowska found a serious security hole in Vista, one senior engineer and Microsoft Technical Fellow suggested that:

...potential avenues of attack, regardless of ease or scope, are not security bugs.

Well, I suppose if you define away security bugs by fiat, Microsoft will be able to say they have got rid of all security bugs in Vista.

At this point it is worth bringing up Peter Gutmann's cost analysis of Windows Vista content protection:

Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it's not used directly with Vista [...]

In order for content to be displayed to users, it has to be copied numerous times. For example if you're reading this document on the web then it's been copied from the web server's disk drive to server memory, copied to the server's network buffers, copied across the Internet, copied to your PC's network buffers, copied into main memory, copied to your browser's disk cache, copied to the browser's rendering engine, copied to the render/screen cache, and finally copied to your screen. If you've printed it out to read, several further rounds of copying have occurred. Windows Vista's content protection (and DRM in general) assume that all of this copying can occur without any copying actually occurring, since the whole intent of DRM is to prevent copying. If you're not versed in DRM doublethink this concept gets quite tricky to explain [...]

It's a fantastic document, long but not too technical.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Evolution, arrogance and stupidity

PZ Myers discusses some common Creationist misunderstandings about evolution, and points out that while they are often based on deep, fundamental errors of how the world works (dare I say it, stupid questions) others are not stupid at all, but reveal insight and good reasoning ability.

PZ contrasts the typical stupid Creationist question "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys around?" with an insightful question about why animals evolved with two eyes. How did they know that one eye is not enough for depth perception and therefore they'd need two eyes?

The answer, and it's not an obvious one, is that two eyes is an accident of developmental biology. As PZ explains, paired structures (two lungs, two arms, two legs...) are a natural consequence of the way cells grown under bilateral symmetry:

It's harder to generate single structures than paired structures with that kind of symmetry, and the real question is how the anterior-posterior and dorsal-ventral axis is generated…and it's not an easy one to answer!

The real problem isn't that Creationists are stupid, because they generally aren't. Ignorant, maybe, but that's not the problem either. Millions of people have no idea of how to raise cattle for beef, but you don't see them protesting that hamburger and steaks are impossible.

PZ puts the blame firmly on arrogance:

The common theme in creationist objections, in the letters I get, in the whole damn culture war, is that creationists arrogantly assume that their ignorance is shared and that it is a valid data point in our explanations of the world. It isn't the scientists who are the arrogant ones in this debate, it's people who come out of 6th grade sunday school utterly convinced that they have all the answers.

PZ is right as far as it goes, but where does that arrogance come from? These people, as a rule, would never dream that they understand how televisions or DVD players work, or imagine that know how to repair bagpipes. Why are they so arrogant about biology?

Two factors: firstly, people have deep intuitions about other living creatures. That folk biology is a set of heuristics that enabled our ancestors to make a good living predicting the behaviour of the natural world over the short-term period of a generation or two. Consequently, we have a deep inherent prejudice for trusting that dogs will beget more dogs. This is so strong, that it took mankind thousands of years to come up with the idea of evolution, even while they were busily using selective breeding to evolve domestic plants and animals from their wild ancestors.

While we might have an inherent prejudice for folk biology, our intellects can over-ride that. And that's were the second factor comes in. Religion. Some religious memes give people deeply felt emotional needs that conflict with facts (be they facts of biology or anything else). Other religious memes give people the totally undeserved certainty that they know the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth.

Combine the heady mix of false certainty and emotional commitment given by religion with ordinary garden-variety ignorance, plus the human prejudice for folk biology, and you get the Creationist arrogance about science.

Reforming eyewitness programmes

Sometimes it feels that in the urge to punish bad guys, the legal system is willing to ignore inconvenient truths. Miscarriages of justice due to bad science and poor police procedures are legion. But sometimes there is good news. New Mexico is proposing to reform the use of eye-witnesses.

The problem is, eye-witnesses just aren't reliable: "Mistaken eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions." So New Mexico's proposed bill which will reform the use of eye-witness testimony is simply good news for innocent people.

Banana fish

Unseen University wizard Ponder Stibbons has a theory:

"Botanically, [the banana is] a type of fish, sir. According to my theory it is cladisticaly associated with the Krullian pipefish, sir, which of course is also yellow and goes around in bunches or shoals."
-- Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, Victor Gollancz, p.192

Now, thanks to the good folks at Worth1000, we have proof he's correct:

Banana fish
Click for larger image.
Original here.

Being secure and feeling secure

Bruce Schneier has written an excellent essay on why we human beings so often get security wrong: we worry about the wrong thing, protect against minor risks while ignoring major threats, and otherwise have our feelings of security diverge radically from our actual security.

(See also Schneier's blog entry about it.)

Eerily accurate psychic powers

Violent Acres [warning: strong language] has written a guide to impressing your gullible friends and family with your psychic powers:

For example, a woman sits in front of you. Her hair is dyed black and she has gone heavy on the eye make-up. She has got more than 3 facial piercings and a tattoo of miniature crows around her wrist. She is clad almost completely in black and she is carrying around a mid-sized notepad.

Label: Little Miss Ignored and Emo.

Your Reading:

“Your father molested youuuuuuuu. Nooooowww you sleep with multiple men because it’s the only way you know how to shooooowwww affection. You try to show your one night stands your crappy poetry, but no one wants to read your crappy poooooeeeetrrryyyyyy.”

Cold reading with attitude.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


While browsing the Internet, I stumbled across what looks like it might be an interesting book by Thomas F. Burke:

Lawyers, Lawsuits, and Legal Rights
The Battle over Litigation in American Society

The introduction and first chapter are on-line.

The thesis of Burke's book is that the litigious nature of American society is not as much a problem as it is often imagined. He contrasts the popular view:

Americans, it is said, have become whiny victims who sue at the first opportunity. These explanations share a common feature: they focus on the individual's decision to sue. From this perspective the problem is that Americans have chosen to litigate rather than tolerate their discomforts or settle their disputes amicably. The communal spirit and stoic temper that once kept Americans out of court have withered. Americans, this perspective suggests, have become a litigious people.

with the reality that there is very little evidence to support this picture of a sue-happy society: despite the anecdotes (which may be based vaguely in real cases, or invented from whole cloth) about crazy lawsuits, Americans rarely go to court.

  • only ten percent of Americans injured in an accident make a liability claim;

  • only two percent of injured Americans file a lawsuit;

  • only five percent of Americans who believe they have lost significant amounts of money due to somebody else's illegal actions file a lawsuit;

  • in the event of serious injury due to medical malpractice, only one in eight Americans make a claim.

As far as the data shows, these rates are comparable to those of other nations.

Burke also points out that the available data suggests that the "supposedly stoic pioneers of frontier America" were actually far more litigious than today's Americans.

Part of the reason for the disconnect between the image of Lawyers Gone Wild!!! and the actual reality is that there is a dedicated push by certain business interests to invent a litigation "crisis" to suit their own political and financial ends. This attack is virtually entirely on just one form of litigation, the personal injury (or tort) lawsuit, while ignoring forms of litigation that are equally or even more costly.

But as Burke explains, the role of litigation in the USA is significant, and goes back to the earliest days of the republic:

As sensational and unrepresentative as the litigation horror stories are, they do reveal one important truth: the range of matters that can be litigated in the United States is broader than in other nations and growing each year. Forms of litigation that are unknown elsewhere have in the United States become significant avenues for political controversy and even social change. [...] From coal mines to high schools, administrative decision making to workplace regulation, comparative research has shown that the United States relies more than any other nation on lawyers, rights, and courts to address social issues.

Litigation, it seems, isn't an accident in the USA, it is a consequence and side-effect of the deliberately fragmented and decentralized structure of the American government.

One topic which particularly interests me is the conflicts between what we as individuals need and what we want, and the conflicts between those and the needs of society as a whole. The controversy over socialized solutions demonstrates this:

In litigation, problems appear as discrete disputes between individuals. When, for example, your car is hit by a careless driver, both the problem and the solution seem clear: the numbskull who hit your vehicle should be punished by a lawsuit. Replacement reforms reconceive individual conflicts as social problems. So, for example, "no-fault" auto insurance is premised on the view that accidents are a predictable social hazard produced by automobiles and that the problem is best solved not by punishing individual drivers but by pooling the risk of accidents through the most efficient insurance system possible.

No-fault insurance schemes (like that operated by Australia's RTA) seems to be economically more efficient than litigation. Nevertheless, they are often resisted by those who would benefit the most because of the perception that they protect people from their own misdeeds. The tendency towards that sort of disconnection between reality and perception is, in my opinion, one of the deepest and most fundamental crises facing the human species. Until we learn to make decisions based on What Is instead of What We Imagine, we're going to stumble from foolish error to foolish error.

Stripping for the TSA

Violet Blue writes about her public stripping experience:

Sometimes there are women, but it's always mostly men. They are there to watch me, and I am there to be watched. I start at one end, smile at the first man I encounter, and begin. Slowly. Carefully, I take off my glasses and fold them neatly, just like my nighttime bedroom ritual. Then I lean over and unzip one long black platform boot, and then the other. I present each piece of footwear as proof -- as if the sudden shortness in my height, and its message of vulnerability isn't evidence enough. [...] I'm usually still smiling now, because it's time to take off my belt. I know what's going to happen. I unbuckle the metal and leather, sliding the belt through its loops around my waist, which serves to loosen my pants and move the denim to and fro as I work the belt free.

She's not being a naughty girl -- she's boarding a plane.

There is no coincidence that since I've started editing the Best Women's Erotica series that I regularly get erotica submissions about airport security screening search scenes.

Violet Blue lists ten reasons why airport security searches have become eroticized, including:

  • While you undress, you are being watched and sized up.

  • Your submission is unspoken, it is a rule, and it is unconditional. Your submission is for public consumption.

  • There is a constant threat that a stranger will touch you. They can touch you anywhere, and in your most intimate places if they want to.

  • It is nonconsensual. And in garden-variety BDSM practice, even this is forbidden territory.

No doubt this is all just annoying, even distressing, for most people. But as Violet says, "I think people pay like $700 an hour in New York dungeons for this kind of thing". There is no doubt there are people -- passengers and security guards as well as writers of erotica -- getting off on this.

Spy-master says secrecy helps terrorists

The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has publically warned that excessive government secrecy and draconian counterterrorism measures will only help terrorists.

"The response to the terrorist threat, whether now or in the future, should follow the long-standing principle of 'in all things moderation,'" Jim Judd, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said in a recent Toronto speech.


"We therefore have to avoid falling prey to the terrorist propaganda which would have people believe that this is a clash of civilizations or cultures or religions," he said. "Our own response therefore has to be carefully modulated and very focused.... And we have to be very careful in our use of language on these issues.

"Over-reaction to terrorism, it should be remembered, is a fundamental objective of most terrorists in history. We should not accommodate their goals in this regard."

If only there were more people like him, and fewer gung-ho cowboys using counter-terrorism for their own selfish purposes.

(Thanks to Bruce Schneier.)

Now that's disturbing

I just got a phone call from my mother to wish me a Happy Valentine's Day.

Yes, she was joking, but even so...

Police, over-reactions and losing face

Security consultant Bruce Schneier writes about the Boston police's embarassment over their over-reaction to a simple, legal, advertising stunt: a cartoon network hired a guerrilla marketing company to place cartoon characters made from blinking lights around ten major US cities. While the police of the other nine cities recognised them for what they were, the Boston police panicked -- and having belatedly realised what a stupid over-reaction that was, decided to dig themselves into a deeper hole by arresting the artist and trying to bluff their way out by claiming that the signs were bomb hoaxes.

Schneier writes:

What isn't funny is now the Boston government is trying to prosecute the artist and the network instead of owning up to their own stupidity. The police now claim that they were "hoax" explosive devices. I don't think you can claim they are hoax explosive devices unless they were intended to look like explosive devices, which merely a cursory look at any of them shows that they weren't.

This is not a bomb
Scheier's blog has many more details.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tanks of the air

The US Army is having helicopters shot out of the air by small-arms fire in Iraq. There are good reasons for this. Seven years ago, in the context of the Kosovo war, an American Lieutenant Colonel wrote about the dream of helicopters being tanks of the air, pointing out that the experience of Vietnam shows that even combat helicopters are very vulnerable to small arms fire -- a fact the Americans in Iraq are re-discovering to their sorrow.

Health care

The economist Paul Krugman has co-written an informative essay about the American health-care system: what's wrong with it, what's right with it, what needs to be done to fix it, and why no American government yet has been willing to do what needs to be done.

The bottom line is: the American system of private insurers has become a wasteful, bureaucratic jungle of paperwork, giving it virtually the least bang-for-your-buck of any industrialised nation: more costs for less treatment. It's allowed the pharmaceutical companies to rort the system blind, while both insurers and doctors burn money in unproductive paperwork.

In summary, then, the obvious way to make the US health care system more efficient is to make it more like the systems of other advanced countries, and more like the most efficient parts of our own system. That means a shift from private insurance to public insurance, and greater government involvement in the provision of health care—if not publicly run hospitals and clinics, at least a much larger government role in creating integrated record-keeping and quality control.

Krugman points out:

  • Private insurers spend a lot of money trying to screen out costly customers. Systems with universal coverage avoids that cost. In 2003 the American "Medicare" system spent less than 2% of its resources on administration, compared to more than 13% for private insurers. (So much for the article of faith amongst free-market groupies that private companies are always more efficient.)

  • The American system leads to a zero-sum battle between all the parties involved (insurers, patients, doctors), with "each trying to stick others with the bill." The complex administration needed to navigate this maze of policies and insurers carries both direct and opportunity costs.

  • The insurers aren't the only ones to be weighed down with paperwork. Insurers impose paperwork on the health-care providers, and there is a lot of it: many estimates suggest that the total cost to the providers of meeting the insurers' demands for paperwork is several times the cost to the insurers themselves.

  • Fragmenting the health system into dozens or hundreds of competing insurers means that the government loses the ability to bargain with health-care providers (especially the drug companies) for discounted prices. Most Americans pay significantly higher prices for prescription drugs than people in countries with universal coverage.

  • When Taiwan swapped from a private insurance system to a public system, they ended up almost doubling the insurance coverage while still spending less overall.

Here in Australia, our Liberal government tries very hard to encourage people to have private health insurance. Given the counter-productive results of the American system, I have to question the wisdom of trying to emulate them.

The sad thing is that Krugman wrote this essay almost a year ago. Since then, little has changed: there is still no political will to fix the broken health-care system.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day

The 198th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth is today. The people behind Darwin Day intend his birthday to be a celebration of human curiosity and ingenuity, and the benefits of scientific knowledge which they lead to.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Bruce Tognazzini, known for writing about computer user interfaces, also writes about non-computer interfaces and man-machine interaction. He wrote an essay about how the design of John Denver's light plane killed him. Here he writes about panic and how it interacts with technology like scuba gear, airplanes, and computer mice.

One of these is not like the others


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Guys on a train

It is amusing, the people you see on public transport.

There was Caprica Six's younger sister... Sideshow Bob's younger brother (not Cecil, the one they don't talk about)... the guy offering to swap Xanax for a cigarette... yes, people are strange and wonderful and terrible.

The other day, I noticed a pair of Aussie blokes chatting on the train. The older fellow, let's call him Bert, had left his bike leaning up against the train door, and when the train stopped at the next station the younger fellow (Ernie) opened the door to get on. Naturally the bike fell on him.

Okay, I thought to myself. Bert's overqualified for Village Idiot.

But as Ernie and Bert chatted, I had to revise my opinion. Ernie was nothing special -- just another hot-headed, tattooed 17-22 year-old with delusions of machismo. But Bert, well, if you get past the lack of vocabulary and the thick working-class Ocker accent, it was kind of like watching the older, experienced hunter gently and not-unkindly bring a young hunter back down to earth after his first kill. A nice antelope, he might as well have been saying, now let's talk about lions.

Ernie, full of Attitude, would make some sweeping claim, like "I hate all cops, they're all bastards, if I could get one alone I'd belt him in the face, I don't care who he is" [smash fist into palm of hand]. Then Bert would gently introduce another perspective: "Yeah, I know, some cops are bastards, but I'm still alive because of them" and then go on to tell the story of the time he was attacked and knifed in the street, and only survived because the police saved his life. While Ernie big-shotted himself for knowing tae-kwon-do, Bert talked about the street crime in Los Angeles and how lucky he was not to have been mugged, and how little good a black-belt is against hardened gang members with guns.

It just goes to show, people can be surprising.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Houseplants of Gor

Ellerol Elvish writes a fine parody of John Norman's Gor books, the Houseplants of Gor:

"You do not dare to water me!" laughed the plant.

"You will be watered," said Borin.

"Do not water me!" wept the plant.

"You will be watered," said Borin.

I watched this exchange. Truly, I believed the plant would be watered. It was plant, and on Gor it had no rights. Perhaps on Earth, in its permissive society, which distorts the true roles of all beings, which forces both plant and waterer to go unhappy and constrained, which forbids the fulfillment of owner and houseplant, such might not happen. Perhaps there, it would not be watered. But it was on Gor now, and would undoubtedly feel its true place, that of houseplant. It was plant. It would be watered at will. Such is the way with plants.

Friday, February 02, 2007

George Kamikawa

Some years ago, Mrs Impala and I stumbled across a rare and precious thing: a talented street busker in Bourke Street. George Kamikawa [warning: Linux-hostile site requiring Flash and/or Shockwave] is a Japanese musician who had taken up Blues and Country music just a few years earlier.

Last night we went to see him do a live gig at the Rainbow Hotel in Fitzroy. He is even better now: well and truly into virtuoso territory with the guitar, steel guitar and harmonica. He even made the kazoo sound less awful than usual.

Although George's English isn't fantastic, it is good enough, and barely detectable while singing -- even in Van Morrison's "Crazy Love". Not being a Blues aficionado, I didn't recognise many of the songs he played, but he shure made perty noises *wink*

See also this blog post about George, with links to various clips on YouTube.

If you're in Melbourne, check him out.

Marriage and journalistic honesty

I came across a particularly interesting (in the sense of ew, what's that freakish thing living under a rock???) case of yellow journalism recently.

First, some background: in January, the New York Times ran a story [story has been archived] about their analysis of the latest census results. They reported that, for possibly the first time in recorded history, a majority of women in the USA are living without a husband.

Take note of the story headline, 51% of women were living without a husband. The story says:

For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.

In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.

Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.

It's quite clear: not "single women", or "unmarried women", but "living without a husband".

In case there is any doubt, the New York Times gives details about what they mean: they tell what counts as "living without a husband", they explain that one reason for the change is that women are getting married later than ever before, and they even admit that the living arrangements are often temporary:

In a relatively small number of cases, the living arrangement is temporary, because the husbands are working out of town, are in the military or are institutionalized. But while most women eventually marry, the larger trend is unmistakable.

"This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people's lives," said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group. "Most of these women will marry, or have married. But on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside marriage."

The New York Times couldn't have been more clear and upfront about what the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community survey results show.

But that's not good enough for conservative pundits, like the fine citizen journalists at This is what Peter Smith had to say about the story:

New York Times Gets Another Story Very Wrong - This Time it's about Marriage
Accused of "journalistic malpractice" for skewing stats to incorrectly show most women not marrying
By Peter J. Smith

Strong words, but hardly correct. As the earlier quotes show, the NYT did not, by any stretch of imagination, claim that most women are "not marrying". If there is any "journalistic malpractice" here, it is by Smith. What part of "Most of these women will marry" was too hard to understand?

Smith writes:

However, Roberts creates his own analysis by using the Census Bureau's "Living Arrangements of Persons 15 Years Old and Over by Selected Characteristics", by including in his 51% figure of women living without a spouse: unmarried teenage and college girls still living with their parents, women whose husbands work out of town, are institutionalized, or are separated from husbands serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I have to wonder why Smith thinks it is appropriate to exclude women who are living without a spouse when talking about women who are living without a spouse.

Naturally, the conservatives questions the NYT for including young adults, 15 years and older, in the survey. But fifty years ago, marriage at 16 was relatively common -- now it is virtually unheard of. That's a significant shift, and one which continues as people choose to remain unmarried for longer periods of their life. That's precisely the point the NYT is making.

Smith criticises the NYT figures for failing to match the the census figures which show that "60.4% of men and 56.9% of women over 18 years old are married." But the last US census was in 2000, and the NYT is explicitly referring to 2005 data. Naturally there is going to be some difference.

Smith is less than transparent with his quoting of statistics:

Among marriageable women over 18 years old, 56.9% of women are married, with 53% having a spouse present, 1.4% with a spouse absent, 9.9% widowed, and 11.5% divorced.

The numbers don't quite add up... 53 + 1.4 + 9.9 + 11.5 = 75.8%. That falls short of 100% by almost a quarter. Who has he left out? But even his figures for married women are off: 53 + 1.4 = 54.4%, shy of the 56.9% in total he quotes. I suppose the difference could be "no answer": those who declined to say whether their husband was absent or not.

Who are the people of LifeSite? Their About Us page gives a couple of clues:

  1. LifeSite emphasizes the social worth of traditional Judeo-Christian principles but is also respectful of all authentic religions and cultures that esteem life, family and universal norms of morality.

  2. LifeSite's writers and founders have come to understand that respect for life and family are endangered by an international conflict. That conflict is between radically opposed views of the worth and dignity of every human life and of family life and community. It has been caused by secularists attempting to eliminate Christian morality and natural law principles which are seen as the primary obstacles to implementing their new world order.

(Emphasis added.)

Yes, you read that right. "Secularists" are against life and family. "New world order" (at least they aren't capitalising it any longer). And as for war, well, the only war worth talking about is the supposed (that is, imaginary) war against Christian morality.

If you think I'm exaggerating, I urge you to spend some time with Google investigating the stories on their site. Google on " war" and you will find plenty of references to the "war on families", the "culture war", "war on religion" and even the "war on home-schooling", but very little if anything on any actual war involving soldiers and bombs and death.

It isn't that the people of LifeSite are ignorant of the Iraq invasion and occupation. Oh no, they are happy to tell their readers that media coverage of anti-Iraq war protests are examples of the culture war. But as for the actual war itself, virtually nothing. The NYT reporting on marriage is a Clear and Present Danger, but an actual war with actual deaths started by people like George W. Bush (born-again Christian), Donald Rumsfeld (another fundamentalist Christian), and Dick Chaney (what a surprise, another devout Christian) is barely remarked on.

But I digress... unfortunately it isn't just the axe-grinding fringe upset with the NYT for reporting facts which disturb the conservative blinkered worldview. Even the mainstream Boston Globe (deliberately?) misunderstands the NYT story, writing: does the Times reach a contrary conclusion? By excluding from the category of women with husbands the "relatively small number of cases" -- in fact, it's more than 2 million -- in which "husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or are institutionalized." That startling Page 1 headline is true, in other words, only if the wives of US troops at war are deemed not to have husbands.

Sheer and utter nonsense. The NYT never said they didn't have husbands. It said they were living without a husband. That's a legitimate distinction: a legally separated women still "has" a husband, since she's still legally married, but she's clearly living without a husband. Although the reasons are different, wives whose husbands are in jail, or in Iraq, are likewise living without a husband -- just like the NYT says, in plain and simple English.

The NYT takes care not to confuse "living without a husband" with "unmarried", while the conservative pundits deliberately confuse the two. And let's face it, if they didn't, there would be no story here -- except, naturally, the original story that more than half of all women of marriageable age in the USA are now living without a husband. Whatever the reasons for this social change, whether the true figure is 51% or 50% or 49%, it is a significant social change from the "Good Old Days" when girls married at 16 or 17 and stayed with their husband until one of them died.

The Boston Globe makes a point of noting that the "relatively small number of cases" mentioned by the NYT is in fact two million women. Two million people is a lot of people to invite to a party. But compared to the approximately 120 million women of marriageable age in the USA, "relatively small number of cases" is a completely accurate description.

Yes, that one or two percentage points tips the number of women living with their husband from (approximately) 51% to 49% -- which is the whole point. World War One lasted for only four years, and the social changes set in motion by women going into the workforce are still taking place today. The invasion of Iraq is a few weeks short of four years old, and with no real sign (just a lot of talk) of it coming to an end any time soon. Why is the Boston Globe so resistant to the idea that it too might have social consequences?

Probably because conservatives, by definition, are conservative, and social changes are disturbing and frightening to them.

We can see where the Boston Globe is coming from:

Taken at face value, that's a pretty disquieting statistic. If society is to flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal

Oh really? Says who? Does he really think people won't go to work to put bread on the table if they don't have a wedding ring on their finger?

What it looks like to me is that some pundits and journalists, like Peter Smith of, have found a way of doing investigative journalism that has all the advantages of theft over hard work, with the extra advantage that it isn't illegal.

  1. Start by taking a perfectly responsible, honest, factually-correct newspaper article that discusses facts you disapprove of. Being responsible, it will almost certainly go into details of what facts they are actually talking about: e.g. the NYT story clearly mentions the temporary nature of the separation for women whose husbands are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, and takes great care not to confuse "living without a husband" from "unmarried".

  2. Accuse the authors of the original story of making extreme claims which they never did. It helps if you attack an article in the NYT or other big commercial newspaper -- your "exposé" of their "malpractice" will still be on the Internet years after the NYT has pulled their article off the free list and made it by purchase only.

  3. Support your claims by tossing the article's own honest disclosures back at them. Take care to imply -- but not actually say -- that the original story never mentioned them.

The more honest the journalist, the more information he gives you to accuse him of dishonesty. Why investigate actual dishonest reporting, when it is so much easier to fling mud at honest reporters?

The girls of Doctor Who

mimi-na from Deviantart has drawn Doctor Who's female companions:

Doctor's girls

(Click image for larger view.)

From left to right, the companions shown are:

  • Susan Foreman; Vicki; Dodo Chaplet; Polly; Victoria Waterfield; Zoe Harriot

  • Dr Liz Shaw; Jo Grant; Sarah Jane Smith; Leela of the Sevateem; Romana (twice!); Nyssa; Tegan Jovanka; Peri Brown; Mel Bush; Ace; Dr Grace Holloway

  • The Doctor; Rose Tyler; K9

The original, full-sized image can be found here, or go direct to the image.