Monday, December 31, 2007

A new blog

There is a lot I like about Blogger. I've been using it since June 2006, and I'm mostly happy about the way it works.

But not completely happy -- there are a few things that are irksome, such as:

  • No satisfactory way to get a cut tag into long posts. And I have a tendency to write a lot of long posts -- at least long enough that I need cut tags.

  • No way of removing or renaming the images you have uploaded. At this time, the only way to delete an image is to delete the whole post.

  • No good way of backing up your blog. I had a good, simple script using wget but since Google changed the layout of Blogger, it no longer works so well (or at all).

  • Google seems to have a very flighty attitude to making Blogger available to third party applications. The original Blogger 1.0 API does not work with Blogger 2.0; the Blogger 2.0 Atom API is now being deprecated in favour of yet another API. No wonder I haven't been able to find an Linux app that can successfully communicate with Blogger.

So I have decided to experiment with another blog, over on Wordpress. That doesn't mean I'm abandoning Blogger for Wordpress immediately, or at all.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Family walking on all fours

National Geographic has an article about a Kurdish family where five out of the nineteen siblings in one family walk on all fours instead of upright.

Scientists who have studied the three sisters and two brothers insist that it is not a hoax.

Uner Tan, a Turkish neurophysiologist, has studied them and believes they are "evolutionary throwbacks" to our ancestors. A team of German scientists led by Stefan Mundlos believes they have found the precise gene which has knocked out their ability to walk upright.

It's not clear what they mean by "the" gene that controls bipedalism: walking on two legs successfully requires many features, both anatomical and mental, and knocking out just one of them will cause the whole system to break. To take an extreme example, it's hard to walk upright if you have no legs. Less extreme example: the move to bipedalism would have required changes to our hips and backs. Our backs are still not completely evolved to suit our upright stance, which is why people are prone to back problems. Comparing us to our cousins (gorillas, orangutans, chimps and bonobos) shows that we have significantly longer legs than they do, relative to our body-size. The evolution of bipedalism would have required all these features to evolve more-or-less in lockstep (albeit presumably in fits and starts), and it isn't credible that there is a single gene that controls them all.

Nevertheless, certainly there could be a single gene -- or many single genes -- that the lack of could disable bipedalism. If you remove the accelerator cable from a car, the car won't move, but that isn't to say that the accelerator cable is the thing that makes cars move forward.

After studying the family, the British evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey pointed out that the genetic mutation alone wouldn't be sufficient to cause the lack of bipedalism. He gives equal credit to a family that was accepting of the children's strange gait, and making no efforts to cajole them into standing upright. Sensible, so far. But then he goes on:

"This is for real," Humphrey said. "You only have to look at the calluses on the hands of the young man [Huseyin] to see he's been on his hands for a very long time."

Why single out Huseyin? Don't the other four siblings have calluses on their hands? And walking on your hands is hardly the only way to make them callused.

I don't have any specific reason to expect a hoax, but calluses on the hands of one of the five siblings is hardly a reason to give the all-clear. Nevertheless, in the absence of any specific reason to expect a hoax, I think it is worth treating it as genuine.

The behavior could potentially reveal much about our own evolution, Humphrey says.

"Here we've got a living example of how it might be for a member of our species to walk on four legs," he said.

Most experts assume that the quadruped ancestors of humans walked in a similar way to apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

But the Turkish brothers and sisters walk on only their wrists or the heels of their hands, with their fingers held off the ground, the researchers say. This position appears to have saved their fingers from damage; the sisters, for instance, engage in both crochet and embroidery.

Chimps, our closest living relatives, use their whole hands and fingers for walking.

"Chimpanzees basically wreck their fingers by walking on them," Humphrey said.


"I think this new evidence, suggesting that [early-human ancestors] walked on their wrists, is much more plausible and interesting," Humphrey said.

I question this completely. Chimpanzees wreck their fingers? Chimps have very good manual dexterity, I'd need to see some support for this astounding claim before accepting it.

But even if correct about chimpanzees, Humphrey's claim that the siblings walk only on the heels of their hands isn't supported by the evidence available. The article has one photo of four of the siblings walking. In it, you can clearly make out just two hands on the ground, and in both of them, the people are clearly using their entire hand, fingers and all.

Walking on all fours
(Click image for full view.)

The photographic evidence contradicts Humphrey's claim, and calls into doubt Uner Tan's conclusion that this is a viable model of pre-bipedal human movement.

If you try it for yourself, I'm confident you'll find that it is impossible to do what the researchers claim. With the heel of the hand, or the palm, flat on the ground, it is virtually impossible to bend the fingers back far enough to keep them off the ground. There's maybe a couple of millimetres give in the finger joints, and it is quite tiring. There are basically three ways of hand-walking: with open hands flat on the ground; on closed fists; or on the knuckles of the fingers, as apes do when knuckle-walking. I do not believe there is any evidence at all, either in anatomically modern humans or any plausible ancestor, for a mode of quadrupedal walking where the fingers are held up off the ground.

There is no doubt at all that human development is complex. The five siblings in question all display a range of congenital deficiencies, include mild mental retardation and lack of balance. It is absolutely possible that whatever genetic damage the five siblings have -- and it might be as little as a single gene -- could lead to them doing the "bear crawl" into adulthood.

But I am extremely skeptical that this gives us any insight into human evolution. For Uner Tan to describe this as "backward evolution" is as absurd as it would be to describe Tay-Sachs disease as backwards-evolution, or sufferers of Huntington's Disease as "evolutionary throwbacks" to an otherwise unsuspected ancestor. The siblings are clearly broken. They're not a throwback to "primitive Man". The most one could say is that, possibly, early pre-bipedal ancestors of human beings may not have had the gene which the siblings are missing. But that's not the same thing: if you rip out the computer chip from a modern Ford Fiesta you don't get a Model T Ford, you get a broken Fiesta.

(Unlike modern cars, biological organisms are astonishingly good at continuing to work with bits missing. As fragile as living things are, we're also incredibly resilient.)

Update, January 3rd: More information here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The war on the unexpected

Bruce Schneier has a good name for the faux-war on terror the cowardly Chicken Littles have created: the War on the Unexpected. Anything different or unexpected must be a threat:

We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn't the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it's happening everywhere. It's a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense. ...

The problem is that ordinary citizens don't know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can't tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.

The full article is well worth reading, and contains many links to actual cases of the most awe-inspiring stupid security "threats". None of the examples quoted above are made up.

In recent weeks:

  • Concert-goers to an open-air concert in Perth were told that picnic blankets and rugs were prohibited as they were a security risk. Adding a note of the surreal, the tickets warned patrons not to bring "crocodiles or spears" to the concert.

  • A blind calypso musician and his band thrown off a plane after another passenger complained they had been in high spirits earlier but were now sitting quietly.

  • An orthodox Jew on a train was arrested after passengers panicked on seeing him praying while sitting next to a man wearing a turban.

  • A Florida bomb squad called in to blow up a typewriter.

  • Police evacuate everyone within a mile radius of some fake dynamite taped to the side of a house.

    (The comments on that story are interesting: in summary, it seems that the cops simply followed the Department of Transportation's guidelines, which seem to be massively over-cautious compared to the guidelines offered by the Department of Defense and usual practice for disarming known high-explosive bombs.

Earlier incidents in the war on the unexpected:

  • An Australian pub patron thrown out by bouncers for reading a book called The Unknown Terrorist.

  • A Canadian firetruck racing to a fire in New York was stopped at the US border for eight minutes while border officials checked the firefighters' IDs and the truck's licence plates.

  • In 2005, a man in the UK who fell into a diabetic coma on a bus was shot twice with a Taser gun by police who feared he may have been a terrorist.

Are we feeling safer yet?

Copyrighting the pyramids

How crazy is this? Egypt has announced that they are copyrighting the pyramids, and intend charging royalties to anyone who copies them.

Zahi Hawass, the charismatic and controversial head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the move was necessary to pay for the upkeep of the country's thousands of pharaonic sites.

"The new law will completely prohibit the duplication of historic Egyptian monuments which the Supreme Council of Antiquities considers 100 per cent copies," [Zahi Hawass] said.


However, the law "does not forbid local or international artists from profiting from drawings and other reproductions of pharaonic and Egyptian monuments from all eras - as long as they don't make exact copies."

"Artists have the right to be inspired by everything that surrounds them, including monuments," he said.

Asked about the potential impact on the monumental Luxor Hotel in the US gambling capital of Las Vegas, Mr Hawass said that particular resort was "not an exact copy of pharaonic monuments despite the fact it's in the shape of a pyramid".

If the copyright only applies to exact duplicates (that is, the same shape and materials inside and out) one wonders that the point of retroactively copyrighting something created more than four thousand years ago? Are there really that many people making exact life-sized duplicates of the Great Pyramid of Giza?

Another study criticising voting machines

Over the last decade or so, the American political machine has become rotten to the core with vote fixing, secret counting, lost votes and other "irregularities". (Those with long memories of infamous political bosses like William Tweed will see this corruption as a return to normality after a half century of relative honesty and transparency.)

As Bruce Schneier reports, more and more US states are realising just how bad the electronic voting machines are. Like California before them, Ohio has just published a massive study on voting machines and found that they are insecure, untrustworthy, vulnerable to malicious software and operator fraud, and easy to undetectably hack using simple tools.

Colorado has decertified most of it's electronic voting machines. California seems to be ready to do the same, and surely Ohio can't be far behind. In 2006, New Mexico changed to a paper ballot system. Unfortunately for every politician who understands about the risks, there's another who is either ignorant, in denial, or actively pushing for insecure voting systems ("all the better to make sure the right person wins, my dear").

In related news, it seems that Diebold -- not the worst of the bad bunch at all, merely the first to be caught -- is re-thinking their voting machine business.

And in other news, former staff at Sequoia Voting Systems printing plant have gone public with claims that in 2000 they were ordered to send inferior quality punched cards to West Palm Beach (Florida), purposely misprinted, so that the cards would fail and Sequoia could push it's more profitable touch-screen voting machines to the states.

Testing airport security

You're probably familiar with any number of ad hoc experiments where some journalist, law-enforcement officer or random clown successfully smuggles a gun or knife onto a plane, demonstrating the weakness of airport security.

These sorts of anecdotes make powerful memes, but what does the scientific evidence say about airport security?

According to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health, there's no evidence that X-raying carry-on luggage, taking off shoes and confiscating small items has prevented any hijackings or attacks.

The TSA defended the searches, claiming that they confiscated 13 million prohibited items in one year, "most" of which were cigarette lighters.

Bruce Schneier responded:

This is where the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that's a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats. The TSA is reacting to false alarms. Now you can argue that this level of failures is necessary to make people safer, but it's certainly not evidence that people are safer.

The report in the British Medical Journal points out that widespread screening for threats to public health are usually only enacted if there is clear evidence that they work -- otherwise they do nothing to improve health and safety, but merely waste a lot of time and money for no gain:

With $6.5 billion spent globally on airport protection each year, the public should be encouraged to query some screening requirements – such as forcing passengers to remove their shoes, the researchers said.

"Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?" they asked.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Silly Season

The Christmas/New Year period is traditionally known as the Silly Season. This year, the entire month of December has been not just silly but crazy. Not only have I been very busy at work with my normal doing-two-jobs-for-one-pay duty, but on top of it all we've moved offices.

Consequently my rostered day off went down the toilet. I've put in a lot of late nights, up to and including after midnight, in the period just before we moved, and Mrs. Impala and I spent most of a weekend painting the new office, thanks to the old tenants who decided that "make good" actually means "oh, nobody will notice that we haven't sanded down the repairs to the plaster, or repainted, or actually cleaned the carpet".

At least, the real estate agent didn't.

In no particular order, some things I have learnt:

  • Catching a taxi in the city at 1am on a Friday night is not easy. There's a chronic shortage of taxis, and a chronic oversupply of drunks and clubbers.

  • People (and by people I actually mean a group of five drunken twenty-something baboons men) will actually step out into the middle of the road and try to stare down on-coming traffic, forcing the taxi to come to a complete stop. Eventually, due to some variety of random Brownian motion, they eventually staggered around enough to leave a car-sized gap between them, otherwise I'm sure I'd still be there two weeks later.

  • Having even a mildly sprained back really, really sucks. My heart goes out to those with serious back problems.

  • My room in the new office is the one room that isn't detectably air conditioned, so while everyone else is complaining of frost bite and wearing woolly hats and gloves, I'm melting into a puddle. Why am I not surprised?

  • After stripping the server room of all unessential servers and equipment, we were left with no fewer than thirteen servers. Thirteen. For a company of about a dozen staff.

  • When Melbourne has rain in December, it REALLY rains. And when it does, traffic slows to a complete stop.

I'm hoping that with Christmas just around the corner, things will settle back down to normal soon.