Saturday, June 28, 2008

Electricity from footsteps

I like this idea -- it's thinking outside the box. British engineers are working on a plan to use the footsteps of pedestrians to generate electricity.

The Times reports that the technology has already been successfully trialled and the firm behind it is in talks with supermarkets and railway stations. It works by using the footfall of pedestrians to compress pads under the floor, pushing fluid through turbines to generate electricity. Copy and paste this URL into your browser to see more: [1]

According to the report, calculations suggest that the 34,000 train-travellers passing through London's Victoria Underground station every hour could generate enough electricity to power 6,500 lightbulbs.

[1] The Times' Terms and Conditions prohibit giving the newspaper free advertising by linking to pages on their website. Links are prohibited, but merely providing the URL is allowed. Stupid, isn't it? Back

Friday, June 27, 2008

Whatever happened to Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden seems to have gone from Most Wanted Man Alive to Care Factor Zero. President Bush, after swearing to bring bin Laden to justice, admitted some years ago that bin Laden was not a priority. But this interview with the late Benazir Bhutto is very interesting...

On 2nd November 2007, less than two months before she was assassinated, Benito gave an interview with David Frost where she talked about the people wanting to stop the democratic process in Pakistan, and her fear that they were involved in the previous assassination attempt against her and would try again. Six minutes into the video, Bhutto claims that bin Laden has been murdered. Frost didn't bother to question her about this: either he considers the murder of bin Laden old news, unimportant, or he's simply losing his mojo as an interviewer.

Bhutto clearly felt that she was at risk of assassination from Pakistani government forces. It's not clear why al Qaeda would have assassinated the opposition leader, if indeed it was al Qaeda: arguably they could have been motivated by pure misogamy, or perhaps they prefer having an anti-democratic military strong man in power.

Of course, this assumes that al Qaeda really was behind her assassination. It's not clear that al Qaeda is anything more than a convenient bogey-man for the US and Pakistani governments. It wouldn't be the first or the last time that a supposed revolutionary or terrorist group had been infiltrated by so many government agents that in fact there were no revolutionaries left in it. Once a government, or even part of a government, starts defining itself in terms of opposition to shadowy criminal figures, the temptation is very large to create such convenient scapegoats.

Big Brother is Watching

How very apt...

Big Brother is Watching - camera at George Orwell Place

(Click image for full sized image.)

At least the Spanish tell you when you're being filmed.

You can't have too many vowels

Yesterday I received an email (as a C.C.) where the sender couldn't remember if the person he was writing to spelled his name "Neil" or "Neal", so he compromised with Neail.

That's very ... something.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Put what where now?

Today I bought a jar of white Tiger Balm. The white variety isn't quite as hot or aromatic as the red, but I find it useful for headaches and nasal congestion.

I was amused to read the label:

Tiger Balm White for the symptomatic fast and effective relief for headaches, stuffy nose, insect bites, itchiness, muscular aches and pains, sprains and flatulence.

Apply Tiger Balm gently on the affected area.

Flatulence? Apply it where exactly?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Aussie drivers

There are times that I wonder how some people get their driver's licence. Perhaps they get it from the back of a corn flake packet.

On the way to work this morning, I got stuck behind a driver doing 40kph in a 60 zone. (That's about 25 and 37mph for those who prefer imperial measurements.) Oh well, he's just a nervous nellie being cautious about revenue speed cameras -- or so I thought, until he approached a traffic light that turned red just ahead of him, and suddenly accelerated and ran the red light, well after the traffic on the cross road had already started moving.

I guess that's what happens when the government hammers in the message that "Speed Kills" while giving licences to anyone who can do a three-point parallel park on the fifth attempt. (Okay, I exaggerate a tad, but the driving tests seem to be far more concerned with proving you can park than seeing if you can drive safely in a range of conditions.) Bad driving, but slowly.

A little later, I was on a street with two right-hand turn lanes. (Note to those from forn parts: in Australia, we drive on the left hand side.) I was on the left-most turning lane, and as I went around the corner, the car to my right -- a different car -- completed his (her?) turn and immediately tried to do a sharp left turn to get to the petrol station. I can only assume he wanted to buy a Clue, or possibly even a brain, because I can't think of any other reason why anyone would do a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane in the middle of heavy morning traffic. He ended up almost pointed straight at me, and fortunately missed my car by centimetres. (That's less than inches, for those who prefer imperial units.)

Australian drivers don't have a reputation for skillful driving. We tend to be as car-mad as the Americans, without their compulsory Driver's Ed in school, and there is little or no effort made to enforce safe driving. There seems to be a widespread assumption that if you obey the posted speed limit (set by a committee which may not have even seen the street except on a map) and don't drink, then anything else you can do in a car is perfectly safe. Tailgate? Change lanes without indicating? Drive backwards down a one-way street with a lampshade on your head? Sure, why not? There's no Stupid Driver cameras, and hence no revenue to be made, so the police and government apparently don't care.

When psychics attack

Orac from Respectful Insolence discusses what happens when zero tolerance meets psychics about :

You get the Child Protection Services called in to investigate the suspected (or should I say imaginary?) sexual abuse of her autistic daughter on the basis of a vision by a so-called psychic.

So this mother was reported to the authorities on the basis of a pinheaded, woo-loving, credulous teacher's aide who apparently regularly sought out the advice of psychics and even believed their B.S. I understand that the law probably seemed to leave the school authorities no choice in the matter. [...] The credulous insinuation of a moronic teacher's aide who believes in psychics must be treated exactly the same as a real allegation based on observations and evidence.

Fortunately for Colleen Leduc and her daughter, to say nothing of her fiancé, she had recently equipped her daughter with a GPS unit that made a continuous audio recording of everything that happened to her daughter, and this proved that nothing untoward had happened to her daughter.

And the reason she had bought the GPS unit in the first place? She had become tired of the school repeatedly losing her daughter.

The Internet is how old?

Bill Gates recently visited South Korea, where he declared that the Internet was ten years old. Richi Jennings commented:

Tell that to the National Science Foundation, who switched on the Internet as we know it today in 1983, migrating from the old ARPANET, which had been going since 1969.

He can’t possibly mean the Web, as that’s been going for over 15 years. He can’t even mean Internet Explorer — the first version of which was released in 1994.

Bill Gates was famously slow to notice the Internet. It barely got a mention in the first edition of his book The Road Ahead, although history was extensively revised in the second edition. But surely even Gates remembers Windows 95?

Deathless prose

This piece of deathless prose is worthy of winning a Bulwer-Lytton Award:

"Had it persevered - if awful chance had decreed that it escape from the quicksand as nightfall closed in over that foetid marsh, neither Colonel Jameson or Jim Tressidy or anybody in Horton's Crossing or camped in the adjacent hills would have survived to greet Lieutenant Wade Castro when, shortly after dawn the next day, he reported, red-eyed through lack of sleep, to the officer who had received instructions to accompany him in the spacious helicopter waiting on the hard-core, clambered aboard, took the ungainly seeming machine to tree-top level, and, half an hour later, brought it down skilfully in the deserted town's main street within yards of Sheriff Regan's office - just as Colonel Jameson had instructed."

-- Victor Norwood, 'Night of the Black Horror'
(Quoted in "Ghastly Beyond Belief", by Neil Gaiman.)

(Thanks to Mrs Impala for digging this one out for me.)

Silent longing

What a piece of work this guy is.

Last month, Sith Lord Benedict XVI declared that American Indians had been "silently longing" to be converted to Christianity by the Spanish Conquistadors 500 years ago, and had been seeking the god known only as God "without realizing it".

(One wonders how Emperor Popetine knows what was going through the minds of people from a foreign culture who died half a millenium ago? Oh wait, that's right, the god known only as God has made him infallible. That's what the Pope says, and he's infallible so he must be right.)

Sith Lords

(Click image for full view.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Losing the faith

Over the last century, what's the most successfully growing religion? Is it evangelical Protestant Christianity? Islam? Scientology?

Trick question: the answer is actually not a religion at all. It is the faithless -- atheist, agnostic or simply "no religion" -- that has seen the largest, most sustained increase in numbers over the last century. From a minuscule 3.2 million people (0.2% of the globe) in 1990, the number of non-religious has sky-rocketed to almost a billion people world-wide in 2000, and continues to increase at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million people per year. Worldwide, there are almost as many non-religious as Muslims, or as Hindu and Buddhist combined.

In the USA, the proportion of non-believers has increased from 1-2% in the 1940s and 50s to 9% today, with a further 12% saying they are not sure. At a growth rate of more than tenfold, the raise of atheism and agnosticism far outpaces even the growth in Mormonism and Pentecostalism.

There are now 30 million American atheists, far outnumbering American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. They outnumber Southern Baptists, and gaining new recruits every day.

In "Why the Gods Are Not Winning", Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman write:

To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.


The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged.

Even the fear, uncertainty and doubt following Sept 11 didn't put a dint in the rapidly increasing secularization of the world. Church attendance increased immediately after the tragedy, and then fell back to previous levels, and continue to fall. America has seen its first openly atheist Congressman, something which just two years ago I didn't think I'd live long enough to see.

And even among the religious, belief is becoming more liberal and less virulent: in the US since 1972, liberal religion has grown at a significantly faster rate than Fundamentalist religion.

We're still along way away from a world where people stop clinging to myths, but despite the priests and the mullahs, every day we get a little closer.

Monster parents

The Times describes the rise of a new class of "monster parents" in Japan:

The stage was set, the lights went down and in a suburban Japanese primary school everyone prepared to enjoy a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The only snag was that the entire cast was playing the part of Snow White.

For the audience of menacing mothers and feisty fathers, though, the sight of 25 Snow Whites, no dwarfs and no wicked witch was a triumph: a clear victory for Japan's emerging new class of “Monster Parents”.

For they had taken on the system and won. After a relentless campaign of bullying, hectoring and nuisance phone calls, the monster parents had cowed the teachers into submission, forcing the school to admit to the injustice of selecting just one girl to play the title role.

(No link for the Times, as their Terms and Conditions prohibit linking to anything but their home page. However, they don't prohibit telling what the URL is, just linking, so feel free to copy and paste this URL into your browser:

Remember kids, with a law degree you too can be paid the big dollars to write stupid, unenforceable documents.)

Sagan's dragon

The late Carl Sagan once declared that he has a fire-breathing dragon living in his garage:

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

And for every test that the skeptic proposes, Sagan had an excuse for why the test won't detect the dragon. It floats in the air; it's incorporeal; the flame it blows is heatless; and so on.

Naturally Sagan didn't actually believe he has a dragon in his garage, but he was making a point about religion and the invisible, incorporeal god that many people believe is in their garage. Instead of gathering evidence to support the idea of the dragon in the garage, believers insist that we accept the existence of such an invisible, soundless, heatless, incorporeal, undetectable dragon unless it is disproved. But of course it cannot be disproved, because there's an excuse for every failure.

Under normal circumstances, we treat the failure to find expected evidence as almost as good as positive evidence. In a murder trial, the failure to find gunpowder residue on the accused shooter can legitimately cast doubt on the claim he was the shooter. But such negative evidence is only useful when there is a clear-cut pass or fail. You can't accuse somebody of shooting the victim, and then when no evidence supports your accusation, turn around and say that the murdered must have used a special gunpowderless gun that fired invisible bullets that left no visible wounds.

God is invisible, that's why you can't see him.

In the face of such special pleading, then the failure to disprove the claim doesn't mean anything. There is no way to disprove the existence of god, because for every test there's always an excuse after the fact why it didn't work.

The game is always rigged, and you will lose if you play.

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously?

(Thanks to PhillyChief.)

Believers will counter that of course they have positive evidence for their god. (It's evidently only other gods that are illusionary or mythical.) But the problem with the evidence given is that it either has other explanations ("see, there are no elephants living in my garage, because the dragon ate them"), or that it's entirely subjective. Your epiphany is my bad burrito -- and contrariwise, the awe and sense of wonder I have when I contemplate dirt is a never-ending source of amusement for Mrs Impala and her friends. (Some people hug trees. I play with dirt. If rocks are the bones of the Earth, then dirt, earth, is the flesh. Carl Sagan famously said we are all star-stuff, but the star-stuff had to become dirt before it became us.)

I can put my hands in the dirt, I can touch it and weigh it and dig it over, and if I treat it right, it will bring forth all manner of life. Perhaps that's the difference between religion and spirituality: spirituality is about subjective feelings related to real things, while religion is about subjective feelings about imaginary things.

It's good to be back

Things have been really hectic and stressful at work, which has lead to me not having the time or energy to blog even semi-regularly. But things are starting to look up, so here I am again.

Let me start off with a bashism that caught my fancy:

omega: i like star trek because it's actually pretty realistic. the technology is fiction, but it follows real physics
Kuiper: In Star Trek, whenever there are torpedoes or phaser fire hitting a ship, you can hear the explosions even though they're in space. How is that "real physics?"
omega: in space, explosions are actually louder
omega: because there is no air to get in the way
omega: dumbass

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not all democracies are equal

One of the defining myths of the second half of the 20th century, and the start of the 21st, is that by slapping the label "Democratic" on a system of government, it magically becomes good.

It's part of the lazy thinking that judges books by their cover, the self-satisfied idea that because we live in a democracy we can do no wrong, and of course it is cynically encouraged by the Bad Guys who know damn well that democracy just means you get to vote, not what happens either before or after the vote. People voted for the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein, and by memory he won 98% of the popular vote.

Saddam was a strong man who didn't feel the need to be subtle in his stealing of elections. In the West, we have a long tradition of quietly subverting the popular vote, from gerrymanders to super-delegates to outright ballot-stuffing. As Boss Tweed said, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Or for that matter, counting the votes. And if that fails, well, it's nice to have some friendly Supreme Court judges rule against the need to actually bother counting the votes. (In the words of Justice Scalia, counting the votes fairly and carefully would threaten "irreparable harm" to Bush "by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election." Got that? Actually having a fair election is a Bad Thing, because that would challenge Bush's public claim that he won in a fair election.)

But generally, despite the flaws, Western post-WW2 democracy manages to mostly be good, at least compared to dictatorships and faux-democracies in the developing world. More or less -- mostly more, with occasional less.

But the illusion that democracy implies goodness is dangerous. Over in Iraq, one of the former members of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), John Agresto, was tasked with rebuilding the country's education system. (Sadly, the CPA neglected to actually give him any money to do it with.) Agresto bitterly wrote:

America's been so successful at being a free and permanent democracy that we think democracy is the natural way to rule--just let people go and there you have it: Democracy. But all the ingredients that make it good and free--limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, calendared elections, staggered elections, plurality selection, differing terms of office, federalism with national supremacy, the development of a civic spirit and civic responsibility, and above all, the breaking and moderating of factions--all this we forgot about. We act is if the aim is "democracy" simply and not a mild and moderate democracy. Therefore...we seek out the loudest and most virulent factions and empower them...

We, as a country, don't have a clue as to what has made our own country work, and so we spread the gospel of democracy-at-all-costs abroad. Until this country can find a Madison, it would be far better off with just a good ruler.

[Emphasis added.]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dissecting an apologist

Avram Grumer from Making Light has written about yet another abuse of power by sad, angry little Hitlers. The details aren't terribly unexpected: young people meet at the Jefferson Memorial to celebrate Jefferson's birthday; humourless cops overstep their authority by ordering them to disperse for no reason; one young woman asks why; the cops rough her up and arrest her.

Grumer observes that "the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority", and notes that "knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority". But what's really interesting is Grumer's dissection of the apologist mindset:

[Megan McArdle's] comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages. [...]

For example, a commenter named Jeff asks “If the Memorial is closed and people refuse to leave, why NOT arrest them for disorderly conduct?” — not aware that the memorial is open 24/7, too lazy to spend ten seconds on a Google search to check his facts, too lazy even to read the earlier comments where this had already been pointed out. When his mistake is rubbed in his face, Jeff adopts a faux-polite writing style and moves his goalposts. He argues first that the memorial is closed to certain kinds of events, of which group dancing might be one. (It might not, but hey, he doesn’t know, it might.) He later argues that since DC is a high-crime city, the Park Police have a legitimate concern, and even though it isn’t immediately clear, we need to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, that’s totally ignoring the actual facts of the case — that the police didn’t arrest all the dancers, but merely the one who questioned their orders, and that the police offered no explanation for their actions. In Jeff’s mind, it’s only the authorities who get the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens just have to obey orders.

Then we’ve got MarkG, who blames the dancers for appearing “odd”, and claims that “the police have to make a snap judgment about what to do”. Why exactly the police should need to make snap judgments in cases where no violence is occurring and no weapons or threat to life or limb are evident, that’s beyond me. Apparently, the fact that authorities sometimes unfortunately need to make snap judgments to preserve the lives of themselves or others means, in MarkG’s mind, that all judgments made by cops should be granted this same life-or-death importance.

There's a lot more:

  • The argument that if you're relying on society to provide you with safety, you shouldn't complain when it fails to do so.

  • The "they found you in contempt of cop -- no reprieve" argument.

  • The "only in this country" argument:

  • Only in this country can one march in the streets of the capital obnoxiously protesting “the oppression inherent in the system” without fear of retribution.

Grumer says:

I want to admire that paragraph. One sentence of not even thirty words, and it packs at least three propagandistic payloads. Let’s unpack them:
All of these tactics — the use of your ideals to overturn your trust in facts, the assertion of nebulous threats that justify arbitrary authority, the portrayal of protesters as lunatics, the claim that an all-encompassing bureaucracy has legitimate authority over our every breath and step, that you’ll be fine as long as you don’t “make trouble” — these tactics can be seen and heard every day wherever political discussion takes place. They’re the words with which once-free people talk themselves into tyranny.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A steampunk night out

Steampunk evening out

(Click image for full view.)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Water water everywhere

Via Les the Stupid Evil Bastard, another article debunking the myth that people are chronically dehydrated and need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Myths have consequences, and this myth leads to an absolutely enormous market in bottled water: $7.7 billion in the USA in 2002. In Australia, consumers bought 520 million litres in 2004, and at a growth rate of 20%, that's probably passed a billion litres this year. The water has to come from somewhere: often it's merely tap water stuck in a fancy bottle, but it's often shipped great distances, increasing the environmental harm done by the manufacture of all those billions of one-use-only throw-away plastic bottles. And it frequently doesn't make economic sense either: the water companies have enough muscle to distort the market. For example, in the middle of a long-lasting drought in Victoria, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola has a permit to buy aquifer water at one quarter of one percent of the market rate for water: $2.40 per megalitre, compared to $960 per megalitre for tap water.

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

The 750ml size remained the same - people want a big drink these days. And as many people say they find it hard to drink the recommended two litres of water a day, Frucor brought in flavoured - but still colourless - waters to relieve the monotony.

Here's a hint folks: if your body is telling you "No more water please!", that's a sign that you should stop.

On a related note, with Australia in a state of essentially permanent drought, a British House of Commons report on the state of water treatment in Australia makes fascinating reading.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Driving Miss Black

For the last month or so I've been helping out my dear friend Miss Black by giving her some driving lessons in my car.

It's been equally an education for me as for her, I think. I've tutored people in maths and science for many years now, but there's a huge difference between doing geometry and differential equations sedately on a piece of paper and doing them instinctively while quarter- and half-tonne lumps of metal and glass whizz by you at twenty metres per second. Which is a lot faster than it sounds, especially when the lumps are being driven by Aussies.

For one thing, if you get something wrong and drive your car up the back of another car, you don't get to cross your answer out and do it again.

Not that Miss Black did anything like that -- although my car does have a few scrapes on the front bumper from a ninety-degree turn in an extremely narrow alley. How narrow? Well, let me just put it like this: after navigating in and out of the alley a few times, Miss Black is confident of her ability to drive a stretch Hummer through a revolving door without touching the sides.

So far we've had a couple of ... interesting ... experiences, like a couple of "No, not that left, your other left!" moments, a distressing tendency for her to check the wrong blind-spot, or to swivel her entire upper body so she can look directly out the rear windscreen when changing lanes, and the time I had to grab the steering wheel to stop the car from drifting across into on-coming traffic. (Actually, I make it sound more exciting than it really was. It was a very slow drift, and it was less a grab and more a gentle correction.)

But on the plus-side, Miss Black has exhibited a remarkable level-headedness on occasions when others might have panicked, like the time when the Temporary Australian decided that it was a great idea to step out from in front of a stopped bus, against the lights, without checking to see if there were cars coming. Miss Black managed to avoid the moronic pedestrian without swerving into the next lane, and continued on her way while I was still gibbering in shock. I'm glad she didn't hit him -- the police make you fill out paperwork if you do.

She's also very good at parallel parking. I'm finding it difficult to teach her how to parallel park, and that's not because I don't know how to do it myself, thank you Mrs Impala. Just last Tuesday, she surprised and amazed me -- in a good way -- with an expert example of trick parking. She went from a start position of angle-parked on one side of the road, and finished in a parallel-parked position on the other side of the road, in one smooth movement. Forget your three-point parks, this was a one-point turn and park, in reverse.


Admittedly the car ended up a smidgen further out from the curb than ideal, but I'm hardly going to complain about that.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

RIP Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of Eliza, has passed away. That lead to this amusing exchange on the comp.lang.python newsgroup (compiled from various contributors):

    How do you feel about creator of Eliza?
    What is Eliza?
    Does that question interest you?
    Well played, sir.
    Earlier you said what is Eliza. Do you still feel that way?
    I am embarrassed to say that this vaguely disrespectful exchange made me laugh out loud.
    Does it bother you that this vaguely disrespectful exchange made you laugh out loud?

Linux users wanting to play with Eliza can run the Emacs text editor and choose "Emacs Psychotherapist" from the Help menu.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Pi Day

March fourteenth 3.14.yy is Pi Day, and as an extra bonus this year it is also Friday.

Pie chart

(Click image for full view.)

Did you remember to eat pie on Pi Day?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The truth behind the surge

Iraq has more or less fallen off the radar for many people. But it's a mess. The all-important "surge" that was supposed to bring peace to Iraq has done no such thing. (That's not to say that it hasn't had any effect. But too little, too late, and almost certainly it is setting Iraq up for an even more horrifying tragedy.)

It's a sad day when the most detailed, insightful pieces of journalism come from magazines like Rolling Stone magazine instead of "proper" news outlets. Unfortunately, the newspaper and television news industry have all but stopped doing investigative journalism, leaving it up to magazines like Rolling Stone.

Very disappointingly, even Rolling Stone confuses Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq, two very different groups with little in common. Keeping that in mind, their article about the surge is depressing but informative. The nation of Iraq is no more, no matter what flag still flies in the UN. It is now a failed state, with a central government unable to govern and bombings and assassinations virtually every day.

"The situation won't get better," he says softly. An officer of the Iraqi National Police, a man charged with bringing peace to his country, he has been reduced to hiding in his van, unable to speak openly in the very neighborhood he patrols. Thanks to the surge, both the Shiites and the Sunnis now have weapons and legitimacy. And what can come of that, Arkan asks, except more fighting?

Sitting in our comfortable house in the West, safe and secure, it is sometimes tempting to think of the Iraqis as ungrateful wretches. Don't they know we're doing all this for them? How dare they resist, this is for their own good.

But even if we ignore the serious doubts about the real reasons for the invasion and occupation, and accept for the sake of the argument that it was done with the best possible intentions (please don't laugh), for those on the sharp end there are many good reasons to hate the occupiers:

The grunts are frustrated: For most of them, this is as close to combat as they have gotten, and they're eager for action.

"Somebody move!" shouts one soldier. "I'm in the mood to hit somebody!"

Another soldier pushes a suspect against the wall. "You know Abu Ghraib?" he taunts.

The Iraqis do not resist — they are accustomed to such treatment. Raids by U.S. forces have become part of the daily routine in Iraq, a systematic form of violence imposed on an entire nation. A foreign military occupation is, by its very nature, a terrifying and brutal thing, and even the most innocuous American patrols inevitably involve terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians. Every man in a market is rounded up and searched at gunpoint. Soldiers, their faces barely visible behind helmets and goggles, burst into a home late at night, rip the place apart looking for weapons, blindfold and handcuff the men as the children look on, whimpering and traumatized. U.S. soldiers are the only law in Iraq, and you are at their whim. Raids like this one are scenes in a long-running drama, and by now everyone knows their part by heart. "I bet there's an Iraqi rap song about being arrested by us," an American soldier jokes to me at one point.

And so it is in every military occupation.

Sensible privacy ruling

It isn't always bad news, sometimes those in power get it right.

Bruce Schneier reports on a good ruling from the German Constitutional Court: the court rejected a state's law allowing investigators to covertly search computers online, finding them to be a severe violation of privacy. Instead the court declared that searching PCs need to be treated like telephone wiretaps and similar such exceptions to the expectation of privacy.

More here.

Schneier also discusses David Brin's "The Transparent Society", and why transparency on its own is not enough to protect people from abuse at the hands of the powerful. David Brin responds, but sadly completely misses the point of the imbalance of power made by Schneier: in the restaurant analogy that Brin favoured, all the patron's have roughly equal power.

UPDATE, 16/3/08: I'm liking those Germans more and more. The High Court has put a stop to British-style total surveillance of car number plates. The surveillance laws were described by one German newspaper as having "all the hallmarks of a totalitarian state, which wants to know everything about everyone, suspect or not, without cause and without limitation", and the High Court seemed to agree.

The ruling isn't a complete win for citizens, with the court declaring that "random samples" were allowed, and scanning of cars crossing the border, but at least the German government isn't hell-bent on returning to the days of Stasi domination, unlike the British government.

Smoking worse than, well, everything?

You know the anti-smoking lobby has crossed the line from admirable social reformers to left-ear staring nutters when people make a new St Trinians movie showing the girls using hard drugs and working as prostitutes, but putting a cigarette in their hands is completely verboten.

The Horror, the Horror!

There are some things Man Was Not Meant To Do...

Lemon+Lime chimera - where is your God now?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Not your usual computer horror story

I found an old archive of emails involving computer horror stories: backups gone bad, deleting the wrong files, and so forth.

Somewhere along the line, somebody asked for the more Stephen King-ish style horror stories, about the system clock running backwards, files undeleting themselves, and so forth. That lead to this anecdote:

Many years ago a tiny little college in the middle of nowhere purchased an NCR tower, then a newfangled contraption. A half-dozen of us were using it for an assembly class. The prof should have made his warnings about TRAP a little more clear. One student runs his program and it suddenly begans spawning processes, rapidly filling the machine. The prof came in, amused, logged on as superuser, and killed a process. Another process was immediately spawned. The prof tried again. He was ignored. He was also no longer amused. After several minutes he gave up and turned off the box. The tower didn't even flinch. He pulled the plug. Nothing. He ripped the back off the box and dug around. Finally he found the fuse and pulled it, killing the machine.

Some of us later claimed we heard laughter as it went down.

(Many times since then I have wished other computers came with a backup battery as standard issue.)

Sometimes my work is fun

Here is a transcript of an IM conversation from work. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

    <vlad> Did you tick off the software checklist?
    <vlad> That I haven't given you yet?
    <darren> i guess that would be a no then
    <vlad> I was kind of hoping you had filled it out in the future, then travelled back in time to give it to me now.
    <darren> i'll see what i can arrange.
    <vlad> Save me printing the form in the first place.
    <darren> well you still would have printed the form.
    <darren> just later
    <sonny> A vlad from a parallel universe with an afro could have printed two, then travelled here to give OUR vlad a copy before he tragically expired from the spear in his lung.
    <sonny> The other vlad had the afro, not the parallel universe.

"Sonny" is the same fellow who once broke his monitor by bashing his desk so hard the leg broke and the monitor fell off it. He was upset at the thought that there are people out in the world who don't use Emacs.


I think this anecdote is amusing. Sad, but also amusing.

As director of communications I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company's training programs and materials. In the body of the memo one of the sentences mentioned the "pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for "perverts" working in her company. Finally he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired, and the word "pedagogical" circled in red.

The HR manager was fairly reasonable and once he looked the word up in his dictionary, and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it.

Two days later a memo to the entire staff came out, directing us that no words which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the Sunday paper.

You can look up the word here.

How unfair is this?

Life is full of injustice, big injustices and little injustices. This is a little one, but still.

Local councils in Sydney (and almost certainly Melbourne as well) can fine you for over-staying in a parking spot -- even if you move your car to not just another spot, but another street.

The State Debt Recovery Office has rejected an appeal by a Coogee woman to be excused from a $79 ticket she received when she parked in Darling Island Road, Pyrmont. The woman, a Fairfax Media employee, wrote explaining she had moved her car. At 5.30pm she had driven "around the corner" into nearby Fyfe Street, another two-hour zone. But when she emerged at 7.20pm, she found she had been booked.

This week she received a reply from Gregrory Frearson, assistant director of operations at the Debt Recovery Office, advising that her appeal to have the fine waived had been rejected.

"Based on the circumstances you describe we cannot, under our guidelines, cancel or offer leniency for this offence." he wrote. "While a vehicle may be moved to a different spot, if it remains within the overall parking sector the time limit does not recommence."

See here for more.

The reality is that parking tickets are a lottery. Even if you do absolutely everything right according to the letter of the law, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and get a careless or dishonest parking inspector, you will lose money. And because local councils make more money the more incompetent and dishonest their inspectors are, they have little incentive to do anything about it. I received a fine for supposedly parking in a No Standing spot, when I was actually parked in a shopping centre car park five blocks away. I did some research, and with the threat of further expenses if I contested the fine, and the likely cost of thousands of dollars in legal fees even if I won, not to mention the inconvenience and stress, I paid it.

As far as I'm concerned, Footscray local council stole eighty-odd dollars from me as surely as if one of their inspectors had picked my pocket.

The theological necessity of goats

Thanks to PZ Myers, I hear that Texas is hearing legal arguments concerning the theological necessity of goats related to a priest's argument that if he is prohibited from sacrificing live goats his god will cease to exist.

(And that would be a bad thing, why?)

In related news, the British government has taken blasphemy off the books, and a Malaysian woman has been jailed for worshiping a giant tea pot. No, seriously. It seems that while Malaysia has laws permitting freedom of worship, it also has sharia laws which prohibit apostasy. See here for more.

Now that's a thought... one way that Obama could gain the redneck vote would be to remind everyone that millions of Muslims will be absolutely shattered to learn that the son of an apostate is the most powerful man on Earth. Oh my.

The clique that is American politics

American politics is strongly family oriented. I don't mean that politicians care about families, or at least say they do. I mean that there are these enormous political dynasties that are based on a handful of families.

The Kennedy family. The Bushes. The Clintons. John Kerry and George W Bush are related. And Barack Obama is Dick Cheney's cousin.

Not surprisingly, there are those who consider the US to be more of an oligarchy than a true democracy:

According to this school of thought, modern democracies should be considered as elected oligarchies. In these systems, actual differences between viable political rivals are small, the oligarchic elite impose strict limits on what constitutes an 'acceptable' and 'respectable' political position, and politicians' careers depend heavily on unelected economic and media elites.

Sounds like American politics to me. And to a lesser extent, Australian.

I think it is a fine thing that Americans are seriously considering a black man whose father was raised a Muslim but became an atheist for president, but why am I not surprised to learn that he's not quite so much of an outsider as he appeared at first glance?

Speaking of the incestuousness of the ruling class, did you know that Queen Elizabeth II is directly descended from the prophet Mohammad?

Mixed in with Queen Elizabeth's blue blood is the blood of the Moslem prophet Mohammed, according to Burke's Peerage, the geneological guide to royalty. The relation came out when Harold B. Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's, wrote Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to ask for better security for the royal family. ''The royal family's direct descent from the prophet Mohammed cannot be relied upon to protect the royal family forever from Moslem terrorists,'' he said. Probably realizing the connection would be a surprise to many, he added, ''It is little known by the British people that the blood of Mohammed flows in the veins of the queen. However, all Moslem religious leaders are proud of this fact.''

Singing cosmos

How cool is this? The northern lights sing:

It's safe to say that the majority of scientists who do research in this field are skeptical of the notion that the aurora's dazzling light show has its own built-in soundtrack, but while visiting Lapland, Hill worked closely with a geophysicist who does: Esa Turunen of the SGO, whose research focuses in part on scientifically establishing the audibility of the phenomenon. Certainly the aurora borealis produces sounds in space, and those sounds are monitored and recorded regularly by observatories all over the globe, including the SGO. But the sounds heard on Earth are probably more local in origin.

Field instruments are finally sensitive enough to capture these weird sounds for empirical analysis, hampered a bit by the fact that the sounds only occur during the most intense geomagnetic activity. The Helsinki University of Technology (HUT) has an Auroral Acoustics program that statistically analyzes field recordings of auroral acoustics and compares them to a "control group" of recordings from nights when there was no geomagnetic activity. It's an ongoing project, but to date, findings support the anecdotal evidence: the sounds are real, they strongly correlate with particularly intense auroral displays, and they are produced locally, although scientists remain mystified by the exact mechanism doing the producing.

Northern lights
(Click image for full view.)

More here.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Noir versus gonzo

Mrs Impala and I were discussing the differences between noir and gonzo:

Mrs Impala: "Noir is a mysteriously-buttoned trenchcoat. Gonzo is sleeping in clothes that got torn somewhere you don't even remember."

Me: "... in a bathtub."

Mrs Impala: "Well, naturally. The bathtub goes without saying."


I dislike social networking sites that misuse the term "friend" to mean "random people on the Internet whose blogs I like to read". The decision whether or not to reciprocate when somebody links to you is hard enough even without the baggage of faux "friendship". LiveJournal, you know I'm talking about you.

But LJ is not the only one. Recently, FileDen has transformed itself from a file hosting site to a social networking site, all the better to sell more advertising, and they too abuse the term "friend". Last time I logged on, I had a message from another user wanting me to "friend" him, apparently on the basis that since I had an account I must be worth friending.

When I checked out the user, I discovered that (s)he had no fewer than 1,586,620 "friends". I'm sure that there are thousands of Internet users (not just on LJ) with the emotional age of about 10 who see nothing creepy and sad about somebody claiming to have 1.5 million "friends", but in fact see it as something good to aspire to.

I'm reluctant to link directly to somebody who is likely to be some sort of spammer, but for those who want to see for themselves, if you go to FileDen and search for the user "mituozo" you'll see what I mean.

Unless (s)he really is a spammer, and has had his account suspended.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Amazon's chutzpah

There's a lot to like about Amazon, but also a lot to dislike, such as their ridiculous "One Click" patent and their spamming of customers. But you have to admire their chutzpah. They're running ads for their e-book reader, the Kindle, which includes this image promoting BoingBoing:

Amazon Kindle and BoingBoing

What does BoingBoing have to say about the Kindle?

Mark Pilgrim has a great, incisive post about the Amazon Kindle e-reader that sums up almost all of the reasons I won't be buying it -- it spies on you, it has DRM (which means that it has to be designed to prevent you from modding it, lest you mod it to remove the DRM), it prevents you from selling or lending your books, and the terms of service are nearly as abusive as the Amazon Unbox terms (and worse than the thoroughly dumb-ass Amazon MP3 terms).

Monday, March 03, 2008

Raising the little devils to be little people

Are children little devils or little angels?

Trick question: they're neither. They're little Homo sapiens (sometimes known as Pan narrans), with all that that entails. That means that they're animals, not angels or devils. I don't mean that as an insult. I'm an animal. So are you. What else could you be? You're not a plant, or an abstract concept like "justice", and the state of the art of artificial intelligence is not good enough for you to be a robot. Even if you believe that you have a soul (whatever that is!) your soul doesn't stop you from hurting when you stub your toe, or let you flap your arms and fly, or see electric fields. We can do what our bodies can do, and nothing more.

As animals, our wetware has certain modes of behaviour, and one of those is that we learn. We learn a lot. We're the ultimate learning machines on the planet, at least until 20 or so.

(Animals and machines? Sure, why not? We're machines made of meat instead of steel and plastic. If you think that's an insult to the dignity of human beings, that's only because you're thinking of machines as those clanking, primitive piles of junk like cars and grandfather clocks and space shuttles. What you should be thinking of is the other machines, like eagles and dolphins and tigers and cobras, of hearts and muscles and eyes and nerves. There's nothing clanking about them. The simplest, most basic cell in the human machine is a million times more complex than the most advanced metal-and-plastic thing we can yet make. We'll catch up, eventually, and make machines worthy of being called "alive", but for now, there's a great yawning chasm between meat machines and metal machines. The metal machines might be stronger and tougher, but let's see them make new machines without our help, huh?)

But I digress... so, little children are learning machines. They soak in data like a sponge, and they learn. Depending on what they learn, we label them as little angels or little devils. But in fact they're neither: they're just risen apes, and we older, supposedly wiser risen apes should be helping them to grow into the best apes they can be.

The problem is, they have this annoying habit of learning things that we don't want them to learn. I don't mean such trivialities such as four-letter words, but things like temper tantrums.

There's an imperial ton of advice out there about raising children (and that's bigger than a metric ton). Most of it is bad advice, because it is based on wishful thinking that kiddies are little angels, or little devils, rather than the reality that they're Homo sapiens.

In civilized countries, you won't find many people willing to publicly talk about "beating the Devil out of children" (although there's always a few barbarians who will privately do so), but there's still plenty of folk who will talk about sparing rods and spoiling children without any clue whatsoever about how to get maximum learning from the minimum brutality. If that sounds harsh, it's because I have a generally low opinion of those who mindlessly quote Biblical aphorisms, not because I am philosophically opposed to mild corporal punishment when necessary.

Unfortunately, parenting skills are very low. There's no classes we can take, the books we buy all contradict each other, and when we do what was done to us, the chances are we're just repeating the same lousy mistakes our parents made.

So, what to do? I was going to spend time searching high and low on the Internet looking for serious academic sites to back up the following assertions, but it's the wee hours of the morning and I need to sleep sometime. So I'll fall back on the tried and true Argument By Assertion, and say if you don't believe this, do your own research. You know where Google is.

It's about the timing.

Conditioning is not the only way we Homo sapiens learn, but it is an important part of it. That's the way our brains work: behaviour which is rewarded becomes more likely to be repeated, and behaviour which is given negative reinforcement becomes less likely. Not all learning is based on conditioning, but a lot of it is, especially for children (but also for adults!). The refusal to accept the reality of how we learn means that we are doomed to implement ineffective or even counter-productive teaching strategies, and then wonder why our children aren't learning the lessons we intended them to learn.

The most important factor about reinforcement is the timing. If it doesn't happen immediately, it might as well never happen at all. Yes, people can -- eventually -- learn delayed gratification, but that takes time, and three year olds don't have those skills yet. There's probably nothing, short of brutal physical abuse, less useful and more harmful to a child's ability to grow into a decent human being than "Wait until your father comes home!".

To give a concrete example: when your child screams and cries in the store because he or she wants a candy bar, if you give him or her a candy bar you have just reinforced the temper tantrum behaviour. It's hard to ignore a screaming child, especially when everyone else is giving you those Looks that say "control your brat!", but if you don't ignore it, you're just reinforcing the tantrum. And no, spanking the child isn't going to help, not if the only attention it ever gets is when you smack it. Children will take bad attention over inattention every time.

Just like adults really.

There's more here and here on Violent Acres. They're hardly scholarly articles, and there's some adult language so watch those nanny-filters, but they're worth reading.

The Conehead Economy

Economic growth is a good thing. (Well, there's some big questions over both the possibility and desirability of perpetual growth, but let's ignore them for now.) On average, economic growth means that more people can afford more things, which means they can live happier and healthier lives and not need to worry about starving to death.

Ah, but there's a trap hidden in that statement: on average. Average growth is a very different thing than real growth, especially if you measure average with the "arithmetic mean" that you probably learnt about in school. A toy example will show what I mean: suppose our toy economy consists of five workers: Homer, Moe, Apu, Barney and Mr Burns. In 2006, Homer, Moe, Apu and Barney make $30,000 a piece, and Mr Burns makes $3,000,000. In 2007, Mr Burns' income has increased by $1,000,000, while the others earn exactly the same amount. The result is that the average income increases from $624,000 to $824,000. Lo and behold, Mayor Quimby can crow that his Millionaire Friendly Policies has led to the average worker getting a 32% increase in income in just one year! Marvellous! Obviously a rising tide raises all boats.

Drawn out in detail like that, it seems so obvious that nobody could possibly be fooled by it. Lies, damned lies and statistics. But in fact, that is precisely what the miracle of American economic growth since the late 1970s is made up of. Only the numbers are different, the principle is the same: the vast number of Americans have seen virtually no economic growth, or even a loss of income, while the overall average is inflated by enormous gains at the top of the pyramid. There's been growth, and plenty of it, but only a relatively small number of people, the richest 1%, have seen much benefits.

As Ezra Klein writes:

In the past, I've called this "The Conehead Economy." Plenty of growth in the economic body, but all of it happening in the top percent. Were that to happen to a person, you'd see six inches of growth in their forehead and doctors everywhere would be puzzling over how to correct the grotesque deformity. As it is, the media trumpets the growth, the politicians backslap over the roaring economy, and everyone wonders why the average American seems so unhappy. [...]

Meanwhile, government policy is explicitly aimed at accelerating the income distortions. [...] But don't object, o' Democrats, lest you be accused of class warfare which, as we know, only happens when the middle class wants their wages to keep up with productivity, as they did in the last generation.

Lest anybody conclude from this that statistics are essentially dishonest, consider this: there are many ways to calculate the average. The method used above, the mean, is just one way of many, and while it has its uses, it is very vulnerable to being distorted by a few very high or very low values. When it comes to income, a better measurement of average is usually the median, which for the above toy economy works out at $30,000 a year, with zero growth on average. Not quite so useful a figure for either the economists or for Mayor Quimby's re-election chances, but it reflects better the actual experience of 4 out of 5 people.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A reminder

When it comes to politics, it's easy to spend all your time blogging about bad news. But it's important to remember that although politics can be dominated by venal, short-sighted and selfish motives, it doesn't have to be.

In 1978, the Principality of Liechtenstein was admitted to the Council of Europe, which gave it the right to nominate a judge to the European Court of Human Rights. Their nominated judge was the eminent Canadian jurist, the late Ronald St. John Macdonald, the only non-European appointed to the Court. MacDonald served on the Court for 18 years and was succeeded by the Swiss human rights lawyer, Mark Villiger. To quote James Wimberley:

Liechtenstein thus set a truly revolutionary precedent for staffing international bodies simply with the most qualified people.

Navy wren dead on floor

Accidents will happen. People can die from undiagnosed illnesses due to no fault of anyone. But in the case of Royal Navy Lieutenant Emma Douglas, there's a big question over responsibility for her death.

Douglas was an undiagnosed diabetic. After being ill for a week and vomiting blood, the medical officer on board the HMS Cornwall pronounced her fit for duty and sent her back to her cabin. A day later she collapsed with stomach cramps. But that's not why there's a question mark over her death: Douglas had not previously shown any of the symptoms of diabetes. But four days after being passed as fit for duty, and three days after collapsing with stomach cramps, Douglas was found collapsed on the floor of her cabin half naked. The duty watch sailor who found her described her as having "laboured breathing" to the officer of the day. Despite being known as a light drinker, her shipmates assumed she was drunk, and nobody checked on her for 24 hours -- by which time she was dead from diabetic keto-acidosis.

What I'd like to know is: is it normal for Royal Navy sailors who are vomiting blood to be pronounced fit for duty? Is it common practice for sailors supposed to be on duty to get drunk, and having drunk themselves into unconsciousness, are they normally left for 24 hours sprawled where they lie?

I think it says a lot about the British Navy culture that a sailor found unconscious on the floor is assumed to be drunk rather than sick.



Secret Service versus the candidates

Why isn't the Secret Service protecting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

Among other duties, the Secret Service is responsible for protecting America's presidential candidates. But something strange has happened this electoral campaign: the Secret Service has started letting people into Clinton and Obama rallies without being screened for weapons or even given a visual check.

The story first broke when the Dallas police force publicly questioned the orders they were given to stop screening, but it's since come out that, this campaign, it's been standard Secret Service policy for all of Clinton's and Obama's rallies: set up metal detectors and screen the crowd, then at some arbitrary point stop and let everyone else in.

The Secret Service has admitted that this is standard procedure, although there's been no word on whether they apply the same procedure to Republican candidates. They certainly don't apply it to public appearances by Bush and Cheney, nor did they apply them during the 2004 presidential elections.

There have already been death threats against Obama. The Secret Service initially took them so seriously that he was given Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in American history.

Pledge of what now?

American schools have a pledge of allegiance? And teenagers -- rebellious, hormone-crazed teenagers -- stand for it without mass rebellion? WTF is wrong with you people???

One day during my high school years, I chose not to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. A daily compulsion to demonstrate my patriotism seemed wrong on the face of it. My fidelity to the United States, the republic for which the flag stands, should be assumed. The next day, I made the same choice. And you can guess what happened next.

The school was very uncomfortable with my stance. In only a day or two, nearly all my classmates and teachers knew I was the guy who wouldn't stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Because they had to enforce pledge-making every morning, teachers had, by and large, a bigger problem with my stance than my fellow students.

As a child in primary school (years 1-6) we were expected to salute the flag every morning. As a Jehovah's Witness (don't worry, I got better) I wasn't supposed to give my allegiance to anyone but Uncle God in the sky, so on the (rare) occasions I wasn't late I just stood at attention respectfully and didn't salute. I never got any stick from either my fellow kiddies or the teachers over it. As near as I could tell, the entire school, from the Head Master to the youngest Grade 1, felt the whole thing was a tedious and pointless exercise, but one that had to be done lest the entire British Empire instantly collapse. (In the 1970s, Australia was sleeping around with the flash Yanks but hadn't quite got up the nerve to tell England we wanted a divorce. We still haven't, but at least we're more open about the trial separation and the whole "seeing other countries" thing.)

But once I got to High School (years 7-12) all that changed. At least when I was at school, public schools (for the benefit of any foreigners, that is government-run schools) didn't do any such thing. The thought of getting a couple of hundred fifteen year olds to salute the flag seems ludicrous to my experiences. Although I guess the private schools that run army cadet camps probably manage it, although how many of the kids playing at being soldiers actually treat it seriously and how many are doing it just so they get to play soldiers and get out of school work for a while I'm sure I don't know.

The Deserter's Tale

Smoking Chimp reviews a book by former US soldier Joshua Key, who deserted from the army and ran away to Canada because of the things he did and saw in Iraq. His application for refugee status in Canada has been rejected and he faces deportation to the US. In his book, he says:

“My own moral judgment was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq. We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy; given the absence of any clearly understood enemy, we picked our fights with civilians who were powerless to resist. We knew that we would not have to account for our actions.”

“... the American military had betrayed the values of my country. We had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine.”

“How would I react if foreigners invaded the United States and did just a tenth of the things that we had done to the Iraqi people? I would be right up there with the rebels and insurgents, using every bit of my cleverness to blow up the occupiers.”

(Quoted here.)

It's easy to forget that bad things happen in wartime not just because bad people go to war, but because war makes even good people turn bad.

Comparisons are odious

Especially when they don't support the myth that conservatives are better for the economy.

Democrat message

(Via Brad De Long.)

Speaking of PZ Myers...

Oh my, check out what he has to say about the latest in a long, long line of toxic evangelists here.

In the spirit of Oscar Wilde, I think I shall have to start using the term "demented goblin" at every opportunity.

    Oscar Wilde: "I wish I had said that."
    James McNeill Whistler: "You will Oscar, you will."

Devil toads and narwhals

PZ Myers reports on the discovery of the extinct Beelzebufo frog:

It means "devil toad," and it was a 10 pound monster that lived 70 million years ago, in what is now Madagascar. It's huge, and judging by its living cousins, was a voracious predator. If it were alive today, it would probably be eating your cats and puppies.

In other words, this was an awesome toad, and I wish I had one for a pet.

Who wouldn't want one of these little beauties? (Artist's impression, naturally.)

(Click image for full view.)

And new research into narwhals has solved the mystery of the narwhal's 8-foot-long tooth. It seems that the tooth is actually a high-tech sensor: it is filled with millions of nerve connections, and is capable of sensing changes in water temperature and pressure, and in particle density of the water.

Adventures in hypocrisy, part eleventy bazillion

Remember the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq that Turkey denied they made?

Seems that Junior Prez Dubyah Bush has something to say about that. Namely, that Turkey shouldn't ignore the will of the international community and that they better leave Iraq right now, terrorists or no terrorists. Pretty please. Or something like that.

Earlier, Turkey admitted that they had 10,000 troops battling the Kurdish terrorists. Naturally, the elephant in the room that the media doesn't want to mention is that northern Iraq has been under US and UK protection since the first Gulf War ended in 1991, and even today, the US is sheltering the Kurdish independence groups who have been committing terrorist attacks against Turkey.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said:

It's very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave, and to be mindful of Iraqi sovereignty.

It would be nice to say that his words were received with peals of laughter, or even stunned silence, but such is the irony-free 21st century that they were probably accepted as self-evidently true. Some things never change.

    I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.
    -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, primary architect of the US invasion of Iraq, speaking on 21 July 2003.

Diamond-coated Oscar madness

People with more money than sense can sometimes be amusing, and in the lead up to the Oscars the entertainment press is usually good for some Hollywood-silliness stories.

It seems that the latest fad amongst actresses is for diamond-dust facial scrubs.

The most crowded waiting room pre-Oscars is at the Beverly Hills clinic of celebrity skin specialist Sonya Dakar - where stars line up for her signature £1,000 facial.

Madonna is said to have headed there for a treatment last year which includes a diamond scrub (using diamond particles to exfoliate the skin), an exfoliating skin peel, green tea face mask and red-and-blue UV light therapy to prevent acne.

Diamond particles huh?

Even the oldest, toughest, most dried-out and sun-fried human skin is unlikely to be tougher than pumice stone, let alone the regular quartz particles you find on emery boards. Even Madonna's skin is unlikely to be harder than (say) a steel nail file (6.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, compared to diamond at 10). This is a good example of conspicuous consumption. Diamond dust is quite cheap: I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the diamond scrub contained less than a dollar's worth of diamond dust.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Wikilinks is a website devoted to disclosing leaked materials, including confidential information, with the aim of discouraging unethical and illegal behaviour by corporations and governments.

The site currently includes:

  • leaked documents showing that the US military in Iraq is equipped with anti-personnel chemical weapons in contravention of US-ratified treaties prohibiting the use of such chemical weapons in warfare.

  • the suppressed auditor's report detailing the extent and details of the corruption by former Kenyan Prime Minister Daniel Moi, including the purchase of 10,000 hectares of land in Australia with stolen money.

  • The use of psychologists by US forces at Gitmo while torturing prisoners (I'm old enough to remember the US roundly criticizing the USSR for doing more or less the same thing).

  • Secret trust structures used for money laundering and tax evasion and to hide assets by Swiss bank Julius Baer.

  • A leaked German report showing that some of the people in charge of former Stasi files are themselves ex-Stasi.

Just under two weeks ago, a US judge ordered that the Wikilinks site be shut down. Specifically, the judge ordered that the hosting company remove the Wikilinks domain name. Naturally, to those who understand how the Internet works, that's no barrier to accessing the site, domain name or no domain name. Even the New York Times didn't hesitate to describe the judge's action as "feeble":

The feebleness of the action suggests that the bank, and the judge, did not understand how the domain system works or how quickly Web communities will move to counter actions they see as hostile to free speech online.

The site itself could still be accessed at its Internet Protocol (IP) address ( — the unique number that specifies a Web site’s location on the Internet. Wikileaks also maintained “mirror sites,” which are copies of itself, usually to insure against outages and this kind of legal action. These sites were registered in countries like Belgium (, Germany (, and the Christmas Islands ( through domain registrars other that Dynadot, and so were not affected by the injunction.

Fans of the site and its mission rushed to publicize those alternate addresses this week. They have also distributed copies of the sensitive bank information on their own sites and via peer-to-peer file sharing networks.

Yesterday, the judge rescinded his own order, lifting the ineffective injunction.

I have high hopes that this site will be around for a long time.

Holocaust idiocy

Totally without irony, Israel's Deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, threatened the people of Palestine with a holocaust (Hebrew "shoah"). Considering that Matan Vilnai was born in 1944 and has a B.A. degree in History, I find it inconceivable that he was not aware of the connotations of the word, even if he were not Jewish (yes, there are non-Jewish Israelis).

Meanwhile, here in Melbourne, artist Sam Leach has made a controversial self-portrait of himself in the same pose used for one of Adolf Hitler's famous portraits. Defending the painting, Leach stated:

Personally, as a white Australian, I inherit this Western European cultural tradition and the one of the products of that tradition was Nazism. In a nutshell, what I'm trying to say is that I think that we can't take for granted that Nazism can't happen again...

The president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, Anton Block, replied by stating that Leach was:

deluding himself[.]

Well, certainly someone is deluding himself.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Microsoft cartoon figures

This is just weird. Microsoft has released a set of collectible cartoon action figures, aimed at developers who attend their training sessions.

Source Fource

(Click image for full view.)

Apparently Microsoft hope that by ascribing "heroic justice crusader" virtues to the toys, people will be attracted to their products:

Slick, quick, and with a fistful of super-style tricks, Windows Vista Sensei is the new karate-kid on the scene. Born in the United States and trained in Tibet, he acquired hardcore martial arts moves, and the wisdom to use these powers wisely. Once he'd perfected his signature preying-mantis kick, the bullies at school stood no chance.

The Anonymity Experiment

Can you live in a big city without leaving traces? Who is watching you and what you do?

2006, David Holtzman decided to do an experiment. Holtzman, a security consultant and former intelligence analyst, was working on a book about privacy, and he wanted to see how much he could find out about himself from sources available to any tenacious stalker. [...] When he put the information together, he was able to discover so much about himself—from detailed financial information to the fact that he was circumcised—that his publisher, concerned about his privacy, didn’t let him include it all in the book.

[...] Last year, 127 million sensitive electronic and paper records (those containing Social Security numbers and the like) were hacked or lost—a nearly 650 percent increase in data breaches from the previous year. [...] Last November, the British government admitted losing computer discs containing personal data for 25 million people, which is almost half the country’s population.


It was strangely calming, standing in this dim room, watching the words and thoughts of strangers reveal themselves to me. I still had my hat on, but for once there were no surveillance cameras, so I sat down on a bench in the room and pulled out my notebook, grateful to finally be the observer rather than the observed. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her: a security guard standing in the room’s darkened corner—silent, motionless, watching.

Unlike some, I'm not ready to give up on privacy in the information age. I'm with this important essay by Bruce Schneier:

We've been told we have to trade off security and privacy so often -- in debates on security versus privacy, writing contests, polls, reasoned essays and political rhetoric -- that most of us don't even question the fundamental dichotomy.

But it's a false one.

Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. Think of guns, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency and that dumb liquid ban at airports. Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach.

Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort.


There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It's also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither.

Speaking of privacy... I want this.

Three links

Three interesting miscellaneous links:

Can the Cavendish banana be saved from extinction? (No.) Can the fruit growers create a new variety acceptable to the American market? (Probably not.)

The town of Brattleboro, Vermont, has tabled a motion authorizing the local cops to arrest Bush and Cheney if they come into the town.

A leaked British government document shows that they intend to coerce the population into giving up their privacy.

Major security hole in encryption products

Professor Ed Felton has published research that demonstrates conclusively that disk encryption can be defeated quite easily due to a hardware leak: even when you turn off power, modern memory chips will hold their contents for minutes without any special actions. If you cool the DRAM chips they can hold their contents for hours. This is important because it allows an attacker to retrieve the encryption key from memory and use it to decrypt the hard disk.

This news doesn't make disk encryption useless. It will still protect your data in the event of casual theft, but it does mean that if you have sensitive data, and you believe you could be targeted by people wanting that data, you can't rely on disk encryption. At this time, there is no work-around, and the operating system you use is irrelevant. I expect that the eventual fix will be a circuit to fill the DRAM chips with random data when the computer is turned off.

Striking at the terrorists

Remember when the "War On Terror" was supposed to make us safer? Well, somebody forgot to mention to the US military that their supposed to be stopping terrorists, not sheltering them while they attack one of the US's NATO allies.

Turkey, fed up with Kurdish terrorists launching attacks while under the protection of the US military, has invaded northern Iraq. While this isn't a full-blown invasion, nor is it a border incursion with a handful of troops: it apparently involves thousands of soldiers. Turkey has publicly denied the invasion, a denial which is looking less and less credible every day. Why isn't this big news?

And a reminder that it's not just "Islamo-fascists" who are terrorists, like racists and conservatives would have us believe. Christian terrorists in Serbian have attacked and burned the US embassy in Belgrade, angry at Kosovo gaining independence.

Equality of the sexes

It's all too easy to forget that "women's liberation" hasn't even begun in some parts of the world, and that women aren't even given the dignity of being treated as second-class citizens.

In Saudi Arabia, an illiterate woman is set to be executed after she was tortured into confessing to using witchcraft to make a man impotent. And tribal elders in Pakistan decide that women shouldn't vote.

Here in the western civilized world (and I make no apology for using that term), there are people who want to roll back the clock and return to their imagined glory days where women knew their place. Childless old men like Pat Buchanan and macho wanna-be Patriarchs are trying to frighten European women with scare stories that if they don't give up their jobs, stay home, obey their husbands and have lots of babies, the terrorists will win and the Muslim Hordes will take over. It's the Yellow Peril redux, only now it's the "slightly off-white, not quite brown, Islamo-fascist Peril".

I believe that many feminists have well and truly lost their way, but don't imagine that means that feminism is no longer relevant or necessary. The forces of evil are still out there.

But it's not all bad news. Although the meme of sexism dies slow, it does die. When a religious school tried to ban a woman from refereeing a basketball match, her male colleagues boycotted the game:

The reason given, according to the referees: Campbell, as a woman, could not be put in a position of authority over boys because of the academy's beliefs.


"I said, 'If Michelle [Campbell] has to leave, then I'm leaving with her,'" Putthoff said Wednesday. "I was disappointed that it happened to Michelle. I've never heard of anything like that."

Fred Shockey, who was getting ready to leave the gym after officiating two junior high games, said he was told there had been an emergency and was asked to stay and officiate two more games.
"When I found out what the emergency was, I said there was no way I was going to work those games," said Shockey, who spent 12 years in the Army and became a ref about three years ago. "I have been led by some of the finest women this nation has to offer, and there was no way I was going to go along with that."

Isn't that something?