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.