Friday, June 30, 2006

Terrorism is a bootleg T-shirt

We can get an idea of the first priority of Homeland Security in the U.S. from this story in the LA Times:

Arriving at JFK from Dubai recently, I was stopped at customs by an officer from the Department of Homeland Security and directed to a drab backroom filled with Arabs, South Asians and Africans. I wasn't surprised, really, having just spent six months working and traveling in the Islamic world — Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan. If ever there were a DHS red-flag candidate, I was it, and I assumed this was just protocol.

Four of those months were in Pakistan, and I had just spent a week with a journalist friend going to different madrasas, including one Islamic school visited by one of the bombers in the July 2005 attacks in London. Possibly I caught their attention by poking around the Karachi Marriott's parking lot, across from the U.S. consulate, where a suicide bomber's attack had killed a U.S. diplomat just two months before.

How about the hundreds of phone calls I made from Pakistan to friends and family back home that inevitably mentioned the Taliban's resurgence and criticized President Bush. Was I wiretapped? Certainly Homeland Security, whose stated mission is to "lead the unified national effort to secure America … prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation," had detained me for such a reason.

Or maybe officers had questions about the Jamaat-ud-Dawa rally I'd witnessed in Kashmir. The group was protesting against the United States because it recently had been added to the State Department's list of groups designated as terrorist organizations. Then there was Lebanon, where I'd traveled deep into the Hezbollah-held south.

If only.

No, these frontline warriors in the global war on terrorism at Homeland Security had far more pressing issues to question me about. "Why did you infringe on the Boston Celtics' copyright in Boston in 2003?" asked my case officer...

The full story is here.

Some people see this as a story of Homeland Security's incompetence. It is not. They picked up the author of the story didn't they? They knew who he was, and they wanted to talk to him.

No, this isn't a story about incompetence. This is a story about priorities. Homeland Security isn't about protecting citizens from terrorists, although they may pick up the odd terrorist here and there. Homeland Security is about business. The U.S. government, which claims to stand for "small government", has created a $40 billion a year monster bureaucracy whose first priority is to arrest people returning from terrorist hotspots for copyright infringement.

The corporations whistle, and the government jumps.

Overzealous prosecutors

The LA Times is running a story about the epidemic of unsafe convictions in the USA, and the ways that prosecutors try to win at all costs -- even at the cost of jailing innocent people.

BY ALL APPEARANCES, the sexual assault case against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team involves serious prosecutorial misjudgment, if not downright misconduct.

Michael B. Nifong, the Durham County, N.C., prosecutor, made public accusations long before the conclusion of the investigation and now forges ahead even as DNA, witness statements, medical reports and other evidence lead impartial observers to find the case ridiculously weak.
The role of rationalization is on clearest display after DNA exonerates those already convicted. The occasional brave prosecutor will apologize and take action to release the man he or his office wrongly put behind bars, but more often the prosecutor refuses to admit the obvious. Though he routinely argues to juries about the infallibility of DNA evidence, now he isn't so sure. Or, though he advanced a theory about the defendant's guilt with certainty, he now abandons that theory while nevertheless maintaining the belief in guilt.

The article talks about the New York-based Innocence Project, which has performed DNA testing on many convicted criminals, and exonerated 180 wrongly convicted people in the last 15 years. Remember, these are only people convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder or rape, where DNA evidence is likely to be involved. One has to ask the question, how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, more innocent people are languishing in jail for crimes they never committed?

Physics Envy

The Tensor writes about physics envy in linguistics:

Let me be clear. I find language and linguistics fascinating, and I do not regret my choice of field. But an underground lab with "the lowest level of radiation of any point in the Solar System"? Goddamn, that's cool. We mere social social scientists never get to announce anything that so totally reeks of Big Science. Think about it. We'll never get to say something like:

  • When fully pressurized, gentlemen, this hyperverbal chamber will contain the highest density of lexical items ever observed.

  • After parsing this quintuply-nested onion sentence, Broca's area in the subject's brain will achieve a temperature nine times hotter than the surface of the sun.

  • The submicrosecond collapse of this precise mixture of passive and antipassive verb forms produces mutual annihilation and a burst of hard gamma rays.

The Corruptibles

The EFF has produced an amusing little movie about the villains who aim to corrupt the copyright system, giving themselves control over innovation and banning competition in the marketplace of ideas: The Corruptibles: How the entertainment industry is trashing your rights.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Pirates bigger threat than open source

According to ZDNet, Bill Gates recently said that piracy was a tougher competitor to Microsoft than open source.

Suuure it is Bill, good one.

At the end of the day, pirates create a whole new generation of users who want to use your products. That's how Microsoft got so big in the first place, as they themselves will reluctantly admit.

But with Linux and open source, the users don't need Bill. He can't bill them at all. With something like 80% of the Internet running on open source systems like Linux and BSD, Microsoft's worst nightmare is the same thing happening to the desktop.

"As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect..." -- Bill Gates, 1998

Politics and the English language

A classic, timeless piece by George Orwell that everybody interested in politics or writing should read.

This is treason?

The American Prospect discusses the depths that U.S. cable television has sunk to:

I never, ever, ever watch prime time cable news because it makes me want to kill extremely large numbers of people. Tragically, I walked through the door yesterday and my roommate already had Hardball on. There were two people debating the issue of . . . whether or not The New York Times should be brought up on charges of treason. Seriously. Treason. For publishing an article in a newspaper. Treason. And there was Chris Matthews happily presiding over the whole thing as if this was a serious conversation that people should be having. This all taking place on a network that, allegedly, does journalism.

(Emphasis in the original.)

It has been said that the greatest advantage the Devil has is that he has convinced the world that he does not exist. The Republicans have taken a leaf out of the Devil's book, and have spent the last few decades spreading the message that the U.S. media is controlled by liberals and progressives. In reality, of course, the mainstream U.S. media is either explicitly far-right wing (such as Fox News) or so terrified of being accused of "liberal bias" that they give more air-time to the far-right.

Not that it saves them from the accusations.

The mainstream media has made torture and threats of jail for journalists who report the facts something to debate -- with the spin that standing up for media honesty against Pravda-style manipulation is what needs to be defended. Instead of demanding President Bush defend his outrageous claim that he is allowed to disobey the law and the Constitution at a whim, the mainstream media has made that the norm, with those who believe in the rule of law having to defend the principle that the law applies equally to all people.

According to this so-called "liberal" media, it is normal and desirable to lock people away forever, based not on an open, fair trial, but on the say-so of the President, who doesn't have to give any reason other than "'cos I say so".

Last year, George Bush's minions declared in open court that he has the power to seize anyone on earth -– even "little old ladies in Switzerland" –- and imprison them forever, if he chooses. Any person Bush declared was "an enemy combatant", regardless of whether they took up arms, regardless of even whether they even knew their actions were related to terrorism, could be kidnapped from any nation on Earth, friend or foe, even in the American Homeland itself, and jailed indefinitely, without trial, at the President's discretion, stripped of all rights and legal protections.

Assistant Attorney-General Brian Boyle said these captives were entitled to a single hearing in a military tribunal, without legal counsel, without even access to the evidence against them, with no guarantee that they will even be told the charges against them -- just like the old Soviet Union used to do, and any number of military dictatorships.

Boyle admitted that evidence could be obtained by torture in foreign countries, and that there were no restrictions whatsoever on using torture evidence, as long as the president or the military decided it was "credible." Like the "credible" evidence of Iraqi nuclear weapons.

Last November, the Sunday Times tracked down the movements of planes used by the CIA to carry victims of his lawless kidnappings. People have been kidnapped from all over the world, including Sweden, and flown to torture chambers in Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Uzbekistan, where so-called "credible evidence" can be obtained with fists, cattle prods, rape, drugs and starvation.

And according to the so-called "liberal media", this outrageous criminal behaviour is normal. When the old Communist dictators acted outside the boundaries of all ethics and morality and the law, the U.S. media had no difficulty in shouting out that it was wrong. But now that their own Mad King George is doing it, they give "equal" (where equal means more) time to criminals and fascists.

Here's the problem: for decades now, progressives and liberals have danced to the far-right's tune. The worst excesses of totalitarian thugs has been portrayed as normal, and ordinary civilized behaviour is treated as treason. The crooks have controlled the terms of the debate, and this is where it has come to: report the facts, and be treated as a traitor.

Scarecrows work on humans too

Freakonomics is reporting on research that suggests that the scarecrow principle may work on people too: even something as simple as a picture of eyes can increase people's honesty by almost 300%. The lesson is, folks are more honest when they think they are being watched -- even on a subconscious level.

I have some doubts -- the base level of honesty is frighteningly low compared to other research. But the basic principle seems sound.

From the land where Up is Down

War is Peace and Slavery is Freedom.

Tim Lambert at Deltoid writes about the mud being laid on with a trowel to the doco-movie "An Inconvenient Truth".

How is An Inconvenient Truth doing at the box office? Pretty well. The gross takings have increased every weekend and have almost reached $10,000,000. It's already the number 7 on the all time box office list for documentaries.

But that's not how it's being spun by the wingnuts:

UPI reports that Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, hasn't done so well after a promising start:

Former U.S. vice-President Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" has seen its ticket sales plummet after a promising start.
The film dropped from its record $70,333 per play to $12,334 during its third week and its numbers have continued to fall as the film opens in smaller cities and suburbs across the country.

This is a text-book example of lying with statistics. As the movie is shown in smaller cities and suburbs, the average take per session falls -- but the total take increases. Strangely enough, UPI and Variety report that increased take as plummetting downwards. How curious. The right-wing media would lie about something? Say it ain't so!

Deltoid shows an impressive graph, showing clear growth, here. As the graph shows, the film is not only still making money, but the amount of money they make each week is continuing to grow.

Of course the wingnuts don't want you to know that, so what to do, what to do? There has never been a statistic that can't be distorted, so they focus on the per-session average, ignoring the fact that there are a lot more sessions. Of course, that means pretending that Up actually means Down, but hey, so long as the wingnuts continue to drink that Kool-Aid, it's all good.

Good Math, Bad Math has a good analysis of the dodgy statistics being used by UPI.

[...]when it was first released, it was being shown in a small number of showings in a small number of theaters. When it was premiered in 4 theaters, they sold out standing room only - so the gross per showing was very high. Now, four weeks later, it's showing in over 500 theaters, and the individual showings aren't selling out anymore. But more people are seeing it - every weekend, the number of people seeing it has increased!

The Powerline article (and the UPI article which it cites) are playing games with numbers to skew the results. They want to say that Al Gore's movie is tanking in the theaters, so they pick a bizzare statistic to support that, even though it's highly misleading. In fact, it's one of the best performing documentaries ever. It's currently the number seven grossing documentary of all time, and it's about $600,000 off from becoming number 5.
(Emphasis in original.)

Worst. Chai. Ever.

Having recently fallen in love with Lipton's Chai Latte, I thought I'd expand my range and try a new product on the market: Nescafé Chai Latte.

Worst. Chai. Ever.

Worse even than the toxic brew of ground up aardvark droppings and uranium mine tailings sold by Gloria Jeans as chai.

And I've just discovered why: hidden in the small print on the box is this:

Makes a deliciously frothy coffee with a blend of eastern spices


Chai is tea. Not coffee. Not ground chicory, or chocolate, or dirt, or pieces of lumber, or electric cattle prods. Tea. That's what chai means. Not coffee. I can't stress that enough.

Chai is not coffee. One is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, the other from the dried seeds of plants of the Rubiaceae genus. They aren't hard to tell apart. A company as big as Nescafé could surely afford to hire somebody who knows the difference.

And latte is Italian for milk. Not a fancy name for coffee. Chai latte doesn't mean "tea and coffee, together at last, in the same mug", as one local café seems to think. It means chai with milk.


They shoot horses, don't they?

From the Department of Corruption Given Little Media Attention:

America's wild horses and donkeys are at risk of slaughter, all so a few welfare-corporations can over-stock public land even more.

Here's how it works. The nation's 50,000 wild horses roam on federal land – that is, land held in common by the entire American people. Bigtime ranchers also use this land to graze millions of their privately-owned cattle. Able to buy and sell politicians like so much prime stock, the wealthy ranchers have rigged up a long-running sweetheart deal (100 years old and still going strong) that gives them access to this common pasturage at bargain prices: less than one-tenth of the going market rate for private grazing land. The result is an effective annual subsidy of more than $500 million to some of the richest men in America. As always, your rootin', tootin' cowboy capitalists must be protected from the risks of the "free market" at every turn – even as they impose it, at gunpoint, on others.
So the ranchers want the horses off public land so they can cram more cows in there and make more money through their sweetheart deals. The resource at issue here is grass, not oil, but the principle is the same as in Bush's witless, pig-layer adventure in Iraq: me want, they got; kill them, give me.

And as in Iraq, Bush's horse-killing policy is swaddled with lies and fearmongering. The ranchers say they must be given even more public subsidies, or else the sacred right of all Americans to churn cheap beef through their intestines twice a day might be lost – and that would mean the terrorists win, right? Meanwhile, Bush says it costs too much to let all the wild horses live out their natural lives. Yet the total annual outlay for the federal horse programs – $50 million – is a fraction of ranchers' yearly gorging at the public trough. The tiniest increase in grazing fees could cover the programs' costs for decades – while still keeping the delicate cow barons well-protected from that mean old free market.

And where there's a government pork-barrel, there is always a protective layer of lies.

Bush claims the wild horses are eating too much grass, but in truth the private cattle out-number wild horses by 50 to 1. If the wild horses are eating too much grass, those cattle are eating too-much-times-fifty grass. Past government studies have consistently warned that rangeland is being destroyed by over-grazing, and recommended reducing the number of cattle. Needless to say, the ranchers' bought Congress-critters will never let that happen.

But we do Mr. Bush and his cohorts wrong to imply they are completely witless. Certainly they exhibit a sense of humor – of the heavy, frat-boy doofus variety – in commiting their depredations. For example, the very day after Bush consigned 20,000 living creatures to unnecessary slaughter, Congress proclaimed a new "National Day of the Horse" – a yearly celebration of the animal's "vital contribution" to American culture.

And they say Americans don't do irony.

Breast ironing in Cameroon

Jessica at Feministing discusses another horror story in the same vein as female genital mutilation:

Pounding on girls' breasts with heated stones to make them disappear.

Seems that this is something the girls' mothers do, to discourage pre-marital sex by the girls (nobody mutilates boys to prevent premarital sex -- that tells you something, although I'm not exactly sure what) and as such can't really be blamed on male patriarchy.

I'm not commenting further, apart from a big "ouch", because this is a very complicated subject, mixing women's self-loathing, religious fear of personal freedom and disgust at the sex act, and evolutionary psychology.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

America the Purple

According to a recent opinion poll, a large majority of people around the world consider the USA to be the single biggest threat to world peace today. Such a turn-around after the outpouring of emotion and sympathy following the Sept 11 mass-murders.

As a result of the President Bush's foreign policies, driven by dreams of empire by the grandiosely-named Project For The New American Century and the neo-conservative movement (a misnomer if there ever was one: neo-cons are not conservative, they are politically and religiously radical to a frightening extent), a vast number of people across the world have a cynical, jaded, and sometimes hostile opinion of Americans:

    Those damned Americans -- if they weren't already completely radicalised, after September 11 they sure are now. If they aren't personally driving around in Hummers with guns, yelling 'Yee Haw!' and shooting poor blacks and Arabs, they're sitting in expensive Washington or New York offices, doing deals with some general to send the fighter planes to bomb civilians somewhere far away.

If you are like most people, the above thoughts have crossed your mind. If you are sensible, you'll recognise it as an unfair generalisation, an ugly stereotype.

But there is certainly an huge element of truth to the stereotype. For the last 30 years, successive American governments -- yes, even the liberals' darling, Bill Clinton -- have cut services and safety nets to the poor, allowed corporations to dump toxic waste in the water we drink and air we breathe, dropped bombs on civilians, broken international agreements, and generally acted like the world was their oyster. (And remember: oysters are generally eaten alive.)

And then there are those electoral maps we keep seeing, showing vast tracts of the USA painted red, and only a few tiny corners in blue: huge expanses of the country voting Red, supporting politicians who stand for more arsenic in the drinking water, pension cuts for veterans, more tax breaks for the rich and fewer safety nets for the poor... if they're not yee-haws, what are they thinking?

Has the USA has become a nation of extremist radicals?

But no, that's no more true for the USA than it is for any other country. Sure, virulent nationalism is strong in the USA, but the country has not turned as red as those maps show. The maps are strongly misleading.

John Rogers of Kung Fu Monkey talks about the red versus blue maps:

Unfortunately, the Red State/Blue State narrative also happens to be monstrously destructive, culturally. Painting massive swaths of the country one color (be it red or blue), while ignoring the actual number of voters in each state completely distorts the actual political balance in this country -- specifically, how moderate most of the country is.

It empowers fundamentalists of all stripes, because visual cues are enormously powerful and that color dichotomy implants resonances of ideological dichotomy that affect the framework through which the media present information and we to a great degree perceive it, then fix it into our own world-view, our mental operating system.

Those maps of red states and blue states not only don't tell the true story, they tell a false story. As Rogers points out, this:
Pie chart

is not the same as this:
Red vs Blue map

Mark Newman of the University of Mitchigan has more information about the distribution of votes in the last few US elections. He says:

[...] we know that nationwide the percentages of voters voting for either candidate were almost identical, so what is going on here?

The answer seems to be that the amount of red on the map is skewed because there are a lot of counties in which only a slim majority voted Republican. One possible way to allow for this, suggested by Robert Vanderbei at Princeton University, is to use not just two colors on the map, red and blue, but instead to use red, blue, and shades of purple to indicate percentages of voters.

When you do that, as Newman does here, you don't get red and blue states. You get vast expanses of purple. There are a few truly red areas, invariably rural areas with low populations, and a few blue areas, generally urban areas, but the most of the country is purple.

The tragedy of American politics is that their political systems, on both the right (Democrats) and further-right (Republicans), put in place far more radical policies than the vast majority of Americans approve of. American democracy is a marvel of misdirection: more often than not, less than 50% of the eligible voters actually vote, and of those, voting numbers are generally split quite close to 50:50 for the two major parties. And yet, on the strength of these tiny margins of victory, at best only a few percentage points, politicians have claimed a mandate to enact radical policies that are actually opposed by a majority of the country.

The sad thing is, while America the nation has been hijacked by radical Reds and Blues, the majority of the people are actually moderate Purples. It's no excuse of course: if ordinary men and women could stand up to the Soviet KGB and Red Army, stand in front of Chinese tanks, and drag the Rumanian dictator out of his palace and hang him, Americans could surely change their electoral system. It isn't so much that Americans themselves are radicalized -- they are merely guilty of the lesser sin of allowing radicals to commit crimes in their name.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WinFS is officially dead

It's official. WinFS has been dropped from Microsoft Vista.

This is indicative of the general inability of Microsoft to actually innovate, as opposed to just claim they are innovative. They do a reasonably good job of taking existing technologies and sharpening them (sometimes, sharpening them into a knife to stab their competitors and business partners with). But when was the last time Microsoft actually innovated and created something fresh and new?

WinFS, despite reservations from some tech people, had the potential to be that innovation. But now that potential will most likely go unfulfilled.

Death's Door discovered

From the highly respected Weekly World News, the one source of news anybody needs, is the shocking discovery of Death's Door:

Babe in business suit blocks hellmouth


CORDILLA, Ga. -- Five miles outside this tiny, rustic town is a small forest with a large cave and a massive iron gate.

"It's not a place you want to visit," theologian and paranormal researcher Danton Fernoe told us after returning to town. "Make sure your readers understand that.

"When I read that Satan visited this cave after tangling with Bigfoot (Weekly World News, July 25, 2005) I decided to check it out," said Fernoe. "I arrived and saw a woman sitting at a small table behind the gate. She was dressed in a business suit with a short skirt. There was a gold key and a laptop on the table, nothing more. She stopped playing computer Solitaire as soon as she saw us."

I really don't know why none of the other news sites report these stories. It must be part of a great big conspiracy!!!

How embarrassment!

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who has a long history of calling for people who use drugs illegally to go to jail, was detained at Palm Beach International Airport for possession of illegal prescription drugs.

Not just any drugs. Viagra.

Come on Rush, what were you thinking? You're white, rich and in the ... prime... of your life. What doctor wouldn't be glad to prescribe you as much Viagra as you want? Just how much of the stuff are you using that you can't get enough legally from American doctors, but have to go buy it on the black market in the Dominican Republic?

Story here.

I feel special...

My blog-spam cherry has just been popped, and it took less than a month. Yay modern technology.

Last night, somebody calling himself "borzuj kaczmarek" commented on my AOL-and-dead-people post:

at schools facing serious financial [spam URL expurgated] bachelors-degree programs in radiation to function. Interestingly, AJ says she patrol was also hit by a roadside bomb, the spirit of Passovers liberation you [spam URL expurgated] that said no team from a small to move back the fences. And now the songwriters, most memorably with Burt than two dozen others are considering provide transportation to the course.

How very... crappy.

Monday, June 26, 2006

So much for democracy

Chris Floyd writing for the Moscow Times about the surprising decision to allow Diebold voting machines in California:

Two weeks ago, an obscure, unelected, Republican-appointed official in California decided the future of the world. [...]

One of the few certainties in modern U.S. politics is that no Democrat can win the presidency without carrying California. Thanks to the Electoral College system set up by the Founding Oligarchs to keep the low-born rabble from voting directly for president, the big haul of California's electoral votes is crucial for Democrats to offset the multitude of small, sparsely populated states that reliably vote Republican. Bagging California doesn't guarantee Democratic victory, but without it, the cliffhanger electoral counts in the goosed elections of 2000 and 2004 wouldn't even have been close.

Thus, the sudden, hugger-mugger decision by California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson to override the objections of his own experts and certify the eminently hackable voting machines of the politically partisan firm, Diebold, for use throughout the state means, quite simply, that the fix is in for 2008. It doesn't matter who the Democrats run -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, George Clooney or Jesus H. Christ in an Uncle Sam suit. It won't make a bit of difference. California is lost, the presidency is lost and the Bushists are in -- already. It's over.

For those old enough to remember Pravda, the U.S.S.R.'s official state newspaper, will have an Alanis Morissette moment: how ironic that the "free", privately-owned American mainstream media is taking a "softly softly" approach to the corruption of the American political process, ignoring the destruction of democracy, while the former home of Pravda is telling it like it is.

And this is how it is:

Last year, after Diebold's machines failed miserably a series of tests, McPherson put their certification on hold until a panel of experts had reported back. The panel delivered their conclusions back in February. The results are terrifying, much worse than even the most paranoid fears of nutty conspiracy theorists.

The panel of experts found that Diebold voting machines are completely compromised, riddled with curious bits of unexpected code, and "ceded complete control of the system" to hackers. Without needing to know passwords or cryptographic keys, just about anyone with access to a Diebold machine can change vote totals, reports, even the names of candidates and the election being voted on -- and detecting these vote changes would be difficult, if not impossible.

A more perfect vehicle for fixing an election can hardly be imagined. And it would require nothing more than a handful of high-tech zealots, not a vast conspiracy.

Naturally, after such a blistering condemnation, McPherson did what any official charged with guaranteeing the integrity and credibility of his state's elections would do: He approved the slipshod system by the dark of the moon, on a Friday before a holiday weekend, without any public hearings -- indeed, without waiting for the results of a pending federal review of Diebold's mole-infested code. Now, the Diebold contraptions, whose chronic "breakdowns" have featured in numerous contested elections and last-second "miracle" victories by Republican candidates across the country in recent years, will control California's pot of electoral gold.

In general, it is a good idea to never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. But what do you make of a careless shop-keeper who always short-changes his customers, but never gives back too much change? It is difficult to avoid the suspicion of deliberate cheating.

And so it becomes harder and harder to defend the voting irregularities over the last six years as incompetence when, time and time again almost without exception, the "mistakes" benefit one party -- the Republicans. And not just any Republicans, but especially those who are cronies of Bush and the neo-conservatives.

A good example of how this control works can be found in Alaska. There, the state Democratic Party has long been seeking an audit of some of the 2004 Diebold-counted returns, which produced a series of strange anomalies -- including awarding President George W. Bush an extra 100,000 votes that turned out to be phantoms. First, state officials blocked the request because that information, the vote count of a public election, was a "company secret" that belonged exclusively to Diebold, Friedman reports. Then they decided that the returns could be examined -- but only on the condition that Diebold and the Republican officials be allowed to "manipulate the data" before it was released. In the end, even this tainted transparency was too much for the Bushist ballot crunchers; late last month, Alaska officials suddenly declared that examining the returns would pose a dire but unspecified "security risk" to the state.

One wonders what possible security risk there could be to examine the election returns. Perhaps if people discovered just how badly the vote was fixed, it would destroy any credibility the government had and lead to rioting in the streets.

The American electoral system has rapidly been shifted to electronic voting with unseemly haste and virtually no effort at transparency and security. For folks in places like Australia, who still mark paper ballots by hand (how old-fashioned! how resistant to tampering!), it is sometimes hard to remember that American voters almost all vote by pushing a button, a touchscreen, or other electronic device. After the 2000 election, President Bush mandated electronic voting by the 2004 election. Not surprisingly, the head of Diebold wrote a fund-raising letter promising to deliver Ohio's votes to the President.

(Strangely enough, Ohio is the state which had the most serious voting irregularities in the 2004 elections, and, as promised, it was won by the Republicans. Must be one of those coincidences. There sure are an awful lot of them.)

There are three major suppliers of electronic voting machines in the U.S., Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia, and all three have very close political and financial ties to Bush and other conservatives. Diebold, as well as ES&S, have been financed by tycoon Howard Ahmanson, who is a member of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which openly calls for a theocracy in America. The movement calls for the death penalty for homosexuals, slavery for debtors, stoning for sinners and stripping nonbelievers of citizenship. Ahmanson himself has publically stated he "no longer" considers the stoning of homosexuals to be "essential".

Possibly he thinks that the electric chair would be just as good.

Similarly Sequoia, which is owned by a partner of the shadowy Carlyle Group, the investment firm with deep ties to the Bush family. In another of those coincidences, a recent audit of votes from just a single Florida county, found Sequoia's machines made 100,000 "mistakes" in the 2004 election.

Back in 2002, there was a joke going around that went something like this:

    Q: What's the difference between presidents Saddam Hussein and George Bush Jr?
    A: Saddam Hussein actually was voted for by a majority.

Saddam was greedy and stupid: he banned other political parties, refused to allow any competitors for the post of President, and claimed an unbelievable 99.9% of the vote. Bush, or rather the puppet-masters like Karl Rove behind Bush, might be greedy, but they aren't stupid. They know it makes no difference whether they win the election with 99.9% of the vote, or 50.1% of the vote -- what's important is that they win. And they will do whatever it takes to win, even if it goes against the will of the voters. (Voters -- what do they know? Most of them aren't even millionaires.) Why make the sheeple uneasy by rubbing their noses in the fact that the elections are fixed, like Saddam did? Give them their comforting illusion of democracy.

It won't matter who runs in 2008, or who votes, or even how unpopular the Bush government becomes. The U.S.A.'s electoral process has been hijacked, and the American media will make excuses after the event for any results, no matter how implausible.

The life expectancy of books

How long can you expect books to remain in print?

It depends on the book of course, some books have been in print continuously for a century or more, while others are as ephemeral as a snow flake in a blast furnace.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden from Making Light discusses the lifespan of books:

We talk about immortal literature, but the vast majority of books are as mortal as we are. Who here has read John Cleveland? He was the most popular poet of his era, with numerous editions of his work published during his lifetime and just after. Then his style went out of style, as did his Royalist sentiments. Bye-bye, Cleveland.
The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling out of print is a book's natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves to believe that this will happen to other people's books. What's hard is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.

It'll happen just the same. It happens faster in mainstream fiction than it does in Our Beloved Genre, more slowly for nonfiction history books, very fast indeed for computer manuals; but in the end, all but a very few titles will be forgotten. [...]

All gone, now. We shall none of us escape obscurity.

There are consequences to this. Consider the concept of copyright. From its humble beginnings in Britain as a monopoly granted to the publisher as a royal boon, copyright became a way of rewarding the author as a way of encouraging the creation of new work.

But copyright assumes that works remain in print, that they continue to produce financial reward for the author forever. But since books have a limited lifespan in print, that assumption is rarely true:

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They've gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can't exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What's left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn't, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author's ex-spouse's step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They're bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

Somewhere along the line, long copyright terms have become a method of blocking access to an author's work:

If that's too complicated, imagine an author's entire body of work being kept out of print because the rights passed to the ex-spouse's third husband after the ex-spouse died, and he hated the author.

Even if the heirs-and-assigns aren't pulling flagrantly stupid stunts, those extra decades of copyright are a drag on the publishability of the work. David Hartwell and I were both doing big retrospective story collections in the wake of the last big copyright extension. That change did something which I'd been told in my youth would never happen: works that had gone out of copyright went back in. [...]

Right about now would be a natural time for people to be compiling anthologies of the early 20th C. writers of fantasy, horror, and proto-SF. It's not happening. Look at Dunsany. His marvellous and seminal fantasy short stories were published in collections from 1905 to 1919, but the man himself lived to 1957. And think of that moldering forest-floor mulch of writers who sold who knows how many stories in the course of their careers, only one or two of which a modern reader might still find striking. Just finding the stories would be a heroic but imaginable tasks. Securing the rights is beyond imagination. The heirs would range from intransigent to unfindable; and those you could find would have to have the entirety of standard publishing practices explained to them, after which they'd consult their cousin the real-estate lawyer, who would give them dreadful advice. Best not to even try. Too bad, but it's best not to even try.

There is a quick and simple fix to the mess that copyright has become. Get rid of automatic copyright, or at least drastically reduce it, from forever-less-one-day (almost!) to something realistic like 14 years.

When that 14 year automatic copyright is about to expire, let the author extend it for another 14 years by paying $1, and another 14 years after that, and another, and another... That will let the corporate monsters happy, keeping Mickey Mouse under lock and key as long as it makes them money.

But for the rest of us -- if the work isn't worth one lousy dollar to the author, then it is worthless (to the author, maybe not the rest of us) and should be placed in the public domain.

Santorum and the chemical weapons

As a dog returns to it's vomit, so the Republican chickenhawks return to their warmongering lies about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

A report unveiled by Senator Rick Santorum revealed that U.S. forces had found degraded, useless and empty reminants of Iraq's pre-1991 chemical weapons -- weapons which had been built by Iraq with the full knowledge of then American President Ronald Reagan, who was happy for Saddam Hussein to have chemical weapons while he was using them to kill Kurdish terrorists and Iranians. Santorum crowed loudly that these broken-down pieces of junk proved that the U.S. cover story for the invasion of Iraq was justified.

So how does this work? Artillery shells left over from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, degraded and almost useless, prove that Iraq was a serious threat to world peace? Suuuure they do.

Juan Cole lists ten reasons why these aren't the weapons of mass destruction the U.S. went to war over:

  1. The authors of Cobra II show that before the 2003 Iraq War, Saddam called his top generals together and let them know that he did not in fact have any WMD any more. They were allegedly shaken and disturbed.

  2. The Saddam regime faced certain destruction in March-April 2003, but no Iraqi military unit deployed any WMD to save themselves.

In addition, the U.S. Defence Department consider's Santorum's claims to be bogus:

Fox News’ Jim Angle contacted the Defense Department who quickly disavowed Santorum and Hoekstra’s claims. A Defense Department official told Angle flatly that the munitions hyped by Santorum and Hoekstra are “not the WMD’s for which this country went to war.”

The Australian writes:

"This is an incredibly, in my mind, significant finding. The idea that, as my colleagues have repeatedly said in this debate on the other side of the aisle, that there are no weapons of mass destruction, is in fact false," Senator Santorum said.

A Pentagon official who confirmed the findings said that all the weapons were pre-1991 vintage munitions "in such a degraded state they couldn't be used for what they are designed for."

The official, who asked not to be identified, said most were 155 mm artillery projectiles with mustard gas or sarin of varying degrees of potency.

That's Senator Santorum's "incredibly significant finding". At least he is honest -- it is only significant in his mind, not in reality.

"Varying degrees of potency" -- between what? None and two parts of bugger all?

In reality, by no stretch of the imagination are 155mm artillery projectiles "weapons of mass destruction". Chemical weapons are vicious for many reasons, but massively destructive they are not. If you want to see weapons of mass destruction, you should look at the American MOAB bomb, or any one of the 10,000+ nuclear weapons the U.S. still maintains, with approximately 7,000 in active duty and 3,000 in reserve. Military planners know what chemical weapons are good for: they are quick and dirty area-denial weapons, psychological weapons, but not weapons of mass destruction. For mass destruction you need a big bomb.

If you aren't convinced, consider the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The Japanese terrorists used approximately ten litres of sarin, enough to theoretically kill more than 10,000,000 people. What were the results of this attack?

Twelve people died. A further 5,510 patients were treated in hospitals, 17 of whom were critically ill, 37 severely ill, and 984 moderately ill, mostly complaining about vision problems. The rest were not affected but were "worried well", people who thought they could have been poisoned but weren't.

A terrible crime, true, but hardly mass destruction. Mass disruption more than anything else. Had the terrorists used a dozen hand grenades, they probably would have killed and injured more people and done far more damage.

So it is nonsense to describe these as "weapons of mass destruction" -- mass distraction perhaps, but that's it.

Still, they are chemical weapons, and chemical weapons are dangerous: you don't want them in the hands of just anyone, degraded or not. But sarin has a shelf-life of weeks or months; pushing to the limits of technology might give it a year's shelf-life. Even if the Iraqis had managed a miracle, within a decade the sarin nerve gas would degrade away into harmlessness.

Mustard gas munitions have a longer shelf-life. In ideal circumstances, they can remain effective for a decade or more, although the chaos of Iraq makes ideal circumstances most unlikely. It is just conceivable that some of those 500 shells might have been mustard gas shells in more-or-less working condition.

Nobody in their right mind wants to come into contact with mustard gas, any more than they want to pour caustic soda over their skin. Mustard gas isn't so much a poison as a corrosive, blistering agent, similar in some ways to powerful acids or bases. It isn't especially deadly unless it gets in the lungs. In World War One, less than 1% of soldiers affected by mustard gas died, making it significantly less effective at killing the enemy than bullets. It was used for the psychological effect, and to disrupt enemy activities, rather than kill.

But even if these shells were in absolute pristine condition, Santorum's notion that the U.S., the world's only superpower, had something to fear from a few hundred short-range artillery shells is laughably ridiculous. You might as well go to war because Iraqi plumbers used caustic soda to clean out the drains. (Mustard gas is more effective as a weapon than caustic soda, but there is a lot more caustic soda available, and it can kill: people have died from being forced to swallow drain cleaner.)

But of course, they weren't in pristine condition. As admitted by the Pentagon official, those weapons which had been armed are all obsolete and degraded, and wouldn't have worked as they were designed. That doesn't mean they were harmless -- some of them could have contained explosives designed to disperse the chemical agent, and even degraded explosives can blow your head off. Also, while sarin is rendered harmless in just weeks, mustard gas remains corrosive for years or even decades. Old World War One mustard gas shells are still capable of causing serious burns and injuries. But they aren't effective weapons -- they are difficult to use, likely to fail or misfire, and unlikely to hurt more than a few people.

Iraq manufactured tens of thousands of chemical shells during the war with Iran. Of course some of these shells, empty or full, would be forgotten or abandoned. This is not news: the Iraq Survey Group declared back in 2004:
While a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions have been discovered, ISG judges that Iraq unilaterally destroyed its undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in 1991. There are no credible indications that Baghdad resumed production of chemical munitions thereafter, a policy ISG attributes to Baghdad’s desire to see sanctions lifted, or rendered ineffectual, or its fear of force against it should WMD be discovered.

A few hundred empty or degraded weapons left over from the 1980s is no justification for going to war. The military value of those weapons is zero, in fact they were a liability: too little to deter an attack, but they gave the aggressors an excuse to invade.

AOL wants to keep dead people on the Internet

It isn't easy cancelling an AOL account, not even when the account holder is dead and can't use the service any longer:

My mom had AOL, but on February 21st, she was killed in a car accident. On February 23rd, I called AOL to cancel her service. I wish I could have recorded the conversation for you. It was unbelievable. After explaining that my mother was killed in the accident, the rep told me that he was sorry that my mom was unhappy with the service. He then suggested lowering the number of hours per month to reduce the bill. I said "she was killed." The rep then said, "I understand what you are saying, I'm just trying to come up with a solution." He actually got snippy with me. AOL finally told me that my mom would have to call and cancel the service herself (even after I provided the coroner's ID number for the incident, etc.).

("My mom had AOL"... sounds serious. What's that, like having MS or something?)

I don't see the big deal. If 181,000 dead people can vote in American elections, then I don't see why they shouldn't enjoy the exciting Internet experience provided by AOL.

Speaking of the dead and elections, by now just about everyone has heard this true story, but I just never get tired of telling it: back in 2000, John Ashcroft (later appointed U.S. Attorney-General) was beaten for a seat in the Senate by a dead guy, Mel Carnahan. Apparently Missouri voters preferred the chance of one of their senators becoming a brain-eating zombie to giving Ashcroft any national responsibility.

Get ready for the shakedown...

People sometimes forget that software licence keys are only for the benefit of the software vendor, but give the vendor significant lock-in power over their customers.

Earlier today I had a fascinating discussion with a colleague of mine who works for a certain high-profile university here in Melbourne. He asked whether anyone had any experience with Macrovision's licence-key management software, FlexLM and FlexNET.

Seems that the university's IT department is running some software on one of their servers which uses Macrovision's software. You install the software, give it a set of licences, tell it which applications use it, and as users use those applications, the licence keys are checked out. Once you run out of licences, more people can't use the applications until some licences are released.

The IT department needs to retire the old, worn out licence-server, and replace it with new hardware. This wouldn't be a problem, except the licences are locked in to a particular server, and before they can migrate the software to a new server, they need new licences from the vendor.

Hence the shakedown.

Two software vendors are refusing to supply new licence keys unless the university buys maintenance contracts from them.

One vendor is just shooting themselves in the foot: their particular piece of software is used by only four people, and the university is prepared to do without it. But the other piece of software is very important, and the university recently paid US$60,000 for a set of unlimited licences. They're locked in -- without the licence keys, the software is useless, and the money they just paid out is spent for no benefit. The IT department is, understandably, quite peeved at the standover tactics the vendor is using, but don't really have a choice but to pay for a maintence contract they don't need or want.

It is a basic principle of economics that this sort of rent-seeking behaviour is inefficient: it harms the economy as a whole for the benefit of the vendor, instead of being a mutually-beneficial trade. The university does not need or want a maintenance contract, but may be strong-armed into paying extra for what they've already paid for.

(Note that this sense of "rent-seeking" is not the same as the ordinary meaning of the word rent, although ordinary rent can easily turn into monopolistic rent-seeking.)

With powerful lobbyists pushing hard for governments to pass laws increasing their ability to lock-in customers with Digital Restrictions Management software, expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Captured Americans found dead

The Iraqi occupation government is reporting that the two kidnapped American soldiers, Private First Class Thomas Tucker (25y.o.) and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca (23y.o.) have been found dead.

No doubt Tucker and Menchaca have friends and family who will morn their loss. According to early accounts, it is likely they didn't die easily, and there is no evidence that they deserved to die horribly. (That's not to say they were innocent lambs -- they were volunteer soldiers, willingly taking part in an illegal war of aggression and occupation of a sovereign nation, one where there have been no shortage of atrocities on all sides.)

A few days earlier, Pharyngula expressed a wish that his country could take the moral high ground:

I can, in good conscience, sit here and hope that they are treated in a civilized fashion by their captors, and are eventually released unharmed; this will, of course, make American treatment of Iraqis look beastly and barbaric by comparison. If they are abused and humiliated, smeared with excrement, photographed naked in degrading poses, attacked by dogs, or otherwise maltreated, I can again in good conscience condemn their captors as barbarous animals; I'm not sure what the right wing in this country will do. Sneer at the ineffectual frat-boy hazing? [...]

Thanks to the inhumane policies of our government, we are now in a lose-lose situation. There is no reason to expect or demand any kind of moral treatment of our captured soldiers when we aren't willing to give such treatment to Iraqi prisoners.

The Rude Pundit also raises the question:
(Warning: contains extreme language.)

The Rude Pundit can't help thinking, though, about the implied "What if" of the capture, on the field of battle, of American soldiers, prisoners of war, if you will.
What if [...] the captors put the nude soldiers into rooms that are heated to hellish temperatures, followed by rooms that are impossibly cold with colder water tossed onto them? What if the soldiers are made to stand for days on end? [...]

What if they strap one or both of those Americans to a board and hold them underwater until their drowning reflex forces them to panic, thrash, claw desperately for air, only to be brought up to breathe and then placed underwater again? And again? Until the captors get the answers they seek?
What will our government do? What could it do? Could it condemn the actions as not abiding by the Geneva Conventions? Could it call the actions "torture"? Could it demand accountability? Could it demand that the soldiers be treated as POWs?

There is no moral high ground in Iraq. The war over Iraq isn't being fought between the good guys and bad guys ("us" and "them", or, if you prefer, "them" and "us"). It is being fought between bad guys and worse guys -- and it isn't exactly clear who are the worse guys.

This is hardly the first time, nor will it be the last. Scalping, that quintessential example of "barbarous" Amerindian behaviour, was rare (but probably not non-existent) in North America until it was taken up by the Europeans, who scalped natives themselves, paid bounties on scalps, and encouraged their native allies to scalp prisoners. On the other hand, many of the native tribes did have a very ... robust ... approach to torture, long before Europeans arrived.

It takes very little to make monsters from people. Civilization is the constant battle to keep from turning into a monster, and those who live in a state of denial that "we" could possibly be monstrous are halfway there.

How much tax do companies pay?

Are companies being hit with onerously high taxes?

Of course, that's a ridiculously broad question. Which companies, in what countries? Narrow it down: how about Britain?

As reported by the Telegraph, The Hundred Group report that they contributed £18 billion to the UK government, and call for greater transparency in just how much company taxes they pay.

Unfortunately, the report doesn't actually mention when they paid that £18 billion, or even whether it was a single year's payment. It is strongly implied, so let's assume that it is the tax paid over one year.

Note also that these aren't offical statistics from the tax department, these are self-reported figures by the companies in question. Have you ever known a company to argue that they aren't paying enough in taxes? So there is a potential bias here.

But for the sake of the argument, let's accept the numbers are accurate. £18 billion sounds like a lot; what percentage of profits is it?

Unfortunately, the Telegraph doesn't report the profits made by The Hundred Group, so we are forced to look elsewhere for that information. (This is ironic, given The Hundred Group's call for greater transparency.)

The Telegraph reports that members of The Hundred Group are the FTSE 100 companies, plus a number of other large organisations such as the BBC and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. Can we find out their profits?

Each year, the Guardian publishes an account of how much money the FTSE 100 companies donate to charity. In 2005, the FTSE 100 companies donated 0.87% of their before-tax profits to charitable, social or environmental projects, for a total of £948.69 million.

So, let's do some calculations:

0.87% of the total before-tax profits of the FTSE 100 companies = £949 million

So the total before-tax profits = £949/0.0087 = £109,080 million, or £109 billion.

Out of that £109 billion, they paid £18 billion in taxes, or a little less than 17%.

That figure is an over-estimate of the percentage, because the numerator (taxes paid) comes from FTSE 100 companies plus others, while the denominator (before-tax profit) only counts the FTSE 100 companies. So, we're over-counting the tax paid and under-counting the total profit.

On average, the FTSE 100 consists of 100 companies making £1 billion in pre-tax profit each. They pay less than 17% tax on that £1 billion. That's not a bad little earner.

Now, companies are supposed to be "people" for the purposes of the law -- not "natural persons", like you or I, but people still. If you or I earned £1 billion in profit, we'd pay significantly more than 17% in tax. The top tax rate for "natural persons" is typically between 40% and 50% in many Western democracies -- and, for the purposes of taxation, corporations get many deductions which natural people don't.

The Telegraph writes:

Philip Broadley, chairman of the group and the finance director of the Prudential, insisted yesterday that the timing of the survey's publication was not dictated by the fact that the 2006 Budget is in less than two weeks' time.

Nevertheless, he said: "There is a need for greater transparency regarding all taxes paid by business, not just corporation tax, to ensure that stakeholders are more aware of these other business taxes and the total amount of tax that companies contribute to society in the form of Government revenues."

Absolutely. More people need to understand that they, as individuals, are being taxed disproportionally more than corporations making billions of pounds of profit.

Futurama back from the dead

Good news everybody! Futurama is officially back from the dead.

The New York Post is reporting that Comedy Central will be making at least 13 more episodes.

Friday, June 23, 2006

How much would you spend to catch a criminal?

How much is too much to spend catching lawbreakers?

There are people who might say "Nothing is too much to spend to uphold the law!" -- but they change their tune when they get their tax bill. Somebody has to pay to catch lawbreakers and criminals, and that somebody is wage and salary earners (especially in the current political climate where the rich and wealthy pay proportionally less tax than those who have to work for a living).

Bruce Schneier discusses US-VISIT, the program to fingerprint and keep tabs on foriegn visitors to the U.S.A. (Reminds me of the bad old days in Soviet Russia, where tourists and foreign visitors were constantly treated with great suspicion by the government.)

[...] the last paragraph is the most interesting:

    Since January 2004, US-VISIT has processed more than 44 million visitors. It has spotted and apprehended nearly 1,000 people with criminal or immigration violations, according to a DHS press release.

I wrote about US-VISIT in 2004, and back then I said that it was too expensive and a bad trade-off. The price tag for "the next phase" was $15B; I'm sure the total cost is much higher.

But take that $15B number. One thousand bad guys, most of them not very bad, caught through US-VISIT. That's $15M per bad guy caught.

Surely there's a more cost-effective way to catch bad guys?

Or, alternatively, recognise that many of these bad guys aren't bad guys at all, but merely people who have done no harm what-so-ever but fallen foul of some unnecessary bureaucratic legislation.

The Tale of the Lost Phone

The New York Times (warning: registration and DNA sample required) tells the tale of a lost mobile phone, and how it was found:

Three weeks ago, Mr. Guttman went on a quest to retrieve a friend's lost cellphone, a quest that has now ended with the arrest of a 16-year-old on charges of possessing the missing gadget, a Sidekick model with a built-in camera that sells for as much as $350. But before the teenager was arrested, she was humiliated by Mr. Guttman in front of untold thousands of people on the Web, an updated version of the elaborate public shamings common in centuries past.

The tale began when Mr. Guttman's best friend Ivanna left her cellphone in a taxicab, like thousands of others before her. After Ivanna got a new Sidekick, she logged on to her account - and was confronted by pictures of an unfamiliar young woman and her family, along with the young woman's America Online screen name.

The 16-year-old, Sasha Gomez, of Corona, Queens, had been using the Sidekick to take pictures and send instant messages. She apparently did not know that the company that provided the phone's service, T-Mobile, automatically backs up such information on its remote servers. So when Ivanna got back on, there was Sasha.

Using instant messages, Mr. Guttman tracked down Sasha and asked her to return it. "Basically, she told me to get lost," Mr. Guttman recalled. "That was it."

Big mistake. Guttman set up a web page detailing everything that happened, and word rapidly spread. Before long, Guttman was receiving thousands of emails from people whose phones had been lost or stolen -- and more importantly, messages from lawyers, police officers and others volunteering to help retrieve the phone.

Sasha Gomez, meanwhile, was receiving a lot of unwelcome attention:

Some readers also began visiting Sasha's MySpace page and bombarding her and her friends with e-mail messages. Others found her street address in Corona and drove by her family's apartment building, taking videos or shouting out "thief" in front of her neighbors.

It didn't take long for the threats to begin:

Mr. Guttman also kept exchanging e-mail messages with Sasha and, eventually, her family. Then he heard from her older brother, Luis Pena, who said he was a military policeman and warned Mr. Guttman to let his sister alone.

Mr. Guttman posted the exchange.

Within days, he was contacted by dozens of active and retired soldiers. One said he had gone through basic training with Mr. Pena; several others told Mr. Guttman that making such a threat was a violation of military policy and promised to report Mr. Pena to his superior officers.

Mr. Guttman posted it all.

"I don't want people to be punished," he said last week. "I just want them to give the Sidekick back."

Eventually, the police became involved:

The police arrested Sasha and charged her with possession of stolen property in the fifth degree, a misdemeanor. (The police have possession of the Sidekick and plan to return it to Ivanna.) Sasha was released, but was not available to comment. Her mother offered a parting remark.

"I never in my life thought a phone was going to cause me so many problems," Ms. Gomez said.

It's not the phone which caused the problem. It was the refusal to return it to its rightful owner.

Office finds a place in the Creative Commons

C|Net News is reporting that Microsoft has teamed up with the non-profit Creative Commons organisation to provide a free tool that will let people attach a Creative Commons copyright license to their Office documents.

Image only.

There are many reasons why reliance on closed, proprietary, secret file formats like Microsoft's .doc is a bad idea (e.g. vendor lock-in, sudden obsolesence at Microsoft's whim, etc.), but the reality is that .doc is a de facto "standard". (It isn't really a standard as such -- have you ever tried opening your old Word version 1.0 documents?) At least for the short term future, people are going to continue using Office, and this has the potential to introduce, and give Microsoft's Seal of Approval to, the Creative Commons to millions of people who otherwise would think that anything less that All Rights Reserved is an open invitation for the communists to take over and start eating babies.

How much does free fertility treatment cost?

The British government pays for free fertility treatment to infertile couples. How much does it cost the nation?

Suprisingly, the answer is that in the long run, not only does it not cost the country a penny, but it actually makes money, despite the initial price tag. (On the other hand, in the very long run, it isn't certain that having an ever increasing population is a good idea. For starters, I don't like soylent green -- I prefer my long pork au naturel.)

Yahoo quotes from a Reuters report:

Professor William Ledger, a fertility expert at the University of Sheffield in England, looked at the average cost of producing a baby through in-vitro fertilization and the benefit to the government over the person's lifetime.

He and a group of mathematicians and economists used a modeling exercise and calculated that for the average 13,000 pounds ($23,960) it costs to produce a child through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) the government would recoup 143,000 pounds in taxes alone.
"The average person over a lifetime will contribute 143,000 pounds to the state in benefits if they are an IVF child born to a mother of age 35," he explained.

Link to a Yahoo news article which will probably disappear before long.

This just goes to show that when it comes to economics, not everything is what it seems. Giving services away from nothing can be a money spinner, and compassion to the infertile comes with an average profit margin of one thousand percent!

A century-worth of fear mongering

The EFF discusses the music and movie industries, and their history of fear mongering:

This week, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is running a great ad [PDF] in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, reminding Congress that the entertainment oligopolies have cried wolf about new technologies many times before.

The ad collects a century-worth of fear mongering by an industry focused on legislating to protect out-dated business models[...]

The movie and music business, ironically enough given their own origins in piracy and copyright infringement, have objected to:

  • The player-piano

  • The wireless radio

  • The cassette tape recorder

  • The VCR, famously described as being like Jack The Ripper

  • The DAT tape, successfully killed by RIAA-sponsored legislation

  • Digital VCRs like Tivo

  • The digital radio

and now the industry is crying wolf about devices capable of recording digital radio, claiming that they will destroy the music industry.

Just like the player-piano did, and the radio, and the cassette tape, and ...

Dartboards are competitive with money managers

An interesting discussion about why picking stocks at random is likely to perform just as well as the best professional money managers, and why the Wall Street Journal's competitions are (inadvertently? yeah, sure) biased in favour of the professionals.

The Journal set out to create an entertaining contest to test Malkiel's theory and give its readers some new investment ideas in the process. Wall Street Journal staff members typically play the role of the monkeys (the Journal listed liability insurance as one reason for not going all the way and actually using live monkeys).
Liang concluded that the pros neither outperformed the market nor the darts. According to Liang, the pros supposed superior performance could be explained by the small sample size, the announcement effect, and the missing dividend yields. One of the strongest criticisms of the contest is the fact that the Journal measures performance by price appreciation only, despite the fact that total return is measured by both price appreciation and dividends.

Royal Society to try open access science

This is good news: after the Royal Society complained about other scientific journals publishing scientific results under open access because it hurt the Society's ability to charge outrageous high subscription fees, an open letter from the Society's grass-roots has convinced the Society that their mission is the furtherance of science, not the collection of subscription fees.

God, a Career Retrospective

An amusing sequence of seven cartoons showing a retrospective on the career of the god known only as God.

Censorship, here and there

Two reports on Internet censorship from Boing Boing:

The first discusses censorship in China. Ben Lehman, who lives in Shanghai, discusses the widely variable, inconsistent censorship of the Internet within China:

The insidious thing about this is not the censorship [...] but the fact that most Chinese people don't even know its there. Almost no one I've talked to even understands that government censorship happens at all -- it just looks to them like the internet has a lot more "dead links" and, if that's all you're used to, there's no reason to expect otherwise.

Techies and geeks often suggest that Internet censorship doesn't matter, because it is easy to get around. Easy for some, perhaps, not so easy for others -- but as Lehman suggests, the biggest problem is that people don't even know they are being censored. If web pages came up with great big CENSORED it wouldn't matter -- people would know when they were having things hidden from them, and make their decisions accordingly. What hurts us is not so much the lies we know about, as those we don't know about.

(Censorship is a lie -- it tells us that something doesn't exist when it does.)

Meanwhile, back in Australia... our government has stepped back from the threatened compulsory Internet filters, and is offering free Internet filters to anyone stupid enough to ask for one.

Why stupid? Because censorware filters are unreliable, biased, and capricious. (The full report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU is here.)

David Cake from Electronic Frontiers Australia writes:

With the conservative government being heavily lobbied by conservative Christian groups and others calling for opt-out ISP level filtering, and a misguided opposition supporting them, a proposal that takes ISP level filtering off the table and replaces it with opt-in PC filtering has actually improved the political outlook here quite a bit.

With the current state of politics, the rise of conservative Fundamentalism, and the selling of government to the all-mighty corporate dollar, it is a good day when my tax dollars are merely going to be wasted on doing harm to a minority of volunteers who opt-in to censorware. Good news indeed.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A warning about Internet storage

Over the last few years, services such as Gmail and Flickr have been exploding in popularity. Thousands, possibly even millions of people, have begun storing their precious memories -- photos, email conversations, or other electronic files -- using these services. There are certainly many advantages to these services.

But all is not sweetness and light. There are serious risks that need to be considered before doing so.

Imagine that you place all your photo albums in storage, so that they will be safe. Then, one day without warning, you go to the storage warehouse and discover you've been locked out and your photos and diaries have been incinerated. Or worse: the storage company has taken your property, including the screenplay you've been writing, and sold it.

If this happened with physical property, actual paper diaries and film photos, there would be little doubt that everyone would recognise it as outragous theft of private property. But unfortunately, things are not so clear-cut with electronic files.

Take for example. (I'm not linking to them deliberately -- if you want to visit their site, copy and paste the URL into your web browser address field. No free advertising from me, thank you very much.) According to reports, they've tried all the major sneaky, disreputable and downright dirty tricks in the book:

  • Apparently deliberately deleted at least one user's photos without warning -- equivalent to incinerating your photo albums in storage

  • Tried to claim ownership of all copyright and other intellectual property rights to photos stored on their site -- equivalent of claiming ownership to your property you put in storage in their warehouse

  • And now are about to hold users' photos for ransom by suspending their accounts, then deleting them, unless they upgrade to a paid service.

Of course, doesn't supply an easy tool to download your photos off their site should you wish to retrieve them. Can you say the words "locked in"?

The sad thing is that all of these things, which would be recognised as outright theft if they involved physical photos, are probably legal, thanks to the Terms of Service that users agree to. You remember the Terms of Service? You know, the 85 pages of tiny writing that you clicked "I Agree" to when you opened your account? Yes, that Terms of Service.

Yes, I am aware of the irony of placing this work on Blogspot instead of my own website. There is no need to mention it, thank you.

Spam spam spam spam

As well as blocking known spam at the mail server, I run the open source Spam Assassin on my desktop. It is set to throw away everything it is certain is spam, and I never see those emails. However, there are other emails it isn't quite sure are spam, and they get dumped in a mail folder for me to periodically check. Today, I finally got around to doing this for the first time in about six months. After an entertaining half hour skimming the subject lines of almost 12,000 spams emails, I found four false positives.

That's a damn good error rate: less than 0.04%.

However, the false negative rate is much higher, probably around 5% -- despite the spam filtering, I still get about fifty spams a day. I could reduce that by having Spam Assassin be stricter with its filtering, but I'd rather err on letting spams through than tossing away real mail.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Battling the Copyright Monster

Wired is running an interview with law professors Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, who co-wrote and produced the comic book Bound By Law? Tales From the Public Domain.

Professors Aoki, Boyle and Jenkins see themselves as defenders of copyright, and hope to show how the system is supposed to work, finding balance between protection and freedom for artists. Aimed at documentary film-makers, Bound By Law? describes the trials and tribulations of a film-maker as she tries to make a documentary, only to fall victim of many copyright pitfalls.

Jenkins says:

First of all, documentaries are incredibly important records of our history and culture. They're visual histories, and they're increasingly based on copyrighted culture. Our book describes several instances in which the telling of that history has been thwarted by permissions issues. An example is Jon Else having to pay $10,000 for a four-and-a-half-second clip of The Simpsons playing in the background of his film (Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle). The makers of Mad Hot Ballroom had to pay that same amount to EMI because a cell phone rings in the background of one of the scenes, and the ringtone is the theme from Rocky. These examples really resonate with people. They understand that these are instances where copyright is not working the way it's supposed to.

Boyle says:

One of the questions we're going to be asking is, "Would we have genres like jazz, blues or soul if those musicians had to work in the current climate of copyright protection?" Imagine if, in the history of jazz, anyone who played a sample of any bar of someone else's music had to clear each and every sample and pay permissions, or else just go underground and play at backstreet bars and never make a record. Would we have a better culture? Would this lead to advancement in the arts? I don't think so.

See also the gallery.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Is cleanliness bad for you?

Intriguing research that suggests that living in an environment which is too clean and hygienic may be a cause of allergies and auto-immune diseases.

CBC reports:

A comparison of rats living in the wild and the lab lends support to the idea that an overly hygienic environment can lead to allergies and autoimmune diseases.

According to the "hygiene hypothesis," exposure early in life to infections from household dust, germy siblings or surfaces may reduce the risk of developing disease in adulthood.
Industrialized societies that emphasize hygiene have higher rates of allergy, asthma and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis compared to the developing world.

I think it is time to stop wiping everything down with disinfectant.

Blocking digital cameras

BoingBoing writes about new technology that can detect and blind digital cameras:

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers developed a system that scans an area for the CCDs in digital still and video cameras. Once it locates one, the system would shine a laser into the CCD to "neutralize" its imaging capabilities.

The list of suggested applications is ... interesting:
  • Preventing movie piracy

  • Stopping industrial espionage

  • Blocking people from taking photos of their kids with Santa at a shopping mall

One the inventors missed is stopping people from taking photos of public areas. Heaven forbid if people could just take a photo of the landscape without money changing hands.

See also this news release.

How book publishers make or lose money

TOR employee Anna Louise gives a vivid portrait of the inside workings of a fiction publisher and how they make or lose money on individual books.

In part I, she writes about a complete mass-market failure:

The publisher tells you to get some in house reads, because she isn't sure this is a wise use of resources -- without blurbs, you're going to have a hard time. Plus, you're on your second cover -- the art department just can't get it right. You spent $4,500 hiring an artist. Now the art director is working on the cover himself, using stock art. You still have to pay for stock art -- it costs $1,400.
On the initial profitability and liability statement, the excited, committed editor theorized it would print at least 50,000 and sell at least 30,000, and paid the author an advance of $12,500. She didn't want to go all the way up to $16,000, just in case she was slightly off the mark -- and normally a first time author would get something like $5,000 (just in case! and also leaving room to grow!), but this was out with four other houses, and the agent had a $10,000 offer from NAL, and, damn it all, the editor really wanted it, so her publisher let her pay an exorbitant amount.


In part II, she writes about a successful hardcover book and its move to the mass-market:

10,000 copies. Everyone gets a 50% discount off the cover price of $24.95, which means we're starting out with $12.48 per copy.

The author gets the standard 10% through 5,000 copies sold, and 12.5% for the 5,000 after that, and 15% thereafter. This means the author makes $2.50 per copy through the first 5,000 copies sold, and then $3.12 per copy on the next 5,000 copies sold. This particular project sells 8,000 copies, which means Rygel makes a total of $21,860 on the hardcover sales alone.

Part III still to come.

The fascinating thing is that book failures are completely normal for publishers, and not a black mark at all. (If you're a first-time author, on the other hand, failure to sell will turn your name into mud.) Publishing seems to be like professional gambling: what matters is the long-term success, not any individual wins or losses. Of course, a big enough win or loss will make a big difference to whether you get promoted or fired, but in general, it expected that editors will promote their share of turkeys. There are so many things are completely out of the publisher's control that nobody cares when a book fails to sell -- except the author.

That's not to say that publishing is completely random. Like a gambler, the skill is in doing your sums correctly so you know how much risk you can afford to take for the expected payoff. Unlike gambling, where the payoffs are usually known in advance, publisher's sometimes stumble accross a book or two that the public falls in love with, and then there is no limit to the payoff they can get.

Flickr gives full access to competitors

BoingBoing is reporting that Flickr's co-founder, Steward Butterfield, has promised that Flickr will allow any of their commercial competitors full access to their programming interfaces to help customers switch away from Flickr -- but only if the competitor has to offer the same deal.

This is fantastic news for openess and competition. Flickr promises that copyright to all photos placed on their website by users remains with the user (assuming the user owned the copyright in the first place). That promise that Flickr won't claim ownership of your digital content is meaningless if there is no easy way to move your content to another service.

(Imagine that you put your property in storage, but then discovered that you couldn't get it back out of storage. There is a word for that -- theft.)

Flickr's move will increase the pressure on other commercial content-hosting services to make good their promise to customers that the host won't snatch possession of their content from them. And because it will be a reciprical relationship, open competition will be encouraged, allowing the marketplace to choose the best services.

Monday, June 19, 2006

DRM harms innovation and discriminates against buyers

Computerworld is reporting that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is likely to stifle innovation, increase the cost from litigation to legitimate businesses, and fail to put a dint in piracy rates.

Sydney lawyer Brendan Scott is quoted as saying:

"It is one in which small business is thriving [and] we didn't get there by asking for handouts from the government," Scott said. "We're there because we took our soundings and adapted to the new conditions."

True capitalism at its best.

The article goes on to say:

Scott said the [Open Source software] community encourages older industries to embrace the opportunities the future holds, rather than running to the government to help keep them "and the rest of us" in the past.
Scott believes the DRM provisions have already created an environment of risk and that Australians are reluctant to engage in digital publishing because of it. For example, most Linux distributors are "so scared of being sued" they don't include DVD playing software.

"Digital publishing is in a parlous state in Australia because of overregulation and DRM is a large part of it," he said. "Australian publishing is destined to languish until these risks of publication are dramatically reduced - not dramatically increased."

Sadly, the provisions of the so-called Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.A. have forced upon Australia laws which will go a long way to ensuring we'll always be a consumer, not a producer, of software and digital content.

Scott goes on to discuss the Australian Kazaa file-sharing software case, which gave the litigants a resounding win -- at enormous legal cost to all those involved -- but has done absolutely nothing reduce illegal Internet downloads:

"There is no evidence that these provisions do anything other than increase risks for legitimate businesses and waste time and money on litigation," he said. "There has been a deluge of copyright litigation over the past decade, but the litigants keep asking for more ways to sue people, this time by way of DRM."
"The OSIA [Open Source Industry Australia] wants strong and sensible copyright laws, not laws which encourage even more wasteful and quixotic litigation," he said.

Scott also points out the elephant in the room which so many interested parties wish to avoid mentioning. The primary use of DRM is to segment the market, to discriminate against buyers in one market compared to another. Under the guise of "Free Trade", the U.S.A. has gone in to bat for their corporate interests, forcing Australia to accept legislation that allows those American corporations to discrimate against Australian buyers. What other possible use does technology like "Region Encoding" for DVDs have?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Evil cat hailed as a hero

The BBC is reporting the story of a cat from Sheffield, England which has been hailed as a hero for reportedly being able to predict that his owner[1] is about to have an epileptic fit:

Tee Cee's owner Michael Edmonds, of Sheffield, has complex epilepsy and can suffer seizures without warning.

But now he is warned of an impending fit when Tee Cee sits close to him and stares at his face.

"When he first did it I thought it was a one-off," Mr Edmonds said. "But ever since then he just seems to know."

Hero cat? Nonsense -- this is an evil cat.

El Reg has worked out the truth. The cat isn't predicting the epileptic fits, he is causing them, using evil cat powers:

Indeed, the cat stares at Edmonds, and subsequently Edmonds suffers a fit.

Indeed indeed. What more needs to be said?

[1] Of course cats don't have owners. They have staff. Back

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bad maths about Irreducable Complexity

Mark C. Chu-Carroll over at Good Math Bad Math takes a philosophical position and attempts to use Godel's Theorem to prove that irreducible complexity is a meaningless concept:

No matter what you do - no matter what kind of formal system you've developed for showing that something is minimal, you're screwed. Godel just came in and threw a wrench into the works. There is absolutely no way that you can show that any system is minimal - the idea of doing it is intrinsically contradictory.

In summary: Mark thinks that Creationists need a guaranteed, perfect, 100% accurate irreducible complexity detector in order to do good science, and tries to demonstrate that there is no such beast. But Creationists don't need one. All they need is a detector that works at least once.

The Creationist concept of irreducible complexity (IC) as proof against evolution is irredeemably flawed. There is no shortage of websites that demonstrate the feebleness of IC as an anti-evolution argument, so I'll limit myself to a single point:

Mark sets his sights very high: he wants a knock-out blow, proof that not only can there be no examples of IC, but that the very concept is meaningless. Shorn of its mathematics, it can be summed up thusly:

  1. Proving that a biological system is irreducibly complex is mathematically equivalent to proving that it is minimal in the number-theoretic sense;

  2. Godel's Theorem holds for that biological system;

  3. Therefore proving that some biological system is minimal is impossible;

  4. Therefore we can't ever prove that a system is irreducibly complex;

  5. And therefore the concept of IC is scientifically meaningless.

Unfortunately, Mark gives no evidence for his very first premise. The concept of minimality in the number-theoretic sense has a specific meaning, and it isn't clear at all that irreducible complexity is equivalent to that specific meaning (mostly because it isn't clear what IC actually is). But, for the sake of the argument, let's assume point (1) is correct.

Point (2) is even more problematic. Mark has fallen for the error of greedy reductionism. Reductionism is a powerful tool, in biology no less than any science. But like all tools, it can be misused, and greedy reductionism is such an error: Mark ignores developmental biology, and consequently imagines that there must be a 1:1 correspondence between the genotype of an organism (the DNA) and its phenotype (the actual organs and molecular protein machines). Because DNA is Turing Complete, he imagines that Godel's Theorems must also apply to higher-order biological features -- the sorts of molecular machinery, the lipids and proteins and enzymes, that we must look at when trying to find irreducible complexity.

In a reply to a comment, he writes:

But per Godel, no axiomatic system is complete and consistent. If you have an incomplete axiomatic system, then the axiomatic system isn't powerful enough to do minimality proofs. If the axiomatic system is powerful enough to do minimality proofs (i.e., it's complete), then it's by definition inconsistent.

But this is just not so. Mark skips over a requirement for Godel's Theorems to hold. The most important is that the axiomatic system be computably enumerable, that is, there must be a way to enumerate all the statements ("true or false theories") of that system.

Are biological systems computably enumerate? Genes are comfortably digital, and thus any finite number of genes will be computably enumerate. A gene is a gene is a gene, regardless of the organism. But a gene's phenotype, it's effect, is not necessarily digital, it is often analog, and that means continuous rather than discrete.

If we look for irreducible complexity, we won't be looking for it in the genotype of the organism's DNA, we'll be looking in the phenotype: in the proteins, lipids and enzymes in 3D space, and the interactions between them. It is not at all clear that phenotypes are computably enumerate, even at the molecular level. At the very least, since molecules exist in a three dimensional continuum space, there is an uncountably infinite number of statements we could make about the relative positions of any two atoms. Adding the axioms of chemistry -- or physics -- will not help him, since we are rapidly getting into areas where we don't know enough to enumerate those axioms, let alone all the possible true and false statements that follow from them. (Given the laws of quantum mechanics, derive the solubility in water of all possible molecules containing 100 carbon atoms. Quickly now, we don't have all day.)

Mark's argument falls down badly at point (3). He writes:

This is a result of some work done by Greg Chaitin in Algorithmic Complexity Theory. A fairly nifty version of this can be found on Greg's page.

The fundamental result is: given a system S, you cannot in general show that there is no smaller/simpler system that performs the same task as S.

But Mark has missed an important part of what Chaitin says, and that makes a vast difference to his conclusion. Chaitin writes:

The first of these theorems states that an N-bit formal axiomatic system cannot enable one to exhibit any specific object with program-size complexity greater than N + c.

and furthermore, writes here:

Show that a formal system of lisp complexity H_lisp (FAS) = N cannot enable us to exhibit an elegant S-expression of size greater than N + 410. An elegant lisp expression is one with the property that no smaller S-expression has the same value. Setting: formal axiomatic system is never-ending lisp expression that displays elegant S-expressions.

What Chaitin has demonstrated is this:

Given a formal axiomatic system of some given amount of complexity, there exists sufficiently more complex systems within our formal system which we cannot prove if they are minimal or not.

For the programming language Lisp, Chaitin claims to have proven that "sufficiently more complex" means a mere 410 bytes over and above the complexity of Lisp itself. For DNA, we have no idea what sufficiently more complex may be; for the phenotype of even a simple organism, we can't even begin to guess. Hypothetically, it could be billions upon billions of gigabytes. Mark merely assumes that, since there are sufficiently large systems which can't be proven minimal, no systems can be proven minimal.

Since there are animals, like elephants, which are too big for me to lift, all animals must be too big for me to lift.

Or, to put it another way, Mark's argument is this:

There are hypothetical biological systems so complex that we can't prove, in the mathematical sense, that they are irreducibly complex; therefore the entire concept of irreducible complexity is meaningless.

When you strip out all the mathematics and formal language, the error is obvious. What about simpler biological systems? Can we not prove they are minimal? Maybe not -- but Mark hasn't ruled them out, and so his entire argument against IC is shot down in flames.

Interestingly, Mark himself recognises the existence of this hole in his argument, but just waves his hands and hopes it will go away. In this reply to a comment, he says:

If you look at the proof, there is a critical threshold, based on the size of the formal axiomatic system (FAS) that proves minimality. The problem with minimality kicks in as soon as the complexity of the system becomes such that the length of the meta-program plus the size of the FAS is smaller than the information-theoretic complexity of the system.

Tiny systems - like a single-instruction program - are probably smaller than that threshold. (I'll explain the probably bit in a moment.) But we can't know where that threshold is: because finding the threshold requires finding the minimum size of a FAS that can be used to show mimimality. And that's the minimality problem biting itself.

(Emphasis in original.)

Talk about Bad Math! Mark's argument, then, is effectively:

  1. For all X < N, where N is some unknown but positive non-zero number, IC is undecidable.

  2. Therefore IC is undecidable for all X.


But it gets worse for Mark. He states that we can't know where that threshold is, and even emphasises it -- but if you read Chaitin's page that Mark linked to, you will see Chaitin has written:

As is shown in this course, the algorithms considered in the proofs of these two theorems are now easy to program and run, and by looking at the size in bits of these programs one can actually, for the first time, determine exact values for the constants c and c'.

Chaitin says he can calculate the threshold, and does. This wasn't hidden deep within a 300 page tome; it was the fifth paragraph, and Mark apparently missed -- or ignored -- it.

So far Mark's argument is not looking healthy: the first four points out of his five are either unproven, unjustified or wrong. The fifth point, his final conclusion, is even more flawed. He's confused undecidability for meaninglessness. Chaitin tells us that, given a sufficiently large system, we can't prove whether it is minimal or not; from this, Mark argues that therefore the very concept of being minimal is nonsense. He writes, replying to a comment:

The fact remains that no test can ever demonstrate that a real system is IC. A scientist can't test to see if a hypothesis of IC holds up. It's a non-testable hypothesis, because the underlying concept is invalid.

(Italics in original -- bold added.)

Mark hasn't demonstrated that IC is invalid. All he has shown is that some examples of IC are unprovable, not that there are no provable examples at all.

Mark falls for the fallacy of assuming that just because a statement of a formal system is unprovable, it must be invalid. But that's nonsense: unprovable (or undecidable) doesn't mean false, or meaningless. To take an non-mathematical example, it is undecidable whether Alexander the Great's maternal grand-mother ate a bowl of fried potato chips on her 10th birthday; but it is certainly either true or false that she did. That logical undecidability doesn't prevent us making a probabilistic decision that, beyond all reasonable doubt, she did not: potatoes weren't introduced into Europe (as far as we know) until over a thousand years later.

A more mathematical example of an undecidable statement is Goodstein's Theorem.

Despite all the holes in Mark's reasoning, let's grant him his conclusion: IC is logically undecidable. What does this mean for the science of biology?

Very little. All it means is that IC is unprovable in the mathematical sense, not unprovable in the scientific sense.

Science has much lower standards than mathematics: proof beyond all reasonable doubt, not beyond all doubt. All truths are provisional in science. In mathematics, we can be absolutely 100% certain that (e.g.) 11 is a prime number -- but in science, the best we can say about any fact is that it is true to the best of our knowledge, subject to revision in the light of new facts.

That "best" might be very good indeed. You can bet your life on many things in science, but it is never 100% certain. Scientists sometimes produce formal proofs based on simplified models of whatever feature they are interested in, but the model is not reality. Mathematical models are always simpler than reality. Consequently, science is ultimately based on empirical evidence. And what empirical evidence can prove, better empirical evidence can disprove.

(The classic example is Newtonian and Relativistic Mechanics; astronomical observations of the planets were Newtonian physics' greatest triumph -- until more accurate observations discovered discrepancies which couldn't be successfully explained by Newtonian physics.)

It is unfair to hold Creationists to greater standards than we hold real scientists doing science. Let's accept, for the sake of the argument, that Mark is correct: we can't find absolute certain mathematical proof that a specific biological system is minimal and therefore IC. Fine; but that's irrelevant to the question of whether we can be provisionally sure that it is minimal. On the basis of empirical research, Fermat's Last Theorem was proven beyond all reasonable doubt many years before certain mathematical proof was discovered. Mathematicians don't care for empirical evidence, but that's the fundamental core of science.

Let's pretend, for the sake of the argument, that Creationists like Behe who work with IC are doing real science. (Try not to laugh too hard.) They are working in a research program aimed at collecting enough evidence to disprove the fact of evolution (except our hypothetical Creationist scientists will disagree that it is a fact). To do so, they aim to prove that some sufficiently large number of biological features are irreducibly complex. For them, one such IC system is sufficiently large; for Richard Dawkins, it may require hundreds of examples before he'll admit that evolution can not explain all the facts of the biological world.

If the Creationists are lucky, they will find some examples of IC that are simple enough that they can formally prove they are minimal, and we are done. Mark's argument is shot down in flames, and biologists start looking for a new paradigm to explain the features of the biological world.

If the Creationists aren't so lucky, they will find biological features that they think are IC, but can't formally prove that they are absolutely minimal. Will that matter? No, of course not, any more than biologists let the fact that they don't have a formal axiomatic system for the mechanics of predation prevent them from accepting as true the empirical rule that, in general, predators will catch more slow, weak prey and fewer fast, strong prey. Biologists will try to falsify the IC hypothesis. If there are enough failures (whatever "enough" means), biologists will become convinced that, on the balance of the evidence, that these are actual IC systems. The lack of formal proof will disturb them no more than the lack of formal proof that the sun is mostly made of hydrogen disturbs physicists. Empirical evidence is enough.

In conclusion, Mark has:

  • Assumed that Godel's Theorem's apply to biological phenotypes, an unjustified assumption;

  • Tried, but failed, to demonstrate that Godel's Theorems forbid us from proving the existence of irreducibly complex features; and

  • Failed to demonstrate that it would matter even if proof of IC was impossible.

There are many reasons to consider irreducible complexity to be a degenerate research program, but Godel's Theorems are not one of them.