Monday, July 31, 2006

Those two Israeli soldiers

The supposed justification for the brutal invasion of Lebanon by Israel is the "kidnapping" of two Israeli soldiers a month or so ago.

The use of the word "kidnapped" to describe armed soldiers captured on duty in a hostile area (if not an outright war zone) is pure propoganda. They were't stolen from their homes while they slept, or kidnapped from a movie theatre, they were taken prisoner while armed and on a mission. They have been taken prisoner, and are captives. Taking soldiers captive is not a crime.

However, sending troops over the border into a foreign sovereign state might very well be. Reports at the time of the "abduction", such as this one from Forbes, are clear that the soldiers were part of an IDF force which were in Lebanon, not Israel. The soldiers were captured in the Lebanese town of Aitaa al-Chaab, and eight other Israeli soldiers killed.

See also here.

Hezbollah has in the past made it clear that they will arrest any Israeli soldiers found in Lebanon illegally, and is willing to negotiate their release in exchange for some of the many thousands of prisoners being held by Israel.

Since we know now that Israel has been planning the war for three years, with detailed war plans for at least a year, it seems extremely likely that the commando raid on Aitaa al-Chaab was deliberate provocation, and that the Israeli refusal to negotiate the release of the captured IDF soldiers isn't some principled stand but the deliberate sacrifice of two pawns as a casus belli for war.

Microsoft locks out security firms

According to The Register, Microsoft's recently introduced security measures will make it much more difficult for third-party software companies to integrate their security tools with Windows.

Software firm Agnitum says that Microsoft's new "Kernel Patch Protection" technology makes it virtually impossible for legitimate security firms to integrate their software with Windows, unless they use the same tactics and tricks as crackers and black-hat hackers.

Agnitum's security researchers suggest that the Kernel Patch Protection is:

susceptible to reverse engineering attacks by skilled hackers, while preventing legitimate software developers from installing software at the kernel level, unless ISVs similarly reverse-engineer access to the OS kernel. Such an approach would make it more difficult to install and maintain independent security products on Windows, Agnitum argues. Hackers, by contrast, have no need to fret about compatibility issues.

"As the vendor of Outpost Firewall Pro, we have to install at the kernel level," said Alexey Belkin, chief software architect at Agnitum. "In addressing the potential problem of not being able to install Outpost on new versions of Windows, we have discovered that it is possible to drill past the new security measures introduced by Microsoft - if we use the same techniques used by hackers."

So, let me get this straight. Microsoft's anti-rootkit and malware software blocks legitimate non-Microsoft security products, but allows the bad guys to install malware on your Vista PC?

"Microsoft made a logical move with this attempt to protect Windows against rootkits," said Mikhail Penkovsky, vice president of sales and marketing at Agnitum. "Unfortunately, it doesn't really resolve the problem, and also makes it a great deal more difficult for independent security software developers to be fully compatible with Windows."

"Nobody knows if Microsoft has done this intentionally, but we can't avoid the suspicion that this move may have been designed to force users to rely on Microsoft and only Microsoft for Windows security," he added.

You think??? Say it ain't so!!!

Software demos gone bad

Last week, Microsoft's Vista product manager Shanen Boettcher gave a demonstration of how easy to use, and powerful, Vista's speech recognition technology will be. Boettcher decided to dictate a simple letter to mom.

The result, as Reuters explains, was embarrassing.

Instead of the simple greeting "Dear Mom", Microsoft's software came up with "Dear Aunt, let’s set so double the killer delete select all." Attempts to fix the error only made it worse.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer attempted to blame the failure on "a little bit of echo" in the room. But a later demonstration during the same meeting showed the software able to recognise fixed menu commands perfectly well. Perhaps the echo had gone away by then?

Proud to Be a Chickenhawk

Reasonable conservative Jon Swift explains why he is proud to be a chickenhawk:

I think that the fact that we pro-war bloggers are not in the military makes our voice even more important than the opinions of people in the military. [...] While pro-war advocates who have never served in the military have the necessary detachment to objectively analyze the military situation without being distracted by emotion, people who have served in the military have lost all perspective. Look at people like Jack Murtha, who is "a rank coward" according to one conservative blogger and "a traitor," according to another, or John Kerry, whose reputation will never recover from the attacks of the brave Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Then there are all the generals who came out recently against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's leadership of the War in Iraq, who were accused by the right wing of insubordination after the fact. Clearly, these former military men have had their point of view distorted by their experiences in the military. On the other hand most of the men responsible for the success in Iraq, including Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush, Dick Cheney and the neo-cons on his staff have never served in combat.

Swift has a point. Consider the humble bumblebee. As many people know, it is aerodynamically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. And yet, it flies. It flies because it does not know it cannot!

Swift is far too modest to say so, but as one whose knowledge of history and the reality of combat is utterly superficial, he is one of the fortunate few who, like the bumblebee, is able to bend reality to their will through the power of their own ignorance.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Common misconceptions about the Big Bang

The Angry Astronomer has a good explanation of some common misunderstandings about the Big Bang.

The first, and perhaps the most common, is that the Big Bang was like an explosion. That's not correct. The best analogy for the Big Bang is of a balloon inflating. If you imagine the surface of the balloon covered in dots, as the balloon expands, each dot gets further away from all of its neighbours, while at the same time staying in the same place. Now, imagine three-dimensional space expanding instead of the two-dimensional surface of the balloon. What's actually happening is that the space itself is expanding, rather than the particles of matter flying apart through space.

More on breastfeeding

Earlier, I blogged about American mothers who have a horror of breastfeeding.

Les the Stupid Evil Bastard has more, including the offending magazine cover.

Rebutting the piracy report

Dr. Michael Geist rebutts the mischaracterizations and omissions (or, in the vernacular, "crap") of the IFPI's latest piracy report.

Among other points, Geist notes that the IFPI's characterisation of Canada as having the highest per capita rate of peer-to-peer piracy in the world is false:

Not true. While CRIA regularly makes this claim, the 2004 OECD report refers only to P2P usage, without reaching conclusions on whether the activity infringes copyright. In fact, the same report specifically notes that "P2P is not simply downloading of MP3 files. In fact, file sharing has already moved to the next level and will be applied for all types of on-line information, data distribution, grid computing and distributed file systems." The OECD data captured all of these activites and made no claim that Canada has the highest per capital incidence of unauthorized file swapping in the world.

Geiss also points out that the report fails to mention:

  • the dozens of major Canadian artists who oppose DRM and the suing of fans

  • the revenue from private copying

  • the six leading independent music labels who defected from the CRIA

  • the study which found that Canada's recording industry grew steadily from 1999 to 2004

  • that 90% of new Canadian music comes from independent labels which are thriving under the existing copyright laws

France sticks it the public and Open Source

The French Constitutional Court has just given the public and Open Source developers a fist to the face with their decision about the French DADVSI legislation.

The decision effectively blows away principles of fair use, criminalises even private copying of legally purchased works, and makes it virtually impossible for developers of software to go into competition against any software company that uses Digital Restrictions Management software.

French consumers already pay a levy on recordable media for the purpose of compensating copyright holders for copying.

The law effectively turns the French police and courts into private enforcers for DRM software producers, and allows corporations like Vivendi-Universal and Apple to use the threat of criminal charges against competitors. It makes French criminal law reinforce anti-competitive behaviour. It is especially a threat to Open Source developers.

It effectively outlaws peer-to-peer software, even if used for legal purposes, merely because it could be used to transmit copyrighted works. Arguably, the wording of the legislation would equally outlaw email or Internet or any other method of transfering files.

Worst of all, inexcusably after the Sony rootkit debacle, the legislation makes no provision for allowing the removal or bypassing of DRM even in the event it behaves as malware or threatens lives.

The horror of the ear-worm

Speaking about Philadelphia Freedom, I've had Elton John's song of the same name running through my head for four days now. I've been unable to stop it, even with extreme measures. Not even a mutant melding of the Muppet's Mahna Mahna and Spanish Flea has been able to drive it out.

I may have to resort to "It's A Small World" to get rid of it.

Don't take that camera to town

Neftaly Cruz was arrested by Philadelphia police for taking a picture of police arresting a drug dealer with his mobile phone camera.

"[The police officer] opened up the gate and Neffy was coming down and he went up to Neffy, pulled him down, had Neffy on the car and was telling him, 'You should have just went in the house and minded your own business instead of trying to take pictures off your picture phone,'" said [neighbour] Gerrell Martin.

Cruz said police told him that he broke a new law that prohibits people from taking pictures of police with cell phones.

"They threatened to charge me with conspiracy, impeding an investigation, obstruction of a investigation. ... They said, 'You were impeding this investigation.' (I asked,) "By doing what?' (The officer said,) 'By taking a picture of the police officers with a camera phone,'" Cruz said.


"There is no law that prevents people from taking pictures of what anybody can see on the street," said Larry Frankel of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think it's rather scary that in this country you could actually be taken down to police headquarters for taking a picture on your cell phone of activities that are clearly visible on the street."

Cruz was not charged. After being held for an hour, he was told by the police that he was being released because their supervisor wasn't on duty.

Cake thrower faces 15 years

A Norwegian student who threw a cake at the Norwegian Finance Minister as a political protest faces up to fifteen years jail for "committing a crime against the Norwegian Constitution".

Good thing he hadn't done something serious.

Coffin counters

As of July 28, 2006, the Israeli attack on Lebanon has lead to the deaths of 425 Lebanese, 51 Israelis, and 4 UN peacekeepers.

A graphical counter can be found here. It really drives home the discrepancy in the amount of violence applied by each side and the disproportionate response applied. With the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure, its bridges and factories and power stations, at the hands of Israel in the 1980s and again in 2006, I'm sure many Lebanese are thinking "Invade us once, shame on you; invade us twice, shame on us. Never again!"

A similar counter for the occupation of Iraq can be found here. Deaths in Iraq to date are approximately 2550 Americans, 44,650 Iraqis. Since 2002, Iraq has suffered the equivalent of almost fifteen September-Elevens, or about one every three months. And that doesn't take into account the fact that Iraq has a much smaller population, so the death toll is far more significant in proportion, nor does it consider those who have been indirectly killed by the destruction of infrastructure, the lack of food and water and medical supplies.

I think it is fair to say that the average Iraqi probably holds at least ten times as much good will towards the USA as the average American holds towards al Qaeda.

Corn plastic

Plastic made from corn is hyped as an environmentally-friendly alternative to standard PET plastics. One of the claims about it is that it is biodegradable and can be composted.

As Boing Boing explains, it can -- under the right conditions. And those right conditions involve being heated up to 140°F (60°C) for ten days straight. In ordinary home composting, even after six months the plastic is unchanged.

Keeping us all safer

Maru over at WTF Is It Now? has good news about the USA's efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the bad guys:

The Bush administration, in its quest to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, approves giving nuclear technology to a country that has not signed the non-proliferation treaty.

That's what the world needs more than anything else: an arms-race between India and Pakistan. Just think about the possibility that, in a few years time, there will be a bunch of nuclear weapons in the hands of people who worship Kali the Destroyer, and another bunch of bombs in the hands of Islamic Fundamentalists who hate the West. If Israel's attack on Lebanon fails to bring on the Rapture and Armaggedon, well, this is Bush's own personal Plan B.

Now this is serious

You know that it is serious when you can read this satire and think that it could very well be true.

The widening crisis in the Middle East took on graver proportions today when President George W. Bush indicated that if the hostilities continue, they could threaten his traditional August vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

Tillman friendly fire

American football star Pat Tillman volunteered for the Army Rangers to fight in Afghanistan. While he was there, he was killed by friendly fire from his own platoon under suspicious circumstances, a fact the Army tried to hide for five weeks, even after it was common knowledge in the ranks within days. Now, two years later, there are still serious unanswered questions and signs that the Army is hiding the truth about Tillman's death.

I sense a future movie coming out of this, in the same vein as Meg Ryan's Courage Under Fire.

One thing which I predict will never make it into a movie, though, is that Tillman was an atheist -- a fact which gives ammunition to the officer in charge of the first enquiry into Tillman's death. Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, as well as leading the first enquiry, also just happened to be responsible for many of the tactical decisions which lead directly to Tillman's death.

Hey, coincidences happen. Besides, the Army is pretty busy, occupying two countries. He was probably the only guy available.

Kauzlarich knows why his enquiry's findings weren't accepted:

"I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Asked by whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know."
"Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.

"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."

Israel vs Hezbollah is not such a cake walk

Reports coming out of Lebanon indicate that Israel isn't finding things going all their own way. Israel might be the third most powerful military in the world, but unless they are prepared to use nuclear weapons to crush a flea, and deal with the fall-out that leads to (both political and radioactive) they have to fight on the ground, and Israeli troops put their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else.

Juan Cole writes:

The Israelis are finding that the Hizbullah guerrillas have excellent intelligence on Israeli weaponry, and that they are capable of fighting orderly tactical battles from buildings with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In other words, they are not facing the militia of tobacco share croppers. They are facing a highly professional military force, perhaps the most professional in the region aside from Israel's own.

Kidnapping Palestinian dentists and blowing up civilians in their homes is easy. Fighting dedicated soldiers with well-planned defences who are defending their homes and are willing to use asymmetrical tactics is a whole 'nuther ball game.

In further news from Cole, he reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't have much impact in her surprise visit to Beirut:

Rice proffered "support" to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, but not a ceasefire, which is what he really needs to keep his government from collapsing--and he testily told her so. She said she regretted the humanitarian situation (caused by America's ally with billions in American-supplied armaments), but the US is offering only $30 million in aid (billions of dollars of damage have been done to Lebanon by Israel, most of it unrelated to Hizbullah). She delivered her ultimatum to Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and a leading secular Shiite politician who has an alliance of convenience with Hizbullah. Berri angrily rejected her terms and riposted that no negotiations would happen without there first being a ceasefire. He was relaying to her Hizbullah's position.

Rice's visit showed how low American stock has fallen in the Middle East, since she came virtually empty-handed, merely as a go-fer on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with little positive to offer. Berri thunderously rejected her ultimatums, or rather those of her political bosses. She came with nice words but Israeli bombs hit Beirut before and after her visit, according to my sources. Her professions of sympathy rang hollow, since her government was encouraging the bombing raids and blocking any UN or European move toward a cease-fire. She played no more exalted a role than Mafia enforcer, lifting her suit coat at the corner to display the loaded pistol as she discussed just how much the owner of the Lebanese restaurant would be paying per month for "protection" from certain of her "friends," or else, you know, something bad could happen to this nice restaurant of yours.

And, she was undermined by Washington's warmest ally in the Muslim Middle East, the government of American Iraq, who delivered a message the opposite of her own. He argued for an immediate ceasefire and warned that Israel's destruction of the infrastructure of a whole country will grow extremism. Al-Maliki is referring to the "boiling" Mahdi Army in Iraq and other such phenomena, which have him in their sights, and maybe American targets as well.

Cole also discusses why he accuses both Israel and Hezbollah of war crimes:

Some readers have asked why I characterize Hizbullah's rocket launches as war crimes. It is because the Geneva Convention requires that in war you have to aim at enemy combatants. You can't deliberately target civilians, and you can't endanger civilians unnecessarily. The Hizbullah rockets have poor targeting, and so just firing them endangers civilians. The rockets themselves have apparently killed almost no Israeli troops, and almost all their victims have been innocent civilians, like that poor man who was just driving along in or near Haifa. That is, the Hizbullah rockets have been fired indiscriminately (the only way they can be fired) and mainly hit civilian targets, which a prudent person could foresee. Bingo. War crime.
There is actually an argument to be made that both Hizbullah and Israel have taken the civilian population of their enemy hostage. Since hostage-taking is forbidden, both are war criminals.

While both sides are clearly "bad guys", one look at the numbers of dead and homeless on each side shows who the biggest bad guys are. To those who argue that "Israel are the good guys", you can't act like thugs and monsters and still cloak youself with the mantle of goodness. Evil is what evil does, and the good-will Israel accumulated after the Holocaust and decades of hostility from their Arab neighbours is virtually gone now. As far as the international community, with the exception perhaps of the USA is concerned, Israel is the neighbourhood bully who knowingly uses their childhood abuse to excuse all manner of vicious behaviour.

Yes, Israel was born in bloodshed. Yes, the Jews have suffered. So have many other people. It doesn't excuse Israel's behaviour. It isn't Israeli's ports closed, or airports and factories that have been bombed and destroyed. It isn't Israeli Red Cross ambulances being shot at by guided missiles. There haven't been over four hundred Israeli civilians killed, and 800,000 made homeless. It isn't Hezbollah who is threatening Israel with the old Roman -- and Nazi -- tactic of tenfold retribution.

Is this the stupidest biology statement ever?

Well, surely not ever -- but in recent decades, for sure.

All-Too-Common-Dissent quotes former actuary and current anti-Darwinist computer programmer Warren Bergerson:

An observed correspondence or correlation between some DNA codes and some amino acids, is not and will never be a causal relationship.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Escher's logarithmic transform

In 1956, M.C. Escher completed his drawing "Print Gallery" in 1956. It shows a young man looking at a print in a gallery that is strongly deformed, but with an underlying sense of order to the deformation. It took until 2003 for mathematicians to discover the structure of the mathematical transformation which Escher came up with intuitively.

Criminalising civilians

Juan Cole quotes at length a discussion of the criminalisation of civilians in Iraq and Lebanon:

In the days before the US-commanded forces unleashed the second siege of Falluja in November 2004, a quarter million women, children and old men fled the city, but males between the ages of 15 and 45 were denied passage. They were essentially criminalized and forced to remain in a zone upon which hell was about to descend. These poor souls were condemned to a legal category that philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls hominus sacres, those without rights who can be killed without it being called the murder of a human, homicide.
Look at this logic: since Israel has asked civilians to leave, any that disobeyed have forfeited their status as civilians. Because the United States and its British followers have blocked the resolution to stop the killing, Israel will continue until Hezbollah “is no longer present.” But remember Hezbollah has been redefined to include all those “still in south Lebanon.” This crude logic renders all the people of southern Lebanon hominus sacres.

A serious war crime may be imminent. The responsibility to protect civilians does not end when an invading army asks them to clear out. An Nahar also reported that hundreds of people were trapped in southern villages. Moreover, there is evidence that some who tried to flee north in cars have been targeted.

Note: the correct Latin term for someone who can be killed with impunity by anyone is "homo sacer" (singular) and "homines sacri" (plural).


There is no doubt that American culture has over-sexualised the female breast. Media culture is obsessed not only with breasts, but with the size of breasts. This attitude has shaped public perception of breastfeeding: a recent poll of 4,000 readers of "Babytalk" magazine, almost all whom are mothers of babies, found that a quarter of readers objected to a photo of a nursing mother and baby. It is, in my not-at-all-humble-opinion, just another sign of the infantalism of American culture. Even those who don't snigger or get hot and bothered at the thought of breasts find it difficult to imagine that others aren't doing so.

One mother who didn't like the cover explains she was concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing it.

"I shredded it," said Gayle Ash, of Belton, Texas, in a telephone interview. "A breast is a breast -- it's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that."

Actually, he did. He needs to learn now, while he's still young, that breasts aren't just for his titilation (pun intended).

It's the same reason that Ash, 41, who nursed all three of her children, is cautious about breast-feeding in public [...] "I don't want my son or husband to accidentally see a breast they didn't want to see."

Lady, no hetrosexual man ever has seen a breast he didn't want to see.

Of course, the reason that breasts are purely "a sexual thing" is that people like Gayle Ash insist on treating them as purely a sexual thing. What she really needs to do is sit down with her 13 year old son and tell the little brat darling that the purpose (or at least a purpose) of breasts is not for childish men to snigger at, but to feed babies, and he better not dis nursing mothers or she'll tar his ungrateful hide.

Echidne has more.

More on inequality

A few more useful links about the growth of inequality and the death of the American Dream:

Inequality Counts by Leon Friedman

From Understanding Mobility in America by Tom Hertz of The Center for American Progress:

By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.

The American Prosperity Myth by Will Hutton (subscription only), with further discussion here.

And from The Mobility Myth by Bob Herbert:

Consider, for example, two separate eras in the lifetime of the baby-boom generation. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent of the population between 1950 and 1970, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162. That gap has since skyrocketed. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent between 1990 and 2002, Mr. Johnston wrote, each taxpayer in that top bracket brought in an extra $18,000.

It's like chasing a speedboat with a rowboat.

Put the myth of the American Dream aside. The bottom line is that it's becoming increasingly difficult for working Americans to move up in class. The rich are freezing nearly everybody else in place, and sprinting off with the nation's bounty.

Economic mobility in the United States - the extent to which individuals and families move from one social class to another - is no higher than in Britain or France, and lower than in some Scandinavian countries. Maybe we should be studying the Scandinavian dream.

Ashamed to be Republican

The Bushites and neo-cons have done such a disasterous job of running the country and starting unprovoked wars of aggression that Republicans are, if not abandoning the party, at least going out of the way to avoid reminding voters which party they belong to.

Echidne reports that even the Party leadership are running their election campaigns sans mention of the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, committed Republican Pete McCloskey has written a Dear John letter to his fellow Republicans, writing with a heavy heart that they should vote for Democrats in the upcoming elections. He writes:

I have found it difficult in the past several weeks to reach a conclusion as to what a citizen should do with respect to this fall's forthcoming congressional elections. I am a Republican, intend to remain a Republican, and am descended from three generations of California Republicans, active in Merced and San Bernardino Counties as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have just engaged in an unsuccessful effort to defeat the Republican Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, in the 11th Congressional District Republican primary, obtaining just over 32% of the Republican vote against Pombo's 62%.

The observation of Mr. Pombo's political consultant, Wayne Johnson, that I have been mired in the obsolete values of the 1970s, honesty, good ethics and balanced budgets, all rejected by today's modern Republicans, is only too accurate.

It has been difficult, nevertheless, to conclude as I have, that the Republican House leadership has been so unalterably corrupted by power and money that reasonable Republicans should support Democrats against DeLay-type Republican incumbents in 2006.

Now you know why Republicans no longer talk about "traditional values" -- they've abandoned them. The GOP has now become the radical party.

And the Rude Pundit [warning: extreme language] points out that Bush and Cheney have virtually disappeared off the websites of a number of prominent Republicans up for election this year.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Inequality on the rise

Echidne has an excellent discussion of the rise of inequality in the USA over the last half century, and why the difference in wealth is just as important as absolute levels of wealth.

Echidne doesn't discuss the myth of American social mobility, but she has a great, easy to understand explanation of the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient. When you combine increasing inequality with low upward mobility, together with a middle class being squeezed out of existence, the signs are not good for peace and prosperity in the USA. The USA has levels of class and income inequality approaching those of Third World banana republics, and increasing rapidly.

Of course, the American entertainment industry rarely shows the middle-class under seige: you'll see Mr and Ms Middle Manager enjoying restaurants, movies, shopping and all the advantages of middle-class life, but you don't see the six or eight credit cards it takes to keep their heads above water. (According to this report, the average American household has 19 pieces of plastic in their wallet, including eight bank cards.) Nor do you see the constant gut-wrenching fear of retrenchment that forces Americans to work harder, but less productively, every year.

Feds to Wall Street: Party on dudes!

Billmon discusses the big thumbs up from the new Bush-appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Ben Bernanke, to Wall Street:

As I said, there are many reasons not to worry about inflation in the long run, and some more debatable arguments for not worrying too much about it in the short run, either. But that's not how a Fed chairman is supposed to think. Not when inflation is in the 4-5% range. He should be thinking about what that rate of purchasing power erosion, compounded over time, would do to the real value of a 30-year Treasury bond at maturity. He should be getting mad about it -- like an defensive lineman ready to chew the face off the opposing quarterback -- instead of spreading sweetness and light to all the good little boys and girls at the New York Stock Exchange.

One could point to the market's giddy reaction as proof that Ben and the boys are actually correct not to get their bowels in an uproar about a 4%+ inflation rate, but this would be to misunderestimate the traditional relationship between the Fed and Wall Street. The markets almost always rally on Fed dovishness, because to the average trader easy money is, well, easy money. When your investment time horizon is roughly 24 hours, and you're playing with borrowed chips, liquidity is always a good thing, while inflation is something for the little people to worry about.

Remember folks, Wall Street is just one part of society. What's good for Wall Street is not necessarily good for the rest of us, and what's good for Wall Street over the next six months is not necessarily good for them over the next thirty years.

Life's little ironies

In one of life's little ironies, the Israelis used to take credit for "creating" Hezbollah and Hamas, as "safe" religious alternatives to Palestinian nationalism. As Tom Hayden writes:

In 1982, Israel said the same thing about eliminating PLO sanctuaries in Lebanon. It was after that 1982 Israeli invasion that Hezbollah was born. I remember Israeli national security experts even taking credit for fostering Hamas and Islamic fundamentalism as safe, reclusive alternatives to Palestinian secular nationalism. I remember watching Israeli soldiers blow up Palestinian houses and carry out collective punishment because, they told me matter-of-factly, punishment is the only language that Arabs understand. Israelis are inflicting collective punishment on Lebanese civilians for the same reason today.

From Tom Hayden's discussion here:
Part One
Part Two

How to lose an army of 140,000 men

Some serious men with serious military experience are starting to think about ways that the US army occupying Iraq could face disaster:

There's a saying: Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. And in the case of the U.S. Army, they talk it about a lot.

Long supply lines through the desert are never a good thing. States forget that at their peril.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sometimes I remember why I love America

There is a lot to hate about America the country, and I'll often write about it.

But, sometimes, just sometimes, the US manages to approach the Platonic Ideal of America, the image we have when we talk about the American Dream, the ideal that the Founding Fathers were aiming at in their imperfect, only-human way.

After a slight digression about the worrying events in Lebanon, Kung Fu Monkey tells the anecdote of one such moment. Reading it, it made me proud to be, well, not American, but the sort of person who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Americans.

Read it, and remember what the ideal of America stands for, and weep for the tawdry confidence trick it has become.

Zombies and clowns

Minneapolis police have started arresting zombies after reports of clowns committing thefts -- in other states!

What is wrong with these people? Can't they tell the difference between a zombie and a clown? Clowns are much more scary looking.

On a more serious note: it isn't against the law to dress up in costume and have fun. Remember this when people tell you that if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from expanded police powers.

You can't eat a bag of grapes one grape at a time

Good Math, Bad Math has a good article debunking a professional mathematician prostituting his craft for Creationism with pathetically bad faux-mathematical arguments against evolution:

The article claims that there are two arguments from mathematics that disprove evolution. Both are cheap rehashes of old creationist canards, so I won't go into much depth. But it's particularly appalling to see someone using trash like this with the claim that it's a valid mathematical argument.
[...] this asserts that it's impossible to move a large finite distance by taking small finite steps. This is allegedly a mathematician making this argument - but that's what he's claiming: that it's impossible for any large change to occur as a result of a large number of small changes.

So, according to this Creationist, erosion can't happen. You can't empty a 10kg sack of sugar one teaspoon at a time, let alone one grain at a time. There's no way to paint a room with a paint brush, one stroke at a time. And just forget about an abandoned swimming pool evaporating, one molecule of water at a time... small changes just can't add up to large effects.

That's Creation so-called "science" for you.

Wonder Woman

We've all had a giggle at the number of times Wonder Woman has somehow got herself into bondage. But what you might not have realised is that the creator of Wonder Woman was deadly serious about his creation:

"Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them."

Dr. William Moulton Marston
inventor of the lie detector and
(under the pseudonym Charles Moulton)
creator of Wonder Woman

and also:

Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman's body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.

The page also includes a rather interesting interview with Marston published in "Family Circle" in 1942, where he explained:

At this point [the interviewer] protested. "Women enjoy being bound by men; it's less work and more fun than keeping male captives secure. Girls like to get their man, then surrender to him."

"And what happens next?" prompted [Marston]. "The man loses interest completely. No man wants to be freed by the girl who has caught him and no man has the slightest interest in tying up a girl who holds out her hands to be bound. If he takes her as his property, that's a bad day for both of them. The man begins to use dominance, and that's acutely painful for the woman captive. Wonder Woman and her sister Amazons have to wear heavy bracelets to remind them of what happens to a girl when she lets a man conquer her. The Amazons once surrendered to the charm of some handsome Greeks and what a mess they got themselves into. The Greeks put them in chains of the Hitler type, beat them, and made them work like horses in the fields. Aphrodite, goddess of love, finally freed these unhappy girls. But she laid down the rule that they must never surrender to a man for any reason. I know of no better advice to give modern women than this rule that Aphrodite gave the Amazon girls."

Hastily the psychological giant added, "Of course, she may let the man think she's helpless. My Wonder Woman often lets herself be tied into a bundle with chains as big as your arm. But in the end she easily snaps the chains. Women can do lots of things by letting men think they're fettered when they're not."

You can see old WW covers here and read more about her creator on Wikipedia.

Thanks to John & Belle.

No untermenschen here

Juan Cole discusses degrees of human-ness:

Israeli officials have already showed us how Arabs can be reclassified away from a full "human" category that they clearly, in the view of the Kadima government, do not deserve.

For instance, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman angrily denounced Kofi Annan for neglecting this key fact. The Guardian reports, 'Mr Gillerman said "something very important was missing" from Mr Annan's speech: any mention of terrorism. Hizbullah were "ruthless indiscriminate animals", he told reporters.'
Israeli Deputy Consul General for San Francisco, Omer Caspi, said of the Lebanese and Palestinian publics concerning Hamas and Hizbullah members, "We say to them please remove this cancer off your body and soul before it is too late."

Caspi did not specify whether members of Hamas are leukemia and those of Hizbullah melanoma, or the reverse.

I admire Cole's good taste in failing to mention der Untermensch. I, on the other hand, have no such restraint. With a good quarter of my recent family tree dying in the Hitler's concentration camps, I know what it is like to have a powerful enemy intent on treating you as a disease. I'd just like to reach out the hand of friendship to the Untermenschen of Lebanon and wish them peace and prosperity, and remind Israel that you reap what you sow.

Crypto malware close to uncrackable

Malware is now big business for criminals. One of the latest dirty tricks is "ransomware" which encrypts the user's files so that they are unreadable, then offers to decrypt them on payment of money. So far, all the known attempts to do this have failed due to weak encryption: security experts have been able to break the code and recover the files.

Computerworld is reporting that Kaspersky Labs are warning that malware is very close to using virtually uncrackable encryption.

Gotsev raised the alarming possibility that victims could at some point in the near future have their files encrypted in such a way that the security industry would not be able to issue a fix. If this comes to pass -- and Kaspersky's claims that the day is not far off are plausible -- it will mark an important moment for the whole software security industry.

The obvious answer could be simply not to allow ransomware on to a PC in the first place, an approach that Gotsev and other security companies will be keen to stress.

You think???

Waiting for the Chewbacca Defence

Today, Harald Welte of GPL-Violations will be travelling to Frankfurt for a special court case.

Generally, violations of the GPL are generally settled out of court, or as part of a preliminary injunction. In this case, however, a well-known vendor of embedded networking gear is claiming that the GPL doesn't apply to them, and that they have a right to use Linux code despite lacking a licence for it.

I'm guessing the defendant is going for either the Chewbacca defence, or this one:

"If I can't infringe copyright, the terrorists will have won!"

Putting foxes in charge of the henhouse

Echidne is reporting on the changes to hiring practices within the civil rights sections of the US Justice Department:

If you can't get rid of a division you hate, just fill it with people who hate it every bit as much as you do

...or at least people who are inexperienced and likely to make mistakes.

According to the Boston Globe:

Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.

Out of 45 lawyers hired since 2003 in three especially civil rights oriented sections of the DoJ:

  • 10, or 22%, have civil rights experience

  • 9, or 20%, have a background in fighting against civil rights lawsuits or policies

  • the remaining 26 (58%) have no civil rights experience

Overall, hirings with civil rights backgrounds have fallen from 77% to just 42% since 2003.

Sometimes I ask myself how governments can be so incompetent. The truth is often more sinister: government-managed programmes often fail because failure is deliberately designed into them from the start as a means to an end. Who hasn't ever been tempted to do a shoddy job of something so that you don't get asked to do it again? This is the same, only writ large. If the DoJ can't (or won't) do a good job of protecting civil rights, well, you have all the advantages of being able to make speeches about rights and none of the disadvantages of actually having to give them any more than lip-service.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Come see the Amazing Mind-Reading Patriarch

Echidne writes about a case of patronising judge that can barely be believed.

A Mexican immigrant applying for a restraining order against her husband was threatened with deportation unless she left the court room. When she left, the judge ruled:

[Judge Bruce R.] Fink then dismissed the case: "Well, she brought the proceedings, and if she's not here to go forward, I guess all of the requests are denied."

Using his amazing powers of mind-reading, this judge:

...insisted he was seeking what he thought was an agreeable solution for both parties.

"What I saw was nothing more than some yelling and screaming between a husband and wife," he said.

"I also saw that they really didn't want to not be together anymore."

Fink by name, fink by nature.

Myths and Lies about the Linux kernel

Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman has posted the text and images of his keynote talk at the 2006 Ottawa Linux Symposium here.

Internet 1996

Remember what the Internet was like in 1996?

It's probably best you don't.

Much to my chagrin, few websites from these early years have been successfully archived, and many of the best preserved ones were created by fast food and soft drink corporations because they were some of the earliest adapters of the internet. They viewed the medium as a chance for inexpensive advertising and invested dozens upon dozens of dollars into it. The results are tremendously humiliating.

Monday, July 24, 2006

And now a playful slap to the face

If you're the most powerful drug-user man in the world, what do you do for an encore after groping the German Prime Minister?

How about slapping the face of a Congressman? Playfully of course.


How statistics defeated Hitler and won the war

The Guardian is running a short article on how statisticians helped win World War Two for the Allies.

Here is a story about mathematical deduction that I love, mainly because it is said to be true, and because it had an impact (albeit small) on the outcome of the second world war. It is the story of how a simple statistical formula successfully estimated the number of tanks the enemy was producing, at a time when this could not be directly observed by the allied spy network.

I'd question the "albeit small" qualification -- had the Allies not trusted the statisticians' estimates, they could easily have delayed the invasion of Europe. Who knows what effect that would have had? Soviet tanks on the French border?

What is impressive about the maths is that the statisticians were virtually exactly correct in their estimate: they estimated that Germany was producing 246 Panzer Mark IV and V tanks per month, compared to the estimates by intelligence forces of 1,400. After the war, captured German production records showed that the actual number of tanks produced was 245 per month.

But what is really impressive is that the Guardian hasn't dumbed the article down to the point of uselessness: they actually give the statisticians' formula, and use the correct terminology:

Given a sample size S and maximum serial number M, a good estimator of the number of tanks made would be (M-1)(S+1)/S.

Now, all we need is to see how they derived that formula, and my day will be complete.

Danish file-sharing

Lawrence Lessig reports on significant research from Denmark about file sharing. Unlike other research, this uses actual sales data (not estimates) from a monopoly publisher who controls 99% of the Danish market for music. The data shows that the big drop in sales since 2000 represents a "return to normality" -- music sales in Denmark had been steady for fifteen years, until an unusual and (as yet) unexplained doubling took place between 1993 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2004 (the latest figures available) sales returned to normal.

Interestingly, the lost sales almost entirely affect "big name" established artists. Exactly as you would expect, file sharing acts as free advertising for relatively minor artists, who gain more new sales from the exposure than they lose from illegal downloads, but the biggest of the big, who can't gain because their exposure is already saturated, see a small reduction in sales. The Danish experience has been that file sharing has led to more artists getting published, not fewer, with most artists making more money while the most successful make a little less.

If the Danish experience is typical of all music markets, then Metallica was probably right to fear Napster; but on the other hand, for every one Metallica who would lose sales there are probably thousands of bands and artists who gained sales. It isn't clear to me that copyright law should be based on the needs and wants of Metallica instead of a thousand other bands who, while smaller individually, collectively probably outsell Metallica a hundred times.

Stabbed in the Back!

The myth of betrayal is one of the most powerful and significant stories in right-wing politics. Harpers has an article about it:

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

Even in victory after World War Two, the American Right pulled out an imaginary story of betrayal, accusing Roosevelt of virtually selling out democracy in the Yalta Conference; again their were cries of betrayal during and after the Korean War; then again in Vietnam; and now, as the occupation of Iraq gets bogged down in civil war, every report of government corruption, incompetence or criminality is defended by the Right with cries of "betrayal" for reporting the bad news.

Israel bombs Christian television

The excuse given by Israel for their latest invasion of Lebanon is that they are targeting Hezbollah terrorists in the south of the country. In fact, Israel has called on the Lebanese government to help root out Hezbollah -- conveniently forgetting that, whether Israel likes it or not, Hezbollah is a legitimate (if unruly and sometimes criminal) part of the Lebanese government.

So why is Israel indiscriminately targeting civilians in Southern Lebanon?

Many people won't care. Southern Lebanon is mostly Shiite. Under the theory that "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim", many wingnuts just won't care that one third of Lebanese casualties have been children.

But Israel is targeting Christian Lebanese as well. They've already bombed various Christian neighborhoods, at least one church and St. Therese's hospital, and now, as Juan Cole is reporting, they've bombed Christian television stations in the north of Lebanon, killing at least one civilian.

As Juan Cole explains:

Israel on Saturday attacked and partially crippled the media outlets of the Christian and Sunni factions in the Cedar Revolution that Bush and his supporters trumpeted as the foundation of the "new Middle East."
Israeli political and military elites are clearly upset that they have not been able to monopolize images and reporting of their vicious total war on Lebanese society, Christian, Sunni, Druze and Shiite. Attacking Lebanese television is an attempt to ensure that the war is seen only through the lens of Israeli media, which are censored by the Israeli military. I.e., full spectrum dominance of news and images.

Lebanese Broadcasting Company, a Christian-owned concern, is not a legitimate Israeli target in its struggle against Hizbullah's rockets in the far south of Lebanon.

There is no doubt that Hezbullah has, and continues to, engage in indiscriminate rocket attacks against the north of Israel. These acts are also war crimes, but they have been utterly ineffective, and rarely cause casulties. Israel's attack on Lebanon has killed at least 350 people, mostly civilians, in just a few days, crippled Lebanon's economy, destroyed its infrastructure, and left half a million people homeless. Compared to Hezbullah's petty pot-shots over the border, with most of their rockets hitting nothing but bare dirt, Israel has deliberately destroyed airports, power stations, housing estates and blown up trucks as a warning: drive a truck and you die. (Perhaps they think that only terrorists drive trucks.) This collective punishment of all of Lebanon for the crimes of a few is a war crime, and will only lead to the Lebanese people becoming more radical and less trusting of Israel's good intentions.

Judge rejects dismissal motion on EFF case

Glenn Greenwald, author of How Would A Patriot Act?, reports that the Bush administration's motion to dismiss the lawsuit by the EFF against AT&T has been rejected.

Underscoring how courts virtually always accept the government's claim of state secrets, the court began by discussing the long line of cases in which, in almost every instance, courts deferred to the Government's assertion that state secrets would be jeopardized by ongoing litigation. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals -- the appellate court which is above this district court -- previously directed that "utmost deference" be given to the government's invocation of this claim.

After looking at the government's claim, the court rejected the argument that allowing the case to proceed would put essential state secrets at risk, since the US government itself has already admitted the existence of the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program.

This seems to be a common tactic of the American right: the government proudly announces some program or event, third parties investigate and discover that it is illegal or otherwise harmful, and the government and/or right-wing pundits immediately start hollering State Secret!. Fortunately, the courts are starting to wise up to that game.

The age of the Earth

PZ Myers from Pharyngula has put together a nifty little HTML table showing the geological time scale.

Kill all the military-age males

Bad Attitudes is quoting from a report in the Seattle Times that US forces in Iraq are being given orders to kill all "military-age males" when they are sent on military raids.

Military prosecutors last month accused four soldiers in the unit of releasing three Iraqi men they captured that day only to kill them. The soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder, a capital offense.

Lawyers for the soldiers deny they released the detainees. They say the soldiers fired only after the Iraqis tried to break free and attack them.

But the lawyers are also making a more startling claim: that the soldiers were given explicit orders before the raid to "kill all military–age males" they encountered.

The lawyers say that two senior officers — a colonel and a captain — have acknowledged they gave that order, as have other men in the same company.

Walks like a war criminal, looks like a war criminal, sounds like a war criminal -- it must be a heroic defender of freedom.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Terror database contains peaceful protestors

Les the Stupid Evil Bastard reminds us all why transparency in government is vital:

[...] you end up with situations like this one where students who engaged in peaceful demonstrations opposing military recruiters at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz ended up in a database that’s supposed to be used for tracking foreign terrorism:

The students were angry when they turned up in the database of a Pentagon program called Threat and Local Observation Notice, or TALON, which the government started in 2003 as a way to collect data that could help stop terrorist attacks. Officials have acknowledged that the reports on protests should not have been included.

[...] The reports were filed by the 902nd Military Intelligence Group, the Army’s largest counterespionage unit.

The ACLU managed to find out about the additions via a request under the Freedom of Information Act, but that act doesn’t apply to all government programs and it’s always difficult to question programs you don’t know about because they’ve been kept secret.[...]

What keeping it secret does do is protect the administration from the fallout when the inevitable abuses—intentional or accidental—do occur. “Just trust us” isn’t a good argument as past history has shown many times before.

One common argument for across-the-board secrecy is that transparency helps the terrorists. This argument doesn't hold water. It is better to discourage people from becoming terrorists rather than catch them afterwards. If the anti-terrorism intelligence programmes are effective, and people realise that they are effective, they will be discouraged from becoming terrorism. Secrecy is only worthwhile if the programmes are ineffective and pointless -- in which case we need to know, so we can fix them or replace them.

Terrorists aren't stupid -- or at least, the dangerous ones aren't stupid. They have their own intelligence-gathering operations themselves. They can think ahead and use common sense and act as if they were being spied on, even in the absense of direct proof that they are being watched. Many of them have spent years or decades fighting some of the most secretive military and police organisations in the world: the old Soviet Union's KGB and military, the Israeli Mossad, Saddam Hussein's secret police. There are old terrorists, and naive terrorists, but no old naive terrorists.

Intelligence and security professionals, as opposed to the sort of arm-chair generals who get their ideas about intelligence gathering from half-remembered bad B-grade movies, know that security must be robust to be effective. Murphy's Law holds in the fight against intelligent, dedicated enemies: anything that can go wrong will, and if the effectiveness of your programme depends on secrecy, you can be sure that somebody will find out. Better to assume that not only does your enemy know, but that they know that you know they know, rather than hope that they remain ignorant.

The laughs never end at Homeland Security

Some more "critical infrastructure" from the Department of Homeland Security in the USA, in no particular order:

  • 224 racetracks

  • 163 water parks

  • several Wal-Mart stores

  • a Sears Auto Center

  • a Pepsi bottling plant

  • The 4 Cs Fuel and Lube

  • "High Stakes Bingo"

  • Nix’s Check Cashing

  • Jay’s Sporting Goods

  • a kangaroo conservation center

  • Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo

  • and a Krispy Kreme donut shop

Source here. I've written about this previously here and here.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

60 years since the King David bombing

Today is the 60th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel in British Palestine, by the Jewish terrorist organisation Irgun.

91 people were killed, most of them civilians: 28 British, 41 Arab, 17 Jewish, and 5 people of other nationalities. Almost 500 people were injured by the bombing. The attack was ordered by Menachem Begin, head of the Irgun, who later went on to become the Prime Minister of Israel.

It is significant that right-wing Israeli politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu (former Prime Minister and current opposition leader) recently celebrated this act of terrorism against the UK.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Microsoft loves Open Source now

Microsoft was virtually the last major IT company to discover the Internet (despite what Bill Gates would tell you in the second edition of his autobiography). Now, after years of describing Open Source as a "cancer", Microsoft has discovered that they and Open Source are bestest buddies.

Director of business development, intellectual property and licensing at Microsoft, David Kaefer, said open source had bolstered innovation in a distributed fashion.

He called the open source software movement a very powerful force in the industry.

"I think one of the exciting things about the open source software movement is it actually brought together a very distributed group of developers," he said, speaking at Business of Innovation,a Valley Speakers Series event held at Microsoft's Silicon Valley offices.

In fairness, some of the Shared Source licences are quite reasonable, and some even qualify as truly open source, but with Microsoft you always have to be on look out for the bait-and-switch. Just because a Shared Source licence is described by Microsoft as "open" doesn't mean it is.

More on Homeland insanity

Earlier, I wrote about the great bloated pork-barrel that anti-terrorism funding by the Department of Homeland Security is.

The Road To Surfdom has more details. According to Homeland Security, "critical infrastructure" includes:

  • Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo

  • The Mule Day Parade

  • The Sweetwater Flea Market

  • An unspecified "Beach at the end of a street"

Indiana, with over 8500 "potential terrorist targets", had fifty percent more supposed targets than New York and more than double the number of targets in California, making Indiana the most at-risk state in the USA.

I don't think this is just business-as-usual, snouts-in-the-trough pork-barrelling. I think this actually demonstrates something much more fascinating about the American psyche in the 21st century.

Surveys since Sept 11 have consistantly shown that New Yorkers are, on average, less concerned by terrorist threats than Ma and Pa Average from the middle of Nowheresville. Seems that New Yorkers have stared deep into the eyes of the Beast, and realised -- as have millions of other people all over the world -- that terrorism is a crime and a tragedy but life goes on. It just is not true that "everything changed".

But Joe Sixpack from Backwater Indiana, well, he's never faced anything more dangerous than driving home drunk on a Friday night. Americans, on average, are terribly incurious about the wider world outside of the Homeland, and therefore all the quicker to believe stories about Here Be Dragons from forn parts. Joe's been told ten thousand times by Faux News that some guy called Osama -- or was it Saddam? -- wants him personally dead. Of course he's going to look around the world as he knows it and imagine that Osama would like nothing more than to drop a bomb on the local flea market. It's the centre of his world, and that's what's important.

It is one of those ironies of American society that when it comes to coping with the threat of international violence, the pampered, privileged cry-babies aren't the intellectuals or the New York liberals (who, after all, survived the worst Osama could throw at them), but the blue-collar, Faux News-watching, Republican-voting Red Staters.

When Presidents Attack

Original here. More on Boing Boing here and here.

Windows uses pirate software

Windows XP ships with sound files which were created with a pirated copy of Sound Forge, cracked by the warez hacker "DeepzOne".

The evidence of this is surprisingly easy to find: look in the Windows\Help\Tours\WindowsMediaPlayer\Audio\Wav directory under Windows XP, and open up the WAV files in Notepad. Scroll to the end and you will find a reference in the sound file to DeepzOne.

The question is, what is DeepzOne's name doing in nine WAV files supplied with Windows XP? Lacking any other explanation, it seems on the face of it that the files were generated with a pirated copy of Sound Forge. Without further information from Microsoft, it is impossible to say whether it was a Microsoft employee or a freelancer who was responsible for that -- only the Windows Media Player team will know for sure, and so far they haven't said.

As "kaskangar" points out, there are deeper implications:

The topic still raises a moral problem, though, as Microsoft is quick to report every oh-so-minor success in the fight against piracy. In the wake of that move, the company also joined the BSA (Business Software Alliance), which has devoted itself to the "fight against software piracy" and persecutes violaters around the globe. But maybe BSA knows which office door it should knock on[.]

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The God Problem

Natalie Angier has a provocative and insightful article published by the Council for Secular Humanism, accusing scientists of hypocrisy and intellectual double-standards over the free-ride they give religion.

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry. [...] How can a bench-hazed Ph.D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague's PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like "Resurrection from the Dead," and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn't the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?

Angier points out that scientists' silence, even accomodation, to the superstition and magic of "mainstream religion" is understandable as a survival reflex. Even if atheists don't get lynched in the USA (yet), the scientists fear for their jobs and their research grants.

But there is another, rational, reason why some scientists might choose to rip into astrology and Breatharianism while giving a nod and a wink to (say) the Rapture: choose your battles. The US is one of the most religious countries in the world. It is hard enough to get the average American to think naturalistically about everyday things with little emotional importance. But give up little baby Jesus?

They'd sooner give up their guns.

Well, some of their guns. One or two or the smaller calibre handguns. If they don't need them any longer.

Frankly, I don't see that strategy working. For fifty years American scientists have gone out of their way to accomodate mainstream religion, or at least not tackle it head-on. Even the Creationism wars are being fought on the basis that "science says nothing about God" (which is untrue: science says just as much about God as it says about the flying invisible pixies that make the Internet work). And after fifty years of that softly-softly approach, religious fundamentalism is on the rise in the US, and rationalism and naturalism are more and more being ignored, if not actively vilified. The few high-profile aggressively rational atheists like Richard Dawkins actually have people paying attention -- they might not like what they hear, but they listen, and some of them even understand.

Homeland insanity

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, when it isn't busy arresting people for copyright infringement, has compiled a list of critical infrastructure sites and terrorist targets, in order to provide government funding for security.

As the Seattle Times is reporting, there are 77,000 "top terrorist targets" on this list. A few years ago there were 160.

The SuperMall in Auburn, Washington State (population about 36,000), has been listed as "critical infrastructure" by the Department of Homeland Security. That means it is considered vital for the operations of the USA. (Imagine, Joe Sixpack unable to get Krispy Kreme donuts for a few days. Civilization as we know it would collapse.) So critical a terrorist target is the SuperMall that the mall owners have been given $50,000 of tax-payers money to "improve security".

Also on the list of "critical infrastructure" are 1305 casinos, 700 mortuaries, 234 restaurants, an ice-cream parlor, a fishing tackle shop, an Amish popcorn factory, and a pile of trash in Houston.

Okay, I made up the one about the pile of trash.

Countdown to the Australian DMCA

Kimberlee Weatherall has written a detailed article about the current situation in Australia with our local DMCA, why it is vitally important for all Australians, how we could end up with bad copyright law, and a couple of suggestions for how we might avoid having that bad law forced on us.

In the USA, the DMCA has been a terrible law. Originally passed by the government under the expectation that it would lead to more innovation and creativity, it quickly became obviously that it was a failure in that regard. Instead it has had a chilling effect on scientific research and creative industries like the software industry. The DMCA has, effectively, made the US government the enforcer for certain major companies as they behave anti-competitively. When it comes to so-called "intellectual property" like copyright, the US government is strongly opposed to free markets, giving legal privilege to anti-competive technologies that wouldn't survive a month in a free market. The US government has been the bully-boy supporting the entertainment cartel's efforts to snatch away consumers' ordinary property rights and replace them with a limited "licence to use".

(When you own property, you can choose how, when and where you use it; the entertainment cartel doesn't want you to own that DVD, they want to sell you a licence to watch it under conditions they set, such as the particular type of player you are allowed to use.)

While the DMCA has caused plenty of misery among (for example) security researchers and computer scientists. Of course, misery loves company, and so the USA has forced the provisions of the DMCA onto trade partners like Australia. When negotiating the so-called Free Trade Agreement, it was made clear to our diplomats that the demand that we introduce the same sorts of draconian, foolish copyright laws as the US was not only non-negotiable, but it was the only non-negotiable demand in the entire treaty.

I could speculate as to why that might be -- after all, the US government isn't into suffering for its own sake. Let's just say that while innovation has suffered under the DMCA, not everybody welcomes innovation. Companies with large investments in outmoded business models fear innovation, because it stirs up the market, allows competition to flourish, and threatens their revenue stream.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

No jokes please, this is serious

Paris Hilton is giving up sex for a year, so she can concentrate all her energy on herself.

Must ... resist urge ... to crack jokes ...

Incredible carved pencils

These amazing Japanese artists carve intricate shapes and little wooden chains out of pencils.
Pencil carved into chain

Thank goodness, twins are people too

New research into identical twins (also known as "clones") has determined that they see themselves as two individuals, not one soul in two bodies. This suggests strongly that when human clones (also known as "identical twins who happen to be born years apart") are born, they are unlikely to see themselves as the same person.

    Hitler's clone: "You're not my father! You're not me! I don't want to take over the world and kill all the Jews, that's so 1930s! I want to be a wildlife photographer and save the baby fur seals!"

As PZ Meyers says, there are far too many people who worry about this sort of nonsense. Maybe this will put some minds at rest.

112 comments in four seconds

Somebody posted 112 almost-identical comments in four seconds. I wonder whether it could have been a spam-bot? ("You think?")

Somehow Blogger switched the word-verification thingy off. Grrr. I hope this isn't going to be a regular thing, because it is a real pain to go through and delete all those spams.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Australia a laughing stock for our copyright law

Professor Joshua Gans from Core Economics explains why Australia is rapidly becoming a laughing stock for introducing new laws[1] which ban replaying of video tapes you've recorded from the television:

So when the government finally gets around to reforming the laws -- through deliberative thought -- you would think that the end solution would make some sense. Not so and Australia is becoming a world-wide laughing stock as a result.
As you can see here, by replaying even bits of television you are breaking the law. If you watch a program and then let your spouse [watch] it later you are breaking the law.

[1] Strictly speaking, the law has not actually been passed yet; however we've got the Federal Government's explanation of what they want the law to do, and they explicitly say that replaying recordings is forbidden. Back

Monday, July 17, 2006

Google Print

Meghann Marco, author of Field Guide to the Apocalypse, was so angry at her publisher's decision to sue Google over Google Print that she wrote an open letter offering Google encouragement.

Someone asked me recently, "Meghann, how can you say you don't mind people reading parts of your book for free? What if someone xeroxed your book and was handing it out for free on street corners?"

I replied, "Well, it seems to be working for Jesus."

Seems that all was not quite as it first seemed. While her publisher was suing Google, they were surreptitiously releasing books onto Google Print -- including, in February, Meghann's book.

Does this mean victory? I’m not sure. There is something troubling about the fact that it took public outcry for my books to be sent to programs that I wanted to participate in. I realize that I’m not Stephen King, but was this really a case of an author simply being ignored?

It will be interesting to see how Google Print survives the legal challenges against it. There is no doubt in my mind that it is to the benefit of the authors, as well as society as a whole, and that if copyright law prohibits something Google Print than in an intelligent world it should be copyright law that changes, not Google; but I fear that the opposite will happen. Time will tell.

Why hide the security lesson of Mumbai?

Bruce Schneier points out there is a serious, if minor, security lesson to be learnt from the Mumbai train bombings:

Two quotes:

Authorities had also severely limited the cellular network for fear it could be used to trigger more attacks.


Some of the injured were seen frantically dialing their cell phones. The mobile phone network collapsed adding to the sense of panic.

(Note: The story was changed online, and the second quote was deleted.)

Cell phones are useful to terrorists, but they're more useful to the rest of us.

This is an important lesson. There is a tendency amongst certain "authorities" to distrust and be condescending to the public. Honesty and transparency is alien to their way of thinking, and it shouldn't be. The fear of a mobile phone signal triggering more attacks is ridiculous -- as far as I know, such an attack has never taken place, ever. Mobile phones are frequently used as timers to trigger bombs, but they don't need to be connected to the cellular network for that. Cutting off the network has zero benefit: it doesn't prevent further bombings (they can run off a timer, just like the original bombs). But it does have significant costs: not just the human cost of preventing the dying, injured and merely worried victims from calling their loved ones, but the more serious costs to first responders like ambulance. After Sept 11, the private networks used by police and fire departments broke down under the load, and the first responders relied on their personal mobile phones to communicate. Cutting off the cellular network imposes a significant burden on the already-struggling first responders.

Zero benefit, significant cost -- I'm not surprised that the clueless authorities would be in love with the idea of shutting off the mobile network. But I am surprised that the New Zealand "Stuff" website is a party in hiding that lesson by censoring their report.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Two-faced kitten born

A kitten was born in Ohio earlier this week with two faces.

NBC reports that the kitten, which is yet unnamed kitten but likely to be called "Tiger", is doing well and is feeding normally, despite having two faces on the one head.

One word stands out by its absence from the news report like Mt Fuji: mutant. I can't help but wonder why NBC choose to write "veterinarians don't understand why" the kitten was born that way rather than call it like what it is: a mutation, even if we don't know the precise cause of the mutation.

No free ride

Here is Part 1 of an interview with the legendary Vint Cerf talking about accusations that Google is getting a "free ride" from the Internet providers, and why the telcos' business plans are based on old (dare I suggest obsolete?) business models.

Somebody should remind AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre of the parable of the goose that laid the golden egg. People don't want bandwidth if there is nothing to download with it. AT&T made a nett income of almost $1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2006. But that's not enough: they want to strangle Internet technologies, charging them twice, three times, four times for the same service, because of some mental allergy to the concept of value-add -- Google pays for a service from AT&T, adds their own value, and makes money from the deal. Whitacre believes this is "getting a free ride". (Funny, I didn't notice AT&T providing Google with a server farm with thousands of PCs.)

This is prima facie evidence that one can become successful, rich company CEO of a giant multi-national corporation without having the foggiest concept of what a free market is or how it works. (Some would argue that, in a truly free market, executives like Whitacre would be earning a lot less money; but that's an argument for another day.)

Still, I think the telcos have got a point. I mean, when a carpenter buys timber and nails from his hardware supplier, and then builds furniture which he sells as a profit, he's "getting a free ride" too isn't he? Why shouldn't the hardware supplier get compensated for the carpenter's success? Sure, the supplier has already been compensated once, when the raw material was bought. But that was before they knew just what a great job the carpenter was doing. Now that they know he's talented and skillful, it's only right that they charge him extra. Stands to reason, right?

When a chef buys meat and vegetables, and creates a meal which he sells for a profit, surely that too is "getting a free ride"? Just because chef, like Google, has already paid his suppliers doesn't mean he shouldn't have to pay again and again.

That's what AT&T say, anyway.

Can the Kurds save Iraq?

The one tiny ray of light in the bloody mess that is the Iraqi civil war is that, so far, the Kurds have kept out of it. Is it possible that, as the violence continues to tear the country apart, that the Kurds could succeed in holding the factions back from the brink of all-out civil war?

Juan Cole suggests they might:

The Iraqis are at the brink of hot civil war again. It is one thing for people to be blown up indiscriminately by car bombers. It is quite another for neighborhood- or mosque-based militiamen to set up checkpoints in a nearby district and pull people out of their cars and homes, examine their identity cards for tell-tale family names and places of birth, and shoot them dead on the spot for being from the wrong sect of Islam.[...]

What if Kurdish troops were deployed in Baghdad under an Iraqi military command? The Kurds are not Arabs at all. They might be able to function as honest brokers between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. It is true that most of them are Sunnis. But most Kurds aren't Islamists and a lot of them belong to mystical Sufi orders or to socialist political parties. So their Sunnism isn't of a sort that would make them favor the Sunni Arabs. And, they had suffered a lot from some high Sunni Arabs in the Saddam regime. On the other hand, they are unlikely to tilt toward a hyper-Shiite group like Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

But would the Kurds do it? A spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party is saying, "yes." He said that the deteriorating security situation in the capital "provokes the anxiety of the Kurdish parties, who fear that this escalation will lead to the widening of the scope of sectarian violence, will affect the situation in Kurdistan."

Adnan Dulaimi of the (Sunni fundamentalist) Iraqi Accord Front said only that the suggestion needed to be studied. It is clear that the Sunni Arabs would prefer the Kurdish troops to the special police commandos of the Interior Ministry, whom they consider little more than death squads.

Wishful thinking perhaps -- the Kurdish peshmerga is already spread very thinly keeping the north relatively violence free, and many Kurds still have deep scores to settle with Arab Iraqis. But for the sake of the Iraqi people, this may be the only hope they have.

Google and click fraud, updated

Earlier, I wrote about Google's CEO Eric Schmidt and some comments he made about click fraud.

Google's "offical blog" has further comments. I might paraphrase it as "Um, yeah, Eric said all that, but he was talking hypothetically, and besides we do actually aim to prevent click-fraud."

The ZDNet journalist who originally posted the information takes issue with Google's response.

Following the pirates

Author John Battelle discovered that pirated copies of his book The Search are on sale in Mumbai (Bombay) airport. His reaction?

Do I care about the piracy? No. No, no no. I care that someone in Mumbai cared enough to rip it off, and that someone there might be reading my stuff. That is just cool. Commercial markets always follow the free, or, well, the pirates in this case. Always.

Google searchers uncovers malware

PCWorld is reporting that a security firm has used Google's binary search to uncover about 2,000 malicious websites containing viruses or other malware. This is a useful new technique for finding and blocking malicious websites, although of course the usefulness of signature scanning to find malware is relatively limited.

Wal-Mart gives ZT the flick

Wal-Mart has recently changed their policies regarding shop-lifting, bringing them closer in line to other major American retail chains. Rather than a zero-tolerance approach, they no longer prosecute first-time shoplifters younger than 18 or older than 65 unless the goods stolen were worth more than $25 dollars.

Freakonomics writes:

For the store, the opportunity cost had come to severely outweigh the shoplifting cost. “J.P. Suarez, who is in charge of asset protection at Wal-Mart, said it was no longer efficient to prosecute petty shoplifters,” Michael Barbaro wrote in the Times. “’If I have somebody being paid $12 an hour processing a $5 theft, I have just lost money,’ he said. ‘I have also lost the time to catch somebody stealing $100 or an organized group stealing $3,000.’”

But, although the article doesn’t quite say so, I am guessing it was the pressure from police departments that truly forced Wal-Mart’s hand. The Times quotes Don Zofchak, police chief in South Strabane Township, Pa., as saying that Wal-Mart “would arrest somebody for stealing a pair of socks. I felt we were spending an inordinate amount of time just dealing with Wal-Mart.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if police in many small cities and rural areas had stopped responding to Wal-Mart’s daily requests to pick up their shoplifters, or at least grumbled mightily about having to do so. Wal-Mart has taken lots of heat for lots of reasons over the years—including, for instance, the fact that many of its low-wage employees also receive public assistance, which has led some critics to say that the U.S. Government in effect subsidizes Wal-Mart’s business. I can imagine how its old shoplifting policy may have led to even more damaging criticism—that Wal-Mart has turned local police forces into Wal-Mart police forces, preventing them from doing their real jobs.

The lesson from this is that there are trade-offs in all things. It doesn't make sense for Wal-Mart to potentially pay hundreds of dollars to prosecute the theft of a $5 or $10 item, not even when you consider the deterrent effect. And it certainly doesn't make sense for society to allow Wal-Mart's wants and needs to be given priority over the law-enforcement needs of the rest of society.

More on Boing Boing.

Box-office payola

Freakonomics discusses the economics of box-office sales figures, whether or not they get inflated, and why they usually sink like a concrete raft after a couple of weeks: in a nutshell, it's all about getting the movie on as many screens on the opening weekend as possible.

One of Freakonomic's readers, Scott Cunningham, makes an insightful comment, but then fails to draw the obvious conclusion and in fact draws the wrong conclusion:

But, it does make sense that studios would offer incentives for distributors. Movie demand is driven by information feedbacks because movies are differentiated products and willingness to pay depends on experience. [...]

But you can’t trick the public for long. De Vany shows how well the information conduits work. So I can’t imagine a rational distributor would pay theaters millions in lost revenue just to open the movie on many screens when the survival of a movie experiences a steep decline after the first week anyway.

He's got it completely backwards. It is precisely because you can't trick the public for long and ticket sales usually decline rapidly after the first week that the monster opening weekend is so vital. They need to generate as much hype and interest and ticket sales as quickly as possible, before word-of-mouth starts spreading the word that the flick is a turkey. Of course future dollars should be discounted compared to current dollars ("a bird in the hand") but that alone doesn't explain why the studios are so desperate for the movie to go off like a rocket. Having the movie showing on lots of screens is a good way to pump sales quickly.

The end result is that, even when the movie isn't a turkey, Hollywood is addicted to that instant blockbuster opening. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that, if given a choice between a movie that makes $10 million profit in the first month and then never makes another cent, or one that takes three months to break-even but brings in a steady $20 million profit every year for ten years, most studio executives would go for the first option. And it wouldn't even be a hard decision for them to make.