Thursday, August 31, 2006

Plush Discworld

Complete with Great A'Tuin:
Plush Great A'Tuin and Discworld

Click here for the original.

Customers. Bless them.

I had this interesting phone call this morning. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

    phone rings, I answer it

    "Good morning, Vlad speaking, how may I help you?"

    "Hello, this is Betty from Acme Products. Should I be speaking to you or to Robert?"

    "That depends on what you want to discuss. What did you want?"

    "I don't know."

I swear that's a real quote.

Details continue to emerge on the British terror plot

Bruce Scheier discusses the details (as few as are actually known) on the British "liquid explosive" terror plot.

Details are still sketchy, but those few that are emerging are in this New York Times article, which is unavailable for readers in the UK. A shorter version of the story is here.

In a nutshell, it looks like:

  • the plot was real;

  • there was no imminent threat as the plot was not very advanced despite being in motion for over a year;

  • the plotters had been radicalised by the Iraq war and were allegedly plotting the bombings as retaliation for US and UK alleged crimes against Iraqi civilians ("as you bomb, you will be bombed; as you kill, you will be killed");

  • while the chemicals the plotters wanted to use are dangerous, there are real questions about whether they are a practical threat, but they could likely bypass existing airport security systems;

  • there was strong pressure from the US government to arrest the plotters for political reasons, which has severely weakened the British case against them (it is hard to convict people of crimes when no crimes have been committed) and wrecked the chances of finding other, possibly more dangerous, terrorists linked to the plotters;

  • and the plotters were caught through old-fashioned police investigations, not highly invasive, civil liberty-destroying techniques like widespread surveillance.

Like all these political cases, what gets claimed in the press conference is not necessarily what gets said under oath in the trial. The press conferences about the ricin plot made it look like a real threat too, but that blew away like dust in a tornado once it came to trial. The most serious terrorism-related guilty verdict that came out of the ricin "plot" was conspiracy to make a public nuisance, so I'm keeping an open mind about this until the trial and appeals are completed.

Strangely enough, Schneier's silent on the Pakistan torture angle, but he makes an excellent point about the futility of the current security strategy being used:

As I said on a radio interview a couple of weeks ago: "We ban guns and knives, and the terrorists use box cutters. We ban box cutters and corkscrews, and they hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, and the terrorists use liquids. We ban liquids, and the terrorist will use something else. It's not a fair game, because the terrorists get to see our security measures before they plan their attack." And it's not a game we can win. So let's stop playing, and play a game we actually can win. The real lesson of the London arrests is that investigation and intelligence work.

There are some more interesting details: Schneier mentions a 1995 plot to use liquid explosives: the plot was foiled and planes protected without a complete ban of liquids. A reader commented on Schneier's blog "Just to play devil's advocate, it's possible to say that they made the wrong decision then", to which Schneier responded: "All we have to do is look at the enormous number of planes blown up in midair using the same technique to know the answer to that one."

Can you legally play an overseas DVD?

Virtually all DVDs have "region encoding", one or more codes on the disc that tells the player where in the world you are supposed to watch the DVD.

Needless to say, consumers are split into two groups: those who don't notice region encoding, and those who hate it passionately. For example, there are millions of fans of Japanese anime across all DVD regions, but anime DVDs are typically only released on Region 2 discs, making watching them difficult in the US or Australia. Hence, there are thriving black- and grey-markets for "mod chips" and other technologies for removing region encoding.

Kim Weatherall looks at the legality of playing DVDs from other regions in Australia. Although it is a very simple question -- "Can I legally watch this legally purchased DVD from overseas?" -- the answer is not simple at all.

After looking at various laws, including the Australian Copyright Act, the Aus-US Free Trade Agreement, and various legal rulings, the conclusion is that it is legal to watch those overseas DVDs -- but only just. It assumes two factors: firstly, that the copyrights on the computer code and video on the DVD disc, in both countries, are owned by the same person, and that the amount of video copied into the DVD player's temporary memory is not "substantial" -- whatever that means.

Weatherall's conclusion is sobering:

your right to play a DVD legitimately purchased overseas rests on as slender a thread as this: if a copyright owner can prove that a substantial part of the film is embodied in RAM at some given moment, they will be able to show that you are making a temporary copy, which is not covered by the section 43B defence.

Is this likely? Well, the question is effectively open. And Sony tried quite hard to demonstrate this after the fact in Stevens v Sony, using a demonstration of how much game could be played without keeping the disk in the machine.

iPod in toilet over-reaction

Bruce Schneier links to the behind-the-scenes details of a "terror scare" on board a plane flying to Canada when a passenger accidently dropped his iPod into the toilet.

An iPod in a toilet. Easy fix, right? You just pull it out, no big deal, right? Not in the Kafkaesque world of "security", where the more Sturm und Drang you can generate, the more secure your job is. Just because the guy who dropped the iPod told the stewardesses what he'd done, that's no reason not to interrogate everybody on the plane, and ask them frighteningly personal questions about their sex lives.

Of course, once you realise the passengers were left waiting on the plane for forty minutes before being taken off for questioning, it becomes obvious that there was never any genuine fear amongst officials that there was a real threat. If they actually thought there was a bomb on the plane, they would have got the passengers off immediately it touched down, not kept them in their seats for forty minutes.

It's all security theatre, to keep the voters and tax payers frightened so that the money will keep flowing to the security organisations.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Science Is Dead

... so says Mark Noonan, and that Reasonable Conservative, Jon Swift, agrees:

I must say I haven't been so happy since we reached the End of History. What is especially great about Noonan's theory that science is dead is that he doesn't have to conduct any experiments or present any evidence to prove science is dead because science would actually have to be alive to do that.
Now I suppose a few namby-pamby intellectuals will try to point out that scientists are responsible for a lot of practical things we enjoy, like decaffeinated coffee, Velcro and spell-checkers. Like Al Gore, they will probably try to take credit for inventing the Internet, too. But we wouldn't have those things unless God wanted us to have them. They, are, in short, modern miracles. I think that even if God decides not to give us anymore "scientific" miracles, when you weigh all the bad that science has been responsible for (the Holocaust, Marxism, cable television) against the few modern conveniences we enjoy, I think you'll agree that the death of science is a good thing and we should all thank President Bush for helping to kill it off.

Full story here.

PZ Myers has a factual rebuttal, for those who can stop laughing long enough to take Mark Noonan seriously.

Morality and invasion

The Leiter Reports looks at the claims of a philosopher who insists that there is no moral case against the invasion of Iraq. Well worth reading.

All the options

William Edmundson, writing for the Leiter Report, discusses the "Madman strategy" of Richard Nixon, and how it relates to the current ugliness in the Middle East, where Republican shrills for the neo-cons clamour for war.

Edmundson quotes the NY Times, which reported a US official complaining about the intelligence community's insistence that there is no evidence Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons:

"When they say there is 'no evidence,' you have to ask them what they mean, what is the meaning of the term 'evidence'?"

And this from the same political party which criticised President Clinton for his duplicity about "sexual relations", and campaigns on Moral Values. (Yeah -- evil, wicked morals. But still morals.) Which is worse, lying about a bit of hanky-panky between consenting adults, or starting an unnecessary war and killing thousands?

Obviously it is the hanky-panky.

Edmundson continues:

In the same story, Newt Gingrich is reported to explain what "evidence" means:

"When the intelligence community says Iran is 5 to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon, I ask: 'If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?'"

And if peaches were tomatoes, then peach jam would taste just like napoli sauce.

Of course, if Gingrich really believed that, he would have to consider what if North Korea (or Pakistan, or China, or Russia) has shipped Iran hundreds of nukes, and they're planted all over the USA right now. Obviously the answer is, the US has no choice but to surrender unconditionally to Iran.

Of course, if Iran made such a claim, you can bet that Gingrich, like the US official, will suddenly remember just what evidence means, and start declaring that there is no evidence that Iran has nukes.

It shows you just what we've come to, when we find ourselves hoping against hope that the US president is only pretending to have the morals of a stoat.

The Arab street

In the aftermath of the Israeli war on Lebanon, Arab bloggers and writers have been very busy discussing "Who Won?" Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark writes about the many, varied responses coming out of "the Arab street".

For reasons I've already discussed, it is quite clear to me that Hezbollah, bloody but unbowed, won the ground war. Clearly Lebanon the nation-state was the big loser: the United Nations is estimating that Lebanon's economy has been put back twenty years.

The most interesting thing from Lynch's blog isn't the various opinions on who won, but the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in Arab opinion. People are often tempted to lump diverse "others" into a single basket, like Bush's imaginary "Axis of Evil": with enemies and rivals Iraq and Iran, isolationist North Korea, and non-state terrorist organisation al Qaeda (enemy to both the secular Iraqi government and the wrong-sort-of-religion theocratic Iranian government) being treated as essentially identical. But in real life, people or nations don't come in two flavours of Us and Them.

There is, however, one sense in which the so-called Arab street is unified: their increasing anger and fury at the US, Israel, and their accomplices in the friendly Arab regimes.

Marc Lynch has a follow-up here. Both are worth reading.

Western, particularly American, political actions over the last few decades has been pushing the Muslim world to become more radicalized, more violent and angry. We (by which I mean the elites in government that rule in our names) have, whether by design, or stupidity, or accident, been pushing millions of Muslims into the welcoming arms of Islamic anti-Western Fundamentalists. I do not welcome the day that Hezbollah controls Lebanon's politics, but Israel's foolish, arrogant, wicked adventurism has made that day more likely. The people that we trust with keeping us safe from our enemies have been, through their short-sighted greed and hunger for power, been boosting the strength and power of those Medieval, vicious god-botherers who want to control how we dress, what we eat, how we wear our hair, and how we think.

Cluster bombs

Juan Cole discusses the thousands of unexploded cluster bombs in Lebanon which have already killed and maimed civilians, especially children:

The bombs frequently do not detonate, so now south Lebanon is littered with deadly fist-size bomblets that will inevitably kill and disfigure children and other civilians.

The US State Department will investigate whether Israeli deployment of these weapons in civilian areas violated secret agreements under which Washington supplied them to Israel.

Nothing will come of the investigation, given the clout of the Israel lobby in Washington, but someday the relative of an innocent maimed Lebanese may decide to take revenge on the country that supplied the cluster bombs. And the American public will ask in astonishment why anyone should hate us.

Because they "hate our freedoms", surely?

Gods and demons

Sujatha Sundar the Accidental Blogger writes about a fascinating linguistic reversal between Hinduism and Zoroastrianism: one religion's gods are the other religion's demons, and vice versa.

Hindu traditions derived from Indo-Aryan tenets, consider Suras (or Devas) to be beings of light, gods of various kinds, while Asuras ('not Suras') are darker beings, largely with dark instincts and are most commonly portrayed as the embodiments of evil (for instance demon king Ravana). In Zoroastrianism, the opposite linguistic paradigm holds true - Ahura is the being of light, all powerful and all good, while Daevas are the 'bad guys'.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Town name

It might be politically unsound to make fun of words derived from other languages, but what the hey.

Looking at a map of Western Australia this evening, I came across the town of Beeringgnurding, about 190 miles to the north-west (-ish) of Perth.

Beeringgnurding. Try saying that after a few beers.

Moral vacancy

In September 2004, E.L. Doctorow wrote a powerful essay about the moral vaccuum in the heart of President Bush the Younger. Since then, events have shown that Doctorow was right on the money.

I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be. On the eve of D-Day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man.

He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the 1,000 dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.

They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life . . . they come to his desk as a political liability, which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq.

Powerful stuff.

Thanks to the Leiter Report.

What the Iraqi people want

Marc Lynch discusses the latest opinion poll from Iraq. Almost 92% of Iraqis now want the US occupying forces to leave their country.

But what is absolutely devastating for the US's claim of the moral high-ground is that that opinion is now held virtually across the entire country, by all the major ethnic groups: the presense of occupying troops is "strongly opposed" by 97.2% of Sunni, 89.7% of Shiite, and even amongst the US's strongest allies, the Kurds, 63.3% now oppose the US presence. In total, 84.5% of Iraqis want the US to leave.

Just a few months ago the situation in the north, Kurdistan, was relatively stable. But things seem to have changed: the number of Kurds who "strongly agreed" that life is "unpredictable and dangerous" increased from 16% in the last survey to 50%.

That was before Turkey's week-long attacks on Kurdish "terrorists" (or, if you prefer, freedom fighters). Civil war between Sunni and Shiites, British troops being driven out of towns, Americans committing atrocities, both Iran ("the bad guys") and Turkey ("our friends the good guys") taking a leaf from Israel's book and shelling and bombing Kurdistan...

If you did a survey, I wonder how many Iraqis would prefer to see "the Moustache" Saddam Hussein back in power? Under Saddam, Iraqis were relatively safe if they kept their head down -- now, there is no safety anywhere, and no sign that things are getting better.

What an ugly, ugly mess.

It's been said, "you break it, you fix it". I think Iraq is beyond fixing now. It is difficult to see any way out, whether Iraq remains a single nation or is partitioned into three (or more?) countries. Whatever happens, Bush has brought chaos and instability to one of the most critical, explosive areas of the world.

Thanks George.

US Congress report on Iran

Juan Cole analyses the recent Republican Congressional report on Iran's supposed nuclear weapons program, and finds a repeat of the distortions and lies of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" propoganda.

Somebody should tell President Bush the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Cole's blog has more details, but a number of points stand out:

  • The Republicans have a lot of gall for complaining about the lack of intelligence about Iran's nuclear programme: it was Republican mastermind Karl Rove who leaked the information that Valerie Plame was working as an undercover CIA operative in Iran, attempting to find out more about their nuclear programme. This leak not only destroyed her usefulness, but lead directly to the deaths or arrests of Iranians who had been giving her information. Needless to say, Rove and his gang, who put short-term political revenge ahead of national security, have not been punished in the slightest.

  • The report selectively quotes from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) only when they are critical of Iran, and ignores them when they point out that Iran has cooperated with them and given them access to sensitive facilities when asked. Iran is acting like it has nothing to hide.

  • And then there is the misreprepresentation of Iran's programme as being able to enrich uranium to "weapons grade". That is untrue: Iran has publicly admitted to having a cascade of 180 centrifuges, and can enrich uranium to 3.5%, far short of the 80% or more needed even for an inefficient bomb. With existing technology, it takes a cascade of about 16 thousand centrifuges to get to 80% enriched uranium. Iran, according to all the evidence, is short by 15,820.

Cole has more detail -- it makes sobering reading to realise that, having successfully fooled some of the people over Iraq, the neo-cons are trying it again over Iran.

The difference this time is that Iran, unlike Iraq, actually has an army capable of fighting back against anything short of nuclear weapons, and a highly successful, battle-hardened ally in Lebanon. If the Bush armchair warriors decide that, having got one leg caught in the Iraq quagmire, that this is a good time to tackle Iran as well, there will be a lot of dead Americans and Israelis.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Get to the back of the bus

Wonderful news for those conservatives who want to roll back the clock to the glory days before the wicked Sixties: a god-fearing bus driver from Red River Parish in Louisiana has struck a blow for decency and conservatism by ordering nine black Elementary School students to the back of the bus, designating the front of the bus ("the special seats") for whites like himself.

Story here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

I'm shocked

You can knock me over with a feather.

As a Linux and former Macintosh user, I'm quite used to being sent proprietary, Windows-only file formats that can't be read except by specific, commercial software -- although it must be said that over the last few years, Linux software has become very good at coping with all sorts of secret file formats. It's been a while I've come across a file I wasn't able to open under Linux.

And then the other day, I received an email with an attached .mht file, and neither Kmail, Firefox, Konqueror or Mozilla seemed able to deal with it correctly.

That's not the shocking thing. The shocking thing is that .mht files are a standard, open file format, with a RFC from 1999 specifying the format: HTML plus external resources such as images, in a MIME encoding. It is simply a MHTML file. Essentially, it is a web page, plus all its images, sounds or other extras, in a single file.

Internet Explorer has supported MHTML in the form of .mht files for years; Opera has recently added support for it. Konquorer does something similar, except it puts the files in a compressed tar ball (.tar.gz or .tgz) and calls it a .war (Web ARchive) file.

As far as I can tell, this is a case where Microsoft has actually done the right thing, using a standard, open file format, and the Linux world is lagging behind. Shocking, but true.

Abstinence-only sex education

Jim Lippard reports that the main result of eighteen years of abstinence-only sex education in Timken High School in Canton, Ohio is that, last year, 65 of the 490 female students (or 13%) in the high school became pregnant.

And people are surprised at this?

Meanwhile, in liberated Afghanistan...

...the Taliban are effectively in control in the south, thanks in a big way to the War on Drugs.

What a mess Afghanistan is. In the 19th century, the Great Game was played out by Russia and Great Britain. In the late 20th century, it was USSR and the USA. Now it looks like continuing, between the US and UK on one side, and Pakistan on the other, and no doubt a more aggressive Russia will insist on joining again. Whoever wins, the Afghani people lose; and, with the expansion of religious Fundamentalism and extremism, so will the rest of us.

God for the fearful

PZ Myers points out that the old adage "there are no atheists in fox-holes" is not only wrong but, if it were true, would be an admission that religion is for the scared and fearful: make them terrified enough, and they will believe anything.

Legalised theft

I've written before about legalised theft by the US government under the guise of the "War Against Drugs".

Here is another example: a US Court of Appeals has ruled that if you get caught carrying around large sums of money, the government can assume it came from illegal drug trafficking and seize the money.

There are more details by Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

Gonzolez was not charged with any crime because there was no evidence of any crime, yet they confiscated $125,000 based on the civil forfeiture laws without showing any crime had been committed by anyone connected to the money.

Police laugh about shooting

On November 20th 2003, Elizabeth Ritter was shot four times by Miami police, including once in the face. The officers involved laughed and joked about it, and their sergeant, rather than reprimand them, complimented them.

How very droll.

Only after a video tape of the laughing officers became public did the police department offer an apology.

Why TrackMeNot is a waste of time

In the wake of vast privacy breaches from AOL, and the possibility of others from Google, Yahoo and other search engines, some well-meaning coders created a Firefox extension called TrackMeNot.

TrackMeNot sounds like a good idea: while you browse the Internet, it runs in the background sending fake search requests to the major search engines, hiding your actual searches in a sea of fake ones. From the TrackMeNot website:

It hides users' actual search trails in a cloud of 'ghost' queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.

Bruce Scheier explains why it is a waste of time. So does BoingBoing.

As it stands now, TMN is pointless. Any serious dataminer can easily separate the fake queries from the real ones. But even if the technical flaws in it were solved, it doesn't "hide" your searches at all -- it just gives the bad guys/authorities more reason to investigate you, which makes it not just pointless but counter-productive. The only way this tool could be genuinely useful would be if enough people used it that dataminers decided that all search data was suspect -- and that would require a large percentage, maybe even a majority, of Internet users to use it. And that isn't going to happen without an unholy army of virus-born 'bots, millions upon millions of computer trojans and viruses, firing off fake search requests from innocent third parties' computers. But that would be Wrong.

Smarter than the average bear

Bruce Schneier discusses the security issues related to bears in national parks, and quotes a park ranger:

There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.

"Dumbest" is perhaps unfair. As Scheier explains, the problem isn't dumb people, because even the dumbest person is smarter than bears, but that people are impatient, while even the dumbest bear is tenacious enough to spend hours solving a problem.

The end of the Wintel duopoly?

Are Microsoft and Intel in trouble? The signs are troubling for the major players in the Wintel world, with Microsoft's earnings cut by 29%, Intel's by 90%, while IBM, Texas Instruments and Red Hat seeing some major growth.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

PRM wars

Ed Felten discusses so-called "Property Rights Management" here. Worth reading if you want an early warning of the next stage in the battle over control and ownership.

I discussed this earlier.

Yahoo gets it, Google doesn't

Earlier, I discussed Google Inc.'s nastygrams to various media people ordering them to stop using the verb "google". It seems that Yahoo knows the value of the English language: they've put out the word that they want people to re-mix their brand.

Kicked off a plane

It was only a matter of time -- and frankly, I'm surprised it took this long. Brown-skinned Asians have been evicted from commercial airline flights in Britain after passengers refused to fly with them.

Needless to say, the fact that the men had been checked repeatedly by security was no match for the hysteria, fear and terror spread by the Blair government. ["Terrorist": one who acts in such a way as to spread terror.]

Airline to UK gov: no more security theatre

Irish airline Ryanair has warned the UK government to stop messing about with security theatre and to get their act together.

Last Friday, Ryanair threatened to sue for compensation unless airport security measures were returned to normal within seven days. The CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, described the new restrictions as "farcical Keystone Cops security measures that don't add anything except to block up airports" and "nonsense".

From The Guardian:

Mr O'Leary ridiculed the notion of searching five- or six-year-old children and elderly people in wheelchairs going to Spain. Such scenes, he said, would have "terrorists laughing in the caves of Afghanistan".

Of course the terrorists aim is to sow fear and confusion. Remember, you read about the terrorists' plans here and here first.

Reading the NY Times

It seems that the right-wing read very differently from the rest of us. Right-wing pundits have seriously accused journalists and newspapers such as the NY Times of treason for reporting the news. What's going on?

Thanks to this website, now you too can see the NY Times as wing-nuts see it.

[Requires Flash.]

Film makers eat their young

Stronger copyright laws are enabling film and documentary makers to eat their young: with the costs (both royalties and legal expenses) of clearing even tiny, fair use clips exploding out of control, it is harder than ever to create films and documentaries, and existing film studios are able to lay down legal minefields to prevent smaller, up-and-coming artists from creating films -- especially documentaries. At a time when the technological barriers to becoming a film maker are shrinking, the artificial barriers are growing ever larger.

LA Weekly has an article about some of the trials and tribulations of documentary makers. British documentary maker Adam Curtis has not been able to distribute his BBC miniseries in the USA because of the cost of copyright: from $1,500 per minute in Britain to at least $7,000 per minute in the USA.

Remember that copyright law was created in order to encourage, not discourage, the creation of new artistic works, and it becomes clear that existing copyright laws are not just broken but actively harmful and require a major overhaul.

"Copyright holders have become so aggressive, they've limited the creative process in all different kinds of mediums," says [film maker Kirby] Dick. "That's bad for artists and bad for the studios. I think they're shooting themselves in the foot."

All is not darkness and gloom. While many copyright monopolists are often greedy and grasping, there are others who understand that what goes around comes around. The BBC is apparently keen to release large amounts of their archived work for royalty-free use via the Internet. Now that will be very, very interesting indeed!


How very Fortean...

Outside the office where I work, there are three elevators. There are a set of five perfectly clear white footprints (probably plaster dust) on the carpet, leading precisely from one set of elevator doors to the next, in a steady gait. Whoever it was, they stepped out of one lift and walked immediately into the next, without pausing or stopping or diverting in any way at all.

What are the chances that two lifts would be open on the same floor at the same time? I think it more likely that the footprints came from somebody who simply walked through the metal doors and floated down the elevator shaft.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A mysterious occurrence

How strange. This morning the drivers seat of my car was soaked, even though the door was shut and locked, and the window closed. It had rained, but only lightly.

It must be one of those wossnames, mysterious phenomena, like rains of ketchup or singing sandwiches.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Is this the sickest piece of tackiness ever?

National Collector’s Mint is releasing a limited edition commemorative coin to celebrate commemorate the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Made of gold and silver, with the silver "miraculously" recovered from the teeth of the victims a bank vault found under the rubble.

As a tribute to the thousands who died, the inset of the Twin Towers on the coin is able to rise up like the world's most tacky erection: "The effect is dazzling - it is literally transformed into a standing sculpture of the Twin Towers!"

WTC commemorative coin
(Overheard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "Look Laura! It's risen again!" "That's nice dear, why don't you go show it to Mister Cheney like a good boy?")

And best of all, the coin has been discounted! The price "was to be set at $49.95. However, during this limited special release, this Gold and Silver clad masterpiece can be yours for just $29.95." And if you call now, you get a free steak knife.

Okay, I made up the bit about the steak knife.

You can see this "truly unique" piece of tat in all its glory here.

The gamble for Iraq

The New Yorker has published an essay by Hendrik Hertzberg about President Bush's Iraq gamble. The news is not good when even Thomas L. Friedman, one of the war's Number One supporters, writes "It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war."

It is in the nature of gambling that the gamble may lose. The dice have now been well and truly rolled, and they have come up snake eyes. The war’s sole real gain--the overthrow of the murderous Saddam Hussein regime--is mocked by the chaos and suffering that have overwhelmed millions of Iraqis, whose country is again a republic of fear. The concrete losses are horrific: nearly three thousand American and "coalition" troops killed; thousands more maimed; scores of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead; a third of a trillion dollars burned through. So are the less tangible ones: the unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world and Europe; the self-inflicted loss of America’s moral prestige; the neglect of real nuclear dangers, in Iran and North Korea, while chimeras were chased in Iraq. The neoconservative project of a friendly, democratic Middle East, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, is worse than a charred ruin—it is a flaming inferno.

Hertzberg points out that sixty percent of the American public now oppose the Iraq occupation, and that the majority of them do so because it has harmed, not helped, the larger struggle against those who would hurt them.

(Alas that the American public has not quite worked out yet that the biggest danger comes not from terrorists, but from the wolves in sheep's clothing who claim to be protecting them.)

Hertzberg observes that the alleged terrorists arrested in Britain were thwarted, not because of the Iraq occupation or the War on Terror, but because of the old-fashioned virtues of "dogged police work, lawful surveillance, and international coöperation", and that it is precisely those virtues which have been hamstrung by the waste of manpower and materials in Iraq. As Hertzberg asks, "Why not change the game to one that relies less on gambling and bluff and more on wisdom, planning, and (in every sense) intelligence?"

Link via Echidne.

Windows 2012

A serious of startup messages from Windows 2012 has fallen through a timewarp and found their way to Mark Gibbs of Network World.

08:52 Welcome to the Microsoft Windows Horizon operating system. Today is July 10, 2012. The temperature outside is 105 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind speed is 40 knots gusting to 80 knots, the air pollution level is extreme and the UV level is dangerous. The Homeland Security Threat Level is red.

09:03 To log on, please enter your name and password. Thank you, your account is valid. Please touch the fingerprint scanner. Thank you, your fingerprint is recognized. Please look into the retinal scanner. Thank you, retinal scan passed.

Read more.

Pummelled by squid

Professional diver Scott Cassell and his partner Jacquie Cozens recently went in search of the Rojo Diablo ("Red Demon") Humboldt squid. These squid are aggressive, large predators which attack in packs and there have been reported cases of them devouring Mexico fishermen. Each tentacle has more than 100 suckers, each lines with up to 26 needle-sharp teeth, allowing the squid to attack its prey with more than 24,000 teeth at once.

There were more than 20 giant squid right below me -- not even ten feet away! Ranging in length from five to six feet, they hovered nearby just looking at me, studying me. My splash entry was like ringing a dinner bell. Suddenly, about 10 squid began to move in for a closer look. As they neared, they flashed from white to pink to bright red then back to white, all within a split second. It was beautiful! They looked like animals from another planet, totally unearthly.

As I floated there transfixed, a large squid moved to within two feet and flashed again. Mesmerized by the strobe effect, I didn’t see that another squid was rushing in from my left. Bam! It hit me with a tentacular strike that felt like being hit with a baseball bat square in the ribs. Shocked by the power of the strike and unable to breathe because of a cramp in my chest, I turned to see what had hit me and saw four more squid headed toward me. The first came in so fast that I could barely track it with the camera, and then Bam! It struck the camera, which in turn struck me in the face. I was starting to feel like I was in a barroom brawl.

After five attacks of equal ferocity, the magnificent monsters decided I was inedible and had no further use for me. With a few blasts from their massive jet funnels, they disappeared into the depths within seconds. Dazed and excited, I realized the entire ordeal lasted less than one minute. After dangling in the water for 30 minutes looking for any signs of their return, I surfaced and climbed into the boat. I later discovered bruises on me the size of oranges, as well as several scratches in my anti-squid armor suit. The system was working, but each attack left its mark — and this was just the first dive of dozens yet to come.

Oh man oh man oh man, I wanna get me some of that anti-squid armour! You never know when you'll find something like this baby in your bath-tub:

Giant Humboldt squid
See here for the full story and some wonderful photos. One small point though: squid aren't "magnificent mollusks". Oops.

[Update, 18:53pm. Oops is right, only it is my oops. Squid are classified in the phylum Mollusca, which makes them mollusks as well as cephalopods. D'oh!]

Thanks to Pharyngula.

Hezbollah to Syria: pull your head in

Juan Cole is reporting on Hezbollah's snub to Syria:

[...] Hizbullah declined to adopt the position of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in accusing the reformist politicians of standing against Hizbullah and the resistance in Lebanon. (Bashar has a feud with the 14 March group, but Hizbullah joined it in a national unity government.) Husayn al-Hajj Hasan, a Hizbullah member of parliament said, "we reject the idea of considering the 14 March group to be agents of Israel and America."

In an emotional speech in Beirut Thursday morning, shown on LBC, Saad Hariri said that the 33-day long Israeli campaign against Lebanon had inflicted profound damage on the country. He went on to say that it was painful to find a sibling Arab leader adding insult to injury by instigating division and infighting among Lebanese. Hariri was referring to Tuesday's speech by Bashar al-Asad of Syria in which he accused Hariri and other members of his coalition of being agents of foreign powers and urged Hizbullah to stand up to them. Hariri said that Lebanon had seen nothing from Syria but hatred, hypocrisy and lies. He accused Syria of trading for its own advantage on the blood of Arab children at Qana, in Gaza and in Baghdad. He said he sympathized with the suffering masses of Syria who labored under a tyrannical regime that denied them the possibility of free elections. He reminded Damascus that steadfastness in the face of Israeli attacks was a famed Lebanese product, stemming from Lebanese national unity. (Asad had said that the 14 March group was a product of Israel.)

This is a good sign for Lebanon, and further evidence that Hezbollah is becoming a responsible, serious player in the region, not merely a tool of Syria and/or Iran, and is trying hard to avoid a disasterous return to the civil war. Looks like Syria is rapidly becoming irrelevent.

Selling ice to Eskimos

And oil to Iraqis.

A good measure of the incompetent handling of the Iraqi occupation is the news that not only is Iraq suffering from major fuel shortages, but that they are getting worse, not better: Iraq has had to double the amount of money it spends on importing oil and related products.

Created in Squid's Image

Helmut from Phronesisaical discusses the incredible discovery that Mankind was Created in Squid's Image!

There are more fascinating upheavals in science according to PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

Random bag searches

Security consultant Bruce Schneier discusses New York City's random bag searches on subways, and why they are a pointless waste of time. Recently the US Supreme Court ruled that the searches are legal, on the basis of some exceedingly dubious reasoning, and Scheier discusses that too. Especially of interest is one of the reader's comments, which points out that Customs has found its ability to do its job seriously hampered by the ineffective and dubious "anti-terrorism" programmes foisted upon it. It seems quite likely that, at least in more excitable nations such as the USA, the end result of many of these "security" measures will be less, not more, security.

A plan comes together

David Malki of Wondermark has a scoop on the background of the British terrorist plot:

Plan thumbnail

Click image for the full details.

Timeline of lead up to the invasion

Remember the two "kidnapped" Israeli soldiers? Israel swore they would never negotiate for their release. Now that they've backed down and have agreed to negotiate for a prisoner exchange, it is worth revisiting the question of the "kidnapping".

Of course these two soldiers weren't kidnapped from their beds or snatched off the street. They were taken prisoner during a clash between Hezbollah fighters and IDF soldiers back in July. Israel insisted that Hezbollah had crossed the border into Israel -- but not at first. It took a few days before the "Hezbollah started it first" story hit the media. Originally, Israel stated that the soldiers had been captured in Lebanon.

Forbes quoted Israeli officials:

The militant group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers during clashes Wednesday across the border in southern Lebanon, prompting a swift reaction from Israel, which sent ground forces into its neighbor to look for them.

The forces were trying to keep the soldiers' captors from moving them deeper into Lebanon, Israeli government officials said on condition of anonymity.

See also here.

And here which points out that the Israelis had not been able to recover the tank destroyed in the raid (at least as of the time of writing).

It's worth remembering the timeline of events:

  • June (date unknown, but on or before the 13th):
    Israel apparently shells a Gaza beach, injuring at least one family of Palestinians.

  • June 13: Israel launches another airstrike against Gaza, killing eleven.

  • June 24: Israel raids Gaza, kidnapping/capturing two Palestinian civilians, one of whom is a doctor.

  • June 27: Hamas apparently used a tunnel to raid Israel, capturing an Israeli soldier:

    "KIBBUTZ KEREM SHALOM - Israel (CBS/AP) June 25 -- The brazen pre-dawn attack was the first ground assault by Palestinian militants since Israel pulled out of Gaza last summer, and the first abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinians since 1994..."

    If you've been reading media reports here, one would be forgiven for thinking that Israelis soldiers were being kidnapped on a daily basis.

  • June 27: The plot thickens. The Shin Bet claims that the IDF was given detailed warnings of where and when the tunnel raid was going to take place.

    Probe: IDF knew militants planned abduction via tunnel
    Link (apparently no longer on line) here.

  • July 12th: Two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hezbollah. Immediately afterwards, Israel begins launching air strikes against not just the Hezbollah-controlled south, but Beirut and the Christian north, including Lebanese army bases in the north.

  • Also on July 12: IDF Chief Lt. General Dan Halutz threatens to "turn the clock back on Lebanon 20 years", as reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
    Sorry no direct link, but it is referenced here.

After the Israeli invasion had started, SF Gate reveals that the attack on Lebanon has been planned for at least one year and possibly as many as three. Israel's claims of self-defence do not hold water.

Trish Schuh of Counterpunch has also discussed this shifting border crossing. Now that Israeli lawyers are suing the Lebanese government (talk about blaming the victim), the question of who cross the border first will take in greater importance. She quotes a report on the ABC News in Australia, quoting the IDF:

The sources say the Israeli soldiers had been seized at around 9am local time across the border from Aita al Shaab, some 15 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast. The Israeli army confirmed that two Israeli soldiers had been captured on the Lebanese frontier. Israeli ground forces crossed into Lebanon to hunt for the missing soldiers, Israeli Army Radio said.

and the Voice of America, reporting from Jerusalem on July 12:

Speaking to reporters outside the Israeli Foreign Ministry, spokesman Mark Regev says Hezbollah is responsible for the violence. "It appears we have an escalation in the North," he said. "It is very clear that the escalation started on the Lebanese side of the border, and Israel will respond appropriately."

"The escalation started on the Lebanese side of the border". What were Israeli troops doing on the Lebanese side of the border? Picking daisies? Sounds like "He started it by hitting me back" to me.

Although it is getting further away from the immediate cause of the war, it is worth remembering the Israeli provocations towards Hamas and Hezbollah (assassinations, both bungled and successful, bombings, shelling of civilians, etc.). In Down the Memory Hole we have some hard figures which show which group of people is at greater risk of death and injury and who it really is that needs defending:

...between September 2005 and June 2006, 144 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli forces, according to a list compiled by the Israeli human rights group B'tselem; 29 of those killed were children. During the same period, no Israelis were killed as a result of violence from Gaza.

The broader implications of Israel's failure

Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah has consequences which extend beyond the borders of Israel and Lebanon. The Agonist discusses some of the reasons for that failure, and points out that the broader implication is potentially very broad indeed: a sea-change in who counts as a major player. It isn't just nation states any longer:

It should also make people start thinking more seriously about so called non state actors like Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers and the Islamic Courts Union and their similarities and differences from States. Such organization - with the support of a population and fulfilling most of the roles of the government, yet not internationally recognized, are likely to increase in number and efficacy over time - and as we have just seen, even now, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Welcome the new Middle East. It's not your father's Middle East anymore.

Of course, this change has been building for many decades, at least since the Taliban and other non-state groups forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Tamil Tigers have been making their voices heard (sometimes at the point of a gun) for many decades too. But this is the first time that a first-world army has had its eye blackened by a non-state in open combat.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Court bans warrantless spying on Americans

This is huge news: the rule of law hasn't quite disappeared from the USA yet. A Federal Court has ruled that President Bush's not-so-secret warrantless spying on Americans is illegal.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Bush Co. will obey the law, or whether the Reds in Congress will change the law.

MX survey

Last Friday, the free news gossip-paper MX ran the results of a survey on Melbournians sexual attitutes. One highlight was "Lois", 18, from Hallam:

Sex on a first date?
No, I believe in sex after marriage.

How many partners have you had?

Do you expect to get married?
Of course, probably when I'm about 23 or 24.


And then there was the young man "Taylor", 20, of Vermont:

How many partners have you had?
Let's just say I'm not a slut.

He might as well put up a screaming neon sign on his forehead "Virgin!!!".

Facts on the ground

Billmon of The Whiskey Bar has looked at the American claims that Israel won a great victory over terrorism in this war:

Strictly from a humanitarian point of view, it's both grotesque and repulsive to have to listen to Ehud Olmert, Sheikh Nasrallah and the Boy King all proclaiming victory in their nasty little war -- even as the bodies are still literally being pulled out of the rubble.
In other words, Bush managed to make both himself and America look like petty, pathetic losers -- which is certainly true, but hardly needs to be flaunted before the world. Typically, the moron ignored -- or never understood -- the concept of plausible deniability, which is one of the key benefits that proxy wars offer to their superpower patrons. If your guy wins, you take the credit and make sure everybody notices how well your weapons systems performed. If he loses, well, it had nothing to do with you. This at least leaves you with as much diplomatic manuevering room as is possible under the circumstances.

[...] So it looks like all of Bush's canned speechifying is going to be trumped by Hussein Kalash's plain statement of fact.

"We're still here."

Some facts speak for themselves.

Well worth reading.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Taking credit for the cornucopia of foolishness

Now that the ceasefire in Lebanon is (mostly) holding, all the major players are claiming victory. Historian Juan Cole wonders why anyone would want to claim victory in this sordid little Keystone Cops war:

Since the United Nations resolution calling for a halt to hostilities, Prime Minister Olmert, President Bush, Secretary-General Nasrallah, President al-Asad and President Ahmadinejad have all been procliaming [sic] the war a personal victory.

I don't know why they would want to claim it.

It was such a stupid war. It was thick-as-two-blocks-of-wood strategy on all sides. It was moronic for the Israelis to plan it out last year. It was idiotic for Hizbullah to cross over into Israel, kill soldiers, and take two captive. [Ed: there are considerable doubts on this description of events.] It was brain dead for the Israeli officer corps and politicians to think they could get anything positive out of bombing Lebanon back to the stone age and making a million people homeless. It was dim-witted for Hasan Nasrallah to threaten Israelis with releasing poison gases from Haifa chemical plants on them. It was obtuse for the Israelis to confront a dug-in guerrilla movement with green conventional troops marching in straight lines. It was dull of Hizbullah to fire thousands of katyushas into open fields where they mainly damaged wild grass. The few times when the rockets managed to kill someone, it was often an Arab Israeli civilian. Stupid.

Israeli's armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, unwisely sold off $27,000 in stock when he heard that Hizbullah had captured 2 Israeli soldiers. That wasn't unwise economically, since when Israel went to war, its stock market fell 12% It is further proof that the war was planned well in advance, and that Halutz knew that the capture would trigger it. But what could he have saved or made from this transaction? A few thousand dollars? It was stupid for him to risk the public perception of impropriety for such a small sum. Unprofessional.

But this war was a keystone cops war. It was horribly destructive for Lebanon, but not to any purpose for anyone, including the Israelis. The Americans and Israelis seem to have thought that the small farmers and small shopkeepers of south Lebanon were a sinister wraith army of the ghost of Ayatollah Khomeini. In fact, they were . . . small farmers and shopkeepers. One of the reasons they are rushing back down south is to see to their small farms, even if the small farmhouse isn't there any more.

But there you have it. Everyone wants credit for this cornucopia of foolishness.

Bush came out and said that Hizbullah had been defeated, and tried to link Hizbullah to the Sunni Arab guerrillas who make his life hell in Iraq. But, George, Hizbullah is Shiite. It was your Shiite allies in Iraq who supported it.

One event that stood out in my mind from early in the ground invasion was a complaint from an Israeli soldier that the Hezbollah fighters were deliberately wearing military uniforms to confuse them, because that made them look like soldiers. Hey Brainiac, that's what they are: soldiers.

I don't know what the Israeli brass thought, but the rank-and-file seem to have swallowed whole the myth of Hezbollah being untrained terrorists with machine guns. Maybe Israel really did expect to find Hezbollah fighters hiding in civilian clothes in markets and apartment buildings (and maybe the Pope is an atheist...) and was taken completely by surprise to discover Hezbollah troops were well-trained, disciplined light infantry, dug into heavily fortified, well-supplied positions far from the residential areas the Israeli airforce was blowing up.

It has been said, if you fight the weak, you become weak. Israeli soldiers have spent the last decade or two shooting rock-throwing Palestinian children, protecting bulldozers, and blowing up Hamas leaders with guided missiles. Whatever edge they once had has been dulled by their arrogant confidence that the IDF is the toughest, meanest military force in the Middle East and possibly the world. With total air superiority, heavy armour and a numerical superiority, they couldn't beat light infantry and failed to make a single one of their strategic aims. The best they can say after this is that, having picked a fight with the 40lb weakling next door, "we didn't get our butts kicked!"

Morally, ethically, Cole might be right that Hezbollah has nothing to be proud of here. (His assertion that they crossed into Israel and captured two soldiers is doubtful -- more details to follow soon.) Both sides have committed war crimes: Hezbollah by firing unguided rockets into farmland where they could -- and did -- hit civilians, and Israel by its application of collective punishment to the entire Lebanese people, its deliberate destruction of houses, factories, bridges, airports and other civilian infrastructure, and its killing of hundreds of civilians -- at best careless endangerment, at worst deliberate murder. Either way, a war crime.

But, militarily, there was a clear and obvious winner here, and it wasn't Israel. Victory isn't decided by casualties alone, and certainly not by civilian casualites. In the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, the suffering of ordinary Lebanese doesn't matter to either side.

It is bad enough that Olmert is a militaristic vicious thug who invaded a foreign state on the slimmest of pretenses, but he is an incompetent thug who couldn't even pull the job off. Not only has he failed to curb militant Fundamentalist forces in Lebanon, but he has embolded them, weakening the secular Lebanese government, perhaps fatally, undercutting their authority, handing moral authority and the support of virtually all of Lebanon (Christian, Druze, Shiite and Sunni) to Hezbollah.

Olmert may or may not be able to spin this for the domestic market as a great victory. The frightened people of Israel might even prefer Olmert's strutting tough-guy policy of "my way or a fist in the face" towards Hamas and Hezbullah over the alternatives of negotiation, diplomacy and compromise. But there is no doubt that his adventurism has weakened Israel's position in the Middle East and made them less safe and more insecure.

Who won the war?

Now that the fighting has (mostly) stopped in Lebanon, and the ceasefire seems to be holding, we should ask, who won the war?

Well, Israel claim to have invaded Lebanon to force Hezbollah to disarm. Hezbollah aren't disarmed, and managed to fire 250 rockets into Israel in the last day before the ceasefire.

Israel said their aim was to destroy Hezbollah as an effective force. Hezbollah has not fired a single rocket into Israel since the ceasefire, giving unmistakable evidence that they remain under effective command and are not just a bunch of untrained terrorists. They're soldiers who can follow orders. [Update, 18-08-06 11:15am: it seems that the ceasefire hasn't been kept quite so well as I thought. Both sides have claimed provocation and retaliation, including a handful of rockets fired ineffectually into Israel. But still, it is clear that Hezbollah is under effective command.]

Israel said that they were going to occupy southern Lebanon until Hezbollah was no longer a threat. Israel are withdrawing from Lebanon, and Hezbollah are still there, still armed, and still able to fight.

Israeli hardliners hoped to push the Lebanese people out of southern Lebanon, leaving the area depopulated and giving Israel a large buffer zone. Under the mythology of far-right Israel, the Lebanese and Palestinians are not attached to any particular piece of land. (Half a century of conflict over land hasn't taught Israeli wingnuts any different.) As soon as the ceasefire started, Lebonese farmers and shopkeepers began returning to their farms and what little was left of their homes.

Israel said they went to war to rescue the two captured soldiers, and would never negotiate for their return. The soldiers are still prisoners, and Israel have now said they will negotiate.

I have previously suggested that this war between Hezbollah and Israel is like Rocky: no matter what the judges say, the fact that the heavyweight champ Apollo Creed didn't cream the unknown in the first round made Rocky the winner. No matter how badly Rocky was beaten by the champ, he was still standing, bruised but unbowed. But in fact it is worse than that: despite a total lack of air support and heavy armour, Hezbollah was able to inflict significant loses on Israel while suffering surprisingly few loses themselves.

When a first-world army with air support and heavy armour takes on second-world ground troops, you should expect a ratio of 1:10 losses. In this war, the ratio was 1:4 according to Israel and 2:1 according to Hezbollah (as of the time of writing). Of the two, I consider the Israeli figure (barely) more reliable -- I'm assuming the true figure was one Israeli casulty taken for every two inflicted.

As Pat Lang writes:

A basic lesson of history is that one must win on the battlefield to dictate the peace. A proof of winning on the battlefield has always been possession of that battlefield when the shooting stops. Those who remain on the field are just about always believed to have been victorious. Those who leave the field are believed to be the defeated.

It is Israel, not Hezbollah, who is slinking off this battlefield.

British terrorism arrests driven by politics!

In further news, the Pope is Catholic and Keith Richards has been known to use drugs once in a while.

It seems that the arrests of the alleged British terrorists were driven more by politics than any actual threat. Wow. Whoever would have guessed? There were no bombs. The "terrorists" didn't have airline tickets. Most of them didn't even have passports. They were almost certainly a bunch of loud-mouthed goons talking big on Internet chat rooms.

When I was a young man, I used to have long telephone conversations with friends of mine where we would "plan" how to destroy aircraft, build nuclear bombs, seed reservoirs with toxic chemicals, and divert asteroids to crash into Moscow or Washington. Mostly it was an intellectual exercise -- "How can we build a rail-gun out of a PVC pipe, two magnets and an electric drill?" sort of nonsense. Obviously we did none of these things. It probably kept us sane during the insanity of adolescence. I think just about every male of a certain age (4 to 94) fantasises about destruction at times. But under today's political climate, we could be labeled "terrorists", kidnapped by masked soldiers from our beds, and disappeared to Poland or Pakistan to have electric shocks applied to our genitals until we confessed.

Confessed to what? Trust me, once those clamps are placed on your genitals, you'll be amazed at how imaginative you can become.

If we had been angry young men with a grudge, maybe we'd have talked about blowing up the Melbourne Cricket Ground in anger rather than in good humour. ("Batteries! A 9V battery has enough energy to vaporize a car if you could release it all at once!") But talk is cheap: no matter how many times we decided that we could make a fusion bomb out of thorium refined from sand, polystyrene and some dynamite, the honest truth was we had no way of building a H-bomb. And it is looking more and more unlikely that these angry British men could have made these fantasy hair gel bombs, no matter how much they talked about it.

Tens or hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded at airports for days. At least ten thousand pieces of luggage lost. Thousands of iPods, books, pens, mobile phones and other items just thrown away by the airlines, without compensation for the owners (that's theft, right?). A shock to the British economy. Chaos. Fear. And terror.

The terrorists did their job well, spreading terror across not only the UK but across the world. Only the terrorists weren't the British Muslims. They were the British or American politicians who apparently leaned on the police to rush the arrests, the airlines that panicked, and the media who not only accepted the story uncritically but did their best to beat it up into an even bigger story.

See also my earlier posts here and here.

What can anthropology contribute to policy?

Mark Kleinman of The Reality Based Community discusses what anthropologists need to do to be taken seriously by policy makers:

  1. Adopt a scientific perspective. I see no reason why anyone outside the rarefied world of academia should pay any attention to the work of scholars who argue that facts are unknowable, theories are untestable, or framing, perspective, and interpretation are all that count.

  2. Eliminate political agendas from research. Policy makers seek to base their decisions on reliable observations. [Ed: Ha ha ha ha!]

  3. Broaden the scope of the peoples investigated. Anthropology has a remarkable methodological tool kit at its disposable. Why is it that anthropologists feel compelled to focus on the smallest, oddest, or most marginal groups within any given nation-state?

  4. Read, understand, and communicate with scholars in the broader world of behavioral science.

See here for further details.

Pirate Bay

Wired News has an interesting article about the copyright dissenters of Pirate Bay in Sweden:

[Founder Gottfrid Svartholm] chose the name Pirate Bay to make clear what the site was there for: no shame, no subtlety. These people were pirates. They believed the existing copyright regime was a broken artifact of a pre-digital age, the gristle of a rotting business model that poisoned culture and creativity. The Pirate Bay didn't respect intellectual property law, and they'd say it publicly.

[...] the Bay's first defining feature: a gallery of threatening letters sent in by lawyers for movie studios, video-game makers and other rights holders, side-by-side with the crew's mocking replies. For Peter, that's when the Pirate Bay became part of a movement, and Neij is still obviously proud of the effort. "They are rude in a polite way," he says. "We are rude in a rude way back at them."
Against this backdrop, the Pirate Bay crested the world of file sharing through attrition. One by one, most of the peer-to-peer networks went away. (LimeWire, one of the few survivors, was sued by the RIAA last week.) BitTorrent tracker search engines fell next -- sites like and Elite Torrents crumbled under legal threats and raids. The remaining few, including Isohunt and TorrentSpy, now have policies of removing torrents for infringing content upon request. They're being sued anyway.

That leaves the Pirate Bay as the lone civil dissenter. It neither operates in a black market nor lays claim to a loophole of international law. Like its progenitor organization, Piratbyran, the administrators of the Pirate Bay believe the law is wrong.

Proof of the FSM's existence

Can anyone dispute the Flying Spaghetti Monster's existence after this?

FSM Cloud
Click image for larger view; original hi-res image here. Source here.

War on Hair Gel

Details of the "intelligence" that caught the alleged terrorists planning the hair gel bombs is starting to come out. It seems that the information that the terrorists were using hair gel to make their bombs was extracted by torture in Pakistan.

As Cory Doctorow writes:

"Please stop electrocuting my testicles! What? Only if I reveal a -- OWWWWWW -- terrorist plot -- AAAAAAHH? All right -- SCREEEECH! -- the terrorists will be blowing up a plane with, with, oh man, I don't know, hair gel! Yes! Hair gel!"

Direct link to Craig Murray's (former UK ambassador to the Republic of Uzbekistan) analysis here. Quote:

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports [...]

In the absence of bombs and airline tickets, and in many cases passports, it could be pretty difficult to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt that individuals intended to go through with suicide bombings, whatever rash stuff they may have bragged in internet chat rooms.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth.

It is important to remember that this is not the first -- nor will it be the last -- "terrorist plot" uncovered in the UK. Remember the plot to make Ricin? Nothing came of that: one suspect was found guilty of murder for stabbing a policeman. But there was no Ricin. The strongest case the government had (apart from the murder charge) was "conspiracy to make a public nuisance". Some terrorists.

It was a storm in a teacup, but it accomplished it's purpose: keep the public scared so they'll give power to Stalinists like U.K. Home Secretary John Reid. Over one thousand British Muslims have been arrested under anti-terrorist legislation. Just twelve percent are ever charged with any crime. Eighty percent of those are aquitted. Out of the thousand people arrested, just two percent -- twenty -- have actually been found guilty, and not a single one of those has been for terrorism-related crimes.

Heathrow chaos

Boing Boing have a couple of posts detailing the sheer incompetence and idiocy of the airlines in the UK following the latest terrorism threat.

They link to a blog by "Tango" describing his three days of misery stuck at Heathrow. Lowlights include his flight being cancelled, then being flow empty to its scheduled destination, where it picked up passengers and continued on its way; airlines unable to re-book passengers' tickets at the ticket counter unless they phoned; two to three hour waits for each security check, with most people going through three or more checks; and bags and bags of people's personal property been thrown away by the airlines, including mobile phones, iPods, cameras, books, even jewellery.

("Look, it's a book! Pages made of paper! Here, I'll flip through it, you can even check it yourself!"

"Could be a bomb disguised as a book. With exploding ink.")

But at least people are safer, right?

No. At the height of the security alert, a twelve year old boy managed to get a seat on a plane without going through security, or even having a ticket. The economy disrupted by tens of millions of dollars, at least ten thousand pieces of lost luggage, and actual security was improved not one whit.

Boing Boing also discusses the likelihood of the alleged terrorist bombs working. At least the airports are keeping us safe from twelve years of research about Shakespeare being smuggled onto our planes.

AOL digging for gold

You couldn't make this stuff up... AOL has got a court order allowing them to dig up a spammer's parents' yard looking for gold and platinum bars.

AOL believe, and have convinced a judge, that the spammer has converted his ill-gained fortune into bullion, which he then buried at his parents' farm.

Google says no more googling

I like Google™. I am critical of their actions sometimes, but in general they are one of the less evil of the big corporations. But sometimes they need to learn the lesson of King Canute: you can't keep the tide from coming in.

Google Inc. has been sending nastygrams to media organisations, warning them to stop using google as a verb.

Sorry guys, but the tide has come in. Google is now listed in at least three dictionaries, two in English and one in Japanese. In two of those, "google" is listed as a verb. Google Inc., like so many before them (elevator, escalator, zipper...) is a victim of their own success: google has become a generic term for "search the Internet". Of course, Google Inc. has to try to defend their trademark, and no doubt there is a difference between Google™ the noun and google the verb. But for a company whose corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil", Google Inc. need to actually, um, stop being evil. If Hormel Foods Corporation can distinguish between Spam™ the tasty food-like product and spam the evil unsolicited email, Google Inc. can stop trying to stop the tide from coming in too.

Oh, and guys... your website is full of dozens of references to "Google" with nary an trademark ™ or registered trademark ® symbol to be seen. There's a ™ on the Google logo, and that's about it. Sloppy, real sloppy. That's the sort of thing that will convince a judge that you aren't really serious about your trademarks.

At least Google Inc. can take cold comfort in the fact that though competitors will (soon) be able to talk about "googling the Web for something using Acme.Search.Com" the owner of will have a huge advantage over their competitors.

All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. But google as a verb is generic, sorry guys. Get over it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Apple versus the whiners

Nat from O'Reilly discusses the complaints from Mac users that Apple has added software to OS X that duplicates the functionality of third party applications.

Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be the third party developers who are ragging on Apple for doing this -- even if they stand to lose money. It's just business, and software development never stays still. Your application can be the greatest Must Have one day, and a pointless waste of time the next.

It should be obvious that features don't ensure survival for very long. Business isn't a single hand of poker, it's an endless deck. If you make something clever, I can copy it. If I can copy it, what's your advantage? It's in being first in to build name, it's in customer service, it's in marketing, it's in customer allegiance or lock-in, it's in the overall strength of your product. And, most critically, it's in the lead that you have built. While I'm copying your feature, you should be building the next one. A brilliant Perl friend of mine, Jarkko Hietaniemi, has as his .sig a quote from Jack Cohen: "There is this special biologist word we use for 'stable'. It is 'dead'." This could just as equally apply to the software business.

Another record for Microsoft

PC Pro is reporting that the number of security vulnerabilities patched by Microsoft have broken their previous record.

The number of critical flaws in Microsoft software has hit a record high, offering a prime opportunity for hackers to exploit the backlog of unprotected vulnerabilities, according to security experts.

So far this year, the software giant has already addressed more critical vulnerabilities than in 2004 and 2005 combined, according to security specialist McAfee.

In further news, Paul Thurrott, writing for Windows IT Pro, describes Internet Explorer 7 as "a cancer" and recommends that both developers and end-users avoid it:

My advice is simple: Boycott IE. It's a cancer on the Web that must be stopped. IE isn't secure and isn't standards-compliant, which makes it unworkable both for end users and Web content creators.

How things have changed. It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't find a more pro-Microsoft journalist than Paul Thurrott.

Pictures that lie is running a pictorial report on photo manipulation. The old cliche "the camera never lies" is not true any more, and possibly never was.

There is also an interesting article about software that is being developed which can detect photo-manipulated images by looking for discrepencies in lighting and statistical anomalies at the pixel level.

Photo manipulation is (potentially) big business: as Gartner analyst L. Frank Kenney points out, the potential commercial and political gains from faked photos are huge:

"How much is the presidency of a country worth, or control of a company? People tend not to read the retractions," he said. "Once the stuff is indelibly embedded in your memory, it is tough to get out."

It is interesting to see the difference in photo manipulation strategies during recent American elections. For example, there were no shortage of photoshopped pictures of President Bush carrying "Presidenting For Dummies" or pretending to read books upside down: silly and obvious fakes. On the other hand, somebody faked a photo of John Kerry together with hated anti-Vietnam war protestor "Hanoi Jane" Fonda. Nobody really thinks George W. Bush can't tell when a book is upside down -- that's satire. But a photo of presidential candidate Kerry apparently sharing a podium with the woman who millions of Americans still consider a traitor... that goes beyond satire into outright dishonesty. If you can't find mud to sling, fake some.

I must admit I was rather disappointed with the manipulated images chosen by Too many of them were obvious fakes (which is not the same as being bad fakes) and the political implications were merely implied rather than discussed.

If you want to see highly imaginative and excellent quality photoshopped images, you could do far worse than to visit and check out the contests. The possibilities are shown by entries like Paris Hilton's newest pet:

Paris and Zebra
or Bishop Hugh Hefner:

Bishop Hugh Hefner

[Click on images for full view]

Friday, August 11, 2006

An epidemic of isolated events

Mark Kleiman from The Reality-Based Community links to a study from the right-wing Cato Institute (no tree-hugging touchy-feely lefties there!) about the paramilitary and SWAT aspects of drug-law enforcement. In particular the euphemistic "dynamic entry" and "no-knock" (that is, smash the door down and burst in with guns drawn) raids on people's homes. In 2001, there were forty thousand paramilitary raids across the USA, mainly on drug raids, but also for everything down to domestic disputes and complaints about noisy dogs. The Cato study shows that in a depressingly large number of cases the raids are based on incorrect information and innocent people are terrorised, threatened, shot and even killed by the police who are supposed to protect them.

And not just poor blacks either: incredibly, one major target of paramilitary policing is doctors who are suspected of prescribing "too many" painkillers. Heaven forbid that people should have relief from chronic pain. (Who should decide how many painkillers are "too many" -- the doctor who knows his patients, or some faceless bureacrat in the DEA? Why, the guy with the heavily armed paramilitary SWAT team of course.)

The detailed study, with more than thirty-five pages of case studies and fifteen pages of references, can be downloaded for free here, or a hard copy purchased from here.

There is a dynamic map available on-line [note: requires Javascript] which clearly shows what the author of the study calls "an epidemic of 'isolated incidents'". In most cases, no-one on the law enforcement side was held accountable for their actions, and there is no effort to learn from these 'isolated incidents'.

Not only are police almost never disciplined or held accountable for shooting innocent people, but homeowners who have shot police thinking they were home intruders have been treated with the full fury of the law, up to and including the death penalty. Despite having their houses broken into at 3am, often with no warning at all, and being woken from deep sleep by masked gunmen, homeowners are expected to have superhuman levels of composure and good judgement. Meanwhile, the SWAT teams themselves are encouraged to have a culture of macho, swaggering cruelty: in one botched raid on an innocent household, police accidently set fire to the house, then in front of the owner, Andrea Baker, chased her dog back into the burning house with fire extinguishers. The dog was burnt to death, and the house burnt to the ground, putting neighbouring houses at risk. And the result? One person was arrested for outstanding traffic fines. Another day at work by America's Finest, keeping the streets safe.

One of the clear motives of these paramilitary raids is outright theft by city governments under forfeiture laws: under American law, if you are raided by the police under suspicion of drug crimes, your money and property can be seized by the government, even if you are never convicted of any crime. The money stolen in this way is not insignificant: in just one small American town, El Monte in California, the police force gained $4.5 million in ten years from forfeited property. Not small change however you look at it, and a huge incentive for chronically underfunded police forces with expensive SWAT forces to support. Why raise taxes when you can just steal the money you need? Everybody hates tax increases, but only criminals poor blacks white trash the working class white collar families the living need fear the police.

Wikipedia and science

It never ceases to amaze me how people just don't get Wikipedia. Not just any old people, but those who you would expect to grok the concept often have the most difficulty with it.

Case in point: economist Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics has written a blog post entitled "More Welcome Ridicule For Wikipedia". A tad hostile, don't you think?

First he damns it with faint praise:

Wikipedia is generally fun, sometimes useful, often entertaining. What it isn’t is very dependable, for the very reason that makes it fun: it is an encyclopedia whose content is generated by random contributors.

Then he links to a "a better job of ridiculing Wikipedia than we could ever dream."

Hardly the first time Dubner has attacked Wikipedia. What's prompted this new attack?

Comedian Stephen Colbert ran amuck on American television, attacking and defacing Wikipedia entries. Hardy har har.

Of course, neither Dubner nor Colbert mention that the system worked: Colbert's vandalism was detected rapidly and reversed.

I'm forced to wonder what it is about Wikipedia that's eating Dubner. The Wikipedia system has striking similarities to the way free markets work. Anyone can go into business as a supplier of information in Wikipedia, just as anyone can go into business as a supplier of goods and services in a free market. In both, these suppliers vary greatly in quality; in both, there is no centralised "expert" who decides what is good and what is bad; in both, there are problems with cheats and vandals. One shouldn't discount the free market and institute central planning because of problems with, say, polluters. One creates systems that control or limit the problems. Free markets have laws which punish polluters, or "sin taxes" which make polluting industries pay for their anti-social activities. Wikipedia has revision control.

As an economist, no doubt Dubner could talk for hours about the emergent properties of free markets, and how the "random contributors" to the market create dependable supply and demand of goods and services without any central planner "expert" who decides what suppliers should supply or where investors should put their money. So why is he so resistant to the idea that "random contributors" to Wikipedia can lead to emergent properties of reliability, accuracy and accountability?

Had Stephen Colbert run a coffee shop and, for a lark, started putting powerful laxatives in the food and drink he served to customers, would Dubner claim this was "welcome ridicule for capitalism"? No of course not -- he'd surely point out that market economies don't collapse because of the actions of a few malicious or stupid sellers, and that buyers would rapidly learn that Colbert was providing tainted goods and they'd avoid his store, sending him broke. The free market's feedback loops are slow: likely it would take weeks or months before Colbert's dodgy store was shut down. Compare that to the Wikipedia system, which locked the vandalised articles within twenty minutes. (Of course, not all vandalism is detected that quickly. The higher the profile of the article, the more likely vandalism will be detected quickly; but the lower the profile, the less likely anyone will bother vandalising it.)

But there is another similarity to Wikipedia's open content that is even stronger than the free market. That is science. Like Wikipedia, science operates by consensus and peer review. There are experts in science, but it your peers' respect that proclaims you "expert", not merely your paper qualifications -- there are many Ph.D.s but they are not all held in the same regard, and some of the greatest scientists never held formal qualifications. Likewise, not all Wikipedia editors are equal. There is no central committee that decides scientific truth, instead there is an open market in ideas, just like in Wikipedia.

Science is transparent: much of the scientific consensus emerges from public debates in journals which are open for anyone to subscribe to. But while science also includes private debates behind the closed doors of offices and laboratories, Wikipedia is completely open: virtually everything is debated in public, with the debates recorded in the Talk pages and the editing history of the articles recorded for anyone to see. Wikipedia is even more transparent than science. For those who wish to take the time to dig under the surface, Wikipedia gives the reader the means to judge the reliability of every sentence.

You can't say the same thing about Encyclopædia Britannica. You're reduced to a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the articles: you either trust everything in the encyclopædia, or you trust nothing. You either trust Britannica's status as an expert source, or you don't. You can't easily determine whether this particular editor or that writer has an axe to grind, you simply have to trust that they don't. (Britannica has a good reputation for a reason, so that trust is probably not misplaced -- but you're still taking them on trust.)

Like science, Wikipedia emphasises how do you know rather than who are you -- and I suspect that's what is eating Dubner. The old authoritarian impulse at work perhaps? "Obey my authori-tay!" Both science and Wikipedia demand references, and reliable ones at that, and give no credence to people based only on "qualifications". Both operate through peer review rather than executive fiat. That's hard for some people to deal with, even some scientists.

There's a further similarity between Wikipedia and science that is amusing. In the early days of the Royal Society, there were many amateurs -- actually they were all amateurs -- and meetings often became extremely heated as people passionately argued at each other for their own unsupported ideas. Sounds just like Wikipedia during "edit wars". Nevertheless, from this unpromising start, the scientific demand for evidence rather than "expert authority" won out. In fact, a close look at the history of science shows that periods of reliance on authority have resulted in a reduction in reliability and accuracy, and for much the same reason as centralised planning usually leads to inefficient allocation of resources.

Free markets work because of, not in spite of, lots of ordinary business people. Science works because of, not in spite of, lots of ordinary scientists who aren't neccesarily leading experts in their fields. And likewise, Wikipedia doesn't depend on experts, although experts are always welcome for the depth of their knowledge and their understanding of the need for evidence and references. Wikipedia doesn't need experts because of who they are, but because of what they know. Anybody who knows what an expert knows, even if it is only a tiny little bit of what an expert knows, can contribute and help the incremental emergence of knowledge.