Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How To Switch To Windows

Over the last four or five years, there has been a virtual flood of journalists, familiar with Windows and little else, who have tried to migrate to Linux. Generally they fumble ham-fistedly with the system for a few hours or days, then self-importantly declare that Linux isn't ready for the desktop.

Long-time Linux user Matthias Endler decided to go the other way. As a Linux user, how easy is it to migrate to Windows?

I’ve heard of a new Operating System called Microsoft Windows the other day and wanted to give it a try because it is said to be easy to use and intuitive. Unfortunately the author offers no live-cd to test everything before I have to install. Instead of downloading it from the Internet as I always do I had to go to the computer store and buy it for a price of €150. There is also a so called "Professional Edition" but it would cost even more. [...]

[...] The Internet Explorer doesn’t have a popup filter and seems to attract ads and after fifteen minutes my taskbar looked like a battlefield full of spam. I had to close every window manually. My former Browser Firefox had tab-functionality included but IE seems to have own browsing rules and standards. But that was just the beginning: When I wanted to chat with my friends I found out that Windows Messenger doesn’t support ICQ, AIM, TOM and Jabber. I was forced to create a so called MSN-Account to continue but I refused.

(Sometimes the author's language is a little clumsy, but I believe English is not his native tongue, so a little understanding is in order.)

Beyond the satire, there are a couple of serious points: complaints that some system or another is not easy to use often merely means it is different from what the complainer is used to. Ease of use often also focuses on making simple things easy to do, at the expense of making complicated things impossible (or at least very difficult): a hammer is easy to use, but if you are used to having access to a complete tool box, having to use nothing but a hammer makes things harder to do, not easier.

Vancouver's drug policy

Salon reports on Vancouver's harm-minimization program for drug users. Three years ago, infectious disease was rampant amoung Vancouver's addicts, with diseases like hepatitis and AIDS at risk to spread to the wider population. The streets were littered with discarded needles and trash, and sometimes corpses: an average of three people died in the streets from overdoses every week.

But since Vancouver started the Insite legal injecting room program, things have turned around radically. The streets are cleaner, disease is under control, people are no longer dying, drug use in the streets is reduced and the number of addicts seeking help and entering rehabilitation programs has increased.

A banker by trade, Allen was helping run a community campaign to secure Insite's future. "Just seeing the renewed optimism of the neighborhood has been amazing," he told me. "It's been a dramatic change over the last three years. I remember a person dying almost every day out here. One of your neighbors was always in mourning."


Rising support for the policy north of the border agitated Washington. Shortly after Insite gained Canadian federal approval, President Bush's drug czar, John P. Walters, slammed the program as immoral. "There are no safe injection sites," he declared, calling Vancouver's policy "a lie" and "state-sponsored personal suicide."

Since Insite opened, there has not been a single death inside or connected to the facility among the more than 7,200 individuals who have used it -- including at least 453 people who have overdosed.

Unlike American conservatives, who often act as if it is their personal mission from God to see to it that as many people die from drug abuse as possible, many of the initially skeptical Canadian conservatives have been won over by the success of the programme. Even the police like it, as it helps keep the streets safe and frees them from harrassing two-bit junkies, giving them more time to go after the major dealers.

"I guess you see what you see," [the officer] said. I mentioned how different the area appeared to be since my prior visit, which elicited a sliver of a polite smile. "It's a lot better out here now," he said.

"I think the police often feel like they're shoveling water in terms of street-level dealers," said West, the Insite coordinator. He suggested the police were more interested in focusing on bigger drug traffickers operating in the city. In the neighborhood around Main and Hastings, more critical to the police department's role in the harm-reduction strategy is maintaining public order and safety. "They're really quite supportive of the site," West added. "They know it's another tool that helps them do their job."

"If somebody's dealing drugs right in front of an officer, I can assure you they'd be dealt with," said Constable Howard Chow, speaking by phone from the public affairs office of the Vancouver P.D. He noted that the squad assigned to the Downtown Eastside, one of the city's most volatile sectors, regularly conducts surveillance and sweeps to bust dealers. But he acknowledged there were priorities. "Is simple possession as harshly looked upon as trafficking, for example? No. Those officers are often inundated with calls down there. We use the resources where they're most needed." He added, "We support the site in terms of the medical research, and helping see that through for its potential benefits. We don't comment on the right or wrong of it -- that's not up to us."

Nor has the programme lead to an increase in robberies and other crimes, as conservatives initially feared. Instead, many property crimes decreased.

Another major plus is the savings to the healthcare system. Preventing just twelve addicts from contracting AIDS will pay for the programme's operating expenses for a year.

Despite all the scientific evidence that safe injecting rooms reduce the harm of drug abuse, people still worry about "the message" it sends.

There are other, less tangible considerations that can stand in the way of opening a safe injection site. "Plenty of people are going to feel like it sends the wrong message about a neighborhood," said Mark Kleiman, a former policy director in the U.S. Department of Justice who now heads the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA. "Would you want one of these next door to you?"

Still, Kleiman says the potential benefits are undeniable. "Nobody's going to start using heroin because you've opened a safe injection site. Assuming you can keep crime in control, I don't see much downside," he said. "But there is a big upside in terms of public health and public order -- I'm not surprised this has worked well in Vancouver. So is it a good idea for us to try this? Certainly."


The Bush administration has often spoken of a "compassionate conservative" approach to social crises, but has emphasized only so-called faith-based and abstinence programs. Might they look at the results in Vancouver and consider exemption from federal drug laws for city governments under siege from drug-related disease and urban blight?

"Don't be ridiculous," Kleiman said flatly. "They're completely unserious about drug policy. It's an issue that's all about liberal-bashing to them, and playing to their base. I haven't seen them do anything counter to their own prejudices just because the science says they should."

Despite multiple calls seeking comment on Insite's results and legal status, Walters and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy did not provide any response.

Community leader George Chow, now a city councilor, initially opposed the programme, running as an independent on a campaign of opposition to the injecting site.

Three years later, Chow has changed his mind:

"It was a fear of the unknown -- people were afraid such a facility would bring in more chaos," Chow said, speaking by phone from his office at City Hall. "After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless. Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues."

Chow spoke with measured but unambiguous praise of the program. Insite has had a huge impact on the neighborhood, he said, though it certainly hasn't solved all its problems. "There is no easy solution," he said. "I think a lot of people still look at this as a moral issue, and it's challenging -- but as a councilor, I believe we have to do all we can to deal with these health and social issues. This is most important, to work toward practical solutions."

And what of other drug hubs such as Toronto and Montreal? "I would advocate for a national plan, with more facilities like this in other cities," Chow said. "Not just an injection site, but also including treatment and education programs. This, of course, requires more money and resources."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Windows XP -- if we only knew then

The Washington Post discusses Windows XP's upcoming fifth anniversary, and notes that if Microsoft knew back in 2001 what it now knows, it would (should have?) delayed the release of XP to fix a lot of major problems.

This operating system has needed a steady diet of patches to stay close to healthy. On a machine with a September 2001-vintage copy of Windows XP Home Edition, installing every bug-fix released as of August ballooned its Windows directory from 987 megabytes to 2.43 gigabytes.

You can think of Windows XP as a house with a second floor built of spackle, wood filler and duct tape.

And even with all those updates, the operating system has met only a few of its goals while falling short of others in a catastrophic manner. And it's done so for reasons that can't all be blamed on XP's design or Microsoft's own actions. That, in turn, means that its long-delayed replacement, Windows Vista -- now due to ship in January -- may run into the same problems.


Software that looks ugly can work ugly, and XP has been too forgiving of that as well. The operating system has done little to ensure that programs move in and move out in an orderly manner; they can throw supporting files and data all over the hard drive, then leave the junk behind when software is uninstalled. As a result, something that should have been fixed in Win 95 -- the way Windows slowly chokes on the leftovers of old programs -- remains a problem.

Microsoft also did nothing to make the system registry -- the collection of settings that constitutes a single, system-wide point of failure -- less of a nightmare. It should have slain that dragon five years ago, instead of waiting to move away from it in Vista.

Microsoft did get one aspect of system maintenance right in XP -- software updates -- although it needed to ship a major system patch first. With the changes that Service Pack 2 brought in August 2004, you don't have to touch a single setting to have Windows get the latest fixes for you.

But Microsoft has had trouble getting users to trust its automatic updates. Some of the suspicion can be understood (remember how Microsoft installed its "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications" anti-piracy software through this mechanism), but it becomes self-defeating when people keep copies of XP in a less-secure state because they think somebody in Redmond is out to get them.


The root problem is XP's inability to police the conduct of any program. Its default "administrator" setup grants the user and every application the run of the entire system.

That's why each new Windows-transmitted disease -- such as invasive spyware like Aurora or -- is so hard to eradicate. The only guaranteed cure for such infections is to reformat the hard drive and reinstall everything from scratch.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hoodwinked Americans

Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon, asks why it is that 31% of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks, even after President Bush has publically admitted that he had absolutely no connection at all with the attacks?

"Because they're stupid" is too pat an answer. Yes, many of them are just dumb, but even dumb people can follow the bouncing ball. The President has admitted that Saddam wasn't involved, why won't people listen?

(Not that he would admit making a mistake -- no, the story now is that nobody ever suggested Saddam was involved, no sir-e, Bush has no idea where people got that ridiculous idea. Maybe the terrorists suggested it.)

Still, even if almost one third of Americans believe this falsehood, things are much improved compared to September 2003 when 69% of the country was convinced that Saddam was behind the attacks.

What does it say about the potency of the Bush administration's propaganda abilities that this myth was believed by so many Americans in the first place, and that it still endures quite vibrantly? And is there any more potent evidence of the profound failure of the American media to fulfill its central function of informing the citizenry and exposing government falsehoods than the fact that America went to war while most of the country believed this fiction, and that almost one-third of Americans continue to believe it? Regardless of one's ideological orientation, shouldn't it be considered highly disturbing -- to put it mildly -- that such a large percentage of the electorate believes in rank fiction with regard to such critical matters?

The Bush administration can't take all the credit, or blame, for the endurance of this lie. There are deeper things at work. After all, it was just a few months ago that a poll showed that 30% of Americans couldn't remember what year the 9/11 attacks happened.

That's right. Just shy of five years after September 11 (the defining moment of the last half decade, the day "everything changed") and almost one third of Americans didn't know what year it happened. (It is too much to hope that it was the same one third that believe Saddam was the mastermind behind the attacks.)

6% gave an earlier year, 8% gave a later year, and 16% admitted that they had no idea whatsoever. An additional 5% couldn't even name the date and month correctly.

The real reason for the Iraq invasion

Raising McDonalds

GPL wins another court battle

So much for all those people who insist that the GPL has never been validated in court. The GPL has just been upheld again, in Frankfurt, where D-Link got slapped for breaking copyright law by failing to live up to the GPL.

On September 6, 2006 the district court issued its judgement, confirming the claims by, specifically its rights on the subject-matter source code, the violation of the GNU GPL by D-Link, the validity of the GPL under German law, and D-Links obligation to reimburse for legal expenses, test purchase and cost of re-engineering.

More details here.

Batteries, airlines and security

Pilot Patrick Smith, writing for Salon, points out that the airline security rules for batteries and laptop computers make good sense, and asks why so many of the other airline security rules make so little sense.

Smith points out that laptop batteries are a serious fire risk for airplanes. This isn't a hypothetical risk: pilots fear onboard fire more than almost any other accident, and planes have crashed from fires. Batteries used by Dell and Apple laptops have recently been catching fire -- a frightening nuisance on the ground, a deadly danger at 10,000ft. Consequently, when airlines banned or put restrictions on laptop batteries, the restrictions are based on real risks.

The same can't be said for other security measures used by the airports. Chicken Little rules airport security there, creating ineffectual, pointless and invasive "security" acts to pretend to defend against pretend dangers. With all the sound and fury, it is frightening just how ineffective it all is: despite all the baggage checks, despite sniffer dogs and strip searches and all the rest, one month ago yesterday a 21 year old student flew home to the USA from Argentina with a souvenier stick of dynamite in his baggage. (What was he thinking? Oh wait -- male, 21, student -- he wasn't.) The dynamite wasn't discovered until after the plane landed in Houston.

In response, security at Argentinian airports was tightened. Have they increased the number of sniffer dogs checking baggage? There is no evidence they have. Instead, once again small safety scissors are being seized from people's carry-on luggage, even though the American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allows scissors with rounded tips.

Smith notes:

Because a person smuggled dynamite inside a checked suitcase, we're going to take kiddie scissors and tiny cans of shaving cream from your carry-ons. That sounds suspiciously like TSA thinking, so I have to wonder who, exactly, has ordered up this rigmarole? Was it Argentina's call, or have America's homeland security wizards asked foreign airports to enhance their inspections? (Later, when I try to find out, nobody in Washington or Buenos Aires returns my calls or e-mails.)

Smith points out the sheer craziness of the ban on liquids:

Before heading over to be frisked and wanded, I notice the man has taken my shaving cream and placed it on the floor with a small pile of similar contraband. You'll see this same thing at airports in America: heaps of shampoo, toothpaste, soap, bottled water, cups of coffee, jumbled into bins to await disposal. Logic would dictate this material needs to be carefully removed and destroyed. After all, it's potentially hazardous. If you're taking somebody's shaving cream, the presumption has to be that perhaps it's not shaving cream after all, but instead something dangerous. Otherwise, why is it prohibited? And some of those liquid bombs we've been hearing so much about are concocted from highly unstable chemicals, meaning they need to be handled very carefully.

So what happens to this stuff? Does the bomb squad come in every evening and cart it away in steel casks? Don't be ridiculous. It's hurled into the trash. The line of reasoning goes like this: We already know these items are harmless, but we're going to take them anyway. Later, after you leave, we will dump them down the drain.

Are you feeling safer?

Millions of sheeple across the US are, completely oblivious to that every growing pile of supposedly deadly liquid explosive right next to the line they are standing in. What's important is that the TSA does something: confiscate scissors that couldn't cut paper, seize cups of coffee, or stick their finger in their ear and cry "Wibble wibble wibble!", it is all the same to the half-wits who can't distinguish between doing something and doing something right.

In another column, Smith pointed out yet another example of stupid security theatre:

For instance, TSA's new carry-on rules aren't just stupid, they are so stupid that it's hard to believe the agency hasn't yet been called to the carpet. As I learned a week ago traveling to San Francisco, not only is it forbidden to bring a beverage through the security checkpoint, it is forbidden to bring a beverage that has been purchased in the secure zone onto a plane. The lack of logic is absolutely maddening: If somehow saboteurs were able to get a workable liquid explosive into the gate-side Burger King, and from there into the hands of a passenger accomplice, could they not do the same with other forms of explosives -- or for that matter with knives, guns, pipe bombs and bags of anthrax? Airlines have begun making public address announcements encouraging passengers to finish their drinks in time for boarding. The sight of businessmen, clustered at the mouth of the boarding bridge, gulping down coffee at final call was equally amusing and pathetic.

Just how invasive, expensive and pointless will this faux security have to get before the American public and airlines will grow some backbone and follow the lead of British and European airlines?

Me, I'm betting nothing less than compulsory strip searches and straightjackets for all passengers will do the trick.

The people you see in the big city

First, there was the young lady, 20-ish, with an obviously fake blonde dreadlock wig that looked all the world like an alien facehugger on her head.

Then there was the 30-something woman dressed in clothes that looked like a paedophile's wet dream. If she had been 17, she might just have got away with wearing them.

And then there were the two oh-so-daring goths, he with his oh-so-radical inverted cross around his neck, her with her nihlistic tee-shirt reading "Death is our future".

And last but certainly not least was the power-suited business man, looking like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump on his way to a hostile takeover of an orphanage, walking a miniature poodle.

I saw all these people in the space of less than a city block.

Iraq for Sale

At a time when America is sending its sons and daughters to fight for freedom, nothing is more important than their ability to do the job right. Right?

Not in Iraq, where America's Czar George II has presided over levels of treasonous corruption at levels not seen since the Russians fought the Crimean War.

From charging the US military $100 to ineptly wash a bag of laundry (and getting officers to reprimand soldiers who do their own laundry in the sink) to overseeing interrogation at Abu Ghraib, these military contractors are wasteful, undertrained, and grotesquely expensive. Greenwald's film features footage of bonfires built to destroy improperly ordered vehicles, computers and other equipment that the contractors purchased at taxpayer expense -- since these contractors are compensated on a "cost-plus" basis, they get paid more for wasting money than saving it.

Another are where they scrimp is on the safety and training of their own personnel. They hire inept translators who give bad intelligence to the military. They send their front-line workers -- such as truckers recruited from the US -- into battle-zones without military escorts or armor. Meanwhile, the "savings" realized by putting untrained people in charge of interrogation at Abu Ghraib (Greenwald shows a single-page "interrogation manual" that consists of little cartoons with a short sentence under each) are not used to provide better equipment for US soldiers -- they sleep in infectious tents, drink untreated toxic water, and eat improperly prepared food, thanks to the likes of Halliburton, whose stock doubles and redoubles every year the Iraq war goes on.

I'm just waiting for the day that the first grunt "frags" a Halliburton company rep by rolling a grenade into his tent hotel room.

Best sellers

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula is chortling over the UK best sellers on Amazon: Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion at #1, Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith at #2, and something called The World of Karl Pilkington at #3.

I'm fascinated to see that six days before the offical release date of Wintersmith, it has already hit #2 on A little birdie who got her hands on a pre-release copy tells me it is perhaps the best of the Tiffany Aching books yet. To borrow a pun from an TV adaptation of an earlier Discworld novel, you might say this novel is bigger than cheeses.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Emergency contraception and the war on women

As part of the American Taliban's war on women, it is getting harder and harder to get contraceptives of all sorts. But access to emergency contraceptives is especially hard to get, as Ohio resident Biting Beaver found:

"But see, the problem is that we have 4 doctors here right now but only one of them ever writes EC prescriptions. But see, the thing is that he'll interview you and see if you meet his criteria. Now, I called the pharmacy but I also talked to him and well....*clears throat* can come down and try to get it. You know, if you meet his criteria he'll give you a prescription, I mean, there's really no harm in trying." [...]

[...] "You know, you'll just have to have an interview with him and he'll see if you meet his criteria. He'll only be on duty until 2pm today though and you should ask for him if you decide to come down because he's really your only chance."

I sigh and thank him before hanging up. I know exactly what he was telling me. If I wasn't raped and wasn't married then too damn bad for me.

[...] I called every hospital in every surrounding county and none of them would prescribe me EC. Not even ONE. [...]

I found that the more hospitals and clinics and doctors I called the more ashamed I became. Yep, you heard right. I was feeling ashamed at being such an unworthy dirty whore. Well, at least in the eyes of all these hospitals and doctors and clinics. I cried, then I sweated, then I cried some more, then I called some more.


I have been asked about my sexual practices. Whether I'm 'monogamous' or 'in a relationship' if I'm married, if I have kids, how many kids I have, if I was raped or 'traumatized' but there wasn't ONE question about my health. Not one.

Thanks to BoingBoing.

That isn't to say that it is only male doctors and phamacists who are trying to roll the clock back to before safe, effective contraceptives were available. There is no shortage of self-hating women who think that sex is a sin that needs to be punished too. It was Biting Beaver's regular doctor, a woman, who refused to write her a prescription.

I've written about a similar story before.

This clearly demonstrates a particular mode of failure that free markets are subject to. It isn't common, and tends to happen only with so-called "morality" issues, but it can happen -- especially if people who hold a certain immoral viewpoint deliberately take jobs in the medical industry so they can force their immoral vision of pregnancy as punishment onto the rest of us. It needs no grand conspiracy, just a lot of like-minded people who are "trying to make a difference".

And unlike (say) vegans becoming butchers so they can preach to the meat-eaters, it isn't economically self-correcting. A butcher who doesn't sell meat for moral reasons will go broke and be replaced by a butcher who will sell meat; a chemist who refuses to sell contraceptives has a thousand other products to live off, the loss of a few products is only a small cost.

Incredibly, twenty-four percent of Ohio hospitals won't provide emergency contraceptives even to rape victims.

There was one small ray of sunshine in this lousy story: one of the blog readers wrote:

Everytime I hear a story like yours, it reaffirms my committment to see school through. I would be proud to be a pharmacist that women knew they could come to for help.

The more we shine light on the monsters, the more we encourage people to reject their toxic memes.

Windows Media Player DRM worse than ever

The Inquirer has an article about the new restrictions added to Windows Media Player.

Your DRMed music is tied to a single PC, so you can't move it. You can no longer backup your licences to another machine, and if your PC dies, or if you simply replace it, say goodbye to your music.

One thing which is interesting is a quote from Microsoft:

"If the file is a song you ripped from a CD with the Copy protect music option turned on, you might be able to restore your usage rights by playing the file. You will be prompted to connect to a Microsoft Web page that explains how to restore your rights a limited number of times."

Microsoft's Media Player will, by their own admission, take away your rights to use your own property. Can't get any clearer than that.

I'm surprised that Microsoft would admit this in such explicit, clear language. What's going on? A tiny little act of rebellion from a Microserf who hates what he's doing?

It also implies that Microsoft tracks who is playing what files. You have to ask Microsoft permission to play songs from your own CDs.

This is why people prefer to download mp3s of random quality from the Internet, even when they have access to legal content, even free legal content: because so many legal sources of music come with copy protection, digital restrictions, access control, and other methods of taking away people's control over their own computers.

Nothing up her sleeve

This is definitely not safe for work.

Magician Ursula Martinez has a twist on the old disappearing hanky trick. She makes the hanky disappear from her hand and reapper in her jacket, so she takes the jacket off. Then the hanky disappears again, reappearing in her skirt, so off comes the skirt. And so on, until there is nowhere else for the hanky to hide, thus combining magic with another of my favourite things.

Well, no clothing for the hanky to hide in.

The video clip is here, and her website is here. (Thanks to Les the Stupid Evil Bastard for the link.)

It is really simple, basic magic, but that's what virtually all magic is about: misdirection and showmanship -- or in this case, showwomanship. Literally.

Callgirl of Cthulhu

Safe for work, unless you work for Christian Taliban or Feminist Nazis. (Although the rest of the artist's website isn't necessarily SFW.)

Head of Callgirl of Cthulhu statue


One of the really impressive things about this statue is that it isn't some dinky 9" statuette, it is lifesize:

Statue and artist

Web feedback form

A friend of mine who preferred to remain anonymous passed this on to me, with permission to post it for the world to see.

He had been trying to purchase a product from Officeworks' website, but the site said it was unavailable over the Internet, only direct from stores, and to call a number to find out which stores had stock. Unfortunately, the number they gave wasn't connected.

So he tried to send them a message via a form on their website. Naturally enough, being a multi-bazillion dollar company, the software they are using is broken, and it deleted his message when he tried to send it because he didn't fill in enough information. Which led to this message being sent:

    This is my SECOND attempt to send this. The first time was to notify you that your catalog contains an error. Product ID CHH5606 says "Not available at all locations, call 13 15 05 for details" but that phone number is not connected. First rule of successful marketing: get your own phone number right.

    I'm also writing to say that your brain-damaged software deleted my message when I clicked send, just because I didn't specify my last name. YOU DON'T NEED MY LAST NAME TO ANSWER AN EMAIL. If I wanted you to know my last name, I would have told you.

    And even if you did need to know it, it is rude and stupid beyond belief for the software to delete everything I typed because I left something out. What sort of C-grade pile of crap software are you people running? You probably spent tens of millions of dollars on it too, and the moron responsible for the project probably got a promotion. What a joke.

Damn straight. In fact, according to Australian privacy legislation, Officeworks is skating on awfully thin ice if they force people to leave their name in order to make a random enquiry. Imagine doing that to a phone enquiry -- "I'm sorry sir, I can't answer your questions unless you tell me your full name."

Why is Iran so unconcerned?

Billmon has a few things to say about the possible (likely?) invasion of Iran.

He quotes Colonel Sam Gardiner about "the filter":

When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense -- that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not. I tell them they cannot understand U.S. policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran.

He also asks the very important question, with the USA banging the drums of war and looking to pick a fight, why is Iran acting so unconcerned?

It finally occurred to me that I may have been looking at this the wrong way. I’ve been thinking about an American air strike as the Cheney Administration's way of kicking over the table and ending the chess match. But the Iranians may see it as simply another move on the board -- a disastrously bad move they could then exploit to improve their position.

It’s not so much that the Iranians want the Americans to attack their country, but they may be fully prepared to deal with it and use it to their own Machiavellian advantage -- not just politically and diplomatically, but also to advance their alleged nuclear ambitions. They may even be counting on it. If this is correct, their initial reaction to a U.S. air strike may be surprisingly restrained.

I have to say, I've been wondering the same thing. Given Iran's ambition to be a major power, and given that the USA has made it abundantly clear that they can and will attack non-nuclear powered nations, why isn't Iran going full tilt to produce nuclear weapons? By all non-partisan accounts, Iran has no nuclear weapons program -- and yet it seems logically that they should.

Could it be that Iran was serious when they rejected the use of nuclear weapons as immoral and against the teachings of Islam? Maybe -- but surely that only holds for using nuclear weapons against civilians. That shouldn't prevent them using The Bomb against enemy combatants in self-defence, say by using a 20 KT bomb to destroy an American aircraft carrier or two.

Possibly even in pre-emptive self-defence, now that President Bush has made hitting back first acceptable behaviour.

Could it be that they know that they can't build nuclear weapons, not in the current political climate, and so are trying to turn their technical failure into a moral advantage? Maybe, but I doubt that Iran is less technically capable than Pakistan and India, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there were elements in China that thought that a nuclear armed Iran would be a good thing.

Billmon's post makes a lot of sense to me. It is his idea that Iran is playing a high risk, but high gain, game here: they are steeling themselves to take a bloody nose now, for a free rein in two or three years:

Having launched a massive, unprovoked attack on another country and suffered the inevitable blowback (skyrocketing oil prices, recession, disaster in Iraq, global condemnation) would the United States have the political will to do it again in one or two or three years time?

It is a long post, but one worth reading.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Those dangerous terrorists

Billmon reminds us about those dangerous, scary terrorists locked up in Guantanamo Bay:

It's hard to picture Haji Nasrat Khan as an international terrorist. For a start, the grey-bearded Afghan can barely walk, shuffling along on a three-wheeled walking frame. His sight is terrible -- he squints through milky eyes that sometimes roll towards the heavens -- while his helpers have to shout to make themselves heard. And as for his age -- nobody knows for sure, not even Nasrat himself. "I think I am 78, or maybe 79," he ventures uncertainly, pausing over a cup of green tea.

Yet for three and a half years the US government deemed this elderly, infirm man an "enemy combatant", so dangerous to America's security that he was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

It's important for Americans and others across the world to understand the kind of people held at Guantanamo. These aren't common criminals, or bystanders accidentally swept up on the battlefield -- we have in place a rigorous process to ensure those held at Guantanamo Bay belong at Guantanamo.

George W. Bush, September 6, 2006
White House Address

Book reviewers

Wandering around the Internet at random, I came across a site reviewing books in the "Alien" and "Alien Versus Predator" franchise. Here are a pair of brief extracts from two reviews. Take note that the reviewers are by the same person, on the same page. Is it any wonder that reviewers have such a low reputation?

Aliens Vs. Predator: Hunter's Planet
[...] A thrilling and compelling story about two alien monsters battling it out [...] An awesome read full of action and twists. If you liked Aliens vs Predator: War, you'll love this.

Aliens Vs. Predator: War
After years of bemoaning David Bischoff's awful AVP: Hunter's Planet, [...]

Sigh. Just... sigh.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Being good while doing evil

Remember the good old days when people remembered that you can't be good if you do evil?

Maher Arar is a Canadian citizen who was arrested by the US during a stop-over at JFK Airport on his way home from a holiday in Tunisia. Arar was, without evidence, shipped off to Syria to be tortured under a program known as 'extraordinary rendition'.

He explained what happened:

So, on the third day when they didn't find anything, third or fourth day, they -- in my view, they just wanted to please the Americans, and they had to find something on me. So, because I was accused of being an al-Qaeda member, which is nowadays synonymous with Afghanistan, they told me, "You've been to a training camp in Afghanistan." And I said, "No." And they started beating me. And I said -- well, I had no choice. I just wanted the beating to stop. I said, "Of course, I've been to Afghanistan." I was ready to confess to anything just to stop the torture.

He was held for over a year before seeing his family again.

After a two year enquiry, the Canadian government has declared Arar an innocent man, with the judge who led the enquiry blasting the US government for sending him to be tortured in Syria. He also criticised the faulty and misleading information given to the US by Canadian authorities.

With Arar in the news in the USA, the religious right is standing firm on their conviction that torture is nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, don't actually call it torture -- even these moral weasels aren't so degenerate to come out and be honest about what they want. Instead, they mince words and talk about "alternative interrogation techniques", and pretend to be confused about what torture is. They've even suggested that Republican John McCain, who actually has been tortured while a prisoner of war, should tone down his opposition to the practice if he wants to win elections.

If torture was really acceptable, why be so shy about the fact that they use it? The Gestapo and the KGB was never shy about their use of torture.

Wisco from Griper Blade has this to say about those who have thrown their lot in with torturers:

Here's what I think of those who favor torture of terrorist suspects -- they are, to a man, cowards. They have no principles, no morals, only a concern for themselves and their safety. They are the same fools who'd throw out all of our rights to 'protect our freedom', while either forgetting or willfully ignoring the fact that, with every right we lose, we become less free. They don't stand for the principles of freedom and liberty -- no matter how easily those words spill out of them when you poke them. They'd rather live as prisoners than expose themselves to even the slightest risk of dying as free people.


They can argue that torture makes us safer, but how safe can you be said to be when your government can whisk you off to a secret prison for an indefinite period of abuse and human rights outrages? And do it without any trial or any appeal. Once you get your finger caught in that secret prison machine, you literally enter into a lawless system in which you have no rights at all. Think about it -- there is nothing to prevent this from happening to pretty much anyone. No safeguards, no oversight. How safe does that make you?

Oh the irony

This 1937 photo by Margaret Bourke-White of a breadline in front of a triumphant "American Way" poster shows the irony of American claims of economic supremacy -- especially for blacks and other minorities.

There's No Way Like The American Way
(The photo was taken in the aftermath of the Louisville flood, but scenes just like it could have been repeated in thousands of places every day throughout the Depression.)

Scan courtesy of Masters of Photography.
Source here.

Gmail careless with privacy -- again

When you click on a link in your web browser to go to a new page, your browser sends information to the web server which includes the page you were coming from. This information is called the "referer" [sic] and is normal behaviour in web browsers. However, Gmail goes beyond the normal amount of information in the referer, and leaks enough information to sometimes identify the originator.

Marc from O'Reilly Books writes:

When I get referers from GMail messages on my new blog, they often contain a query string parameter labeled 'cat' with a cleartext, meaningful value in it. I've often been able to determine, from the 'cat' value, exactly who is talking about my site in email, and in one case, exactly what they thought of what we're doing!

It isn't clear to me whether it is the person who emails the link via Gmail, or the person who clicks on the link in Gmail, who can be identified, but either way, this is a worrying privacy breach from Google -- especially when their privacy policy specifically states that they use a cut-down version of the referer to help protect the user's privacy.

Now, I'm not going to say Liar liar pants on fire!, but it seems that Gmail's claim about the steps they take to protect the user's privacy is rather different from the actual steps they take to spray users' fingerprints all over the Internet.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


The cruelty of dog owners to their poor old faithful hounds knows no bounds:

Beedog 1

Beedog 2


Poor things.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The buck stops ... somewhere else

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, doesn't understand why people are mad at him for taking away their civil liberties:

"I find it amazing civil libertarians run around and attack me, or [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair or attack the police."

Well, how are these for reasons? Because it is you who has passed laws taking away the very freedoms that you are supposed to be protecting.

In a television interview earlier, Howard said Iraq was a better place because of Saddam Hussein's removal.

It is really difficult to respond to this sort of claim without exploding in a stream of profanity. I mean, about one third of Iraq is a no-go zone even for the American occupying forces. Al Qaeda In Iraq (which, despite its name, started life as a bunch of wannabes, unrelated to the real al Qaeda) now has effective political control of one third the country. Under Saddam, life was hard, there were few freedoms, but people had electricity, they had water, they had jobs, they had oil. Christians and women were safe, and there were no bombs going off.

Now, there are still no freedoms, no electricity, no water, no jobs, no oil (plenty in the ground, they just can't get it out), armed hit squads are killing random civilians merely for being the wrong religion, in Baghdad there are daily bombings and mortar attacks, kidnappings and rapes make women too scared to leave the house, and when they do leave, you better believe that they are wearing the veil.

That is "Honest John" Howard's idea of "a better place".

"It's all very well to criticize what has been done there by the coalition, but you have to ask yourself where would we be now if we hadn't taken that action and where would we be if we unilaterally pulled out, which is what is being urged on us by the Labor Party and by President Bush's critics in the U.S."

Where would we be? How about where wouldn't we be?

For starters, we wouldn't be flushing billions of dollars down the toilet in Iraq. We wouldn't be destabilising the entire Middle East. We wouldn't be creating millions of people with good reason to hate us, nor would we be training thousands of terrorists and fighters how to build bombs and fight against Western troops.

We would be using some of those billions of dollars to actually hunt down bin Laden and bring him to justice, instead of letting the trail go cold. We would be dealing with the direct causes of terrorism, instead of creating more terrorism. We would be safer, not in more danger.

Howard also tried to pass the buck for responsibility for the bad laws passed, as if bin Laden had snuck into the Parliament House in the dead of night and added sedition laws when nobody was watching:

And he urged Australians to blame terrorists and not the Government for disruptions to their lives since the September 11 atrocities five years ago.

"Who has made it necessary? Osama and his grisly gang," Mr Howard told The Daily Telegraph.

Who else should we blame, if not the people who actually passed these unnecessary and bad laws? Howard's attitude of "don't blame me, the Devil made me do it" is not worthy of the leader of a civilized country.

We've been relatively fortunate, in comparison to the USA, that with certain exceptions the Australian government has exercised restraint and has not rushed to turn the country into a de facto dictatorship. Nevertheless, we have lost freedoms, important legal protections have been stripped away, our country has given away liberty in return for more, not less, danger, and instead of acting with moral authority, taking responsibility for actions committed by his own party under his watch, Howard is passing the buck.

You would think Google never existed

What is wrong with the Telstra web designers? Using the on-line White Pages and Yellow Pages is like going through a timewarp to the bad old days before Google showed the right way to run a search engine.

I'm trying to do a White Pages search for a name, in a known suburb, so I specify the name and the suburb. What does Telstra's search engine do? Totally ignore the suburb and give me results from all over the place. How very useful.

So I specify the name more precisely -- let's call the business "Acme Technologies". Now, anyone with the sense of a little green apple would do what Google does: do an AND search, returning results containing both "Acme" and "Technologies". But not Telstra. They do an OR search, so I get hundreds of results, every business with either Acme or Technologies. Do you have any idea how many companies include Technologies in their name?

Let's just say more than a few.

To add insult to injury, the search page has the gall to say "We have found a large number of results and tried to return the most appropriate." Least appropriate would be more like it.

The Hedgehog and the Shaman

Nanny Ogg was right: the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

Following the advice of a traditional healer (a.k.a. witchdoctor), a Serbian man tried a rather unusual cure for premature ejaculation: having sex with a live hedgehog. Not surprisingly, he ended up rather worse for the experience, with severe lacerations in the parts one would rather there were no severe lacerations.

The Register has the full story.

That ain't no goat, it's my brother!

This is an alibi you don't hear every day. A Nigerian man arrested for killing his brother with an axe claims that he actually killed a goat, which magically turned into his brother after it was dead.

Murder suspects in Nigeria, where many people believe in black magic, sometimes claim spirits tricked them into killing. In 2001, eight people were burned to death after one person in their group was accused of making a bystander's penis magically disappear.

Thanks to BoingBoing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Diebold more insecure than thought

Professor Ed Felten, together with Ari Feldman and Alex Halderman, have released a paper demonstrating some of the serious weaknesses of e-voting technology. It focuses on two models of the Diebold voting machines. There are 33,000 of these Diebold machines in use in American elections.

As Felten discusses, the machines are vulnerable to tampering by a malicious attacker with very little effort. Felten shows a video demonstrating the installation of vote-stealing software in less than a minute. This vote-stealing software can easily be programmed to remove itself afterwards, so that there is no trace that it ever existed.

Furthermore, Felten shows that due to a design flaw (or is that a feature?) of the Diebold machines, they are vulnerable to a virus which can spread from machine to machine, installing vote tampering software, without the fraudster needing access to all of the machines.

Felten also discovered, by accident, that the key which locks the machines, keeping unauthorized people out of the machine, is a common, easily purchased key used for mini-bars, filing cabinets and other office furniture.

The level of security in these voting machines is so poor, and Diebold's reputation of making secure, tamper-proof auto-teller machines is so high, that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this isn't a case of incompetence, but of deliberate backdoors left in the voting machines.

I've written about e-voting and Diebold machines before; this post in particular details the dirty shenanigans going on in California.

Warner does deal to open up video library

And in further news, pigs have been spotted flying south for the winter.

(How many mixed metaphors can I fit in one post, I wonder?)

While Universal is suing YouTube for copyright infringement, Warner Brothers' music division have seen the writing on the wall and, instead of trying to keep the tide from coming in, have done a deal with YouTube to let their music videos roam free on the Internet.

The deal will involve Warner Brothers opening up their entire back-catalog of music videos, including those from major artists such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Madonna, which will be posted to YouTube. People will be allowed to download and remix the videos and repost them on YouTube.

The MPAA and RIAA, who have claimed that Internet sharing is causing the sky to fall, have apparently locked themselves in a bunker under Washington and are waiting for the world to end.

iTunes buyers vote with their wallets

The BBC is reporting that on average only 5% of the tracks on the average iPod have been bought from iTunes, with even fewer coming from other music sites. The majority are downloaded from file sharing sites or ripped from CDs.

The report cautions not to artificially divide music listeners into "pirates" and "buyers", and points out that:

[...] the only salient characteristic shared by all owners of portable music players was that they were more likely to buy more music - especially CDs.

"Digital music purchasing has not yet fundamentally changed the way in which digital music customers buy music," read the report.

This tells me that free as in beer (free of charge) is far less important to music listeners than free as in speech (free of restrictions). People are willing to pay for their music, but they aren't willing to accept lousy digital restrictions or artificial file formats that nobody but the music industry wants.

Alice, Dorothy and Wendy

Alan Moore, the cartoonist responsible for such things as V For Vendetta and From Hell, has co-written a steamy three-volume graphic novel called Lost Girls.

Lost Girls tells the story of the adult selves of Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, who find themselves guests at a little Austrian hotel at the brink of World War I.

BoingBoing has more.

It appears that Lost Girls is unlikely to be distributed in the UK.

What is a hacker?

Bruce Schneier has a great explanation of what is a hacker, why they are important, and why he doesn't buy into the "hackers good, crackers bad" meme.

A hacker is someone who thinks outside the box. It's someone who discards conventional wisdom, and does something else instead. It's someone who looks at the edge and wonders what's beyond. It's someone who sees a set of rules and wonders what happens if you don't follow them. A hacker is someone who experiments with the limitations of systems for intellectual curiosity.


Hackers are as old as curiosity, although the term itself is modern. Galileo was a hacker. Mme. Curie was one, too. Aristotle wasn't. (Aristotle had some theoretical proof that women had fewer teeth than men. A hacker would have simply counted his wife's teeth. A good hacker would have counted his wife's teeth without her knowing about it, while she was asleep. A good bad hacker might remove some of them, just to prove a point.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Harry Potter and the Half-wit Security

How is this for stupidity? Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling had a run-in with airport security over the unpublished manuscript for the next Harry Potter novel. What do they think the terrorists are going to do? Threaten people with paper cuts? Read to them with menaces?

Rowling refused to be separated from the manuscript, so they agreed to allow her on the plane, with the dangerous sheets of paper secured with ... rubber bands. Because terrorists might kill people, but they wouldn't dare remove official TSA elastic bands without permission.

Do you think they trying to tell us something?

A bootleg DVD of V For Vendetta has been found with a very unfortunate blurb on the case. According to the bootleg copy:

V for Vendetta is a poorly paced and spectacularly disjointed rehash of Orwellian themes.

(Note: I couldn't agree less with the reviewer, but then, what can one say about somebody who gave Superman Returns 5 out of 5 stars? Apart from "Did you eat lead paint as a child?" perhaps.)

Jewish pirates

They're Jewish, and they're pirates! Many of the old-time pirates of history were Jews, often motivated by the wish for vengeance for the horrors committed against their fellow Jews by the Spanish Inquisition.

For example, Jean Lafitte, also known as "The Corsair", was a pirate who commanded an army of 1000 men during the War of 1812. After leaving New Orleans, he established a base in Texas, and spent much of the Mexican war of independence raiding Spanish ships. He was also a Sephardic Jew and a refugee from Spain, and his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Spanish Inquisition for "Judaizing". Yet when Hollywood came to tell his story, in the 1958 movie starring Yul Brynner, his Jewish heritage was completely ignored.

British baggage rules to be relaxed

According to the BBC, British rules for airline baggage will be relaxed next week:

Larger bags will be allowed on board, and passengers will be able to take some liquids through security from Tuesday, ministers are set to say.

The government's transport security division is holding talks with the aviation industry on Monday.

Larger bags will be allowed along with some liquids - such as toiletries, including toothpaste.

These items may have to be placed in plastic bags so they can be easily examined at security.

Musical instruments will also be allowed on board again, after professional musicians complained the measures were hindering them.

A statement by the Department for Transport said: "The measures we introduced in August were in response to a very real and serious terrorist threat which continues."


The latest move was welcomed by budget airline Ryanair.

"We welcome any move to remove the ineffective measures currently in place and to restore security to the safe levels that apply to all inbound flights arriving in the UK," a spokesman said.

"To do anything less would hand the extremists a victory."

Ryanair announced last month it was seeking compensation of about £3million from the government over airport delays resulting from the increased anti-terror measures.

This is great news -- it means that the security officers at British Airports have reverted the laws of physics to the way they were just a month or two ago, before water and toothpaste became deadly explosives.

I for one am glad that no longer do I have to fear that brushing my teeth will cause my house to explode.

Decrease in medical funding

The Scientific Activist blog details the serious decrease in American government funding for scientific research in biomedicine and medical research.

This isn't pie-in-the-sky knowledge-for-the-sake-of-it research, this is research into disease and health. The percentage of unsolicited grants which were accepted for funding has fallen from 20% in 2000 to just 9% now; renewal grants have fallen from just under 53% to just over 32%.

You can see the actual numbers here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Justifying violence

The Rude Pundit has a few things to say about justifications for violence:

They were so positive that Tony Blakeney had something to do with the disappearance of Patrick McClendon that they cornered Blakeney in his house and beat him to what would become death at the hospital later on. [...]

The mob believed they had the right intelligence. They had pieced it together from the few clues they had and decided to act before someone else was hurt. You can bet, though, that there was a man in the group who perhaps thought that maybe they were wrong, especially since chances are they beat Blakeney for a while to get information, which he could not give since he didn't, you know, have any. And you can also bet that any man who thought they were wrong didn't say a word for fear of being labeled a traitor and just let the beat down continue.

Unfortunately for them, these ten murderers don't have Faux News constantly pushing propoganda and misinformation for them, and consequently, they don't have fifty percent of Americans convinced that Tony Blakeney was involved with al Qaeda responsible for the disappearence.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Art, vandalism or public service?

Paul Curtis, aka Moose, isn't your average graffiti artist. Instead of cans of spray paint, his tools are water, a shoe brush and elbow grease. Curtis creates his art/graffiti by selectively cleaning the urban grime off public spaces.

Reverse graffiti
(Click for larger image.)

Is he an artist or just a vandal? Critics say that by carelessly cleaning the patina off old buildings, he is damaging them more than the pollution and grime does; others point out that, regardless of whether the "art" is drawn in paint or by removing dirt, owners are still forced to clean the building to remove the unwanted graffiti. The Leeds City Council is investigating, unsure whether he is committing a crime or not.

Thanks to Echidne and Neatorama.

The Magnificent Seven

Oh boy, Karl Rove will grind their bones to make his bread...

Seven prominent American Republicans have gone public to say that it will be better for their country for the Democrats to win this year's Congressional elections.

Frankly, I'm not sure that's true... I suspect that, regardless of what happens in the elections, the damage is done, and the Democrats aren't anywhere near radical enough to undo the damage. They'll tinker around the edges, being slightly fluffier than the Republicans, not quite so evil as the neo-cons, but still treat the rest of the world as their private playground, still do nothing to wean the country off foreign oil, still kow-tow to the billionaires. And when the bubble bursts, as it will, it will be Democrats who get the blame because it was their hand on the steering wheel, even though it was Bush and his cronies who set the course and welded the accelerator to the floor.

Still, if there is any chance of avoiding a major disaster, the neo-cons aren't the people to do it.

In case you didn't notice...

...the world didn't end on Tuesday.

Shocking but true.

Creative Commons success story

Cory Doctorow is rightfully proud of the results from one of his Creative Commons published books:

Last week, I received the most remarkable letter from Jamie, a US Navy seaman stationed on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. Because my novels are Creative Commons-licensed, he is able to download them and print them out onboard ship, and pass them around to his comrades. The absence of quality reading material on the ship has turned Creative Commons texts into hot items on the ship:

A couple hours later, the only noise in the place was when one of the half-dozen guys sitting around would look up and ask, "Hey, who's got page 41 of Down and Out?" It was... well, I'm not sure I can express how weird it was. These are men who aren't normally readers, much less consumers of slightly wacky science fiction, and they're now getting impatient with each other to finish chapters so they can find out what happens next.

It's starting to change the very *tone* of where I work on the ship, six hours on and six hours off: instead of the ever-present three B's of talk to pass in the time in the plant -- beer, babes, and bodily functions -- it's discussions of which novel (or short, since we've now got printouts of every piece of fiction on stuffed into a file cabinet) we liked best, and why, and what makes this stuff cool, and where can we get more like it, and even starting to talk about the copyfight, and why that's important.

Paul Krugman on economic pollyannas

Allysa writing for The Daily Kos quotes from economist Paul Krugman's subscription column in the New York Times, where he eviscerates right-wing economic pollyannas:

Right-wing commentators would like you to believe that the economy's winners are a large group, like college graduates or people with agreeable personalities. But the winners' circle is actually very small. Even households at the 95th percentile -- that is, households richer than 19 out of 20 Americans -- have seen their real income rise less than 1 percent a year since the late 1970's. But the income of the richest 1 percent has roughly doubled, and the income of the top 0.01 percent -- people with incomes of more than $5 million in 2004 -- has risen by a factor of 5.
Notice the desperate effort to find some number, any number, to support claims that increasing inequality is just a matter of a rising payoff to education and skill. Conservative commentators tell us about wage gains for one-eyed bearded men with 2.5 years of college, or whatever -- and conveniently forget to adjust for inflation. In fact, the data refute any suggestion that education is a guarantee of income gains: once you adjust for inflation, you find that the income of a typical household headed by a college graduate was lower in 2005 than in 2000.

Thirty years of American governments, both Republican and Democrat, but all free-market capitalists, have let the population down badly. Ordinary Americans, working class, middle class and "welfare class" have seen virtually no economic improvement through the decades.

It is certainly true that being a millionaire is not what it used to, but it is sobering to realise that even in the biggest economy of the world, the country which personifies the entrepenuerial spirit more than any other, only 0.01%, or one in ten thousand, make five million dollars a year.

We've been fooled by inflationary pressures on (for example) CEO golden handshakes and entertainment deals to think that a million dollars is not that much. As the rich become mega-rich, and the ordinary get left behind (or even go backwards), we come to believe that a five million dollar income is nothing special, not compared to those billionaires making a million dollars a week. And if a millionaire is nothing special, well, then it is easily within our reach, surely?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The war against al Qaeda

Juan Cole has an essay on the war against al Qaeda, particularly the greater battle for the hearts and minds of the Middle East and Muslim world. Will the Muslim world be with us or against us?

It is a mix of good news and bad news; the good news is that al Qaeda themselves have not recovered from their military defeat in Afghanistan, and are a mere shell of their former selves, but the bad news is that there are plenty of new organisations taking their place.

Bad news: the world, especially the Muslim world, hates America's foreign policies (and by extension, the rest of the West). Good news: when American foreign policy stops being greedy, self-centred and evil, so does the hatred. They don't hate us because they hate our freedoms. They hate us because we kick them in the teeth.

More bad news: Iraqis, once "the bulwarks of secular Arab nationalism", are no longer so. Instead, Iraq is ripping itself apart, split between various extremist forces, many of whom are viciously religious.

Good news: many Arab governments, and Pakistan, are decidely more cooperative with the West, presumably because they fear the rise of religious extremists as well.

Bad news: the anti-democratic, and incompetent, actions of Israel and the USA against Hamas and Hezbollah, has lead to a weakening of Arab secularism and a strengthening of fundamentalism. Foolish foolish foolish. When the historians write the story of these years, Bush and Olmert will be counted as the best allies bin Laden could ever have.

More bad news: the popularity of the US in Turkey, formerly one of America's best allies, has plummeted, primarily because the US is protecting Kurdish "freedom fighters" who are blowing up bombs in Turkey. So much for the war on terror.

To the extent that small terrorist groups benefit in their recruitment and in motivating recruits from deeply negative attitudes to the United States, these polling numbers are extremely disturbing. The main things driving a polarization between Muslim publics and the US are not al-Qaeda or terrorism, however. They are Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. It is the policy. The policy can provoke anger and engender threat, and that is why it had better be a damn good policy. It can also make for friendships, which is what we should be aiming at.

It wouldn't take much now to settle the Israel-Palestine thing, and the time is ripe to have Israel give back the Golan to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon in return for a genuine peace process. The Israelis are not made more secure by crowding into the West Bank or bombing Gaza daily. South Lebanon has demonstrated the dangers of ever more sophisticated microwars over rugged territory. It is time for Israel, and for the United States, to do the right thing and rescue the Palestinians from the curse of statelessness, the slavery of the 21st century. Ending this debilitating struggle would also be the very best thing for the Israelis themselves. In one fell swoop, the US would have solved 80 percent of its problems with the Muslim world and vastly reduced the threat of terrorism.

Alas, it seems that Bush and the other neo-cons don't have a realistic grasp of politics and diplomacy, and instead see everything in terms of the Shoot Out At The OK Corral. Two sides shoot at each other until one side is beaten, at which time the other side dictates everything.

It's a seductive view of global politics for those with the mental sophistication of a hyena and the morals of a virus, but it is horribly risky, and even if it does work, it is hugely more expensive in both money and lives than diplomacy. Wingnuts and extremists on the Right will tell you that you can't use diplomacy with people like Bush bin Laden, and they are right, but that's not who we should be negotiating with. Bin Laden is a killer and a terrorist, and the only negotiation with him should be over whether he surrenders peacefully for a trial, or dies resisting arrest. But there are millions of Arabs, Muslims and other people who can choose to either help us, or hinder us. We can't kill them all, not without destroying ourselves in the process, and even if we could, we shouldn't or we become worse than the monsters we are fighting. Even bin Laden has never suggested that Muslims should commit genocide on the West.

Teddy Roosevelt understood both the need for diplomacy and force, and that force was to be kept in reserve, to give diplomacy credibility. Bush is no Teddy Roosevelt, who spoke softly but carried a big stick: Bush yells loudly, bragging "bring it on", making promises he can't keep, claiming victory before the battle is decided, and when he uses his big stick, it is invariably ineffective, counter-productive, and horribly, horrible expensive.

Facebook privacy trainwreck

Danah Boyd discusses the user-revolt on the social-networking site Facebook after they introduced software that displays every action you take to all your friends.

Not surprisingly, people were horrified -- even though everything they did was, in a sense, public, the sense of invasion of privacy was huge.

As Danah points out, privacy is often about the ick-factor -- that sense that, even though you haven't done anything wrong, you don't want people knowing everything you do.

Privacy [...] is about the sense of vulnerability that an individual experiences. When people feel exposed or invaded, there's a privacy issue.

Even if you don't use social network software like LiveJournal, Facebook or similar, you should read her post.

Crikey! Steve Irwin would not approve

This is not good.

At least ten sting-rays have been found killed and mutilated on the east coast of Australia after Steve Irwin's freak death.

A fisheries department official says up to ten of the normally docile fish have been found dead and mutilated on Australia's eastern coast since Steve Irwin was killed by one last week. At least two had their tails lopped off.


The head of Irwin's conservation group says any retribution is unacceptable. He says "that's the last thing Steve would want."

Damn straight. Leave the fish alone.

Banned books

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Banned Books Week, Google Books is highlighting some of the classics of 20th century literature which, at one time or another, have been banned or challenged.

Heroin-chic models not wanted

A Madrid fashion show has banned underweight models:

"The restrictions could be quite a shock to the fashion world at the beginning, but I'm sure it's important as far as health is concerned," said Leonor Perez Pita, director of Madrid's show, also known as the Pasarela Cibeles.

I wonder how long this will last?

Another milestone for Dubyah

I almost missed this one: chalk this up to another success for Mad King George. More Americans have died in Iraq than were killed on September 11.

As of 9th September 2006, two days shy of five years after the 9/11 attacks that were the excuse for the invasion of Iraq, 3,015 Americans have died in Iraq, and thousands more permanent disabled. 2,666 of these were military deaths and 349 were civilians. That's 3,015 unnecessary deaths for no good reason: Iraq was no threat and had no WMD, had no involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and invading it has not made anyone safer.

(Originally on BoingBoing.)

Mission accomplished

Billmon tells us why it is Osama bin Laden, and not George W. Bush, who should be saying "Mission Accomplished!":

The chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq recently filed an unusual secret report concluding that the prospects for securing that country's western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there [...] there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force [...]

(Quoting from the Washington Post.)

Thanks to George W Bush, al Qaeda has swapped control of backwoods Afghanistan (which they may still get back) for a third of Iraq, right next to Saudi Arabia, Jordon and Syria.

We'll be cleaning up this mess for decades, thanks to the arrogance and stupidity of the neo-cons.

The asymmetry of warfare

Early in the Afghan War, President Bush made a comment about not wanting to fire a $50 million missile to blow up some camel in the desert. Five years later, America's reliance on high-tech weaponry is costing them big time.

Billmon reports that American forces in Iraq are spending almost $3.5 billion a year to lose ground in the fight against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). With $1.4 billion in R&D per year, the army now manages to disarm almost fifty percent of the IEDs before they explode.

But IEDs are dirt cheap, and are getting more common and harder to find, despite the ever increasing sophistication and cost of the high-tech devices for finding, jamming and defusing them. The increase in numbers of IEDs far outstrips the increased success in disarming them, and so the army is falling further behind:

It isn't just the monetary cost that hurts America, but also the opportunity cost. Every dollar spent on electronic gadgets to detect a bomb, is a dollar less to spend on intelligence, bribery or rewards for informants, to find the bad guys before they plant the bomb in the first place. But this is so very typical of the bull-in-a-china-shop approach of the Americans, blundering about, causing more harm than good, trying ineffectively to fix the problem that they could have prevented in the first place.

The sad thing is we'll all suffer for it. Just as the old Soviet Union created today's terrorists by invading Afghanistan (and Carter and Reagan trained them), so America is creating tomorrow's terrorists in Iraq.

Thanks George.

A reminder for those conned by those we trust

Echidne reports on a declassified report from the Republican-controlled US Senate that there were no links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

None. Zero. Nil.

And, he wasn't building nukes, or even chemical or biological weapons. No WMD either.

This is old, old news to those who have been paying attention, and it was obvious way back in 2002 except to those unsophisticated and childish enough to think that all bad guys are in on it together. The American right, which swallowed the story of al Qaeda and Saddam being buddies for years, have changed their tune and are dismissing the report as "old news".

But not for the two thirds of self-proclaimed Republicans who still believe that Saddam was allied with al Qaeda.

The people we trust to protect us, the Bushes, Blairs and Howards, lied to us. They lied about the terrorism threat, they lied about Saddam's WMDs, and they continue to lie to us as they keep stripping us of civil liberties.

Billmon points out that the mere fact that this has come out of the Republican Senate indicates a sea-change in American politics. Although they fell short of actually doing their job, a non-partisan investigation into the events leading up to the war, some of the Republican committee members actually voted with the Democrats to remove the most egregious Republican spin. This is a strong indicator that the Republican's Svengali, Karl Rove, is having trouble keeping all his plates spinning in the air.

When you came in here, didn't you have a plan for getting out?

Mercury Rising is reporting that Brigadier General Mark Scheid has revealed that there was no plan for the occupation of Iraq because Donald Rumsfeld said he would fire anyone who worked on one.

Back in 2002, I had many long debates with a friend of the extreme right-wing persuasion. As I told him then, if I thought for even one second that the Bush administration was going into Iraq with good intentions, and had even a one percent chance of fixing the country instead of breaking it more, I would have supported the invasion. But the signs were obvious even to Blind Freddie that Bush and his administration were engaged in a naked war of aggression for selfish reasons, and that Iraq was going to be transformed from a two-bit dictatorship that needed to be watched but was no real threat, to a pustulant sore on the body of the Middle East, breeding terrorists and angry Muslim Fundamentalists, and training them to kill Westerners.

There was never any intention to bring peace and security to Iraq, let alone Western democracy and civilization. Instead we've got a democratic theatre -- joke elections where terrified voters get to choose between the corrupt, the powerless and the theocratic, where regardless of who wins, the government will be run for the benefit of American corporations.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From the department of ironic punishments

How cool is this?

People waiting to board a plane in Tokyo are watching the news and discussing the news stories. A fellow passenger decides that they must be terrorists, and the pilot refuses to fly with them on board. After determining that they aren't terrorists, the airline puts them on another flight to Honolulu to catch a connecting flight to San Fransisco. They get to SF while the first plane, complete with the Chicken Little who dobbed them in, is still on the ground in Tokyo, still being searched for non-existent bombs and/or toenail clippers.

Full story here.

Northern Planets Uncensored

I don't particularly have a problem with so-called "offensive language" -- I find that most cursing and swearing is far less offensive than a lot of "polite" language used. Offensiveness comes from the concepts expressed, not the particular words used. Still, not everyone agrees with me, and a lot of those who do agree are forced to access the Internet through nannyware or filtering software which bans webpages and entire sites, sometimes on the basis of a single word.

For those reasons, I intend to keep Northern Planets free of "offensive language" (assuming that your idea of offensive is the same as mine), although I will sometimes link to other sites that don't mind a little salty language. Or even a lot of salty language.

For those times where I want to post something that contains strong language, I've created a new blog, Northern Planets Uncensored. It will be a low volume blog, and any time I put something up on it, I intend to link to it from here.

The Ultimate Showdown

This amusing, silly Flash animation tickled my fancy:

The Ultimate Showdown

Call it the inner sixteen year old, but I thought it was fun, if childish, and has a catchy tune. I enjoyed seeing how many cultural icons I could recognise -- and puzzled over those I didn't.

Adult delinquency

Mark Kleiman of the Reality-Based Community discusses the case of 17-year-old Pat Lazear, who robbed a store and is being tried as an adult:

Now all of this is as familiar as it is depressing, except for one detail: Lazear is a star high-school football player. He was forced to switch schools, but his new teammates just elected him team captain. He will play wearing an electronic position monitoring device as an ankle bracelet.

What's more, 20 Division I colleges, including Ohio State and Alabama are still recruiting him. [...]

I have grave doubts about the wisdom of trying juveniles as adults for anything but egregious violence. And I'm always delighted to see educational institutions prepared to give a break to ex-offenders who are trying to turn their lives around.

But treating Lazear as a football player first and a criminal second seems a tad ... disproportionate, doesn't it? Especially since he doesn't seem to have any particular remorse about participating in an armed robbery?

As a Robert Heinlein character says, "juvenile delinquent" is a contradiction in terms. To be delinquent is to fail to carry out a duty, and a juvenile is someone too young to know what a duty is. But for every juvenile miscreant, there are several adults who have been delinquent in raising him. The football coach, athletic director, and principal of Wheaton High School, and the football coaches and AD's of twenty colleges and universities, are working together to tell Pat Lazear that his talent on the field means that the rules don't apply to him.

Now that's delinquency.

It is important to remember that, regardless of their state of innocence -- or otherwise -- at birth, by puberty children are a broiling cauldron of hormones, short attention spans, selfishness and half-formed minds. That's why we rightly don't treat children as adults -- they aren't fully formed yet, their brains are still growing, and more importantly, their minds, their ethical sense, is still being formed. Virtually every "juvenile delinquent" has been surrounded by adults who failed in their duty to educate and civilize the vicious little sod. It is hardly justice if the negligent adults are never called to account for their own failures, while the child is sentenced to jail as if he or she were a grown adult who should have know better.

It is moments like this that I remember Terry Pratchett's quote:

Sometimes I really think people ought to have to pass a proper exam before they're allowed to be parents. Not just the practical, I mean. -- Susan Sto Helit

I don't imply that it is only the parents who are responsible -- there is a sequence of overlapping circles responsible for forming an adult from a child: parents, teachers, coaches, role-models, society as a whole. Lazear's teachers and coaches have gone out of their way to treat him as if the rules of society don't apply to sports-stars like himself. Who is worse -- the child who acts as children do, selfish and irresponsible, or the adults who, by their actions, tell children it is okay to do so?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Faith-based charity

Another reason to oppose faith-based charity: their priorities are completely screwed.

[Pope] Benedict--on the second day of a visit to his native Bavaria--said that spreading the word of Jesus Christ was more important than all the emergency and development aid that rich churches like those in Germany gave to poor countries.

Thanks to Pharyngula.


James Wimberley from the Reality-Based Community has reprinted an interesting letter from the International Herald Tribune:

President George W. Bush has rightly pointed out that America is addicted to oil, but he fails to note the predictable consequences. Addicts break into houses, steal stuff and shoot people. America is breaking into countries, stealing stuff and shooting people. Why is anyone surprised that those homeowners object to our addictive behavior?
Sheila Stoll Morcote, Switzerland

Why indeed?

Addicts, too, come up with the most incredible (in the literal sense) rationalisations for their anti-social behaviour: "they hate our freedoms".

How to avoid another Sept 11

Security expert Bruce Schneier discusses why there have been so few terrorist attacks since Sept 11, and how to avoid new ones:

Despite what you see in the movies and on television, it’s actually very difficult to execute a major terrorist act. It’s hard to organize, plan, and execute an attack, and it’s all too easy to slip up and get caught. Combine that with our intelligence work tracking terrorist cells and interdicting terrorist funding, and you have a climate where major attacks are rare. In many ways, the success of 9/11 was an anomaly; there were many points where it could have failed. The main reason we haven’t seen another 9/11 is that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Much of our counterterrorist efforts are nothing more than security theater: ineffectual measures that look good. Forget the “war on terror”; the difficulty isn’t killing or arresting the terrorists, it’s finding them. Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated as such. [...]

Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. If the CIA and FBI had done a better job of coordinating and sharing data in 2001, 9/11 would have been another failed attempt. Coordination has gotten better, and those agencies are better funded -- but it’s still not enough. Whenever you read about the billions being spent on national ID cards or massive data mining programs or new airport security measures, think about the number of intelligence agents that the same money could buy. That’s where we’re going to see the greatest return on our security investment.

September 11 was a tragedy and a crime, but the bigger crime was that the people supposedly responsible for defending "the free world", Bush, Cheney, Blair and their ilk, threw away the opportunity to actually make us safer, in return for foolish security theatre and naked aggression in the Middle East.

Too much information

A comedian recently had her trademark application turned down because one of the words in it (three letters, starts with C, ends with M, has a U in the middle *wink*) was "deemed scandalous" and therefore not eligible for registration.

United States Patent and Trademark Office examining attorney Patrick Shanahan is clearly very eager to do his job properly, because in his rejection he sent the comedian ten megabytes of photos, 21 pages worth, taken from two websites as proof that the word is "directly associated with degrading sexual acts".

More on BoingBoing.

Don't film that refinery!

BoingBoing is reporting on a journalist filming a story about the 73,000 evacuees who are still being held in a trailer park ghetto behind barbed wire. To give some sense of the conditions these people are living in, the journalist filmed the Exxon oil refinery next to the prison refugee camp.

He was charged with videotaping “critical national security structure".

[Detective Frank Pananepinto of Homeland Security], in justifying our impending bust, said, "If you remember, a lot of people were killed on 9/11."

Yes, I remember "a lot" of people were killed. So I have this suggestion, Detective — and you can pass it on to Mr. Bush: Go and find the people who killed them.

If you've done nothing wrong...

You've still got things to hide.

Here's a list of possible responses to those people who still come out with that obnoxiously naive claim that if you haven't done anything wrong, you should have no fear of the government (or corporations) spying on you.

"Then you won't have any problems with me sticking a hidden camera in your house then, will you?"

FSM my butt

This reader's letter to BoingBoing about the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may you be touched by his noodly appendage) is hilarious:

You guys are nuts.Come on a flying spaghetti monster?Look there is no such thing as a flying spaghetti monster.God created the world.This is only a jloke.Come on.A flying spaghetti monster/Flying spaghetti monster my butt.You should read the bible,pray,and go to a church.Come on.Have you ever even seen it.


See here for pictures and the full text of the letter.