Saturday, October 14, 2006

Richard Dawkins on video

British biologist Richard Dawkins gave a 22 minute presentation "Queerer Than We Suppose: The strangeness of science". It can be downloaded here.

And I mean downloaded. It is a pleasure to deal with a website that doesn't mess about with pointless, annoying streaming video in secret, proprietary (and usually low quality) formats. No stupid Flash, or mms protocol, no need to mess about with Mozilla to download an imbedded video file. No futzing about with Javascript or obfuscated URLs. If you're on a slower Internet connection, or just want to be able to watch the video off-line, it is such a relief to be able to just right-click and save-as, then come back ten or twenty minutes later to watch it in your time, not theirs.

Wikipedia 1, China 0

China has demanded that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google all censor their web applications or be banned. All three software giants -- reluctantly in the case of Google, seemingly willingly in the other two cases -- complied.

China also demanded that Wikipedia censor itself for Chinese viewers. Wikipedia refused, and the powers-that-be in Beijing responded by blocking access to Wikipedia from within China.

Or rather, they tried to block access. But it seems that China needs Wikipedia more than Wikipedia needs China -- after barely a month, China has stopped blocking Wikipedia, instead concentrating on the cat-and-mouse game of trying to block only certain sensitive (that is, embarassing to the political leaders) pages, like those on Tiananmen Square.

China is desperate to catch up to the West, and that means accessing our knowledge banks, especially the Internet. If China can't afford to block Wikipedia, they certainly can't afford to block Google, Microsoft or Yahoo -- let alone all three. China is bluffing with a pair of twos, and unlike Wikipedia, the three software giants didn't have the cajones to call their bluff.

Autism and psychopathy

Cory Doctorow from BoingBoing discusses autism and psychopathy, and intriging research that suggests that neither of these are mental disorders as such.

One small step for voting security

Cheating in competitions is hardly unknown. Cheating in elections isn't unknown -- in fact, elections use many varied mechanisms and checks and balances to prevent cheating. Hardly a year goes by without news reports of some illegitimate election in some place of the world or another.

The last six years of American elections show a series of "irregularities" pointing towards the likelihood of electoral fraud. It is very worrying to see some people still resisting calls to improve the security of electronic voting. There are many politicians seemingly in bed with voting machine manufacturers who are happy to sell machines with poor security.

So it comes as a welcome surprise to see a bipartisan majority of the US Congress introduce a bill to improve voting security. Of course, there is a long way from good intentions to actual good results, but this is a good first step.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Meet Thumbelina, officially recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's smallest horse: a mere 4 hands (17 inches or 43cm).

Thumbelina and friend

The Daily Mail writes:

'My parents have bred hundreds of miniature horses, but we have never had one as small as Thumbelina,' Mr Goessling said.

'She was just a complete fluke and we call her a mini mini.

'When she was young she found the dog kennels and decided she wanted to bed-in with the dogs, rather than with bigger horses.

'She spends all her time playing with the spaniels, but we have to try and stop her grazing on grass, because she is not allowed to eat too much.'


The tiny mare has become sometime of a celebrity in her home town in America, but Mr Goessling insists they will never sell her, no matter what price is offered.

'She is too precious to us to sell,' he added. 'I think my parents would sell me before they part with Thumbelina.

'She has that special Wow factor, which you only get when you physically see how small she really is.'

Canadian copyright snake oil

Music publishers have attempted to smuggle a provision into Canada's copyright law which would make Digital Restrictions Management software compulsory for on-line music distributers, effectively banning DRM-free music and forcing musicians to pay good money for DRM software -- even if they don't want it.

eMusic is the second largest on-line seller of digital music, all legal, all free of Digital Restrictions Management software. If the music publishers provision became law, eMusic would have to either stop selling to Canadians, or add DRM software to the music they sell, against the express wishes of the copyright owners.

This is just insanity, but it clearly demonstrates that DRM cannot survive in a free market. It is snake-oil. Making bits uncopyable is like making water not wet. The only way DRM suppliers can stay in business selling software snake oil is to take advantage of the frightened (or greedy, or both) music producers. The producers themselves have realised that their business model is dead, made obsolete by technology. Rather than adapt to changing markets, they turn to the government to outlaw -- or at least hamstring -- competitors who have adapted to the new technology.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Egregious abuse of copyright

Here's yet another example of the blatant abuse of the law as an anti-competitive measure: a shampoo company tries to prohibit a woman from legally and legitimately re-selling shampoo she's bought by claiming copyright infringement.

Book sales and Google

Remember Google Books, which according to the Chicken Littles in the publishing industry was going to destroy the book trade?

A report from Reuters shows that some of them are coming around:

Publishers are starting to report an uptick in sales from Google Inc.'s online program that lets readers peek inside books, two years after the launch of its controversial plan to digitally scan everything in print.

Google has been enlisting publishers to voluntarily submit their books so that Web searchers can more easily find titles related to their interests, but some fear the project could lead to piracy or exploitation of their copyrighted content.

"Google Book Search has helped us turn searchers into consumers," said Colleen Scollans, the director of online sales for Oxford University Press.

She declined to provide specific figures, but said that sales growth has been "significant". Scollans estimated that 1 million customers have viewed 12,000 Oxford titles using the Google program.


Specialty publisher Springer Science + Business reported sales growth of its backlist catalog using Google Book Search, with 99 percent of the 30,000 titles it has in the program getting viewed, including many published before 1992.

"We suspect that Google really helps us sell more books," said Kim Zwollo, Springer's global director of special licensing, declining to provide specific figures because the company is privately owned.

It isn't just Google books having this effect -- Amazon's similar service, where viewers can read small snippets of books before buying, also helps sales.

This isn't exactly rocket science. Imagine if book shops kept books sealed in plastic, and would-be buyers couldn't browse the book first. Sales would fall through the floor.

Democracy fights back

Programmer Clint Curtis has testified under oath that Representative Tom Feeney (Florida, Rep.) asked him to write a program to allow touch-screen voting machines that could "flip the vote 51-49 to whoever you wanted it to go to and whichever race you wanted to win."

At the time, Feeney was Speaker of the House of Florida at the time, as well as a lobbyist and corporate attorney for Curtis' employer. And for a change, it wasn't Diebold, it was Yang Enterprises Inc.

More on BoingBoing, and a YouTube video here.

Major software projects

Choose any three.

(Not that I'm cynical or anything like that. Not in the least.)

So N.Korea has the Bomb

After three or four years of "Yes they do", "No they don't", "Yes they do", "Maybe they don't", we know finally know: North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, no ifs buts or maybes.

Well, perhaps a few buts. France is publically wondering whether the test went as well as N.Korea wanted -- the explosion was very small. By design, or did it fizzle? And having nuclear weapons is one thing, but being able to deliver them is another: there is no indication that N.Korea has the practical technology to use the weapons in battle. Without a delivery system, the bomb itself is not terribly useful.

Of course, the world's major nuclear powers -- the USA, Russia, China, France, Britain -- are condemning the test. Nobody has the honesty to say "How dare you try to defend yourself against the thousands of nuclear weapons already aimed at you!" but that's what they're thinking. N.Korea is surrounded by enemies -- perhaps rightfully so, but nevertheless they are surrounded by enemies. At best, they have a strained relationship with China. They have hostile relationships with Russia, Japan and South Korea, and let's not forget the USA.

I'm not suggesting that N.Korea is the victim here. By all accounts, there are good reasons they are feared and distrusted by their neighbours. But regardless of who is right and who is wrong, who's good and who's bad, if the rest of the world wants them to not defend themselves, what's in it for them?

Hawks often accuse doves of being impractical and of having heads filled with airy-fairy ideas of peace and brothership of all mankind. That's a load of malarky. It's the hawks who are impractical and foolish in their reliance of what I call the two-year-old model of international relations: if you shake your fist and scream and shout and stomp your feet and threaten to hit people, they will give you what you want. Of course, the hawks don't often literally scream -- that worked for Hitler against Chamberlain, in private, but in public it just makes you look like a buffoon. (An interesting case involves USSR Premier Nikita Krushchev: did he or didn't he bang his shoe on the table at the UN?) No, the hawks dress up their threats in polite language, but it comes to the same thing really: Gimme! The fatal flaw in the strategy of threatening an enemy if they don't give up their nukes is, once they have nukes, you can no longer make good on your threats without suffering yourself.

Of course, regardless of N.Korea's practical ability to strike at other countries with their nuclear bombs, or more to the point their inability, this could destabilise the area. Japan, in particular, may feel it is in their best interests to have their own nuclear deterrant, and not be reliant on the US nuclear umbrella which could so easily be turned against them, although the Japanese constitution forbids them from developing nuclear weapons.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Vigilantes on a Plane

A top British designer and well-known architect was assaulted on a plane and escorted from his flight by a vigilante claiming to be a police officer, while the airline staff did nothing and the passengers cheered.

Just another day at the airport for Muslims, Arabs, Indians and Sikhs, right? Except there was a catch.

The architect, Seth Stein, is Jewish.

The reported sequence of events is:

  1. Concerned by Stein's tanned skin and his iPod, a passenger identifying himself as Michael Wilk and claiming to be a police officer alerted the cabin crew that Stein was acting suspiciously by going to the toilet.

  2. The cabin crew informed the supposed "police officer" that the captain had done a security check on Stein and cleared him, and asked him to return to his seat.

  3. On returning to his seat, Wilk assaulted Stein, grabbing him in a headlock and rummaging around in his clothes and pockets. The cabin crew did nothing to intervene.

  4. On arriving in New York, Stein was escorted from the plane, to the applause of the frightened sheeple on the plane.

  5. Embarassed police at New York helped fast-track Stein out of the airport.

Why were the people on the plane frightened? Because the supposed police officer cried Wolf. There was no reason to be afraid except that "Wilk" (if that is his real name) made them frightened with his bogus accusation that Stein was a terrorist.

Remember, the aim of terrorists is to spread fear. Killing people is just a means to an end. "Wilk" succeeded in spreading fear and anxiety, and he did it, not by claiming to be a terrorist, but by falsely accusing somebody else of being a terrorist.

But notice the really scary thing. Wilk could easily have planted something in Stein's pockets. A printed bomb threat. A packet of white powder. A bottle of liquid. How easy would it be to frame some innocent party for making terrorist threats? If Stein had been some angry young Arab who took a swing at the real cops when they came on board, who would believe that he'd been stitched up?

The original story (now archived) is here. The story has been mirrored here, and Bruce Schneier discusses it here.

Juan Mann. One Hug.

A little inspirational story about One Man and his campaign to give free hugs to strangers in the streets of Sydney.

YouTube video here.

The story behind it is here.

Today, the hugger was at it again, brandishing his "free hugs" sign in the busy pedestrian thoroughfare, and having quite a few people take him up on his offer.

"It's a way to make people smile," Mann said.

"For every person who gets a hug, you see five walk past with a smile on their face."

Juan Mann (pronounced one man) is a play on words, but the hugger insisted his rules included no names, no phone numbers, no relationships and no dates.


But his efforts to spread the love became a little too popular for some people's liking, according to a blurb on the YouTube video, which said: "As this symbol of human hope spread across the city, police and officials ordered the Free Hugs campaign BANNED."

Undeterred, Mann collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition he presented to the City of Sydney council. Demands for a halt to the hugs petered out shortly after, and the end of the clip shows Mann hugging an official.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where the Sick Puppies moved a year ago, the lead singer [Shimon Moore] said he mixed the video with their song All The Same as a gift for his friend, to lift his spirits after his grandmother died.

It had the desired effect. Four days ago, the band posted the clip on YouTube. By 3pm today, it had close to 700,000 hits and almost 6000 comments, most of them gushing.

Like this one: "Made me cry. I love you all!"

The musician said the video had taken Mann's mission worldwide.

"He's achieved what he set out to do and I was lucky enough to be there to film it," Moore said.

Thanks to Pharyngula.

The Brokeback Mountains of Madness

The Brokeback Mountains of Madness

Click image for larger version. Original here.


As the train I caught this morning was packed solid with commuters, I couldn't read as I normally like to, on account of being jammed up against the door with my face pressed into the window. Consequently I happened to be staring out the window just at the right time to see Super-bird fly alongside the train.

It was wonderful! A small bird, perhaps some sort of starling, mostly grey with a bright yellow beak and fluorescent green and yellow feathers on its back, kept up with the train effortlessly for almost 500 metres, from one station to the next. It didn't just happen to be flying at the same speed as the train, it was pacing the train, flying alongside the track for the best part of half a kilometre, and kept level with the window I was looking through until the train slowed down for the next stop. The last I saw of Super-bird, it was flying down the train track, presumably rushing to a crime scene or to save the world from destruction.

I feel lucky and privileged to have witnessed it, and humbled by the thought that if I had been a few feet away, or facing the other direction, I would have missed it.

No-fly list and security

Bruce Schneier has a couple of good blog entries about airport security.

Firstly, he discusses a proposal to pass government employees with security clearances through airport security quickly, and why it is a bad idea.

This issue is no different than searching airplane pilots, something that regularly elicits howls of laughter among amateur security watchers. What they don't realize is that the issue is not whether we should trust pilots, airplane maintenance technicians or people with clearances. The issue is whether we should trust people who are dressed as pilots, wear airplane-maintenance-tech IDs or claim to have clearances.

The second discusses the No Fly list. The American Sixty Minutes television program has got their hands on the list, and discovered -- no surprises here -- that it:

[...] includes names of people not likely to cause terror, including the president of Bolivia, people who are dead and names so common, they are shared by thousands of innocent fliers.


But the names of some of the most dangerous living terrorists or suspects are kept off the list.

The 11 British suspects recently charged with plotting to blow up airliners with liquid explosives were not on it, despite the fact they were under surveillance for more than a year.

If you were hired as a consultant to implement a scheme that kept tens of thousands of people reminded of terrorism every day, keep them in a low-level state of anxiety, while still doing nothing to seriously inconvenience real terrorists, it would be hard to come up with a strategy better than the No Fly list.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

You thought Russia and the US were friendly?

With both the US and Russia in imperial moods, it is all smiles in public while daggers are clutched behind their backs. And the latest trouble is over Russia's neighbour, Georgia.

Russia sees Georgia as within their sphere of influence. Historically, Georgia has been part of both the old Russian empire for centuries, and in recent times part of the USSR. Stalin himself was a Georgian. There are many Russians living in Georgia, and Georgians in Russia.

All that began to change a few years ago, with the electoral victory of a pro-US president. In just a few short years, Georgia has politically moved away from the Russians into the arms of the US. The Georgian army uses American uniforms and equipment and is trained by American advisors. Georgia has become actively hostile to Russia, accusing them of imperial designs on Georgia, and of deliberately trying to keep Georgia weak and divided. Russia, for its part, sees the Georgian President as a tool of the Americans, aimed at surrounding Russia with hostile countries that are nothing more than American client states.

Both countries have accused the other of blackmail and terrorism.

Not surprisingly, the Americans are very keen to see Georgia, with its valuable oil pipelines, remain in their sphere of influence rather than Russia's. They have invested heavily in the career of the Georgian President.

There is even the threat of war between the two. Although Georgia's military is no match for Russia's, Russia has greater political reasons for avoiding war. While a full-blown war is unlikely, a proxy war between separatists and the Georgian government is more likely.

More here.

Voting software security

Bruce Schneier has something to say about a Los Angeles election official who defended the choice of secret, proprietary voting software:

What she should be saying is something like: "I think it's odd that everyone who has any expertise in computer security doesn't want the software to be proprietary. Speaking as someone who knows nothing about computer security, I think that secrecy is an asset." That's a more realistic quote.

The use of secret, proprietary security products is something which makes security experts either laugh or cry; laugh, because it is such a foolish thing to do, and cry because it invariably ends up making the security weaker rather than stronger. Secret security products are invariably snake-oil, or worse.

It is like this: which would you rather trust, a public lock made to a standard, one that any locksmith can inspect at will? Or a secret lock, made by a single company that tells you it is secure, but won't let anybody independent inspect it?

In the first case, the security of the lock depends on the properties of the lock itself. It must be secure, even if people know how it works. But in the second case, the proprietary, secret lock works only if people don't know how it works. Once the bad guys discover its secrets, and they will, they can crack it with impunity, and nobody will know.

Of course the analogy with locks is not perfect -- ordinary locks are very simple to pick. They are more of a deterrant to casual thieves than a really secure system. But the principle holds: inherent security beats secret security every time. If you really want to protect something, you protect it with something that doesn't lose its power if you know how it works.

Report on the future president

Thanks to the miracle of TCP/IP over tachyon, we have a news report from November 5th 2008, when an unknown write-in candidate, 19 year old Diebold technician Billy Pustule, will surprise both the general public and political pundits by being elected President of the USA with an unprecedented victory.

Losing Republican candidate Bill Frist also expressed concern that the democratic process may have been "tainted".

"You ever play poker with a big group of guys," he said, "and your partner's the dealer, and he slips you a beautiful quartet of aces without anybody noticing, and you've done this all a bunch of times before so you're feeling pretty confident and play all in, and then some other guy flips over a straight flush? Well, that's about how I'm feeling right about now."

Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter

Oh my, this has got to go on my Must Watch list.

Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter.

There is a review (with screen shots and even a short movie clip of Jesus kicking some unrighteous atheist butt) here.

So where is the shock?

Monday's headline on Melbourne's free gossip rag, MX, was "Pope sex shock". They reported that a BBC documentary revealed that Pope Benedict XVI (formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger before he changed his name for legal reasons) was involved in the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse and rape by Catholic priests.

So where's the shock? The Catholic Church has been protecting sexual predators for decades -- the BBC reported on a leaked secret Vatican document from 1962, the Crimen Sollicitationis (they sure love their Latin), that sets out the procedures to follow. The document imposes an oath of secrecy on the child victim, the priest dealing with the allegation and any witness.

To learn that the Pope followed Church policy is no surprise. It would have been shocking to learn that Ratzinger had disagreed with the Church policy of protecting the abusers.

As cardinal, Ratzinger was head of the powerful Congregation of the Doctrine of The Faith, the department charged with promoting Catholic teachings on morals and faith, and for 20 years he was responsible for enforcing the Crimen Sollicitationis. In 2001 he issued a secret Vatican edict to bishops instructing them to put the Church's interests ahead of the safety and well-being of the children. (They sure love their secrets as well as their Latin -- anyone would think that the people charged with guarding humanity's morals were ashamed of the things they do.) Victims' silence was enforced by the threat of excommunication.

Naturally enough, when faced with the evidence that the Pope was involved in covering up sexual assault on children, the Archbishop of Birmingham Vincent Nichols accused the BBC of "a deeply prejudiced attack on a revered world religious leader" by revealing what the "revered world religious leader" has actually done in his position of power. According to Nichols, the real bad guys are not the priest abusers or their bishops who covered up their crimes or the cardinals who created Chuch policy, but the BBC for reporting on what the Pope's morals are really like.

Which tells us a lot about the sort of moral midgets who rise to power in the Catholic Church.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hoist by his own petard

Republican ("family values") Party Congressman Mark Foley was one of the co-sponsors of "the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006", which was signed into law by President Bush this year. This law makes it a criminal offence to discuss sexual acts or solicit sex from people under the age of 18.

So it is sweet, sweet justice that Congressman Foley has been hoist by his own petard. It seems that Foley has been soliciting sex from 16 year old Washington interns for years, and the GOP leadership has known about his predatory abuse of power for almost a year and done nothing about it.

Many of these are the same people who treated Bill Clinton as a criminal and monster for his consensual relationship with adult Monica Lewinsky, and now have been caught out ignoring one of their own committing serious sexual abuse against minors. Unlike Clinton, Foley wasn't involved in consensual relationships, but was pressing his intentions where they weren't wanted.

Amusingly, if he had actually had sex with these teenagers, it would be legal in almost all American states, if not for the pesky law which he helped write. Seems that the age of consent in most US states is 16. What was he thinking to co-write a law that made his own actions a criminal offense -- and then keep doing them???

It also shows the foolishness of the law he wrote -- it is a criminal offence to talk about sex to 16 year olds, but not to have sex with them. Puh-lease!

Link via Jim Lippard.

Library calls for update to copyright laws

It isn't just "pirates", unwashed hippies and computer geeks who are upset at the current direction copyright law is being pushed. The national British Library, also wants copyright law to be updated.

The British Library warned that the law could easy be rendered obsolete by changes in technology, and that technologies like Digital Restrictions Management software was riding roughshod over the rights given by Copyright Law. In effect, DRM takes away rights that the law gives.

(Actually, it isn't quite that simple, since copyright law itself is based on the idea of taking away or limiting what a property owner can do with his or her own property, in order to give the creator of the work extra rights. But those rights that are left over, rights based on the fundamental right for a person to do anything they choose to do with their own property, are being rendered irrelevent and meaningless by DRM software.)

"One of the key problems is that the limitations and exceptions to copyright law are being ignored by business, which is imposing restrictive licenses on digital content," Suw Charman, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told ZDNet UK.

Charman said DRM restrictions could be particularly damaging for academic research.

The British Library also raised the issue of "orphaned works" -- copyrighted material that is locked up because nobody knows who owns the copyright. In many cases, that material exists on old film which is literally rotting away by the day. Movies from the early 20th century is going to be lost forever because nobody is legally permitted to copy it without the copyright holder's permission, but nobody knows who the copyright holder is.

Exit strategy

Bob the Angry Flower is smashing his hand with a hammer. Repeatedly. And now he's looking for an exit strategy.

Smashing hand
Click here for the full cartoon.

In related news, The Onion discusses the American troops' exit strategy for Iraq:

In a striking rebuke of the assertions of the Pentagon and the White House that a swift exit is neither practical nor possible, soldiers of varying rank have outlined a straightforward plan of immediate disengagement, dubbed "Operation Screw This."

No photocopies will be accepted

I recently got sent an email by a friend for an on-line competition at Borders booksellers. Nothing terribly exciting -- you get sent a unique URL to visit, with a one-in-a-bazillion chance of winning something interesting, and when you lose, they give you a consolation prize: something like "buy three magazines, get 10% discount on the fourth" sort of thing.

The consolation price is supplied as a PDF file. It says:

    Only valid on presentation of original voucher, no photocopied vouchers will be accepted.

For the benefit of the lawyers who wrote this thing and are probably scratching their head in puzzlement over why I am pointing this out, I will point out that it is an electronic PDF file. There is no "original voucher" when the user can print out a thousand identical copies. Prohibiting photocopies just makes no sense when the user can just print out another copy.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Three years in Gitmo for telling a joke

Badr Zamen Badr and his brother ran a satirical magazine in Pakistan that poked fun at corrupt Islamic clerics. Their mistake was to publish an unflattering poem about a local politican.

He threatened them, and then accused them of being involved with al Qaeda. For three years, the United States government has acted as the personal enforcer for a spiteful foreign politician with a grudge and no sense of humour.

Jim Lippard has more.

Best wedding cake ever

The amount of work that was put into this Discworld wedding cake is astounding.
Discworld cake

More photos here.

Missing "a" found

The first person on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has defended himself for years against the charge that he screwed up his famous quote "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". Armstrong has always claimed that he actually said "one small step for a man", and that the low transmission quality caused the "a" to be lost.

It seems that Armstrong was right.

More Wikipedia bashing

If it wasn't so frustrating, it would be amusing to see Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics and his frequent efforts to bag Wikipedia.

He's taken up prefacing every attack on Wikipedia with a explanation of just how much he likes it, no really, he likes it just fine. This time, he gloats that the US Patent Office has removed Wikipedia from their list of approved sources of information when they have to check a patent application. Apparently, the US Patent Office has, up until now, been using Wikipedia as an official source "for years", according to critic Greg Aharonian.

I smell a rat. Wikipedia wasn't even close to ready for prime time as recently as two years ago; it's arguable whether or not it is ready now (although I would argue that, used with care, it is). It certainly wasn't heavily in the public eye two years ago. I find it difficult to credit that an organisation as conservative as the US Patent Office would have been using Wikipedia in 2004.

But what the hey, maybe it was an official source. Stranger things have happened.

Dubner writes:

The argument in defense of Wikipedia that I find most troubling is that it is self-correcting and self-policing, which is to say that, Hey, in the end all the mistakes and vendettas get fixed by caring and level-headed people.

If being self-correcting and self-policing (rather like the free markets Dubner champions as an economist) is a bad thing, what's the alternative? An official government fact-checking agency? We could call it The Department of Homeland Truth, and make sure that only things that get approved by the bureaucrats in the government are printed.

Perhaps not.

Maybe Dubner thinks that the self-correcting model is a bad one, and that the correct model is something like that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is ... self-correcting and self-policing. Hmmm.

So what is his point? As an economist, he surely knows that all of science (including the Dismal Science, economics) is self-correcting and self-policing, and operates by concensus rather than fiat.

Science and knowledge advances according to what is said, not by who says it. Britanica has got a reputation to uphold, and it may be that we can trust that they value their reputation enough that we should treat the facts they publish as trustworthy; but ultimately we have to take their word for it. In other words, we believe Britannica because of who they are. Wikipedia instead exposes the whole messy business of deciding what's true and what isn't, and that is far more valuable, even more valuable than the facts themselves. If Wikipedia says something is a fact, we can (if we take the time and effort) see exactly why we should believe it.

Dubner has made an empirical claim here. He stated:

The problem, of course, is that if someone happens to read or cite a Wikipedia entry at a moment when all those things haven’t been fixed, which is obviously a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, then the mistakes get promulgated as fact.

Dubner claims that, on average, supposed "facts" in Wikipedia are wrong not just the majority of the time, not just the vast majority of the time, but the vast, vast, vast majority of the time.

I'm not sure what the difference between "vast majority" and "vast, vast, vast majority" would be. 51% is clearly "the majority", and it stretches the common meaning of the words "vast majority" to apply it to anything less than a four-fifths majority. Three vasts surely means something like 999,999 in a million, but let's give Dubner the benefit of the doubt and make it a nice low 90%. So Dubner believes that, overall, any supposed fact on Wikipedia will be wrong at least 90% of the time.

That's an empirical claim that can be tested. Choose (say) one thousand random Wikipedia entries, and count the number of supposed facts in those entries. If more than one in ten are correct, then Dubner is full of sh.. mistaken.

Of course, not all Wikipedia entries are of equal quality. I dare say that there are obscure "facts" on pages that have never been checked since they were created that are wrong; no doubt there are entries with all the trustworthiness of gossip magazines. So what? Lazy and incompetent researchers will treat bad sources as if they are good sources, Wikipedia doesn't change anything there. Ten years ago, people used The Little Bumper Book Of Fun Facts For Tiny Tots as their major reference, and now they use the Internet the same way. Bad reseachers will treat anything they read as infallible, not just Wikipedia. If you are doing "real" (i.e. important) research, you should not be relying on any single source of information, whether it is Wikipedia or Britannica, because no single source is error-free. Good researchers will treat Wikipedia as it is meant to be used: look for citations, and follow the link to verify the facts. And unlike most other secondary sources, Wikipedia warns you when caution is needed.

The Smell

I think I've meet the closest thing in Australia to Foul Ole Ron.

There was a fellow at the train station this morning, heavily bearded but dressed in reasonably neat and clean-looking, if lower working class, clothes. His clothes might have been clean, but the rest of him wasn't. He stank so badly that the smell was deserving of a capital letter, like Foul Ole Ron's Smell.

I don't have the most sensitive nose on the planet -- there are probably rocks with a better sense of smell than me -- but the stench of this fellow was making me ill. The miasma he was giving off actually remained in the area for minutes after he walked to the other end of the platform.

I've been within smelling distance of people covered in honest sweat, and even dishonest sweat. I've been exposed to the smell of beggers, and people who don't wash during the height of Aussie summers, and folks whose diet includes much garlic or curry, and even one person who has a metabolic disorder such that, five minutes after stepping out of the shower, he smells like he's just run a marathon and been dipped in vinegar.

None of them came close to this bloke. For the first time ever, I think I understand what it must be like to be a bloodhound, and to be able to follow trails of scent through the air. If I wasn't trying to keep away from him, I could probably have tracked him blindfolded just by following the smell he left in his wake.

He didn't, however, say "Millenium Hand and Shrimp" or "Bugrit", so I guess he isn't the real Foul Ole Ron.

And for that, we can all be grateful.

I aten't dead

I haven't posted anything since last Wednesday, not because I've been dead, but because Real Life interfered, as it is wont to do. Between work commitments and family commitments and rescuing damsels in distress this is the first chance I've had to blog anything.