Tuesday, January 30, 2007


One of the best science fiction TV programs around these days is Heroes. Despite the derivative premise (sort of a three-way mutant hybrid of the X-Men, the X Files and 24) Heroes is quality television: well-written, well-acted, well-made, with excellent production values and characters you can really care about.

Alas, one thing really grates on my nerves: an egregious mistake in plain English by the voice-over at the start of many episodes. One of the heroes is schoolgirl Claire Bennet, who has the power to regenerate from virtually any physical injury. That makes her invulnerable to permanent injury.

Not according to the voice-over, which describes her as "invincible". As in, can't be beaten or defeated.

I'm not the only one who gets annoyed at this mistake. Wandering teh Interweb more or less at random, I stumbled across this post on LiveJournal:

every time the voiceover at the start of an episode refers to Claire as "invincible", we shout "GET A DICTIONARY, DUDES!" Sure, she's effectively "invulnerable" and apparently, well, ultimately ~coughs~ unkillable. But invincible? No bloody way. All it takes to conquer her, as it were, is Daddy Bennet saying, "Claire, you're grounded!" :P

Sunday, January 28, 2007

When a nation eats its young

I recently blogged about the fact that Iraq is turning against its own young, targeting University students (especially women) for death, and how that cannot help but lead to an atavistic decline in Iraqi culture and society.

In a similar vein, the rise of conservative values in the USA has, in its own way, lead to the brutalizing of America's youth. The Reality-Based Community's Mark Kleiman writes about the abuse of America's children. He quotes from a reader:

These were 13-14-15 year old children, and we tortured them, we tortured each other into proclaiming the desired truth, and we did it at the behest of so called conservatives. I saw broken bones, people covered head to toe in bruises, people who were not allowed to go to the bathroom, people stripped naked in private homes and taunted for 8 hours a night, then taken into the 'building' and taunted for 10-12 hour days, every day for a year, two years, three years. I was there, I saw it, I did it. I live with it everyday of my life. I live with the nightmares of being abused, and the far worse nightmares of being the abuser.

This isn't a rare exception to the treatment of kids at "boot camp", it's the norm. ReasonMag has more about the institutionalised torture at "tough love" boot camps:

The state of Florida tortured 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson to death for trespassing. The teen had been sentenced to probation in 2005 for taking a joy ride in a Jeep Cherokee that his cousins stole from his grandmother. Later that year, he crossed the grounds of a school on his way to visit a friend, a violation of his probation. His parents were given a choice between sending him to boot camp and sending him to juvenile detention. They chose boot camp, believing, as many Americans do, that “tough love” was more likely to rehabilitate him than prison.

Less than three hours after his admission to Florida’s Bay County Sheriff’s Boot Camp on January 5, 2006, Anderson was no longer breathing. He was taken to a hospital, where he was declared dead early the next morning.

In no way shape or form am I one of those airy-fairy rose-coloured-glasses romantics who thinks that children are all (or even mostly) sweet innocents who want nothing more than to grow up to give the world a group-hug. "Tough love" isn't an oxymoron: what we want and what we need are not necessarily the same thing. But by his fruits ye shall know him: it is clear that many -- perhaps the majority, perhaps even all -- of the boot camps aren't about rehabilitating children or teaching them to be better people, but about mean-spirited and thoughtless punishment for the sake of punishment. If, at the end of the process you get decent young people, then that's a lucky accident. If, instead, you get brutalised, broken, hardened anti-social thugs, well, you've just guaranteed yourself clients for the next three or four years until they turn 18. And after that? Time to buy shares in the many private prisons (one of the few growth industries in the USA today).

And thus the vicious circle continues: a broken society produces broken children, who in turn grow up to form a broken society.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The rats are back

Wild rats can lead to serious problems. The most serious is that rats can carry disease, including the dreaded Black Death that repeatedly decimated Europe and Asia. Rats can also chew electrical cables, causing house fires. They are, in short, a problem.

In the UK, especially London, they're suffering from a plague of them. And the cause is yet another market failure.

As Johann Hari of the Independent explains, the public water authorities used to control rat numbers in the London sewers. This practice stopped in 1998, when the Tories sold the water monopoly to the private corporation Thames Water. Naturally, Thames Water didn't see why they should pay to bait the sewers when they could just pocket the money instead.

All across Britain, water companies like Thames Water are neglecting to deal with the issue of rats. In Westminster, the rat popoulation rose so drastically, and the council begged Thames Water to act. Eventually, the council started baiting the sewers themselves, using public money, to try to avoid the consequences of Thames Water's negligence.

Hari explains:

The explosion of rats across Britain is another bleak parable about the folly of market fundamentalism. Rather than seeing markets as a useful tool, the Tories saw them as the One Shining Truth, the solution to all problems. This led them into a startling corporate giveaway. They simply transferred money from the tax-payer - you and me - to wealthy share-holders by paying off £5bn of water company debt, selling off the system at 22 per cent of its market rate, and even exempting the new private monopolies from paying profits taxes. Money that was once spent killing rats was simply handed to corporate shareholders.

Even on its own terms, this was crazy. For all their talk of markets, the Tories had failed to understand why markets work, and the regulations left the responsibilities of the water companies dangerously vague. It's not private ownership in itself that makes markets efficient - it's competition. There is no competition in water. Nobody is going to build a second set of taps in your home, giving you a choice of providers.

Privatising a natural monopoly simply licenses fleecing of the customer for private profit. The water barons have increased their pay by 200 per cent since privatisation, whacked up prices by more than 50 per cent - and slowed to a trickle all the vital public interest procedures such as sewer-baiting and infrastructure repairs.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

About time those spammers got with the program

I've been waiting years for this piece of spam!

Last week, I received a variation on the Nigerian 419 spam from "Sergeant Louis Martins", an American sodier from the 3rd Infantry Division serving in Iraq. (Sure he is.) Sgt. Martins, so the scam says, has "secretly moved" boxes of gold that used to belong to Saddam Hussein to Kuwait. For "secretly moved", read "stole".

I'm disappointed and saddened that the scammers are so unimaginative and conservative. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, sixteen years after Saddam Hussein first came to American's notice as a bad guy, and scammers are only just starting to take advantage of Saddam's supposed illicit gold to bait the gullible. Tsk tsk tsk.

And let's not forget Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's money... "Hello, I am Gharam. My husband, Mohammad, was Osama bin Laden's accountant. God be praised, my poor late husband was so unhappy at bin Laden's horrible attack on your country that he stole US$30 million dollars from al Qaeda's secret Swiss bank account. He was tortured horribly but did not tell them where the money is hidden. Because I am just a woman, I do not know how to get the money out of the country to provide for our children. By God's will, you will help me, for which I will naturally pay you 10% for your trouble..."

If any scammer out there wants to use this to rob foolish Americans, I'll take a very reasonable 2% cut of the proceeds.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Quote of the decade

This gets my vote for the most insightful quote from the last decade, from Bruce Schneier about the American "No Fly Lists":

Imagine a list of suspected terrorists so dangerous that we can't ever let them fly, yet so innocent that we can't arrest them - even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act.

And that, I think, sums up the irrationality and insanity of the Bush administration.

The fall to barbarism

A day doesn't go by without some sort of killing, bombing or other attrocity in Iraq. Normally I don't mention them, since I have little to add beyond the excellent Informed Comment website.

However, on this occasion I will comment. This is how a relatively modern (by Third World standards) country sinks into barbarism: first the upper and middle class flee the country, and then those few who remain become targets to be killed. Last Tuesday, unknown terrorists used a car bomb and a suicide bomber to kill at least seventy students, mostly girls, at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University. Mustansiriya University is one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1232 by the Caliph al-Mustansir. (The University hasn't had an uninterrupted existence for the entire 770 years, but even so, that's quite impressive.)

As Juan Cole explains, Iraq's status as a (relatively) literate, educated nation is not just at risk but grievously harmed. Education, particularly of women, is essential for any nation wanting to climb out of poverty. Unfortunately, Iraq's women have gone from a respectable 75% literacy rate (by Middle East standards) to a cripplingly low 25%. With terrorists now deliberately targeting University women for kidnapping and murder, and now bombings, few families are prepared to let their daughters go to school, let alone college. This bodes badly for the future of Iraq. So much for Bush's vision of Iraq as a shining beacon of democracy and civilization in the Middle East.

Cole explains:

We should be clear why these bombings are taking place. It is because Bush's policy in Iraq was total victory, along with his Shiite and Kurdish allies, over the previously dominant Sunni Arabs. Bush did this thing as a zero sum game, one where there is only one pie and if one person gets a bigger piece, someone else gets a tiny sliver. The Sunni Arabs-- among the best educated and most capable people in the country-- were offered the tiny sliver. They won't accept US troops in their country for the most part, and won't accept reduction to a small powerless minority. They have succeeded in provoking the Shiites to form guerrilla groups and engage in reprisal killings, as well, as a way of destabilizing the country. Bush's allies won't share power and wealth with them, and Bush himself keeps pushing for what he calls "victory." Today is what his victory looks like after nearly 4 years, and it is highly unlikely to look different any time soon.

The mess of Iraq is what happens when hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-headed so-called "realists" treat international relations as a game of football: if one side wins, the other must lose. Only a small minority of non-trivial interactions between people and countries are zero-sum in this way. Virtually all of human history has been the slow but steady increase in the number of positive-sum interactions, and yet world leaders who treat international relations as a poker game (or worse, a boxing match) are treated as intelligent "realists" who understand how the world works. And those who understand the principles of cooperation and compromise are denigrated as soft, touchy-feelie, fuzzy-headed, "Give Peace A Chance"-singing, naive liberals.

What nonsense this is. Consider Iraq's hypothetical weapons of mass destruction. I think we all agree that, had Iraq really been in league with terrorists (they weren't) and had they actually had WMD (they didn't) it would have been worrying, dangerous or even deadly for Western democracies.

Imagine that everything the Bush administration said was true actually was true. Which solution would have been smarter -- for the US to shoulder the burden on their own by insisting on a unilateral decision to invade? Of for them to cooperate with their allies, make it an international effort, so that the burden was shared by the benefactors?

Daddy Bush handled the first Iraq War the second way, and look how well it turned out: a clear plan with a clear mission. (You may not agree with the mission, think it didn't go far enough, but they did what they set out to do.) The UN was, if not completely united, at least united enough.

Junior Bush, on the other hand, told the rest of the world "my way or the highway" and, predictably, the rest of the world (with a few exceptions) left the US to carry the can. The US pays the cost of making the world safe (ha!) for democracy, effectively saying "Stand back France, we'll throw our boys into the quagmire of Iraq so you can be safe! No, don't thank us, it's a dirty job but somebody has to do it."

And that, according to the "realists" and neo-cons and hawks, is the smart solution.

On the other hand, if we assume the American government knew what they were doing, then it puts a different perspective on the whole sorry story. If the talk about democracy and international security was just a cover for an old-fashioned power grab -- controlling the oil -- then it makes sense for the US to have treated it as a zero-sum game. Control of the oil is zero-sum: Iraq had it, now they don't and America has it instead. Security, peace, trade and democracy are all non-zero, and it is stupid for America to bleed for the benefit of others without expecting them to cooperate in return. A cooperative, multinational force grudgingly invited by Saddam into Iraq would have given the nations of the world security, but would not have given the USA control of the oil.

If the neo-cons knew what they were doing, then talk of combating terrorism was a sham, and the chaos and instability caused by the invasion were side-effects: America gets the benefits (control of the strategic oil fields) and the whole world shares the costs of terrorism -- especially those Iraqi women blown up for the heinous act of trying to get an education.

Are the neo-cons behind this stupid, wicked war stupid or wicked? Me, my money is on both.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pine-lime splice on wheels

Yesterday, Mrs Impala and I were driving the Kitten home when I noticed we were being followed by a car that looked just like a giant pine-lime Splice.
Pine-lime splice
It was a "sporty" (that is, jelly-mould) Ford something-or-other, driven by the sort of under-20 male driver who probably chose the car "to pick up the chicks mate, pick up the chicks!". The Kitten made the observation that the only girls that car would impress would be 13 year-olds from the Pines who'd be swept off their feet by the fact it wasn't a baby-poo brown Ford Cortina.

Hmmm... maybe you had to be there. It was a lot funnier live.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Don't post that air!

A true story of security theatre from FedEx, refusing to transport empty containers not because of what's in them (sugar and air) but because of how they're labelled.

The FedEx guy then grabs cans of nitrogen (N2) and neon (Ne), with their store-advertised "purity" of 78.084% and 0.0018% respectively (which was our way of being clever about selling cans of normal air, since that's their percentage in the atmosphere [...]

FedEx guy: Nope. You can't ship these either.

Me: But... they're empty! It's just air. And... nitrogen? It's, like, almost 80% of the atmosphere. There's nothing dangerous about nitrogen, even if it were pure.

FedEx guy: They look too much like bomb-making materials.

Consequences and martyrdom

Professor Juan Cole is reporting that one of the predictable consequences of Saddam Hussein's execution is the revival of the Iraqi Baath Party and its successors, such as the Awdah ("the Return") Party. Saddam, whose name was mud after the successful overthrow of his government, is now a hero to a large percentage of Iraqis. And I dare say, even amongst those who don't support the Baath Party, there will be a lot of people thinking "He might have been a bastard, but he was our bastard".

Anyone would think the US was deliberately setting out to cause chaos and disorder in Iraq...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Petrol price insanity

On the radio this morning, I heard perhaps one of the stupidest, most arbitrary, craziest rules ever enacted in a commercial setting.

A cashier of a petrol station rang the radio station for some competition, and the DJ asked him "What will I pay for petrol at your station today?". The cashier answered that he was forbidden to tell people the price of petrol over the phone.

Not the cost price, or the wholesale price, but the retail price.

It isn't like this was a commercially sensitive piece of information. It is public knowledge: the petrol station, like all the other petrol stations in the country, put their prices up on display in numerals three feet high. There is no conceivable reason for secrecy that withstands more than two seconds of thought.

Maybe, just maybe, if petrol stations were all independently owned, and prices were extremely competitive, and mobile phones didn't exist, a petrol station could delay -- not prevent -- their competitors from finding out what their price was by forcing them to send out "spies" onto the road rather than just make phone calls.

But none of those things are true: the vast bulk of stations are operated by the big oil companies (Shell, Mobile, Caltex and BP). Prices are set by the oil companies, and for the most part are the same all over the city. Like many businesses, petrol stations tend to clump in an area: many are literally across the road or next door to a competitor, so finding out the competition's price is a matter of looking out the window.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Google/Blogger privacy warning

I just noticed something... new improved Blogger requires you to sign in with your Google account, which means that Google can match the searches you perform with your Blogger account.

Hmmm... I think it's about time to investigate Yahoo Search -- especially as Firefox includes a "Yahoo search" engine, built right into the toolbar.


This is an oldy, but a goody.

Some years ago, Yahoo added a "security" feature to Yahoo mail. If you wrote a "rich text" (that is, HTML) email, Yahoo scans your email and changes certain words (like eval) that have special meaning to web browsers to more innoculous equivalents.

Unfortunately, they don't limit themselves to changing words in contexts where a web-browser will attempt to run them as code (such as within HTML script tags) but anywhere in your email, including embedded in words -- a clear case of simple-minded programming committing overkill for supposed "security".

And so medireview was born, from medieval.

While Yahoo won't reveal what words are replaced, tests show that at least the following replacements are made:

eval to review
mocha to espresso
expression to statement
javascript to java-script
livescript to live-script

More details here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Plagarism insanity

Professor Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin discusses plagarism in the academic world:

From a page by the University of Phoenix, 2002 called Avoiding Plagiarism:
Citation, http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/long_longman_uoplezap_1/medialib/ap/apapa/media/d3_bot.htm,
accessed August 1, 2005.

    Example of plagiarism:

    Carl Sagan (1979) describes science as a means of critically examining the world around us in which both sensory perceptions and even common sense may deceive us. As he states in Broca's Brain, "Our intuition is by no means an infallible guide." The scientist must question his own preconceptions to discover truth through actual and repeated experimentation.

    What's wrong? Page number citiation (sic) is missing.

Yes you read that correctly. They said that failing to include a page reference, even if you cite the source, is plagiarism. What we have here is a total collapse of critical reasoning.

Read the rest here, and more here. Professor Dutch has many interesting essays here -- and by interesting I don't mean I necessarily agree with all of them.

Hoonarchy in Melbourne

Drag-racing hoons in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Noble Park ran riot on the weekend, setting fires, attacking police, and looting a video rental store.

On hearing of this, my first thought was that it was white Australians rioting, because the Herald-Sun described them as mobs, not gangs. Only foreigners are members of gangs. Sure enough, they were.

More here.

(Thanks to Mrs Impala for the neologism.)

Whose side are they on?

This story about the explosive growth of MySpace [no link for them -- the ex-spammers who run MySpace don't need my help to get rich, thank you very much] mentions what surely has got to be one of the craziest, misconceived, badly thought out misfeatures in Windows ever.

Last summer, MySpace's Windows 2003 servers shut down unexpectedly on multiple occasions. The culprit turned out to be a built-in feature of the operating system designed to prevent distributed denial of service attacks—a hacker tactic in which a Web site is subjected to so many connection requests from so many client computers that it crashes. MySpace is subject to those attacks just like many other top Web sites, but it defends against them at the network level rather than relying on this feature of Windows—which in this case was being triggered by hordes of legitimate connections from MySpace users.

"We were scratching our heads for about a month trying to figure out why our Windows 2003 servers kept shutting themselves off," Benedetto says. Finally, with help from Microsoft, his team figured out how to tell the server to "ignore distributed denial of service; this is friendly fire."

How's that again? A "Denial Of Service" attack is designed to prevent people from accessing the server being attacked; Windows 2003 defends from such a DOS attack by... er, shutting itself down, thus preventing people from accessing the server being attacked.

Oh man, I'd give my right eye to have been in the meeting where Microsoft's Pointy Haired Bosses suggested that to their tech people.

TV licensing

To those of us in civilized countries, the UK's television licensing comes as quite a shock. In Britain, anybody with a television, or other device for receiving TV signals (say, a TV tuner card) must pay a yearly license fee which (in theory) pays for the BBC, instead of coming out of general tax revenue.

Consequently, retailers are required to collect the names and addresses of anyone who purchases a television, and report them to the TV Licensing Authority. The BBC Television website collects cookies to identify people visiting their television-related pages, passing them on to TV Licensing. Private inspectors can be sent to households, at any time without warning or notice, to inspect your house for televisions or other devices and ensure you are correctly licensed, and television detector vans roam the streets scanning for TV receivers. (According to Wikipedia, the inspectors don't have any powers to enter unless invited in, unless they get a warrant, nevertheless there are many abuses.) The Authority keeps vast databases of who owns televisions and who hasn't got a licence -- another part of the surveillance society.

There may be good arguments for TV licensing, but economics certainly isn't one of them. The costs of enforcing the licensing, borne by the TV Licensing Authority, householders, TV retailers, etc. are significant. Those costs would virtually disappear if it were subsumed into general taxation revenue.

An interesting case occured recently in the UK: a former prisoner and prison reform advocate, John Hirst, had his conviction for failing to be licensed over-turned on appeal after the court originally accepted he used the TV only for watching CCTV, videos and DVDs but found him "technically guilty".

According to the Register:

Despite the fact that Hirst was discharged, he took the appeal on a point of principle. "The TV Licencing Authority assume if you say that you don't watch your TV for live broadcasts you're a liar," Hirst told OUT-LAW Radio. "It's still down to the prosecution to prove guilt, not for the assumption to be there that you are guilty and you need to prove innocence.

"As far as I am concerned there is nothing such as 'technically guilty' in English law, you are either innocent or you are guilty," he said.


It was a sense of injustice that led him to take his TV licence case as far as he did. "It began with a whole lot of letters that came, each letter got more and more threatening as it went along," he said "It was a whole lot of assumptions that I was doing something wrong."

"I have admitted to offences as severe as manslaughter and arson, so I'm not going to lie on something as piddling as a TV Licence," he said. "They got that wrong, they picked on the wrong person."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sonya the black widow

I'm not sure whether to be bemused or amused -- this tiny 45kg (100lb) woman is a world-class competitive eater. Not just competitive, but one of the best in the world. Sonya Thomas makes a good case that eating is a matter of skill and training and reaction time, but still... the lady ate more than one tenth of her body weight in cheesecake in nine minutes!

There is something amazing and scary about somebody that small eating forty-four soft-shell lobsters in twelve minutes and sixty-five hard boiled eggs in six minutes forty seconds. That's almost a dozen eggs per minute. And forty six dozen oysters in ten minutes.

I'm torn between thinking Gross! and Cool!

Sonya's home page.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Squid the weeds of the sea

PZ Myers has a fascinating post discussing the life of squid. He points out that, unlike most other animals, they just keep growing until they die -- which is generally pretty soon. He describes them as weeds of the sea: they grow fast, live hard, and die leaving a beautiful corpse. At least, beautiful to the beasties that survive by eating dead squid.

Good for the goose

Professor Juan Cole is reporting that the Prime Minister of Turkey is warning that Turkey will invade Iraq if they want to -- and who is the USA to say they mustn't?

From Reuters:

"We have a 350 km border with Iraq. We have historic relations ... the United States is 10,000 km away from Iraq, and yet is it not intervening in Iraq's internal affairs?" he said.

Isn't that a fine how-do-you-do? Turkey, America's ally, threatening to invade Iraq, America's occupied territory, because the US won't take action against Kurdish terrorists. I can't wait for President Junior to explain to the world why the USA is allowed preemptive self-defence but Turkey isn't.

Switching to new blogger

Well that was fun -- I've just made the switch to new Blogger. The actual switcheroo was relatively painless, but it was all the stuff before hand that was a PITA: backing up my blog. I'd heard too many stories (one is too many) of Blogger eating people's blogs, so I decided to backup my blog first. And, naturally, old Blogger doesn't have an export/backup function.

Backing up the published blog posts was relatively painless ("thank you wget!") but I have about one hundred posts still in draft mode. And those I had to backup the slow and painful way, by opening each one, copying the text, and pasting it into a text file.

After all that effort, I'm kinda disappointed that there were no disasters...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Immutable instances in Python

Imagine you have a class like Coordinate that implements a two-dimensional coordinate pair. You might want to use instances of that class in a dictionary, but the problem is that instance keys compare by identity, not equality:

>>> D = {Coordinate(2, 3): "something"} # Coordinate is a custom class.
>>> D.has_key(Coordinate(2, 3)

This is not what you expect: even though the two instances of Coordinate(2, 3) have the same value, they don't have the same ID and therefore Python won't treat them as the same dictionary key.

The answer to this problem is to give the class __hash__ and __eq__ methods:

class Coordinate(object):
def __init__(self, x, y):
self.x = x
self.y = y
def __hash__(self):
return hash(self.x) ^ hash(self.y)
def __eq__(self, other):
return self.x == other.x and self.y == other.y
except AttributeError:
return False

Now two instances that compare equal will also have the same hash, and Python will recognise them as the same dictionary key.

But there's a gotcha: unlike built-in types like int and tuple, classes in Python are mutable. That's generally what you want, but in this case it can bite you. If the instance which is the key is changed, the hash will also change and your code will probably experience difficult to track down bugs.

The solution is to make Coordinate immutable, or at least as immutable as any Python class can be. To make a class immutable, have the __setattr__ and __delattr__ methods raise exceptions. (But watch out -- that means that you can no longer write something like self.x = x, you have to delegate that to the superclass.)

class Coordinate(object):
def __setattr__(*args):
raise TypeError("can't change immutable class")
__delattr__ = __setattr__
def __init__(self, x, y):
super(Coordinate, self).__setattr__('x', x)
super(Coordinate, self).__setattr__('y', y)
def __hash__(self):
return hash(self.x) ^ hash(self.y)
def __eq__(self, other):
return self.x == other.x and self.y == other.y
except AttributeError:
return False

There are a few other things you can do as well: as a memory optimization, you can use __slots__ = ('x', 'y') to allocate memory for the two attributes you do use and avoid giving each instance an attribute dictionary it can't use. If the superclass defines in-place operators like __iadd__ etc. you should over-ride them to raise exceptions. If your class is a container, you must also make sure that __setitem__ etc. either don't exist at all or raise exceptions.

(I am indebted to Python guru Alex Martelli's explanation about immutable instances.)

[Update, 2007-04-02: fixed a stupid typo where I called super(Immutable, ...) instead of super(Coordinate, ...).]

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Schneier on Surveillance

Two from Bruce Schneier on widespread surveillance:

Why technology is fundamentally changing the balance between freedom and police power:

Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive and was used only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station.

It's the same, but it's completely different. It's wholesale surveillance. And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.


The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties are profound; but, unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It's obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.


Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's.

And why single vivid incidents can fool people into making bad judgements:

I'm in the middle of writing a long essay on the psychology of security. One of the things I'm writing about is the "availability heuristic," which basically says that the human brain tends to assess the frequency of a class of events based on how easy it is to bring an instance of that class to mind. It explains why people tend to be afraid of the risks that are discussed in the media, or why people are afraid to fly but not afraid to drive.

One of the effects of this heuristic is that people are more persuaded by a vivid example than they are by statistics. The latter might be more useful, but the former is easier to remember.


I can write essay after essay about the inefficacy of security cameras. I can talk about trade-offs, and the better ways to spend the money. I can cite statistics and experts and whatever I want. But -- used correctly -- stories like this one will do more to move public opinion than anything I can do.

Cognitive biases is something I've been meaning to write about for a long time, but for now I'll just point out that the number of Americans killed by terrorist actions since the 1960s is about the same as the number killed by accidents involving deer. Imagine Mad King George declaring a War on Deer.

On second thoughts, let's not give him any more ideas...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Hamas recognises Israel's existence

Jonathan Zasloff from the Reality Based Community quotes from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

This is potentially huge: Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, generally considered a hard-liner within the group, has acknowledged the existence of Israel:

Israel is a "reality" and "there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact," Meshal said in an interview. The problem was not Israel's existence but the failure to establish a state for Palestinians, said Meshal, whose party leads the Palestinian government.

Unfortunately, the current crop of right-wingers in power in Israel aren't interested in coexistence with the rest of the Arab world, let alone the Palestinians. They have already knocked back serious offers from Saudi Arabia, the spiritual head of Islam, to recognise Israel's right to exist. I predict that this will go nowhere.


How very typical. We've been in a drought for a couple of years now, it hasn't rained for weeks -- and somehow I managed to sit my backpack in a puddle while waiting for the train this morning.

I hope it was water.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Right-wing morality

PZ Myers tells about a particularly nasty instance of the clash between reality and Fundamentalist so-called "morality", involving a class of very common birth defects.

About one in a thousand births in the USA involve a failure of the neural tube to close up during development. Mild cases lead to spina bifida; serious cases lead to anencephaly, where the fetus does not grow a brain [Warning: link contains graphic medical images that some people may find disturbing].

PZ writes:

Failure of the anterior neuropore to close is even more serious. The brain fails to form. This condition is called anencephaly, and it is untreatable and lethal. If they aren't dead at birth, they might last a few days before succumbing. They have no brain. At best, they have a mass of dying, relatively undifferentiated neural tissue smeared across the floor of their incompletely formed skulls. They can't think, they can't feel, they can't respond. The real tragedy is that development can proceed surprisingly far without a brain, and these fetuses are recognizably human (here is a photo for the strong of stomach), and they can be carried fully to term.

That's the reality: anencephaleptic babies can't think or feel pain and won't survive more than a few days. But the right-wing fundamentalists in the US government have decided that the life of a literally brain-less creature, one that cannot possibly survive after birth, is more important than the health and emotional state of the mother. PZ quotes the Reality Based Community:

But the Congress had decided -- that no federal funds should be used to pay for abortions except where the life of the mother was at stake. As a result, Tricare (formerly CHAMPUS) the agency that covers military families, refused to pay the $3000 the abortion would cost.

The family sued, and a federal court ordered Tricare to pay, and the abortion went forward.

Then the Justice Department (with John Ashcroft as Attorney General) sued the family to recover the $3000, out of the sailor's pay of less than $20,000 a year.

The Justice Department just won.

and argues that:

Our guardians of purity have magnified the pain of this family and willfully and vindictively punished them for the 'crime' of a biological imperfection. I call that evil, pure and simple. There should have been no question in this case that an abortion was necessary.

I can't blame Tricare for refusing to fund the abortion in the first case -- it isn't their place to choose which laws they obey and which they don't. Nor can I fault the appeal judge's decision: it seems that the initial order for Tricare to pay for the abortion was morally right but legally wrong. But it is a horrible, bean-counting, cruel and heartless act for John Ashcroft's Justice Department to have appealed that decision, and for them to pursue the sailor to collect would be even more mean-spirited and nasty.

The Great Equalizer

Forget the Colt-45 "Peacemaker" -- the great equalizer is the RPG-29.

One of the factors in Hezbollah's victory on points against the Israeli Defence Force last year was the humble rocket propelled grenade. The RPG is not your grandfather's bazooka: the (former) Soviet-made RPG-29 Vampir was specifically designed to defeat reactive armour. It uses two shaped charges, the first to trigger the reactive armour and the second to blow a hole through the tank. Costing around $500 for the launcher and $250 per missile, the RPG-29 was impressively effective at destroying the Israeli Merkava tank, reportedly the most heavily armoured tank in the world. That makes the RPG-29 one of the most impressive giant killers out there.

This suggests that the overwhelming advantage of First World armies with their heavy tanks costing millions of dollars could be severely undermined. This will make the cost of invasion far higher, both in soldiers' lives and dollars, and allow infantry to go toe-to-toe with heavy armour. If true, that's probably the biggest shift in military technology since the invention of the pike formation which allowed infantry to defeat armoured knights.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Another consequence of Bush's "surge" is the damage it will do to the war in Afghanistan. At a time that the Taliban is expected to make another big push in Afghanistan, American forces are about to be removed from "The Forgotten War" to Iraq. As the Boston Globe reports:

President Bush is expected to announce this week the dispatch of thousands of additional troops to Iraq as a stopgap measure. Such an order, Pentagon officials say, would strain the Army and Marine Corps as they man both wars.

A US Army battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks to deploy to Iraq.

Army Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata and other US commanders say that will happen as the Taliban is expected to unleash a campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The official said the Taliban intend to seize Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where the group was organized in the 1990s.

The news story makes one error, in the very first sentence:

"Taliban forces, shattered and ejected from Afghanistan by the US military five years ago..."

Not so. The Taliban are native Afghans, mostly Pushtun from the south of the country. As a government and army, they were certainly shattered, and some may even have fled the country temporarily, but the vast bulk of Taliban remained in their tribal areas where US and allied forces never went.

I'm with Mark Kleiman on this: "GWB seems to be determined to make history by becoming the first American President to lose two wars at once."

Of course, the war in both countries will drag on long beyond Bush's time as President, leaving some other shmuck to swallow the defeat. And given Bush's disinterest in reading or watching independent news, preferring to hear all his news from yes-men, it is likely that Dubyah will go to his grave believing that he was America's saviour, and the next guy messed it all up.

Music downloads hit the UK Charts

For the first time, British music charts are counting songs purchased as electronic downloads as sales even if they aren't available for sale in physical form. And the results suggest that it could stir-up the music industry, giving independents more muscle and even allowing classic tracks to re-enter the charts.

According to the Independent:

The Indie band Snow Patrol underlined their claim to be the hottest act on the new-look charts yesterday when they notched up a top 10 success with a deleted album track which is only available online.

"Chasing Cars", a previous single from the top-selling album of 2006, Eyes Open, entered at number nine, as the Top 40 underwent the biggest shake-up in its 50-year history.


Bubbling under, the top 100 saw eight previously deleted tracks come back. These included James Morisson and the Killers. The X Factor effect also helped the Proclaimers and Aerosmith gain a tentative fingerhold on the charts after being covered by hopefuls Ben and the MacDonald Brothers in the series.

The Independent also raises the spectre possibility of the Beatles re-capturing all the Top Ten positions, if and when somebody negotiates a deal for their tracks to be released for download.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Kafka would be proud

I haven't written much about the use of torture because it is such a huge topic to deal with. But this is too absurd to let pass. Mark Kleiman of the Reality Based Community writes:

Can you imagine a government so absurdly tyrannical, so brutally insane, that it forbids "enemies of the state" to complain about being tortured on the grounds that interrogation techniques are state secrets?

Well, you don't have to imagine it. There is such a government.

The spoils of war

From the Independent:

Iraq's massive oil reserves, the third-largest in the world, are about to be thrown open for large-scale exploitation by Western oil companies under a controversial law which is expected to come before the Iraqi parliament within days.


The huge potential prizes for Western firms will give ammunition to critics who say the Iraq war was fought for oil. They point to statements such as one from Vice-President Dick Cheney, who said in 1999, while he was still chief executive of the oil services company Halliburton, that the world would need an additional 50 million barrels of oil a day by 2010. "So where is the oil going to come from?... The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies," he said.


Supporters say the provision allowing oil companies to take up to 75 per cent of the profits will last until they have recouped initial drilling costs. After that, they would collect about 20 per cent of all profits, according to industry sources in Iraq. But that is twice the industry average for such deals.

More information about the new Iraqi petro-dollar laws here and here.

Looks like the Bush family fortune (oil money) is about to get another massive increase. Funny about that.

The surge will backfire

Wesley Clarke, the retired supreme head of NATO, explains why Bush's "surge" will backfire:

As for the US troops, yes, several additional brigades in Baghdad would enable more roadblocks, patrols, neighbourhood clearing operations and overnight presence. But how significant will this be? We've never had enough troops in Iraq - in Kosovo, we had 40,000 troops for a population of two million. For Iraq that ratio would call for at least 500,000 troops, so adding 20,000 seems too little, too late, even, for Baghdad. Further, in a "clear and hold" strategy, US troops have been shown to lack the language skills, cultural awareness and political legitimacy to ensure that areas can be "held", or even that they are fully "cleared". The key would be more Iraqi troops, but they aren't available in the numbers required for a city of more than five million with no reliable police - nor have the Iraqi troops been reliable enough for the gritty work of dealing with militias and sectarian loyalties. Achieving enhanced protection for the population is going to be problematic at best. Even then, militia fighters in Baghdad could redeploy to other areas and continue the fight there.

What the surge would do, however, is put more American troops in harm's way, further undercut US forces' morale, and risk further alienation of elements of the Iraqi populace. American casualties would probably rise, at least temporarily, as more troops are on the streets; we saw this when the brigade from Alaska was extended and sent into Baghdad last summer. And even if the increased troop presence initially intimidates or frustrates the contending militias, it won't be long before they find ways to work around the obstacles to movement and neighbourhood searches, if they are still intent on pursuing the conflict. All of this is not much of an endorsement for a troop surge that will impose real pain on the already overstretched US forces.

There could be other uses for troops, for example, accelerating training for the Iraqi military and police. But even here, vetting these forces for their loyalty has proven problematic. Therefore, neither accelerated training nor more troops in the security mission can be viewed mechanistically, as though a 50 per cent increase in effort will yield a 50 per cent increased return, for other factors are at work.

The truth is that, however brutal the fighting in Iraq for our troops, the underlying problems are political. Vicious ethnic cleansing is under way right under the noses of our troops, as various factions fight for power and survival. In this environment security is unlikely to come from smothering the struggle with a blanket of forces - it cannot be smothered easily, for additional US efforts can stir additional resistance - but rather from more effective action to resolve the struggle at the political level. And the real danger of the troop surge is that it undercuts the urgency for the political effort. A new US ambassador might help, but, more fundamentally, the US and its allies need to proceed from a different approach within the region. The neocons' vision has failed.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Daily WTF

Thanks to The Daily WTF, we have two examples of corporate information technology gone mad, MAD I SAY, mwahahahahahah!

Security By Insanity:

"You altered ... The Contract!," he insisted.

"Errm ... no," I didn't know how simplify it further him, "this is not a contract unless we both sign it. Nothing has been signed yet. You told me last week that this is just a review copy, and those pencil marks are just my comments about it."

The VP sat silent and confused. He flipped through my copy again, growing more and more disgusted at each pencil mark. He dashed out of the conference room in search of a pencil eraser. He returned moments later, exasperated and unable to find a pencil eraser anywhere in the building because, after all, erasers can be used to alter data and, therefore, were a security risk. Only pens were allowed in the building. Blue ink, to be exact.

He had no idea what to do; he had no access to the tools that could remove my offensive markings on The Contract. I offered this brilliant can-do solution instead: "You could just go back to your desk and print a new copy, right?"

That made no sense to him. No, can't do that. He shook his head. No. NO!!!

I calmly tried to explain it to him: "We don't have to sign this copy of The Contract. If we're going to sign anything, you'd print a fresh copy, and then we would sign that copy."

He couldn't hear me. There were pencil marks on The Contract! Pencil marks! He grabbed my pencil marked pages and bolted out the door again, leaving me alone in the conference room to contemplate the horrible things I had done. After about fifteen minutes, three people entered the conference room. They did not sit. They stood over me. The first speak was the President and Founder of the company.

"Did you ... do this?" she asked referring to pencil markings on The Contract.

Read the rest of the story here.

And then there is the sorry saga of Virtudyne:

The Savior was a self-made billionaire who struck it rich doing the type of business that makes unregulated industries regulated. He heard about Virtudyne's struggles and wanted to help out. He contacted the powers that be and offered some very reasonable terms. In exchange for investing $100M, he would take over operations and sit as chairman on the board of directors. It seemed to be a a win-win for everyone.


First and foremost, there was the new chief of operations, heralded as a "brilliant innovator" and "technological wizard." He was also The Savior's eldest son. Junior's grasp on technology is best illustrated with this simple anecdote: one day, Junior was walking past Rob Graves' office and saw a graph actively moving around on the screen. He got incredibly exited and wanted to know how he could get the cool looking monitoring software Rob was using to watch their World Wide Server. Rob just didn't have the heart to tell him it was the "Bars and Waves" visulization from Windows Media Player.


The sales and marketing department were desperate for ideas. They literally couldn't give their software away; anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Google could find out how well Virtudyne's first customer worked out. No one wanted to be their second.

But just then, it dawned on the sales team. They needed to find a market where the Internet had not yet reached. In such a market, their office suite would develop interest and that interest would lead right in to sales. One of the executives knew exactly how to find and penetrate such a market. They would use The Digital Donkey.

Read the rest of the story here.

What happens to Tariq Aziz?

Bob Ellis raises an interesting question [alternate link here] about the treatment of the former Iraqi leaders after Saddam's hanging over the new year. Now that they've executed Saddam, former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz must be rapidly approaching the head of the line.

(Aside: it seems that the execution was illegal under Iraqi law, because they didn't wait the mandatory 30 days from the sentence before execution. The government sacked the first trial judge, defence witnesses were intimidated and killed, and Saddam's lawyers assassinated. That's what passes for a fair trial in Iraq.)

Soon they'll have Tariq Aziz to deal with. He's a Christian, a friend of Pope John Paul, and literate, well-spoken, Anglicised evidence of how broad-based a secular government Saddam ran, and how much 4 million university graduates, civil servants, medical professionals, lawyers, judges, soldiers, police and schoolteachers miss him now, in a world of veils and checkpoints and daylight kidnappings and suicide bombings and 10,000 policemen killed in two years.

Monday, January 08, 2007

War of the Worlds

One of NASA's scientists, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, has revealed that the two Viking space probes that visited Mars in 1976-77 probably killed native-born Martians.

Fortunately, those natives were microbes, and unable to retaliate by (for example) firing heat-rays or disintegrator beams at the Earth.

The Viking probes were designed to search for ordinary Earth-like microbes. Biologists of the 1970s were unaware of the great range of biochemistries exhibited by the so-called extremophiles, and the tests looking for Martian life probably would have killed them.

Last month, scientists excitedly reported that new photographs of Mars showed geologic changes that suggest water occasionally flows there -- the most tantalising sign that Mars is hospitable to life.

In the 1970s, the Viking mission found no signs of life. But it was looking for earth-like life, in which salt water is the internal liquid of living cells. Given the cold dry conditions of Mars, that life could have evolved on Mars with the key internal fluid consisting of a mix of water and hydrogen peroxide, said Dirk Schulze-Makuch, author of the new research.

That's because a water-hydrogen peroxide mix stays liquid at very low temperatures (minus 55 degrees celsius), does not destroy cells when it freezes, and can suck scarce water vapour out of the air.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Judge rules in favour of election secrecy

A Florida judge has ruled that a Democrat running for Congress has no right to inspect the secret source code of electronic voting machines involved in an extremely close and controversial election.

Republican Vern Buchanan won the election back in November by a mere 369 votes. But around 18,000 electronic ballots (about 15% of the total) showed no vote at all, an unusually high rate of undervoting.

Circuit Judge William Gary rejected as "conjecture" expert testimony that such a high level of undervoting was evidence that votes had been lost, and refused to allow Democrat Christine Jennings to inspect the source code.

Are we surprised yet?

Surging to defeat

According to this Yahoo story, President Bush is planning to fix Iraq "but good" with a new strategy to "win" the war.

Bush said on Thursday:

"One thing is for certain: I will want to make sure the mission is clear and specific and can be accomplished"

Hang on... I thought the mission was accomplished back in May 2003?

Mission Accomplished
It is expected that Bush's strategy will be to keep doing the same things that failed in the past, but do them harder, like sending thousands more troops to Iraq -- the so-called "Surge", where a sudden influx of troops makes everything better.

It's a stupid, ignorant idea based on the fantasy that the biggest problem in Iraq is the lack of American troops on the ground. The reality is very different. Must-reads are General William Odom's Six Brutal Truths About Iraq and Professor Juan Cole's Top Ten Myths About Iraq.

As Cole points out, the US sent an additional 15,000 troops into Baghdad last year, and instead of stopping violence in the capital, the number of insurgent attacks increased. Cole points out that "the guerrillas are not outsiders who come in and then are forced out" -- they are the people of the cities the US is trying to pacify. Even after virtually razing Fallujah to the ground, it is still not pacified.

Winning guerrilla wars requires two victories, a military victory over the guerrillas and a winning of the hearts and minds of the general public, thus denying the guerrillas support. The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don't want us there.

Despite the clear anti-Iraq war message sent by the American people in November, Vietnam seems set to repeat itself. The Bush administration is obsessed with winning the unwinnable, and the Democrats mostly don't have the moral conviction to stand up to them. So more American troops will die, Iraq will descend further into bloodshed, and the Middle East will continue to move further away from the West, making the future an uglier, more dangerous place.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Feeling safer?

One of the curious things about the Republican administration in the USA is its amazing contempt for the troops. Oh, the rhetoric about supporting the troops is there, the cheap words and hot air, but actual money for them? Nope. The soldiers in Iraq can't get basic equipment -- including ammunition -- and are reduced to buying their own body armour from civilian gun shops back home and having it posted to them, and scrounging for scrap metal to harden vehicles. And let's not forget the spoiled food and contaminated water provided to the troops in Iraq by Dick Cheney's baby, Halliburton.

Nothing's too bad for our boys!

And now a report that, apart from the troops in Iraq and Afganistan, the US Army has no combat-ready units, neither regular nor reserves. The Army is already warning that, in order to provide troops for the "Surge" in Iraq, they're going to have to strip equipment from troops in Korea and National Guard units in the US.

So, all you Republicans out there, the few of you still on Planet Earth: are you feeling safer yet?

Dorothy Lawrence

Living in a relatively civilized society in 2006, it is easy to forget how much social change has occurred in recent times. It was a little less than a century ago, in 1914, that 19 year old Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a man in order to join the British Army and act as a war reporter.

Her secret life lasted only ten days, before she gave herself up. But it isn't her experiences during the war that I refer to, but her tragic end. For in 1925, Dorothy Lawrence claimed she had been raped by her church guardian and was institutionalised as insane. She remained in the institution for the rest of her life, dying in 1964.

Details are sketchy, and I suppose one must allow the possibility that she really was insane, and that she hadn't been raped at all. That would be the comforting interpretation: a poor troubled lass, imagining sexual assaults, and being locked up for her own protection.

But how much more likely is it that, in 1925, the only "evidence" that she was insane was that she, a mere 30 year old woman, accused her church guardian of rape? Such a crime would have been unthinkable, and therefore only a mad woman could have thought it.

It may be that woman who are raped are treated badly by our justice system, but at least we've come this far: we no longer assume that an accusation that dear old Father Bill or Reverend Smith must, by definition, be a sign of insanity.

I wish they'd warn us

The weather bureau gives warnings for high ultra-violet and pollution days; I wish they'd warn us about days when there are excessive levels of confusion particles in the air. Preston Market today was filled with cars being driven even more badly than usual for Australian drivers: almost reversing into pedestrians, blocking traffic, and displaying all the parking skills of a banana. And the pedestrians were no better, wandering around aimlessly, stepping in front of cars, walking down the middle of the road while traffic backed up around them, and generally making me wonder whether somebody had slipped something into the water supply.

Conscientious Rejector

American army officer First Lieutenant Ehren Watada is the first American commissioned officer to publically refuse deployment to Iraq. Last June, the 28-year-old Hawaiian native announced his refusal to deploy on the grounds that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is illegal.

He now faces a court martial on one count of "missing troop movement" and four counts of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman", and could be sentenced to up to six years jail. He was interviewed by Kevin Sites:

SITES: You know on that note, Lieutenant, let me read you something from a speech that you gave in August to the Veterans for Peace. You had said at one point, "Many have said this about the World Trade Towers: never again. I agree, never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free. Be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now, the time to stand up and be counted is today." Who were you speaking about when you said that?

WATADA: I was speaking about everybody. The American people. That we all have that duty, that obligation, that responsibility to do something when we see our government perpetrating a crime upon the world, or even upon us. And I think that the American people have lost that, that sense of duty. There is no self-interest in this war for the vast majority of the American people. And because of that the American soldiers have suffered.

There really is a detachment from this war, and many of the American people, because there is no draft, or for whatever reason, because taxes haven't been raised, they don't have anything personally to lose or gain with this war, and so they take little interest.


[WATADA:] You know I think that [Congressman] John Murtha came out a few months ago in an interview and he was asked if, with all his experience, in Korea, and Vietnam, volunteering for those wars -- he was asked if he would join the military today. And he said absolutely not. And I think that with the knowledge that I have now, I agree. I would not join the military because I would be forced into a position where I would be ordered to do something that is wrong. It is illegal and immoral. And I would be put into a situation as a soldier to be abused and misused by those in power.

STIES: In your speech in front of the Veterans for Peace you said "the oath we take as soldiers swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people." Can you expand upon that a little bit — what did you mean when you said that?

WATADA: The constitution was established, and our laws are established, to protect human rights, to protect equal rights and constitutional civil liberties. And I think we have people in power who say that those laws, or those principles, do not apply to them — that they are above the law and can do whatever it takes to manipulate or create laws that enable them to do whatever they please. And that is a danger in our country, and I think the war in Iraq is just one symptom of this agenda. And I think as soldiers, as American people, we need to recognize this, and we need to put a stop to it before it's too late.

Naturally the comments to the article are running red-hot, with many, many people accusing Lieutenant Watada of being a traitor and deserter. The first comment made, from "glassart@pacbell.net", is typical of many of those opposed to Watada's actions:

I feel that a person that has voluntarilly [sic] joined the military and now refuses to go where assigned, during a military conflict is basically a traitor/deserter in the face of the enemy and should be treated as such. I had voluntarilly [sic] joined the military (US Air Force) during the Viet Nam conflict, so I have great feelings toward this, I did not believe what was going on at that time, but I did not shirk my duty to my country and the ideas of the constitution and Declaration of Independance [sic]. That is what I was fighting for. So as far as I am concerned this person is a deserter in the face of the enemy.

What a lovely example of contradictions! "Glassart" claims to have opposed the Vietnam war at the time, but to have volunteered regardless. Perhaps he believed that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence requires American citizens to stop thinking for themselves, shut down their higher faculties, and be suckers for the power-hungry rulers of the nation.

As a former military person (officer? pilot? desk jockey? the guy who sweeps the aircraft hanger floor? he doesn't say) he surely must know that a soldier in Washington can't possibly be deserting "in the face of the enemy" when that enemy is thousands, or even tens of thousands, of miles away. He uses that term twice, so it is important to him, but he doesn't know what it means. He calls the Vietnam War a "conflict", which is another sign of a chickenhawk: cheer the war on, but refuse to call it what it is. I'm guessing he wasn't a pilot, but one of the many air force personnel who never came within cooee of combat.

Then there is post number four, from "tilden44mobley", a twenty-year veteran of obeying orders like a good storm-trooper, a guy who was in Iraq in 1991 and says he knows weapons of mass "distruction" are still in Iraq. I can imagine the tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq right now turning on him and saying Are you calling us liars? Are you saying we can't do our jobs?

But this is the most significant comment of all:

I have lost many friends to the defense of our freedom. He discraces thier memory evertime he puts on the uniform. [sic]

In other words, blame the messenger. Don't blame the liars and con-artists who sent his friends off to die for nothing. Don't hold the crooks and cheats responsible -- instead, blame those who discover that you've been cheated.

It has been said that there is a sucker born every minute, and this common trait of shooting the messenger is an enormous factor in that. The powerful know, in fact they rely on the fact, that the people they lie to and cheat and actively harm are often their strongest defenders. Naturally there are limits to how far you can go before even the dimmest Joe Redneck loses faith, but those limits are pretty high. If there was one trait of Homo sap that has lead to misery and strife, it is the habit of actively supporting the manipulators and cheats, even after they've been revealed for what they are.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Price of heroin

One of the accidental consequences of the "War on Terror" is the US market for heroin is now flooded with cheap, strong Afghan heroin. As Mark Kleiman of the Reality-Based Community explains:

The reporter places no emphasis on the most astonishing (if true) fact in the story: grams of highly pure Afghan heroin are now trading at $90 in LA. That's about a dime per pure milligram, compared with $2.50 a pure milligram in New York during the "French Connection" days. For a naive user, 5mg of heroin is a hefty dose, so your first heroin experience is now available for less than the price of a candy bar.

Ain't competition grand?


Heroin, even more than cocaine, illustrates the near-futility of trying to use drug law enforcement to control drug abuse once a drug has found a mass market. Prices have been dropping (about 80% in inflation-adjusted terms for cocaine, much more than that for heroin) even as the number of dealers going to prison has soared.

Taken at face-value, this suggests that competition and market forces could lead to falling profits for the Mister Bigs in the drug trade. But then, it could easily go the other way: a lower prices leading to a larger market and more over-all profit.

Either way, anyone who still believes that prohibition is the answer is clearly living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. It isn't working now, and it has never worked, ever.

Grey Naughtiness

This just goes to show that when it comes to human sexuality, the range of behaviour is enormous.

The New York Times is running a story about the "Graying of Naughty", the growing kink market for middle-aged porn.

DE'BELLA — or Debbie, as everybody calls her — decided late in life to become a porn star. This year she turned 50, time, she knew, to chase her dream.

"I love sex," she explained, biting into a Burger King special before embarking on her scene for the day at a rented house in the San Fernando Valley. She was wearing a bright pink satin and black chiffon nightie with a matching thong and heavy makeup.

"I decided I wanted to do something different," she said. "I'd been working behind the scenes, and my friends said: 'Why not do movies? Have some fun, and get paid for it?' "

So she has. Since May, De’Bella (she did not want her real name published) has used days off from her job as an administrative assistant at a sex-related entertainment company, Platinum X, to shoot about 30 scenes, with men mostly 19 and 20 year old.

And while she is sort of a novelty — appearing on "The Howard Stern Show" to talk about her new career — it is no longer unusual (hey, Hollywood, pay attention) to see women, and men, of a certain age performing in sex movies.


The biggest change is in the sexual desirability of women old enough to be the viewer's mother. It has been fueled in part by pop culture's embrace of the sexy 40-something women of "Desperate Housewives" and "Stacy's Mom," the 2003 hit song about a teenager's mother who "has got it going on."

[... ]

The director, Urbano Martin, points his camera strategically, scarcely disguising his boredom. "I shoot specialty films," he explains during a break in filming, adding that he has been in the business for 17 years. "Fat women, old women, hairy girls — all kinds. We feed the niche."

The market for beautiful, airbrushed young women "is oversaturated," he says. "This is more normal people, more meat on the bone, like what you have at home."

Asking why on technical forums

If you spend any time on technical mailing lists or newsgroups, you'll often come across conversations that go something like this:

    "How do I frabulate the transfibulator?"

    "Why do you want to do that?"

    "Why do you care? Just tell me how to frabulate the transfibulator!"

Why should people on technical lists care about the why? Why not just answer the question?

Firstly, and most importantly, because people have an ethical obligation not to give bad advice.

It is foolish to assume that every random poster on the Internet or Usenet is a responsible, intelligent, clear-thinking, sufficiently cautious adult who knows what they are doing. In fact, if you were going to play the odds, you'd bet on them being the complete opposite. This is even true on many of general purpose technical mailing lists (although perhaps not so much on the more elite lists). If frabulating the transfibulator carries risks or serious costs, then the chances are very good that the person asking about it isn't aware of those risks.

It is one thing to give a straight technical answer if it seems that the poster knows what they're doing. There's no reason not to tell someone how to shoot themselves in the foot if they are fully aware of the consequences of doing so; it is another thing altogether if their post indicates that they haven't thought it through and have no idea that they are even pointing the gun at their foot.

If somebody asks for help writing a rotor-based encryption engine (like the World War Two Enigma), it would be sheer irresponsibility to answer their technical question without pointing out that Enigma was broken back in the 1940s and is not even close to secure today. So ask "Why do you want to do that?". If the answer is "I'm storing confidential medical records in a database", then you can gently apply the cluebat. It might be your own medical records you prevent from being stolen. But if the answer is "I'm doing it to obfuscate some data in a game, I know this is weak encryption, but it is good enough for a game", then that's a horse of a different colour.

The second reason for asking "why?" is that it is extremely common for people to ask the wrong question because of a misunderstanding or misapprehension. Some time ago I read an exchange of posts on comp.lang.python started by a programmer who was looking for a faster method to access items in a list. Eventually somebody asked him "Why?", and it turned out that he had assumed that Python lists are linked lists and that item access was a very slow procedure. In fact, Python lists are smart arrays, and item access is exceedingly fast.

If folks had merely answered his technical question, he would have solved a non-problem, learnt nothing, and ended up with slow and inefficient code. His real problem wasn't "How do I this...?". His real problem was that he was labouring under false information, and by asking "Why do you want to do this?", people helped him to solve his real problem.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Gerald Ford

After the recent death of former American President Gerald Ford, historian Juan Cole has published a retrospective of Ford's presidency, with the emphasis on his foreign policy:

He was against just assassinating people, and insisted on warrants for the wiretapping of US citizens.

All presidents make errors, and some abuses occurred on Ford's watch, though they often were initiated by Kissinger. But Ford faced with no illusions the challenges of his era, of detente with the Soviet Union, continued attempts to cultivate China, the collapse of Indochina, the fall-out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War. Ford was right about detente, right about China, right about Arab-Israeli peace, right about avoiding a big entanglement in Angola, right to worry about nuclear proliferation (one of his worries was the increasing evidence that the Middle East had a nuclear power, Israel, and India was moving in that direction).

Ford's challengers on the Reagan Right were wrong about everything. They vastly over-estimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union (yes, that's Paul Wolfowitz). They wanted confrontation with China. They dismissed the Arab world as Soviet occupied territory (even though the vast majority of Arab states was US allies at that time) and urged that it be punished till it accepted Israel's territorial gains in 1967. They insisted that the Vietnam War could have been won.

But despite its illusions and Orwellian falsehoods, the Reagan Right prevailed. Ford only momentarily lost to Carter. Both of them were to lose to Reagan, who resorted to Cold War brinkmanship, private militias, death squads, offshore accounts, unconstitutional criminality, and under the table deals with Khomeini, and who created a transition out of the Cold War that left the private militias (one of them al-Qaeda) empowered to wreak destruction in the aftermath. The blowback from that Reaganesque era of private armies of the Right helped push the US after 2001 toward an incipient fascism at which Ford, the All-American, the lawyerly gentleman, the great Wolverine, must have wept daily in his twilight years.

[Note: "Wolverine" is a reference to Ford's early career as a footballer, not to the superhero of the same name.]

Cole paints a pretty picture of Ford, and I suppose it could even be true. Ford was unique in one sense, he was the only American president in recent times who gained power without being elected into office. That made him different from all the other rabid stoats who clawed and kicked their way into power by whatever means it took.

But only a little different: Ford may not have been elected president, but he was elected into an exceedingly senior position in the Republican Party. He might have been old-school conservative, but he was only a Good Guy in comparison to the team of criminals and czarists who have stolen the Republican Party. When push came to shove, Ford's foreign policy was no less ruthless than any other American president of the last century: long on the rhetoric of virtuousness, short on actual virtue. It has taken the reckless imperialist George Bush Junior to make Ford seem appealing: Ford, to his credit, was sensible and pragmatic, which is probably the best we can hope for in the president of the USA. But, whether driven by Ford or by Kissinger, the Ford administration continued the grand old tradition of the USA, of putting short term selfish gains ahead of long term benefits.

Cole's article does a good job of showing Ford's policy successes, but before we made Ford into a saint of old-fashioned virtuous conservativism, let's remember what else he and his administration did. He pardoned his former boss, the crook Richard Nixon, preventing justice from being done. Neither he nor Kissinger voluntarily ended the pointless war in Vietnam, it took the Congress to force his hand.

He gave the okay to Indonesian president Suharto -- who had massacred hundreds of thousands of political enemies when he came into power -- to invade East Timor, leading to the killing of a quarter or a third of the East Timor population. Not only did Ford give Suharto a nod and a wink to invade, but he provided material support for the invasion, such as ground-attack planes.

Despite Ford's otherwise admirable attempts to bring Israel to the negotiating table, his administration nevertheless opposed moves by the U.N. Security Council to reach a peace settlement in the Middle East. And he gave Rumsfeld and Cheney their start in politics.

And of course, in the end Ford displayed remarkable cowardice towards the GOP czars who came after him. What good did his tears for the sins of Reagan and Bush do for his country? Why didn't he speak up while he was still alive?

Ford might have been less wicked than the Republican presidents who followed him, and possibly even the Democrats, but in my heart of hearts I can't see terribly much to admire in him.

Creationist logical reasoning

PZ Myers discusses a Creationist with some major misconceptions about evolution:

Every time I talk to creationists, I'm always stunned at the depth of their misconceptions. There are always the same old boring arguments that are ably dismissed with a paragraph from the Index to Creationist Claims, but there are also occasions when they get, errm, creative, and unfortunately they always take your gape-mouthed I-can't-believe-you-are-so-stupid-that-you-said-that reaction as a triumphant vindication that they must be right.

Orac takes a right-wing idiot to task, and I don't need to jump in—he's done a fine job dismantling him—but I made the mistake of actually reading the ghastly blog article he's criticizing, and even worse, reading some of the comments there. The very first comment will make your jaw drop at the combination of sublime arrogance and impenetrable stupidity. There's a list of 7 objections to evolution, all wrong, but I'll spare you and show just the first.

If any two species chosen at random share a common ancestor, would that not imply that every living creature today was ultimately derived from one singular "Mother-Beast"? Just what did this creature look like (I imagine a bulbous sphere, fourteen stories in diameter, with various heads sticking out all over: cow, porcupine, squid, human, etc. Most are confused; none are happy.)

This person learned everything they needed to know about evolution from playing with Mr Potato Head at the age of 4, and has not progressed since. They have not bothered to read word one of any actual science text, but are still convinced that they can accurately summarize evolutionary theory.

It seems a particular habit -- no, compulsion -- of Creationists that the less they understand about evolution, they more they insist that they have discovered the bullet-proof flaw in it which will bring the whole ediface crashing down. The Certainty of Ignorance.

Reading the average Creationist is an experience rather like going to a car mechanic to get squealing brakes looked at. He nods sagely, then pops open the boot (the trunk for you Americans reading this), pours a bottle of oil all over your spare tyre, and exclaims "there you go, that oughta fix it". Mother-Beast indeed.

But in fairness, I can understand where the Mother-Beast concept came from. It isn't just a bizarre fantasy, invented from whole cloth. It actually makes logical sense, given the assumptions Creationists tend to share.

I don't quite understand why, but some years ago Creationists came up with the assumption that "information can never be created, only destroyed". For reasons that escape me, this meme has become exceedingly popular amongst the ignorant. It is obviously false -- by any reasonable definition of information, information gets created and destroyed all the time, and not just by intelligent agents either. There's more information in an oak tree than in the acorn it grew from.

But given this bizarro assumption of "conservation of information", then logically the earliest ancestor must have had contained all the "information" from every creature that ever lived.

See? Perfectly logical, apart from the inconvenient fact that the first assumption is a total load of bollocks. The laws of logical reasoning, like computers, suffer from Garbage In, Garbage Out:

    All men are tubs of strawberry yoghurt.
    George Bush is a man.
    Therefore George Bush is a tub of strawberry yoghurt.

If your assumptions are garbage ("the brakes are in the spare tyre, and information can never be created"), your conclusions are garbage.

This illustrates why I get impatient with people who dismiss Creationists as merely "stupid" and "brainless" -- it isn't just lack of brain power, it is often a particular sort of highly logical, deeply intellectual stupidity. It often includes a big chunk of self-deception: consciously or unconsciously, they choose their assumptions to give the conclusion they want, no matter whether that conclusion is true or even plausible, and refuse to question those assumptions, even in the face of evidence that George Bush is not a tub of strawberry yoghurt, for fear that they will have to abandon those conclusions.

In other words, Creationism isn't about logic, or intelligence, or science. It's about emotion, mostly fear and self-perception. Find a way to break through the emotional barriers, and eventually, the anti-evolution meme will die. Look at how all but the tiniest nutcase fringe of Creationists have abandoned the Biblical ideas that the Earth is flat with four corners, held up by pillars, and that the sun moves around the Earth.

Scratch a free-marketeer...

...and find an enemy of private property.

Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics recently blogged about an interesting study of the used-book market.

Or rather, Dubner thinks it might be interesting, but since it costs US$695 he hasn't actually read the report.

That sounds interesting, doesn’t it? We’ve touched on related subjects here and here; Judy Chevalier and Austan Goolsbee wrote a paper about the market for used textbooks. Even closer to home, as far as the trade publishing industry is concerned, is this paper by Anindya Ghose, Michael Smith, and Rahul Telang, which argues that — despite the publishers’ fears — the sale of used books does not cannibalize new book sales, and in fact a robust used market may help the new book market since a book, once read, retains more of its value.

But what I want to comment on is not Dubner's post itself, but one of the comments left by a reader. "GamblingEconomist" starts off with the free market party line, defending the price of the report:

Why does it seem strange that industry research would be expensive? How are those in the industry supposed to make their decisions without market research? Peer reviewed economics publications don’t always fit the bill.

but then rapidly shows his(?) true colours:

I hope that nobody sells it on ebay because the report is likely licensed to the purchaser for his/her own use and is not meant to be duplicated and/or resold.

Let's get this straight: he's not talking about copyright infringement. From context, he's talking about re-selling a physical copy of the report. He's hoping that nobody can re-sell the report -- or to put it another way, he hopes that the report is not the property of those who buy it.

He's talking about one of the most fundamental attributes of the free market, without which the concept of "private property" is meaningless: once you buy something, it is yours, to do with as you wish, including selling it.

You would think I'd be immune to this by now, but I never cease to be angered at the double-standards of so many of the supposed "free-market" proponents who are happy to gut the principle of private property by messing with the first-sale doctrine. To these people, there are two classes of individuals in the world: those who own property, and those who merely licence it.

And you can bet that in their minds, they intend to be in the first class.

The Auditors are real

Proof undeniable that the Auditors of Reality are real:

Auditor in space

(Click for full size image.)

Originally found here, thanks to Robert Long.