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Stardate 20010609.1855 (On Screen): It appears that President Bush holds grudges. He recently lost control of the Senate (which is now controlled by the Democrats with a hair-thin margin) but his party still controls the House of Representatives. In the mean time, he appears to be doing everything in his power to punish the State of California for the cardinal sin of voting for Al Gore last November.

Out of 435 members of the House, 52 are from California. The Republican party has a majority in the House of just 9 votes, with 221 Republicans to 212 Democrats (and 2 Independents). 20 of those Republican Representatives are from California. I believe the time has come for all 20 to visit the White House and to bluntly inform our President that they are Californians first and Republicans second. I'm not suggesting that they should change parties, only that they should represent the interests of their state (as is their job). (discuss)


Stardate 20010609.1514 (On Screen): This is indeed intriguing. They're considering the use of RU-486 in the UK as a form of once-per-month contraception. (RU-486 is the drug which is utterly despised by anti-abortion activists, because it permits a woman to have an early abortion in her home, without having to brave a crowd of unruly protesters to go to an abortion clinic.) What I found interesting was that it implicitly demonstrates that the researchers think that "contraception" and "birth control" are subtly different.

"Birth Control" means not having babies. "Contraception" means not conceiving. If they wanted to use RU-486 for birth control (without respect to conception), they'd have the women take it on the first day of each month and be done with it (or, more likely, 1st and 15th just to make sure) and it would work fine. But the way it would work is by causing a miscarriage of any nascent pregnancies which might have happened during the previous month (or two weeks), and for some people that's not morally acceptable. So these researchers are jumping through incredible hoops to measure hormone levels and so on to figure out when ovulation is going to take place, so that the drug can be taken just before that. That's very difficult to determine, it turns out, which is why their reliability was so lousy. For something like this, a 5% failure rate per year makes it close to useless. 5% per lifetime would be acceptable. In other words, if for every twenty couples who used this, one got an unexpected pregnancy over a lifetime's use, that would be an acceptable failure rate. With a 5% failure per year, you'd expect nearly all of the twenty couples to get at least one unexpected pregnancy over a lifetime's use. As you can see, that's not good enough. In fact, that failure rate is nearly the same as for the legendarily terrible "rythm method".

Let's consider the moral shading here: traditional birth control (i.e. contraceptive) pills work by actually preventing release of eggs, so no fertilization can take place. The carefully-synchronized use of RU-486 as proposed in this study would not prevent either ovulation or fertilization of eggs, but would prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus of the woman. (Evidently, under UK law that's acceptable.) A simple twice-per month schedule of taking RU-486 would cause any implanted egg to be aborted.

The practical effect in all three cases is the same of course (no babies), but to some people the difference between miscarriage and prevention of conception is critical (like, say, the UK courts). I just have to wonder whether prevention of fertilization is ethically the same for some as prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg. (To me, all three are ethically the same, but that's because I don't consider abortion to be unconditionally immoral.)

Regardless of the direction they ride around Robin Hood's barn, this may still be important. Traditional birth control pills (er, "contraception pills") work in a woman by simulating the hormonal balance which appears during pregnancy for 21 days out of every 28, and this causes other changes to take place which ordinarily would be needed to prepare for the upcoming baby (which isn't really coming). The most common side effect is changes in the woman's breasts (including some growth and quite often soreness), and it can alter other things as well. RU-486 used monthly would not be expected to have those kinds of effects, which might be a good thing since for some women the side effects of normal birth control pills are unacceptable. So this might present an alternative as long, that is, as they can improve that reliability figure. (discuss)


Stardate 20010609.0623 (On Screen): While Khatami's landslide victory in Iran is both expected and welcome, it's not obvious how much difference it's going to make. Iran's governmental system isn't really a democracy. There is indeed an elected government and a legislature and it can indeed pass measures. But those measures only become law if they're approved by a group of theocrats who are unelected, and enforcement of the law is controlled by judges who are also selected by the theocrats. The real point of this election was to show the conservatives that they are out of tune with their populace (which they indeed are). The unspoken threat is that if the theocrats don't loosen the reins, there might be a revolution. I hope it doesn't come to that. (discuss)


Stardate 20010609.0549 (On Screen): The whole fuss about Microsoft's "Smart Tags" strikes me as being overblown, but of course we won't know until the real product comes out. However, Ms. Gross's arguments about it being a violation of copyright law disturb me greatly. What she contends is that the addition of "smart tags" to a web page makes that page a "derivative work" under copyright law, one which is definitely not authorized by the copyright holder. (Copyright law requires "opt in" for derivative works; you can't make one without prior permission.)

The RIAA must love Ms. Gross; despite her employment by the EFF, she's the best friend they have. She's taken the concept of 'derivative work" well beyond anything that copyright holders could possibly have dreamed of. See, if her theory is correct, then it would not only be a violation of copyright law to add something, but also a violation to take anything out. Ripping advertisements out of a magazine? Nope; that makes it an unauthorized derivative work. Use ad-blocking software with your web browser? Sorry, not allowed. Create your own CD with just the music you like, in the order you want to hear it? See you in court.

I think maybe Ms. Gross should take a deep breath, forget about how much she hates Microsoft, and consider the broader ramifications of her legal theory. (cringe)


Stardate 20010609.0538 (On Screen): I very much hope that Yahoo! prevails in this case. It's not that I want them selling so-called "Nazi memorabilia" Rather, it's that they're attempting to establish a fundamental principle of jurisdiction which will affect us all. (The struggle for our freedom manifests in odd ways. It's important to keep your eye on the fundamental issues.)

The web is right-next-door for everyone. So does that mean that everyone's laws should apply to everyone else? Yahoo! is arguing that if an American puts material on a site hosted in the US, then French law doesn't have jurisdiction. That seems eminently reasonable to me. But if they lose, then all of us in the US have lost our Constitutional rights over the web, because it means that we can only post something if it complies with the laws of every country on earth. So if any nation anywhere passes a law which, say, forbids public discussion of birth control methods then every site in the US would have to remove any such information. That's not acceptable. Fortunately, I think it's highly likely that Yahoo! will win. (discuss)


Stardate 20010608.1709 (Crew, this is the Captain): In another forum, there's been a discussion of how people running web logs can afford their bandwidth when using commercial servers. (It was inspired by the fact that one particular "A-list" site had started running a pop-behind advertisement.) A lot of hosting services out there ostensibly offer "unlimited bandwidth" but don't really, and charge you per megabyte beyond a certain limit. For example, one was mentioned which permits 400 MB per day before extra charges begin.

I'm beginning to realize that I may have done the right thing by getting my own server and using my cable modem. While I'm limited to about 400 kilobits per second of upstream traffic I get no extra charge even if I saturate that 24 hours per day. I pay a flat $150 per month for that. At 50 kilobytes per second, I can pump out 4.2 GBytes per 24 hours. And I can't be financially ruined by being slash-dotted, whch was my main reason for going this way. All that would happen is that my upstream traffic would saturate for a few days. Of course, right now USS Clueless isn't running anything like that kind of traffic. In its first full week of operation, the new server pumped out about 150MBytes. So I got lots of room to grow. (But I must confess; I get a charge out of looking over at it and seeing the activity LED flicker on the ethernet connector.)

In case anyone's curious, the most popular "essay" has been "Beautiful Women". For a while I thought maybe that was because people were expecting to see pictures of babes, and I didn't want anyone to be disappointed, so I added "(no pictures)" on the sidebar. Oddly enough, it was loaded even more after that. (I've underestimated you all. My apologies.) In just shy of 7 days, it's been loaded more than 160 times. "Theory and Practice of Terrorism" is the second most loaded, at about 120 hits. It's also the second thing I've written which anyone has asked permission to mirror, and the first which will be translated to another language. A guy in Israel has asked permission (which I've granted) to translate it into Hebrew to put on a site there. (I'll post a link when I get it.)

On the other side of the coin, since Jorn switched his "Robot Wisdom" link to directly reference this URL (instead of the old address) I've gotten over 200 refers from him, making it far and away the biggest source of refers. (Thanks, buddy; maybe someday I can do something nice for you, too.) (cheer)


Stardate 20010608.1214 (On Screen): The Eighth Amendment reads as follows: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The word "and" is critically important: the courts have held that for a punishment to violate the Eighth Amendment it has to be both unusual and cruel. Which is why this business isn't going to work. Some other lawyers representing a different defendant want to film the execution of Timothy McVeigh (now scheduled for this coming Monday) so as to use it as evidence that capital punishment is "cruel and unusual" for their own client.

Execution may well be cruel lethal injection is as merciful a death as is possible with current technology but it's arguable that the mere fact of death is cruel but execution is not unusual. And if merely being cruel were sufficient to satisfy the Eighth Amendment, no-one could ever be punished for any crime. Those who wrote the Eighth Amendment surely didn't intend that. But defense lawyers have an obligation to do everything they can for their clients even if they think it's futile, so I don't disrespect them for this.

What I dislike is that it's virtually certain these tapes will escape, and soon you'll see his execution online on web sites all over the world. In fact, if they're introduced as evidence in another trial, then they'll become a matter of public record, and escape becomes certain. (Tommy and Pamela, anyone?)

Update: The Third Circuit Court overrode the judge's decision and refused to permit the taping.

Update: The Supreme Court has now refused to override the Circuit Court. (discuss)


Stardate 20010608.1114 (On Screen): Engineers are the invisible professionals. We take the output of engineers for granted; we're used to a constant stream of new products at the stores, and so on. We only really notice them when they screw up big time, like, say, releasing buggy software onto the trading computers of the New York Stock Exchange. Then everyone curses at the stupid software engineer without realizing just how amazing it is that this happens so rarely. (discuss)


Stardate 20010608.0647 (On Screen): There's no possible way that this court order can stand, and I'm truly amazed that any judge could be foolish enough to issue such a court order. It's a direct violation of the Ninth Amendment.

Among my many books, a small number stay here in the computer room because they get referenced a lot. Probably the one which gets referenced the most is this one. In its discussion of the Ninth Amendment, it says that its purpose is to protect "natural rights" even if they're not included explicitly in the Constitution. This includes things like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". I think the right to have sex would unquestionably fall within this category. (discuss)


Stardate 20010607.2155 (On Screen): I personally am not a collector of MP3's. I have exactly one on any of my computers (a copy of "Flowers on the Wall" it has personal meaning). But I have been keenly following the RIAA, SDMI and Napster three-ring circus unfold (as loyal readers will know) and so I found this particular announcement surprising. I see two diametrically opposite ways of interpreting it, and whichever is right things in the digital music world are about to get exceedingly interesting.

First, Thomson's new version of MP3 may be exactly what they say it is. I don't doubt their quality claims, and their licensing concept seems eminently reasonable (charge the big boys and let everyone else go, since it's unenforceable anyway). With a 2:1 compression advantage over the existing MP3 and backward compatibility with existing MP3 players, it seems a natural evolutionary step for all the people out there using MP3's now. I expect the MP3 fans to take to this like ducks to water. And if nothing else iced things like SDMI, this will. One of the things that the SDMI originally hoped to provide was a vastly better codec which was so good that customers would be willing to take on the considerable disadvantage of paying, to get the better quality and lower bit rate. Now, it would seem, they'll get that lower bit rate without any strings (or price tag).

Unless the other possibility turns out to be true: this may not really be what it seems. Maybe they've hidden some sort of mechanism inside where all the music encoded with it automatically gets watermarked if it came from a copyrighted source. Maybe in 18 months, all of a sudden, all that stuff ceases to be playable unless you buy a license to the music. Maybe this is really a trap. I think this possibility is less likely than the other, but it's hard to say for sure. (Maybe I'm just getting suspicious in my old age.) (engage in paranoid raving)


Stardate 20010607.1714 (On Screen): Just this morning, I was driving my car to Starbuck's, and I suddenly thought to myself "Man, I sure wish I had a local area network in my car." Well, actually, I didn't. In fact, I've never thought that in all the years I've used computers and owned cars. Just what need is satisfied by a LAN in a car? (marvel)


Stardate 20010607.1508 (On Screen): Maybe 25 years ago I decided to leave my nice section of town and go downtown to an area which,while not necessarily totally seedy, was not as nice as where I lived, in order to watch the Superbowl in a tavern. This being Super Sunday, the place was packed with people watching the game. There was a young and quite large guy who was clearly a regular, and who clearly resented the invasion of his place, and didn't have any interest in the game. He was causing trouble and finally went over to the disconnected jukebox, tried to select some tunes, and got pissed when it didn't play. This wasn't the largest joint in the world -- there were maybe 30 people there, nearly all men -- and the bartender came over and ordered him out. He stood maybe 6'4" and weighed about 240. She was about 5 feet nothing and weighed maybe 90 pounds. But she was an older woman (maybe 60) who had obviously been doing this for years, and who didn't take any shit from anyone. She looked up at him, he looked down at her, and every man in the place turned to look at them both and the place got very quiet. He decided to take the better part of valor. If he had laid a finger on that woman, he'd have bounced twice going out the door. (discuss)


Stardate 20010607.1358 (On Screen): What is a woman? What is a man? How do we tell them apart? This is an example of an ethical and legal question which has been completely changed by technology.

A hundred years ago, the answer was easily determined: pull down their pants and take a look. But now there are people who have been surgically altered to change from one sex to another. The law in most states doesn't permit same-sex marriages but permits (even encourages) cross-sex marriages. How does such a law apply to someone who's been surgically altered?

My take on it would be that the legal sex of someone could be altered the same way that their name would be -- in front of a judge, and only if it makes sense. Someone who's been changed really should be recognized as such, and a newly-created woman should be permitted legally to marry a man, even though she carries a Y chromosome. It remains to be seen whether the Kansas judicial system agrees.

On the other hand, the article points out a perhaps even more unpleasant possibility, from the "family rights" point of view: a transsexual marries someone who is genotypically opposite but phenotypically identical. In other words, a man transformed into a woman, but still carrying a Y chromosome, marries a woman. Is it an impermissible homosexual marriage? (For that to be the case, they'd have to accept that transsexual as being female, wouldn't they?)

Oddly enough, the extreme case probably isn't controversial: what if two transexuals married heterosexually? This has actually happened (I saw an interview with them) and no matter whether you judged them, by phenotype or by genotype, it appears to be a heterosexual marriage. Of course, to a casual conservative observer it would also conform to their image of the "correct" kind of marriage. (argue)


Stardate 20010607.1212 (On Screen): Correlation does not prove causation. Sometimes I wish that could be tattooed on the forehead of every scientist out there. In this case some researchers have dated bones and concluded that the extinction of numerous large animal species in Australia and the Americas happened within a few thousand years of when humans arrived. This is suggestive but it is not proof. They also didn't bother explaining why it was so selective. Why were the mammoths extinguished, but not the elk, llama, bison or moose? Why do the mammoths' smaller cousins the African and Asian elephants still survive?

In fact, it may be true that the mammoths (and other large animal species they analyzed) were destroyed by humans. What I object to is their claim to have proved it. They've done nothing of the kind. Can we make a class in "Post Hoc Fallacy" a requirement for a science education, please? (rant)


Stardate 20010607.1046 (On Screen): War is horrible; men are killed and maimed; it's scary, and rightfully so. A lot of people wish that we didn't need to fight wars, and if a war had to be fought that it could somehow be fought in a humane fashion which minimized the casualties. The holy grail for such people is "non-lethal weapons".

The drive for "humane warfare" has been with us for a long time. The pope banned certain kinds of warfare in the Christian nations, hundreds of years ago -- though he permitted them during the Crusades against the Infidel. In the Twentieth Century, there was the Geneva Convention.

There are non-lethal weapons, too. By far the best and most successful is barbed wire. If it is used correctly and in sufficient quantity, it can prevent any but a very determined foe from penetrating an area. But it works best when backed with lethal weapons. It is most difficult to penetrate barbed wire if there are machine guns behind it ready to shoot anyone who tries to cut the wire. (And barbed wire won't stop a tank.)

The problem is that non-lethality is directly contradictory to the real purpose of warfare. We don't fight for no reason; we're fighting to achieve a political goal which was not obtainable through diplomacy. Our purpose is to use force against our enemy to make him accept something he wasn't willing to grant peacefully. We do that with an army. If he also has an army, he uses it to resist, leading to combat. In that case, our goal is to remove his ability to resist, by neutralizing his army one way or another. We can do that by destroying it, by capturing it, or by driving it away. But that last is the least satisfactory, because he may reorganize and fight another day.

We're not trying to take ground, unless the ground we take reduces his ability to resist. If he's using lethal weapons and we are using nonlethal weapons, and we take casualties and drive him from a battlefield, then it means that his army is intact and undamaged, while ours is reduced. We've taken ground, but we're weaker than before. Not a good way to operate.

Which is why the whole idea of non-lethal battlefield weapons is nearly a contradiction in terms. The weapon proposed here would be virtually useless on a battlefield against prepared troops, since this beam projector would be vulnerable to a number of weapons it will face (mortars, light rocket launchers, sniper rifles, concentrated small arms fire) and even if it were successful all it would do is to make the enemy retreat.

Which is not to say that it is useless. There are things it will be very useful for. When you're fighting a war, you often capture concentrations of enemy civilians, and there's a non-trivial problem with keeping them peaceful. Riots are a constant problem, and in that kind of situation wide-spread use of lethal weapons is undesirable. So they tend to use tear-gas or water cannons to disperse hostile concentrations of civilians. This heat-beam projector would be a very good weapon for that kind of thing. They are saying that it would be used on the battlefield, but I don't think they really believe that. The real situation is it would be politically difficult for them to justify developing an entirely new weapons system solely for the purpose of fighting civilians. (discuss)


Stardate 20010607.0600 (On Screen): One of the big reasons for the collapse of the web advertising model is that it's the only one where it's possible to directly measure effectiveness in real time. How many people watch a TV ad, instead of getting up for a trip to the bathroom? Hard to say. How many people clicked through your banner between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM on June 4? 1479.

So I find it interesting that what is now apparently viewed as a particularly effective form of advertising takes away again this accountability. If an interactive Flash ad is running locally on my computer, the advertiser can't tell whether I ignore it or whether I interact with it, because it's all local. I sometimes wonder whether advertisers would be willing to pay what they do for TV ads if they had the same kind of direct feedback on them.

Of course, what the advertisers like about it is that it is large and intrusive. But that could have been implemented in other ways which still permitted monitoring. There's nothing a Flash ad does which can't be done interactively over the net. (discuss)


Stardate 20010606.1817 (On Screen): Intel is in deep trouble in its core processor market. The new P4 is a dog in its current form, and AMD is about to kick major ass. The Thunderbird processor is still going strong and AMD has turned the speed crank on it yet another step to 1.4 GHz, yielding a system which is capable of turning out considerably more computing than Intel's fastest P4 at 1.7 GHz. That in itself is very bad news, but what's much worse is that a computer built around that P4 will cost considerably more. There are two particularly good reasons for this: it needs a custom power supply which pours out a veritable river of amperes, and it needs RDRAM, which runs two to three times as expensive per megabyte as AMD's preferred DDR-SDRAM. When someone is hunting for a top-end system, why pay more to get less? Well, because it says "1.7 GHz" instead of "1.4 GHz", or maybe because it says "Intel Inside". Apparently it's not working, though. And Intel has been forced into a price-cutting war with AMD that they are bound to lose, because the P4 is simply more expensive to make. So at current prices, AMD's making money, Intel isn't, AMD's processor is faster, and an AMD system still costs less. Not exactly what the Intel board wants to hear, you must admit. So Intel is in trouble in the prestige (and influential) top-end hobbyist market.

In the mid-range volume market the picture is just as grim. The largest volume in PCs now is in the range of $900-$1200. The PIII has done very well in that market but Intel wants to stop making PIII's and shift everyone to the P4. The only way a P4 can compete at this price range is to use a very slow one (i.e. 1.3 GHz) and saddle it with miserable PC600 RDRAM, resulting in a system whose performance is underwhelming. In competition with this, AMD offers the legendary Duron (which puts the Celeron to shame), and again performance is better with a lower price.

Still, there's the workstation and small server business, right? Nope! AMD has now entered that market and yet again hit a home run, yet again offering better value for smaller bucks. The much anticipated AMD 760MP chipset, which supports dual Athlons, and the imminent release of the "Athlon MP" (Palomino) represents a disaster in the making for Intel in this business, too. AMD is confident that their sales will grow this year even in the face of an industry down-turn, and it's easy to see why.

Intel is in deep trouble and it's going to get worse before it gets better. The first thing they have to do is to forget all plans of shutting down the PIII. It's not competitive against the Athlon but it is at least still competitive against the Duron. Intel's original plan was to cease all PIII production by the end of 2001. That's going to have to wait at least a year. Second, the "Northwood" P4 can't come too soon. The version of the P4 being sold now has one of the largest dies of any microprocessor ever sold, and to make it that size they had to cut things out which crippled it. The Northwood will involve a geometry shrink, permitting them to simultaneously add circuitry and to shrink the die. It will also allow Intel to crank the speed again.

Third and perhaps most important, RDRAM is an anchor around the P4's neck which will continue to hold it down. Computers based on the P4 will not be price competitive until they can switch to using DDR-SDRAM as is used in the fastest Athlon systems.

Unfortunately, Northwood won't be here for months (and it remains to be seen whether Intel will fix its glaring flaws running legacy code), and Intel is contractually forbidden to use DDR-SDRAM until 2003. 2001's going to be a good year for AMD. (So will 2002.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010606.1603 (On Screen): Here's more coverage on Professor Felten's suit against RIAA, SDMI and Verance. What's particularly interesting is the quote near the end from Verance: "Verance was officially notified by SDMI that of over 150 attempts against our technology during the SDMI Challenge, none of the attempts, including those submitted by Professor Felten and his team, were successful," said a statement from Verance chairman David Leibowitz.

Problem with this is that Professor Felten's team didn't submit their result to the SDMI challenge because the license agreement specified that if they did so then they couldn't also publish. What Verance is really doing here is damage control: their system sucks and got cracked and they're trying to prevent word from getting out. (Decide for yourself whether Professor Felten's team really did crack Verance's watermark system.)

Update: Now RIAA has responded: "What? Why is he suing us? We never threatened him. We're friends of his; we sent him that letter just because we were worried he was getting himself into something and we didn't want our friend to end up in jail. After all, he's a friend of ours." Hmmph. (discuss)


Stardate 20010606.0802 (On Screen via long range sensors): I think it was obvious that something like this was coming when Professor Felten made his announcement that he could not deliver his paper on the SDMI due to fear of prosecution, but I'm very glad that it's happened. What we are seeing now is the first direct constitutional challenge to the blatantly unconstitutional Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It's about damned time. (discuss)


Stardate 20010606.0646 (Crew, this is the Captain): A reader asks "why shouldn't Windows be on a chip? or at least something like PCMCIA? do OSs work best as software? why? wouldn't it work faster if more of the core was hardwired? couldn't add-ons and fixes still be done?"

There's no particular technical reason of which I'm aware why Windows couldn't be put into ROM, unless someone is committing serious coding crimes. However, there's really no performance advantage to ROM. I'm not an EE, but I believe that flash-ROM as is used in something like a CF is actually quite a bit slower than SDRAM is, so running out of ROM would actually slow you down. For something like a PDA or a cell phone, it's not an issue because the processor involved is quite a lot slower already and because the users are willing to accept a performance hit. The processor in a Palm only runs about 30 MHz, and the processors in cell phones are usually even slower than that, so slow memory doesn't gate system performance. (The new WinCE devices tend to run about 100-200 MHz, which is still quite slow by the standards of a PC.) FlashROM is essential in such an application because a hard disk isn't practical and the firmware has to be retained if the battery is removed. Also, FlashROM is cheaper per bit than the power-efficient static RAM used in those devices.

But for something like a fast PC (which can use cheap power-hungry dynamic RAM), there's really nothing to be gained this way. Flash is also quite a bit more expensive per bit than dynamic RAM (such as SDRAM).

It's not possible to actually implement an operating system as discrete hardware. We're long past the point where anything like that is even remotely practical.

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks! (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.2325 (On Screen): I read about the Supreme Court decision regarding medical use of Marijuana, and I was then and still am curious about something. The Supreme Court did not render a constitutional decision; it was interpreting Federal law, and it concluded that Federal Law did not contain or justify any exception for medical use of Marijuana. I suspect that's correct.

What I never saw was a question of jurisdiction. The Constitution gives the US Government jurisdiction over "interstate trade", and in general this means that pretty much anything which crosses a state border is subject to US law. But within certain limits, what happens inside a state is subject to state law only. For example, if I were to shoot my neighbor, I'd be prosecuted by the State of California, not by the U.S. Government.

Nevada is not generally regarded as a major state for agriculture. But it has now legalized the use of Cannabis for medical purposes. If Nevada were to import its Marijuana from California (or Columbia) then the Feds would have jurisdiction and would be well within their rights to enforce federal laws against Marijuana. But if someone set up a greenhouse just outside Reno, and grew their weed there, and it was then distributed within the state without ever crossing a border, just how exactly would the Feds have any rights in the case? (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.2301 (On Screen): How dare the world actually change without asking permission from its most important inhabitant species? After all, its only reason to exist is so that human beings can live on it, right?

I lived in Portland, OR up until 1983. During the 1970's I shared an apartment with a guy who was a member of the Sierra Club. There was then, as now, a lot of discussion about just how the National Forests should be used, with the Sierra Club advocating "Leave 'em alone" and the local loggers advocating "Cut 'em down". The Forest Service did a study called RARE II to make a decision. Among the areas hotly contested were substantial parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southern Washington State.

In 1980, non-human forces took a hand and made the whole issue moot. Mount St. Helens blew up and leveled the whole area under discussion.

In the book "Life on the Mississippi" (absolutely fantastic; if you haven't read it, you should) Mark Twain talks about how he'd been told of some money which was hidden in a building in a certain town. Later in life he returned to that town to retrieve it, only to find that the Mississippi River had shifted and washed the entire town away.

The world doesn't care about humans. Beaches change and erode. The fact that you're stupid enough to put a building right on the shoreline doesn't mean that the ocean has to leave you alone. Ultimately, the ocean will win.

We don't rule the earth; we merely live on it. (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.2124 (On Screen): I had no idea that this kind of thing really happened in the UK. I thought this only happened in Monty Python sketches. (Gad; life imitates art.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.1159 (On Screen): I don't believe that this plan is really going to make as much difference as they say. I don't even believe that it's going to keep up with increased traffic which can be expected in future. It's going to take more radical steps than this to decrease flight delays and cancellations in the US airline industry.

It's going to take more airports and runways. For more than twenty years now the US Government has been collecting a tax on airline tickets for the purpose of building airports and runways, and hasn't actually been spending the money on that. It's got to use that money. The only real way to increase capacity is to increase capacity.

In the short run, they're going to have to change how they charge for landing rights. Right now, an airline pays according to the number of seats in the aircraft they use. Which means a piddly commuter airline like Provincetown-Boston Airline pays far less for a landing slot than does United, simply because PBA is flying tiny airplanes with only 30 seats or so, while UAL is landing 757's. What is needed is for a slot to be priced according to its commercial value unrelated to the size of the aircraft using it, which in particular means that a slot between 7AM and 9AM will be more expensive than one at 1PM or 10PM. To determine this, let all the airlines bid for slots and sell the slots to the highest bidders no matter who they are. Re-auction once per year. If someone gets outbid, tough luck. Yes, this will mean that PBA can't afford slots in the most popular time periods -- which is precisely the goal. It means that at the most desirable times of day, only really huge planes will be taking off or landing, which means that the overall capacity of the system will increase without changes in infrastructure. This may mean the decline and death of a lot of regional commuter airlines such as PBA, but in a sense they only exist now because they're being subsidized by the current pricing structure

But that buys you a one-time gain which long term increase in usage will again erode. The proposals being put forth by the FAA do the same. They don't represent a long term process which will continue to increase capacity as demand increases. In the long run there's no solution to this without more infrastructure. The big reason we're not building airports is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) as embodied in unrealistic local use of zoning. Everyone wants efficient flights but no-one wants airports and jets. It don't work that way. Part of what's going to be needed is laws which shortcut the zoning process locally. In a place like Boston (where I used to live) the zoning process is so labyrinthine, requiring the approval of so many different agencies, that it's a wonder anything ever gets built. Other places aren't quite so bad but it's a problem to some extent everywhere. Believe it or not, you can't have airports unless you build airports somewhere. (What a strange concept.)

Update 20010611: Apparently Congress wasn't impressed by the FAA's plan, either. (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.0910 (On Screen): This technology may well be a good one, as long as the data link is fast and reliable. It does have a real problem if the "lag" is variable, since the surgeon controlling it is relying on realtime visual feedback. I can't see this really being used big-time for civilian medicine; it's rare that you need some specific individual surgeon for an emergency surgery at a moment's notice; usually either there will be a local surgeon who can handle the job, or there will be enough time for either the patient or surgeon to travel.

Where this may be useful is in military situations, and I do know that the US military has been looking into these technologies for a long time now. That is a place where this does make sense, because you could place robotic surgeons in front line aid stations, and have them be controlled from further behind the lines. It's long been known in military medicine that the sooner a casualty can be treated, the better his chances are of survival. This may represent a significant step in that regard. One or two of these per battalion could save a lot of lives. (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.0902 (On Screen): Why is it that the recording companies keep making the same mistake over and over again? They keep assuming that consumers will automatically buy products which are deliberately crippled, and won't circumvent them, so as to protect the rights of the recording companies. They can offer such products for sale, but why would any consumer want to buy one?

Roxio is in trouble financially (among other reasons, because their most recent version of Easy CD Creator could blue-screen Microsoft operating systems, which gave them a massive black-and-blue eye) and so I can understand why they would make this deal. If they didn't, they'd be dead by the end of this year. But EMI has to be blind to think it's going to work.

Now that the SDMI has collapsed, their newest, latest, greatest plan is going to be to modify the next version of Easy CD Creator so that when it masters a CD with MP3's, it looks at each MP3 for a watermark and if it finds one, it will refuse to burn it onto the CD unless there's a purchased license for it. This is great! All the customers will instantly replace their existing unrestricted burning software with the new version, and of course no-one will ever figure out a way to strip out the watermarks, and music piracy will end. (Sez who?) (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.0724 (On Screen): I used to know a guy who went to CalTech. He said that there was a company that was designing one of the first automated teller machines. Needless to say, when you're creating a machine which will be stocked with a hundred thousand dollars in used twenties, you're going to be concerned with security. They wanted to find out if their machine was vulnerable so they brought it to CalTech and challenged the students there: anyone who could get it to issue "currency" (not real bills) without a legitimate card would get a prize of $500 (a lot of money in 1978) if they showed how it was done. Apparently it cost them about $30,000, and it was cheap at the price. The students found a lot of security holes. One guy even managed to get it to issue a "bill" with a strip of cardboard shoved into a slot.

CalTech and MIT and RPI can't do the world's testing, of course (they've got studying and beer-drinking to do) but the principle is the same. If someone is really concerned with their security, the way to find out is to offer prizes to anyone who can crack the system and show how it was done. There are a lot of people out there willing to give it a try if they know they won't be prosecuted.

I wonder why it is that someone hasn't collected a bunch of bright cocky twenty-somethings and offered their consulting services as a computer assault team, "hackers-r-us.com" or some such. (Maybe I'll register a domain here. Anyone know the phone number of an honorable and reliable VC willing to invest in a speculative high-tech company?) (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.0704 (On Screen): A guy is driving along and sees a roadside stand offering "Rabbit burgers". So he stops and orders one, and while waiting for it he's talking to the cook. The cook mentions that there's also some horse meat. "How much" the guy asks. Oh, 50%: one horse per rabbit.

So more than half of web sites intended to be profitable actually are, and a lot of the ones which aren't, aren't really intended to be. That's nice. But is this 50% by count or by weight (gross revenue)? Also, does it include porn sites (which is far and away the most successful web-based business sector)? If so, that would tend to skew the result. Still, it's good to see someone acknowledging that the web isn't completely collapsing as a business model. (discuss)


Stardate 20010605.0627 (On Screen): China decides to perform the largest practice landing exercise in its history using the best troops it has, and uses backdoor routes to make sure that Taiwan knows it's a "message" that Taiwan has been just a bit too independent lately. Taiwan and the US both say that it's "just routine". Taiwan doesn't seem intimidated. The US "routinely" moves USS Carl Vinson into the area (and probably a bunch of attack subs, but that they wouldn't announce). Now the Chinese are making sure that everyone knows that the exercise is "just routine".

Uh-huh. (Of course, this couldn't possibly be involved.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.2132 (On Screen): Ms. Hilden doesn't have a sneaky enough mind. (Rather stunning considering she's a lawyer.) EBay objects to users making phony bids to push up a price on an auction. Bidders dislike this, too, so they've been good about reporting phony bids to EBay. EBay also doesn't like having people include links on their auctions because it opens the possibility that the deal could be closed outside of EBay, cutting EBay out of its commission. But for short-sighted users, this is a good thing. So Ms. Hilden correctly concludes that users are unlikely to voluntarily report linkers.

But Ms. Hilden is a bit too trusting of human nature. Her idea is that EBay should directly reward people who turn in linkers, with for instance a reduced or eliminated commission for one auction. She misses the point that the link could be a setup precisely to earn such a reward. Someone could create two EBay accounts, post an auction with a link on one of them and then report it with the other. Bingo: free auction.

She also considers the idea of a Napster variant where anyone could ban anyone else for trading copyrighted music or anything else. This doesn't police a system, it converts it to full scale warfare. People will reenter with new identities and then ban those who banned them; coalitions will form; in other words you'll get Player-versus-player battles. (Perhaps even guilds.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.1753 (On Screen): Good heavens! I've been linked to from Robot Wisdom! (I'd like to thank Sean for cuing Jorn.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.1739 (On Screen): I've been asked to comment on this story, about a "law enforcement tool" colorfully known as D.I.R.T. (Data Interception by Remote Transmission). What you're looking at here differs little from Backdoor SubSeven and its kin (like Back Orifice). It also represents about as much of a threat (which is considerable, if and only if you're stupid).

From a legal standpoint, this tool violates Federal Law, and I believe simply offering it is a felony, even if it's being offered only to law enforcement authorities. (I spent twenty minutes trying to find a summary of the relevant law and couldn't, so I may be wrong about this.) Even if that's so, I don't anticipate any prosecutions here, since the law is applied a bit selectively sometimes.

I do know for certain that this could not legally be used even by a law enforcement agency without a search warrant. (I'm not certain it's legal even with one. A warrant doesn't give a cop the right to commit any arbitrary felony.) Any information gotten using it without a warrant would be inadmissable in a court of law, and if the violation of civil rights was sufficiently grievous the entire case could be dismissed.

But the real question is the how much of a danger it represents to each of us, and it has to be understood that the best defense against this is essentially the same as against any major trojan: never run any executable you receive by email (even if from someone you know well, because it may have been sent from their machine without their knowledge). Despite the claims that D.I.R.T. can be embedded in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, any modern version of Office now contains protections which ask you if you want to run code before it actually gets used. Always say "no". (And how many child-porn-freaks send Excel spreadsheets to each other, anyway?) Equally, if someone sends you, say, "Anna_K_nude.jpg.exe", it's not generally a good idea to run it in hopes of seeing a bit of jailbait skin.

But if you're running Win 95/98/ME and are really paranoid, then you shouldn't be running Win 95/98/ME. Upgrade to Win2K or WinXP and (this is important) do not routinely run as "administrator". If a non-administrator inadvertantly tries to run something infected with a trojan, the trojan would fail its install with a security violation. This applies equally to email attachments, embedded code in .DOC files, autostart code on a CD, or anything whatever. No matter what the encapsulation, for this or any such trojan to work it has to invade system files, and as a non-administrator you (and any program you inadvertantly run) are not permitted to do so.

The third defense is to use an external firewall. Despite their claims to be able to disable soft firewalls on the particular computer (about which I'm more than doubtful) there's nothing they can do to an external firewall.

I'm really not very impressed with this whole thing, actually. But perhaps that's because I understand a bit about marketing fluff. Anyone selling something always tries to make it seem bigger and more important than it really is, especially if it's being pitched to people who are not technically sophisticated.

Update: it turns out to be a scam, anyway. (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.1240 (Crew, this is the Captain): Despite what some would like you to believe, the web hasn't failed. What has failed is the attempt to make it something it ain't. (Here's someone else who thinks the sky is falling.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.0921 (On Screen): I think maybe we've got a case of tunnel blindness here. What's failing isn't the free web, it's the free commercial web. But there is a lot to the web which is not commercial and I see no sign at all that it is being affected at all. Some of the best sites on the web are not-for-profit. Will the web be a different place with the collapse of the commercial invasion? Unquestionably. Will it be a worse place? That's not as obvious. (Of course, to "CNET News.com Staff" it sure will be, because they'll all be out of jobs.)

However, it's not even obvious that the free commercial web is failing. What's failing is big-budget broad-spectrum, fat free commercial web. Lean-and-mean small commercial web is doing fine. (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.0823 (On Screen): International waters represent a massive headache for people who try to use law as a means of enforcing morality. Different countries take this to different degrees, of course, and it's long been a problem in some places where something is illegal here but legal about five kilometers over that direction (across the border). We've even had that problem in the US with differing state laws. For example, in Washington State there used to be a short section of highway with a particularly high fatality rate. It was a stretch of I-90 going east from Spokane to the Idaho border. In Spokane there's Washington State University. In Idaho, 19 year olds were permitted to drink alcohol. On I-90, between the two, a lot of drunk college students crashed. (The problem was solved when Idaho raised its drinking age to 21.)

In recent years a new problem has begun to emerge: on a ship in international waters, no-one's law controls. One of the first cases I'm aware of where this concept was used routinely to flaunt a law was a television station in the UK. A group wanted to broadcast commercial television in competition with the BBC but were not legally permitted to. So they put a ship with a transmitter on it in international waters off the coast of the UK, and broadcast from it. I don't know if they're still doing it (the British government may have finally granted them a real license) but they did do it for years.

I took a ferry once from Maine to Nova Scotia, and it had slot machines on it. Gambling was illegal in both Maine and in Nova Scotia, but as soon as the ferry left US territorial waters, they unlocked the room with the slot machines and it was very popular.

I see something coming. There's a lot of kinds of content which are illegal online. What if someone puts a ship in international waters, with servers on board and a satellite dish for broadband connection. How, exactly, could such a host be stopped from carrying, well, anything at all? (discuss)


Stardate 20010604.0601 (On Screen): In the 1970's, there was a civil war in Lebanon, especially in Beirut. The different sides clashed constantly, and there was a lot of use of artillery and rockets for area bombardment. The International Community was aghast, and international diplomats kept going in trying to arrange "cease fires". And everyone would agree to a cease fire at a certain date and time, and it would come and indeed the shooting would cease -- for maybe 18 or 36 hours. And then they'd be back to fighting again. I think this must have happened about ten times in Beirut over the course of a couple of months. Each time a cease fire would collapse, the international diplomats would start trying to negotiate another one.

In the 1980's there was a civil war in Somalia. And the same thing happened. Outsiders would come in and get everyone involved to agree to a cease fire, and when it came it would last maybe a day or two, and then fighting would start again

Why did they fail? Why didn't the cease fire hold? It's because the outsiders completely misunderstood the situation. They wanted the fighting to stop, and assumed that the participants shared their goal. But the active participants in the conflict had decided to fight for a reason, and the cease fire didn't eliminate the reason. If that reason was worth fighting for in the first place, it was worth beginning to fight for again. The outsiders assumed that the participants were weary of war (as were the outsiders) and wanted peace (as did the outsiders) and, most critically, didn't care how it was gotten (as did the outsiders) and all those assumptions were wrong. The leaders of the participants agreed to the cease fires simply because if they didn't they'd be branded as "bad guys" in the international press. But the participants emphatically did care about the terms of the peace and at the moment of the cease fire the state of affairs wasn't acceptable. So they started fighting again.

As long as the fundamental issue causing a struggle remains unresolved in the eyes of one side in the conflict, simply declaring a cease fire is doomed to fail. (discuss)


Stardate 20010603.0702 (On Screen via long range sensors): I should warn you that this is deeply disturbing to read. I read it yesterday and I still feel ill. "Therapists" in Colorado used highly questionable (to say the least) methods to "treat" an adopted girl and in the course of it killed her, and they videotaped the entire thing. The author of this watched the video tape and describes how she died. The tape also figured highly in the trial of the "therapists", who were convicted and will probably be getting extremely long prison sentences for this -- and I'm really glad.

There's no room to tolerate pseudoscience. Pseudoscience kills. Self deception is dangerous. People who use homeopathy or fermented mistletoe or other quack treatments for cancer instead of normal chemotherapy can die because of it. A pleasing lie is still a lie. I wish I could find something profound to say about this but I feel too sick about it. (discuss)


Stardate 20010603.0601 (On Screen via long range sensors): This strikes me as a really foolish thing to do. Why would Columbia Pictures need to manufacture review quotes for movies which actually get some pretty goo

Captured by MemoWeb from http://denbeste.nu/entries/archive-06032001-06092001.shtml on 9/16/2004