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Stardate 20010616.1652 (On Screen): And now The Wind Done Gone has been printed, and it turns out not to be quite as profound as some would have hoped. I have not read the book. But I found in this review some quotes from the book, intended to be the first-person words of a freed woman slave during and shortly after the Civil War, and they ring completely false. For instance:

All these bits and pieces of 'edjumacation' I have sewn together in my mind to make me a crazy quilt. I wrap it 'round me and I am not cold, but I'm shamed into shivering by the awkward ways of my own construction. All the different ways of talking English I throw together like a salad and dine greedily in my mongrel tongue.

The review describes this as being "in the vernacular" but it sure doesn't sound like what Mark Twain recorded as the voice of a real freed woman slave that he knew and clearly cared about, does it?

I was bawn down 'mongst de slaves; I knows all 'bout slavery, 'case I been one of 'em my own se'f. Well, sah, my ole man -- dat's my husban' -- he was lovin' an' kind to me, jist as kind as you is to yo' own wife. An' we had chil'en -- seven chil'en -- an' we loved dem chil'en jist de same as you loves you' chil'en. Dey was black, but de Lord can't make no chil'en so black but what dey mother loves 'em an' wouldn't give 'em up, no, not for anything dat's in dis whole world.

If you read his article (it is quite short and extremely moving) I think it becomes evident that he was documenting a conversation which really happened, and that he applied the full power of his formidable talent to reproducing her words and manner and story as closely as he knew how, for he had been told something deeply important which was well worth preserving. Mark Twain saw slavery first hand; he grew up with it, and he hated it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010616.1220 (On Screen): I suppose it helps to have the perspective of time. Over the course of my career, I've seen various fads in computer software come along, and there is always a hard core of believers who state, first, that they are applicable to every problem, and second, that they are revolutionary. Sometimes they're useful and sometimes not, but in my entire career I've only seen one which actually was revolutionary, and that one dates from about 1958. (Block structured programming, in case you're interested; the revolution was the development of the ALGOL language, from which C, Pascal, C++, Java and numerous other modern languages ultimately descend.) Most turn out to be flashes in the pan. Among them: object oriented design, the APL language, the LISP language, the SNOBOL language, the JAVA language, the "chief programmer team", "extreme programming", and many, many others. A current one which is following this classic pattern is "open source"; if it follows the standard life cycle its real value and its limits should become clear within five more years. Part of the problem is that there's nearly always a germ of truth in these extravagant claims; it's not that these techniques are completely useless, only that they're nothing like as broadly applicable as their true believers would like to think. (There have been a few which were totally useless, like "proving code". But usually there is some validity to the claims.)

According to this article, XML has now attained this same status as a religious icon among some people. This article describes some aspects of the XML meta-language, ascribed to it by its true believers and by outsiders with agendas, which aren't really present. What it fails to mention but which needs to be brought up is that XML doesn't circumvent the copyright laws. The mere fact that material is encoded in XML doesn't mean that its author has yielded all copyright. Yet there are people out there who seem to be making that assumption, and I've already seen complaints about cases where someone's material created with certain tools which are XML-compliant has been taken and redistributed without permission.

It doesn't work that way. The fact that an "open" and "free" standard is used to encapsulate content doesn't mean that the content itself becomes "open" and "free". USS Clueless is not encoded using XML, but it is encoded with the English Language, which is both "open" and "free", and communicated using ASCII and HTML, which are also "open" and "free". Yet all material on this page is covered by copyright. According to the Berne convention, copyright is automatic even without formal notification, and waiver of copyright must be explicit and formal. (discuss)

Stardate 20010616.1121 (On Screen): I suppose that another continuing series here is going to be what I would call "vitamins in the shampoo"; the nonsensical combination of unrelated features in a single product for no reason other than that it sounds good in advertising. Vitamin-fortified shampoo is certainly not harmful but it does no good, either. The ostensible purpose of it is to "nourish the cells which make up hair", but in fact those cells are dead. There's nothing to nourish.

So, on to today's example: an internet-enabled car, complete with wireless broadband connection and MP3 player. Exactly why would anyone want this? The image which springs unbidden to mind upon hearing of this is the electronic dashboard in the car suddenly going blank while you're driving down the highway, and then flashing "I own J00!!1!!!1" just before the steering wheel ceases to work and the car starts driving itself. (speculate)

Update: In its inimitable fashion, Segfault lampoons this concept far better than I ever could.

Stardate 20010616.1052 (On Screen): I suspect this is going to be a regular series of posts here on USS Clueless: creative (nutso) defense theories in criminal trials. A defense attorney has a legal and moral obligation to do his best to get his client off, and when the case seems hopeless the only way to carry out that obligation is to try a desperation move. But a lot of them don't pass the "horselaugh test", and I'll probably be commenting on them when I spot them.

This one passes the horselaugh test, it's just that it doesn't pass legal muster. Certain individuals in Utah are on trial for bribing members of the Olympic Committee to get their votes to bring the Olympics to Salt Lake City. They're being prosecuted under Utah state law for bribery and racketeering. They're facing major prison terms.

The Defense's "novel" legal concept is that the bribery is legal under Swiss law, and hence it should not be prosecuted in Utah. That is, at best, non sequiter; at worst it's contempt of court. The magistrate in the case has already disallowed this defense and if they persist they're likely to get into trouble.

In fact, there's no way the judge can even consider this defense. Not only is there no constitutional justification for it, even considering it would shred the entire legal system. Consider the can of worms that this defense opens up: Polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, so no-one in Utah (ahem) should be prosecuted for having multiple wives. Marijuana is now legal in Amsterdam; poof go the drug laws. Prostitution, too! (Amsterdam again.) The speed limit on the Autobahn is something like 200 KPH; so much for the speeding laws. There's no income tax in New Hampshire, so obviously no-one in Utah should be forced to pay income tax. (Or sales tax, either, because there's no sales tax in Oregon.) What law could ever be enforced? (discuss)

Stardate 20010616.1014 (On Screen): Of all domesticated animals, none are more useful than dogs. None have been bred into a wider variety of shapes and sizes. None have had their natural behavior modified so heavily.

Humans have not merely been breeding dogs for tens of thousands of years (no-one really knows for sure how long) to make them have pleasing and useful physical characteristics, we've also bred them for certain temperaments and mental processes.

Poodles and labradors love to play "fetch the ball" and "fetch the frisbie". That's because they're bred to be retrievers, to chase and bring back rabbits and ducks. (I'm not talking about toy poodles, who are so inbred to optimize small size that their brains have been damaged. Regulation poodles, which are about the same size as a Lab, are smart and well behaved and make excellent pets.)

German Shepherds will quite often chase joggers or people on bicycles. They're herding dogs, and their job is to find animals who are trying to run away, to bring them back and to make them stop running. To a Shepherd, a jogger looks like a sheep trying to flee the flock.

Terriers and dachshunds love to play "shake the rag", complete with violent head motions, pulling and low growls. That's because they are bred to hunt and kill rats. That action of getting the teeth strongly into something and then shaking the head violently is how they kill the rats they find. The shaking action breaks the rat's neck and back. Dachshunds, in particular, are bred to go into rat holes and kill the rats they find there. Their unusual body proportions are designed to give them maximum strength with minimum cross-section; a normally-proportioned dog which could fit into a rat hole (like a Chihuahua) wouldn't be strong enough to kill rats. But a Dachshund has the strength (and jaws!) of a dog three feet tall, while actually being much shorter.

An adult Doberman will always be territorial. It knows its zone and doesn't let strangers into it. That's because Dobermans are bred to be guard dogs.

These things are instinctive in these breeds. All dogs have all of these characteristics to some extent, but in these species individual behaviors have been emphasized by careful breeding. And the one thing which has been ruthlessly bred out of most dog breeds is any aggressiveness towards humans. Except in the case of things like Dobermans, any dog which attacks a human is killed immediately. Anyone who's studied natural and artificial selection knows how strong an effect this can have on a species. (The extreme example of this is golden retrievers, who are the most loving and friendly animals you could hope to find, not to mention being quite beautiful.)

Why does it surprise anyone when a pit bull attacks and tries to kill something? It's what they are bred to do. Pit bulls were developed to be fighting animals for sporting events. Sometimes pit bulls would be put together into a fighting pit (hence the name) while men bet to see which one would kill the other. Or the equally humane sport bear baiting would involve chaining a bear in a pit, and putting several pit bulls in with it, while the men wagered on how many dogs would be killed before taking out the bear.

These things are illegal in the US and most of the civilized world, but they still happen. And in any case, 200 years ago these were major sports. That is what a pit bull is bred to do: attack and kill things. And they haven't been bred to be gentle with humans, because doing that removes the fighting edge which was so favored by the breeders.

Not every pit bull will spontaneously attack someone or something, but if you take a group of a thousand of them, you'll get a lot more attacks than you would from a thousand golden retrievers.

The likelihood of this happening with a pit bull (or their close relatives the bull mastiffs, bred for the same thing) is sufficiently high that in my opinion the breed is too dangerous to keep. The way to prevent pit bull attacks is to not own a pit bull. (I hear that springer spaniels make excellent pets.) (growl)

Stardate 20010616.0832 (On Screen): One of the more obnoxious new age beliefs is the one that says that if enough people just want something, and think hard enough about it, then it will happen without anyone actually having to get their ass in gear and actually do something about it. This is the lazy man's activism; activism through mystic forces. (Or maybe it's agnostic prayer.)

Unfortunately, at least in politics there's some truth to it, though there isn't in any other aspect of life. The reason is opinion polls. If enough people do think something, the pollsters will usually pick it up and communicate it to the elected leaders. I'm not sure I think this is a good thing, because in this as in anything else the attitude encourages passivity. If they'll come to you to find out what you want, then it relieves you of the responsibility of going to them to tell them what you want. So this simply encourages political apathy: not only does it seem to be useless to be politically active, but it is also unnecessary. (discuss)

Stardate 20010616.0827 (On Screen): Well, the inauguration was three months ago, and you know what time that makes it? Time to get the 2004 election process started. Imagine my joy. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.2106 (On Screen): This article explores Tiger Woods' effect on Golf as a televised sport, correctly pointing out how popular he is. I can't say I'm surprised that he makes as much as he does from his endorsement work, and I don't begrudge him one dime of it. And even if he peaks and fades (as eventually do all celebrities in the endorsement business) he's long since independently wealthy and isn't going to be sleeping under a bridge.

I found the chart about TV ratings very interesting. I hadn't known that the ratings for all the major sports had been in such serious decline over the recent past. But there's something they don't mention: historically golf on TV has always had quite poor ratings compared to the other sports (until just recently) and yet it still got top dollar for its advertising. That's because it didn't have the same demographic. Generally, golf attracted a small but extremely affluent audience, one which was particularly attractive to particular advertisers. You can see it just by looking at who advertises on the various sports: you see lots of beer ads, and ads for SUVs, and that kind of thing on football. For golf, you see luxury cars. It's definitely a more upscale set of advertisers. So now that it's surpassed both baseball and basketball in ratings, and given its traditionally desirable viewer demographic, I think you're going to be seeing even more golf being televised. (That despite the fact that it's more expensive to cover, due to the large number of cameras required.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1752 (On Screen): As if we didn't have enough practical reasons why AIDS isn't going away any time soon, we're also confronted with political and cultural issues which all but guarantee its continued spread. Right now, the only approach available for dealing with the AIDS pandemic is prevention. But you can't prevent something if you won't admit that it even exists. If you insist that there is in your country no homosexuality, no prostitution and no philandering then you're going to have a difficult time explaining why your people are dying like flies. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1744 (On Screen): Like a lot of people, I've gotten my share of spam offering me chances to get Viagra. (Not that I took advantage of any of them.) Viagra is only available by prescription, and what some places were doing was to make it so that you could get a prescription through a web site. You'd answer a few questions, and then a prescription would be filled in your name and mailed to you, and your credit card would be debited. In theory, each of these was getting reviewed by a doctor. The FDA cried foul, and the people doing it were shut down. (I think some doctors lost their licenses to practice medicine.)

Now Planned Parenthood wants to do something similar with morning-after pills. While I think these drugs should be available to women who need them, I'm not so sure that this particular effort is well-advised. In the long run it could be counter-productive. The one difference is that they're not actually vending the drug; what they're doing is to give prescriptions (probably by phone, to the pharmacy requested by the woman using the web site). I can't see how this is any more legal than the Viagra case, though, and when they get stomped on by the FDA it could set the goal of better availability of birth control back considerably. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1720 (On Screen): Well, it's opening day for "Tomb Raider", and the Tomatometer reads 15% (11/72 reviews positive). It's looking really grim. So imagine my surprise when my two favorite movie reviewers both gave it positive reviews: James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert. That's two good reasons for going. (As if I needed two more.) I haven't been to a movie since "The Matrix", but since I like campy special effects films, maybe I'll go see this one. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1702 (On Screen): I'm not so sure I think that this woman should be let off so easily, plea bargain or no plea bargain. I was thinking to myself today, "What is the highest possible crime?" And it became obvious: treason. The most obvious alternative, murder, isn't as serious. A murderer may destroy the lives of one, or a few, or a few dozens of fellow citizens, but a traitor imperils the lives and well being of every citizen of the state, and could cause a war which might cost the lives of millions of them to preserve that state. So in that same vein, illegal acts which subvert the election process are much worse than those which do not. But no-one asked my opinion.

Still, while this woman may get off easy on criminal charges, the candidate she libeled is probably going to sue her tail feathers off. The evidence of libel and her commission of it, as determined by the government investigation, can be introduced in any civil trial, and he's not going to have any trouble demonstrating malice. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1245 (On Screen): If there is any kind of company which needs a VP of Paranoia, it's the companies producing Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Cheating has been epidemic in those since the very beginning, and you'd think that the new ones which come out would have learned the lessons of the past and tried to prevent it. But apparently not.

The new game World War 2 Online is in final beta test now. (Well, actually, it was really released but it was in such dismal shape that they're not charging for online play until they get the problems cleaned up. It already requires a 600 megabyte patch to be downloaded and it still doesn't work.) And it's already been hacked, using something called "Gear". (I've been trying to find details of this.) (discuss)

Update: A faithful reader has written in to point me to a location where "gear" can be downloaded, where I learned that it is another name for a program called "speedhack". I read about this last year, and it's clever. It's not surprising that it screws up games. What it does is to change the way the local time-of-day clock on your computer works. (After using it you have to set your clock again.) All these games work by synchronizing your movements to real time, so that irrespective of whether you have a fast computer or slow one, with fast frame rates or slow frame rates, you in principle can do the same thing as everyone else in wall-clock time. So if your computer has a slow frame rate then it permits you to move further per frame, while if your frame rate is high then it does less per frame. What "speedhack" does is to fool the program into thinking that its framerate is much slower than it actually is. This means it lets you do more per frame, so you can move faster and fire faster and change weapons faster and reload faster and heal faster. No wonder it makes someone invulnerable: if the game implements projectile speeds it really could be possible to run faster than a speeding bullet. Maybe what's needed is virtual kryptonite.

Actually, the counter measure to this is trivial: every five seconds, every client computer would send a special "five seconds have passed" blip to the server. Anyone blipping at the wrong rate too often (say, 5% or more off on four successive blips) would get booted.

Stardate 20010615.1222 (On Screen): I sometimes think that all high-tech companies should have a VP of Paranoia, whose department looks at every new proposal in the company and tries to figure out all the ways it can be used for evil. For example, some brilliant person managed to design a cell phone in Japan which, deliberately or inadvertantly, permits received email to take over the phone and do "interesting" things. It's not clear if this is a buffer overflow or a case of hostile email taking advantage of a feature, and in either case it's inexcusable.

Or take the wireless keyboard. The guys designing this gem seem to not have bothered to incorporate encryption in the RF link, which means that anyone nearby can "listen" to all the keystrokes being sent to the computer, including such things as login names and passwords. This can be done through walls, at quite a distance with the proper equipment. Even more impressive, it means that the bad guys can beam keystrokes in through the wall and operate the computer remotely. (Good work, guys! The world is a safer place now for your efforts.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1213 (On Screen): Inability to achieve erection or to keep it can be emotionally devastating for a man. All men have this happen at one time or another, but for some men it becomes the normal state of affairs, and it is deeply demoralizing. It's lead to suicides. So the development of new drugs to help these guys out is obviously going to be big business, if the drugs really do work and work well. Everyone knows, of course, about Viagra, which is already one of the most widely used prescription drugs there is. Now a number of new treatments are coming.

One of the ones described in this article disturbs me greatly. It is a cream which a man would rub on his penis, which would enhance blood flow. That part's fine, as long as he wears a condom. But some men aren't going to because they're not going to want to admit to their sexual partners that they're using a chemical aid, and if a man uses a cream like this and then has sex without a condom, his partner will be exposed to the drug, too. Just how would a cream like this affect a woman if she's exposed to it on the inside of her vagina? Or her anus? (And then there's fellatio. I suppose that could be solved by making the stuff taste really bitter. But there's still the potential for oral ingestion.)

There's no way that stern labeling will solve this problem. (It's not as if men haven't been lying to their sexual partners as long as there's been language with which to communicate such lies.) So the VP of Paranoia at that drug company (or the FDA investigators) had better make sure that this cream cannot harm women if their male partners are using it and not using condoms. All in all, I think pills are a better answer. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1150 (On Screen): When you're hot, you're hot. Not only did Sony's movie marketing department invent a film critic and quote him in newspaper advertising, but now it seems they used their own employees to pretend to be fans of a movie. You've all seen those ads where "real people" are interviewed after seeing a movie and seem to be about one step shy of orgasm from the experience? Well, evidently some of them are shills. Imagine my surprise.

And people wonder why I hate advertising so much. (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.1137 (On Screen): I wonder how long it will be before "cubic watermelons" appear on "Iron Chef"? (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.0725 (On Screen): I'm glad this case was dismissed. It should never have been brought to trial in the first place. This doctor was accused of rape because of two women's dreams? For crying out loud! What was this prosecutor thinking? (discuss)

Stardate 20010615.0715 (On Screen): Here we were, all set to create a true urban legend about someone buying a lottery ticket, winning over $20 million, and then not claiming it -- and whoever it is has to actually show up. Darn. (Of course, we can still make fun of whoever-it-is for using standard uninsured unregistered First Class mail to send in the ticket. Me, I would have done it in person. Of course, me, I wouldn't have played the lottery in the first place. I'd rather do my gambling in Vegas.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010614.1813 (On Screen): The Puerto Ricans have won, sort of. Depending on what, exactly, it was that they were trying to win, that is. In a few years the US Navy will stop using a section of the island for a bombing range. That seems to be important to some there, and I won't debate that.

But I hope that the folks there realize that the part of the island which has been used this way for so long won't be safe to use for any other purpose for decades, if ever. Over the course of years, hundreds of thousands of projectiles of various sizes, nearly all explosive, have been fired or dropped at the Vieques range, and there will have been some which didn't explode. It's not that easy to find them all; some will be buried quite deep. Something like this happened in Hawaii, and the process of cleaning it up is going very slowly. And the French Army is still finding and cleaning up shells left over from World War I, still deadly after more than 80 years. The kinds of unexploded munitions buried at Vieques don't substantially decay with time, and won't weather because they're sealed inside metal. (discuss)

Stardate 20010614.1345 (On Screen): It's sad. This is the last chance for the Be corporation, and it looks like it's a bust. They gave up on PC operating systems last year, defeated as have been all "alternative" operating systems by lack of applications. Be then bet the farm on "internet appliances", though the timing of that move was unfortunate (given the failure of the "thin client" concept commercially). I hope that this product saves Be, but I don't expect it to. (discuss)

Stardate 20010614.1218 (Crew, this is the Captain): Well, everyone else seems to have a wishlist, so I've created one, too. (pipedreams)

Stardate 20010614.0519 (On Screen): I own a marvelous little book called "How to lie with statistics" which I bought 25 years ago. I'm pleased to learn that it's back in print; it's a funny book and reads easily while educating you at the same time. Ostensibly a manual for how to use statistics to fool people, its real purpose is to teach you to not be fooled when these techniques are used against you. One chapter in the book discusses how to use graphs to deceive, pointing out that the technique can't be pinned on you since you're actually presenting the data. Still, you can present a graph in a way which makes the trend it shows look much more (or much less!) impressive than they really are.

This article contains a discussion about the Tivo company, including speculation that it is in massive financial trouble. What struck me about it was that they provided a chart for Tivo's stock price, and used a logarithmic scale. I've seen many "truncated charts" for stock prices (where they leave off the bottom part of the chart; this has the psychological effect of making the change seem more important than it is) but I've never seen a stock chart on a logarithmic scale. A logarithmic scale would have the psychological effect of making a price move look less important than it really is.

Price charts on all important publicly traded companies in the US can be gotten from NASDAQ now, and I commend them for invariably using linear, zero-based charts (which is the least deceptive way of plotting the data). This link presents the same information as the chart on CNBC's article. CNBC's chart makes it look like Tivo's price had slid a bit more than half if you ignore the labeling. NASDAQ's chart makes it clear that the decline is nearly 90% from highest to lowest. CNBC's chart makes things look better for Tivo than they really are

However, there's another strange thing: CNBC's chart cuts off in the middle of May. NASDAQ's chart is up-to-date, and during the time missing from CNBC's chart the stock price doubled from its bottom. This means that CNBC's chart makes Tivo's situation look worse than it is.

Is there an agenda here? I'm not really sure. CNBC's chart tries to present a company sinking steadily into the mud. NASDAQ's honest chart presents a more complicated picture. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.2134 (On Screen): I'm in fair touch with the state of the art, but I keep running into things which blow me away. This is one of them. You got your portable crane which is capable of lifting 650 metric tonnes up to 120 meters into the air. It's on a custom truck chassis with 18 independently steerable wheels. Unlike most big cranes, it doesn't have to be moved in pieces. When it's on the road, it is completely self-contained, moved by a 570 HP engine. Oh, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford one. (Maybe it's time for the Captain to start an "Amazon gift list".) (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.2051 (On Screen via long range sensors): What is a "random number"? When I was in college, one of my fellow students pointed out that there is no such thing as a "random number": is 1 a random number? How about 3.1415926 or 2.718281828? His point was that there are no random numbers, only random sequences. Then someone else pointed out that there were also no random sequences, only sequences we did not fully understand.

Actually, though, there is a legitimate definition of a random number which stands alone, outside a sequence. That would be a number from within a choice space such that there is no particular reason to expect that number to be favored over any of the other numbers available in the choice space. So even if it is familiar it doesn't really matter if its familiarity is coincidence. If some other party elsewhere would not expect that particular number to have a better than average chance of being chosen, then it is "random".

Where this has practical significance is, of course, in cryptography. If you're trying to choose a session key then it needs to be "random" according to this definition. (According to the book Crypto, one implementation of Netscape Navigator which implemented a session key didn't use a good algorithm for choosing its number, such that certain choices in the choice space were much more likely to be selected -- and those could be predicted by someone else. Netscape quickly fixed this flaw when it was pointed out.)

Also, my college friends were wrong even about sequences: It is possible to create some sequences for which it is theoretically impossible to have enough knowledge to predict them. This article describes several approaches which have been used and they all come down to using certain physical effects which ultimately derive from quantum mechanics. Interestingly, they didn't mention the one which is actually easiest to implement and use: thermal noise. (The one which uses the jitter on the output of a video camera is based on thermal noise, but their solution is far more elaborate than it needs to be.) The most common place to encounter thermal noise is as background hiss on a stereo amplifier when the volume is turned up with no music playing. A good amplifier design will have very little of this, but it's impossible to eliminate it entirely. And if you really want a source of random numbers, a hissy amplifier with no input can serve quite nicely. I keep waiting for someone to build a small USB device containing a single-chip microcomputer and a bit of other circuitry, which will return a random number gotten from a physical source when asked. With modern technology such a device could be put into a package a quarter the size of a pack of cigarettes and be powered by the USB itself. But I guess the need isn't really there yet, because for most purposes it's possible to create a good-enough random number using things like "how many milliseconds has it been since the last time this computer booted" and "What is the exact pixel location of the mouse pointer right now" as seeds. The problem with those kinds of things is that they really aren't enough to fully smear a 512-bit choice space, which means that your 512-bit session key isn't really going to be 512 bits strong. (randomize)

Stardate 20010613.2012 (On Screen): This is fantastic, and scary as hell. Researchers using bleeding-edge technology have directly monitored the biochemical process by which HIV invades, takes over and ultimately destroys CD4 cells. It is a totally amazing technical achievement, and astoundingly powerful. But what they revealed is terrifying, because HIV is a very efficient killer indeed. Within 30 minutes of invasion, HIV manages to deactivate over 500 genes, and that's just one of its many tricks. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.1823 (On Screen): This is a reasonably good article discussing some of the more obnoxious and intrusive lengths to which the big-budget web sites are going with their advertising. It's inspired by that NY Times "pop-under" which has gotten so many people peeved. It correctly points out that sites which use advertising which is too intrusive risk a drop-off in visits. (They don't mention that a lot of this crap can be selectively stopped with good blocking software.)

Am I the only one who finds it strange that this article is on CNet, who introduced the huge, obnoxious, intrusive Flash ads embedded in their articles? Or the fact that they decided not to put one in this particular article? (But this does explain why they don't mention filtering software, because then it might occur to people that if you were to filter out everything matching the string ".swf" originating from any site matching the string "" then it would eliminate all those Flash ads from CNet's pages.) (kvetch)

Stardate 20010613.1628 (Crew, this is the Captain): I finally got off my tail and finished setting up GreyMatter. This won't have affected the main page (in any visible way) but should mean that the "history" link now leads to something with the same formatting as the main page, and that individual log entries in the archive are also formatted properly. To make this work, I had to use ".shtml" file extensions for all the files. (I fear that this means that any archive link you've made is now broken. Sorry, but there really wasn't any other way to get it to do what I wanted, and I promise not to do it again.)

If anyone feels the urge to mess with the archives or the search engine and finds a 404, I'd appreciate hearing about it. Now I have to figure out why the admin account on the Qube is receiving daily mail errors from one of the demons. Appropriately, I'm completely clueless. Anyone have any idea as to what the following means? (discuss)

Subject: errors rotating logs

errors occured while rotating /var/log/maillog

syslogd: no process killed
error running postrotate script

Stardate 20010613.1454 (On Screen): The Earth has a tendency to change things. A bone or piece of wood which is buried in the proper environment for a million years can be profoundly changed chemically, with its carbon or calcium and phosphorous being replaced by silicon. This kind of change happens slowly, atom by atom, and the structure of the bone or wood is retained even on a microscopic level. But it's not possible to chemically evaluate such a fossil to determine anything at all. Liquid water does that kind of thing, and it happens to be the case that there is a great deal of liquid water on the surface of the Earth everywhere, and always has been.

I understand that researchers are almost desperate to learn things about Mars, and that the presence of rocks on the Earth which came from Mars represents a unique opportunity to learn things about that planet, at least until such time as some mission actually retrieves real ones for us. But the prospects for that are dim for the forseeable future. Still, it is important to keep scientific perspective. These researchers can't reasonably assume that the distribution of Protium and Deuterium in this particular rock hasn't changed in the tens of millions of years that it has been exposed to weather on the Earth. "We detected a very low deuterium/hydrogen ratio, close to a reading for the Earth." Small wonder, considering how long it's been sitting on this planet. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.1127 (On Screen): It's a bit vulgar, more than a bit cyber-punk, and definitely sympathetic to "war3z", not to mention having more than a trace of paranoia. But Counterexploitation also contains a great deal of solid information about adware and censorship and scams. It's an amusing read and a good reference. Think "GRC written by a 19-year-old with a tattoo." (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.0722 (On Screen): Polaroid's problems are extremely deep. For 60 years they've had an exclusive technology which permitted them to offer what no-one else could offer: instant pictures. They've continued to research the technology and it has unquestionably kept improving. But they got blindsided about five years ago by a completely new technology totally unrelated to what came before: digital imaging. The semiconductor industry figured out how to make really large CCDs for small bucks, and CCD's have substantial inherent advantages over film in many regards. In particular, anything which can be done with Polaroid instant film can be done better with a CCD. So Polaroid has to move into the new area because their old one is doomed. Their problem is that they don't have any competitive advantage in the new realm of digital imaging except for an established name.

If they were coming into this with a substantial war chest, so that they could invest heavily in the new technology and survive through a few bad years, they'd probably survive the transition. But they're heavily in debt now and coming into the game late to boot. (Very late.) I don't think they're going to survive the transition. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.0606 (On Screen via long range scanners): This is an interesting concept. People who have been subjected to online attacks (especially DDOS's) have banded together and pooled their logs to make a list of IPs from which attacks come. It's generally accepted now that the vast majority of the computers which participate in those attacks do so without the knowledge or permission of their owners. So this site takes your IP and looks it up, and tells you if you have participated in an attack included in their database. (I'm not on their list.) If so, you need to acquire and install an anti-virus program to delouse your computer. I recommend that everyone who has a persistent high-speed net connection visit this site. I also recommend that anyone who has been attacked add their data to the database. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.0538 (On Screen): Many kinds of entertainment in other media will be changed forever by the coming of the web, because the web gives voice to the audience. If, thirty years ago, some pundit said something offensive on the air then the people offended by it could grumble in their homes but they really couldn't effectively organize to express their displeasure. Now they can, and political organizations can be created with blinding speed. Someone can create a web site proposing some point of view (even quite unusual ones), and collect an audience of like-minded individuals in literally days. If enough agree and care enough, then working together they can then reach and influence those who have the ability to make changes — like, say, boycotting advertisers to get some particularly obnoxious loud-mouth's show cancelled. (Heh-heh-heh...)

This political and economic effect of the web is only beginning to appear, and it's going to have profound affects on our culture in the future. (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.0526 (On Screen): The AFI has released several "top 100" lists in the last few weeks, and now they've brought out their top 100 "thrilling" movies. As should probably not surprise anyone, Hitchcock has three of the top ten places, and more films in their top 100 than anyone else. (I'm glad to see "North by Northwest" get the acclaim it deserves. There is one impeccable scene in that movie, where Martin Landau picks of a matchbook and glances at it briefly, which never fails to make me have an adrenaline spike. The first time I saw it it made me scream "Don't DO THAT!" at the TV. Gad, that scene is timed well.)

What I found more interesting, however, is that the AFI has parallel lists of the critic's choices and of choices made by the general public through a web poll, and they couldn't be more different. If this doesn't demonstrate anything else, it shows the difference between a "critical success" and a "popular success", because on the public's list, the top 7 spots belong to either George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or the two working together. (They only have two of the critic's top ten. Nor am I sure that the public is wrong putting Star Wars on top.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010613.0502 (On Screen): It's an interesting state of affairs. I think maybe President Bush is beginning to learn a bit of humility. His term in office is certainly not going the way he expected it to.

To an even greater extent than any of the other Washington-outsiders who have been elected President in recent memory (Eisenhower, Carter, Bush Sr., Clinton) Bush Jr. came to the Whitehouse breathing fire and ready to lead a revolution. With control over both the Senate and House, he proceeded to move rapidly with radical programs. And he started getting resistance. The more radical his program became, the more resistance grew — and finally he alienated a member of his own party so badly that Senator Jeffords left the Republican party and took away the Republican Party's control over the Senate. Now Bush is visiting Europe and getting a lot of negative feedback from allies there about his programs, and Japan is also pushing back.

It's been said that the "President of the US is the most powerful man alive" and perhaps that's true. But that doesn't make him emperor, able to rule by decree. The President is powerful because of his ability to influence events, not through ability to control them. He still has to make deals and he still has to to compromise. I think Bush Jr. is finally beginning to grow up. (discuss)

Stardate 20010612.2224 (On Screen): What I find most puzzling about this whole business of a US-negotiated "cease fire" in Israel is that the negotiation is being done by the head of the CIA. What the heck is he involved for? Why isn't Colin Powell or someone like him doing it?

But that's as may be. In the mean time, I'm afraid I'm deeply skeptical about the outcome of this process. For one thing, it appears that the Israeli government is expecting the Palestinean authorities to control all the splinter groups, and that's just not going to happen. So when Hamas or PFLP or Islamic Jihad or IJLP decide to renew the offensive, the whole thing is going to fall apart in fairly short order. The Israeli government will demand that Arafat crush whoever, and Arafat will fail, and the Israelis will start retaliating again, and we won't have a cease-fire any longer. (I hope I'm wrong.) (lament)

Stardate 20010612.0712 (On Screen): The autopsy pictures of Dale Earnhardt will remain sealed. That is as it should be. There is nothing worthwhile to be gained by spreading them around.

Michael Uribe, owner of, said he wants to view the photos to prove that the Volusia County medical examiner’s office did a poor job on Earnhardt’s autopsy.

Like hell. He wants the pictures so he can put them online to pander to the morbid, thus drawing traffic to his site. Sorry, his greed isn't enough to justify this. Common decency dictates that these pictures not be released. (discuss)

Update: The judge has made a final decision to not release the photos.

Stardate 20010612.0700 (On Screen): "Canned Godzilla meat"? I think that if this stuff was exported to the US it would sell like mad (as a novelty item). Alas, it wouldn't be legal -- truth in labeling, and all that.

Sometimes the US just isn't any fun at all. (discuss)

Stardate 20010611.1948 (On Screen): I've got a bad feeling about this. Has there ever been a decent movie based on a video game? But here Hollywood really had a chance to pull it off. Not only did they get a top-name to star (for a change) and a big budget, but they have the opportunity to do "female Indiana Jones" during a time when action/special-effects movies are dominating the box office. So it's not a good sign that the new "Tomb Raider" movie is due to open this coming Friday and there are no reviews of it up yet. (That usually means that the studio is trying to prevent a blitz of bad publicity before opening weekend. If the movie is a good one, they want the word to get out to make that critical first weekend even more successful.)

Of course, the two (er, three?) questions are whether Angelina Jolie can do a convincing British accent, and whether any living woman can measure up to the mountainous reputation of Lara Croft in two critical areas: how good she is with guns and with gymnastic moves. (What were you thinking of, you perv?) (discuss)

Update 20010614: It's looking mighty bad. The Tomatometer reads 4/39. That's down there with Battlefield: Earth.

Stardate 20010611.1901 (On Screen): I don't often point to another person's site just to say "Hey, this is cool!", but I'm going to do so for just the second time. (I'll try not to make a habit of it.) Jack is a died-in-the-wool Mac fan, and his site is hosted on a Mac. You'll pry it from his cold dead fingers and so on. On the other hand, he seems completely immune to Amiga Persecution Complex, and he retains a sense of humor. Somehow or other he seems to come up with consistently good and humorous (and non-repetitive!) commentary on a very restricted subject matter, that being the goings-on in the Mac universe. (I'm having to resist the urge to toss in gratuitous digs about the Mac here; I've already rewritten this twice to make it nicer. I hope my Mac-using readers appreciate what I'm going through for you.) I don't know how people can be as consistently witty as Jack has been.

I've been a regular reader for months, and I welcome a specific opportunity to reference "As the Apple Turns". Today's first episode grants me that opportunity. After all, how can I resist Jack's article about the Mac being the computer-of-choice for the Church of Satan? (OK, one gratuitous dig...) (discuss)

Stardate 20010611.1452 (On Screen): This was an excellent decision by the Supreme Court, which upholds not merely the letter of the Fourth Amendment but in fact its spirit. Using heat detectors to observe a house, to try to deduce what's going on inside it, is in my opinion clearly an "unreasonable search" even if the house itself isn't entered.

I'm a bit disturbed that it was only a 5:4 decision. It is even more curious to see how the justices voted. It's decidedly unusual for Justice Ginsburg to join Justices Thomas and Scalia on one side, with Justice O'Conner and Chief Justice Rehnquist on the other.

It must frost Chief Justice Rehnquist that he is in the minority so often. The "Rehnquist Court" will go down in history for making a large number of decisions with which he disagrees. (cheer)

Stardate 20010611.0928 (On Screen): Regarding cell antennae: "millions of birds and bats each year are injured or killed when they collide with the steel structures, which are typically about 250 feet tall." Or so say environmental groups which are trying to prevent all expansion of cellular coverage.

There are two things about this: first, most cell towers are not 250 feet tall. I believe they're thinking of radio and television transmission towers, which really are that big. But the vast majority of cell towers are about fifty feet tall, and indeed it is undesirable in most cases for them to be bigger than that. But more important is their claim of millions of animal deaths, which is ludicrous on its face. If this is true, then hundreds of millions of birds and bats must be dying each year running into trees and buildings, which are usually taller than cell towers and certainly far more common. Obviously the thing to do is to cut down all the trees to protect the birds and bats, right?

Birds have eyes and can see what is in front of them. They don't run into trees, and to a bird a cell tower just looks like a funny-shaped tree. Bats have echo-location (which is how they fly at night without running into things) and the same is true for them: they don't run into trees and they're not going to run into cell towers.

By the way, most cell towers are about the same size and shape as a large street light, such as can be found lining highways all over the US. I don't recall seeing a pile of dead birds at the base of every light pole along I-5. (complain)

Stardate 20010611.0803 (On Screen): I spent several years designing cell phones, and I know a great deal about how they work. I have no fear of them at all. When the FCC decided to set the limit to the amount of radiation that they can broadcast, it first went to a lot of industry experts in a number of fields and consulted with them on what a power level might be which could reasonably be assumed to be safe, and those experts came up with a consensus figure.

Then the FCC divided that number by ten, and that is the specification within which we now all live. For digital phones it is an average of 200 milliwatts, which is a really tiny amount of power. It is, for instance, less than 1/100th of the power used by the light bulb inside your refrigerator. In addition, the frequencies used by cell phones are "non-ionizing", which means that there is not enough power in the individual photons to disrupt chemical bonds. So the only source of danger is heating, and one fifth of a watt is really not a great deal of heat. Add to that the fact that most of the time the phone is not operating at maximum power, and the fact that most of what it does broadcast is not absorbed by nearby humans, and you can see that the actual total amount of energy to which you're being exposed is really very tiny. You get a heck of a lot more just by standing in the sun. (About a thousand times as much, in fact. And unlike cell phones, some of sunlight is ionizing and can cause cancer.)

Nonetheless, there is a great deal of what from my point of view is superstitious hysteria about the potential for cancer caused by cell phones. Some of this was fanned a couple of years ago by a rather sordid incident. A certain researcher looking into (and not finding) dangers from cell phones had been getting funded by the cell phone industry itself. They ultimately decided they were wasting their money and when his grant ran out they didn't renew it. He tried to convince them to give him more and they refused. So he went to the media and started raising a stink. Ultimately this resulted in a segment about "potential dangers" of cell phones (full of inuendo and there might be's and suggestions of a coverup, and no solid data at all) being broadcast on ABC's "20-20" program. Not surprisingly, it ended with the conclusion that "more research was needed". (Guess by who?) Then the shit really hit the fan.

Well, the cell phone industry can read the writing on the wall and knows when it's licked. It gave the guy more money, and he shut up. But the damage had been done, and even though there still isn't any evidence that cell phones are dangerous, and plenty of epidemiological proof that they are not, now lots of people are convinced that there is some sort of coverup.

So now this story appears, indicating that cell phone companies have been working on "shields" and might incorporate them into their phones. And this morning, I received email from someone asking me whether this might not convince me that maybe the cell phone companies really have all along known about the danger.

No. There isn't any danger. But it has to be understood that sometimes useless features get incorporated into products solely because customers think they are important. That makes a product which has the useless feature sell better than one which doesn't. This has been going on for a long time. For instance, about ten years ago there was a craze for putting vitamins in all sorts of things where vitamins made little or no sense, because vitamins had a reputation for being "healthy". It reached the pinnacle of foolishness when someone brought out an anti-perspirant which contained Vitamin E (for no reason which was at all obvious). And products were sold, and customers were happy, and no harm was done, so why not?

It may indeed be the case that Nokia or Motorola will incorporate radiation shields into their phones. It's not that they'll make any difference, or that the resulting phones will be "safer" (since they are safe already) but rather that it will convince people that they are safer and make certain people select those phones to buy absent any other way of differentiating the products. As such, it's a good investment by the phone manufacturers. (Anything which increases sales is a good thing.)

If you think about it, you should realize that these shields cannot possibly work. A cell phone works by transmitting and receiving radio waves. If the shield prevents this, then the phone can't work. If the phone is working, then the shield isn't blocking the RF. Most of the RF coming from a phone is coming from the antenna anyway (which is the function of the antenna) and a shield built into the body of the phone won't have any affect on that (and if it did it would cause the phone to cease working). But if it makes the customer happy to know that the plastic case has copper mesh built into it, and if it doesn't add a substantial amount to the manufacturing cost of the phone, why not do it? (annotate)

Stardate 20010611.0549 (On Screen): And so it ends. McVeigh has joined his victims.

It's important to understand what didn't just happen. There was no deterrence: this execution won't dissuade others from doing the same thing. There was, God knows, no remorse: McVeigh apparently went to his death believing he'd done a good thing. Nothing was cured: everyone who died in the attack is still dead; everyone who was wounded still lives with their wounds. What there has been is justice. A horrible crime has been punished.

Good riddance. (discuss)

Stardate 20010610.1631 (On Screen): "Oh, shit! The voters hate how things in California are going and want us to change the the laws! What can we do? Well, we could listen to them and actually do what they want. Naah, can't have that. I know! We'll advertise and try to change their minds."

It seems to me that there's a bit of a cognitive disconnect here. Last time I read the Constitution, the 52 Representatives from California were supposed to be representing California, not big energy producers. (Silly me. I must have misread it. Ah! There's Exxon, right there in Article III.)

There's not a snowball's chance in hell of this advertising campaign working, by the way. (rebut)

Stardate 20010610.0637 (On Screen): There are times when documentary photography can achieve the level of art, inspiring feelings in the viewer. These pictures of Saturn do that to me.

First and foremost is simply the fact that they are esthetically pleasing. But when I look at these pictures, I feel three other things. The first is that I have some idea of just how complex the technology is which obtained them. I understand the design of the HST, its optical systems, and its computers; the relay satellites which make it possible to communicate with the HST at all times no matter where it is in its orbit, and of course with the technology which made it possible to put the HST into orbit in the first place. It's almost literally the technological pinnacle of our society, a profound achievement which will be famous for all time.

These pictures make Saturn look tiny, almost like you could reach out and hold it in your hand. It is of course an illusion; Saturn is actually mammoth, and when I look at these pictures I try to imagine in my mind what it would be like to actually see it this way myself, and to really realize just how huge the planet it. It's a humbling experience.

But the third experience is the most interesting in some ways, because they chose to portray these images "from below". Obviously, up and down have no meaning in this context and I believe that they've oriented the pictures with North being "up". Since it happens to be southern-hemisphere-summer for Saturn right now, that means we're shown the "bottom" of the planet. But to me, that is disturbing because as I imagine myself looking at it for real, I also imagine that there's nothing whatever "beneath" me. I think that most people who look at an astronomy picture psychologically assume a floor underneath the disembodied viewer. To some extent that's instinctive, since for us there's always something underneath us holding us up. But here there wouldn't be; if I were hanging in space looking at Saturn, then in the direction my legs were pointing there would be nothing at all, and I could travel in that direction until I hit the edge of the universe. I like to stretch my mind, to try to feel just how large some things are, and these pictures do it for me.

It makes me feel very small. (discuss)

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004