USS Clueless Archives

  USS Clueless

             Voyages of a restless mind

Main:
normal
long
no graphics

Contact
Log archives
Best log entries
Other articles

Site Search

Stardate 20010707.2239 (On Screen): AIDS is a massive health problem world wide and it's only going to get worse. But hyperbole about it doesn't help anyone. To people in the industrialized world, HIV looms large because it's the largest infectious killer for which no reasonable treatment is available, which means it will be the largest infectious killer of first world citizens. But this article claims that HIV is largest killer in the world overall, and that is not correct. The largest infectious killer in the world is Tuberculosis and other lung diseases, by a long margin. (discuss)


Stardate 20010707.2205 (On Screen): I think the worst medical issue an emergency room can face is reattachment of a severed limb. It's extremely major surgery, very challenging and very unforgiving. Usually when an operation that complex is attempted, the surgeons will spend days or even weeks preparing, doing practice runs on computers, analyzing X-rays and CAT-scans and MRI-scans, and doing the research needed to get ready. None of that is possible with a severed limb, because you've got at most six hours after the accident before the limb begins to die and maybe as little as three, and a lot of that time may have been chewed up just getting the patient and limb to the hospital. Blood flow has to be restored as soon as possible. And so you just dive in and hope for the best. You do a quick examination, stabilize the patient, take a fast series of X-rays, and then head for the OR. Worse, it's an extremely unusual operation, so most times it's the first time that particular surgical team has attempted such an operation. There isn't any time to summon the chief surgeon; you take whoever happens to be on duty, and hope to hell they're up to the challenge. (Maybe the chief surgeon shows up part way along and takes over, if you're lucky.)

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the amputation was probably violent, and there will be substantial damage to the person and to the limb, both near the sever point and elsewhere, too. And what with likely substantial blood loss and shock, and the patient is not exactly in what you'd think of a peak condition for anesthesia. Nearly everything that could go wrong already has before you even step into the operating room.

Still, the real hero of this piece is the boy's uncle. Grabbing a shark and hauling it onto a beach is really hard. Sharks have naturally slippery skin and are streamlined in the water anyway. And the attack happened at night, so there was little light. I'll be damned if I know how he did it. (You ever tried to catch a fish with your bear hands? Let alone a really big one?)

This is the kind of event which will cause nightmares in everyone involved. (Even for the paramedics this would have been awful; can you imagine cutting a shark open to get the arm out, knowing that minutes matter?) I hope the surgery takes; everyone paid a high price for it. (discuss)

Update 20010708: Here is more coverage of the story, with what may be a photograph of the shark itself laying dead on the beach.


Stardate 20010707.0741 (Crew, this is the Captain): The USS Clueless drinking game. One drink for:

Each discussion of the Bill of Rights
Each time the Captain refers to himself in the third person
Each rant about Israel and the Palestinians
Each snide remark about the Macintosh
Each snide remark about Rambus
Each story about World War II in the Pacific
Any comment about the state of the art in computers twenty or more years ago, by personal experience
Any attempt to slag open source
Any attempt to slag creationists
Any log entry longer than five hundred words
Any time USS Clueless is linked by an "A-lister"

(discuss)


Stardate 20010706.2250 (On Screen): As obnoxious as flash-ads and pop-unders are, someone's come up with an even better idea. A company called "Brandinium" is about to demonstrate restraint by creating a system which takes over your screen every once in a while and for ten seconds shoves an advertisement in your face. You won't be able to turn it off and you won't be able to get to or use any other program, unless you call the task manager and kill off the browser. They claim they'll "only" do it once every ten minutes. (That's the restraint part, and they're perfectly serious about it.) If they think the backlash against the pop-under camera ads was bad, wait until they see what happens when this goes into effect. If nothing else was going to cause the majority of browser users to start using serious filtering proxies, this is sure to do so. Brandinium, this is called "pissing in the soup." (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.2206 (On Screen): The invisible software field is "embedded software". Fully one third of software engineers work on it now and yet most people don't even know what it is. When I first started working, way back when, we who did embedded software were called "Software Engineers" while all the other software folks were called "Programmers". And then the programmers all noticed that software engineers were getting paid more, so they all decided that they wanted to be "software engineers", too. Now we're called "embedded software engineers", and we've vanished from the radar scope. (But we're still paid better, because we have to know a lot of other engineering besides just software. I'm a half-way competent electrical engineer by now and also am at least conversant with mechanical engineering and industrial design, not to mention product marketing and patent law.)

In embedded software, a microprocessor is incorporated into a custom device, and much of the functionality of the device is implemented as code executing on that microprocessor. This is done for three reasons: it provides the ability to implement things which couldn't be done with discrete hardware, the resulting system is more adaptable to customer needs, and the software portion of the system can be manufactured for negligible money and as a result it has a huge markup over manufacturing cost because it still provides a great deal of perceived value to the user. The downside is that you have to hire all those hippies who wear jeans to work and wear headphones listening to rock music while they type strange unreadable gibberish. Oh, for the good old days of white shirts and black ties.

One of the reasons the field is invisible is that people have come to take intelligent devices for granted, and don't even realize any more all the places that microprocessors are used. They are everywhere because the vast majority of microprocessors manufactured each year cost only a buck or two. Nearly anywhere that any kind of control is needed, it is simply easier to do it with software. So there's probably a couple in your washing machine; one in your dish washer, one in your microwave oven; there may even be one in your refrigerator. You've got at least two in your cell phone; and there may be as many as five in your car. Your computer keyboard contains one; there's one in your monitor; there's one in your mouse; each disk drive you own contains one; and in other places inside your computer there could be as many as ten others in addition to the big one you know about. There's at least one in your TV and one in every stereo component you own, and one in every remote control you use. Nearly everything which has push buttons on it has a computer reading those buttons.

The distinguishing characteristic of embedded software is that it is small. The processors are tiny and slow and memory is very restricted. All of these things are done to shave manufacturing cost. The microprocessor which controls your microwave oven is probably only 8 bits with a total of 64K of memory including both ROM and RAM, and it may only have a 50 MHz clock rate, if that. (If the device is battery powered, the processor almost certainly has a very slow clock rate, because high clock rates burn batteries.) Over a career in embedded software extending back to 1974, I have only once worked with a processor which had more than 2 MB of memory total, and I've never programmed an embedded processor faster than 100 MHz. Most of them were much smaller than that; the smallest I ever programmed had a total of 3K of ROM and 256 bytes of RAM, running at 5 MHz. (It was controlling a tape drive.) The vast majority of embedded software uses what are called "microcomputers" because they are completely self contained. You feed it power on one pin; a clock on another; and connect a couple of pins to ground. Every other pin on the chip is used for I/O. All the memory and everything else is completely self contained on the chip. (This can make debugging rather exciting since you can't directly tell what the processor is doing except by observing the I/O it performs.)

Over the course of 25 years in this field, the one thing I have learned beyond all others is this: non-embedded programmers don't have the faintest idea what we embedded programmers really do. Occasionally one of them with a computer religion notices all of us grinding away in our holes twiddling bits and hammering iron, and decides to save our souls by converting us to computer-religion-du-jour. He joyfully informs us about how his shining star of an idea is going to change our world -- and every time this has happened to me it's turned out to be something which was completely, totally useless. What we are doing is so much different from what other programmers do that it is nearly an entirely separate engineering field. Some tools are common and a bit of basic theory applies to both (i.e. we both use linked lists) but at any level above that it is completely separate.

When Java first hit the screen (with a splat) one of the places that Sun decided it was going to be a big hit was in embedded software. They worked hard and came up with a lean-and-mean run time machine which "only" required 3.5 MB of storage. That was just for the JVM, before you started adding user code. (It also required about 512K of RAM for overhead before you got to application storage.) At that time I was working on state-of-the-art cell phones, and our phone had a grand total of 768K of ROM and 256K of RAM. So I read how Sun was going to save my soul, put the magazine down, and got back to work. And don't get me started about the evils of garbage collection in real-time systems.

That term "real-time" is one of several that normal programmers don't understand. It means that some hardware events have to be served within a small number of milliseconds, because if they aren't, hardware will be destroyed or some person might be hurt or even killed, or perhaps it merely means that the device will malfunction and cause the customer to get angry, which is bad enough. When you're moving a robot arm (I've worked on that, too) and you're getting near an obstruction, you need to stop it right now and you damned well can't wait while the VM is busy cleaning up the heap. A miss of 5 milliseconds is the difference between correct operation and the destruction of a chamber worth a million dollars. Blow your motion control by five milliseconds and you'll throw a wafer into a wall and convert $100K worth of carefully processed ICs into five cents worth of sand. (Oh, that processor had 512K of ROM, by the way. It also ran about 50 MHz, which is about three times as fast as the one in the cell phone.)

When you're working with memory and speed constraints like that, you have to have different attitudes towards approaches you use. We rarely use name-brand kernels because they're too feature rich, too cumbersome, too powerful, too big, too unresponsive, and too slow. In my entire career I've only used two name-brand kernels and both were only name-brand within the embedded community: OS9 and pSOS. In most cases it is simply easier to write a kernel from scratch, because it will be customized for our application and will do exactly what we want but nothing else. The kernel in the cell phone takes a whole 3K of ROM.

And now the evangelists in the Linux community have decided to save my soul. Oh joy. They've decided that Linux is the perfect kernel for elevators and microwave ovens and cell phones. I would be very surprised to learn that the microprocessor which controls an elevator has more than 128K of memory. How, exactly, is the Linux kernel going to fit in that and still leave room for the application? What is Linux going to provide which I actually need that I can't do just as well with about 300 lines of C code for a primitive scheduler? I spent several years working on robots and I simply don't see how Linux fits in. By the time I end up cutting out all the stuff I don't need and can't use, it would take me less time to write what I do need from scratch. Just as so many times before, someone is trying to sell me something, and by so doing are proving that they don't have the faintest clue what problems I'm trying to solve. Putting Linux in a robot would be like trying to mount a Chevy V-8 on a bicycle. Leave Linux to do what it does well, like run web servers such as regulus.denbeste.nu. (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.1709 (On Screen): We have a new definition of "unmitigated gall". China is actually expecting the US to pay for the time that our spy plane spent sitting on the tarmac in China, during which time China refused to let the US have the plane? (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.1235 (On Screen): In the new "new economy", the first question to ask whenever anyone offers a "free" web-based product is "What is their business model?"

There's no such thing as "free". Everything has to be paid for. The practical meaning of "free service" is a service someone else pays for, and if it's something you're going to be relying on (like an email address you'll be giving to dozens of people, or an essential tool you will rely on to update your web site, or even the system hosting your web site), then you better find out who is doing the paying, why they're doing it, and whether they're going to stop someday. Otherwise you might grow to rely on it only to have it vanish out from under you when the money runs out.

When I decided to set up my own server to host USS Clueless, I never even considered using Blogger. I had heard of it and I know that a lot of people use it and get good results. By all accounts it is a very fine tool. But the problem with it is that even if my site were hosted on my own server, I would need to use Pyra's server to update it. If Pyra's server goes away for any reason, no matter why, then I'd be stuck. So I never even looked at it. I went with Greymatter instead for the simple reason that Greymatter is installed on and runs directly on my own server. (The fact that it was being given away was actually unimportant; had Greymatter not existed I probably would have purchased Manila, and if Greymatter had cost money I would have paid.)

If Noah Grey goes offline, Greymatter will continue to run on regulus.denbeste.nu. In fact, Blogger has had two near-death experiences recently which shut down updates of hundreds of blogs, though it survived them and came back up. It's not obvious it will survive the third, though, which will probably come soon; Pyra still doesn't have a viable business model. BlogVoices did die, killing off the current discussion system used by thousands of blogs and wiping out their discussion histories -- which didn't affect me because I purchased UBBS which also runs stand-alone on regulus and which will continue to run even if InfoPop goes OOB.

In the new new economy, customers of a company should be concerned that their suppliers have a sustainable business model which guarantees profits to the supplier. Otherwise the supplier won't be there when the customer really needs them. (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.1207 (On Screen): The Captain has a prediction. Napster has been completely down for days, citing problems with their software. I think it's more fundamental than that. I think that when they come back up they won't be recognizable. What I suspect is that they're implementing their pay-for-play system and that's what will be offered when they come back up again, whenever that might be. (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.0743 (On Screen): We should end the whaling ban for the sake of the whales, a Japanese official argues. This is fatuous on its face, but his argument also doesn't survive detailed scrutiny. He contends that a lot of the whaling in the world is done by "pirates" (i.e. unlicensed unregulated whalers), but that this could be stopped if legal whaling were again permitted because legal whale meat would enter the market causing a price collapse, putting the pirates out of business.

But if prices for whale meat dropped it would be because of an increase in supply; that's basic economics. In other words, you be legally killing multiple whales for each pirate whale you saved. Of course, the whales who die don't know or care who kills them; so how exactly does an increase in their death rate benefit them?

There is no longer any justification for hunting whales. They provide nothing we need that can't be gotten elsewhere. (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.0724 (On Screen): It occurs to me that there may be a different answer to the Vieques bombing range. Instead of pulling out and searching desperately for a new place to perform those military exercises, why not buy out the people living on that island? Offer each of the 9500 residents $200,000 to leave, and turn the entire island into a military reservation. It would still cost less than trying to find someplace new. (discuss)


Stardate 20010706.0645 (On Screen): This article discusses the fact that Microsoft not only licenses the entire PocketPC package to makers of PDAs, but also licenses the WinCE core. The author speculates that this may be a mistake.

It's not Microsoft's fault that this author clearly doesn't understand marketing. Microsoft knows full well what it is doing, and this move is completely consistent with 15 years of Microsoft marketing practice. Microsoft recognized early on that the software business runs best at very high volumes, but that to get to that point you have to take the long view. This is more of the same. It is true that in the short run this has the potential for causing a slight decline in Microsoft's licensing revenue, but that's not important. What is important is for Microsoft to gain the same position with regard to PDAs as it now holds for desktop computers.

In other words, Microsoft isn't trying now to make money. It's trying to kill Palm. (And it's going to succeed, too.) From the point of view of Microsoft, it's better to make $10 each off of a product volume of 100 million units per year, ten years from now, then it is to make $50 each off of a product volume of 2 million units per year, now. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.2325 (On Screen): I have this fantasy of Secretary of State Colin Powell delivering a speech along the following lines: "The struggle in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestineans is ultimately not the United States' problem, and we've decided not to be involved in it any longer. While we hope that a settlement can be found which is satisfactory for both sides and which will end the bloodshed, we no longer believe that such a solution can be imposed from the outside by anyone, including the United States, as long as the two parties involved continue to be intransigent. The US has been attempting to work for a solution for more than 25 years and has made no progress at all, despite very high profile attempts in the past by both Democratic and Republican administrations. It's clear that further attempts by the US would be futile. Therefore, the US will be sending no further peace envoys to the Middle East and will no longer attempt to mediate the struggle or to apply diplomatic pressure on either side."

The best case outcome from this course of action would be for this to terrify the leaders of both sides and made them start to realize that there was no magic solution, and that they'd better both start making concessions to find a true path to peace (including the one essential step of Israel removing all "settlements" from the West Bank and Gaza).

Unfortunately, that's not the most likely result. The highest probability outcome would be a rapid ramp-up to full scale guerrilla warfare with gross atrocities committed by both sides against civilians and a massive increase in the body count, which would last on the order of ten years until both sides exhausted themselves. In other words, Israel in the 2000's would be a remake of Lebanon in the 1980's, with Tel Aviv starring as "Beirut". (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.2143 (On Screen): Nations as diverse as India, the UK, France, the Philippines and now New Zealand have all chosen at one time or another to be lead by women, and for the most part they have done about as well as their male counterparts. For all of the pretensions the US has towards liberalism and egalitarianism, it is a bit of a sore spot that every single US President has been a white male. (And nearly all of them have been Christian.) I wonder if I'll live to see this pattern broken; I certainly hope so, but I'm not confident that I will. I don't expect I'll see a woman become President, but I think I might see a non-white man. My best guess? Colin Powell. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.1602 (On Screen via joke-range sensors): SGI has announced the end of reality. It will be shut down on August 15. One has to wonder what we'll all be living in after that. (And everything thinks Microsoft is too powerful.) (discuss)

Update: Good heavens! No one on Metafilter has a sense of humor! (Or maybe the Captain's sense of humor needs to go into space-dock for repair.)


Stardate 20010705.1505 (On Screen): Much has been made recently about the decline in the rate of dot-com bankrupcies. It may mean that there's an economic turnaround. But it may not. There were only a finite number of such companies, and after venture capital dried up last year, the rate at which new dot-coms were created collapsed. Meanwhile, the old ones started dying (which, ultimately, shouldn't have surprised anyone). Eventually the death rate has to decline simply because you run out of companies to go bankrupt. This would happen even absent an economic up-turn. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.1450 (On Screen): Hitachi has created a microscopic chip which, when coupled with a flat antenna, has the ability to receive a query and to respond with a serial number. The chip is small enough and thin enough so that it can be embedded in nearly anything, including paper currency. The antenna has to be moderately substantial in size (on the order of five square centimeters) but that can be made quite flexible. As a result, this is feasible because it can pass the famous "crumple" test which defeated the use of holograms in currency. Recently, technology has brought counterfeiting within the reach of individuals, and this may take it away again and put it back to only being possible for large corporations and governments. (Ahem.)

But it is not quite the tracking nightmare envisioned by this writer. His fear of us all being tracked everywhere we go without even realizing it should be tempered a bit. These things don't have batteries. What happens is that to read one you hit it with a big rapidly-changing magnetic field. That induces current flow in the antenna coil, which powers the chip to transmit its serial number. But there isn't damned much power and it doesn't last long, and the chip can have no memory of previous transactions. This puts serious limits on just how smart of a transaction is possible. I seriously doubt that there's actually any direct query beyond "Here's some power, please tell me your serial number." And if that is the case you're not going to be getting traced because any unseen reader doing this will be swamped with responses.

I carry a credit card, my driver's license, and typically anything from five to twenty pieces of currency, not to mention other things which might ultimately carry these kinds of chips. If I walk through a reader at a store which tries to make a query, all of them will answer at once, and it won't be possible to derive any signal out of the response. (Sort of like asking "What was that first question again?" at a busy press conference.)

Rather than that, what's actually going to happen is that there will be readers mounted in places where this kind of thing needs to be done. The vending machines which permit you to feed paper currency in a slot now use sophisticated pattern recognition systems to try to recognize the printing on the money, but in future they'll use an electronic challenge and won't be fooled by photocopies or the output of high quality ink-jet printers. When you use a credit card now at a store, likely they zip it through a reader to get information off a magnetic stripe on the back; in future they'll just hold the card next to the box and get the data that way instead. Bars trying to do ID checks on young-looking patrons will have a box the size of a pack of playing cards which will detect whether that driver's license is genuine. That's a far cry from tracking every movement we make. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.1422 (On Screen): A few years ago, no less than Lou Gerstner (CEO of IBM) announced that the PC era was over and that soon (by about now, in fact) you'd hardly ever see any. This would, of course, also have meant the end of Microsoft as a major factor in the industry. Microsoft's highway is littered with the roadkill of announcements of its obsolescence. The introduction of Java was going to kill it. Then there were "thin clients" (which Gerstner was pushing), and Netscape was going to make operating systems unimportant with a universal browser. These things come and go. I would have expected that IBM would know better than to make such a pronouncement now, at a time when Microsoft has more control and influence than ever before.

It's particularly strange for someone at IBM to claim that "We don't think (the proprietary model) is viable anymore." IBM is one of the largest sellers of proprietary software in the world, and it was the largest such seller until about three years ago. Sales of proprietary software still represent in excess of $12 billion per year of revenue for IBM. If that model is no longer viable, why hasn't that fact appeared in IBM's SEC filings? Wouldn't you think that maybe IBM's stockholders would want to know that 14% of IBM's business was about to go bye-bye?

Well, it's not in the SEC filings because it isn't true. That statement was made by said IBM rep at a Linux gathering in Europe. There's a word for that: "pandering". The IBM rep was sucking up to the crowd. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.0713 (On Screen): Sometimes I think that all the reporters are half-right when they think they are wits. Occasionally there are stories which will have puns in their subject lines, but just occasionally a story will be reported and nearly everyone will use the same puns. You'd think they'd notice.

So Apple finally gave up on the ill-fated "Cube", after completely disappointing sales which weren't helped even by slashing prices. One year on, RIP. So it goes; not every product will succeed. But "Cube" suggests "ice" and nearly every news report I'm seeing is using some variation on that theme. This one says "Apple Freezes Power Mac G4 Cube". MacCentral says "Apple puts the Cube on ice." Moan.There were others. Was this punnish assault really necessary (and did they all have to use the same pun)?

At least one news outlet resisted the urge and reported the story straight. Thank goodness. (discuss)

Update: "Can Kodak find its focus?" Sigh.
Update. Sheesh. Apple itself used the same horrible pun.


Stardate 20010705.0656 (On Screen): Sometimes political speeches can approach the absurd. I suppose this is no revelation. I remember at least one speech a couple of decades back by a US President trying to rally support for something-or-other and he declared that it was the "moral equivalent of war". The idea being "Hey, let's all go back to those wonderful days of WWII when everyone was willing to make huge sacrifices for the public good; man, wasn't that a fun time?" The speech was a flop (and so was the program). It was, in fact, an act of supreme contempt for the intelligence of voters.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has just taken the political simile to an entirely new level of non-sequiter. In a speech in the US he has declared that the global fight against HIV and AIDS is comparable to the American revolution.

Without commenting on the merits of a global fight against AIDS, this is ludicrous. How, exactly, was a political movement against unfair taxation related to a medical battle to control a horrible disease? Well, it isn't. They may both have been desirable, but they really don't have anything to do with each other. What he's really saying is "Hey, all you Americans, stop thinking and reflexively give me money." Perhaps we should give him money, but not because he hits our patriotic reflex-point with a hammer. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.0640 (On Screen): A technology has become available which permits people to choose the sex of their children, or so this claims. Actually, such technologies have been available for years; the difference in this case is that it becomes possible before fertilization. It takes advantage of the weight difference between a sperm cell which carries an X chromosome and one which carries a Y chromosome; presumably it involves a centrifuge. The article contains some scientific innaccuracies, which is unfortunate. For instance, it is not the case that "genetic illnesses usually affect only boys." That is true for some diseases such as hemophilia because the gene which causes the disease is on the X chromosome. Since a girl has two of them but a boy only has one, if the one he gets is bad then he's in trouble. A girl has to have the bad gene on both her X chromosomes (which means her father had to be hemophiliac). But other genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, are not X-linked, appear equally in both sexes, and are quite common. Sickle cell anemia is far more common than hemophila, in fact. Worse, someone named Lord Winston, who ought to know better, is trying to claim that this procedure could itself cause genetic damage. That's unlikely, if for no other reason than because the kind of damage it would cause would be such as to prevent the fertilized egg from being viable. Major damage is possible but would not lead to a child. Minor, heritable damage is very unlikely.

The real reason that this technology is dangerous is not due to side effects, but rather due to its actual primary effect: sex selection of children. The article emphasizes that it would be used to select female children, but if it goes into general use that's not usually how it's really going to get used. What would actually happen is to increase the ratio of boys. The cultural effects of a substantial change in the sex-ratio among babies is impossible to predict, but even without this technology we're going to find out, because it's happening now in India. Using the older techniques of ultrasound and abortion (or the yet older "technology" of infanticide), people there are selecting for boy-children (for a number of complicated cultural reasons).

That hasn't really started happening in Europe or the US yet, but if it becomes possible to select a child's sex pre-fertilization, there are a lot of people here who will find that to be morally acceptable, and we'll see the same shift. That is unacceptable, and it's going to have to be controlled by law. The solution is that this procedure, even if it works, must be limited to a clinical setting and only given to people who have a familial history of X-linked diseases. This is just the first droplet of a coming ethical rain storm. (discuss)


Stardate 20010705.0605 (On Screen): I keep running into the fact that for a lot of people, "Freedom of religion" means the right to choose which Christian church you will attend. Deep down there may be a begrudging acknowledgement about "temples and synagogues" and an understanding that this may protect other religions. Somehow they never seem to accept, however, that it also means the right to not worship at all. Atheism is a religion, and is equally protected by the constitution (though it took until the 1960's for this to be recognized in a Supreme Court decision).

Our President, in a speech with unintended irony held at Independence Hall, is trying to claim that his "faith-based initiative" to give government money to faith-based charities is fully in line with the founder's intents. Somehow he seems to have missed the fact that right next to the "freedom of religion" clause in the First Amendment is another one called the "establishment" clause which says that Congress shall pass no law regarding an estblishment of religion.

It may well be that Our President really believes in this, but I think it's more likely to be a cynical ploy to curry favor with the religious right. (discuss)


Stardate 20010704.1935 (On Screen): A few years ago, a unified currency for Europe (prosaically called the "euro" [], avoiding arguments about whether it ought to be called "pound" or "mark" or "franc"). Beginning with a value set comfortably higher than the US dollar, it has since sunk to well below it (dropping from its initial rate of $1.20 to about $0.85. This article speculates about the reason why, but misses what I think is the most likely reason.

The problem is that the European Central Bank has no track record. Managing a currency is very difficult, and there are a lot of philosophies about how it ought to be done. The Fed has made mistakes, but over the course of 65 years it's done a pretty decent job, and at this point people have a pretty good idea what to expect from it. But who the heck work at the ECB? What are their intentions? Are they going to be incompetent at carrying them out? How much will the EU interfere? Will the ECB be willing and able to make the hard decisions which will be politically unpopular like cranking back on growth to avoid inflation even though it means throwing people out of work?

The Fed can, does, and will continue doing so. After the ECB has ten years or so demonstrating that it has the will and knowledge to do the same thing, then I think you'll see more credibility for the currency. (discuss)


Stardate 20010704.0808 (On Screen): If the Captain were running Intel (as if) then there is no question that one of the three current processor families would go away. But it wouldn't be the PIII. Rather, I'd kill off the Celeron, and use the PIII as the low end processor. Right now the Celeron is completely outmatched by AMD's Duron line, but the PIII is still competitive.

Then the Captain would tell Rambus to shove it, and release the DDR-enabled version of the 845 chipset. (After that, we'd work on world domination. Oh, wait; Intel already has that.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010704.0708 (On Screen): With the promised closing of the Vieques bombing range looming, they're looking at using part of Padre Island on the coast of Texas instead. Padre Island is similar to the barrier islands along North Carolina; it's more than two hundred miles long and extends all the way from the Mexican border up to north of Corpus Christi. The section they're considering using is more or less near 27 degrees N latitude.

And inevitably, all the usual suspects come out to explain why it can't be done there: noise, danger, environmental damage, migratory birds, endangered species. I don't hold out much hope for this happening unless there is a specific act of Congress which bypasses all the normal regulatory mechanisms. (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.2248 (On Screen): I've been trying to figure out for a while just why it is that the EU has any regulatory control regarding antitrust enforcement over companies incorporated and located in the US. Apparently the rule is that a company which actually does business in the EU has to agree to be subject to its rules. Now the EU is looking carefully at Microsoft and considering antitrust action. But that leads to an interesting speculation.

Suppose that Microsoft negotiates a settlement on its existing antitrust suit in the US, in such a way as to avoid a breakup. (I think this likely.) Suppose further that the EU then orders a breakup. It seems to me that in that case Microsoft faces one of two choices: either accept the breakup order or cease to do business in the EU. I really suspect that the latter is the course it would take. Microsoft would change its license agreements to forbid direct or indirect sale of its products into any country which is part of the EU, and by so doing it would cease to be subject to EU antitrust regulation and the breakup order would be null and void. (Dell and Compaq would take it in the teeth, but that's "collateral damage.")

This would represent a considerable decline in sales for Microsoft (about 15%), but this would also turn out to be temporary. This would hurt the EU a lot more than it would hurt Microsoft. PCs are no longer a luxury in the industrialized world, and without the ability to buy them, any industrialized country will be in deep trouble quite soon. And I don't just mean "desktop computers" being vital, I specifically mean x86's running Microsoft operating systems and/or Microsoft applications. Apple would certainly step in to try to fill the void but it couldn't really do so, and Linux and BSD can't either. The reason is Office; Linux and BSD don't have it (and for most users "Star Office is just as good" doesn't play, and Linux and BSD aren't ready for prime-time on the desktop yet anyway), and while the Mac does support Office, Microsoft would forbid sales of Office for Mac to the EU, making it impossible for Apple to fill the void. The resulting dent might well kick the entire EU into recession.

The EU could not order Microsoft to return to selling its products to the EU, because once Microsoft ceased to do so the EU would no longer have the power to order Microsoft to do anything. I think that the standoff would last no more than one year, and then the EU would relent, and beg Microsoft to stop what amounted to a boycott. At which point Microsoft would also negotiate an agreement with the EU that also did not include a breakup. Total cost to Microsoft would be on the order of $6 billion in revenue, perhaps $2 billion in lost profits, which would be cheap at the price for a company with more than $50 billion in cash and investments.

It is interesting that we actually have a company which is sufficiently powerful that it has the ability to engage in a trade war with fifteen nations with decent chance of winning. (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.2212 (On Screen): In this corner, wearing purple-prose shorts with Macintosh trim, Steve Gibson! Gibson! And in this corner, wearing a condescending smile, Rob Rosenberger! Rosenberger!

Is WinXP's TCP/IP socket implementation the greatest danger the net has ever known? Gibson says yes, Rosenberger says no. Actually, they're sort of both right. Rosenberger is correct when he says that a WinXP machine will be no easier or harder to infect than one running some other operating system, and that any machine can become infected with a trojan, and that any machine can become part of a distributed denial of service attack. Gibson is correct when he says that such an attack launched using WinXP machines will be more dangerous. (Gibson is an old-time Mac user who has never fully trusted Microsoft. He glosses over the fact that Linux has had raw sockets for a long time, for instance, and that a DDOS launched from Linux zombies would be just as deadly.)

It doesn't actually take all that many zombie systems to seriously foul some sites with a DDOS; a few hundred slaves are enough to take down a site running a couple of T1's, such as Gibson's own. But if the zombies are (for instance) Win98 or Win2K systems, then their IP addresses are included in the packets they contribute to the flood. That means that it becomes possible to set up firewall rules to eventually choke off the attack from each such machine. It's slow and painful but it can be done. A versatile attacker might have more than one string of zombie machines which could be used for a re-attack, and then it would be necessary to go through this exercise again. But it can be blocked, so a DDOS attack using zombie Win98 or Win2K machines will only be a temporary annoyance. And it's easier to set up a firewall rule than to acquire another zombie.

When the zombies are running WinXP, it won't be possible to stop a DDOS with firewall rules, or with any other kind of blocking tool I know of. It is true, as Rosenberger says, that the trojans won't ignore or refuse to use older systems. But they could (and probably will) be written so that if they happen to be on a WinXP machine then they'll take advantage of the extra capability. What this means is that instead of their packets contributed to the flood always having an honest IP as a return address (which could be blocked in a firewall), they'll contain random numbers for the IP address. That means that there won't be any way to explicitly block them in a firewall without shutting down the service they're trying to reach (e.g. port 80==http), which isn't practical. Therefore, instead of an attack making a server inaccessible for a few hours (until firewall rules could be updated) it would stay unreachable until the attacker relented.

But the answer to this is not to demonize Microsoft for fully implementing TCP/IP in WinXP. The answer is to work harder on making the OS and its apps less susceptible to execution and installation of trojans. (For instance, HTML-encoded email needs to execute in a sandbox.) (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.1217 (On Screen): The government of Australia has, for some unfathomable reason, instituted a second kind of patent which is more informal and less binding, which costs less and doesn't require a lawyer to draft the application. It involves less scrutiny at the patent office. It's streamlined, efficient, and remarkably vulnerable to abuse, as a patent lawyer there just demonstrated. He filed a patent for a "circular transportation facilitation device" which was granted.

Our hero was just issued a patent for the wheel. (I think we can safely assume that this can be challenged on the basis of "prior art".) Of course, he wasn't serious about it; his goal was to point out the flaws in this new system, which I think he has now adequately done.

The patent system all over the world is stressed to the breaking point, and Australia was apparently looking for a solution on-the-cheap. There isn't one. In the case of the US patent office, one thing that needs to be done is for the US Government to permit it to keep and spend all the money it collects on registration fees, which is supposedly what those fees are for. That will permit it to staff up, which will help the problem a great deal. (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.0712 (On Screen): I suppose this was an inevitable step: someone has create a trojan which uses the machine it infects to send spam. I don't think this is going to become a problem. The idea is that what it will be sending is commercial advertising, but that can only be useful if it actually contains contact information for a company: a URL, a phone number, a PO box, or something. And that, in turn, leads to an obvious target for law enforcement authorities to begin their investigation, since creating and distributing a trojan is a felony. If you're going to break the law, it's not generally a good idea to sign the results.

Of course, there's a different way this could be used: find a company you hate and create spam purporting to be from them. The resulting firestorm of protest would then land on the company you hate, and there wouldn't be any obvious link to you. (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.0641 (On Screen): Now that the Revolution ("Up against the wall!") has created a free operating system, the easy part is done. The next job is to get a substantial body of applications running on it, and that effort is running up against the limits of what is possible with volunteer labor.

One of the big problems the Linux effort has had was the huge number of different versions which have spawned over the years. Last time I heard, there were over 200 of them, all of which differed to some degree or other. Unfortunately, they are sufficiently different to make it so that a single installation procedure for a major commercial application couldn't run on them all, requiring those commercial applications to be tailored multiple times. This is one of the big hurdles preventing wholesale (ahem) support of Linux by commercial software developers, which is essential to the process of getting Linux used broadly on the desktop.

Now a standard has been developed which should cut way down on the woes involved in supporting multiple flavors of Linux. It is, needless to say, freely available. But it demonstrates the Achilles Heel of the Linux effort, because it was developed primarily by paid engineers working for IBM and HP and companies like that. Why paid engineers? Because some jobs are necessary but unromantic, and when you depend on volunteer labor everyone wants to work on things which are fun. Work which is essential but boring won't get done unless people are paid to do it. (discuss)


Stardate 20010703.0559 (On Screen): Hunger strikes can be effective tools of protest. Gandhi achieved great things using them. But they only work if there is a substantial number of people who care about the well-being of the striker or who would be intensely embarrassed by the death of the striker.

Occasionally the tactic is used in a situation where the people in power don't really care, and then it is useless. Peru's former spy chief Montesinos, one of the most hated men in the country, is on a hunger strike right now. I have a feeling that the consensus in Peru is probably "Fine, let him starve. It'll save us the cost of a hang-man's noose." (discuss)


Stardate 20010702.1737 (On Screen): One of the towering intellects of the twentieth century, whose work affects nearly everything aspect of our lives, is hardly known to the general public. It is amazing that everyone knows who Einstein is, but that knowledge of Claude Shannon is confined to the techy few. But in many ways, Shannon's work was even more important and even more profound.

Shannon's paper in 1948 was one of the most amazing intellectual feats of all time. Most scientific research builds on the past, and when it is completely new it also is usually incomplete, leaving many unanswered questions. But Shannon not only created information theory, he also finished it. Before Shannon's paper it didn't exist. After it was published, it was mature, ready to be converted to engineering practice. I can't think of another example like this in the history of science. (discuss)


Stardate 20010702.1547 (On Screen): The city of Tampa has leaped into the abyss. The twenty-first century is here, and it ain't pretty. They're installing cameras on the streets of the city, fed to a computer system which will recognize faces and log them. Tampa detective Bill Todd says this is no different than placing policemen to do the same thing.

It's not that simple. First, people cost a lot, whereas the computers and cameras being used here are cheap. It isn't practical to stake out an entire city and keep notes on the movement of all the people in it using human agents, but this computerized technology makes that completely practical. Second, individual agents might notice and log down a few people they see, but won't recognize most of those people, and their notes would have to be correlated with the notes of hundreds or thousands of other such agents. But this computerized system in essence is the Argus embodied, for all of the cameras will feed their data to a single system which can and will cross-correlate the data in an instant. This system makes it completely possible for someone in the police force to enter a query into a computer asking for all times and locations of sightings of a specific individual. And there is no guarantee that this will only be used to "track known criminals"; it can be set up to take any new unknown face and add it to the database. When, in future, someone wanted to know what you had been doing, they'd obtain a photo of you, digitize it and let the system "recognize" it, and then pull up all the data about you which had already been captured.

Who? That, indeed, is the most important question. Anyone who had access to the computer system, either legally or illegally. Cops, bureaucrats, hackers, you name it.

The city council of Tampa must be mad. "Tampa is really leading the pack here," said Frances Zelazny, a spokeswoman for Visionics Corp., which produces the "FaceIt" software. That's for damned sure; leading right into the grandmother of all lawsuits for invasion of privacy. (discuss)

Addendum: Someone in Congress has noticed and isn't happy about this. I have a feeling that this will soon be deinstalled.


Stardate 20010702.1534 (On Screen): It's a long tradition for people to use the law to discriminate against companies and products they don't like. My dad told me that when he was a kid, margarine was a new product. And it was against the law to sell margarine with yellow coloring mixed in. Margarine is naturally white, and has to be tinted to match the hue of "the high priced spread" (as they always referred to it in the TV advertising when I was a kid). So margarine was sold in double-bags, with the white material on one side and yellow coloring on the other; you'd cut the end off and squeeze them out simultaneously and mix them together. There is, of course, no reason whatever to pass such a law -- unless you're the dairy industry and have a lot of political pull. (They've been fighting a rear-guard action against margarine ever since. For most of my life it was illegal to serve margarine in a restaurant, for no obvious reason.)

When I first reached drinking age, we could get most kinds of beer in my home state of Oregon, but we couldn't get Coors. It was sold in California and in Idaho, but not in Oregon. Part of the reason why was that at that time Coors was up against a production limit and couldn't make enough. But later they increased capacity, and started selling in Washington state, though still not in Oregon. That's because it was against the law. Now it's not possible to pass a law banning a specific brand, but you might be able to find a way in which that brand differs from its rivals and ban that and that's what happened. Every other brand of beer was pasteurized, but Coors used cold-filtering, which accomplished the same purpose but which was reputed to not damage the flavor of the beer to the same extent. So Oregon had a law banning sale of unpasteurized beer. Why? It was passed at the behest of the trade unions, because Coors was the only major brewery which was not unionized. (That law has been repealed, and now Coors is sold in Oregon.)

These kinds of laws always strike me as transparently sordid, obviously passed to benefit some specific campaign contributor. Usually what happens is that someone notices and publicizes them, and then the legislature gets embarrassed and gets rid of them. It strikes me as undefendable for Germany to not permit Land's End to advertise its guarantee, which is obviously of value to German consumers. But the reason for the "fair trade" laws (which used to hold sway in the US, too, in certain product categories) was to "protect small retailers" or some such drivel. The actual effect is to annihilate any potential benefit of competition for consumers by forcing all retailers to charge the same (high) prices and offer the same (lousy) service, since there's no incentive to compete in either area. I'm glad that the German Bundestag has seen the light on this. (discuss)


Stardate 20010702.1438 (On Screen): Brian Carnell (a kindred spirit who actually writes about his links) seems impressed by the fact that the crime rate in one particular county in Michigan dropped at a faster rate than those around it when it began to issue licenses to carry concealed weapons to its citizens. It's entirely possible that this effect is real and not a fluke, but that doesn't mean it is a solution which will scale.

Cops have known for a long time that it is possible to drive down the crime rate in a community with intense patrolling. By throwing a lot of cars into an area and patrolling heavily, the crime rate will decline substantially. But crime in neighboring areas will rise. What's happening is that certain kinds of crime are not being prevented by the patrolling but merely being displaced, like a bubble of mercury under your thumb. The crooks go where the cops ain't, and the cops can't be everywhere.

There's a good chance that this particular county's crime rate dropped precisely because its neighboring counties were not issuing concealed weapon licenses, so the folks who would otherwise want to commit muggings decide to travel to the next county to do it.

Why this is important is that Brian reports that similar rules have now gone into effect for the entire state of Michigan, which means that this particular county soon will not be distinctive. That means that it won't be able to export its crime any longer, and as a result there's a good chance that its crime rate will normalize with those of its neighboring counties.

The argument in favor of broad possession of concealed weapons is that it will reduce certain kinds of crime, particularly armed robbery, rape and other impersonal violent crime. The argument against it is that there's a decent chance it will increase violent personal crime, such as passionate impulse murder. We see those kinds of crimes now: someone gets tossed out of a bar, goes home and gets a gun, and returns to shoot the place up. Most such people have cooled off by the time they get home, which is why this is rare. What if he's already packing heat? I think perhaps I wouldn't want to be a bouncer in Michigan right now; it's only a matter of time before there's a major shootout there. (discuss)


Stardate 20010702.1346 (On Screen): This is the latest in a series of articles I've seen denouncing the use of "pop-under" advertisements by a certain company. What I don't quite understand is why it is that all these pundits are giving the company they claim to hate so much free press? As has sometimes been said, there's no such thing as negative publicity (not quite true, but damned near) and every one of these denunciations has contained the name of the company and a description of its product. Who's side are you on, anyway? (discuss)


Stardate 20010702.1218 (On Screen): I think we can safely say that there is no truce in Israel right now. (discuss)