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Stardate 20010728.2035 (On Screen): From 1861 to 1865 the United States fought a bitter Civil War which was set off by the issue of slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in that war to settle the issue, and in the late 1860's, after the war was over, the United States passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery illegal in the United States, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which made nearly every freed slave into a citizen of the United States. The people of the United States atoned for their sin of slavery and paid in blood.

The dirty little secret about slavery is that the Africans were just as involved in it as Europeans and Americans were. Slavery began in the Caribbean on sugar plantations, and initially the slaves were natives. Problem was that they died off, mostly from malaria but also from overwork. African natives were more hearty and could stand up to the work better, which made them preferred, and initially the slavers went to Africa and captured people there to take away. But that was slow, expensive and hazardous, and a better deal was soon found. Local tribes living near the coast made a deal with the slavers: the locals would capture their neighbors and bring them to the coast, and sell them to the slavers. The slavers would pay with finished goods from Europe such as iron pots and pans or cloth or other manufactured goods. Thus, the vast majority of African slaves used in the New World were made slaves by other Africans. This didn't offend the sensibilities of the Africans at the time, who already used slavery locally, and in any case there was no sense of being "African" to them. They were members of their own tribe, not members of some larger affiliation associated with their continent.

There's nothing good to say about slavery except that it's over. We're still living with the consequences of it and it may be centuries before those effects fade completely, if they ever do.

African nations today are stuck in a cycle of poverty which is unimaginable to the West, and indeed are stuck in what is almost a form of national indentured servitude due to foreign loans. In many cases it takes a large portion of those nations' foreign income just to pay interest. This has got to end, and there is finally slow painful motion in the direction of debt relief. It must move faster and be more complete. There are many problems in sub-Saharan Africa and they probably can only be solved with money. The nations of sub-Saharan Africa have been pleading for increases in foreign aid and haven't been getting it. So they've decided to try a new tact and to demand money as reparations for slavery. This is wrong. First, it was a very long time ago, and no-one alive today was alive at the time that slavery in the US was abolished. Second is that none of the modern nations of Africa existed then, so even if reparations are due it's not clear that they should be the recipients. Third is the involvement of the Africans themselves in the slave trade. Fourth is that slavery still exists in Africa itself even though it's been abolished here in the US, which makes a mockery of claims of victimhood.

This is sheer opportunism, the cult of victimhood writ large. How long a memory should we have for past wrongs? If any horizon makes sense, it should be for the duration of human lives. Any event whose victims are all dead of old age should be left in the past. Sub-Saharan Africa desperately needs money, but this is not the way to get it. (discuss)

Update 20010730: The president of the National Urban League says the Bush administration should not dodge debate over whether the United States owes compensation to blacks because of slavery. I fully agree. We should stand up and forthrightly state that we don't owe any compensation at all to anyone who is not actually a freed slave.

Stardate 20010728.1431 (On Screen): Mike Tyson is an animal. He's completely out of control and too violent to walk the streets. He has just been accused of his second rape, and he probably should have been indicted for biting off part of the ear of another boxer in the ring. For that he was banned from boxing, but the commission caved in and let him box again, in a craven concession to sponsor dollars. He should have been banned for life. He served 3 years in prison for his first rape; but if he's convicted of this one, he's going away for a lot longer than that.

The alleged crime took place in California, and here are a couple of relevant parts of the legal code. Section 261 defines the crime of rape; section 264 declares the penalty (3, 6 or 8 years in prison). Section 667.5 specifies that anyone committing a major crime less than ten years after having spent time in prison for rape (or some other violent crime) will have an additional 3 years added to the second prison term, which means that if convicted Tyson will face 6-11 years in the slam. I don't know if California has a "three-strikes" law; if it does, and if he has any other convictions he may be gone for a really long time. (discuss)

Update 20010818: Authorities have decided not to file charges, because they don't think that it could be proved in court.

Stardate 20010728.1109 (Crew, this is the Captain): Yesterday I read an article which I can't find now which claimed that researchers had found a correlation between IQ and life expectancy, the idea being that people with higher IQ's also seemed to live longer. I believe that this is probably true, but I think it can be explained easily enough. There is a known strong correlation between IQ and level of education. There is an inverse correlation between education level and the likelihood that someone will be a smoker, and equally an inverse correlation between smoking and life expectancy. In other words, people with higher IQs are less likely to smoke, and smoking kills. If you were to eliminate this factor, I bet there would be no important correlation at all between IQ and life expectancy. (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.1010 (On Screen): In a piece of political rhetoric rivalling the Philip Morris "Cigarettes are GOOD for you" fiasco , Japan has topped itself in its attempts to find reasons why it should be permitted to continue to hunt whales. Today's theory is that whales eat "more than their share" of fish. In a masterpiece of post hoc fallacy, they note the correlation of a rise in whale populations (after the international moritorium on whaling) and the decline in fish stocks, and declare causality based on correlation. Of course overfishing by humans couldn't possibly have anything to do with the decline of fish stocks, could it? After all, fish stocks were declining even during the years when there was active whaling, but of course that doesn't matter at all.

This is about as unadroit of political advocacy as I've seen in a while, and it's about as convincing as a little kid's claim that a bear came in the door and broke the cookie jar. (Of course, their claim that they need to kill 500 whales per year for "research purposes" is equally idiotic.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.0834 (On Screen): This article in the mainstream press, about the upcoming digital music offerings by the big recording labels, is refreshing in that it states that what's being offered will be a commercial failure. The reason is simple: no-one will want to buy on the terms under which this material is being offered. We all know that, but it's nice to see someone in the mainstream press acknowledge it for a change, using phrases like "wishful thinking" and "disaster". (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.0808 (On Screen): "If you just ignore it, it will go away." That's generally considered an unwise piece of advice. But in the case of things like computer viruses or web site defacements, I think it really is true.

Why do people do these things? They're breaking the law, they're not getting paid. But they are getting attention. When someone defaces a site, it used to get archived on a web server, and it became a trophy on the wall. When someone launches a new virus, they can scan the news media and read the reports about it. They crave attention; even though anonymous they're getting it. What I have to wonder is whether a decline in the amount of news coverage of these kinds of things would result in a decline in actual occurrences. If no-one ever got to see a story about their virus on or any of the other tech publications, there would be much less incentive to write them.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the best defense against these things is knowledge. Many of these inimical programs spread by getting people to click on and run something, and if people are alert then they are less likely to do so. That's what the news organizations will tell you is their motivation for publicizing them. Still, as a side effect they also encourage the creation of new viruses. It's an imperfect world. (discuss)

Update: Besides, it gives us writers something to do.

Stardate 20010728.0744 (On Screen): It is not merely illegal to attempt to censor the flow of information on the Internet, it is impossible. "The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it." Thus said John Gilmore, and time has proved him correct. When one form of communication gets tromped on, another will appear. Attempts to control the flow of information are futile because it's just too damned easy to introduce new protocols and information streams.

A poster on Metafilter put it well: "Congress makes its annual re-discovery that not everything on the Internet is child-friendly." I don't think it's really news, of course. What it actually is is posturing.

Politicians need headlines at home, and they don't want headlines which are negative or mixed. Controversy isn't needed; what they want is to make a strong stand on a safe subject, so that the people back home can see that Representative Donkey Is Working For US or Senator Elephant Is Serving Our Needs and so we better vote for him at the next election. Heh.

Which is why so much attention is being paid in Congress to such useless subjects as child porn (there just ain't that many active pedophiles out there, folks; this is an example of misleading vividness) or access to porn by kids. Yup, it happens. Horny teenage boys like to look at pictures of tits. (Hell, so do I.) Laws won't change that, nor will technology. This is an issue of trust between kids and parents, and the kids will always cheat, some anyway. That's what kids do; there is always a struggle between parents and kids where the parents try to maintain control and the kids try to gain freedom. Thus has it always been. But that makes it a good subject for a demagogue, who can be shocked (shocked!) to find that there are actually pictures of naked women out there and that sometimes kids get to see them. Sheesh. Hasn't Representative Waxman got anything better to do, like say balancing the federal budget and getting it passed on time? (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.0723 (On Screen): When I see a coin on the ground, I always pick it up, because when I'm too stiff or fat to pick up a coin, then I'm officially "Old". Obviously I'm merely "middle aged" and I prove that each time I pick up a coin. (By damn, I'm never going to be "old".)

The US isn't going to give up the penny, because doing so would be an official acknowledgement of inflation. We all know that the value of our money has been dropping, but none of us really wants to admit it. Also, giving up the penny would cause a lot of grief in states which have a sales tax, because it would introduce rounding in tax collection which could add up to surprisingly large amounts of money.

The US mint hasn't made pennies out of copper for a long time now, because copper is too expensive. They're made of zinc, in fact, and then have a very thin layer of bronze electroplated on them to make them look copper-colored (bronze wears better than pure copper), and they still cost more than one cent each to make. But if you take a penny minted in the last thirty years and tear it apart with a pair of pliers, you'll see that the inside is white and not copper colored.

I agree with Representative Kolbe that both the penny and the dollar bill have outlived their usefulness; the penny should go away and the dollar should be a coin. But since that would be a tacit admission of the decline in the value of the dollar, it won't happen. It ought to, though; these days it costs nearly a dollar to buy a pack of gum. (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.0705 (On Screen): There was a time when God wielded lightning bolts. There was a time when He was responsible for wind and rain and storms. There was a time when these things could be influenced by prayer. But for the last several hundred years, these things have been changing, and now we know that lightning is an electrical discharge caused by natural forces, and preventable with lightning rods. We know that wind and rain are caused by sunlight and oceans and the shapes of mountains. There may still be people out there who think that prayer can change these things, but I think we've reached the point where most rational Christians know that it's not really like that. While praying about these things does no harm, it's not likely to help, either. The weather will do whatever it does, whether we pray about it or not.

And so will volcanos. There was a time when God rained lava and ash down on people because they were sinners and relieved that attack when they prayed (if they were sincere enough). Now we know that volcanos erupt because of plate tectonics and that the volcano doesn't care about humans. They get hit with lava and ash simply because they're near.

This article discusses the ongoing eruption of Ętna, and mentions in passing that the "archbishop of Catania said he would pray on Sunday to ask that the eruption stop." I don't really think that even he expects it to make any difference, but it's pretty much expected in heavily-Catholic Italy that he should do that. This is the last gasp of the conversion of Catholicism from a theory of physics which actually attempted to explain the world, to a system of pure theology concerned with ethics and lifestyle choices. You may be able to pray for wisdom and guidance. You can't pray for rain, or an end to volcanic eruptions. (discuss)

Update 20010729: Apparently I was wrong.

Stardate 20010728.0650 (On Screen): With yet another counter-counter-counter-ad-nauseum-attack (this one by Israel against the Palestinians, but that hardly matters) the cycle of violence in Israel continues. This news story marks a milestone, of sorts: it's the first one I've seen in quite a while which reports killings without mentioning the so-called cease-fire.

You could see this coming in how it was reported. At first, "The nascent ceasefire in the Middle East appears to be gaining strength." And Arafat was "committed to fulfilling all the agreements related to a cease-fire." But there was trouble in the wind, and "a fragile Mideast cease-fire, brokered last week, holds despite fresh incidents of violence." Hopes became "clouded". Then the truce was "close to collapse" and "troubled". A US ambassador blamed both sides for "undermining" the peace process. And now they're not even mentioning it any longer in the news coverage.

There was no "truce". There was never a truce. There isn't any "peace process". The problem is that there are enough people on both sides who don't want peace that one won't be coming anytime soon. The status quo there is low level warfare and this will continue for the forseeable future. It's a shame. Every once in a while someone outside will talk both sides into a "cease fire" and both sides will agree simply because neither will want to look like the bad guy internationally. But violence will again catch fire and will again burn. There can be no peace until the underlying conflict of interests between the two sides is dealt with. The reason that the sides are fighting is that they both think there's something worth fighting about. Until that changes, they'll keep fighting, and the bodies will continue to pile up. And no amount of pious pontification about "peace" by outsiders will change that.

Peace is a by-product, not a goal in itself. Peace happens when no-one wants to fight. The goal is resolution of the problem of land and freedom of movement and self-government for the Palestinians. (discuss)

Stardate 20010728.0611 (On Screen): Japan's Prime Minister, in last minute campaigning, announced that he would push through reform even in the face of opposition from his own party. This is a really strange campain promise in a Parliamentary system, bordering on the nonsensical.

For an American Presidential candidate that would be a reasonable claim to make, because the voters directly elect the President and he serves a fixed term. So he's campaigning to get votes for himself. But the Prime Minister of Japan isn't directly elected. Rather, after the election whichever party has a majority in Parliament, or can put together a coalition, will select the Prime Minister. And Parliament has the ability to recall the Prime Minister at any time with a "vote of no confidence". By its nature, this system was deliberately designed to make it so that the PM does indeed represent the consensus view of the members of his party (or coalition), and if the PM then changes policy they'll kick him out.

So what Koizumi is really saying is "Vote for my party even if you think you disagree with them." That's pretty transparent. I wonder if it will work? (discuss)

Stardate 20010727.1527 (On Screen): Thousands of records of data about students in the state of Georgia were recently found online, and also were cross-referenced by the Google search engine. This included names, addresses, drivers license numbers and other personal information. Once informed of it the people running Google worked to remove the data, but it hasn't yet been determined how the information actually leaked.

Starting about a week ago, someone started posting data records on a chatroom which included the names, addresses, social security numbers, driver's license numbers and other things as well. Hundreds of records were revealed and it's assumed that thousands more are available. The best evidence seems to be that the data was stolen from cell phone companies or their sales agents, though that hasn't been determined for certain yet.

"Top execs from IBM, General Motors, and Proctor & Gamble put pressure on the US Congress not to draw up legislation aimed at protecting customers' privacy while shopping online. The companies argue they can look after people's privacy themselves." In a pig's eye. (discuss)

Stardate 20010727.1352 (On Screen): As if ICANN hadn't gotten itself into enough trouble, now it's co-defendant in a class action lawsuit. Having certified a name authority for the new ".biz" TLD, said authority has been trying to avoid the inevitable gold-rush by name squatters by permitting people to pre-purchase chances at the most valuable names (e.g., which I'm sure will get snapped right up). Well, they're selling those chances for $2 each, and it is alleged by the lawsuit that this makes it an illegal lottery under California law. I gotta admit, it sounds like one to me. (discuss)

Stardate 20010727.0832 (On Screen): Las Vegas is an artificial environment, and things which would make no sense at all anywhere else can be enormously profitable there. (Why would anyone else build a replica of the Eifel Tower right next to a replica of the Statue of Liberty, next to a hotel shaped like a pyramid?) But in a city which attracts as many tourists as Vegas, and with as many resorts competing there as there are, any opportunity to distinguish yourself is seized upon. So a fancy restaurant at the upscale Mandalay Bay has a world-class wine list, with the wine held in a huge tower in the middle of the restaurant, and the two women who put wine into it or get bottles of wine out of it are suspended on cables. Just another day in the office at Las Vegas.

The same restaurant has experimented with using ebooks to hold their wine list. They also have paper copies of it but they are huge, and most people prefer the electronic version, which is quite small. The guy who suggested the idea was surprised when the hotel didn't even ask how much it was cost, but told him to "Just do it". He shouldn't have been; if it brings in five extra guests per week (and it will, once word spreads), it will pay for itself in short order, because people who come to eat stay to gamble. That's the economics of Las Vegas. (discuss)

Stardate 20010727.0753 (On Screen): This is an example of a eBusiness which really takes advantage of the characteristics of the medium. It's impossible to conceive of how this could be done any other way, and I have no doubt that it's very successful. The "Hollywood Stock Exchange" is an online game that you can play for free. It uses funny-money called "Hollywood Dollars" or H$ and just by signing up you get two million of them. You can then buy and sell "stocks" in various stars, and movies, and sell again later to try to increase the number of H$ you have. Of course they are not good for anything else (that would be illegal) but for people interested in this kind of thing it's a running contest, with the scores clearly available. If you're good, you'll make money. If you're not, you'll lose.

It's been said quite truthfully that true expertise in a subject is demonstrated by the ability to win a series of wagers on that subject, and that is what this amounts to. It looks like it's harmless and fascinating. So where is the business?

Ah. that is where the subtlety of this comes in. See, if you run low on H$ and want more, you can do things which will get more for you. Two in particular: look at a page of advertisements and get some H$ for every ad you click, or go to the HSX online store and buy merchandise. Everything you buy gives you a premium of H$. Ultimately what you're looking at here is merchandising.

Interestingly, you'd expect that the free availability of new H$ would lead to inflation, but that's not necessarily the case. The model also has a sink for H$: every time a new star or movie emerges onto the scene, the operators of the HSX create stock for it which they sell, and this in turn drains H$ back out of the system. It is altogether a clever concept. Once they got their software written, it should not be expensive (in real $) to run this system. This is the most clever hook for an online store I've ever seen, and I have no doubt whatever that it is successful, especially considering the list of companies selling through it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.2227 (Crew, this is the Captain): I've receive an email informing me that my page displays strangely in Netscape. Since I was using such basic formatting, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be a problem. So I downloaded and installed 6.1beta on my laptop and noticed that the header was loused up. In particular, the header looked strange because it turns out that Netscape handles background images in tables differently; it restarts the background image for each cell instead of going smoothly for the whole table. And in fact it was handling other aspects of the cell structure strangely, so I changed it and now that seems to display properly, at least with the version of Netscape I was using. As of this change just made to the header, the page now displays the same on Netcape 6.1B as it does for me in IE. If anyone notices any display problems, I'd appreciate hearing about them (and also please tell me which version of Netscape you're using, and approximately what it is that seems wrong).

Netscape's install program is a pain; I automatically and unconditionally got an AOL advertisement icon installed on my desktop (and probably some gawdawful huge program behind it somewhere bizarre wasting my disk space), and Netscape made itself the default browser even though I told it I didn't want it to be. It also defaults to showing all kinds of commercial crap that I don't want, and if I had done a default install I'd have gotten AIM and RealPlayer and just a pile of other things I didn't want. I was also forced to create some sort of account name, though I have no idea what that might have been used for. I suppose all this is a side effect of the AOL take-over. Also, having a product banner that sits on the screen while the program is loading is really lame. And it seems to take three times as long to initialize as IE does. Not too impressive, beta or no beta. If this is the kind of crap they've been foisting on the world for the last three years, it's no wonder they lost the browser war. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.1507 (On Screen): Volcanoes are amazing and dangerous and beautiful things, and no-one controls a volcano, as mentioned here recently. But maybe, once in a while, it just might be possible to interfere with them a bit. Mount Pinatubo left behind a major crater after its last eruption, and since then it has been filling with rainwater. It's now nearly full and threatens to overflow, but its walls are not strong and once the water starts flowing it will erode and let loose a major flood. This flood can't be prevented, but sometimes if you can choose the place and time for something to happen that can be better than leaving it to chance. What I'm wondering is whether it might be possible to bomb the side of the crater so as to start the flood deliberately in the direction where it would do the least damage, after carefully evacuating everyone who might be in danger from it. Unfortunately, right now the government of the Philippines has other things on its mind and probably isn't up to a decision like this, which would involve deliberately sacrificing some private property. Still, if they were to ask I'm sure the US Navy would be willing to make the attack; a couple of F-18's armed with high power laser-guided bombs could do the job quite nicely, I think. If we can hit bridges with them, we should have no difficulty hitting the side of a mountain.

Sometimes weapons of war can have completely constructive civilian uses. Once a long time ago when I lived in Oregon, I took a driving trip up to British Columbia. After spending a couple of days in Vancouver, I took off driving NE along Canadian Highway #1. I eventually ended up in Banff National Park (a stunningly lovely place) but was puzzled in this one valley I drove through where I saw, about every quarter of a mile, a 30-foot circle of concrete by the side of the road with four big steel studs sticking out. It was driving me nuts because I couldn't figure out what they were for. Then I spotted a park truck stopped next to one of them, so I stopped and asked.

In the winter, after a major snow storm, that area was subject to really killer avalanches and the threat of them kept the highway closed. So after a big snowstorm, the Canadian National Guard would come in hauling a 105 mm howitzer, and they'd fire HE rounds up onto the surrounding slopes to bring the snow down, after which the highway department would plow and open the highway. Those circles are where they mount that gun. That's got to be a lot of fun, you know? I'd love to see film of it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.1451 (On Screen): Why is there fruit? For someone who believes in evolution, this appears initially to be a puzzle, since the fruit appears to be an altruistic gift by plants to animals of one form or another. But there's no altruism involved. Take, for instance, apples. You have have noticed that horses love to eat apples, and well they might; they're sweet and tasty and easy to chew and definitely a nice break from tough old grass and leaves. But what's in it for the apple tree? Well, horses (and other grazing animals) don't actually chew all that efficiently, especially when eating something as soft and digestible as an apple. They do chew a bit, but most of the digestion is done in the gut. Apple seeds are small and hard and slippery and there are several in the fruit, and while one or two may get crushed by teeth, most will not be. They're also resistent to digestive processes, and will emerge from the horse undamaged. But where and under what circumstances they emerge is the point: horses tend to move around. By the time the seeds emerge the horse may have moved miles and certainly will have moved hundreds of meters away from the original tree, and the horse deposits the seeds in the middle of a pile of the best naturally occurring fertilizer there is. It's a win for the apple tree.

Some plants optimize their fruits for big ruminants; some for birds; some for squirrels and other climbers. But what is hot pepper optimized for? Why would a plant grow a fruit that is impossible to eat? Research has now found that it isn't actually impossible to eat; it's just impossible for mammals. Birds love the things and aren't affected by capsaicin, the chemical which makes peppers "hot". It's a selective poison. And birds turn out to be the ideal creatures for spreading pepper seeds around.

What they don't mention in this article but which I suspect strongly is that it also repels insects. If a fruit is destroyed by caterpillars, it's not going to be eaten by something larger which will move its seeds unharmed. Defense against insects is, so far as I can tell, the reason why the onion family (including garlic) have a strong flavor, as well as why such things as black pepper and cinnamon bark have the flavors they do. In small quantities, mixed with other things, we humans find these flavors quite pleasant. But eat a full meal of 100% raw garlic or 100% black pepper or 100% oregano leaves and you're going to be deathly ill afterwards. That's what insects would face. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.1003 (On Screen): A Book of Five Rings by Musashi Myamoto is one of the finest books to come out of classical Japan. It is a deep book, although brief, containing much insight. Musashi lived during the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (perhaps 30 years after the events on which the book Shogun was based) and was a ronin who legend has it was the best swordsman in Japan. (The lead character in the excellent comic book Usagi Yojimbo is based on Musashi.) His book became one of the bibles of later Samurai philosophy. If you've read Shogun or seen movies about Japan, you'll know that sometimes people felt compelled to commit ritual suicide. Men would do it by ripping open their stomachs. Of course, this is actually a very difficult thing to do and extremely painful, and usually there would be a "second", a man standing behind the man commiting suicide, who would swing a katana and take off his head. Actually, the stroke usually came as he was reaching for his blade, since that was enough to prove his courage. (The supreme dishonor would be to not be able to go through with it, and this prevented such dishonor.)

Musashi states in his book that no-one should ever volunteer to be a second at a suicide. If you perform well, no-one will notice. But if you perform badly (and wound but not kill, requiring a second stroke) then you are seriously dishonored because of sheer incompetence. There is nothing to be gained but everything to be lost, and thus you should not do it unless ordered.

Using the same logic, the teachers union in the UK is telling its teachers to refuse to accompany students on field trips and vacations for the same reason: if nothing goes wrong there is little reward, but if a kid is harmed or killed, the teachers can lose their careers and even everything they own. It's a high-stakes gamble with no reward; it is a stupid thing to do. And they're right. Kids are stupid, and sometimes they'll get hurt. A kid who refused to listen and skied somewhere dangerous got badly hurt, and now his school is being sued because the teacher involved didn't forcibly take away his lift ticket. But if the teacher had done so, and if nothing had happened, then the kid's parents would have been livid. It's a no-win situation for the teachers; the best they can do is to avoid the situation entirely. It's unfortunate that it's come to this, but that's the price you pay for not taking responsibility for yourself. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.0840 (On Screen): It seems as if too many corporations think that there can't be a party unless they attend. Certainly the media producers feel that way, but they're wrong. This article discusses some upcoming approaches to reducing the cost of FLASH memory and alternative memories, to try to get speeds up and sizes and prices down. While not plummeting at the same rate as HD costs, FLASH memory is certainly getting cheaper with time. Looking further into the future, this article speculates about a new medium for recording and playing back video which would use memory cards instead of tapes. I think this is plausible. And then it contains this quote: "Music companies and other content providers need assurances against piracy before they'll be willing to put their intellectual property on flash-memory video and audio players." Unfortunately for them, there's no indication that a recordable medium requires substantial buy-in from publishers in order to be successful. Prerecorded video tapes only became big business after there was a big installed base of players, which were originally purchased primarily in order to record things off broadcast TV. Equally, portable MP3 players (RAM or HD or CD) have been a notable success without any prerecorded media at all. I think that a memory-card video/audio player is likely, but it's going to happen whether the media companies are involved or not -- unless they impose draconian copy protection mechanisms on the standard before it's released, in which case they'll piss in the soup and ruin it for everyone (as happened with DAT). No recordable medium with strong protection for intellectual property will ever be a commercial success. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.0439 (On Screen): The President of Phillip Morris has apologized. Not for killing people, but for the fatuous and now much-reported analysis done by his company for the government of the Czech Republic which tried to prove that tobacco importation resulted in an economic gain for the country. But to prove that, the authors of the study had to include gains from reduced service required by the elderly due to the people killed early by tobacco.

In many ways, this apology is just as fatuous as that analysis was. "The incident has hurt the company's attempts to boost its reputation. It already has spent $100 million annually for positive advertising, donations and shelters for battered women to persuade the public it has changed its ways." But it hasn't changed its ways: it's still selling an addictive drug which kills huge numbers of people, isn't it? (discuss)

Update: Of course, none of that matters. All that matters is profit, right?

Stardate 20010726.0402 (On Screen): Every year in the Alps people vanish, and every year a few dead bodies are found. Sometimes they are people who vanished years ago; the Alps are a dangerous place and the snow is deadly. But it was particularly stunning a few years ago when a body was found which turns out to have been more than 5,000 years old. Of course, one of the puzzles was how he had died, and it was long assumed that he had simply gotten lost in the snow and died of hypothermia, later being buried and frozen.

Now it turns out to be much more sinister: he was murdered. An arrow point has been found in his body. It was discovered with a CAT-scan, apparently having been missed in earlier simple X-rays. What's amazing to me is that having discovered it and by looking at the evidence of the body, they were able to reproduce his last few hours and determine how he died. Forensics truly has become a science. (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.0354 (On Screen via long range sensors): A few days ago I wrote about a highly speculative implant which may give some sort of sight to those who have lost theirs due to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. It turns out that work on deafness has gone much further. There is an implant for people who are profoundly deaf which isn't merely experimental, but is actually ready for clinical practice. FDA approval is expected later this year. We live in an age of miracles.

Quite literally, in fact. If you study the New Testament, there isn't any medical miracle Jesus is claimed to have done which is now impossible to modern medical science. Bringing the dead back to life? Been there. Restoring sight to the blind? Done that. Cure Leprosy? Easy. Not in every case, of course, but all those things have become routine. (Water into wine? Well, we're still working on that one.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010726.0334 (On Screen): In the study of population dynamics and ecologies, there is a fairly simple formula which says that the size of the next generation is the product of the number of members of this generation which survive to breed multiplied by the average number of offspring they create over their lifetime. Then when you analyze them, you find that different species optimize for different tradeoffs between reproductive potential and survival.

Some species such as corals and trees have an extremely low breeding success rate, but compensate by producing immense numbers of offspring nearly all of which die before reaching adulthood. A fir tree produces hundreds of cones each year each of which may contain dozens of seeds, but the vast majority of those will get eaten or will sprout and die. But if over the course of its life of up to a thousand years that tree manages to produce one viable offspring then the species will survive, and if it produces two then the species will prosper. Corals have an even worse time of it, but they produce millions of offspring every year nearly all of which are eaten. Indeed, this is very common among sea creatures. Salmon lay hundreds of eggs because they have to.

At the other extreme, there are a few species which rely on a very high chance of survival of offspring by investing heavily in each one. This is the "quality" approach, as opposed to the "quantity" approach used by corals. Elephants are a very good example; a female elephant probably can only produce one baby every three years and needs at least two of them to survive to adulthood. But baby elephants have a very good chance of survival.

Most species shoot somewhere in the middle. Rodents are further down the "quantity" scale. There is a rodent living in Scandanavia which is so heavily predated upon that its females produce several litters per year, who mature so rapidly that females from the first litter will have had their own litters before the breeding season ends and winter sets in. So fully leveraged, one female can produce upwards of fifty young in one breeding season. This compensates for their poor survival rate.

This also applies to diseases, and it turns out that the most dangerous diseases are not the ones which make us the most sick. There's a good reason why HIV is killing far more people than Ebola, even though Ebola can kill you in a few days and HIV takes 10 years. In fact, it is precisely the slow process of development of AIDS which is responsible for the spread of HIV, because HIV has a much greater chance of "reproducing" (spreading from an infected individual to an uninfected one) precisely due to the very long period in which infected people are still sexually active. Its spread is impeded somewhat by the fact that the mechanism of spread of HIV is (thankfully) rather inefficient. Most of us talk to far more people than we have sex with, and if HIV had all the characteristics it has now but also was spread approximately the same way that influenza is spread, the human race would decline 95% or more in the next fifty years.

What's interesting about this is that it applies equally to study of artificial life forms such as computer viruses and worms and trojans. Successful (ahem) designers of such devious programs have to balance the rate of reproduction of their child against the chance of breeding, just as do natural critters. In this case, for a trojan such as SirCam the "chance of breeding" is the chance that any given recipient of it can be conned into clicking the attachment on an incoming letter multiplied by the chance that said sucker is running a computer with the right software on it (Windows, Outlook as primary mail client, address book in use) to permit the program to reproduce. The reproduction rate is the number of email addresses available to harvest to which to send out new copies. If the average reproduction rate is fifty harvested email addresses per successful infection, then only one out of fifty of the recipients need to be unwise for the virus to continue to spread. The reproduction rate for these kinds of beasties are pretty much a determined quantity for all members of a given class of programs, so the writers of these things tend to concentrate on improving the reproduction rate by trying to increase the chance that people will click. (This has the nice name "social engineering", based on the fact that it's an attempt to figure out how to convince people to do something they know they shouldn't.) The "Anna Kournikova" virus was particularly clever and thus successful, for obvious reasons, since the lure was sex. However, one of the problems these have is that word spreads and infection rate will plummet. There are probably still copies of the Kournikova Virus circulating now but enough people have heard about it to not be taken in any longer, and it's going to fade out.

And that is what is so brilliant about the new SirCam virus: its lure is that it may be able to continue to con people even after word spreads, and indeed may even become more successful. That's because it attaches its payload to a randomly chosen file off the system, and now people know that. I myself have received two copies of it now (from someone I've never heard of) and I admit to a temptation: I wonder what is in the files which were forwarded? I didn't run them, but I can see people who might even knowing what they had. (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.2103 (On Screen): White collar crime at its finest! There's a company called Cadence which designs circuits which are licensed to other companies who incorporate them into application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Cadence had a wholesale defection by a number of employees who formed their own company called Avanti, selling things which were suspiciously similar to what they had been working on at Cadence. There was both a civil suit and a criminal investigation, and today it largely came to a close. Several of the top officers of Avanti are actually really genuinely going to go to jail for theft of trade secrets. One of them will spend two years in San Quentin, which is no picnic.

The judge recommended that the prison use him to work on computer problems there. I think they'd have to be nuts to let a convicted felon anywhere near their computers, especially considering his skill level. A better use of his abilities might be to hold classes in the prison about computers for other prisoners. But there's no telling what he might do if let near computers which contained anything critical. He's in there because he isn't trustworthy. (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.2000 (Crew, this is the Captain): Thanks to Norm, I have added a counter to this page at the very bottom. I'm actually going to have two, with one resetting each day. I'm testing the cron script tonight which should reset the other counter and when I get it working correctly, the other will be added. UNIX shell commands are beginning to come back to me. It's amazing what you can retain; I haven't used UNIX heavily for ten years. The Bourne Shell has the same kind of purity -- and pain -- that assembly language has. (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.1810 (On Screen): Mars Global Surveyor continues to provide enormously fruitful data about the surface of Mars, and continues a long tradition of new probes telling us things which are completely unexpected. The majority of the most fabulous data being returned by this mission is coming from its camera. This is actually the second attempt at this; the first was one of those famous failed Mars missions, but the team which created it had a spare camera and put it onto a second craft which succeeded in reaching and orbiting the planet. One of the things which is cool about this camera is how small it is. It doesn't have a square grid; it's CCD is a line which is only one pixel wide. Instead of a round lense it has a slit. And when it is used, the slit is perpendicular to the motion of the craft. As the craft moves over the ground, it continuously snaps one-pixel wide images which it strings together. That's why MGS images seem to be long stripes; it keeps capturing these images until it runs out of memory. Then it transmits that data back to Earth at a somewhat slower rate. The data is captured far faster than the radio link can handle, and in any case part of the time the craft is behind Mars and not in contact with Earth. But this clever use of the proper motion of the craft means that the camera can be much smaller, and more importantly, weigh less than if it was a conventional square image camera, while capturing much larger images than a square camera could. (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.1743 (On Screen): Ętna is erupting (as it has intermittently for the last few thousand years) and is pushing lava, tossing ash and generally making a nuisance of itself. An Italian government official flew over it in a helicoptor and after he landed he announced that "the situation is under control." This is a first; the Italians have the technology to control a volcano? Since when? (Wish we'd had that in Portland OR on May 18, 1980.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.1557 (On Screen): Has it become impossible to hold a G8 conference without trouble? Perhaps for the moment, but "this too shall pass". Protests against globalization are just as pointless in the long run as the Luddite protests were. In the meantime, there are a couple of possibilities. Suppose that instead of meeting at a hotel in some city they were to charter a cruise liner and fly in by helicoptor, meeting in the Atlantic off the coast of Europe somewhere. The remaining accomodations on that liner would be reserved for aides and the press. If the demonstrators can walk on water they'd be quite welcome to march around the ship. But an even more interesting possibility is teleconferencing. Why do they need to meet physically at all, anymore? (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.1213 (On Screen): At some companies the engineers run amok; the company needs to invest in leashes. You can tell this has happened when you see a product which is an amazing technical achievement and at the same time completely useless. What possible need is satisfied by a roll-up cloth keyboard for a computer or PDA? (discuss)

Stardate 20010725.1125 (On Screen): I'm sure that President Bush is going to catch a lot of flack domestically and internationally for yet another refusal to play ball in an international treaty. On this one, however, he had no choice.

The Europeans seem happy to write treaties which have provisions in them which would violate the US Constitution, because those same provisions don't violate equivalent European charters and they do tend to make things a lot simpler. In this case, the agreement is one trying to enforce a ban on development of biological weapons, and there's no question that this is a desirable thing to do. It's not the goal which is a problem here, it's the proposed means: speculative searches pretty much anywhere, anytime, with little warning and no warrant. Sorry, folks, that's a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. Government agents or people chartered by the government (including international inspectors) do not have the right to go whereever they want anytime they want and look at whatever they feel like just to find out if a crime might have been committed. Government agents may only search if they already have good grounds to believe a crime has been committed and can prove it to a judge before the search.

Warrantless random searches are very efficient at finding lawbreakers. They're also intolerable. That's why the Fourth Amendment was made part of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is very important to me, and I'm getting damned tired of the Europeans trying to take it away. (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.2233 (On Screen): "Doctors exist to protect life, not to end it." That may in fact be what many doctors believe, but I would state it differently: Doctors exist to minimize suffering.

The whole argument about euthanasia comes down to an argument about a priori assumptions. When you pin them down, those opposed to it will state that any life is better than no life at all. In essence, there is no fate worse than death. Those on the other side of the issue (such as me) will think that there are indeed fates worse than death, and that death is often preferable. The problem is that by their nature these are not issues people can rationally discuss. I came around to this point of view after long experience and thought, and it's consistent with my position as an atheist. Indeed, this like abortion is susceptible to a meta-question: should this be a collective or individual choice? By its nature, if this is a collective choice then it must be governed by law, which recurses us yet again to a meta-question: should laws be about morality or about order?

One theory of law is that it is an attempt to make the people of a nation live good lives, by punishing them for committing evil acts. Thus you outlaw such things as sodomy or looking at porn, or drinking, or gambling, or running around naked in the woods, or indeed anything which the wiser more moral heads think are wrong to do. These things are punished by the power of the state to dissuade people from doing them, for their own good.

The other attitude about laws is that laws are intended for purposes of maintaining an orderly state. An act which is broadly believed to be immoral but which does not threaten order should not be illegal though it may be frowned upon, such as for instance visiting prostitutes. These kinds of things are sometimes referred to as "victimless crimes", though that's not the point. It is possible for a victimless crime (such as severe drug addiction) to threaten society. Still, within this view murder should be illegal not because it is "wrong" (though it usually is) but rather because if anyone in the state can indiscriminately kill anyone else then the fabric of society breaks down through fear. We catch and punish murderers because none of us wants to be murdered and because we don't want to go through our lives in fear of being shot at any moment. Equally, rape should be illegal because of its threat to order (the safety and peace of mind of the women of society), not because it is evil (though it is). Within this second view, any sexual act in private between consenting adults should be legal because they do not threaten the fabric of society, even if those acts involve things that would scandalize the neighbors. I don't condemn homosexuality nor am I scandalized by it, but I myself am firmly hetero and have no curiosity about or interest in sleeping with a man. If a man forcibly had sex with me, that would be rape. But I am not in danger of being forced to involuntarily have sex with a man simply because two male neighbors of mine sleep together. Therefore, their act is no threat to me (or anyone else), and should not be punished. This is a very utilitarian view of the law, and it comes off as a bit heretical to some people. Part of the reason why is historical: for much of the history of Europe, the laws did come from the Church and were indeed intended to enforce not just order but also morality.

The US, and indeed most nations, have grappled with these two points of view for centuries and have been slowly moving away from "morality" to "order". The nations we think of as being "liberal" or "free" tend to be the ones which have moved the furthest towards "order". The closer they are to that ideal, the more progressive we think them (and interestingly enough, the more liberty their citizens have). "Order" is less restrictive than "morality". The nation which strikes me as furthest out on the "order" path would be the Netherlands right now, who have legalized prostitution and marijuana and homosexual marriage. The most extreme example of the "morality" viewpoint of law now is the Taliban in Afghanistan, who recently outlawed magazines with pictures, playing cards, women's makeup, statues and a whole long list of other amazing things.

So let's start to unwind the recursion by beginning with the idea that law is about order, not about morality. Decisions should be collective if and only if they threaten the fabric of society; if not, then they should be individual. On that basis, "murder" is a crime where someone kills someone else in a fashion which, if common, would threaten the wellbeing of innocents everywhere. In other words, if I shoot my neighbor, I'm a murderer and should be hunted down and punished. But if a cop shoots me while I'm threatening to shoot my neighbor, the cop is not a murderer, because his act preserves my innocent neighbor's wellbeing, and preserves the fabric of society. If a soldier defending our nation kills an enemy soldier, he is also not a murderer because he is preserving our society. Within this view, not all deliberate killings are murder. Euthanasia is a form of deliberate killing but does not threaten the wellbeing of society if it is voluntary and requested. Therefore euthanasia also is not murder. Within this viewpoint, the decision should be individual, not collective. If you believe that there is no fate worse than death, then you are free to live with pain and die in a degrading fashion if you wish. If I decide I don't want to do that and prefer a quick painless exit, it doesn't take away your ability to die slowly. Thus my decision is not a threat to you, and should be allowed. It may outrage you, but that is the price you pay for being free. In a truly free society, other people will do things you don't like and you have to tolerate that so that you can do things that other people don't like.

Which brings us, finally, back to doctors. Within this view, doctors should not be forced to perform euthanasia, but if they do so they should not be punished. (discuss)

Update 20010725: Speaking of law-as-morality...

Stardate 20010724.1158 (Crew, this is the Captain): I'd like to put hit counters on my pages, and now that I control my own server I should be able to. Can any one give me a pointer to a place where I can download reasonable code and instructions for setting up such a beast? (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.1041 (On Screen): RSA's behavior, especially with today's announcement, stands in rather stark contrast to Adobe's behaviour of the last week. Whereas Adobe spitefully had a man arrested for cracking their crypto, RSA is offering substantial cash prizes to anyone who can do so. (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.0635 (On Screen): I know that Caldera's corporate officers have to put a good face on everything if they can, but please! "...placing those shares with institutions that like our space now"? No-one likes that space now; which is why all the Linux stocks have tanked big-time. It's true that the tech stocks overall have done poorly in the last twelve months, but companies with real value have lost maybe 40% and are now recovering, while Linux stocks have in some cases lost more than 95% and are still in decline. This isn't halo effect from an overall market downturn, this is a repudiation of an entire business segment. Caldera is atypical in that it didn't get the kind of first-day runup that some did, but its decline of 89% in the last year is very typical, as is the fact that it's faced with delisting from NASDAQ for letting its price drop below $1. (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.0619 (On Screen): Transporter Chief Bryan sends this link to the bridge. It's amazing how pragmatic those young liberals become about "globalization" and "cheap foreign wages" when it's their own money being spent, isn't it? (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.0601 (On Screen): With a substantial majority of Americans supporting federal funding of fetal stem cell research (as do I) and with a broad range of legislators also in favor, President Bush has still not indicated how he intends to decide the issue, if indeed he himself knows yet. While on his trip to Italy for the G8 conference in Genoa, he stopped in Rome for a visit with the Pope, who predictably came down against it.

The Pope is not a US citizen or voter, and his opinion on the subject is worth precisely nothing. The President works for US voters, but not for the Pope. The potential medical benefits of this research are too great to ignore, but the Pope doesn't care about that. It is obviously a polarizing issue and no matter what decision Bush makes he'll take flack. But it's no accident that the opponents of federal funding are restricted to one particular political point of view (hard-core religious conservatives who are worried about the abortion issue), whereas supporters cover a very broad range including some anti-abortion conservatives. President Bush says "I don't care about polls" in the face of a 60%-31% margin in favor of research by Americans, but I don't think I believe that even he can ignore such a clear majority. Make the decision, approve the funding (with an unimportant face-saving caveat banning deliberate creation of fetuses for research), and get on with it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010724.0533 (On Screen): With surprising dispatch and unanimity, the Parliament of Indonesia impeached President Wahid yesterday and swore in the former Vice President as the new President. She is moving forward rapidly to form a government. The feared (and threatened) violence has not materialized and at this point the only sand in the gears is that Wahid refuses to leave the Presidential Palace. President Megawati is continuing to live at the official Vice President's residence for the interim.

I wonder if the best course of action here would simply be to ignore Wahid. If he wants to continue to live at the Presidential Palace, let him. It's just a building, and the longer he stays there the more foolish he will look. It's clear that all the important aspects of power have shifted over and that Wahid has no support, and removing him by force would simply legitimize his resistance. Apparently his family is ready to leave, and if he's left alone and ignored, even he will eventually realize that there's nothing remaining, and will walk out on his own accord. Don't even harass him; leave the water and power on, let them continue to deliver food, let his servants continue to work. Let him rot in luxury.

The man desperately wants an affirmation of what he sees as the unjustness of his ouster. A forced eviction would be the punctuation to the whole episode, an exclamation point at the end of the sentence! Better to end with ellipses by letting him fade to obscurity... (discuss)

Update 20010725: Well, "medical treatment in the US" is as good an excuse for leaving as Wahid is going to find at this point, I think. Best for everyone concerned if he comes here and nevers goes back.
Update 20010726: And so it ends.

Stardate 20010723.2213 (On Screen): Somehow I missed this when it came out two weeks ago. A critical decision about professional use of the web got made in New York. A publication which has contracted with a writer for paper-publishing rights to a book does not automatically have electronic-publishing rights to that same book. By implication this also applies to articles, one would expect. The authors can separately sell the electronic publishing rights, but more to the point the paper-publisher can't electronically publish without separate negotiations.

What does this do for all the paper-publishing companies like the LA Times and the Washington Post and Newsweek who have been taking material from their print publications and putting them online? Unless they had the foresight to include electronic publishing in their contracts, a lot of online archives will be going dark. While I'm in sympathy with the writers, it still changes the landscape quite a lot. (discuss)

Stardate 20010723.2153 (On Screen): This story is rather sickening. An 82 year old woman has a son who is a compulsive gambler, and another son that she trusted who had power of attorney. She had $600K in stock in a safe deposit box. The gambler stole the key, forged his brother's signature on a card, and based on that the bank let him open the box and remove the stock. They apparently didn't ask for ID, which would have stopped him since he was pretending to be his brother. He then forged her signature on a power of attorney, and somehow or other managed to get a notary to affirm it. Using that, he opened a brokerage account and sold the stock, and then gambled it all away. He's now confessed and is being prosecuted for larceny and forgery, and will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

But there is a non-trivial question here of the extent to which the bank, the notary and the brokerage violated their responsibilities. I'm not so sure that the brokerage is really to blame here; with a notarized power of attorney in principle they should be off the hook. The bank is in much deeper trouble here; they accepted a forged signature on a card permitting him access to the box, and their lame claim that "he had the key" doesn't wash. Asking to see ID would have been prudent and should have been routine; it's clear that they were negligent. She had been paying them substantial amounts of money for that box based on their claim that it was a secure place to keep things of great value; letting someone who is not authorized walk in and empty the box based solely on a forged signature and a stolen key isn't exactly "secure".

The biggest villain of the piece is the notary, and not only should he lose his license to practice but he definitely should get his ass sued off. (And I have to wonder whether there might be appropriate criminal charges.) Notaries are supposed to be skeptical; they are paid official witnesses and they are not supposed to take chances. This guy is obviously guiilty of malpractice and because of his negligence this woman lost a fortune. If he is not held liable then the notary system itself is rendered useless. (discuss)

Stardate 20010723.2103 (On Screen): With regard to the Sklyarov case, Brian Carnell makes an outstanding point: the alleged crime was committed in Russia where it's not illegal. If the US does in fact proceed with this prosecution, then it means that US is claiming that its laws are applicable everywhere. If so, then everyone else's laws will be applicable here, and US companies and citizens would also be subject to the laws of places like France or Afghanistan for acts performed in the US which are legal here. Bye-bye, Bill of Rights.

"No jurisdiction" is unquestionably the primary defense which should be used, and Brian is quite correct that the case would probably be dismissed on that basis, if indeed it even gets prosecuted. My worry now is that EFF, who is going to be helping to defend Sklyarov, will have a conflict of interest and try to push "First Amendment" instead. That's a tougher case to win, and it's not in Sklyarov's best interests to use that defense unless "no jurisdiction" fails. From EFF's point of view, "no jurisdiction" gets Sklyarov off but doesn't do anything about the constitutionality of the DMCA. A "First Amendment" defense has the possibility of actually knocking the DMCA down, but it would take longer and be less certain. Sklyarov's attorneys absolutely must put his best interests first, no matter who is paying the bills. (discuss)

Update: Adobe has completely backed down; they've issued a joint press release with EFF asking for Sklyarov to be released and the charges dropped. I think it was beginning to dawn on them what an unbelievable blunder they had made. This will help some, but it's still going to leave a sour taste for a long time. I wonder if anyone's head will roll at Adobe for this screwup.

Stardate 20010723.1813 (On Screen): Ever since I was a kid, nuclear power advocates have been promising that nuclear power would be so cheap that it would be too cheap to even bother metering. That, of course, turned out not to be the case, but right around the corner, any minute now, we were going to have fusion which really would be too cheap to meter.

This article describes fusion power as "the ultimate energy source -- abundant heat, low price, an almost infinite supply of raw materials, no dangerous leftovers and no pollution." None of those things are correct. First off, the power plant itself is going to be grossly expensive, and that's got to be paid for somehow. Fission plants are cheap by comparison because they don't require things like cryogenic superconducting magnets. Much of the cost for modern fission power is amortized payment for the plant. And those costs have risen enormously; one of the reasons no-one builds fission plants anymore is that they are so costly in the US as to not be economically viable. (A lot of that is due to regulatory burdens; elsewhere in the world they're being built all the time.) Given that the expense will be enormous this means that in practice "abundent" will be limited by capital investment. Nor is it true that the fuel is "nearly infinite" in any practical sense. The fuel for these plants is deuterium (H2) and tritium (H3), and the main source of those is actually reprocessed cooling water from fission plants. Protium (H1) is useless in a plant like this, and though deuterium makes up just 0.015% of naturally occurring hydrogen (16 grams per metric ton of water) that still means there are millions of tons of deuterium readily available in the ocean. However, there is no natural source of tritium because tritium has a half-life of 12.26 years. I don't believe their claim to being self-sufficient in tritium. The idea of lining the chamber with lithium is problematic because metallic lithium is not stable in contact with oxygen; it's more volatile than sodium or potassium metal. To build it and work on it you'd have to pressurize with dry nitrogen and work in atmosphere suits. That's too unforgiving an environment for my taste. And you wouldn't want the lining of the chamber to be outgassing anyway because it would interfere with the formation and maintenance of the plasma.

The biggest canard here is "no dangerous leftovers". In actuality, these plants will be creating a great deal of hazardous waste. The plasma which creates the energy is confined by a magnetic field, but the reaction liberates neutrons which have no charge. It is impossible to have a fusion reaction which does not create a huge number of neutrons; fusion is inherently "dirty". Neutrons are not affected by the field and will strike the inner wall of the chamber and be absorbed by atoms there. This can be ameliorated some by lining the chamber with a substantial thickness of Boron-10 which is capable of capturing up to 3 neutrons per atom without becoming radioactive. However, after two hits it beta decays to Carbon 12, and a enough of that will weaken the metal. The lining will have to be replaced periodically. And there will necessarily be other things in the chamber needed to inject plasma and control and sense and mediate the flow, and those things will become fiercely radioactive in a fairly short time. Finally, the "no pollution" claim is also false. It is not possible to harvest 100% of the heat produced by a plant like this, and a great deal of heat will have to be vented to the environment just as with all existing power plants, including coal. What I think they mean by "no pollution" is "no smoke" and that is certainly true. It's also true that it won't be fed by mines, at least directly. But a fusion plant is going to need a cooling tower, just as a fission plant does, and it's going to vent a heck of a lot of water vapor into the air.

This article is really just another in a long line of "It's just around the corner" claims for fusion that I've been reading all my adult life. There's always been just one more problem to solve for tokamaks to become practical, but each time they solve that one another pops up. It is, as we engineers say, a non-trivial problem. No fusion plant on earth has ever been exothermic. None has even come close. But every so often they have to have an "almost there" breakthrough so as to guarantee a continued flow of research money from the US Government. This has been going on for thirty years. (discuss)

Update: Just in passing, something that I bet people may be curious about: Fusion combines atoms together, releasing energy. Fission breaks atoms apart, releasing energy. Why not combine them, then break them, then combine them, and by so doing create perpetual motion? Wouldn't that violate the laws of thermodynamics? There isn't actually any contradiction. The energy comes from conversion of mass to energy, but where that mass comes from is a bit surprising. It turns out that not all hadrons (protons and neutrons) weigh the same. Weigh two atoms of deuterium (each consisting of a proton and a neutron) and compare to an atom of He4 (consisting of two protons and two neutrons) the He4 weights marginally less than two deuterium atoms, even though the count of particles is identical. Combine two atoms of deuterium into a helium atom and the lost mass is converted to energy. Equally, if you take an atom of Uranium 235 and fission it, the weight of the products is slightly less than the weight of the precursor Uranium atom, and equally the lost mass is converted to energy. Run these reactions the other direction and you gain mass, which means that you lose energy. So atoms running down from Uranium and up from Hydrogen have progressively lighter and lighter hadrons in them. The low point in the curve turns out to be iron. Hadrons in iron weigh less than in any other element, and both fusion and fission of iron consumes energy. It is an interesting coincidence that in popular mythology, "cold iron" was the metal most immune to magic.

Stardate 20010723.1304 (On Screen): In the movie "Patton", there's a scene in Sicily where a column is held up by a man with a cart on a bridge, because a couple of donkeys refused to move, The column is found by the Luftwaffe and strafed, and Patton discovers this and says "You let a column be stopped and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses?" Then he pulls out his .45 and shoots them both, orders them dumped over the side of the bridge, and gets the column moving again. I'm not sure if that actually happened, but it does put things into perspective: some things are more important than animals.

This story reports how a cat broke loose from its cage at the airport and climbed up into the wheel-well of a jet there, where it refused to budge for 8 hours despite being enticed with salmon, At the end of that time they actually removed some plates from the jet to force it out. They're working too hard; why didn't they just send someone to the nearest sporting goods store and buy a BB-pistol? BBs won't penetrate skin/fur but they will sting a lot, and if you hit a cat with one it's going to be out of there in an instant. (Boy, am I going to get hate mail about this!) (discuss)

Stardate 20010723.1156 (On Screen): There's a smug, self-congratulatory tone to this report about the Bonn agreement which bothers me, including an entire section of it which describes the Bonn agreement as somehow a defeat for President Bush. Bush never wanted to prevent an agreement; he just wanted to prevent the agreement from applying to the US. And it doesn't. (discuss)

Stardate 20010723.0740 (On Screen): Brian celebrates his popularity because he's received a lot of copies of the SirCam worm. I haven't received a single copy. I celebrate the fact that all my friends are smart enough to not click on attachments on strange email messages. (discuss)

Stardate 20010723.0701 (On Screen): I was reading this article about "Scariest White Guys in America" and of course they first had to define terms. So they started by describing what makes someone a Scary White Guy (fortunately, I don't fit the description): bully, destructive, self-centered, exploiter, greedy, denier, etc. and I instantly said to my self, "Ah! Senator Jesse Helms!" Surprisingly, he wasn't one of the ones they listed.

One of the reasons I'm glad we don't have medical immortality is that death-by-old-age is the only sure legal means available to us to remove people like Senator Helms. It seems to be impossible to defeat him politically, but even Jesse will eventually die. A few years ago he was challenged for his seat by the most popular black politician in North Carolina, who tried to run a high-brow issue-oriented campaign, but Helms immediately played the "race card" and ran one of the most vile campaigns in recent memory. (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.2222 (On Screen): I am a big fan of the Rex Stout murder mystery series starring Nero Wolfe. When I designed a custom piece of equipment at one company, I named it after him. (I designed it, I get to name it.) But though I know both Wolfe and Goodwin intimately from many, many happy hours together, I've never really known what they look like. It's sort of like internet friends who you never meet and never see photographs of. So I was pleased and surprised recently to see them for the first time. Imagine my amazement to learn that Archie has been working undercover in Hollywood using the stage name "Timothy Hutton", to forward some investigation of Wolfe's, no doubt. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that Wolfe himself has been undercover using the ludicrous name "Maury Chakin". No-one is really named that, and only someone like Wolfe could create a name like that and convince people it was genuine. (Wolfe is, of course, a liar of enormous stature when it pleases him to be.) As soon as I learned this, though, I recognized them both immediately. Yes, those are their faces. There can be no other.

Sometimes actors seem almost to have been designed for a role. There was actually an attempt once before to do a television series based on the Nero Wolfe books, but it was terrible. They made three major mistakes. First, they tried to make it contemporary instead of period. Second, they miscast Goodwin. Third and worst, they badly miscast Wolfe. Lee Horsley was completely unconvincing as Goodwin, and it's clear that William Conrad was cast as Wolfe solely because he was fat. But his previous TV series "Cannon" got in the way; to convert from a mobile detective in an action series to a sedentary cerebral one in Nero Wolfe didn't fly. It lasted one season and was dropped, unloved and unmourned.

But the estimable Hutton decided that he would make a decent Archie and his instincts in this were flawless. I occasionally see an actor in a role and thereafter cannot imagine anyone else playing it. I can no longer imagine anyone as Sherlock Holmes except the late Jeremy Brett, and indeed I can no longer imagine him in any other role. (What the heck was Sherlock Holmes doing in "My Fair Lady"?) Equally, I now can not imagine anyone else playing Goodwin, and I'm still having a hard time connecting the Hutton I'm seeing now with the actor in "Taps".

But as producer of the series, he made three other outstanding decisions. First, he decided to make it a period piece, and this works beautifully. Wolfe and Goodwin are creatures of the 1940's; they can't dwell in an age of computers (any more than Holmes can). Second, he cast Maury Chakin in the part of Wolfe, and like Hutton with Goodwin, I can no longer imagine anyone else playing the role. Part of the pleasure of the books was to read the bickering between the two, with Goodwin baiting Wolfe and Wolfe responding in kind, and these two men have both got their characters down so well that this conflict is even more delightful on screen, if that were possible. Finally, and most inspired of all, they decided to make it with a constant company of actors. Rather than casting guest stars each episode for all the non-regular parts, they put together a group of actors who fit the stereotypical roles that Stout tended to use, to be augmented with extras as needed. For instance, it's common for there to be a elderly patrician man, and any such role seems to be played by George Plimpton (who is not acting very far from type). Inevitably each story has one or more beautiful young women, and they have perhaps four such in their company. So a given actor will play one part this week, and an entirely different one the week after. The same actress who played a murderess in one story turned out to play the part of Carla Lovchen in another -- and I was surprised to see that her range was great enough that she really was able to play both convincingly.

If I have any complaint about the casting, it was the choice of Saul Rubinek to play Lon Cohen. While Rubinek is superb (as indeed are everyone in the cast) the problem is that he's too short. Cohen is at least six feet tall and has size 12 shoes. Rubinek is, I believe, about 5'7". On the other hand, in the pilot they had him play Saul Panzer and that was inspired. Regrettably, in the series proper someone else plays the Panzer role.

The Wolfe novellas will translate beautifully into one hour shows. Many of the full novels should be able to be converted into two-parters (as has already been done with "Over my Dead Body". Alas, some of the very best books won't be done because there's no way to do them justice in this format, and because I believe that the company loves these stories enough to not be willing to do them badly. For example, I will be very surprised if "In the Best Families" is ever done, and there's no possible way they can do "The Black Mountain". On the other hand, I'm looking forward eagerly to "Gambit" and "Before Midnight", and "Too Many Women" is going to be a delight. And I can't wait to find out what Marko Vukcic looks like.

None of the people working on this series are doing it to get rich. They're getting paid and they aren't starving, but A&E isn't exactly rolling with dough and even name actors like Hutton and Chaykin are not getting million-dollar paychecks for this. On the other hand, you can tell just by watching it that they're having a blast. A&E is not pushing them to meet an absurd schedule, so they're able to take the time to do a good job, and they are. This is clearly a work of love. And for unknown actors such as Kari Matchett this is a great way to get exposure and surely will be a stepping stone to greater things.

This series is a non-guilty pleasure. (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.1514 (On Screen): If someone really had the ability to consistently pick stocks which were going to rise, why would he work for a stockbroker and tell you about it? He could make a whale of a lot more money investing for himself, don't you think? For that matter, if he had the ability to pick stocks which were winners, why would he go on TV and announce them to the world for free? Of course, if he's already bought into those stocks and then go onto WSW and say "This one's gonna rise" it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he'll sell his stock to you, after it's risen. How does it feel to be the "bigger fool"? (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.1411 (On Screen, previous coverage ): We now have a full-scale constitutional crisis in Indonesia. Parliament has convened impeachment hearings against President Wahid, and Wahid has in turn ordered Parliament dissolved, and has issued orders to the national police and armed forces to enforce his orders. In a more mature nation with a firmly established government, this would be decided in the courts (and President Wahid would lose, because if any president could dismiss Parliament on the basis of them starting impeachment proceedings against him, then the impeachment power of Parliament would be meaningless). But in the case of Indonesia, it's going to be settled by the Army, who have already expressed their unwillingness to support him on this, and who have scheduled a press conference for later today to talk about it. I think they're going to announce that they're not going to follow his orders. While that's the correct answer, it's troubling that the army was even put into this situation of being the political power broker. The army should serve the government, not be the king-maker for it. It appears that they're trying to position themselves to not be the kingmaker, which makes them the heroes of this whole episode.

In the US, Congress has the power to impeach and convict a sitting President, removing him from office. It's never happened but two Presidents have been impeached (a legal term similar to "indicted") and have been acquitted in Senate trial (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton). Richard Nixon would unquestionably have been impeached and convicted if he hadn't resigned first, once evidence of obstruction of justice came to light. The criterion established in the Constitution for this is "high crimes and misdemeanors" but there is no appeal so in actual practice the real criterion is whatever Congress says it is. All that's really required to remove the President is a simple majority of the House and a two-thirds majority of the Senate as part of an unusual procedure. If that were to take place for grossly unjust reasons, the effective appeal would be the fact that all members of Congress would face the voters at their next election, and would not be returned to office. But this would not return the impeached President to office, and that is acceptable. The fate of one politician is ultimately unimportant; what is important is the fate of the Union, and the US system would survive an unjust impeachment in the long run. It is this fact of facing angry voters which is the deterrent which keeps our Representatives and Senators in check and prevents abuse of the Impeachment clause of the Constitution, which is why it's only been abused once (Johnson) in 215 years. (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.1344 (On Screen): I've mentioned before that I think sometimes that if there was justice instead of law, that some fraud cases wouldn't be prosecuted, because the victims deserve to lose their money as a punishment for sheer foolishness. This case is an example of that. We've got a guy who is on parole from a conviction for fraud (a matter of public record), and he convinces people to give him tens of millions of dollars by promising them to double their money every four months. Turns out he was running a Ponzi scheme. Imagine that! (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.1143 (On Screen): This story bemoans the fact that more girls seem to be worried about their weight, with the suggestion that this is some sort of cultural ill. It's not obvious that there is a rigorous definition of "body image obsession" which would permit a reasonable quantitive evaluation of whether there's more of it than ten or twenty years ago, and indeed the article doesn't try. Rather, it relies on the always unreliable anecdotal evidence. (There has been a gradual quantitative rise in diagnoses of eating disorders, but that's not what this article is about.)

It ends with the interesting statistic that kids now really are more overweight than in recent years, something which really can be quantitatively determined. So we have kids who really are overweight and who are worried about the fact of being overweight. Sounds like realism to me.

What's really going on here is that the kids are revolting against their parent's cultures. The article itself comes right out and says it: "It's not really what you're wearing or what you look like," Danielle says when asked how she chooses her own friends. "It's the person - it's what's inside." The quoted Danielle is a girl but it's her mother speaking through her mouth, and what's going on here is the revolt against the "everyone should be who they are" touchy-feelie concept. There's actually a lot of validity in that, but like anything else if it's taken to an extreme it's harmful. Personal change can only happen if you're dissatisified with what you are now. Being completely comfortable with yourself leads to complacence and stagnation. Anyway, the real trend here is that one way or another, the kids aren't buying it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010722.1127 (On Screen): There is no excuse for US troops based in Japan running amok. We are guests there; military occupation ended decades ago. I think it is time to end all leaves for a while to cool things off a bit. Off-base leave is a privilege, not a right, and the soldiers there need to learn that they have to be better behaved. (discuss)

Update 20010723: Apparently I'm not the only one.

Stardate 20010722.0845 (On Screen): Within two years they intend to do a test where a 10 megawatt laser mounted in a 747 shoots down a SCUD-equivalent missile. Unlike the fantasy son-of-SDI our President is pushing, this is completely plausible. It is not, however, capable of being used as a strategic defense; it's being developed as a theater defense weapon such as the Patriot was claimed to be (though it actually was nearly ineffective) during the Gulf War.

These lasers don't operate from an electric power source; rather, they're using chemical operations (read "flames") to create an energetic burst of light which may only last a second or two. The weapon system would have a limited amount of fuel and thus a limited number of shots, but it could potentially be immense (several hundred) on a jet that large. What I can't figure out is how they're going to aim it. They can't possibly aim it by laying the jet itself; there's no way that could be accurate or responsive enough. Clearly there must be some sort of optics involved. If so, it's going to be replace-per-use; I don't believe anyone can create any kind of optics, glass or mirrors, capable of handling those kinds of power levels without being ruined after one shot (or even part way through the shot). The only other possibility is that they are actually swiveling the entire laser. If so, that's going to be an impressive servo. To hit a 2 meter wide missile at a range of 50 kilometers, you'd need to lay the weapon accurate to about 1/1000th of a degree. It's really hard to do that rapidly when moving a large mass; that laser may weigh a ton and the servo will need to be able to handle at least a ten degree field of fire off the heading of the jet, and they've got to lay and fire in about ten seconds or they'll miss their chance. (discuss)

Update: The inevitable hype: "Retrofitting the jumbo jet to house the giant laser, he noted, is the largest aircraft modification project Boeing has undertaken." I'd venture to say that this is easy compared to modifying a 747 to carry a Space Shuttle on its back.

Stardate 20010722.0241 (On Screen via long range sensors): (Do not click the following link if anyone is watching. I don't wanna get anyone court martialed. Here's the link.) So what's the biggest cool phenomenon online now? Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). What's the only thing which consistently sells online? Sex. Where does that lead us? To a massively multiplayer online sex game. Ye Gods. (The price I pay for insomnia.) (discuss)

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004