Stardate 20010818.1002 (On Screen): Some "researchers" don't deserve that title. There's nothing particularly mysterious about "crop circles"; they aren't very hard to make, and indeed many of them are known to be man-made. All of them could be. Science is supposed to look for simple explanations for things, and only rely on extraordinary explanations when the simple ones won't serve. The simplest explanation is that every single one of them was produced by a human -- but that probably can't be proved. So some "researcher" is saying that the ones which can't be conclusively proved to be human in origin might be caused by "the magnetic field of the Earth" or by UFOs. Or maybe by Leprechauns. Or Bigfoot. Or maybe it's an edge effect from the flat earth. Hmmph. (discuss)
Stardate 20010818.0950 (On Screen): The engineering miracle we call the human body isn't really quite the miracle. It's a bit flawed in places, more of a "good enough" design than an elegant one. (I've written about that before.) One of the most complex and comprehensive and important systems in our bodies is our immune systems, and it is trying to solve an extremely tough problem, because it has to improvise. No other system in our body improvises except our brains. The immune system has to differentiate three cases: uninfected "self" cells, infected "self" cells and foreign cells. The latter two are attacked and destroyed when detected, which isn't always possible. But it's important that it only destroy cells which can be replaced, which is why it largely ignores the nervous system. It also can only detect infected "self" cells if they have a structure called an endoplasmic reticulum (try saying that three times fast), which lets out red blood cells.
Certain white cells have a sort of genetic toolbox of perhaps a thousand fragments of DNA. When they detect a foreign cell (means unknown) they work on piecing together those fragments in different ways (mechanism unknown) until they figure out how to produce an antibody specific to that invader. Once they determine that they've successfully done this (evaluation mechanism unknown) then they reproduce like mad and start pouring out millions of antibodies. The antibodies attach themselves to infected self cells and to invaders, and this acts as a signal to other white cells which engulf and destroy the tagged objects. As you can see, there are many things about this that we don't understand yet.
Also, it is imperfect. Antibodies attach to what are known as antigens and the system is designed under the assumption that the antigen is stable. That isn't actually the case. In some viruses, the genes which describe the antigens which our immune systems recognize are very unstable and mutate easily. As a result, during the war new viruses will appear having different antigens, and the immune system treats these new ones as a separate disease and starts the recognition process from scratch. Also, it's possible for a disease to hide from the immune system, which is why some diseases become chronic. Herpes and papilloma (which causes warts) hide in the nerves, and periodically come out for a rematch, which is why you'll suffer attacks from them all your life.
But the worst thing of all is that sometimes the immune system goes too far and begins to attack uninfected self cells. The result is what are called "autoimmune diseases" and some of them are quite surprising. Lupus is one, and it is extremely unpleasant. In Multiple Sclerosis, the immune system forgets itself and begins to attack nerves in the body, especially in the spinal column. Depending on the progression of the disease this can paralyze or even kill. Even stranger is type 1 diabetes. This appears to have both genetic and environmental aspects; according to current theory, the genetic factor makes the child have a reaction to something in his food, which makes his immune system activate and as a side effect it attacks and destroys all the cells in the pancreas which ordinarily would secrete insulin. (Work is underway to try to determine what it is that they're reacting to. If found, it might mean that type 1 diabetes could be prevented in susceptible children by dietary control, which would be quite exciting.)
It's long been suspected that a tumor is actually a symptom of the disease we call "cancer", not actually the disease itself. Of course, that "symptom" is what kills us, but attempting to treat tumors directly isn't necessarily dealing with the underlying cause, and doesn't really provide any clue towards prevention. Much progress has been made, but cancer is a puzzling disease. New research is strongly suggesting that cancer may actually be an immune system malfunction, a negative side effect of long term hyperstimulation of the immune system. One reason this is exciting is that it may permit creation of a test to identify vulnerable individuals even before development of tumors, which would mean that those people could be much more closely monitored to catch tumors early (when treatment is most effective). But even more exciting is the possibility of developing a treatment which could be given to such people to prevent development of tumors entirely. (discuss)
Stardate 20010818.0609 (On Screen): The status of the free press is an interesting problem constitutionally. It's not known as the "Fourth Estate" for nothing; it's generally recognized as being a counterbalance to the three branches of government to help keep them under control, by publicizing cases where they abuse their power. The press is the eyes and ears of the voters and needs the ability to find and publicize information which might be important to the voters. But to turn up that kind of information, sometimes they need to be able to talk to sources in confidence. Some sources won't talk to a reporter if they know that their identity and what they said might later be revealed to law enforcement authorities, but without their information, the press might not be able to perform this vital constitutional role. So there has come to be recognized what is known as "journalistic privilege", where a journalist can refuse to reveal such information even under oath. I think this is important, but it's also quite dangerous.
What's a journalist? I think we can all agree on Dan Rather, for instance. (cough) How about Joe No-name who works for the Apalachicola Times? Yeah, him too. How about me? No, I don't think so. I have indeed been published and I've even gotten paid for it. Over the course of my lifetime I've probably made a grand total of $3000 that way. I also maintain this web log, which is essentially a form of "publishing" according to First Amendment principles and also according to copyright law, even though it doesn't happen to involve paper. Could I refuse to testify if I had information which was vital in a court case? Hell no. The problem here is that the word journalist is like the word artist in the sense that nearly anyone who wants to can make at least a flimsy case for being one, and if anyone who claimed to be a journalist could be exempted from testifying about knowledge of crimes, then the criminal court system would fall apart. Either it would become impossible to use hostile testimony to convict (or acquit!) anyone, or else defendant's Sixth Amendment rights would be violated.
So having recognized that a journalistic privilege probably needs to exist, the courts equally have to prevent it from spreading too far. It must be a narrow privilege. You're not just a journalist because you say that you are; there has to be more to it than that. And even if you are one, this cannot totally immunize you from giving testimony. When there is specific information needed in a particular case to potentially prevent a miscarriage of justice, then the harm involved in violating journalistic privilege would have to be very great indeed in order to counterbalance the potential harm of a miscarriage of justice. Case in point: a woman was murdered, and her husband and his brother were arrested. The prosecution theory was that the husband had conspired to have his brother kill his wife in order to avoid losing a scad of money to her in an impending divorce case.
While being held, the husband committed suicide. But before doing so, he talked to a "journalist" named Vanessa Leggett and told her that he'd committed the murder himself and had framed his brother. The Grand Jury considering an indictment against the brother clearly needs to know the details of this. Did he actually frame his brother? Or did he decide that since he was about to kill himself anyway that maybe he could help his brother out and lie to take the blame for the murder his brother actually did commit? Is the brother, Roger, a murderer or an innocent man who was framed? That is an important question. Roger's future depends on determining if the husband, Robert, lied and to determine that they need to look at every scrap of information available about his "confession". Vanessa Leggett refused to release all the information she has about it, and has now been jailed for a month for contempt of court. An appeals court panel has upheld that decision, and I completely agree with it. Her credentials as a journalist are distinctly shaky in any case, but even if this were Carl Bernstein the interests of justice would override the interests of journalistic confidence. Journalistic confidence is not a total privilege such as the one enjoyed by doctors and priests; it only applies in narrow circumstances and this clearly isn't one of them. (Its purpose is to permit discovery of misbehavior by government, and there is apparently none involved in this case.) The courts had to rule the way they did on this; any decision in her favor would violate the Sixth Amendment, which declares that a defendant must have compulsory means to obtain witnesses in his defense. Their only grounds to refuse to testify would be Fifth Amendment guarantees against self-incrimination. They can't be permitted to evade that simply by claiming to be "journalists" because then everyone would claim to be one.
If Leggett doesn't relent, she could face up to 18 months in jail for this under direct court order. After that, I believe she could be indicted and tried, and possibly imprisoned for even longer. "Contempt of court" cannot be tolerated; testimony must be given. Our freedom and security depends upon having an effective and just court system. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010817.2337 (On Screen): Brian Carnell glories in his ability to use electricity to make his life easier. I must admit that I do some of that, myself. I don't necessarily go out of my way to waste power, but for instance there are three computers here which stay on 24 hours. (One of them is the web server on which you're reading this.)
But it brings up an interesting point. The word power has a lot of meanings, but two in particular. First, there's the way an engineer uses it, to mean the ability to produce energy at a constant rate. The unit of measure of power is the watt, which is a generation capability of one joule per second.
The other meaning of the term is more or less "influence and control", and refers to the ability to get what you want in life without begging for it (which is why money is power). In political terms the level of power of a nation is the extent to which it can prevail in trade and diplomatic negotiations. With regards to nations, I guess we can call this "political power".
The interesting thing about the two is that though they would seem to be unrelated, in fact they closely correlate throughout history. As a general rule, if you evaluate the situation in the world at any given instant, the large nation (i.e. not Lichtenstein) which has the highest per-capita engineering-power utilization capacity will also have the most political power, and if you rank large nations on each scale they'll have nearly the same position on both lists. I know of no exceptions to this. (Well, actually, one: some nations can temporarily enhance their political power for a few years or even decades, but only by destroying their economies and sinking like a stone later. The USSR was an example of this, where its political power greatly exceeded what would have been justified by its actual ability to generate engineering power, but it didn't last because its economy collapsed. That's because it ran its peacetime economy on what amounted to a war-footing, which isn't sustainable. The other cases of which I'm aware were equally temporary and equally ended in disaster.)
If you think about it, this correlation really does make sense. Engineering-power is the driving force behind the economy of a nation, and generally the more power the more wealth and goods the economy can turn out (and the more taxes it can pay, and the larger the military it can support). Engineering-power is a multiplier which makes it possible for each worker to produce more. (One man with a stamping machine can work more metal than fifty men with hammers, but only because there's power to run the machine.) And GDP, driven by engineering-power, generally correlates with political power. So the correlation is real, not coincidental. And I think there is a real causation relationship.
I certainly can't claim that there is an invariant correlation between the two, but I do have to wonder: if a nation decides to reduce it's production and consumption of engineering-power, will it also lose political power? I know of several cases where nations have reduced engineering-power, for one reason or another (sometimes involuntarily), and in all the cases of which I'm aware political-power was also reduced. Isn't that interesting? It does make me wonder if a decision to embark big-time on energy conservation also represent political suicide for a nation. (discuss)
Update: Actually, this correlation is fast responding, too, and military men have known about it for a long time. During WWII, one of the major targets for the strategic bombing of Germany was its petrochemical industry. The goal was to restrict the amount of petroleum it could refine and ship and utilize in order to reduce its political power to wage war. And it worked, too. Engineering power available to a soldier is also a multiplier, and without it he's much less formidable. And in those days by far the most important source of engineering power available to a soldier was gasoline. (The second was high explosives.) Equally, in the Pacific one of the top targets for the US submarine blockade was oil tankers, to reduce Japan's ability to import fuel with which to generate engineering power, so as to reduce Japan's political power. It worked there, too. The Japanese Navy and air forces were emasculated by lack of fuel, leading to successive massacres which wiped them out as effective forces. On the other hand, the German U-boats tried to do the same thing to England in the Battle of the Atlantic and didn't pull it off (fortunately). Attempts to interdict an enemy's flow of energy has been a common tactic in war in the last fifty years. Some of the Tomahawks fired at Iraq in 1990 targeted electrical generation plants. And when Serbia was bombed, electrical generation plants were deliberately hit there, too. Interesting, no?
Stardate 20010817.1543 (On Screen): Shakespeare may well have been the best playwright to ever live. Not every work was perfect but he has a long line of towering achievements which is awesome to behold. Many authors would sell their souls to write just one work as great as King Lear. Alas, few even come close. Yet Shakespeare's work is disturbing, and intended to be such. In 1818, a man named Thomas Bowdler took Shakespeare's works and, well, "edited" them to make them more acceptable for polite company. He toned down the sex and raw language and removed ugly ideas.
Bowdler gave us an eponymous word, in the long tradition of "lynch" and "boycott": to "bowdlerize" means to mutilate a work of art in order to make it morally acceptable. This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010817.0906 (On Screen): As part of his decision about stem cell research, Fearless Leader has decided to create a bioethics council to advise him on the issue. (Which is strange because his people also announced that the decision was final and wouldn't revisit it. So what, exactly, is the Council supposed to advise him about?) Virginia Postrel, who is in favor of this research (as am I) is asking an interesting question: who do you think should be on the council? The problem is that the man chosen to lead it is not, shall we say, unbiased. (In fact, he's rabidly opposed to it.)
I believe that there should be one person on the council who is suffering from Parkinson's disease. Of all the diseases that stem cell research may be able to treat, Parkinson's disease is one of the most horrible. Probably the best high-profile victim for this would be Janet Reno, but there's a snowball's chance in Hell of Janet Reno being appointed to do anything whatever for this administration. So my second choice would be Michael J. Fox.
The man is only 40, and he's probably not going to make even my own advanced age unless treaments improve drastically and soon. He's a nearly perfect poster boy for the disease. He's well liked and not tinged by scandal. He's handsome and personable and intelligent and witty, and quite successful. He's white. (Sigh.) He's not a sinner. He has three kids and a fourth on the way, but his career and his family life are being cut short by a terrible disease that isn't his fault that probably can be cured by this research but which cannot be cured any other way. (All current treatments for Parkinson's disease are palliative.)
It's a lot easier to make cruel decisions in the abstract. It's easier to decide that a lot of people should starve "for market reasons" if you don't actually have to watch them do it. And it is easier for the opponents of stem cell research to talk about the immorality of it if they don't have to see and directly experience the cruelty of not doing it. Even though he has no credentials as a bioethicist, he is a walking, breathing, argument for developing these treatments. I'm quite sure that he'd skip his medication before attending meetings (just as he did before testifying in front of Congress). And as the members of the council come to know and like him, they will come to sympathize with the tragedy of his disease -- and know that the research they oppose is the only thing which can help him. That will make it a lot harder to oppose it. They will come to truly know the cost of their opposition, not in the abstract, but in the concrete.
But it won't happen. The purpose of this council is not to actually determine what to do, but rather to rubber stamp what Fearless Leader already decided. This council is political cover, nothing more. (discuss)
Stardate 20010817.0742 (On Screen via away team): Here's the perfect gift for that thirteen year old who seems to have everything. I've seen kids around here riding on things sort of like this, only they had teeny gasoline engines. (One of them had taken a horrible fall and had a huge scab on his arm which was about fifteen square inches. Jeeze it was ugly. He'll be scarred for life.) (discuss)
Stardate 20010817.0708 (On Screen): It is impolite to correct your enemy when he is making a mistake. So goes an old British maxim about war and politics. It is fun to see a case where a company completely out-maneuvers another one so adroitly, so that it seems to give its opponent what the opponent wants, and then turns the tables in such a fashion that it turns out to be the worst thing it could be for the opponent. And Microsoft has done that to Sun, by deciding not to include a Java virtual machine in Win XP. Sun has taken out ads trying to raise a ruckus about this -- and now Microsoft is answering those charges by calling Sun's act one of "unparalleled hypocrisy". Even if you hate Microsoft, you have to admit that they've got a point. Sun sued Microsoft and in January gained a settlement which prevented Microsoft from updating its JVM or from using it beyond seven years. Apparently they assumed that this also included an obligation to keep using it during that seven years, but Microsoft has decided to stop supporting it early -- and Sun is now screaming "But that's not what we meant!"
Actually, Microsoft has been outmaneuvering Sun with respect to Java from the very beginning. Sun's grand plan was to implement Java as a cross-platform standard ("Write once, Run everywhere"), which would free applications from dependence on any single operating system. This would break the Microsoft OS monopoly by removing Microsoft's biggest advantage (huge base of Windows-specific applications) and allow Sun to take market share away from Microsoft in the OS space. Sun seems to have expected Microsoft to cooperate in its own destruction. So they licensed Microsoft to produce Java products, but Microsoft had no intention of being destroyed and proceeded to produce not merely a compatible JVM which was better than the one Sun had created, but to then add to it enhancements which were Windows specific (and which were superior to what Sun had produced). The result was that it was beginning to appear that it would be possible to write some Java apps which could only run on Windows -- and which would run better there than any similar Java program on any other platform. Wait a minute.
So they ended up in court. But Microsoft was able to delay the lawsuit long enough so that its outcome had become commercially moot. Then it settled for paying a token amount of money and promising to stop supporting Java. And now Microsoft is using exactly that settlement to hurt Java even more. Fancy footwork indeed! (discuss)
Stardate 20010817.0649 (On Screen): Free speech is a tricky thing. I have a right to speak freely, but I don't have a right to demand that anyone listen to me. Freedom of expression is actually legally a negative, not a positive. It doesn't say that someone has a right to get their message out, rather it says that the government isn't permitted to prevent them from trying. Within certain limits, other private individuals aren't, either. But there is no legal or moral guarantee or requirement for success. If you stand in the middle of the wilderness and shout your message to the trees, you're still free. (It's just that that better not be the only place you can do so.)
Do advertisers have a freedom to advertise? Yes, they do. Advertisement is speech, and is protected as such. But they do not have a right to insist that people read their advertising. That said, there's a tendency to assume that if someone has been doing something for a long time that it is an entitlement for the future. That seems to be what's going on here. There is a plugin called "Gator" which some people install which does some useful things for you but which also creates popup advertising. It keys the advertising to specific web addresses, so for instance someone visiting USS Clueless might see a popup advertisement for rival site Disenchanted. I think I wouldn't care, really, but where it's really getting the hackles up is that some companies are buying the rights to have their advertisements pop up at competing companies' web sites.
Now Gator has taken the next step, and it's a doozie: they place floating windows containing banner ads on top of the locations where other banner ads would appear on certain web sites. So a popular site like Yahoo (for instance) can put its own banner ads up, but a user with Gator installed won't see them. Instead, they'll see the ads that Gator has sold. Needless to say, sites like Yahoo take a dim view. Something Must Be Done.
I don't think anything can be done. If Gator were messing with Yahoo's server then they'd be violating the law. But they aren't. They're displaying things on a computer screen with the permission of the owner of that computer.
Here's the case I expect someone to make, against this: My web page, in its entirety, is a copyrighted work. Under copyright law, I have control not only over my page but also over all derivative works. If someone takes my page and alters it by removing advertising or by altering the advertising, the result is a "derivative work" and creating it requires my permission under Copyright Law. Since I have not and will not grant such permission, then it is actionable. The answer to that is "fair use". Copyright law has never dictated how the end-viewer of the work utilize it. If I buy a newpaper, I can legally cut out one part of it and save it for future reference. That is also a "derivative work" but I still have the ability to do that under Copyright law. I am not required to archive the entire newspaper, or to leave advertising attached to the article I cut out. Copyright law does not give the creator of a work the ability to force the viewer to observe the entire work. Viewers have always had the right to pick and choose, and the use by viewers of machines to help in the filtration process doesn't alter that.
In the long run, this is yet another nail in the coffin of the ad banner. The attempt to treat the web as a paperless magazine has failed. Gator is an example of how advertising can take advantage of the unique aspects of the web, and since it's better adapted to the environment, it's going to out-compete the old ill-adapted model. Survival of the fittest! (discuss)
Update: Of course, one thing that Gator is doing by this is to divorce advertising from content creation. Gator's advertising is essentially parasitic, with no revenue deriving back to the creators of the web pages on which Gator's advertising is featured. Thus it is ultimately unsustainable. But then, the ad banner is also unsustainable, as evidence has shown.
Stardate 20010817.0604 (On Screen): War is coming. Palestinian anger is rising against the Israelis, and now a poll has shown that half of Israelis think that their government isn't using enough force against the Palestinians. Sometimes a war happens because a leader wants it and has convinced his people, but sometimes a war happens because the people of a nation want it and force their leaders to comply. In this case, with the populace on both sides in favor of escalation, nothing can prevent it. So far Shimon Peres has been the moderating influence on the Sharon administration's policies; now I think Sharon will start to ignore Peres. (discuss)
Stardate 20010816.1039 (On Screen): They're changing the accounting rules on how "Goodwill" will be accounted. This badly named line-item refers to the amount of excess money which was spent in an acquisition for something beyond its real worth. If you acquire another company whose assets are worth $20 million and you actually pay $50 million for it, then you have $30 million worth of Goodwill on your books. It's a real expense and traditionally it ws amortized over a long period of time, representing a quarterly deduction. In essence, you're paying for that excess over time.
Under the new rules, once a year the value of those assets will be calculated, and the company will write off the total loss in value immediately, with no amortization. If those assets appreciate, presumably that will show up as a net gain in "stockholder equity", so it's not lost.
This article discusses how the new rules will affect a number of companies, but doesn't mention two in particular: Redhat and VA Linux. Both companies are currently carrying huge backlogs of "Goodwill" on their books. As of the last SEC quarterly filing, Redhat had $25.6 million in gross revenues, a gross profit of $14.5 million, a $16.5 million amortization of goodwill, and after other expenses had a net loss of $27.6 million. As of its most recent filing, VA Linux had revenue of $20.3 million, a $24 million dollar amortization of goodwill, and a net loss of $109.7 million (much of which was due to one-time losses). From that it should be obvious that removing the goodwill amortization from the books will substantially change the resulting report.
But the only way to do that is to take a whopping one-time writeoff, which is what the new rules will demand. Redhat still carries goodwill of $130.9 million on its books, while VA Linux is worse at $296.6 million. That's $0.77 and $5.98 per share, respectively.
It's all funny money, actually. The real way to determine if a company is prospering or dying is to watch it's cash on hand. It's always possible to rig the books to show a profit, but if the bank account is dwindling, then you're going broke. So, the following chart:
The numbers are represented differently in the 10-K and I can't do a comparable calculations for those quarters. What you're seeing here is the "Total current assets" line item minus the "Total current liabilities" line item. What you're not seeing is it drift up. And you're not seeing a big war chest relative to losses. Discounting amortized goodwill and one-time expenses, and doing what is sort of known as "pro forma" calculations, VA Linux in its most recent quarter had a loss of about $43 million. At that rate it will run out of money in the first quarter of next year.
Which means that this accounting change will make Redhat and VA Linux announce one truly awful quarter, then a series of much better sounding ones -- but won't change the fundamental fact that neither company is actually making money.
Stardate 20010816.0935 (On Screen): I've taken to making long-shot predictions here. What the hell; it's not as if anyone will shoot me if I'm wrong. It's fun, and I can gloat when I'm right. But of course I should acknowledge when I'm wrong, and this is such a time. Be corp is indeed going to be acquired, which is good. I predicted a possibility that the buyer might be Qualcomm. Actually, it's going to be Palm, which fills me with mixed feelings. This is a match which has all sorts of interesting possibilities. What I'm wondering is whether Palm might have decided to try to down-adapt BeIA to PDAs instead of trying to update the PalmOS. A different possibility is that it is trying to diversify. There is, of course, strong speculation that Palm will divide itself into an OS company and a PDA company, and in such a case the new Be properties would become part of the OS group.
There are two ways this can go. Palm can absorb and ultimately waste the assets of Be, and sink into the ground and be buried by WinCE. Or Palm can use this as a step up in its product capabilities and use it to catch up to WinCE, which is much more advanced than the existing PalmOS. If anything, BeIA is even more advanced yet, and it is far more portable than is the PalmOS, which is attractive considering Palm's urgent need to move off of Dragonball and onto ARM. (BeIA may already run on the ARM.) The one thing which is certain is that this means the PC version of BeOS is now completely totally dead. Palm isn't going to waste a dime on further support for that. Aside from that, the big question is whether this will be the shovel which helps Palm dig its way out of the hole it is in, or merely becomes one of the many shovels which will help to bury it. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010816.0847 (On Screen): Are we alone? How common is life in the universe? Estimates of that now are little better than SWAGs. One of the big assumptions is that life needs planets to live on. Another is that those planets have to have certain characteristics. So for the moment, one approach to answering that question has been to hunt for planets.
At current state of the art, our tools for finding extraterrestial planets are quite crude. There are only two ways of doing it and they both involve measuring the gravitational effect of the planet on the star. First, you can measure the doppler shift of the star repeatedly over a long period of time (years). As the planet rotates around the star, the star itself moves back and forth and if the plane of orbit of the planet is not perpendicular to the line to the earth, then we'll be able to measure it, if the planet is massive enough and if the orbit is rapid enough. The longer the orbit, the longer the observation needed to prove that it's happening. The lower the mass of the planet, the less wiggle there is and the less likely it is that we'll be able to even notice it is happening.
The other approach is even more crude and consists of actually measuring the movement of the star against the stellar background. So it's no wonder that most of the planets found so far have been huge and in relatively close orbits to their stars. Still, a lot of them have been found. What's puzzling is that they seem to defy our knowledge of how stellar systems form. When a planet much more massive than Jupiter is found in an orbit tighter than that of Mercury, it is puzzling. Some of them are in immensely eliptical orbits. Some, however, have been found in orbits more like those found in the Solar system, which is comforting.
Far more worrying is the result of studies which have tried to determine how the Moon was formed. As such things go, Luna is extremely unusual. None of the rocky internal planets except Earth have moons (in the classic sense; Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids in unstable orbits). Are the characteristics of the Moon important to the process which made Earth conducive to life? It's possible.
One reason is that the process by which the Moon was formed will have changed the Earth itself. Earth and Venus are actually near twins. They have nearly the same diameter, for instance. But Earth is much more massive, which is why it has a higher surface gravity. It also is volcanically more active. And of course Earth's atmosphere didn't form in anything like the same way as that of Venus, which is locked in runaway greenhouse effect so bad that lead would be molten on its surface. (The surface of Venus, planet of love, is the closest approximation in the Solar System of Dante's vision of certain parts of Hell. None of the Venera landers operated more than six hours before pressure, temperature and acid mists destroyed them.) So why is Earth so much more massive? It may not have been to begin with.
The theory goes like this: initially Earth formed much like Venus. But after it formed, it was struck by a foreign body about the size of Mars. As a result of this collision, much matter was thrown out into space and ultimately collected to form the Moon. But this also means that Earth got most of the iron and heavy metals from the foreign body, while the Moon got most of the rock (and maybe some of the previous rock from Earth itself). As a result, the non-metallic crust of Earth is probably thinner than that of Venus, and Earth has a higher density. Earth therefore has more radioactives and its core would remain liquid more readily, especially given that it would be subject to tidal heating from the orbiting Moon. All of this makes the Earth much more volcanically active. On the other hand, the Moon may have served to remove excess atmosphere from the Earth at a much higher rate than would take place without it, which helped to thin the atmosphere down and prevent the kind of runaway effect that is baking Venus. So the atmosphere of the Earth may be heavily dependent on how the Earth/Moon system was formed. If Earth had an atmosphere like that of Venus, there would be no life here. (It's also possible that tidal shifting and mixing of Earth's oceans are vital to the process of creating and maintaining life on Earth.)
Unfortunately, a collision like that is very unlikely. The body which struck the Earth must have come from outside the system. If it had made a near miss without actually hitting, it would not have cause the change, but it would have seriously perturbed the orbit of Earth, making life even less likely. So you need to form a body like Mars in one stellar system, gravitationally perturb it into an escape orbit without destroying it, have it wander interstellar space and enter another stellar system, and then score a direct hit on a Venus-like planet there. That's obviously an exceedingly low probability event, maybe down to the level of once-per-galaxy. Which means that planets, even Venus-like planets, may be common but Earth-like planets with Luna-like moons may be exceedingly rare. Of course, we don't know if an Earth-like planet is vital for formation of life. With the discovery of chemosynthetic ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean, that don't rely on light, the possibility exists that life could form on moons of gas giants which are heated by tidal effects (i.e. Europa-like moons). But, of course, when we ask this question we're not merely asking about single cellular life. What we want to know is whether there is intelligence anywhere else nearby. Life might be able to form on a moon like Europa, but it's not known whether it could reasonably advance to multicellular life. While the chemosynthetic ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean are quite surprising and apparently have been thriving, the total amount of biomass down there is actually quite small, and every multicellular species there is a mutated form of a species which originally was part of the photosynthetic ecosystem in which we all live. Without the photosynthetic system, even if chemosynthetic life could form it may be that it would have a high likelihood of remaining prokaryotic forever, which would be scientifically interesting but would not satisfy our need for friends. (Even a photosynthetic system may remain prokaryotic; eukaryotic life is a fairly recent development on Earth.)
It's interesting how these things go up and down. The discovery of plentiful extraterrestrial planets has raised hope. In my opinion, this recent study about the formation of the Moon lowers them again. My best guess now is that planets are common but nearly all of them are sterile, and Earthlike planets may be extraordinarily rare (as opposed to Venuslike planets).
But that's by no means certain, and there's a different possibility which is much more likely. Several gas giants (1-50 times the mass of Jupiter) have been found in moderately circular orbits comparable to that of Earth. Such giants are likely to have rather massive moons, possibly rivaling that of Mars. There are at least six such massive moons around gas giants in the Solar System alone. Mars had a substantial atmosphere once, and an ocean too. (The evidence for an ocean is now overwhelming, and an ocean can't form without an atmosphere.) It may have been conducive to life once and life may even have formed. But Mars is not large enough to prevent its atmosphere from bleeding away, and Mars is too small and has too small a core to remain volcanically active (which would have replenished its atmosphere). However, we now know from Io that a small body in a gravitationally complex system can be volcanically active from tidal heating without needing core radioactives (primarily Uranium and Thorium, which drive Earth's vulcanism). If a Jupiter-or-larger planet operated in an orbit similar to Earth's, its moons might have permanent liquid oceans and substantial atmospheres if they at least Martian size. That's not at all implausible; Ganymede is not much smaller than Mars and there's reason to believe that a larger gas giant could also form larger moons, and some of the planets already identified make Jupiter look tiny. A brown dwarf might even have Venus-size moons.
I'm no expert on this, but as the conditions which formed Earth and made it what it is become more and more unusual, this looms in my mind as the best chance for formation of life elsewhere. If intelligent life formed in such a system, there is the romantic possibility that more than one moon of such a giant might have developed lesser life and be habitable. That would mean that Apollo-level technology could have permitted colonization of other moons of the same gas giant. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010815.1618 (On Screen): Of course, with every actual or potential technological revolution, there's also the opportunity for new scams. A company in San Francisco wants to make money by helping celebrities to copyright their own DNA, as protection against being involuntarily cloned by someone else. (Britney Spears, take notice!) It's a crock, of course; I would be very surprised if it could be done. Copyright is intended to protect "original works of authorship". Since a given person is not the author of their own DNA, and since DNA is not an intellectual work, it's hard to see how copyright would be appropriate.
But even if it was, it's not necessary to do anything to have it. As of the US ratification of the Berne convention, copyright is automatic. It isn't necessary to put a copyright notice on a work, and it isn't necessary to file anything. So what service, exactly, is this company offering? Well, apparently, they're going to do a DNA test, yielding an output film, and then copyright that. Only that, too, is not a work of authorship. Sorry, Charlie. (But if it makes people happy, what the hey?) (discuss)
Update 20010817: This article satirizes the concept of getting a patent or copyright on yourself.
Stardate 20010815.1258 (Crew, this is the Captain): Either Code Red is resurgent, or there's something new out there which just hit the big time. My activity here has been through the roof all morning. I get a fair number of spurious blips all the time, but usually it's at the rate of one or two per second. But all morning I've been getting blipped fifteen or more times per second. It's consuming downstream bandwidth but with my cable modem that's immense and it isn't affecting performance. Still, we'll see if anything appears on the news. My desktop PC's firewall shows just a bazillion computers out there attempting to access the HTTP port. (My desktop PC doesn't run a server.) What I wonder is whether there are a bunch of people scanning to find Code Red 2 infected systems to take control of. (discuss)
Stardate 20010815.1243 (On Screen via away team): I suppose it's harmless. Our friend declares "I honestly don't know. I'm a writer and an artist, not a scientist." That's for sure. His idea is to try to get a huge number of people, all at the same time, to point their laser pointers at the dark part of the half-moon on a certain night in hopes of making it light up red. Sigh.
The reason it's obvious that he's not a scientist is that he hasn't done the math. Suppose he talks a million people into doing this. A laser pointer is 3 milliwatts, but some of that is going to be lost (maybe a third) passing through the atmosphere; figure maybe 2 kilowatts hitting the surface of the moon. It's going to hit an area the size of Iowa, given how difficult it will be for people to aim them and hold them steady. Assuming people could hit a square 100 kilometers on a side (which is unlikely), you're talking about 10,000 kilometers, or a power flux of twenty milliwatts per square kilometer.
And in order to be seen, it will have to achieve a brightness comparable to the lighted half of the moon. That's about 1 kilowatt per square meter, or a gigawatt per square kilometer. To be visible you'd have to approach at least 5% of that (if not more), so 50 megawatts per square kilometer. Our hero is off by about 9 orders of magnitude. To be visible he'd need a hundred million people each holding 25 million laser pointers. (discuss)
Stardate 20010815.1220 (On Screen): Duallie Athlons are beginning to appear on the market, a couple of months after AMD finally released the 760MP chipset, and the prices are not outrageously high. For a duallie 1.3 GHz Athlon it's just £1,899.00 from this vendor, about $2750. Not too shabby. Of course, prices will definitely be coming down on these. I think you can expect to see Athlon duallies for less than $2000 by the end of the year. (discuss)
Stardate 20010815.1132 (On Screen): Lessee. There's a valuable commodity (a "prize") which many people want. The organization controlling that commodity sells each of them a chance to get that commodity for $2, and once everyone has bought their chances, a random drawing will take place and one of them will get it. The organization keeps any money left over. That adequately describes, for instance, a door prize raffle at a church dinner or the state numbers lottery, doesn't it? That's illegal in California for anyone except non-profit organizations (i.e. churches and charities) or the State itself.
But that's also a precise description of what NeuLevel Inc. is doing. The commodity is particularly highly prized names in the newly created ".biz" TLD. When multiple groups want a given one, each of them buys a chance for $2, and a random drawing will be used to decide which of them gets it. Neulevel will then keep all the money. The exact value of a name like sex.biz or show.biz (let alone aol.biz) is difficult to quantify, but it is surely more than $2. NeuLevel says they aren't running a lottery. I think they're full of it. (discuss)
Stardate 20010815.1113 (On Screen): There's a difference between theoretical and empirical testing. In software engineering, we refer to them respectively as "white box" and "black box". White box testing means that the tester knows a great deal (possibly everything) about what's inside the unit being tested, and directs the test process at places expected to be weak. He shoots at the welds, not at the armor plate.
Black box testing is different. A black box tester deliberately isn't informed of details of how the unit works, though he may be able to deduce a great deal of it if he's sharp. He shoots everywhere. Of the two, white box testing will turn up more bugs, but black box testing will turn up more surprisng and generally more serious bugs. That's because the white box tester is to some extent constrained by his knowledge. By shooting at the welds, he misses weak spots in the armor.
If you only had to choose between them and only have one kind, you'd definitely choose black box. Of course, that's not really a choice we generally face, and we usually use both kinds.
But in some cases black box testing is all that's possible. There are now and have always been a lot of areas in technology where art has developed strictly empirically, with theory lagging badly behind or sometimes not being available at all. The electric generator and electric motor were developed before Maxwell explained why they worked, for instance. A modern example of that is drugs intended for treatment of mental disorders. While it's unquestionably the case that many of them work and even work well, in most cases no-one has the slightest idea how. For instance, most antidepressants work by boosting the levels of the three monoamine neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine). But this can't be the whole answer, because some of these drugs take as long as six weeks to have clinical effect, whereas their effect on neurotransmitter levels happens immediately. And given that no-one has any idea just what depression actually is, it's hard to say how these drugs affect it. "Depression" is a description of a clinical condition, not a description of a failure mode. It's like describing diabetes as a failure to control sugar levels, not as a failure of the pancreas to correctly secrete insulin in proper quantities. As a result, Drugs to treat depression have been developed through serendipity or by varying other drugs which were known to work.
Another example of a strictly empirical science is epidemiology. Without knowing what the disease pathogen was, it was possible to determine in the early part of the 19th century that cholera was passed through contaminated drinking water. Without having any idea at all what caused AIDS, it was possible to determine that it was passing through body fluids such as blood and sexual secretions. Only later were the comma baccilus and HIV identified respectively as the disease pathogens, which then explained the empirical result. But the empirical result stands solidly even without a theoretical explanation, and if there is a conflict between the two then usually the theory is wrong. Empirical studies proved that HIV didn't pass via casual contact long before HIV was found; and it remains true today that HIV isn't passed through casual contact. Study of HIV hasn't changed that fact, because our knowledge of that fact wasn't derived from study of the virus. It isn't always necessary to explain why something is the case in order to prove that it is the case. A valid observation is a fact irrespective of whether there's an explanation of the fact.
It isn't necessary to explain the genetics of a genetically modified food in order to prove that it's safe to eat, and in fact safety testing doesn't rely on genetic explanations. Which is a good thing, because the science of genetics is much too immature to permit a reasonable explanation. Rather, safety testing uses the time-honored approach of feeding the stuff to animals and observing whether they prosper or get ill. If you feed enough of it to enough different animals with no sign of ill effects, there's a sufficiently high probability that it's safe. That, in fact, is the same way that drugs are initially tested before they are used in humans. We can't look at the chemical formulation of a drug to determine if it will be harmful because we don't have nearly enough knowledge of animal biochemistry to determine all the ways that it might affect things. The only way to find out is to try it and see, which is why animal testing is essential. Once that's done, you try it in people.
Greenpeace, in its neverending shrill attempts to throw every possible roadblock into the path of development of genetically modified foods, had demanded that Monsanto explain a certain gene sequence found in a particular approved soybean variant, and then says "If Monsanto did not even get this most basic information right, what should we then think about the validity of all their safety tests and experiments, which are based upon these data?" Which is to say that they're claiming that Monsanto is basing its claims of safety on "white box" genetic analysis. That's not correct. Monsanto is basing its claims of safety on "black box" studies where these soybeans were fed to animals who were not harmed. That's empirical data which doesn't require an explanation. And, in fact, that's how we've always tested food. How did people learn that a relative of deadly nightshade (tomatoes) was not only not poisonous but was actually tasty? By trying it. Feed it to pigs; the pigs seem to like it. OK, someone taste it. Hey, that's good!
If Greenpeace can't even get its epistemological claims about safety testing correct, why should we believe their warnings about Monsanto? (discussion in progress)
Update: The researcher who found the gene that Greenpeace is so afraid of has said that he doesn't think it's anything to worry about.
Stardate 20010815.1011 (On Screen): This article discusses the fact that there are genetic differences between primates and other mammals which may mean that cloning would have a higher success rate for humans than for, say, sheep. It ignores completely that what is considered an acceptable rate of failures in sheep would be completely unacceptable in humans. If, for instance, there is a 50% failure rate in sheep (leading to 50% deformed lambs which have to be euthanized) that is probably acceptable. If there's a 2% failure rate in cloning humans, leading to monsters who have to be kept in institutions until they die naturally, that is not good enough.
Stardate 20010815.0948 (On Screen): There's something called the "Stockholm syndrome", which refers to the fact that a prisoner of a hostile force can begin to believe in and even support his captors. The most famous example of that is Patricia Hearst who was kidnapped by the SLA and eventually joined it in a bank robbery. (She served a prison term for it.)
There's also "deprogramming", where intensive short term indoctrination of someone who has "fallen under evil influence" can change that person back to the straight and true. These things are, of course, matters of opinion in some cases.
Is the Catholic Church now deprogramming one of its archbishops? I think it may be. He somehow fell under the sway of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, leader of a legendary cult, and finally got married, a violation of his vows to the Catholic Church. Irrespective of church law, the marriage was a legal civil ceremony. But the Church threatened him with excommunication, and at this point the reports become mixed. One version is that he voluntarily entered seclusion and meditated and prayed, and changed his mind (presumably under the influence of God). A different version is that he was taken by force, held in isolation and deprogrammed. Regardless, there now has been released a handwritten letter from him, renouncing his marriage. This is apparently in response to his wife's hunger strike.
I'm afraid I'm skeptical about this, and I lean more towards the "deprogramming" side of the scale. I don't credit a handwritten letter at all. I'd be much more of a believer if the Church felt sufficiently confident in his reconversion to let him out on his own again, without guards. If he were free to move around, free to talk to reporters and friends, and if he personally met with his wife and told her in person that he'd changed his mind, I'd be convinced. There are just too many cases where these kinds of letters were not really genuine. It's common, for instance, for POWs to be forced to write such letters confession to all manner of crimes and to condemn their own countries for waging war. This is widely known and because of that such letters are usually ignored.
I'm no fan of the Moonies, but in this case their representative is exactly right: "Our request is one: Let him stand up in front of the world and talk to the world." I want to hear him speak in a circumstance where the church can't censor what he says. How many copies of this letter were ripped up before the right one was written and released? (discuss)
Update 20010829: After a period long enough for successful deprogramming, the Church has actually permitted Archbishop Milingo to spend three hours with his wife, during which time he did inform her that he intended to remain celibate. However, they were never permitted to speak privately; Milingo was supervised at all times by representatives of the Vatican. I am not impressed.
Stardate 20010815.0931 (On Screen): The Palestinians are asking the UN for action, to include various things but especially to include "deployment of international observers to restore calm." It's not obvious just what observers would accomplish, other than to observe the Israelis and Palestinians as they continue to kill each other. I think the theory is that if observers were on the spot watching that this would somehow shame both sides into desisting from attacks, but there are actually observers there now and it isn't doing any good. Not only is there sufficient press coverage so that no attack is ever secret, but there are actually formal UN observers on the ground now in the West Bank.
Any foreign intervention would have to amount to an army of occupation. A few dozen or hundred un-armed observers won't accomplish jack; you'd need a couple of divisions of infantry with armored cars and tanks, with their own organic artillery and helicopters and a supporting carrier task force to provide heavy strike capability. You'd need rules of engagement which involved that force instantly and profoundly answering any strike by either side with immense retaliation. (For instance, any location from which a mortar was fired would be obliterated by artillery fire. Any location from which a sniper fired would receive an air strike. Any movement of armor would be destroyed from the air.) This is obviously inhumane and unacceptable, and it would convert the conflict from one where the Israelis and Palestinians were fighting each other into one where both were fighting against the occupying force, which is exactly what happened in both Lebanon and in Somalia. It's not clear that it would be any improvement. But short of such measures it's not obvious just what an international force would be capable of accomplishing beyond witnessing the continuation of the violence by both sides.
Yesterday someone asked me what I thought could be done to bring peace to Israel. I don't think there is anything that can be done. Peace cannot be imposed from outside. Peacekeeping forces are only successful when the people really want peace. The only way conflict will end is of both sides want it to end, and I don't see that happening for a very long time. That means that conflict will continue for years, possibly for decades, until it finally burns itself out from sheer fatigue, which is what happened in North Ireland and in Lebanon. Unfortunately, that's not good because in some cases fatigue never sets in. There has been ethnic fighting in the Balkans for 400 years and they don't seem to be tired of it yet. The US could end the conflict in Israel by turning Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself into a parking lot. Short of that, there's nothing we or anyone else outside the theater can actually do. (discuss)
Update 200116: The top foreign policy officer of Egypt wants US observers on the ground in Israel. His argument is precisely that the presence of witnesses will shame both sides into ceasing their aggression. There's no evidence that this is true, and evidence (existing observers) that it is false.
Stardate 20010815.0730 (On Screen): This is the first faint flicker of a hopeful sign I've seen for any chance at peace in Israel. It's an editorial in the Jerusalem Post which states (correctly) that no military solution is possible, and that the conflict can only be solved politically, by negotiation. Further, it states (correctly) that the solution will involve an end to settlements and enclaves. The solution must involve "compact and contiguous territories for both sides". I wonder if anyone in Israel will pay attention. (discuss)
Update: Sadly, this editorial appears in the same edition and advocates exactly the opposite viewpoint.
Stardate 20010814.0738 (On Screen): Executive compensation in this country is completely out of control. Case in point: one Richard McGinn is generally credited with taking Lucent and driving it into the ground. The board booted him out of his CEO position last November. Now his golden parachute has been revealed, and it's a good'n. One of the things which stock holders do think is a good idea is that a CEO should receive a big stock option package when hired, with a strike price based on stock price the day he begins. The idea is that if he makes out like a bandit on his options, he does so by making the stock price go up, which also benefits the stockholders. McGinn had a big package of options, but the strike price was $29. Since Lucent's stock has sunk to less than $7, they're worthless -- and that's as it should be. Only they're not; as a favor to their good friend McGinn, the board bought the options back for $7 million. That defeats the purpose of using options as an incentive to the CEO, don't you think?
Meanwhile, Lucent also booted its CFO after only a year in the position. She was paid a $4 million signing bonus when she joined the company, and got an additional $4.7 million in her golden parachute. When did we start paying people millions of dollars per year to do a shitty job? (Where do I sign up?) If I were a Lucent stockholder, I think I'd want to ask the Board a few pointed questions about how it was managing the corporations's cash. (discuss)
Stardate 20010814.0700 (Crew, this is the Captain): My spam filtration is quite good now, and despite the fact that I make no attempt at all to hide my email address (by inserting nonsense strings, for instance) I don't actually receive much, and little of that is noteworthy. But this one, that I just received, was:
Indeed. Apparently they're googling the web for sites with that string and mailing any email address they find there. What's curious about it is that the site (whose URL I've changed) is advertising cases ostensibly intended to protect you against the lethal radiation being emitted by your cell phone. The article they found (and evidently didn't read) was this one from my CDMA FAQ where I demonstrate that those cases are completely, totally, useless and an utter waste of money. Now that's targeted advertising for you. I'm sure interested in buying their product, I am. (discuss)
Update: Of course, that's not as bad as the one I just got which promised to read my horoscope to determine if my spouse has been cheating on me. I think it's unlikely, given that I don't happen to be married.
Stardate 20010814.0637 (On Screen): This article describes a number of useful resource sites on the web, and it inspired me to do the same:
The CIA World Factbook is an excellent reference for basic information about the nations of the world. The information is comprehensive and well organized.