Stardate 20010825.1150 (On Screen): Our legal system treats us equally and grants us justice. It says here. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work that way. The problem is that appeariing in court is immensely expensive. If you are sued, you might prevail but be financially ruined by legal fees. If two litigants have approximately equal levels of wealth, then the situation is still fair, because the plaintiff will equally be ruined, so he won't go to court unless he thinks his case is just.
But what is expensive for one man may be cheap for another man -- or for a corporation. And the corporations know this, which means that they can often prevail in a conflict simply by threatening legal action. I have seen many time online a note from someone running a web site that says "We took this down because thus-and-so corporation threatened us with a lawsuit and we can't afford to defend ourselves. We believe we had a right to post that information but we don't want to be ruined." None of this is a mystery, and corporations have been doing this for quite some time.
But occasionally it backfires. For instance, the SDMI sent a letter to Professor Felten threatening him with a civil suit and with criminal prosecution if he were to present a paper he had written demonstrating how easy it was to defeat all the proposed methods of digitally watermarking music. Felten turned the tables nicely on them by publicizing the fact, causing SDMI to backtrack rapidly and to claim disingenuously that he had misinterpreted the letter: it wasn't a threat, it was just friendly advice. They wouldn't dream of actually suing their good friend Professor Felten, who was like a brother to them, and so on. Yeah, right.
And now we've got another example of that. First off, this is particularly egregious, because the lawyer in question misunderstood the situation. The lawyer seems to have noticed that using the URL http://yahoo.sex.com would connect to the site "sex.com", which contains a bazillion links to other sex sites. "They're abusing our trademark. Stop this instant." Actually, no. Sex.com is using a wildcard domain, as do most sites. The left hand word doesn't matter; whatever it is, it's going to connect there. oatmeal.sex.com would have done the same thing. (Now that's kinky.) My server is also set up that way: yahoo.denbeste.nu works just fine (and connects to me, not to Yahoo). But rather than actually consult someone who understood how the Internet worked, this lawyer hit the word processor and fired off a threatening letter.
But the guy who owns "sex.com" is no stranger to litigation, having had the domain stolen from him and having successfully sued to recover it. And he didn't back down. He has counter-sued Yahoo and is about to try to cause Yahoo as much legal grief as he possibly can. And the whole episode is becoming a singificant public relations gaff to Yahoo. Though I have my doubts about some of his claims, I hope he prevails in this. If so, it may just restrain the next corporate lawyer who feels the urge to try to intimidate someone with a threat of a lawsuit. We ants are not necessarily totally helpless against the corporate elephants. When we receive such threats, we can go public and try to make them look like blundering bullies, as was the case this time. (discussion in progress)
Update: One of Gary Kremen's comments about Yahoo was that it was tolerating a message board called http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/looklikeaminor. I got curious and loaded it, and there it was. So I followed a message link and was told "no such message", and went back to the main page and was told that the board had been deleted. It happened as I was looking at it. Yahoo is clearly in full retreat here. But they've demonstrate in the past that they have no spine.
Stardate 20010825.1117 (On Screen): Another day, another terrorist attack in Israel. This time two Palestinians armed with assault rifles and grenades broke into an Israeli military compound and killed three soldiers and wounded seven others before being killed themselves. And as usual, the Israeli government announced that Arafat, personally, was responsible. Not the Palestinians collectively, not the men who actually made the attack, not the Palestinian National Authority, but Arafat the man. (As if Arafat was somehow capable of directly controlling every single Palestinian alive.)
In time of war, it is usual to demonize one's opponent. It is sometimes quite amazing to see the flip-flop this goes through. For instance, the Stalin portrayed in the US in 1944 was completely unlike the one portrayed in the US in 1951; in 1944 he was an ally against Hitler, while in 1951 he was the enemy in the Cold War. But even more to the point, because of how we are built it is much easier for us to hate people than to hate abstract concepts. The leader of the enemy will be demonized because he is being made into an icon representing the other side. When you read some of the propaganda in the US during the war, as often as not you'll hear the phrase "defeat Hitler" instead of "defeat Germany". The posters which depict the European enemy don't depict a map of Germany or any recognizable landmarks, they nearly always showed Hitler's face -- often subtly modified to make him vaguely repulsive.
I've been watching the Israelis do the same thing with Arafat. It doesn't help that Arafat is himself a rather ugly man; it just makes him all that much easier to iconize. But Arafat is now over 70; he won't last forever. And for the moment it appears that he is the only thing holding the Palestinian Authority together. He could die of natural causes or old age or assassination at any time, and then what? First off, I expect the Palestinian Authority to disintegrate. There has been no trace of an attempt by Arafat to designate a successor. (Were this a democratic situation, none would be needed because a successor would be selected by vote. But it isn't like that. He is an autocrat in a system where elections are a sham, just as is Mubarek in Egypt.) So upon his death there would be a power struggle which might well end up violent. Given that Palestinian territories are so fragmented anyway, the likelihood is that no single leader would emerge afterwards. The Palestinian territories would descend to anarchy, a series of small territories ruled by armed mobs led by local strongmen.
Arafat's death will deprive the Israelis of two things: an icon to hate, and someone with which to negotiate. When Arafat dies the pot will boil over, with a marked increase in violence by Palestinians against other Palestinians and by Palestinians against Israelis. Arafat's heart is the ticking clock on a timebomb. (discuss)
Update: In addition to the attack against the soldiers, there was an ambush in which three Israeli citizens died. An Israeli government spokesman said that "Yasser Arafat is escalating his war of terrorism against the state of Israel." Apparently he believes that Arafat personally planned and ordered the attacks.
Stardate 20010824.2242 (On Screen): It is certain that historically some parents have used much too much physical punishment on their children, and that this has harmed those kids, psychologically or even physically in some cases. As a result, there are a number of people now who believe that you should never use physical punishment at all on children. I think that is taking it too far.
In a high tech culture, there are certain lessons a child has to learn early and learn perfectly, for if he doesn't he has a high chance of dying: you do not stick a fork into the electrical socket. You do not play in the middle of the street. You do not open a bottle from the medicine cabinet and swallow all the pills inside. And these lessons have to be learned at a very early age, starting about 18 months or so. By the time a kid is walking and capable of picking up things, they're going to explore. The problem is that you can't reason with an 18 month old. A kid that age doesn't understand "electricity" or "poison" or even "death". You can't tell a kid, "Electricity can kill." Their brains are not yet sufficiently sophisticated for that level of reasoning to work. But a kid that age does understand a swat on the rear end; and "if you touch the electrical socket you'll get a spanking" is an easy lesson to learn.
Later, perhaps; at age five or so (now that you've made sure she lives that long), you can begin to use coercion and reasoning and non-corporal punshments to discipline an ill-behaved child. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010824.1630 (On Screen): It's amazing the way that people who should know better tend to confuse actors with the roles they play, and tend to project their feelings about a character onto the actor. Susan Lucci once received, in a rather indirect fashion, feedback from a fan about just how effectively she plays the part of "Erica" on the soap opera "All My Children". "Erica" is a villain, a scheming evil witch. Once while out walking, an older woman saw Lucci, walked up to her and slapped her on the face. Of course, the fan was slapping Erica, not Susan. It must have been an interesting experience for Lucci. (After nineteen nominations for an Emmy, she finally won in 1999.)
My favorite example of how easy it is to make this mistake is in how well Larry Linville played the character of Frank Burns on the TV show MASH. I did and do despise the Burns character, but I'm supposed to. There was a documentary done for PBS about the series during the second-to-last season, and various cast members were interviewed. And as they talked about their characters and how they interacted in the series, the actors would sometimes use "I" to refer to the character and sometimes refer to the character in third person. All, that is, except Linville. Linville invariably referred to Burns as "he". The difference was striking. It was clear that unlike the others, who projected parts of themselves into their characters, that Linville felt no identification with Burns at all. And by all accounts, Linville was really nothing whatever like Burns. As I have come to realize this, my respect for Linville's performance has grown. I now despise Burns but respect Linville enormously.
With respect to Wil Wheaton, cut the guy some slack. He's young yet; who knows what he'll turn into? I recall another child actor who starred in a shlock TV science fiction series, and yet as an adult he turned out rather well. "Fish heads fish heads eat-'em-up yum." (discuss)
Stardate 20010824.0844 (On Screen): One of the reasons I hope the human race never develops immortality is that the one sure way of getting rid of an asshole is to outlive him. Even if you can't do anything else about him, the Grim Reaper will take him away and solve your problem. Case in point: Senator Jesse Helms, Senator-for-life from North Carolina. He is very old and his health is failing and he has decided not to run again next year. Good riddance.
Of course, this leads to all sorts of speculation about who will replace him. The Democrats will, needless to say, view this as an opportunity and mount a serious attempt to take the seat. The Republicans, on the other hand, would early like to keep it to prevent further erosion in their minority position in the Senate. There had already been considerable speculation that Elizabeth Dole, wife of retired senator Bob Dole of Kansas, might give it a try, and that now appears likely. On the very day that Helms announced his retirement, Dole sent a letter to voter registration officials in Kansas asking them to remove her from the voter rolls, due to her intention to register in another jurisdiction. While Dole is a Republican just as Helms is, in all other ways they are as different as night and day. I have to say that I would applaud her election. Libby Dole is a fine person, with plenty of experience in government. She's not just a "political wife", she served as Secretary of Transportation under Reagan and as Secretary of Labor under George Bush Sr. (discuss)
Stardate 20010824.0820 (On Screen): Fearless Leader declared recently that he had made his final answer on the issue of federal funding for stem cell research. With, as he said, some sixty cell lines already in existence (a number subject to considerable dispute), research would be funded to continue with those lines and no research would be funded to work with any new cell lines. He may be forced to reconsider that decision. It turns out that the current state of the art for creating and maintaining stem cells requires that they stay in close proximity with "feeder" mouse cells which in some unknown way keep the human stem cells healthy. It also means there's a chance that they have been infected with mouse viruses. As a result, under FDA regulations it will be extremely difficult to gain approval for human use of anything developed from those stem cells. The answer would be to figure out a way to use human cells as "feeder cells" instead of mouse cells, but doing that would require creating new lines of stem cells which under Bush's rules couldn't be done with federal funding. This is Catch 22 of the worst kind. (discuss)
Stardate 20010824.0805 (On Screen): Here's a product concept that just doesn't look viable to me. But that's hardly unusual in the brave new world of digital music, where vendor hopes and dreams are routinely mistaken for potential customer excitement. This pipe dream involves making music available to digital phones which have MP3-player capability built in. A customer will call a certain number, work through a menu system, and purchase a piece of music. The piece of music will download into the phone and get stored into local memory, and then it can be played by the customer. The customer pays a fee for each piece of music which is downloaded that way. None of this is particularly difficult to implement.
But there's a difference between doing it and selling it. As a commercial product, it is competing with the ability of users at home to listen to their own CDs on normal stereo equipment, to rip their own CDs and load the resulting files into a portable MP3 player, and with the ability of users to download MP3's from the internet to use the same way. It also competes with normal commercial radio. There's only one thing this new service can do that the others cannot: if a person was away from home and suddenly had an urge to listen to a specific song and was willing to pay to get it, then this would be the only answer. (And pay a lot, too -- as much as $3 per track plus airtime for the download.) For every other purpose it's distinctly inferior. If the person just wants to listen to music and doesn't care what it is, a radio is cheaper and easier. If the person is at home, they have access to their CD collection. If the person plans ahead, they don't need this service. It's only good for impulse listens. How many people suddenly have an unquenchable need to listen to a specific piece of music? Who the heck wrote this business plan? (discuss)
Stardate 20010824.0750 (On Screen): Win XP shipped to PC makers today. It's quite clear that Mcrosoft made a forced march to get it out the door before there could be any resolution in the antitrust suit, probably so as to make its feature set a fait accompli. I confess that I don't fully understand why, though. I know that there were murmerings that the feature set of XP should be one of the things considered, but it's not necessarily the case that this can't be done anyway. After all, Microsoft was originally ordered to make changes in its shipping OS, way back when. (They complied but the order was then overturned on appeal.) So what is to be gained by getting XP out the door so rapidly? The only answer I can come up with is that the actual fact of getting XP out is the goal. It's not the feature set it contains, it's that Microsoft was afraid that shipment of XP might have been delayed by months during the legal wrangling. Now the wrangling will take place while XP continues to ship, so Microsoft won't be deprived of the revenue stream while the lawyers argue. (discuss)
Stardate 20010824.0743 (On Screen): There's generally a lot of contempt in more intellectual circles for the lottery; it's sometimes called a "stupidity tax", for instance. And for the most part it is true that heavy participation in the lottery is less than wise. I recall that once a couple in Massachusetts sold their home and spent everything they got from it to buy lottery tickets. As one would expect, they got back about 60% of what they'd spent. They'd made enough separate wagers that "regression to the mean" had set in and their return was very close to the average return for the lottery as a whole. Part of the attraction of the lottery is due to the fact that most people have at least some understanding of big quantities of money, but no equivalent understanding of very low odds.
Is a long-odds bet worth taking? That's actually been something that game theorists dealt with a long time ago, and the way of determining it is actually quite easy. It requires you to calculate what's known as the "expected payoff" for the bet, which is the mean winnings. If, for instance, I have a 10% chance of winning $100, then I multiply the total winnings ($100) by the probability (0.1) yielding an expected payoff of $10. Equally, one chance in 100,000 of winning a million dollars has an expected payoff of $10. That number is then compared against the cost of playing the game. If the expected payoff exceeds the cost of playing then it is a "good bet". If it is less then it is a "bad bet". If it is the same then it is a "fair game".
Ordinarily the lottery is a very bad bet. Most state lotteries return something under 60% of their take as winnings, which means that the expected payoff on a $1 bet would be less than $0.60. But accumulating jackpots alter the situation somewhat. If there is a jackpot that doesn't get won, it rolls over into the next try. Does this make it become a good bet? Well, maybe. Suppose that a $50 million jackpot rolls over, and this inspires $200 million of ticket sales. The state keeps 40% of the new money, or $80 million, and returns $120 million into the pool along with that $50 million, for a total of $170 million. Since $200 million was wagered to win $170 million, the expected payoff has risen from $0.60 on a $1 bet to $0.85 -- better, but still a bad bet. The lottery actually can become a "good bet" but only if the rollover is larger than the amount of money the state will pocket from new bets in the next round. So if the state is keeping 40%, then if the rolled over jackpot is more than 40% of the amount you expect everyone to wager the next time then it's worth playing. A rolled over $50 million would be worth playing for if the next round drew $100 million in betting, because the expected payoff on a $1 bet would be $1.10. Unfortunately, that means that what you're really wagering on is crowd psychology, not a random draw. The thing to do is to wait until the last instant and make the calculation. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010823.2123 (On Screen): I think I just suffered from an overdose of irony. Larry Augustin, CEO of VA Linux, was virtually the New Economy poster child. His company was based chapter and verse on New Economy scripture, right down the line. And as shouldn't surprise anyone at this point, his company has been hemorrhaging money as long as it has existed. It originally sold servers with Linux on it, but as a small company it couldn't compete with HP and Compaq and Dell due to their vastly greater economy of scale. As servers became a commodity, VA Linux's hardware couldn't offer anything to justify its greater cost, and sales plummeted. Recently they made the hard decision to get out of that business entirely, and shut it down because they couldn't find a buyer. (Hardly surprising.) Which left them exactly what? Well, there was SourceForge, which doesn't bring in much revenue. There was Andover Networks, which also doesn't. And then there's the business of selling Linux -- and we all know just how successful that has been, don't we? The entire remaining business consisted of trying to make money by giving things away, and even Larry has finally woken up to the fact that you can't make a profit that way.
But Larry is a resourceful person, and he has had a remarkably innovative idea: he's going to save the company by selling proprietary software!(Larry has invented Microsoft!) But not just any software, mind. He's going to sell the software which runs SourceForge, one of the largest repositories of open source software there is. In fact, this is going to become the core of the company's business, and they may change the company's name as an indication of that fact. I wonder what they'll be saying about this on SlashDot (which is owned by that selfsame VA Linux)? (discuss)
Update 20010824: And here is the Slashdot thread.
Stardate 20010823.1853 (Crew, this is the Captain): One of the pleasures of baseball is that on any given game, you might observe a superhuman performance by some player. Even if the game itself turns out to not be important, watching such a performance happen can be exciting as hell. This is particularly the case when you're watching a no-hitter, a game in which the pitcher ends up not allowing the other team any hits. Every pitch becomes exciting because at any moment an opposing batter cold shatter the attempt. And no-hitters are rare.
I have been watching the Little League World Series and I have just observed a truly spectacular performance. A kid named Danny Almonte pitches for the team from the Bronx, representing New York, and a few days ago he pitched a no-hitter. Little League games go 6 innings, and even more spectacular was the fact that he pitched 16 strikeouts out of 18 outs. Nobody does that.
Well, he does, because he just did it again. Another no-hitter and another 16 strikeouts. Doing that once in a career would be spectacular. Doing it in two successive games is beyond belief. (discuss)
Update: I only saw the last part of the game, so I was mistaken about something. He did give away one hit in the game. But it was still a shutout, and he made seventeen of the eighteen outs himself, sixteen of those by strikeout. He also caught a pop-fly. This is a magnificent achievement.
Stardate 20010823.1800 (On Screen): Probably no word has been more abused by American marketers than free. In 90% of cases when something is "free" it means "we're hiding the cost from you but you're paying for it anyway." (In the other cases the company is using the "new economy" economic model of losing money on each transaction but making it up on volume, and we all know what that led to.) Case in point: Apple Computer has been offering a "free" CD-RW drive to customers buying the Titanium Powerbook laptop computer. That offer will end tomorrow. Saturday they're going to drop the price of the TiBook by about $400. Given that a CD-RW drive costs less than $150, that's a pretty pricey "free" drive. (discuss)
Stardate 20010823.1747 (On Screen): Bruce Perens, this is your wake-up call. Perens is a high-profile advocate of the Open Source movement and has been pushing an attempt to try to shake down the large computer companies who have been selling Linux and other open source programs. He stridently claim that they should "give something back", i.e. to grant royalty-free licenses to patents and to open and release source to proprietary products. He is a vice president at HP and, supposedly, HP's senior strategist in charge of Linux and Open Source. However, that title may mean much less than it appears to; companies the size of HP often have hundreds of vice presidents. (Titles are cheap.) The way to judge someone's importance from outside a company is to observe their ability to influence events. (If you're inside a company, the way to judge is to find out how big a budget they control.) We, outside here, now have the opportunity to judge Perens.
HP is now releasing its own branded Linux version, and it's going to be selling it for $3000 per license. It includes, apparently, substantial amounts of proprietary software to increase security of the system. It may well be worth what they're charging, actually. But it tends to discredit Perens that his own company, where he would be expected to have even more influence than anywhere else, is not complying with his views about "giving back". It appears to be a complete repudiation. If Perens' own employer won't play along, why should IBM and the other companies that Perens has targeted even give him the time of day, let alone their intellectual crown jewels? It is now apparent that Perens' real job function at HP is to be "token" in the most negative sense of that word. (discuss)
Stardate 20010823.1707 (On Screen): Representative Condit has now conclusively demonstrated that he is unfit to serve in the House of Representatives. After a long period of silence, where he hoped that the Levy scandal would go away if he just ignored it, he has now sent a letter to the people of his district. It denies that he had anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance. But until her fate is determined, his involvement or lack thereof remains hypothetical at best. However, it is beyond dispute that he lied to the police. Depending on circumstances, that can actually be a felony (obstruction of justice) and it is completely inexcusable in a member of Congress. The fact that he doesn't even mention that issue shows that he is still trying to cover up. If he doesn't resign he should be recalled. (discuss)
Update 20010824: The TV interview with Connie Chung was apparently no better.
Stardate 20010823.0833 (On Screen): John, seeing my fascination with baseball, sends in this link which explains the rules of cricket. I must admit that I've never really known the rules to cricket; I've seen pictures so I knew about the wicket and I knew what a cricket bat looked like. So now I've read it, and you should pardon the opinion of an uncultured American, but Cricket is a game for wusses.
Things are just too easy on the batters. They use a huge bat with a big flat face. The "bowler", the guy pitching the ball, throws from six feet further away than a baseball pitcher and has to throw straight-arm. He does his throw at a dead run, which may add five miles per hour to the pitch but eliminates any chance of actually aiming the ball, not to mention making curve balls impossible. The batter swings on every pitch and isn't penalized for hitting the ball badly. (A "foul ball" isn't a "strike" because they don't have either concept.) And when the batter is running after hitting the ball, he only has to run 66 feet to be "safe" instead of baseball's 90 feet. If he hits the ball just 250 feet, he gets the cricket equivalent of a home run, for which he gets six whole points! (In most ballparks you need to hit the ball 500 feet or more for a home run.) The ten fielders are spread out in a 360-degree arc. (In baseball you've got 8 fielders in a 90 degree arc, with a ball outside that arc being out of play.) And the fielders aren't even permitted to use mits, which means you're going to get a lot more missed catches. Everything is stacked in the batter's favor; no wonder they score hundreds of points per game. A cricket batter is lauded for scoring a hundred points in one inning; I presume that "only" scoring thirty would be embarassing. By contrast, yesterday Sammy Sosa hit three home runs in one game, the fourth time in his career that he's done that -- and Sosa is one of the best baseball batters in the game today. He had six RBI's, which is very high indeed. Most baseball players consider it to have been a good game if they score one point or get one RBI.
If you put any reasonably competent baseball pitcher in there, and let him throw in the manner he knows, he'd put each batter out in five pitches or less (instead of sometimes dozens in cricket). All he has to do is get the ball past the batter and hit the wicket once. He only has to get one strike per out? And no penalty for "balls"? Heaven! Absolute pitcher heaven. The inning would be over in ten minutes, instead of taking up to a day. Any competent baseball pitcher is quite capable of putting a baseball through a 6-inch diameter ring better than half the time. And his pitched ball is going to be moving a damned sight faster, too -- none of this bouncing on the ground nonsense. It's routine for a fastball to exceed 90 mph, and I've seen 100's on occasion. That's going to make a standard cricket pitch look like a snail. Cricket bat or no cricket bat, an 85 mph curve ball or a 95 mph fastball are damned tough to stop. In fact, the timing is critical. A 95 mph fastball would take 475 milliseconds to travel the length of a cricket pitch. That's not a lot of time to evaluate where it's coming and try to guess how it's going to curve and then to actually swing your bat to meet that ball. On the other hand, you'd be taking a lot of pansy wicketmen to hospital; there's a good reason why a baseball catcher wears a mask and all that padding.
But forget baseball pitchers. Even an American softball pitcher could wipe these guys out. Women's baseball at the collegiate level is fast-pitch softball, and while "fast pitch" isn't as fast as men's pitching, it's no slowpoke. A typical pitch is 65 mph -- with curves, rises, drops and high accuracy (and no bouncing on the ground). Like baseball pitchers, fast-pitch softball pitchers have to fool batters to get three strikes, and they do all the same kinds of things that baseball pitchers do in terms of aiming and putting spins on the ball. The best softball pitchers are about as accurate as baseball pitchers are. The resulting pitch is devilishly hard to hit. And they make their pitch standing still (running is for wusses) by windmillling their arm one time and then releasing underhand. As far as I can tell from this page, that would be a legal cricket pitch, because they do indeed keep their elbow stiff during the entire throw. (Of course, cricket might also ban the windmill. Wimps.) After she got used to the smaller cricket ball, I bet any collegiate softball pitcher could also take one of these pussies out in an average of five pitches.
Of course, cricket batters get to carry their bats when they run. Do they get to use them on opposing players if they get in the way? Perhaps I was too hasty in calling them wusses. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010823.0654 (On Screen): The first, most common and by far more successful form of organ transplant in modern medicine is blood transfusion. Any healthy adult is capable of donating a half liter of blood every two months. Blood has saved countless lives. But there is superstition about it. This news report describes how a large number of people in China have been infected with HIV through blood donation. The practices described here involve reinjecting collected blood fluids back into the donors, after they've been pooled; it's no surprise that infection took place. But infection of any kind, HIV or anything else, is impossible during blood donation in the US. The way in which blood is collected here involves using sterilized needles which are used once and then thrown away, and blood and fluids are only withdrawn. Nothing is injected. Thus you are never exposed to anything and there is no risk. I have now donated something above 40 times (I've lost track), and each time I saved or helped to save a life. It does hurt, though not really a lot. But it's a small amount of pain compared to the pain it prevents: the grieving of someone for their loved one who died for lack of blood. Though I may not know them, it still would happen. If you are willing to accept blood in an emergency then you are morally bound to try to contribute blood routinely. (discuss)
Stardate 20010822.1443 (On Screen): There are a number of reasons why I like baseball better than any other sport. One of the reasons is that there isn't any preferred body type to play the game. When you look at baseball players, they basically look like normal people. There are big men and small men, thin and muscular and even somewhat fat. But if you were to see a professional baseball player in civvies walking down the street, he wouldn't stand out in the crowd. Such is not the case for basketball and football. It always blows my mind when watching basketball (when I can bring myself to do it) to hear someone who's 6'5" tall referred to as "short", but in a game where 6'11" is the norm, he really is. And while really tall men don't compete in football, almost all football players tend to be physically very beefy.
A kid who wants to be a baseball player will simply exercise and try to get into decent shape. So if he doesn't make it, he won't have done himself any harm. But for basketball and football, it is more serious. Since they genetically engineered human growth hormone, the price of it has fallen drastically and the supply of it is much greater. It used to have to be refined out of the pituitary glands taken from cadavers, and it cost a fortune. It was restricted for use to certain individuals who suffered from a certain kind of dwarfism. But now some parents who want their kids to be football players or basketball players have taken to acquiring illegal supplies of growth hormone and inject their sons with it regularly. This makes them grow faster and put on more weight, but it is fraught with peril and can have serious medical consequences later in life. (discuss)
Stardate 20010822.0919 (On Screen): There's a paradox in economics called the tragedy of the commons. It's the counter to Adam Smith's contention that an economy will act optimally if everyone in the economy works to their own self interest. The classic example is a common grazing area. There is only so much vegetation there, and if it is overgrazed then it will grow back less rapidly and reduce the vegetation available in future. Continued overutilization of the common grazing area will destroy it, leaving nothing at all. So it is in the best interests of the community as a whole that the overall rate of grazing be limited to a level which sustains the grazing area while maximizing the grazing on a continuous basis. Exceeding that level will cause a temporary increase in food for the animals but a long term decline. The problem is that if everyone complies with the restrictions except one person, he benefits more than anyone else. There's an incentive to cheat. He gets to raise more animals, and the damage caused by only one person overgrazing is minimal and probably not even noticeable in the grand scheme of things. So each individual reasons that he'll be the only one who defects (the technical term for this) and the commons won't be damaged. Unfortunately, since a lot of people do reason this way, the result is substantial overgrazing and destruction of the commons, to the detriment of everyone.
This is in fact actually happening in a lot of places where there is shared grazing, especially in the US in places like Nevada and Wyoming. But it's more apparent in the world's fisheries, which are now in serious crisis in many places. A fisherman has an incentive to catch as many fish as he can, to make money to feed his children. (The person who defects isn't necessarily evil or greedy; he may just be poor or desperate.) As a result, fishermen collectively have been exceeding allowable catches and fishing in restricted waters for a long time, and many of the world's great fisheries have collapsed. In some cases conditions permit very strong governmental control (i.e. over salmon fishing in the Columbia river) but when the fisheries are in international waters it can be very difficult to police.
Modern medicine is subject to the tragedy of the commons. There are a lot of people who are quite willing to accept a blood transfusion in an emergency to save their lives, who at the same time are not willing themselves to donate blood. If too much of this happens, then those of us who do donate cannot maintain the supply and there may not be enough. That is indeed becoming a danger now. Organ transplantation is another such issue where the tragedy of the commons has already happened. There are far more people who need organ transplants than there are organs available, and hundreds of people die every year who could have been saved. I think that the only real solution to this would be a law which said that no person can be given an organ transplant unless they are either a minor or have themselves been a registered organ donor for at least five years. Absent that, we're probably going to continue to have a shortage of transplantable organs for the forseeable future. It's probably going to get worse, in fact, as the technology of transplation continues to mature.
Vaccination is a modern miracle; indeed it is the modern medical miracle. Of all public health measures, it has saved more lives than any other except for the establishment of modern water supply and sewer systems. But though vaccines can prevent terrible diseases, they are not perfectly safe and there is a very small chance of them causing harm. For instance, the Sabin polio vaccine has largely eliminated polio in the industrialized world. But the Sabin vaccine consists of live polio viruses which have been weakened so that they cannot create disease. There is an extremely small chance that the weakened virus can mutate and return to its normal form, and since the Sabin vaccine became available and went into common use, this has in fact happened one or two times in the US. By comparison to the hundreds or thousands of people who were horribly crippled by polio, this is obviously a good trade. The vaccine has other small risks associated with it, some of which haven't actually been proved. (Some think it has a small chance of inducing autoimmune disorders, for instance.)
But there's something known as "herd immunity". What it means is that if everyone in the world is vaccinated against polio except my children, then they are capable of getting the disease but won't because they won't ever be exposed to it. They are protected by the fact that everyone else has been vaccinated. But it also means that everyone else has taken that small but nonzero risk associated with the vaccine and my children have not. When the risk of polio seems slight, the risk from the vaccine itself looms large (because of a form of fallacious reasoning called misleading vividness where the severity of a consequence is taken as an indication of its likelihood of happening) and some parents decide, through rational self interest (and a bit of tunnel vision) that the safest course for their children is to not be vaccinated. They won't get the disease whether they're vaccinated or not (because of herd immunity), but the vaccine has a chance of harming their children. By avoiding the vaccine, they minimize the danger to their children.
But if a lot parents do that, then herd immunity ceases to operate and the diseases can spread again. As a result, the unvaccinated kids can be exposed to the disease and can get it. And this has in fact happened, mainly as a response to the DPT vaccine. It's a routine childhood vaccine which prevents Diptheria, Pertussis (whooping cough) and Tetanus, three terrible diseases that used to kill thousands of people every year. It is a highly successful vaccine produced in immense quantities and available for a very low price. A vaccine works by stimulating an immune response, and for a short time the body actually thinks it has a disease. This then "teaches" the immune system about the antigens for that disease and if you're ever infected for real your immune system is ready to go and responds much more rapidly. But the response to the vaccine really is much like the response to a disease although more brief, which is why after a vaccination you may feel like you've got a touch of flu for a day or two. That's a side effect of the immune response that the vaccine is stimulating.
Perhaps three kids in a million who are given DPT suffer a very exaggerated immune response to it, including high fever. This can cause brain damage. It only happens a handful of times per year in the US, but of course to the parents of each such kid it is a catastrophe. By comparison to the slaughter that those three diseases used to produce, it's an extremely small price to pay. But that's no comfort to the parents whose beautiful kid has been reduced to a vegetable. So a lot of parents are refusing to let doctors give DPT to their children. And as a result, a couple of times when this became somewhat widespread, those diseases began to appear again in the US. Diptheria and Pertussis are diseases of my parent's generation, those who were born in the 1920's. For parents in their 20's, they're something lost in the mists of time. But kids are being hurt by the vaccine now; not many, but some. So their rational localized self interest suggests that they should refuse vaccination -- which leads to the end of herd immunity and the reappearance of the diseases. It's a classic example of the tragedy of the commons.
The only solution economists have ever found for the tragedy of the commons is government regulation. In the case of vaccinations, the best answer anyone has found is to refuse to let parents enroll their children in public schools unless they can prove that their kids have been vaccinated. The problem is that there are certain groups, most notably the Christian Scientists, who object on religious grounds to the use of vaccines and other medical treatments. This has always been an uncomfortable problem legally. After a few high profile cases where Christian Scientists tried to cure their children of diseases like appendicitis and diabetes with prayer -- and failed, and the kids died -- laws were passed in many states giving the state the right to force parents to seek medical help even if it's against their religion, and even to take custody of children if their parents refuse. No-one has ever contended that adults should be forced to use medicine against their will, but children are not the same. This has been upheld in court due to the fact that the government has an overriding interest in protecting children (who are presumed not to be able to protect themselves), which is constitutionally equal in power to the First Amendment right of freedom of religion. It is a very restricted incursion on freedom of religion (just as the libel laws are a very limited incursion on freedom of speech) but it is there. Some states, however, will grant parents a waiver on vaccination on religious grounds.
Of course, that then opens the opportunity for abuse. How do you know that a given parent actually objects to vaccines on religious grounds, as opposed to simply being fearful of them? In Wyoming, people asking for a waiver had to face a hearing to prove their religious beliefs. That seems completely reasonable to me, but the Wyoming Supreme Court has ruled that this is unconstitutional. I think this is an unfortunate decision; it will lead to abuse, a reduction in vaccination rates, the collapse of herd immunity, and a return of diseases we once thought had been eradicated forever. (discuss)
Update: Which means that the system may oscillate. With the reappearance of the diseases, parents will have an immediate threat and will be much more likely to vaccinate, rebuilding herd immunity, reducing the diseases, leading to complacency and again a reduction in vaccination rates.
Stardate 20010821.1230 (On Screen): A professor has done a very thorough analysis of a huge body of data and has unequivocably demonstrated what we all already knew: ICANN is corrupt. The resolution process for resolving diputes over domain names is heavily weighted in favor of plaintiffs (i.e. in favor of big companies). By the nature of the system, the "unbiased" arbitrators have a strong incentive to rule in favor of trademark owners. This is but one example of how ICANN has failed; there are many others. It's time for the US Department of Commerce to exercise its option to pull the plug on ICANN. (discuss)
Update: There's also this.
Stardate 20010821.0659 (On Screen): As a defense against distributed denial of service attacks, has anyone ever tried to implement an adaptive firewall? Every firewall I know of simply uses a hard block list, and that can only be changed by humans. Thus responding to a DDOS is very slow and painful because humans have to plow through firewall logs and manually set up block rules.
Why can't a firewall use a heuristic to monitor traffic from each source IP, and create temporary rules to block any IP which seems to not be playing nicely? If I receive three malformed packets out of any successive ten from you, then I'll block you for ten minutes. This might have to be distributed, since one of the purposes of a DDOS is to saturate a datapipe. This would be implemented as stand-alone boxes, offered as a service by network companies. A box would sit between the datapipe and the destination computer and monitor traffic (and act as a local firewall) and would, if need be, send messages upstream to a master firewall at the network company itself. These boxes could be updated with new heuristics on an ongoing basis, so that when the next "Code Red" appeared all the boxes could be programmed to deal with it once it was identified and analyzed. (discuss)
Stardate 20010821.0638 (On Screen): Up through the 1970's, the rail transit system in NYC was constantly being vandalized to a degree which defies belief. You've all seen pictures. Ed Koch was mayor then and decided he wanted it to end, and end it he did. The NYC trains now are clean and uniformly painted, and rarely exhibit "custom" paint jobs. Most of the worst unofficial painting was done by kids who would break into railyards at night and work on the cars there. Koch asked his railroad people what could be done about that, and they told him that nothing could. "So build a fence around it." They'll just climb the fence. "Use guard dogs." If we have guard dogs, they could attack rail workers. "Well, then, build two fences and put the dogs in between." Umm, hmm, well... That ended up being what they did. The railyards are now surrounded by a double-row of fences topped with razor wire, and guard dogs roam the space between them. And after that was done, illicit entry into rail yards dropped to almost nothing. (discuss)
Stardate 20010821.0621 (On Screen): "Efforts to save the world's most important forests should be concentrated in just 15 countries, the U.N. Environment Program says." I find that word just to be interesting in that statement; it suggests that this is some sort of restraint, or maybe triage, or something like that. But when you look at the list, it's hardly restrained. Between them, the 15 selected countries represent more than half the surface area of the earth. For instance, three of them are Canada, the US and Mexico. That pretty much sews up all of North America. Three more are Russia, India and China, which is well over half of Eurasia. Then you've got Brazil, Columbia, Venezuala, Peru and Bolivia; that's about three quarters of South America. I suppose it's reasonable to not worry about the (nonexistent) forests of Algeria or Mongolia, for instance, and surely the fate of the forests of Andorra are not going to be of global concern. Still, this statement strikes me as being pointless. But then, a lot of what comes out of these UN bodies these days seems to be pointless. It may be that the world's forests are in crisis. (That's been a subject of considerable debate.) Seems like the right way to go about dealing with it is to ignore countries and identify specific forests (e.g. "The Amazon Rainforest" or "The Cascade Mountain Range") and then go from there. (discuss)
Stardate 20010821.0552 (On Screen): The state of Illinois uses both lethal injection and the electric chair to perform executions. A prisoner there, condemned to die on September 12, is insisting on the use of the electric chair. He's using interesting logic to try to set up a paradox for the state: "If you are going to execute me, then I insist that you use the electric chair. But the electric chair is 'cruel and unusual' and constitutionally then you can't execute me at all. So I insist that you commute my sentence." Which means that all he's saying is "I don't want to die."
That's quite understandable; few people are executed willingly, though most ultimately accept their fate and don't resist during the final minutes. But the logic is obviously flawed, because the state can answer that lethal injection is not "cruel and unusual" and that they can carry out the execution that way in complete legality. (Which, for the moment, is true.) A prisoner's request for manner of execution isn't binding, though it is sometimes honored. (discuss)
Stardate 20010820.2253 (On Screen via life form detectors): What with all the hooraw about Microsoft's "Smart Tags" feature, it seems that a much more insidious form of the same thing is already out there and running in quantity -- and it didn't come from Microsoft. Apparently it's a sneakware program called "TopText", and like a lot of other sneakware it's magically bundled with other utilities for free, as an added service. In particular, it seems to get installed when you download and use a program called "Kazaa", which I gather is one of the things which has sprung up to fill the vacuum left by the death of Napster. Anyway, it is easy enough to determine if you have TopText installed on your system. If any of the words in the following paragraph are links, then you're infected:
Anti-Virus Software • Automobile Insurance • Insure Your Auto • Auto Insurance • Auto Loans • Credit Information • Free Credit Report • Car Loans • Credit Report
I think the site I linked to is being a bit hysterical about this, but it's always a bad thing to be running software that you don't realize that you're running. (discuss)
Stardate 20010820.2224 (On Screen): Iain rants about how an Illinois legislator tried to pass a bill to make carrying out executions in the state easier, even as the state is finding that a huge number of the people on death row were put there as a result of questionable trials. The law would have made certain gang-related crimes punishable by death. Iain wonders why the legislator would do such a stupid thing. Actually, there's a completely reasonable explanation for it. The politician is posturing. (Naturally.) But there's more to it than that.
Ultimately, the reason for criminal law is to try to keep the populace safe from crime. It is intended to do this in two ways: by deterring people from committing crimes and by getting people who have committed crimes out of circulation, since they're the ones most likely to commit more crimes. But the "habitual offender" model only applies to certain categories of crimes, such as burglary or prostitution. For many kinds of crimes, almost all offenders are first-timers. For them, the only possibility is deterrence. Now studies have shown that the probability of being punished is much more important as a deterrent than the severity of the punishment. A 90% chance of 1 year in prison is much more of a deterrent than a 1% chance of life imprisonment. And if you think about it, most criminals are gamblers anyway; they might actually be harmed or killed during the crime itself. A 1% chance of punishment is just another part of the calculation of risk, and not really that much of one. So it makes sense that a high probability of punishment will loom larger in someone's mind.
Of course, when crime gets out of control or is perceived to be doing so by the voters then they want their elected representatives to "do something about it." The problem is that there isn't actually a great deal that legislators can do about substantially increasing the probability of capture and punishment. Any substantial gain there is going to be exceedingly expensive. You could probably do it by quadrupling the number of police, raising their pay, giving them better equipment and more support, creating more courts with more judges to expedite trials -- figure about a tenfold increase in the cost of law enforcement. Even for a lawnorder conservative, that's a pretty big stone to swallow. And in any case there are all those pesky constitutional issues getting in the way. It's pretty much hopeless. Or you can try to address the things which cause people to resort to crime in the first place, like poverty and hopelessness and lack of opportunity; that's gonna be even more expensive and will take longer to have any effect. It does no politician any good to solve a problem if the solution process takes fifty years.
But the voters are demanding action, and if you (a politician) don't come up with something then they'll express their displeasure during the next election. Making the penalties for crimes more severe is relatively painless, in the short run. It does increase expenditures in the long run (for more prisons) but that cost isn't going to be blamed on the guy who introduced the legislation increasing penalties. So he gets to go back to his voters and say "See? I'm tough on crime!" (or in this case, "See? I'm tough on gangs!") It makes little practical difference in the crime rate, but it satisfies the voters. In fact, it will satisfy the voters even if it fails to pass, or gets vetoed. (discuss)
Stardate 20010820.1451 (On Screen): How in the hell do you lose $7.44 billion in one year? However it's done, Excite @Home has managed to do it in 2000. With all the DSL companies dying like flies I suppose it was inevitable that a cable modem company would also bite the big one. At the rate it's burning cash it's going to run out by October, and the prospects for a new infusion are dim. Fortunately for me, my cable modem is on Road Runner, which is part of AOL Time Warner. We haven't heard anything to suggest that there's a problem for us. Yet. (moan; I can't live without broadband!) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010820.1438 (On Screen): Having seen anti-globalization riots take place in Seattle and Genoa, apparently the next scheduled riot is to occur in Washington DC next month, to coincide with a meeting of the IMF. Like the anti-war protesters who rioted in 1968, the current anti-globalization protesters know that they'll get the best news coverage when things get violent. Plenty of opportunity for marvelous film, to appear on the nighly news.
The DC police have a plan, though. They're going to close some streets and put up temporary fences, and channel the protesters away from the meeting. They'll be allowed to march and chant and to carry signs, just not anywhere near the building where the meeting will take place. This is not exactly what the protesters had in mind, and they've gone to court claiming a violation of their civil rights.
As best I can determine, the relevant constitutional point is the last part of the First Amendment, which preserves the "right of the people peacably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The word "peacably" was carefully inserted there; it means that you don't have a right to disrupt. There's also a long history of court cases which say that the state may control where you're permitted to protest as long as it is not an unreasonable restriction. The government can't say "You can only protest in the middle of Death Valley", for instance. But it is instructional to consider anti-abortion protests. Laws have been passed and upheld by the courts which prevent protesters from coming closer than a certain distance from a clinic, or of making noises sufficiently loud to disrupt operation of the clinic, or of impeding the movement of people into and out of the clinic. They're permitted to protest, but they're not permitted to use force to prevent the clinic from operating. It seems to me that this is essentially what the DC police are trying to do. The protesters will be given a place to march, but will not be permitted to get sufficiently close to the meeting to disrupt it. I don't think that this does violate anyone's right. There's no right to riot or to throw rocks at the cops. And there isn't any right to a 30 second spot on the evening news. There isn't any right to prevent someone else from meeting. (discuss)
Stardate 20010820.0724 (On Screen): Microsoft has announced a pair of new tools for users of NT4 and Win2K in response to the recent Code Red assault, which while not being anything like as catastrophic as some people had predicted, has turned out to be a real annoyance for a lot of people. Microsoft actually had released a patch for the security hole that Code Red exploited; it was released a month before the assault. But a patch does no good if it isn't installed, and that's what these two tools are intended to help. One of them can be run from a DOS-prompt at a corporation and it will scan all the computers on its LAN and figure out the patching levels on each. The other is intended for home users: you visit a certain web site and it will tell you whether there are patches you need to install.
How, exactly, are these things finding this stuff out? If any computer can send queries to a NT/2K system and get back detailed information about configuration data, what the heck else can be gotten? Far from helping improve security, I think these tools just took it down another notch by exposing yet more "interesting" things for the hackers to delve into. If my sysadmin can in a friendly fashion check my computer remotely,