Stardate 20010901.0930 (On Screen): The word "chemotherapy" is usually used by laymen to refer to a certain class of treatments for cancer. But in fact the term is more generic and refers to any use of an external therapeutic chemical compound for purpose of treatment of a disease or condition. Taking aspirin is chemotherapy, and so is use of penicillin. Chemotherapy is one of the great miracles of modern medical science, but when it's used to treat infectious diseases it runs right up against the Theory of Evolution, manifesting as "drug resistance".
It's inevitable. It's right out of Darwin. There's a struggle (by the disease pathogens) to survive, a threat to survival, and genetic differences among the pathogens which leads to differential survival potential in face of that threat. Necessarily, the specific organisms best equipped to resist that challenge are the ones most likely to reproduce, which means that the next generation is fractionally less vulnerable to the threat, that being the drug being used.
After development of Penicillin (which was not, as some people think, the first antibiotic; that title belongs to Sulfanilamide) it was thought that we'd entered a golden age of medical treatment where diseases like Syphillis and Streptococcus would be eliminated. Then disillusionment set in as drug resistant strains appeared. When you're talking about bacteria, the problem is compounded. For many fungally-derived antibiotics, there is a single gene which can appear which grants its carrier near immunity to the effect of that antibiotic. After all, the fungi have been using these chemical weapons for a long time and the bacteria have had plenty of time to evolve defenses. And though they are not sexual beings, bacteria have a mechanism for exchanging genetic material. Two of them which touch each other may temporarily fuse their cell membranes and randomly trade genes, then separate again. And this can happen between bugs of radically different species. If one which carries the resistance gene for Penicillin conjugates with one which carries the resistance gene for Neomycin, afterwards one of them may carry both genes away and reproduce. One of those may then pick up the resistance gene to Streptomycin, and then reproduce further. Do this enough times and you've created a super-bug which is resistant to all of them. This has already happened. There now exists a strain of Tuberculosis for which there is no treatment available; it's resistant to all known drugs. There's also an untreatable version of Gonorrhea going around. Happy days, eh?
But it's not just bacteria which do this; viruses mix their genes too, though they're not as good at it. Influenza is a classic example of this. Actually, it may surprise you to learn that you can only get the flu once. Afterwards, your immune system is sensitized, and that particular strain of flu will never infect you again. The reason you keep getting sick is that each time it's actually a new disease, sufficiently different that the previous antibodies won't stick to it, so your body has to fight the new one from scratch. Mostly they're just variations on the same theme, but every ten to thirty years a really quite different strain comes out which is particularly potent and kills a lot of people. (The classic example of this was the influenza of 1918, which actually killed more people than died in WWI at the same time. I remember being sick as a dog from Hong Kong Flu when I was in college, another one of the super-flus.) For a long time they wondered where these came from, and recently the problem was solved.
There's a form of influenza which infects geese and ducks. Humans can't get it, and geese and ducks can't get the human form. But genetic analysis showed that these human super-flus seemed to have genetics borrowed from the goose version. How could this happen? It turns out that pigs can get both versions. If pigs, geese and humans all live in close proximity to each other, and if a pig gets both at the same time, then there may be cells inside that pig where both kinds of viruses are trying to reproduce simultaneously. When that happens, hybrid viruses may get built carrying genes from both strains. Most of those will be useless, of course, but once in a while the resulting virus will be a new superbug. It's a very low probability event, of course, but with trillions of viruses being produced every day it's bound to happen eventually -- like every ten to thirty years. They have now traced the last few superbugs back and found that they come out of rural China, where people do live in close proximity to both swine and geese. And with the invention of jet travel, the entire world became one big Petrie dish for diseases. When a new strain of flu pops up, it will be everywhere in the world in less than two years.
It's been known for a long time that HIV is particularly mutable, and so it should come as no surprise that drug-resistant forms have appeared. Equally, evolutionary theory strongly implies that in the face of drug adversity that the resistant strains will have an advantage and will spread. So it is no surprise to learn that about a quarter of HIV cases in San Francisco now are indeed untreatable with current drugs and that this may break above half within just a few years, since having HIV doesn't prevent you from becoming infected with new strains. This reinforces the fact that the only viable long term strategy for HIV is prevention. The fact that there are drugs available shouldn't make anyone complacent. Everyone must continue to practice "safe sex". Doing otherwise not only risks your own life, but the lives of the people you love most. (discuss)
Stardate 20010901.0747 (On Screen): It's a tragedy. Another gay has been brutally murdered, probably because he was gay. This time he was 16 years old and it took place in Colorado. The likely murderer is in custody and the local prosecutor thinks he has a good case; they may try for a charge of capital murder but it's unlikely that they'll accept a plea bargain. But inevitably this is raising calls for new laws to increase the penalties for hate crimes. I find that troubling.
First, I find it troubling because it is an attempt to punish motives and not actions. Why should the reason why someone does something evil affect the way we punish them? Except, of course, for cases where we forgive them entirely such as "justifiable homicide" or "self defense"? When we get into punishing thoughts instead of deeds, we cross an ethical divide and enter a wilderness where I don't want to go. I am very afraid of anything that smacks of punishing thought crimes.
The other problem with it is that any time you discriminate in favor of one group, you are implicitly discriminating against some other. We punish murder because it is wrong to deprive someone of their opportunity to live their life. A murder is a life wasted, and we punish that heavily because of the value of what was lost. But as soon as we start grading the punishments as a function of who was murdered, then we begin a legal process of deciding whose lives are more valuable -- and thus whose lives are relatively less valuable. If murdering a gay teenager draws a bigger penalty than, say, a middle-aged heterosexual man (like me) then it means that the law is declaring that a gay man is more valuable than a straight man, that a young man is more valuable than a middle aged man. The converse would be equally wrong, of course; a young gay man is also no less valuable than a middle-aged heterosexual man. We're both equally valuable. Not only is that a constitutional principle (the 14th amendment "equal protection" clause) but it's a moral imperative.
There are cases where assigning a value to people is unavoidable. When you have one liver to transplant and two patients who need it, you have to decide which to give it to. If the choices are a 16-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman, I think the choice is clear, all other things being equal. But that's triage, not the law. And in any case where no such decision is forced by circumstances, it is morally unacceptable to assign differing values to lives. There is no such need with regard to law enforcement. The murderer of Fred Martinez Jr. should be punished and punished heavily; not because Martinez was gay, but because he was a human who was murdered. That is sufficient; no other justification for punishment is needed. (discuss)
Stardate 20010901.0652 (On Screen): The greenback had become the laughingstock of international currency experts. Not the money it represented, but the bills themselves. The US $100 bill had become the most counterfeited paper currency on earth; its combination of uninspired ink colors and reliance on relatively unsophisticated printing techniques had made it just too easy to duplicate. So the US Mint put a few years into study and came out with a new class of bills, starting with the $100 and the $20 (the second most counterfeited major bill on earth). They incorporated new printing techniques. They used new inks. They added a water mark. They put a plastic stripe in the bill. They incorporated other kinds of changes, as well, and then they proudly announced that it was now un-counterfeitable.
I got told in Vegas that counterfeit versions of the new bills appeared within months. Not ones which would fool someone with the right kind of equipment to do a check, mind, but ones which could fool casual examination -- which is all that's needed. In particular, the counterfeiters figured out how to duplicate the new iridescent green ink used in one place on the bill, which had been expected to be the most difficult thing of all. Of course, the problem the US Mint had was that it couldn't change the bill too radically; it still had to be green and black; it still had to look something like the old bill, because if it didn't then normal people might not accept it; that tied their hands.
The EU is just about to issue a completely new currency. The bills and coins are being moved around in armored cars right now; they'll go into general circulation very soon. They're not tied to the past; the new bills don't have to look like anything that's ever existed. They have the lessons of history, and know what kinds of bills have been easy to counterfeit and which ones have been more difficult. So they'll have done their best. Anyone want to bet how many (few) months it will be before the first counterfeit €100 notes appear? Is it even possible anymore to create a paper currency which cannot be counterfeited, without incorporating active circuitry in each bill? I don't think it is. Paper currency was possible because extremely high quality printing used to require extremely expensive equipment. That's no longer the case. And it wasn't ever a problem anyway when one country decided to take on another country's currency, as happened when the Germans printed huge numbers of British ₤5 notes during WWII. It's conjectured that the world's largest counterfeiter of $100 bills used to be the government of Iran, for instance.
The big problem is the so-called "crumple test". It has to be possible for the bill to be crammed into a small space and survive, and that destroys such things as embedded holograms and conceivably also embedded active electronics. I think that if the Mints of the world want to create a truly secure paper currency, they're going to have to abandon this criterion. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010901.0629 (On Screen): Quentin sends in a link to an article about an interesting experiment which was performed where a group did a distributed computing task without the permission of remote computers. It's an interesting tour-de-force but I'm not sure it's anything to get worried about. For one thing, the amount of computing that the remote computer does is actually fairly slight: it just calculates the checksum on a packet, and responds if it's good and ignores it if it's bad. (This is, perhaps, one billionth of the amount of work done on each SETI@HOME packet.) The remote system can only do one kind of calculation (the checksum) and only responds with a single bit (pass or fail). Second, sometimes it won't respond even if it's good; the packet may not be delivered or the remote system may be overloaded and may drop it. A "pass" response is reliable, but a "fail" lack-of-response may not be. So the central system doing this would have to send each test packet multiple times. And there's non-trivial amounts of computing involved at the central system to construct all the test packets, and to send them, and to keep track of timeouts, and to manage resends. All of this means that the number of problems which could be solved this way is distinctly limited, and that the compute load on the central system to frame each query is greater than the amount of computing that each remote system actually contributes. So it's an interesting tour-de-force, but I suspect that in practice the problem could be solved much faster by simply doing it on the central system directly. I'm not too worried about this becoming wide-spread. It's an interesting concept but I don't think it's actually practical. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.2058 (On Screen): The lawsuits are going to fly on this one! A man was arrested in DC and then the charges were dropped. Only no-one bothered telling the jail, and he's been held for two years without charges. And not merely held; kept in isolation and not permitted visitors or the privilege of communicating with anyone outside. It's a nightmare of the worst kind. They just figured it out and released him two weeks ago. This is apalling, and completely unacceptable.
I hope he sues their tailfeathers off; it should be an open-and-shut case of gross violation of civil rights. I figure he's good for a hundred million bucks easily. Yet another example of the efficiency and professionalism of the city government in our nation's capital; I thought this kind of thing only happened in Baltimore. Of course, one thng that's going to happen immediately is a completely thorough check of all other prisoners currently held in the DC jails. How much you want to bet they find at least one other like this? (When it hit the fan in Baltimore, it turned out there were several.) (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.1610 (On Screen): What with the sudden crisis that Excite@Home is in, facing imminent bankrupcy, I think it's important to understand just what it is, and what it isn't. This is not the same as when DSL companies like NorthPoint went OOB. Those companies were actually responsible for the broadband connections their customers were using, and those customers were left unconnected afterwards. That's not what will happen to cable modem users if Excite@Home bites the big one. Their connections are being provided by local cable companies, none of which are in trouble financially. What Excite@Home was providing was the central server which held the proprietary content. In addition to providing broadband access, it's been a fixture of this business for a long time that there needed to be some sort of proprietary content available for users. That's because they were patterning their business on AOL, which also provides a lot of proprietary content. But AOL doesn't provide broadband, and the proprietary content on cable modem has never been compelling -- or commercially necessary. Without it, with net-news and email and little else (which can be handled by a couple of local medium-sized servers) but still with high capacity connection, cable modems will still be valuable to subscribers. The demise of Excite@Home will have little effect on the cable modem business. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.1549 (On Screen): "The refusal of the government to send the highest ranking African-American in its history to engage the world in a discussion of racism is disrespectful of the sacrifices of all that have suffered to get him where he is." So saith the Congressional Black Caucus about the decision of the government to not have Secretary of State Colin Powell attend the deeply flawed UN conference on racism being held in South Africa. That would certainly be the case if Powell's job was to be black. But it isn't, and indeed he holds that position of honor and power because he deserves it and is qualified to do so; it's not that he's black, but that he's good. I look on it a different way: Powell's race isn't relevant and that is how it should be. It has become totally unremarkable that someone like him should be appointed to such a position. The fact that he isn't attending is the triumph of the civil rights movement: it means that Secretary Powell isn't "Secretary in charge of being a token black on the cabinet"; it means that his race didn't influence the decision. And it shouldn't have. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.1512 (On Screen): It's a sign of the times: two years ago any company worth its salt was trying to figure out how to put "dot com" into its corporate image. Today the ones who really are online are trying to figure out how to distance their corporate images from that fiasco. (Who was it who "put the dot in dot com"? Anyone see that advertising slogan recently?) (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.1508 (On Screen): You know, considering that a lot of kids are forced to sit in class and watch (and pay attention to!) two minutes of television advertising every day, this whole business strikes me as posturing. General Mills was going to pay a handful of teachers in Minnesota to drive cars painted with the logo for a brand of breakfast cereal. Gee, whiz! After a lot of righteous indignation, General Mills cancelled the program. Listen to this quote from Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert: "Why would an elementary school teacher want to peddle junk food to vulnerable, impressionable children?" asked Ruskin. "Teachers are public servants, and because of their positions they hold the public trust. This violates that trust." They're already peddling cereal to those kids, not to mention jeans and tennis shoes and toys and soft drinks, but until now the teachers haven't gotten a cut in the take. I fully sympathize with the teachers on this one; considering how well (or badly) they're generally paid, if I were one of them I'd have gone after this offer like a striking snake. This was no different than Channel One, except in as much as who got paid. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.1456 (On Screen): In 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, Jim Clark (founder of Netscape and one of the dot-com millionaires) pledged $150 million to Stanford to help build a research center for work on stem cells. Today, long after the dot-com bubble burst and many paper $millions have evaporated, he announced that he's not going to give the final $60 million dollars of that pledge after all. He says he's doing so as a protest against Fearless Leader's decision on Federal Funding for stem cell research. Frankly, if he really wanted to protest that then the right way would have been to not only provide that last $60 million but also to spend more money to finance creation of new stem cell lines, which is why I'm really quite skeptical about his stated motivation here. The suspicion rises that he's feeling a bit less wealthy than he was 2 years ago and regretting his pledge (especially since he's now financing his own startup in a less-than-friendly VC environment).
Regardless of his motivation, I find his behavior reprehensible. Based on his pledge, Stanford committed to a very expensive building project. Now he's pulled out and left Stanford holding the bag. The next charity that he promises money to would be well advised to ask him to sign a contract. (discuss)
Update 20010903: Apparently I'm not the only one who's skeptical.
Stardate 20010831.1440 (On Screen): The miracle pitching performance by Dannie Almonte in the Little League World Series has become much more understandable: he's two years older than he was permitted to be in order to legally compete. Worse, he's here illegally, and he seems not to be attending school even though anyone that age is required to do so. In the Dominican Republic, where he's from, baseball is seen as a way of escaping from poverty (the way that basketball is seen in some American Black communities). I venture to guess that this is the reason his father did all these things -- to get Danny into pro sports. It's sad that it's come to this, but it makes his performance much more understandable. The age cutoff for Little League was carefully chosen carefully to take place before the physical changes associated with puberty. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.0830 (On Screen): Anti-euthanasia activists deliberately insulate themselves from the reality of individual cases of suffering that their policies would create. It is comforting to make pious statements about "there being the opportunity for joy in any life", but you need to actually see such people to understand how it could be that every day for them has become torture. This case represents an extreme example of that: a woman in the UK suffers from motor neurone disease. It's a degenerative disorder which progressively causes its victim to lose the ability to control her muscles; there is no treatment, no cure, and it is invariably fatal. But the process of dying from it is horrible in the extreme as a once-vital person progressively is more and more crippled, to the point of not being able to voluntarily move at all. They become a prisoner in their own body, waiting for their bodies to stop breathing (which is the ultimate cause of death). It's like living in a cage which gets smaller and smaller each day, until it is so small that you cannot move -- and that is literally true. She doesn't want to live that way, and I can't blame her. For others to say "There could be joy in her life" is no argument against her frank statement of fact that there is no joy in her life, only pain and terror, and grief and horror at what she's doing to her loved ones.
So she wants to end her life, but British law doesn't permit that. However, she's making a novel appeal based on human rights law: that the law preventing her from dying forces her to live in conditions that human rights law doesn't permit. I hope she is successful.
But I'm concerned about something else: she wants her husband to help her die. I don't know how that will affect him. Will he see it as a loving act, something he won't regret? Or will it gnaw at him for the rest of his life? I hope that she's talked it over with him (as much as she is able, since she can no longer talk and has to use a computer to communicate). Were I in such a circumstance, I'd want the assistance of a doctor so as to not impose that memory on someone close to me. They could be present or absent, at their own decision; once I'm dead my experience no longer matters, but they will have to live with their decision either way, so that's paramount. (Remember that I don't believe in an afterlife.) But if he's comfortable with the prospect, then it would be the final act of love in a long and successful marriage.
The activists will point to Stephen Hawking, who is about as crippled as this woman is, and point out how his life is an asset to him and to everyone else. Yes, that's true. It's also irrelevant. The fact that he can live with his condition and chooses to do so doesn't imply that everyone else in that condition should be forced to do so even if they do not want to. It should not be mandatory to kill someone in that condition, needless to say, but that is all that Hawking's case proves. But it equally should not be mandatory for those people to live even if they don't want to. A person whose situation is as hopeless as this woman's is, who actually does want to die before it gets even worse, should be permitted to do so. There are fates worse than death. Letting this woman die will be an act of mercy and love. Forcing her to live is an act of unbelievable cruelty.
Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: "Although we always have compassion for suffering patients like Mrs Pretty, establishing a `right to die' would undermine the fundamental right to life, by creating categories of people whose lives are deemed not worth living."That is a horseshit argument; the only category of people whose lives are not deemed worth living is those who decide for themselves that they are not worth living. Tully's "compassion" is empty rhetoric; it's clear he doesn't really have any. I don't think Tully would be as certain of his position if he actually had to live with this woman for a week and witness the torture her life has become, and to listen to the synthesized voice of her computer as she uses it to plead for release. There is no compassion in forcing this woman to live. (discuss)
Another anti-euthanasia activist says "Diane Pretty feels there is no value to her life and that she's better off dead. Well, that was the argument the Nazis used about people. But every life is valuable." He's having a conceptual breakdown here; does he really equate murder with suicide? The Nazis used that as justification for killing other people who themselves didn't want to die. That is not even remotely the same. And I will decide for myself when my life has ceased to be valuable, thank you very much. (Anyway, he just violated Godwin's Law.)
Stardate 20010831.0742 (On Screen): An unlikely participant has appeared in the fight to permit free flow of information into countries which try to utilize national firewalls to censor such information. It's not Cult of the Dead Cow, it's the US International Broadcasting Bureau, which also runs Voice of America. They have released a program called "Triangle Boy", which requires that a lot of us out here in the freely breathable air run the client on a routine basis. We then serve as proxies to permit people in places like China to access anything at all. Since there would be a huge number of proxies at constantly changing IPs, and since the traffic from the proxies to the people in China would be encrypted, the result would be that it couldn't easily be blocked.
I'm skeptical. First, there's a choke point that isn't described: how do the users in China find the proxies? There has to be some sort of central meeting place where proxies announce their existence and users in China receive those announcements -- and that can be blocked. Second is that the data stream to the proxies either will be or won't be encrypted. If it isn't encrypted, then China can do content-based blocking on it regardless of its source. If it is encrypted (and it is) then the Chinese authorities can instantly determine the IP (and hence the indentity) of the Chinese user of this program and stomp on them, since the destination IP of the encrypted packet cannot itself be encrypted. So this amounts only to harassment of China, it's not actually an insoluble problem. (discuss)
Stardate 20010831.0711 (On Screen): I suppose I should have expected it; after all, it's New England. A town in Connecticut tried to reserve access to a local beach exclusively to residents of the town. It's amazing that they thought they'd be able to get away with it. They have now given it up and will open the beach to public access after the town council was told by its lawyer that it was virtually certain to lose in any further court tests. Well, of course they'd lose; what the heck were they thinking? Article IV, Section 2, reads in part
The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
There's also the Fourteenth Amendment provision that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; ... nor deny to any person within the jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." The legal powers of cities and townships are granted to them by the states in which they exist, and they are bound by the constitutional limitations imposed on the states. The application of these principles to this case is blatantly obvious. Didn't the members of this town council ever take a civics course?
But having lived in New England for several years, I actually understand why they did it. They weren't thinking, they were reacting. It's just the way they operate there. The feeling of insularity, of self-versus-other, which exists everywhere in New England is palpable, at least to this Oregon boy. It was probably the biggest source of culture shock I had after I moved there, and I never really got over it. It's the main reason I left again and moved someplace more civilized. At each level of organization in the hierarchy of government, the people there think of themselves as being opposed to all the others at that level rather than as being teamed up with them as part of something bigger. The townships in Massachusetts don't think of their neighbors mostly as being friends or allies, they think of them as being enemies. That's why one major highway in the Boston area ends at the Cambridge town line: the city council of Cambridge didn't see any benefit for its own citizens in letting the highway come through; it would only have benefitted the people in other towns, and who gives a shit about them?
When I was a kid in Portland, it became obvious that there needed to be a highway bypass put in around downtown Portand. This involved building a new bridge across the Willamette river ("Will-LAMM-et"), but more important is that it required putting a highway with up to 12 lanes through an area full of houses just west of downtown. The benefit was distributed; it was going to be useful equally to nearly everyone who lived in the Portland area and its suburbs. The pain, of course, was concentrated in the people whose homes had to be destroyed. But while they were not happy about it, they accepted their payments for their homes and moved, and the highway was built. That was thirty years ago, and I-405 has drastically decreased the traffic snarl ever since. If they'd tried to do that in Boston, they'd still be fighting the lawsuits. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010831.0051 (On Screen): Global climate is an extremely difficult problem to analyze. It's not fully understood at all. For instance, it turns out that the movement of the continents has drastically altered global climates, in ways not obvious. There is a theory in climatology which originally was considered a bit heretical when proposed, but which has over time gained credence and has become part of the orthodoxy. It talks about something called the Oceanic conveyer belt. Everyone knows about the Gulf Stream, a more-or-less circular ocean current in the Atlantic which hauls warmth up from the tropics and heats Northern Europe and gives it a mild climate. Part of that sheers off and keeps going north, keeping the coast of Norway clear of ice and much warmer than equivalent latitudes in the middle of Canada or Siberia. But it's what happens to that part of the current next which is the most interesting: it sinks. That's because the ice cap there takes freshwater out of circulation and increases the salinity of the water. It also is cooled, and both of those make the water more dense. The Gulf Stream moves quite rapidly because it's pumped by winds, but the water which sinks creates an ocean current of particularly cold and highly saline water which moves quite slowly along the bottom of the ocean. It follows an extremely long path and ends up, believe it or not, in the Pacific Ocean (via the Indian Ocean) where it eventually mixes with the warmer water and vanishes some two thousand years after visiting the ocean west of Norway. But while it runs, it keeps Northern Europe very warm because it carries cold away deep in the ocean, and pulls warm water north on the surface.
Ice cores were taken in Greenland extending down through its glaciers. The ice cores are layered, with individual lines representing years, and each layer contains trapped gas. It is possible to do analysis on this to determine the temperatore in that part of Greenland each year extending back the a quarter of a million years, and this has been done. The result is rather surprising: the last ten thousand years are an anomaly. Not only are they far warmer than average, but also far more stable in temperature. It appears that this current is the reason why; it doesn't run all the time but when it does it helps warm the planet overall and keep it stable.
Why is this interesting? Because it suggests a surprisingly different potential outcome for increases in atmospheric CO2. I didn't completely understand the sequence of events, but it more or less went like this: A slight rise in temperature would cause the northern icepack to melt a bit. This decreases the local salinity of the water, making it so that the water doesn't sink any longer, which makes it so that it doesn't pull water up from the Gulf Stream. The north branch would stop happening and the Gulf Stream would settle into a new equilibrium without that branch, never extending north of Ireland. That, in turn, ceases to warm up that area which then begins to freeze. The icepack on water and land would grow dramatically and increase the albedo of the Earth, reflecting more light off into space and causing further cooling. The effect, taken to its extreme, is to set off a new ice age. In other words, the ultimate effect of global warming would be global cooling. Ain't complex-feedback systems fun?
I'm not saying this would necessarily be the outcome, although that's what the theory suggests. What I'm saying is that climate is a very complicated problem. That chart about the temperature over the last quarter million years makes blatantly clear that it isn't possible to deduce anything about future climatalogical changes from a baseline of 300 years. To a human, that's a long time, but to the planet it's a wink of an eye. It is true that over the course of the last 300 years that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen and also true that the global temperature has risen during that time. But are the two related? Unknown. The temperature of the planet fluxuates massively anyway; and it may be that other things entirely caused that temperature rise. It may be that temperature would have risen in that period even if humans had never discovered fire (or if humans hadn't existed at all). There has been a lot of pronouncements about the coming crisis of Global Warming caused by release of greenhouse gases, based in some cases on computer predictions made by climatologists. But I never heard of one of those models predicting an ice age as a consequence of increasing levels of CO2. (Broecker, discoverer of the conveyer, predicts substantial global cooling to set in within fifty years as a result of partial shutdown in the conveyer.) What else is missing from those models? They appear to have been based on very reductionist (i.e. simplistic) models of the Earth, and as such may be wildly wrong in their predictions. Why should we base extremely expensive public policy on science which is so tentative? (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1641 (On Screen): VA Linux closed today at $1.45, an all-time low. When it breaks $1, which now seems likely, then it faces delisting from NASDAQ, which should be exciting. Still, another question: Larry has announced that he's going to change the scope of the business and concentrate on trying to sell the code which runs SourceForge. They may even change the name of the company. Will they also change their stock market symbol? It's been done, but it's quite rare. So here's today's question: which will happen first? Delisting or change of market symbol? (I think there's a 75% chance of delisting before the end of 2001. Of course, it fooled me before; I thought it was headed for $1 in March and then it bounced to above $5. But I don't think there's going to be a bounce this time.) (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1605 (On Screen): Well, what with all us amateurs having such a good time writing web logs, it was inevitable that the pros should get involved, too, and show us all how it's supposed to be done. But of course they can't call what they're doing "web logs" (or, God forbid, "blogs") so they had to invent their own term. So they're calling their work "me-zines" to differentiate the real professionals from the hoi-polloi.
Sometimes these guys come off as rubes. For instance, right now there's an entry on Virginia Postrel's page where she bemoans the problems she was having using FTP through a firewall, and my reaction on reading it was that it was strikingly similar to how I felt when I heard of President Bush Sr's reaction to seeing the scanners at grocery stores on his first visit to such an establishment in, apparently, many years. And, of course, there's the requisite link-slutting going on (a term she probably doesn't know) -- but only to other me-ziners, not to us out here who ain't real professionals. As I write this she's linked to at least three other me-zines, not to mention plugging a couple of her own articles posted in the main stream press.
Unfortunately, like so many of these upstart me-ziners, she's trying to reinvent the wheel. (The only one of the lot who seems to have it together is Dan Gillmor, who's using Manila. Unfortunately, I can't read what he writes because I think he's
Stardate 20010830.1512 (On Screen): My first reaction to this was to grin, and then my second reaction was to frown. It's a joke report (go read it) claiming that attempting to fight indictments under DMCA is itself a crime under DMCA. Of course not! Well, maybe. After all, the DMCA runs roughshod over First Amendment rights of free expression, so why should the big media companies stop there? To really protect their music and movies, why not go ahead and just ignore Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process, while we're at it? I honestly believe that if they could get away with it, they'd do so. Imprisonment without trial! That would really prevent all those snot-nose Gen-Y's from passing MP3 files around, wouldn't it? (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1501 (On Screen): Dan points out that web loggers are getting scanned quite often by Google and as a result are rising in Google's arcane "relevance" calculation when linked to certain words. That got me curious, so I did a Google search for "clueless". And there I was, hit #9. I wonder if this partly explains why I'm getting so many refers from Google; since last Saturday morning I've gotten well over two hundred. On the other hand, who'd google for "clueless"? (Besides me?) (discuss)
Update: Iain did the same thing and found his blog also high on Google's lists. He points out that those of us using Greymatter may have an advantage here, and I think he's right. In both his case and in mine, there are more than 600 pages which Google will have found all of which reference our main pages, those being the individual pages created by Greymatter for individual log entries. Because of how Google evaluates "popularity", that would give our pages high relevance. (I think. But I'm not sure.)
Stardate 20010830.1431 (On Screen): Absolutely excellent news about the medical progress of Fiona Elise, a little girl whose struggle with a deformed heart I've been following for quite some time through the writings of her father. They did the catheterization and it was successful, and she won't need surgery for at least two more years. Considering that she's had two open heart operations in her first two years of life, this is good news indeed. And she's awake and seems to be fine. It couldn't be better. If I have to have miracles, I prefer them to be technological; they're much more reliable than ones created by deities and much more common. (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1306 (On Screen): There was a much-ballyhooed study which claimed to show that substantial use of the Internet (and the web) made people depressed and withdrawn. They're no longer certain that it's so. For one thing, the study was done in the early days of the Internet. For another, they may have falled for post-hoc fallacy. The correlation seemed to be real: heavy users of the Internet tended to be disproportionately depressed and withdrawn socially. The question they didn't ask was whether it was the case that people who were already like that might be disproportionately seeking out the Internet as a means of contact with the world, so that it was depression which caused internet use rather than the other way around. In any case, as Internet use has expanded, the correlation seems to have collapsed leaving the researchers confused. It probably shouldn't have, of course. (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1256 (On Screen): Consider it a lesson in serendipity: fifteen years ago scientists were startled to learn that there was a third form of pure carbon. Two were known: graphite and diamond. The third is an extremely varied set of compounds collectively known as fullerenes and they are best described as graphite rolled up into balls and tubes. "But what are they good for?" rang out the question from the laymen? "Why are you wasting time studying them?" The answer was, of course, that there was no way to determine what they were good for without studying them; you can't predict "pure" research. But it seemed likely that there was something there, and the only way to find out was to take a look. So the scientists have been puttering away in their labs, and have now determined that the smallest fullerene, the so-called "buckyball" (C-60) can be made into a superconductor which operates at liquid-nitrogen temperatures. When superconductors required liquid helium they were a laboratory curiosity, but at these kinds of temperatures they become practical for industrial use. There is what is known as a Josephson junction which switches much faster than a transistor does. It had been discovered and demonstrated with liquid-helium superconductors; the next step will be to try to create one using fullerenes, and then to see if dense circuits can be created with them. This may lead to the ability to create computers with serial computing speeds up to a thousand times faster than the ones we have now, although they're probably not going to be practical for desktop use for the forseeable future. (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1231 (On Screen): This is the last small tap on the headstone standing next to the grave where Be Inc is buried: Sony is ceasing to ship the eVilla, based on BeIA, just two months after releasing it. It remains to be seen what Palm does with Be's assets (both software and human). I still hold out hope that Palm will do with Be what Apple did with Next, and switch wholesale to the new code base which is superior to its own. (discuss)
Stardate 20010830.1215 (On Screen): This whole business is decidedly strange. Why is it that in Florida a pair of gay men are considered acceptable to be foster parents but not to be adoptive parents? This seems a contradictory policy by the state. The court decision is equally strange: it claims that the state has an overriding interest in making sure that children are adopted into heterosexual marriages. Does that mean that single heterosexuals are also not permitted to adopt in Florida? I know that single people adopt in other places and I bet they're permitted to in Florida, too. In that case, this court's justification for its decision would be nonsense.
Of course, it's all rank bigotry. There's no reason whatever to believe that gays are any less capable of being good parents than anyone else is. The real reason is that this court (and the state legislature) is afraid that the adoptive children might be infected with gayness -- but I don't believe that. While any parent will hope that their children turn out the way they do, any loving parent really only wants their children to be happy. I don't think, deep down, that gay parents would try to force their adoptive kids (or even naturally-born kids, which does happen) to be gay, and it's not clear that it would work anyway given that there's reasonable evidence now that most people's sexual persuasion is innate and not learned. (After all, how else could heterosexual parents have gay children?) (discuss)
Update 20010831: Good stuff! The ACLU has stepped in to represent the gay men in this case and will take the case to Federal Court. I think we're going to see this decision overturned. I just hope that in the mean time the two men don't get administratively punished by having the kids in question taken away from them by the bureaucrats who administer the foster parents program in Florida.
Stardate 20010830.0824 (On Screen): A teenager doesn't know who he is. He's been what his parents wanted him to be until that point, and it's coming to be time to try to figure out what's really inside. So a guy that age tries on faces. He experiments with different ways of being to see what feels comfortable. Sometimes he acts like his friends, or like a celebrity he admires, or like a character in a film, or like some sub-culture. And in five or ten years, after trying on a number of faces, he'll figure out what he really is and will settle down. This is completely normal and healthy. Of course, it's an exercise in fantasy; and some of the faces may be unpleasant. It doesn't mean the kid is confused or evil, just that he's wide-ranging and curious. Rarely do these kinds of faces stick.
Action movies show us people being violent. A kid sees that and wonders "What would that be like?" Of course, doing that in real life would be horrible and despite what some believe it is rare for kids that age to actually become killers. But in the online world of computer games, they can pretend to be Neo or Arnold and can vicariously find out what it feels like without actually harming anyone or suffering any consequences. It's a perfect outlet for the natural curiosity that kids feel about things like that. It isn't that these things inspire those thoughts, for those thoughts are there already. One of the things a teenage guy is dealing with is a rush of hormones, especially testosterone. Testosterone makes someone aggressive, and kids that age begin to feel rage when they get pushed around. They feel like fighting back. That, too, is normal and part of growing up for a man is to learn to master those feelings and to control them. We all feel them, but few of us actually let loose and beat the crap out of some bastard who really deserves it.
It's hardly surprising that when games allow mods that kids that age will use that capability to make the game closer to the fantasy they want to experience. Sometimes that will mean decreasing the visible violence, but when that happens no-one notices. Equally, sometimes it will mean increasing the violence and then adults seem to freak. "The games are training our kids to become cold-blooded killers!" Nonsense. If anything, it's exactly the opposite: those games permit the kids to get those urges (which all of us feel at one time or another) out of their systems. Over the course of the last ten years, as video games have become more realistic, school violence has decreased. That doesn't prove causation, but it certainly suggests that the games are not making violence more common. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010829.2206 (On Screen): Israel put itself into an untenable position by invading a Palestinian town in the West Bank and deciding to stay there. Now it's looking for a way to get back out again, in the face of extremely strong international pressure, without seeming to be in retreat. So they've negotiated a "truce" and claimed a win. Richard Boucher, representing the US State Department, says he hopes this will be the start of a much larger truce. He's a fool. As usual, this truce doesn't deal with any underlying issues which cause the conflict. Those issues were worth fighting about up until now and they'll still be worth fighting about next week, and this truce isn't going to anymore than the last one did.
His statement that ending the violence is the way to begin negotiations is equally foolish. Even if you wish the violence would end, as I do, you have to recognize that it is the only bargaining chip that the Palestinians have going into negotiations. If you ask them to give it up before negotiations begin, then what have they go to negotiate with? Anyway, it assumes that the Palestinian Authority can stop it, which may not be the case. (discuss)
Update 20010830: As I expected, there is no peace. Also note the way that UN observers were treated, as a demonstration of the futility of having them in the area.
Stardate 20010829.1420 (On Screen): Chris writes another perceptive essay, this time about Copyright and whether it should expire. He tries to make a case that it is reasonable for copyright to be eternal. But to do that he emphasizes copyright as used to protect artistic works: cartoons, paintings, plays, novels. The problem is that copyright protects much more than that.
The same constititutional clause (cited by him) grants Congress the right to create both copyright and patent, but for a moment let's concentrate on patents. The purpose of patent law is to grant inventors an incentive to reveal how their inventions work and ultimately, in the long run, to release those inventions into the public domain. The incentive is a legal monopoly for a limited time. This protects him; it means that during the period of the patent he can reveal it to others without as much concern about it being stolen, which maximizes his ability to capitalize on his work. It reimburses him for his investment in creation of the invention (which can be substantial) and it encourages others to do the same. And by releasing the invention into the public domain after the patent expires, it increases the public good. And indeed this is the very goal intended by the authors of the constitution, which states that the purpose of patent and copyright law is "to promote the progress of science and useful arts." The "useful arts" means what we now think of as "engineering". (Organized commercial engineering as we now know it was actually invented by Thomas Edison, long after the Constitution was written -- it is actually his greatest invention of all.)
But copyright law is part of this same picture. Copyright doesn't just protect what I guess we could call "esthetic works", it also protects utilitarian works. It's not just Steven King who copyrights his latest novel, it's also that invisible engineer who copyrights a schematic. The reason that copyright expires is so that copyrights on engineering works will expire. A patent covers the concept behind an invention and a copyright would cover a specific implementation of that invention; they both need to go into the public domain eventually to maximize the public good, after being kept as property long enough to reward the creator of the work.
But there's no easy way to differentiate esthetic copyrights from utilitarian copyrights, and if the latter need to expire then the former must do so also. It's not that I need unlimited access to the words of "Alice in Wonderland", it's that I need unlimited access to the design for the dynamo and the electric light bulb. For that reason, right now the time limits on copyright are much too long: by the time that copyright lifts on utilitarian designs, they're nearly all obsolete. Fortunately, patent is much more important in this regard than copyright and the duration of patent protection is not yet excessive and probably won't be extended the way copyright durations have been. (discuss)
Stardate 20010829.1256 (On Screen via motion detectors): It's always important to remember that every author has a bias, whether intentional or not, and that everything you read is an imperfect representation of reality. One way to try to get a fairly even view of some situation is to read two descriptions of it from radically different points of view; it's sort of like looking at an object from two sides. So after reading The New Republic you seek out The National Review and find out what they think. But sometimes that isn't possible. So I use alarm bells; things to spot which suggest just what the author's bias is.
So there I was, reading this article about the failure of "Zero Tolerance" in the schools. The specific horror stories were horrible, the statistics were scary, and then one of my alarm bells went off: "students of color". Ooops. That's Jesse-Jackson-speak; political correctness; knee-jerk bleeding-heart liberalism. It means that the problem maybe isn't as serious as the article suggests. This was only confirmed when I reached the end and found the credit for the author: "Johanna Wald is a freelance writer and staff member of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University." Hoo-boy. It don't come any more leftist than that.
Maybe there is a problem. Maybe it's even as bad as she says it is. Surely there have been preposterous abuses of "Zero Tolerance", some of which have made national news (like the kid in Nevada who was jailed simply because someone he went to school with whispered something about him to the faculty). But in a nation as large as the US, there are always such cases; it's not so much whether they happen as how often.
I happen to think that "Zero Tolerance" is a stupid policy; it's not only wrong-headed, but it probably also violates at least three constitutional principles: equal protection, due process and cruel and unusual punishment. But when someone is trying to write an article to motivate political action (as is clearly the case here) it behooves them to not discredit themselves by how they phrase things. Extremists will be unable to avoid phrasing which gives away their extremist viewpoints. This author was no more able to avoid saying "students of color" (instead of the more usual "minority students") than would certain conservatives be able to avoid using the phrase "family values" (another one of my alarm bells). To them these phrases are right; to say it any other way would cause them to be discredited with their peers. It would be like an LA gang member wearing the wrong color clothing. But if you really want to manipulate those of us in the center, you need to stop speaking like the ghetto (either left ghetto or right ghetto). Otherwise you're only going to be preaching to the choir. (discuss)
Stardate 20010829.0855 (On Screen): Fearless Leader pushed through a huge tax cut and it now appears (as if it wasn't always obvious) that it was too great and didn't leave enough money behind to balance the budget (though only by a matter of $10 billion). But ever playing the political game, Bush says that Congress will just have to exercise budgetary discipline to make sure the budget is balanced (oh, and by the way, please increase defense spending while you're doing so). Congressional Democrats, equally playing the political game, are saying that Bush can't have the defense increase he wants because he already gave away the money. Of course, one of the best ways to decrease defense spending would be to allow DOD to close a lot of bases that it says it neither wants nor needs. How much you want to bet that isn't how Congress does it? (discuss)
Stardate 20010829.0829 (On Screen): It looks to me as if the Taliban is making it up as they go along. The Christian missionaries being held there have been indicted, and the potential penalties are now out in the open -- and they're ludicrous. Consider:
Penalty for being a foreigner who tries to convert an Afghani Muslim to Christianity: 3-10 days and deportation