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Stardate 20010908.1438 (On Screen): Prime Minister John Howard of Australia continues to shower his nation with glory. HMAS Manoora, a troop carrier in the Royal Australian Navy, was on its way to deliver the 400-odd refugees rescued by a freighter back to New Guinea when it noticed another tiny ship carrying more refugees. So it stopped that and took on board another 237 people which it will also carry back to New Guinea.

Howard proudly announced that "At no stage did this latest vessel reach Australian territorial waters. As a result questions of application for asylum status do not arise." Um, Mister Howard? That means that the act of stopping that ship in international waters was piracy. Now I know that the people of Australia take pride in the fact that Australia was once a penal colony, but that was a long time ago. You're supposed to be civilized now. (discuss)

Stardate 20010908.1432 (On Screen): One of the objections made by people who don't want genetic engineering of food crops is "There's plenty of food; it's just not distributed properly." Well, folks, here's your chance. Prove it; you don't want the locals to actually have the ability to grow enough of their own food, so when they run out you better be ready to provide it. What say? (discussion on progress)

Stardate 20010908.1424 (On Screen): Well, it's not just the US that's into increasing the amount of school testing, the UK is at it, too. And apparently they've had the great idea of doing some of their testing online! They better figure that they will never be able to use any given test more than once if they do that; what's to keep the kid taking the test from taking screen captures at the same time and mailing them to his friends who will take the test a month later? And you can forget about testing arithmetic or spelling (or grammar!) online; just pop that old calculator applet or let Word run its online dictionary and get the answer. (discuss)

Stardate 20010908.1412 (Crew, this is the Captain): This site started in the middle of March, and for the first month or so I thought it was a good day when I got a hundred hits, with 50 being more typical. That's back when I was still hosting it on Road Runner's server and maintaining it with Front Page. Since then my readership has been growing, aided in particular by two cases where high-traffic sites linked to me and gave me several hundred refers each. The first was totally unexpected: Robot Wisdom linked to me (with the not-quite-complimentary description of "brainiac", but there you have it) and my traffic levels approximately doubled. Then my friend Brad Wardell linked to me from WinCustomize. So now my traffic on weekdays tends to run between 250 and 300 hits per day. (It's about half that on weekends and holidays, leading me to believe that a lot of you are reading USS Clueless when you're at the office. Don't you have anything better to do? GET TO WORK! ) And I've stayed at about that level for more than a month, or so it seems. Sigh. What to do?

Unfortunately, it looks like I'm going to have to start sucking up. There are sites out there which are not noticeably better than their peers who are nonetheless famous and get a lot of traffic, and I'm going to have to start reading them myself and see if I can find things to say about them in hopes that they'll notice the refers. Your basic A-listers. The Clique. The Insiders. (None'a you slobs; you're all C-list like I am, living out here in the Web ghetto.) Maybe I'll even write to them when I do it to make sure they know. There's one guy who is not mediocre that I've been trying to woo but haven't gotten any response from. (He's too busy curing sick kids, which I must admit is a better use of his time than reading my drivel.) Damn. It just goes against the grain; I've never been one to try to suck up to an in-crowd. It just feels so... so... so high school. Darned if I know what to do. How low will I go? How slutty will I get? Stay tuned. (Hey, maybe I can get Kottke to link to me! Whatcha think? All in good fun, Jason -- I didn't really mean it. I think "dictionary word of the day" entries are a good idea, and you are a fine photographer.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010908.1003 (On Screen): So the UN conference on Racism ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. A declaration was hammered out which satisfied no-one, and the African nations successfully extorted a promise of an aid package out of Europe, which may or may not actually happen. The practical results of this conference are probably nil. They might as well not have had it.

But there was a declaration about slavery. "Slavery is a crime against humanity and should always have been so." Indeed. Does this mean that the African nations will finally move to end slavery in Africa, where it exists to this day? Will the African nations pay reparations to the slaves they free? (Fat chance.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010908.0759 (On Screen): Despite my skepticism about a vaccine to prevent AIDS, there has been a promising development on that front. A vaccine has been developed which does indeed seem to have protected Rhesus monkeys against what seems to have been SIV. SIV is related to HIV but not really the same. It's been used as an animal model for HIV but it does have to be kept in mind that monkeys are not humans and SIV isn't really HIV, and what works for SIV may not work for HIV. Still, this is a promising sign.

There are three aspects of it which worry me. They are taking another virus and transplanting genes from SIV into it so that the other virus creates SIV antigens and sensitizes the innoculated monkey. The concern is that they may in fact create a completely new and virulent disease while doing so. A second concern has to do with mutability. One of the reasons HIV is so scary is that some aspects of its genome mutate easily, and it in fact does change its antigens readily. This approach can only innoculate against known antigens; if a new one shows up then that version of the virus will not be stopped by the existing vaccine.

But my biggest concern is the fact that in most of the tested monkeys the effect was not to eradicate SIV but merely to reduce the viral blood load. In other words, they become chronically infected, and they're also carriers which can spread the disease to other monkeys, whether vaccinated or not. Suppose that the same situation applied with a hypothetical human vaccine, that everyone who got vaccinated became a carrier. While that would reduce the toll of death and disease, it would also open the floodgates of infection rate, and soon you'd reach the situation where humans would have to be vaccinated to survive. There are a lot of technologies that support us, without which many of us would die, but I don't really know of any which are required to sustain us all.

But maybe I'm being too worried here. After all, a vaccine might be viewed as simply another step on the way, to be followed later by something else which actually could cure the virus entirely and convert infected vaccinated individuals from carriers to clean. The big question now is whether the approach demonstrated with the monkeys can be converted into a working vaccine for humans, and how well it will work against HIV. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010908.0712 (On Screen): Well, we have another confirmed death among the ranks of the Open Source corporations. Last time it was Eazel, this time it's Great Bridge. Having burned through $25 million, its board has given up. They managed to achieve 19,000 downloads and accumulate a bunch of awards, but somehow it never managed to result in actual income sufficient to offset the expenses of operating the company. Where have we heard that before? (In other news, VA Linux closed trading yesterday at $1.07, an all-time low, and perilously close to the critical $1.00 level below which it faces delisting.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010907.1726 (On Screen): Sean wonders about the philosophical "problem of pleasure" for atheists. In a "in a world of randomness and meaninglessness", why is it that some of what we do is fun? He equates it with the philosophical problem of pain for Christians. That latter is indeed a problem: if the universe were created by a loving God, why is it that such horrible things happen to people who don't deserve it? Why does a cyclone in the Indian ocean drown 400,000 people in Bangladesh? Why does a volcanic eruption in the Caribbean kill a thousand people? Surely they weren't all sinners. Indeed, that is a real problem for Christians who believe that God is directly controlling everything (as opposed to Deists), and the best answer anyone has ever really come up for it is a feeble one in the Book of Job, more or less "Who are you to question God? What makes you think you could understand His motives?" It would be nice if I could at least make a tentative stab and understanding. In the mean time, it seems more to me like that great atheist Mark Twain got the right answer:

"If one truly believes in an all-powerful deity, and one looks around at the condition of the universe, one is drawn inescapably to the conclusion that God is a malign thug."

But the "problem of pleasure" for a mechanist isn't a problem at all. It's completely explicable, and in fact it would be very surprising to a mechanist if there were no pleasure or fun or joy. We enjoy things because creatures who enjoy the right things are differentially better adapted to survive and breed. It's as simple as that.

The most obvious example of that is sex. People who are driven to have sex a lot are more likely to create offspring than those who are not. (I think that is apparent.) Whatever it was that drove them to have sex will thus be passed on disproportionately to the next generation, if it was indeed genetically controlled. Do that for a thousand generations and nearly everyone within that breeding pool will inherit whatever it was. But "having sex" is a very complex thing in creatures with brains like ours (or even in brains like those in crocodiles), and whatever it is that drives them to have sex is also going to have to be in the brain since it requires complex behavior and cognition. It happens to be the case that it is enjoyable -- but that isn't the only way we're motivated.

We're driven to seek out pleasure but we're also driven by pain, or rather by the avoidance of pain. Pain is common enough for children that they rapidly learn what not to do. We are careful to not injure ourselves or do things which have a high chance of injury because we know that doing so is going to hurt like mad.

Sometimes both pleasure and pain drive us in the same direction. Eating is such a case; it's clear that creatures who don't care about food are less likely to survive than those who are driven to make sure they get an adequate diet, and again they are more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. Not eating is unpleasant and physically painful; hunger drives us to eat. But eating a bland and unvarying diet is neither painful nor pleasurable -- "bread and water" is a sentence to boredom, not to suffering. Pleasure causes us to seek out a varied diet, because a varied diet is more healthy for us than a bland uniform one. Humans who eat only one thing will suffer from dietary deficiencies.

But it wouldn't be appropriate to use pain to drive a creature to seek sex, because pain is debilitating and the opportunity to have sex routinely isn't going to exist. Pain is used to drive things which are important every hour or every day, while pleasure is used to drive things which are important over the long run but which aren't urgent on a day-to-day basis. Pain drives us to eat every day, while pleasure drives us to seek out a varied diet over the long run. We don't have to eat a varied diet every day (the FDA notwithstanding) but if we eat a confined diet for years we're going to get sick from scurvy or rickets or any of a number of other diseases like that.

A guy who is doubled-over from blue balls is likely to be more susceptible to predators, which would decrease his chances of passing on his genes. (If he gets eaten by a lion before breeding, his genes stop with him.) So there is a certain amount of unpleasantness to not having sex ("Damn am I horny!") but not to the point of actually being physically painful. It makes more sense to motivate a creature to have sex by making it pleasurable, when combined with a general drive in the brain to seek out pleasurable activities. Sex is critical over the long run but not critical day-to-day, which means it is better motivated by pleasure than by pain.

Of course, the ability of genes to control how brains develop is less than you might think. Our genes don't contain a blueprint for the brain's wiring; the process is much more complicated than that and the actual kind of information transcribed in our genes can't control it that closely (let alone hold that much information at all; the genome is huge but not THAT huge). In order for us to enjoy sex (or a varied diet) we have to have the generalized ability to enjoy -- which is to say that we have to have a pleasure center in our brain, some circuit which, when tickled (no matter how) causes the brain to say "I like that; let's do it again." That is, in fact, what the pleasure center is; its real function is to cause us to repeat some activity. The subjective experience of "enjoying it" is beside the point as long as it makes us repeat behaviors. In a sense, in fact, it's tautological; we must necessarily describe it as "pleasure".

But with structures as complicated as the human brain, there will be emergent properties, and other things will have the ability to stimulate that same pleasure center, things not directly controlled by the genes, or things controlled by the genes which happen accidentally to do so. As long as they don't cause harm, they will not be selected against by evolution. If they do cause harm, eventually (ten thousand generations) they'll be weeded out of the population. (For example, opiate addiction. The human race didn't discover opium long enough ago for it to have made a serious evolutionary effect on us yet -- but it will, unless we control it other ways. People easily hooked on heroin do not tend to breed as often or as successfully.) And if, no matter why or how, it turns out to enhance survival and breeding success, then it will spread in the population over time. It doesn't matter what it is as long as it means that you or your close relatives will have more babies. (That's why being an aunt or uncle is fun. Nieces and nephews carry some of our genes, though not as much as children do.)

I believe that Sean's confusion about this (and that of the columnist he quoted) stems from a misunderstanding of how a strict mechanist views the world. Evolution is not "random"; it's just that it isn't planned. It's possible for non-random things to also not involve planning (e.g. crystal growth). It is inevitable that creatures with complex brains will feel both pain and pleasure precisely because these things influence behavior, and the critters that feel them (and feel them for the right things) will be better adapted to survive and pass on their genes. But it isn't the subjective experience of pleasure and pain which are important, it's behavioral effects of motivation and avoidance. The subjective experience is, in a sense, a side effect. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010907.1415 (On Screen): A few days ago I discussed expense "at the margin" with respect to things like deploying defensive weapons. Copy protection of software is another example of a place where the expense at the margin defeats the defense. Copy protection is a defensive measure used by software companies or record producers to prevent their media from being distributed illicitly. It has to be deployed broadly on every CD sold. Attack consists of programs which can break the copy protection; that's software which can be distributed rapidly (i.e. over the Internet). If a given form of copy protection is broken, then it's broken on every CD which already has been distributed using that form of copy protection and there's no way for the defender to go back and fix them all and improve their protection. A year or two later they may be able to deploy a new form of copy protection which will work until it too is cracked. The expense and speed here favors the attackers.

We're also about to find out whether the law does, too. A woman has filed suit against the producer of a CD which uses copy protection claiming that the company selling it should be required to say so on the product label. Her argument is that she wanted to listen to it on her computer and can't do so because of the copy protection, thus the company didn't provide sufficient information to make it possible for her to determine if the product would serve her needs. If she wins and if all copy-protected CDs have to say so on the label, the record companies will face a boycott of protected titles -- until someone cracks it, and then it will be moot. (discuss)

Stardate 20010907.1400 (On Screen): Well, one question about the Euro is now answered: when will the first ones be stolen? It's already happened and the currency isn't even in circulation yet. I wonder if any of them will make their way to counterfeiters? If so, the counterfeiters may be ready upon release of the currency next January. (discuss)

Stardate 20010907.1044 (On Screen): And while I'm commenting on other blogger's writings, I might as well link to this one written by Iain, which I found quite good. It reminded me of something similar. In their drive to find icons to represent them by being "a credit to their race" some groups have ended up in the strange situation of adopting people who don't want to be adopted, but just want to be left alone. Easily the best example of that now is Tiger Woods, who has been adopted by American Blacks as A Credit To His Race. But whenever anyone asks him about that he responds that he's only half black. His mother is Thai. After he won the Masters recently, his parents were at the 18th hole and so I got a chance to see them as they both came out and gave him a big hug. (It was a very emotional moment; Woods had to hide tears at one point. It was good.) Once you see his mothing and his father, you can clearly see how he got aspects of his face from them both. But if you hadn't seen his mother you could easily conclude that he has classic negro features.

Back in the bad old days, there used to be all kinds of places in the laws of some states where certain things were declared to be illegal based on the race of the participants. Of course, that required a legal definition of race, and the definition of "negro" was anyone who had at least one great grandparent who was negro. (No-one seems to have noticed that this definition is recursive.) This was, of course, deeply offensive on a number of levels. The odd thing is that this seems to be exactly what those trying to seize on Woods are doing: since he is half black he's black.

The people of Thailand respectfully disagree. Woods is reported to be something of a national hero there, and his wins and losses are followed closely since, of course, he's Thai. To me, though, he's just an amazingly talented and poised young man that I enjoy reading about and watching on TV. I hope that's not just because I can't claim him to be white. (I don't recall thinking of Arnold Palmer as a credit to the White race, so maybe I'm off the hook here.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010907.1030 (On Screen): James is nostalgic for Let's Make a Deal! I confess that when I was young and home from school with whatever virus was going around, that I never failed to watch the show. One difference between it and some game such as The Match game or Jeopardy was that there was no skill whatever in Let's Make a Deal! It was completely luck -- luck to be chosen to participate, luck to pick the right box or door.

Of course, if we want to talk about moronic TV game shows, the absolute nadir had to be Supermarket Sweep. Imagine if you will a studio audience sitting on bleachers near the front of a grocery store, and carefully placed cameras permitting viewing of the entire place. Three contestants are given shopping carts and given a small number of minutes to fill them with whatever they want from the store and get them back to the front. Each gets to keep whatever they collect, but whoever's basket rings up to the highest price gets a special prize. (I don't even remember what it was anymore.) The problem was that there was an optimum strategy and once it got found the game ceased to be interesting: head the for the meat section and load up on steak. At a buck a pound (this was a long time ago, folks) you could rack up a lot of dollars very fast there. The show organizers tried to offset this by hiding coupons elsewhere in the store which were worth bonuses in hopes of getting the sweepers to go somewhere else, but it never worked. These stores didn't have a liquore section; if they had, that would have been the place to go. Load up on the Amaretto and Cointreau! (discuss)

Stardate 20010907.0813 (On Screen): One of the strengths of the US business environment relative to, say, France is the fact that layoffs here are pretty much acceptable and relatively easy to do. In France a company has to give something like six months notice and negotiate too; this has the effect of dissuading companies from putting employees on the payroll in good times for fear of being stuck with them when things go sour. No-one likes getting laid off (I sure didn't when it happened to me once) but it is something that companies have to do sometimes to survive. And unlike France, in the US companies aren't afraid to hire because they know they can shed employees when times get bad.

But when layoffs get too dramatic they can have other effects. Motorola has announced yet another negative earnings forecast and announced yet another round of layoffs. The total has now reached 32,000, a mammoth number of employees. Sometimes when a company has bad news to announce financially they'll couple that announcement with an announcement of layoffs in hopes of convincing the market not to devalue the stock too heavily. But when layoffs get as deep as they have now at Motorola, the effect on the corporation as a whole can be debilitating. At this point, layoffs at Moto are approaching something like 25% of its whole workforce. That has the effect of seriously impeding the people who are left behind. Every workflow in the company will have to be redesigned, and a lot of essential knowledge is going to walk out the door carrying pink slips. A layoff this deep can cause damage to efficiency that can take years to recover from. It also causes demoralization and fear. One of the things that keeps a company going is loyalty. If your people are just working for a paycheck, you're in trouble. You need them to believe in the company and to really like what they're doing, to believe that what they're doing is important -- because that means they'll do more than just the minimum necessary to get a paycheck every two weeks. But people don't make that commitment for no reason -- it's a two way street. People make a commitment to a corporation because they think the corporation is committed to them; it is ultimately selfish. People make that commitment because they think they'll ultimately benefit from it, with promotions and more desirable job assignments. When a quarter of the workforce is laid off, the remaining ones will spend their time worrying about whether they'll be next, if not this year than next or the year after. Why put out extra effort when there's no possibility of advancement because of it? There is no longer a feeling that the company is committed to me so why should I be committed to the corporation? Productivity will fall for this reason, too.

But the greatest danger is brain-drain. The advantage of using a layoff for reduction instead of attrition is that it permits you to get rid of the least valuable members of your staff. Attrition usually involves people leaving who have the best opportunities elsewhere, which means you're losing the most desirable members of your team. We'd all like to believe that everyone is equally valuable, but it simply isn't true. For a company the size of Motorola there are two to four thousand people who are the life-blood of the company. These are certain mid-level and senior engineers and researchers, some mid-level and high-level executives, certain marketers and sales folk. Not every engineer, nor every manager, of course. But when times get really bad at a company and there are too many layoffs, these people may decide that the fun is over and that there are better opportunities elsewhere. People like this never have any trouble finding other jobs even during bad economic times; they stay because they want to. And if you lose a substantial number of these critical people (half, maybe) then your corporation is dead, a hollow shell of itself simply waiting to die. That's what happened at Palm; the core group of engineers and managers which made it great left en mass and formed their own company. Palm has been drifting aimlessly ever since, recycling past glory. The creative spark at Palm is gone. I fear that Motorola has now reached the point where this kind of defection will become a real issue. It's not the kind of thing which will be obvious for a long time; design starts by these movers and shakers will continue to emerge for a year or two, for instance. This kind of lobotomy may take a year, and it may take three years for its effects to become apparent. In the long run the way it manifests is as a leveling of growth and an increasing number of failed projects and a rising perception that the company just doesn't seem as vibrant and dynamic as it used to be. Think "IBM before Gerstner" or "Apple before it was acquired by NeXT". I think that is Motorola's future.

These two cases are instructive because they do show that it's possible to turn this around. And part of that is to stop using layoffs, so as to rebuild employee morale and loyalty. When the problems in a business are sufficiently serious, they can't be addressed with layoffs. Something more radical is required; the business itself needs to be redesigned. Motorola will need to reexamine itself and decide just what kind of company it needs to become, since it's apparent that the current company is failing. This probably means shedding entire businesses -- selling them if possible, shutting them down if necessary -- and maybe even creating new ones. Gerstner's genius at IBM was to recognize that value-add consulting was the future of the company, and under his tutelage it's become the company's fastest growing business segment and soon it will be the largest one, too. For all that I despise Steve Jobs, it is unquestionably the case that he brought fire back into Apple. Much less well publicized was the fact that NeXT also infused Apple with a new dose of movers and shakers, electrifying the organization. Apple is still a wood chip on a stormy sea because it is too vulnerable to mistakes or decisions by other companies, but its turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. Motorola could turn around, too -- but not the way it's going right now. Any further layoffs will damage the company, not make it more healthy. It's time to make big decisions, like the one everyone knows they should have made a long time ago to get out of the IC business. That's the only thing that can turn Motorola around. (discuss)

Stardate 20010907.0743 (On Screen): eBay was sued because videotapes of a copyrighted TV show were auctioned on its site. It successfully argued in court that it is not like, say, Christies, an auction house which actually vouches for the material it sells. Rather, eBay is the electronic equivalent of the operator of a flea-market, who doesn't closely monitor what's sold. Responsibility lies with the sellers.

That's all well and good, and gets them off the hook on this particular lawsuit, but I wonder if they've really thought through the ramifications of that position. eBay fraud has been a problem for a long time, and now eBay has taken a position in court that it isn't responsible for anything sold on its site. This could erode the confidence of bidders, and without bidders there will be no eBay. Is this a pyrrhic victory? (discuss)

Stardate 20010906.2047 (On Screen): It may well be that the UN conference on Racism was doomed to fail. It's hard to see just how it was ever really able to accomplish anything important, given that every nation who actually routinely practices racism or who has ever done so in the past (even if they've stopped) will refuse to let their own case be discussed. Case in point: India. There is caste there of "untouchables" and there are about as many of them as there are people in the US total. Yet India simply says that it doesn't think it's anyone else's business.

Umm, what racism is anyone else's business? What shall we talk about? (discuss)

Stardate 20010906.1732 (On Screen): Well, for Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) this is what you call your "gift from the Gods" -- as if ARM needed the help at this point. What with the ARM becoming the standard chip for the cell phone industry (representing a couple hundred million CPUs per year right there) and with Palm announcing that they would port their software from the obsolescent Motorola DragonBall to the ARM, things were looking mighty rosy. And it didn't hurt that Microsoft's WinCE ran on ARM in addition to MIPS and Toshiba's SH3. But the next version of WinCE for what Microsoft calls "PocketPC 2002" will only run on ARM; SH3 and MIPS are now out in the cold.

People sometimes ask how any company can topple a seemingly insurmountable industry leader, like say Intel. Much celebration has been made in recent years (and rightfully so) about how AMD has come out of no-where and challenged Intel frontally. Little is made of the fact that ARM has stealthfully managed to sneak in from below. Right now there are more than ten times as many ARMs made each year than Intel's entire output of x86's -- and ARM doesn't even own a fab. It just licenses its designs to others for use in their devices. Even Intel is an ARM licensee, and one of the major producers of ARMs. Who says the Brits can't do high tech? (discuss)

Stardate 20010906.0746 (On Screen): Microsoft wins!! (Hee-hee-hee-hee... And there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Gates haters.) It remains to be seen what the Attorneys General of the states will think of this decision. I think that it is increasingly being seen by politicians in the states that during an economic downturn it is not really a good idea to try to destroy such companies as actually are successful and are creating jobs, so I expect a certain amount of angry posturing followed by acquiesence. (discussion in progress)

Update: The Attorneys General are going along with it. Now to see what the EU thinks.

Update 20010907: As expected, the slashdot thread is full of people who are pissed off about it. But one poster says "Justice is the most important point here." He has a strong sense of moral outrage but a poor understanding of the law. Antitrust law has nothing to do with justice in the sense that he's using it, to mean that those who act wrongly should be punished. Antitrust law has nothing to do with punishment and indeed it cannot because it's Civil Law. If there were punishment involved it would have to be Criminal Law and the entire trial process would have been different. Among other things, the burden of proof would have been on the Government and the threshold of proof would have had to be much higher, and the Government would not have been able to force executives of the company to testify (such as the legendary Bill Gates deposition where he couldn't understand the meanings of basic words).

Stardate 20010906.0736 (On Screen): NAFTA was, in my opinion, one of the finest diplomatic achievements of the twentieth century. Of course, any change that drastic will inevitably cause disruption and there will always be victims, and in the short run there was and will be objections to it. But I think in the long run it will be viewed by everyone in North America as a good thing. I see NAFTA as the second step in a long process. (The first step was the establishment of the US itself as a free-trade zone by the US Constitution, which was a major reason why the US became an economic powerhouse.) What I envision eventually happening is the establishment of a single free-trade zone in all of the western hemisphere in perhaps fifty years, with a single currency. Now the Bush administration is making the next step in that process by trying to negotiate free trade with four economically powerful South American nations who already have a free trading block with each other. A merger of the NAFTA countries with Mercosur in a free trade pact would be fantastic. (discuss)

Stardate 20010906.0728 (On Screen): One interesting aspect of President Bush's stem cell decision is that now federal funding of research is a foregone conclusion. That aspect of it is no longer subject to debate; it's now only a question of what will be funded, not whether there will be funding at all. Congressional investigation continues and now the Bush administration has admitted that there really aren't 60 existing lines of stem cells which can currently be used for research. The actual number is more like 25, which they term "adequate". It isn't, of course; not even remotely. For one thing, it is much too soon to even make that decision. We don't know enough yet. The human race is genetically very diverse; 25 lines probably isn't enough, especially since I suspect that nearly all of them are genetically Caucasian. In any case, there is a strong feeling in Congress that this is indeed too restrictive and should be loosened, and Congress does have that power. It is, after all, a spending decision and Congress controls the purse. It's looking more hopeful by the day that the US government will do the right thing here, and it's becoming evident that President Bush's decision will eventually be viewed as an unqualified defeat for the "Right to Life" crowd. (discuss)

Stardate 20010906.0707 (On Screen): Islamic culture and American culture are so different from each other that sometimes what one does can seem insane or naive or foolish to the other. We observed this during the Gulf War several times. Saddam Hussein kept making what seemed like infantile public relations gaffs. At the beginning of hostilities there were a large number of Westerners in Iraq, and the Iraqi authorities rounded them up. But they were termed "guests", and Hussein decided to have a photo-op. I remember pictures of him standing next to an American boy, beaming a smile at the camera and the kid looking distinctly uncomfortable. It was a fiasco and shortly thereafter the Iraqi government permitted them all to leave the country after the use of the term "hostage" began to swell to tsunami proportions. During the buildup to the attack, he kept talking about how mighty his army was and how there was going to be the "mother of" all bloodshed. That turns out to be traditional in Arab culture; before a fight you whoop and holler and wave your sword over your head and try to convince your opponent that you're formidable. Unfortunately, it ran right smack up against the old American tradition of "speak softly and carry a big stick".

[In the 1960's there was a culture shock problem when Japan emerged as a major business presence and US businessmen started dealing with Japanese businessmen big time. (Japan is, of course, not Islamic but it's a similar kind of problem.) There kept being cases where a deal would be struck and then fall apart and the Americans would decide the Japanese couldn't be trusted and the Japanese would decide the Americans were uncultured boors. Turns out that in traditional Japanese culture it's considered impolite to say "no" to someone, so they've learned ways of shading "yes" so that some forms of it mean "no"; the idea was that if someone said "yes" quite reluctantly then the other party would get the message and drop it. But the Americans heard "yes" through their translators and assumed they had a deal; the nuances and cultural context didn't get translated. There was actually a thriving business for a while in consultants who actually understood Japanese culture and would coach American businessmen through negotiations with the Japanese. In the long run, the problem was solved by the Japanese learning that Americans weren't offended by hearing "no" but were offended by what they perceived as liars, and also learning that the Americans are uncultured (in the sense of being unsubtle) but are not boors -- merely straight talking and honest. As the Japanese learned to open up and express themselves honestly, the problem disappeared.]

Now I've been observing the Taliban making the same kinds of blunders, if blunders they be. It depends on your point of view. This article may or may not be reporting on a trial balloon coming from the Taliban itself; if it is, then it is naive in the extreme from the point of view of this westerner. It suggests that the Taliban might be willing to trade the 8 western charity workers for Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is currently in US prison. He was convicted for the bombing of the World Trade Center and is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole; he's also a crony of Osama bin Laden, who is hiding out in Afghanistan. However, it's also possible that this proposal hasn't come from the Taliban but has come from Abdel-Rahman's relatives. Regardless, it represents a cultural misunderstanding of canyon-like proportions. There is no chance, none whatever, that the US would consent to such a trade. Any serious attempt to propose this to American diplomats would be greeted with scornful laughter. This isn't the Cold War, where the US and USSR would trade spies with each other; we are not going to trade cold-blooded murderers for missionaries. If Abdel-Rahmen's bombing had been successful, he would have toppled that building and upwards of ten thousand people might have died. Fortunately, the engineers designed better than that and the structure was never in peril. We're supposed to trade away someone like that? They're lucky we didn't execute the bastard. (discuss)

Stardate 20010905.1656 (On Screen via long range scanners): What with all the public shootings in the US and all the European clucking over that useless Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, still I don't recall hearing of a case recently in the US where an armed assailant fired an RPG at police. Twice. (Lucky for them the first one was a dud!) As Brian says, "And Europeans think the United States has a small arms problem. Sheesh." (discuss)

Stardate 20010905.1624 (On Screen via away team): As if we needed it, here is yet another proof that the majority of system administrators are dumb as posts. These guys drove around Manhattan and found more than eighty 802.11b wireless access points which weren't even encrypted or protected in any way. It's not just that they were using the weak and vulnerable WEP; they weren't protected at all. (discuss)

Stardate 20010905.1413 (On Screen): A lot of big companies want to scare the pants off you about the grey market. In some cases the products won't be compatible with your area -- but that's rare. In most cases, the reason there is a grey market is that the companies are charging "what the market will bear" and it bears different things in different areas. As a result, they sell the exact same products for cheaper some places than others. Unfortunately for them, this means that there is an opportunity for other people to buy those products cheap one place and import them to other places where the original companies are trying to maintain higher prices. If Compaq and Nortel and Xerox really want to eliminate the grey market, the way to do it is to straighten out their pricing so that there isn't any price differential, thus eliminating the benefit that the grey market brings. (discussion)

Stardate 20010905.1236 (On Screen): The Constitution sets certain qualifications for being permitted to run for the House of Representatives: you have to be at least 25 years of age, a citizen for at least 7 years, and a resident of the state in which you are running. Unfortunately, being insane or deluded does not disqualify someone (which has saved the career of many a fine Representative). Still, when a member of the House stands up and says that the ghost of Chandra Levy has been speaking to her, you have to wonder. (discuss)

Stardate 20010905.1228 (On Screen): What CD ripping is to the RIAA, this device is about to become to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). It's a device upcoming which will have the ability to capture and store TV programs, which isn't new. But it will also have a network connection and have the ability to transfer the saved-files to computers or even over the internet. Expect a lawsuit to be filed about five milliseconds after this product is offered for sale. (Oh, and when used to replay stored TV programs, it will apparently automatically skip advertising. Maybe I'll buy one. Then I can watch Iron Chef and Dexter's Laboratory anytime I want.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010905.0855 (On Screen): It's possible to construct sentences which are syntactically correct but nonsensical: "What color is the sound of a violin?" Sometimes sentences can sound plausible but actually make no sense: "Who wins? the irresistible force or the immovable object?" (Tbey can't coexist; if there exists in any universe an immovable object then by definition that universe can't contain an irresistible force, and vice versa. Thus since they cannot both exist at the same time in a given universe, they can never meet.) In response one time to such a question, an exasperated philosopher responded, "That question is a meaningless noise."

I just read this BBC article and had that reaction to it, though what I was actually experiencing was culture shock. It is talking about how they're going to limit the ability of people to buy second homes in cities inside the National Parks, so as to make sure that the local residents aren't priced out of the market and prevented from themselves continuing to live there. That all makes sense in the microscopic, but my first reaction was "Cities in National Parks?"

But I guess, upon further consideration, that it does make sense. England has been settled for a long time; it's been civilized, more or less, since Emperor Claudius. To me, a "National Park" means Yellowstone or the Everglades or Banff: large areas of wilderness preserved for the future. But that really isn't possible in England. There isn't any virgin wilderness left there. (Heck; there isn't any virgin wilderness left in Massachusetts, and that's been "civilized" a heck of a lot less time than England.)

In the Canadian Rockies, there are four contiguous National Parks: Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay and Banff. From the northern tip of Jasper to the southern tip of Banff is a distance of about 420 kilometers. Starting from the center of London, that would take you to the Scottish border (at the Solway Firth). Between them they cover more than 20,000 square km. That's 8% of the total land area of the UK (and would probably approach a quarter of England proper). It's obvious that a park complex like that simply isn't possible in England. So if you want to have a reasonable sized National Park there, either you're going to have to gerrymander like mad (like Acadia), or you're you're going to have to accept that there will be cities in it, which is apparently what the the pragmatic Brits seem to have done.

That then raises the question of what the role of the city is within the Park; is it an intruder or actually part of the ambience? Do you regulate it to preserve the life of that city in pristine condition? What a strange concept! What a meaningless noise! (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010905.0803 (On Screen): Treatment of pain has been neglected by doctors. Morphine, in particular, is not use anything like heavily enough. Morphine is cheap, safe, well understood and when used for pain relief appears to have an extremely low chance of addiction -- and yet it is underused clinically. In fact, it got so bad that the FDA about ten years ago issued a notice to all doctors explicitly telling them that they should be using more morphine. This is a new thing.

My father died of cancer. The doctors gave him as much Demerol (a synthetic opiate) as he wanted to keep him out of pain. They gave my mom big boxes of the drug and syringes so she could inject him regularly. Of course he got addicted to the stuff, but what of that? There was no chance whatever of him recovering, and it kept him comfortable during his final months. The addiction was a medical non-issue. I'm glad it happened that way. That was 1971. About ten years later things had changed. The father of a friend of mine also died of cancer, but for him he would only be given a shot if he complained loudly and had his wife drive him to the doctor's office. Then they'd give him one shot which might last six hours, after which the pain would return.

What changed during that time? The War on Drugs. The Nixon administration decided to get tough on drug addiction and clamped down. One of the myths going around was the idea of doctors being legal drug peddlers and writing prescriptions for addicts, so they imposed all sorts of paperwork on doctors. Whenever a schedule 1 drug was prescribed, the doctor had to fill out forms to justify it, and if it was found that the doctor was wrong then the doctor could lose his license to practice and perhaps even face criminal charges. This covered, in particular, the use of opiates for pain relief. So if a doctor under-treated pain, then all that happened was that one patient suffered. If he over-treated pain, he could lose his license and perhaps even his liberty. Which side would you err on? Yup, so did they.

Easily the most egregious example of this is a medical procedure called debriding. In burn patients, there is dead tissue at the site of the burn and it must be removed; otherwise gangrene can set in and the patient can die. But this is an unbelievably painful process, because it means that the burn area has to be vigorously scrubbed to make the dead tissue come off. And we're talking open raw flesh here; all of us have had minor burns and we know how sensitive they are; that's nothing compared to a 3rd degree burn which may be several inches in size or may cover most of the patient's body. And in the 1980's this operation was routinely done without anesthetic. (Indeed, the result differs little from a Dark Ages torture called flaying which was one of their favorites because it was so effective at inducing pain in the victim.) I don't understand why such people weren't juiced with Morphine first. I find it nearly inconceivable that medical technicians could do that to people without feeling bad.

I think part of the problem is that medical workers get used to being around pain in others -- it is, after all, a daily occurrence for them. And it's easy to rationalize: debriding a wound really does save the life of the patient. You have to be cruel to be kind, and all that. Moreover, except in cases of shock pain itself doesn't kill. It's a symptom, not directly a problem; fixing the problem will make the pain go away -- eventually. I think they get inured to it. So I can't say I'm surprised to learn that the same attitude has filtered down to treatment of children. And the American Academy of Pediatrics (and the American Pain Society) have now come out with a new policy stating that pain in children, even minor pain, should be treated more aggressively. I fully agree. It isn't possible to prevent pain entirely (a shot of anesthetic itself hurts) but it can be reduced in many cases.

But it would help if Congress were to reduce the regulatory burden on doctors trying to use opiates. Doctors would use Morphine more (as they should) if they didn't fear the consequences of doing so quite as much. The evil of doctor-pushers is much less than the evil of unnecessary pain in innocent victims of injury. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010905.0730 (On Screen): It's reported that worker productivity rose 2.1% in the last quarter. (I'm not sure if that's the real amount or an "annualized" amount; probably the latter.) I have to wonder whether it is actually a statistical anomaly. When productivity rises during times of prosperity when employment is also rising, then clearly that's a meaningful measure. But this is not such a time.

Manufacturing output is falling, and there have been a lot of layoffs. When a company decides to lay people off, inevitably it will lay off the ones who contribute least to its economic well-being and keep the people who contribute most. In other words, it lays off the least productive workers and keeps the most productive ones. That would mean that the average productivity of the remaining workers would be higher than before the layoff, but not because the productivity of any individual worker necessarily increased -- indeed, it probably decreases somewhat because of disruption of the business. So I'm not sure that this statistic really tells us anything. (discuss)

Stardate 20010904.2305 (On Screen): One of the critical issues that has to be analyzed in military acquisition when working on a defense system is how expensive it is and how slow it is to expand it. This is known as the expense "at the margin". In other words, if your opponent has an offensive weapon system and you then deploy an adequate defensive system, he can deploy more of the offense thus requiring you to deploy more of the defense to stay even. But if he can deploy offense faster than you can deploy defense, or if he can do so more cheaply, then your defense is worthless. In a time of crisis, when your opponent wants to make his force useful, he can rapidly build it up and temporarily overwhelm your defense just before beginning an attack. Thus the mere fact that a defense is possible doesn't mean it is militarily useful. Equally, if the defense is cheaper than the offense and can be ramped more easily, then it makes that offensive weapon useless. A good example of that was the deployment of wire-guided antitank missiles (TOW) in the 1970's and 1980's by the US in Germany along the front with the Warsaw pact. Those missiles were cheaper than tanks and could be built and deployed more rapidly, thus making it impractical for the Warsaw pact to try to build up rapidly in preparation for an attack. A good example of the opposite state, where offense has the advantage, is in a missile defense system. It is faster and easier and cheaper to deploy a new kind of decoy then it is to determine that a decoy exists, analyze what it is, and deploy a countermeasure to that decoy in the defensive system.

That's mainly because the decoy can be kept secret and that the decoy doesn't have to be deployed system-wide. But countermeasures to the decoy do have to be deployed system-wide once the decoy is discovered. If every time I upgrade 5% of my missiles you have to upgrade 100% of your anti-missiles, I can spend you into the ground. If you only upgrade 5% of your anti-missiles, then when I launch my upgraded missile it may not go where the upgraded anti-missiles are, and the non-upgraded anti-missiles may not be able to stop my attack. You can't know where I'll aim, so your entire system has to be able to deal with it. But I don't have to upgrade all my missiles, because as attacker I have the initiative. This is one of about four major reasons why the missile defense system is a foolish waste of time and money.

But this principle applies to all kinds of things. It applies in the commercial world, too. If one company can deploy a product cheaply and rapidly, and if the commercial countermeasure from an opposing company is expensive and time consuming, then the former company has an advantage. That is the situation that the RIAA is facing now. Having slain Napster by attacking it with lawyers, it is now facing other companies who are trying to do exactly the same thing. But those companies have learned from the Napster debacle and have elaborate defenses. One in particular has its main server located on the island of Nevis, in the Caribbean, and it is a directory server for a series of distributed main servers in diverse locations. The system has no central control and the company itself isn't incorporated in the US. Its software is designed in such a way that it isn't possible to institute centralized filtering control, and the traffic on its system doesn't all pass through a single point. Thus it would not be possible to issue a court order to it comparable to the one that Napster received to either filter or be shut down. Filtration isn't possible and neither is shutdown. And in any case the company isn't located in the US and it's not clear that US courts would even have jurisdiction. But the real point is expense at the margin: it is cheap and fast to set up this kind of system, but slow and expensive for RIAA to sic its lawyers on it. It took RIAA two years to kill Napster. In the last six months at least four replacement systems have popped up. If a new file-sharing system can be created in six months but it takes two years for RIAA to prevail in court, then RIAA will win the battles but lose the war. It looks like they're beginning to realize it, too. (Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys, I tell you.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010904.2208 (On Screen): After the last episode of eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, it ended up with an enormous crater which has been slowly filling with rainwater ever since, and now there is an immense lake held in place by walls of volcanic ash which could give way at any time. If that were to happen, it would release a huge mud flow which could wipe out towns in the path of the outflow. I suggested, somewhat facetiously, that the Phiippine government ask the US Navy to bomb the side of the volcano to release the water after ordering an evacuation.

Well, they actually are going to evacuate the villages and release the water, though a lot less violently, and I think it's cool. Unfortunately, some people in harm's way refuse to leave; I hope it doesn't go wrong and kill them, but if that does happen they'll have no-one to blame but themselves. (discuss)

Stardate 20010904.1003 (On Screen): The sad and disillusioning tale of Danny Almonte continues to unfold. The mystery of why it was that he didn't attend school in the Bronx has been explained: he was actually in the Dominican Republic attending school. This means that he couldn't have played enough regular season games in the US to have qualified for the Little League World Series anyway. It's plausible that the American coach might have been fooled about Danny's age, as he claims, but there's no way he could have been fooled about this; it's clear now that he's crooked. The victims in this are the kids: the other kids on this team who tried to do a good job, and the kids on the teams who were eliminated by this team because it was cheating, and thus may not have gotten a chance to advance. It's also a shame because the next time an immigrant kid actually does do well, people will immediately ask if he's another Danny Almonte, and rather than cheering for him they'll be skeptical. (discuss)

Stardate 20010904.0951 (On Screen): It was discovered in the 1930's that lab mice who were put on a starvation diet between ages 3-12 months and thereafter permitted to eat as much as they want would live about 50% longer than normal mice (48 months instead of 32 on average), and they remain youthful for much longer too. But this isn't "a diet"; these mice are starving. They were given about two thirds of the food that a normal mouse would need to grow normally, and they are runts when grown -- long lived runts, however. Later research into this showed that caloric restriction was what was important. It didn't matter what these mice ate as long as they weren't given enough of it. Other research has shown that the same thing could be done with adults and they would also get the benefit thereafter. Of course, the question was why this happened? And even better, could the same result be accomplished without subjecting humans to 10 years of inadequate diet. Now researchers may have begin finding out the answer. It wasn't an answer that was possible to find until just recently, because the analysis techniques didn't exist. They've found a group of genes which seem to be activated by starvation. The next step will be to figure out just what they're doing, and then to figure out how to accomplish the same effect other ways (or perhaps to find some other way to activate the same genes).

This article, unfortunately, perpetuates the understatement that a simple diet would make a difference. I expected better of Nature. We're not talking about simply slimming down, we're talking about a level of food intake which would eventually kill you. In any case, this research is still much too preliminary to be converted to clinical practice. (discuss)

Stardate 20010904.0748 (On Screen): Statistics are wonderful. You can prove anything you want with statistics. Want to prove that you're beating your competitors? All you have to do is analyze every possible way that you can compare yourself to your competitor, and if you're ahead in any one of them then you feature it in your advertising. So now that Gartner has published its latest figures on computer sales in the education market, the spinning is going to begin: who's in the lead?

Dell is in the lead. It is currently outselling Apple in that market by 3:2.

Apple is in the lead. Its installed base in the market remains twice what Dell's installed base is.

You pays your money (to Gartner) and takes your choice. But if I were the two companies in question, I'd much rather be ahead in sales than in installed base. If the current state of affairs continues for the long term, Dell's installed base will catch up with Apple. Moreover, no company makes money off installed base; it's only benefit is to encourage repeat sales, which doesn't seem to be working sufficiently for Apple. So I have to say that this is good news for Dell. (discuss)

Stardate 20010904.0726 (On Screen): It always blows me away to read accounts of technological advances which were clearly written by people who don't understand them. This report describes an announcement by Motorola that they've figured out how to fabricate GaAs components on a Silicon substrate. If true, this is a major advance in IC fab technology. But it's not quite what this report says. For instance, the report says that GaAs can "can transmit signals at much higher speeds". Well, no. The speed with which signals move around on the IC is about the same. What changes is how fast transistors are capable of switching.

It also describes this as being a boon for cell phones, something I know a great deal about. It will permit much faster CPUs to be put into cell phones without raising the price, it says. But there are three constraints on the CPUs used in cell phones: price, speed and power consumption; and of the three the last one is actually the gating factor. In the cell phones I used to work on, we were running the CPU at less than 20 MHz even though it was capable of going 200 MHz. That's because higher clock rates burn more power and our battery was tiny. We did everything we possibly could to reduce power consumption. It may be that GaAs will provide 35 times the CPU speed (though I'm skeptical about a number that large: 7 GHz??? in a cell phone???), but cell phones don't need blazing CPU speeds. (Our CPU spent 99% of the time halted.) GaAs isn't going to reduce power consumption per unit computing by 35-fold; I am not sure it will reduce it at all, in fact. GaAs has a lot of virtues but I never heard that low power consumption was one of them. This is the case for nearly everything which runs off batteries, by the way; the CPUs in such devices rarely run at even what current technology permits. Raising the clock ceiling is unimpressive if no-one is pushing the ceiling anyway. Even PDAs don't push the clock ceiling; the CPU in an iPaq runs about 235 MHz (IIRC) which is fast by PDA standards but isn't remotely as fast as it could run. (I'm virtually certain the CPU they're using is capable of twice that speed.)

They also claim that it's going to reduce price. I don't see how; what does GaAs bring to the table which will reduce die sizes or increase yields, which is what would be needed to reduce price? The only claim they make that I believe is increased computing speed, but the kinds of embedded devices they want to target with this aren't pushing the state of the art in that regard yet anyway. Motorola has found a very fine solution -- but it's not a solution to a problem that embedded devices have. Their marketing department needs to look again at their technology and figure out who really needs it. (discuss)

Update: Ah. Apparently what's going on is that this new hybrid process can produce parts with GaAs performance for a tenth of what a pure GaAs process would cost, and that's their justification for "cheaper". It's not clear that the hybrid process would be cheaper than the pure silicon process used now, however, so in practice it's not clear that it would really reduce costs given that no-one in that business is using GaAs anyway.

Update: OK; I probably should have gone to EETimes first. A cell phone chipset is actually three chips. One is huge and has the CPU and all the digital circuitry on it and represents the majority of the price. The other two are RF parts and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they're currently fabricated with a pure GaAs process, since analog microwave is hard to do in silicon. This new technology will make those two parts cheaper, but they're a minor part of the total expense of the chipset, which is a minor part of the cost of a phone. Reducing the cost of those parts will result in a fraction of a percent reduction in the sales price a cellphone, but it will probably get used nonetheless.

Stardate 20010903.2129 (Crew, this is the Captain): I"m sitting here watching a show about the 7 Wonders of the World. Of the seven, the only one we are certain existed was the Pyramids, though the evidence for the Lighthouse of Alexandria is quite strong. The others may well be mythical. This list has inspired many other "7 wonders" lists such as the 7 modern wonders, the 7 natural wonders, the 7 architectural wonders; and who am I to resist? So here's my list of the 7 technological wonders of the modern world:

  1. The Internal Combustion Engine
  2. Electric Power
  3. Mass Production of Steel
  4. Plastics and Polymers
  5. Semiconductors
  6. Space Travel
  7. Genetic Engineering

They're listed in order of creation. It's interesting that the first three are from the 19th century, the next three from the 20th, and the last one is 21st century.(discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010903.2045 (On Screen): I sure didn't expect this. The WSJ and NYT are both reporting that HP is buying Compaq. Based on combined sales, the resulting company will be only slightly smaller than IBM. I don't understand this. There is substantial overlap in the two companies, markets where they both compete now. What happens to those businesses?

Sometimes I understand mergers; sometimes the businesses augment each other nicely. But sometimes it makes no sense to me at all. This one I don't understand. It will be interesting to see what happens to the stock of both companies tomorrow. (discussion in progress)

Update: NYT coverage.

Update 20010904: Well, the market has spoken: HWP is down 18.14% and CPQ is down 10.28%.

Stardate 20010903.2013 (On Screen): So the US representatives at the UN Conference on Racism have walked out, on orders from Secretary of State Colin Powell. And, of course, all the people who wanted to take advantage of the US presence are now pissed off. Amnesty International spokesman Maya Catsanis says, "By walking out in the middle of the conference, the US is letting down the victims of racism on all sides." I don't agree. The victims of racism were let down by the people who are hijacking the conference in the service of their political agendas. If nothing was going to be accomplished at that conference anyway which would benefit those victims, then there was no point in the US continuing to participate. (discuss)

Stardate 20010903.1339 (On Screen): You know, eventually Israel will destroy every building belonging to the Palestinian Authority. Then what will they shoot at? (discuss)

Update: I know! Schools!

Stardate 20010903.1336 (On Screen): The Taliban has gotten embarrassed by its arrest of 8 foreign-born Christian missionaries for the crime of converting Afghanis to Christianity, and is going to hold a show trial. The penalty if convicted is fewer days in jail than they've already been held, and they're going to be convicted, sentenced to "time already served", and deported. The Taliban won't have to admit that they screwed up, the missionaries will go home, and their governments (including the US) will heave a sigh of relief.

But that's not the trial I'm interested in. At the same time as these eight people were arrested, the Taliban also arrested 16 Afghanis for the crime of being converted to Christianity. And while the foreigners face a penalty of 3-10 days in jail, the Afghanis face the death penalty. Will they, too, receive open trials? Will their hands be slapped, or cut off? Will anyone in the world care? (discuss)

Stardate 20010903.1108 (On Screen): There's a flip side to freedom, and that's responsibility. Part of being free is that you're free to screw up. Economic freedom includes the freedom to starve. For people who have lived in highly regimented societies where the reins have been loosened, we see this happen again and again: they sometimes don't have the experience to deal with all the consequences of their new-found freedom. For instance, there was a really huge Ponzi scheme in Bulgaria about ten years ago, which inevitably collapsed and ruined a lot of people. And I recall that during the 1970's, when the USSR loosened the gates a bit and let Jews emigrate, some older Russians who ended up in NYC decided they didn't like it, and went back home. In the USSR (before it collapsed) there were people to look after them and make sure they were OK. In the US they were on their own.

Of course, it's a lot easier to deal with it if you grow up in it, but even such folks screw up all the time. But in a country like China, which has introduced a stock exchange, it's hardly a surprise that it's rigged and there's a lot of stock manipulation going on, which means that small investors are getting taken. The best defense when you're free is to develop a healthy skepticism about things -- but when it's a new experience, where are you to learn that? (discuss)

Stardate 20010903.1004 (On Screen): We just narrow escaped having the Universe collapse in on itself and vanish. Whew! The government almost designated a dump (er, "sanitary landfill",) in Fresno as a National Historic Landmark. Fortunately someone came to their senses and prevented it. Good thing, too; it's also designated as a Superfund cleanup site, which mandates that it be cleaned up. But if it had been designated a National Historic Landmark then it would also have been illegal to change it -- and the resulting paradox would have destroyed the Universe. (That was a close one!) (discuss)

Stardate 20010903.0958 (On Screen): I just found my Dream Job. (Why didn't I ever get to design stuff like this? Robots and cell phones are boring.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010903.0910 (On Screen): Russian President Putin has said that he doesn't see any reason why Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia should want to join NATO. Russia is no threat to them, he says. I find this pronouncement rather odd, in several ways.

Probably the strangest reason is that a couple of years ago, Russia itself said it wanted to join NATO. (That was a mind-boggling concept for someone like me who grew up during the Cold War.) It's also the case that Russia has been trying off and on to dominate the Baltic states for hundreds of years. But the real reason for the Baltic States to fear Russia is because there are substantial minority populations of ethnic Russians living in all three countries left over from when they were part of the Soviet Union. World-wide, there have been just too many cases in recent years when countries have used perceived mistreatment of such ethnic minorities in neighboring states as a justification for military operations -- most notably Serbia attacking everyone in sight for "oppressing" their Serbian minorities. Also, when a nation's economy is crumbling and there is unrest at home, demagogues will sometimes start a war as a way of trying to unite everyone in patriotism; that's why Argentina attacked the Falkland Islands, for instance. Given the combination of how unstable things are in Russia right now and an unhappy ethnic Russian minority in the Baltic states, Russia's still considerable military capability is a very real concern for those new nations. (discuss)

Stardate 20010902.0901 (On Screen): Hollywood continues to mine (and often to desecrate) the works of The Bard; the latest is the movie "O" which is loosely (apparently extremely loosely) based on the classic tragedy Othello. This inspires me to write about something I've wondered about for a long time: why is it that these days the character Othello is invariably played by a Negro? The character is described by Shakespeare as a dark-skinned "moor", but there are a lot of people on earth with dark skin who aren't Negroes. Yet you have a long line of great actors like Laurence Fishburne, Yaphet Kotto, and James Earl Jones playing the part. I have no doubt that each did a fine job. But historically, that's wrong.

After the establishment of Islam by Mohammed, the Arabs finally got organized and became a power. Bursting out of the desert, they conquered all of the Middle East, Turkey, and all of North Africa extending all the way to the Atlantic. They then crossed Gibralter and conquered most of Spain, which is where the events portrayed in Othello take place. These Arab invaders were referred to as "Moors", a word which comes from the same root as the modern nation name "Morocco" (the nation of the Moors, more or less). In other words, a Moor was an Arab: a dark skinned caucasian.

Of course, nothing says that traditional racial classifications are binding on modern presenters of historical drama. There are five ways that race can be handled in historical drama: without change, transplant, being color blind, satirically, and tokenism/misinterpretation. The first is obvious, of course: if the part calls for a white man, cast a white man. If it calls for a black woman, cast a black woman.

Transplant is interesting and can be very successful. Kurosawa transplanted King Lear into medieval Japan and converted the daughters into sons in his great film Ran and to my mind the result was even more successful than the original. Much of the character motivation in the film just makes more sense to me in the context of the early part of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Of course, that meant that every part was cast with Japanese actors, and all the dialog was rewritten into Japanese -- yet the essence of the play was preserved and even enhanced. I have seen this kind of thing done several times, with varying degrees of success. Probably the most famous was the transplantation of Romeo and Juliet into the Brooklyn slums in West Side Story.

When casting is color blind, the results can be a bit jarring. Every once in a while some opera company decides to try to actually put on an entire production of Wagner's "Ring". (Sometimes it destroys them, since it is a major undertaking.) About fifteen years ago this was done and televised, and I watched and taped it. The second of the four plays is Die Walküre, and one of the characters in it is Sieglinde. Wagner was a notorious bigot, and all the main heroic or sympathetic characters in The Ring were envisioned by him as being played by whites with blonde hair and blue eyes. Yet for this particular presentation, a stunningly lovely black woman was cast as Sieglinde. After a momentary shock, the beauty of her voice and performance as she sang suspended my disbelief and I went with the flow. (I regret that I don't recall her name; I'm not much of an opera fan and don't keep up with who's hot.) Frankly, I don't think she was cast to make a statement; she was cast because she was the best person available for the role, being one of the top altos performing in the world at that time.

Then there is satirical casting. The best example of this is the play The Mikado which is ostensibly about Japan but was actually a satire about Victorian England. Which is why you have the Emperor of Japan singing about punishing billiards sharps by condemning them to play "On a cloth untrue, With a twisted cue, And elliptical billiard balls!" Hardly something the real emperor would have been concerned with. As a result, no-one pays the slightest attention to the ostensible race of any of the characters, and casts anyone they feel like. I also once saw a small play done in Boston which was based on the legendary cartoon strip "Krazy Kat", which was superb, by the way. It was definitely low budget but there was charm to it. Now Kokonino County was a pretty surreal place anyway, full of strange characters like Peking Duck and Don Kyoti. In this production all the supporting actors played multiple parts. One of the supporting actors was a beautiful Chinese-American woman with a lovely face and a figure to die for. (I'm a sucker for Chinese women. Always have been.) One of the great plot arcs in Krazy Kat was when the gorgeous Fifi the French Poodle came into Kokonino County, and all the male characters went ga-ga over her. Naturally, this Chinese woman played Fifi -- and she was superb. Her French accent was flawless, and she had the moves (and the equipment to make them). The jarring contrast between her Chinese features and her complete absorption into a stereotypical French babe-type character (because, of course, Fifi the French Poodle was a stereotype anyway) just made the performance that much more hilarious. It was an inspired casting choice!

The problem comes with the last form way of dealing with it, and Othello is the prime example. The character of Othello seems to have become reserved for Negro actors, almost their entitlement in the canon of Shakespeare. This is not transplantation, because the play is otherwise usually presented straight. It simply doesn't make sense to me. It's not that I object to black actors playing the part so much as that it doesn't seem to be possible anymore for anyone else to do so. If you were really trying to do the part racially accurately, you'd cast an Arab. If you were trying to come close, you'd take a caucasian actor and put makeup on him. Olivier did that in 1965; has any major white actor played Othello since then?. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010902.0721 (On Screen): When the world's first heart transplant took place, performed by the just-deceased Christian Baarnard in South Africa, the world was electrified. And immediately top surgical teams all over the industrialized world wanted to get into the game, and within the first year many more were performed. Some people started calling Barnaard "the father of transplantation", which was nonsense. The enthusiasm quickly cooled, though, because the patients invariably died rapidly from organ rejection. While the operation involved in replacing a heart wasn't by any stretch trivial, it still turned out that it was the easy part; the surgeons were, you should pardon the expression, just plumbers. The hard part turned out to be figuring out how to prevent rejection afterwards without killing the patients by shutting down their immune systems entirely, and that took a long time -- nearly twenty years, in fact, from that first heart transplant. The great advance that made transplantation practical was the development of cyclosporine. (discuss)

Stardate 20010902.0655 (On Screen): After a federal court struck down a similar program in Georgia as being unconstitutional, the governor of Florida last year eliminated affirmative action admissions programs in the state university system. This year there are fewer minority students in the Freshman class, and Governor Bush's political opponents are crowing "Told you so!"

I think it was a foregone conclusion that this was going to happen. The whole point of the affirmative action program was to artificially raise the number of minority students by accepting less qualified ones in preference to better qualified majority (read "white") applicants. When that program was terminated and when the universities switched to using qualifications to make the decision, in some cases they were going to take those white applicants instead. It really would have been quite surprising if the number of minority students hadn't fallen. That is not the issue.

The actual issue is twofold: is it ever legal to discriminate on the basis of skin color? Surely few would contend that it's legal to discriminate in favor of light skin color, but is it legal to discriminate in favor of dark skin color and against light skin color? For that is what "affirmative action" amounted to. "We'll discriminate against 20-something whites in order to make up for the fact that we discriminated in favor of 40-something whites and 60-something whites." The reason that is illegal is that the 20-somethings are not the same people as the 40-somethings, and this violates the 14th amendment rights of the 20-somethings. Nathan got an unreasonably good deal, so we're going to screw over his friend Jeremy just to make it even. It's only fair, right? Well, not to Jeremy.

There's also the moral question of what this was attempting to accomplish, and it came down to global versus individual treatment. The goal of affirmative action was to accomplish a greater goal of moving minorities into the professional class, and to do that those in favor were willing to accept that individual white students would lose out. Some opponents of affirmative action are racists, but many are simply interested in seeing individuals treated fairly irrespective of the global results. I believe that admission into universities, and indeed everything, should be race-blind. I certainly don't think that there should be discrimination in favor of whites, but equally I don't think it is right to discriminate against them. And it is impossible to discriminate in favor of any group without discriminating against at least one other. If there was illegal and immoral discrimination against blacks and Hispanics in the past, the solution is to eliminate discrimination, not to discriminate the other way for a few generations "to make it even". A white baby born in 1983, who is now trying to enter college, had nothing whatever to do with apartheid in the 1950's or the KKK in the 1920's, and she shouldn't be punished because her skin color happens to be the same as that of the people who really did do those things. Punish her when she does something wrong; don't punish her because she's part of a group. (discuss)

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004