Stardate 20010929.2114 (On Screen): The head of the ethics comittee for American fertility specialists has stated that he thinks it is morally acceptable for parents to choose the gender of children during in-vitro fertilization. There are cases where I think that is true, but not the ones he lists. He says it's acceptable for "gender variety", i.e. parents already have children of one sex and want one of the other sex. I think it goes without saying that nine times out of ten this is going to mean parents who only have daughters will be selecting for a boy, and I think that "gender variety" is not an acceptable consideration.
There are certain genetic diseases associated with the X chromosome, which are therefore far more common in boys than in girls, most notably hemophilia. When genetic diseases of that kind are known to run in families, sometimes they will do genetic tests during pregnancies and abort any males, so as to select female offspring who would have a far lower chance of inheriting the diseases. In the case of hemophilia, if the father is not a victim then a daughter cannot be because she's guaranteed to get a clean X chromosome from him, but will have a 50% chance of being a carrier because she may get the bad one from her mother. Even if she is a carrier, though, she will not have the disease. On the other hand, a son will get his father's Y chromosome, and will have a 50% chance of being a victim because there's a 1:2 chance that his one and only X chromosome, from his mother, will be the one with the bad gene. In the case of in vitro fertilization, if the same genetic risk exists in a family I have no problem with screening for gender before implantation. Ethically speaking, I see it as being no different from having an abortion in that case.
But making what amounts to a cosmetic choice of offspring is not the same. This isn't a choice based on avoiding a crippling and horrible disease (unless you consider being a "girl" such), it's the first step on the road to designer children, where the parents are not merely using this procedure to get kids, but are using it to get kids that fit their requirements or desires. We should not design our kids. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010929.1825 (On Screen): So the anti-globalists turned on a dime and suddenly became anti-war protesters and indeed managed to protest peacefully in Washington (as opposed to rioting as they had back when they were still protesting against globalization). According to this article, someone got carried away with an acronym: the coalition which organized one of the marches is known as ANSWER: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Er, racism? While ending racism may indeed be a noble goal, what has it got to do with this war? Or are they trying to claim that the only reason that the US is about to fight a war is because we're racist? (Great. Just great.) I'm more inclined to think that they just needed an ER to go with the ANSW part, and "Emergency Room" didn't make as much sense. Nor did "Error Rate", or "Engine Room" or "External Reaction"... (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010929.1226 (On Screen via long range sensors): Ananova reports something interesting, but... After reading it, I was all set to write a log entry that began: "When all else fails, blame the Jews" and going on from there. Then I thought twice and said, "Ananova, eh? Maybe I ought to see if I can find the same thing reported somewhere else." So I just visited Nando, Reuters, the BBC, the Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, ABCNews, Fox and a couple of other places and couldn't find confirmation anywhere. What's with Ananova, anyway? They've got the reputation now for being the online equivalent of the National Enquirer. (discuss)
Stardate 20010929.1154 (On Screen): Some people don't know when to keep their mouths shut. Castro is offering the US advice -- as if we give a tinker's damn what he thinks. He doesn't believe that the US should retaliate militarily for the WTC bombing. Rather, the war should be prosecuted by the UN, he says.
That is preposterous. It wasn't the UN that got attacked, it was America. Why would we want to trust the UN to fight our war for us, and for that matter what right have we to ask the UN to do such a thing? Certain nations which have mutual defense pacts with the US may be asked for military assistance, but surely we neither want nor need or have a right to ask for Chinese troops to fight against our enemies, let alone Cuban troops or troops from Algeria.
Yes, I'm aware that thousands of people from around the world died in the Trade Centers. Those nations also have a grievance against the attackers and are free to prosecute their own wars or do whatever else they desire to because of their losses. But that does not give them moral authority to override the acts of the US in this. The reason Castro wants the US to subordinate itself to the UN, and the reason I oppose doing so, is precisely because this would remove the ability of the US to unilaterally respond. (discuss)
Stardate 20010929.1135 (On Screen): Meanwhile, international efforts continue behind the scenes to try to revoke the First Amendment. The Bush Administration has been criticized for walking out of several high profile international negoations already, and this is probably going to be yet another. In this case, unless the treaty being negotiated is substantially changed, I seen no way that the US can participate in it. I am not willing to sacrifice our civil liberties just to avoid offending other nations. (discuss)
Stardate 20010929.1114 (On Screen): If indeed we do capture some terrorists and choose to put them on trial (instead of simply shooting them on sight), this article makes a compelling argument that they should be tried in front of a military tribunal instead of in front of a civilian jury, using military law instead of civilian law. I fully agree. (discuss)
Stardate 20010929.1028 (Crew, this is the Captain): More than a year ago, one of the very first essays I posted on my web page was a discussion of ethical cynicism. Current events inspire me to revisit that, for the arguments in favor of ethical cynicism have become even more relevant due to the ethical challenges we are about to face. To recap, an ethical cynic believes that all ethical systems are incomplete, and that there is not and can never be a complete and unchanging answer to the question "What is good?" (and its correlary "What is evil?") An ethical cynic believes that the words "good" and "evil" have meaning, but that all definitions of them are tentative and subject to change. The ethics of any act has to be judged within its specific context, and in some circumstances an act which as a general rule might be considered wrong may become ethically mandated simply because all the alternatives are worse.
"Thou shalt not kill." Well, usually. There was a case about a year ago of a couple of crazies in LA who tried to rob a bank and botched it. One of them started stalking down the middle of a street shooting at anything that moved. Ultimately he was shot and killed by the police. What he was doing was unquestionably wrong, but was it wrong for the police to kill him? I don't think so. Had they not done so he would almost certainly have killed several people himself. "Shoot to wound" only happens in movies and on television. In real life with modern weapons you don't generally have that choice. The LA police were presented with the stark choice of one death versus many, and correctly chose to kill one man to save the lives of many.
Is it wrong to execute someone convicted of a heinous crime? Some people claim that it is always wrong to do so. But suppose that we actually had our hands on bin Laden, gave him a scrupulously fair trial, and convicted him, having presented unimpeachable evidence which demonstrated beyond even the faintest shadow of a doubt his complicity in the murder of over 6000 people in NYC and several hundred in Washington DC? (Suppose we even recruited Johnnie Cochran to defend him?) What should we do with him once we've convicted him of mass murder? If we confine him to prison for life without possibility of parole, then as long as he has henchmen in the world who are as ruthless as those who committed the attacks in NYC and DC, no American anywhere will be safe. Americans overseas, in particular, will constantly be menaced with the possibility of being kidnapped, to be held and offered in exchange for the release of bin Laden. If fifty Americans are kidnapped and the US government won't deal, they'd be murdered one by one. If that didn't do it then the next kidnapping might be five hundred people. How many innocent Americans are we willing to sacrifice simply to keep bin Laden alive in our prison? If we executed him instead, that would finish that part of the story. There might be one terrorist attack in retaliation, but then it would be over. While this probably would not stop Al Qaeda from attacking Americans, it would remove that particular motivation for doing so. Whatever else you might have to say about capital punishment, the one thing everyone can agree on is that it is final and irrevocable.
Is torture wrong? Well, usually. Until two weeks ago the following scenario might have seemed like paranoid ravings, but I think people will now accept it as a real possibility: what if, at some point in the future, Al Qaeda smuggles the components of a fission weapon into the US with the intent to assemble it and destroy a US city. If one member of the group with knowledge of the details of the attack had been captured, then what do we do with him? He has the answers, and if those answers can be gotten out of him then a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions might be prevented. Forget about truth serums; that only happens in the movies. (Lots of ethically easy answers only happen in movies.) You've got 12 hours to make him talk or Philadelphia (or Miami, or Houston, or Denver) will be destroyed. What are you going to do? You torture him. There is no other answer. It's bad but all the other choices are worse, and torture works. If by torturing one man you can potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, I consider it to be an ethical obligation to do so. I'd even take my turn, if I had any talent for it. (And then I'd hate myself for the rest of my life.)
Is it wrong to use poison gas in war? I'm torn on that one, but a lot of people think so. The main practical argument against it is the possibility of a radical escalation. Many people point to the fact that not even Hitler used poison gas in WWII, but the reason why surely had nothing to do with the Geneva Convention or any ethics on his part. Rather, he knew that the Allies were prepared to counter with their own poison gas, and that if he started it then his own troops would reap what he had sowed. It was deterrence which prevented it, not any ethics. On a moral basis, is it necessarily any worse to kill an enemy with gas than it is to shred his body with cluster bombs, or to cook him with napalm, or to blow him to bits with a fuel air explosive? Let alone simply shooting him? Death is death, and a lot of weapons maim when they don't kill. Still, there is that worry about escalation and it's very real. Let's suppose that somehow gas is truly ethically worse. What if we're facing an enemy who has a position that can't reasonably be taken out any other way than with poison gas? As a battlefield weapon there are numerous reasons to dislike gas, but as a weapon for taking out a tunnel system, it may well be peerless. A well fought war involves economy, especially with the lives of our own soldiers, and using gas on a tunnel system may well save our own people's lives. And the ability to neutralize tunnel systems may be the difference between a short war and a quagmire -- which means it may save more of our enemy's lives, let alone our own people's lives.
Is it wrong to use a nuke on an enemy city? This is a horrendous evil and should be resisted if at all possible -- but I still can conceive of circumstances in which it would be morally required. If a ruthless enemy is known to have a supply of nukes and uses one on one of our own cities, then what is to prevent him from doing so again and killing even more Americans? For fifty years, what has prevented nuclear exchange was the threat of massive retaliation, but that threat only works if it is credible. If someone doesn't believe you have the will to respond, then even if you have weapons you have no deterrent. It was the absolute determination to use the weapons which prevented the need to do so. So what if someone actually calls our bluff? If we don't respond, won't they be encouraged to take out several more cities? If by destroying one enemy city to prove our resolve we can prevent the destruction of five more US cities, should we not do so? Setting off a nuke in an uninhabited place doesn't prove anything; that only works in movies. I think we'd have to seriously consider whether the inhabitants of Baghdad are more important than the inhabitants of New York plus Atlanta plus Los Angeles plus London plus Rotterdam plus Frankfurt plus Marseille plus Salerno. Are we willing to sacrifice all those Americans and allies to avoid killing the people of Baghdad?
I was raised as a fervant Christian, and I mean fervant. One of my great grandfathers was a minister and his daughter (my grandmother) wouldn't even let playing cards into her home when I was a kid. We were more liberal than that, but my parents didn't curse and didn't drink (and didn't dance). When I was in high school, I began to have doubts about what I had been taught; the ethical principles seemed simplistic and I kept running into cases where a literal application of them would result in acts which were prima facie wrong. It just seemed as if the ethical rules needed to be more complex, if only because the world is complex. When I was in college, despite being a science major I took a lot of philosophy courses. I took a course in ethics, and emerged from that recognizing that of all the classic ethical systems, the only one which wasn't deeply flawed was rule utilitarianism. It was formulated as a variation on pure utilitarianism as a way of dealing with, among other things, the tragedy of the commons. But ultimately I found it, too, unsatisfactory because at it's core the only strong statement it makes is "There are exceptions to every rule." It is much too susceptible to rationalization. The difficulty was that the world is constantly changing. As we progress, entirely new issues arise not forseen by those who lived before us. Most wide-spread ethical systems derive from religions, which itself isn't logically defensible. But if a religion claims inerrancy and completeness (and many do) and if you find that one of its teachings seems to give you the wrong answer in an entirely new ethical problem, then it means that the religion from which it was derived wasn't inerrant. Since I believe that all valid ethical systems are, and must inevitably remain, works in progress and must adapt to new ethical challenges, then any religion who claims to have a complete and final answer now is wrong -- or rather, that it cannot be totally right. As an ethical cynic, what I believe is that no ethical system can be inerrant. This doesn't inevitably lead to atheism, but it was one of the things which ultimately pushed me in that direction.
But many mainstream religions have accepted this and do change their ethical teachings as new problems arise. Of course, given that it is presumed that God hasn't visited us lately and handed us a new set of stone tablets, the it means that the ethical teachings of those churches come from humans, not from God. Some try to pretend that they got the changes from God via prayer, but that doesn't generally wash and most of them have abandoned the pretense. This removes much of the moral authority behind them. It seems that a church can be right or strong, but not both.
In the mean time, we have to accept that in war it is necessary sometimes to do evil things, sometimes grossly evil things, for no reason other than because all the alternatives are even worse. By far the best summation of this came from a Los Angeles police officer: "The standard isn't perfection; the standard is the alternative." If what we do results in a situation that is less bad than what would happen if we were inactive, then it was the right thing to do even if it is absolutely bad. That, ultimately, is why pacifism is wrong at this time; it will lead to worse results than if we actively do bad things. It is not always given to us to make an choice which is absolutely good. Sometimes we have to select the least among evils. (discuss)
Stardate 20010929.0851 (On Screen): Israel is doing a fine job of frittering away any remaining moral highground it may have had. Since the latest ceasefire has gone into effect, there have been a lot more people killed, and all of them have been Palestinians. There have been well over a hundred people injured, and nearly all of those have also been Palestinians. So what has been happening? Young Palestinians have been rioting and Israeli troops have been firing on them with live ammunition. I think it inevitable that Sharon will try to blame it on Arafat again, but I don't think that's going to stick. If tensions and hostility were supposed to be tuned down by the agreement, why aren't the Israeli troops trying to use non-lethal means to control civil unrest? Palestinian kids are throwing rocks, and Israeli troops are shooting to kill in response. Just who looks the worst here? (discuss)
Update 20010930: Israel has given the Palestinians 48 hours to stop the violence. Apparently it is Arafat's fault that Israeli troops have shot and killed 16 Palestinians since the beginning of the "cease fire". What's he supposed to do, disarm the Israeli army?
Stardate 20010929.0336 (On Screen): Business leaders in Tijuana are objecting to having the 666 area code assigned to their area. I'm with them; that one should'a gone to Las Vegas. Or maybe Washington DC. Or to whereever it is that Falwell lives. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.2159 (On Screen): This is at the very least tasteless. Yet another person finds truth about the WTC bombing in his own back yard. This one thinks that all of us should repond to the bombing by attending a foreign film festival so we can come to understand the rest of the world better. And just by sheer coincidence, it seems he's actually running such a festival right now, in NYC of all places. Imagine that! Boy, are we lucky. Or not, as the case may be. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.1601 (On Screen): Well, there was originally supposed to be a meeting of the IMF/World Bank in Washington in the next couple of days, but because of the bombing it was called off. There was also supposed to be a demonstration against them by the anti-Globalization folks -- and what with the meeting called off, you'd think there would be nothing to demonstrate against, wouldn't you? But they're going to protest anyway, and they've quickly changed their signs. Instead of protesting against globalization they're going to protest for peace. One of their demands is going to be for "restraint".
It's been 18 days since the bombing and the US hasn't done anything yet. How restrained to they want us to be? (discuss)
Update: Of course, they do have a right to protest. The Constitution protects our right to be foolish. (And wouldn't it be ironic if this "peace" protest turned into a riot, like so many of the other anti-Globalization demonstrations in recent memory?)
Stardate 20010928.1306 (On Screen): How ruthless do you feel? During World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese built tunnels -- lots of tunnels. One of the worst places for that was Iwo Jima, a flyspeck of an island worth nothing whatever except because of its location. It was almost exactly half way between and directly in line between Saipan and the Japanese home islands. In Japanese hands, an air field on Iwo would permit Japanese fighters to attack American B-29 bombers twice on each mission to Japan, while in American hands it could be used to base long range fighter escorts and to provide an emergency landing field for damaged bombers, plus supporting scout planes to cover a large area of the Pacific, and to provide air cover for naval movement. So when the Japanese started building an airfield there, the US decided to take the island. But no-one expected the price to be as high as it was. It was one of the bloodiest fights per square mile of the entire war. Iwo is a rock seven miles long and about three miles wide. Every square inch of it was within range of naval gunfire, and the Japanese-held sections of it were shelled ceaselessly during the entire campaign. It was subjected to six weeks of air bombardment and three full days of naval gunfire before the landing. Naval gunfire could be called in by the Marines as they needed it, and numerous American carriers provided bombers to make targeted attacks during the fighting. Communication between the Marines and the Navy was excellent. And yet it took seven weeks to take some 8 square miles at a cost of over 24,000 American casualties (including 6821 killed). The defending force of about 21,000 men was nearly all killed (as had been the norm in Japanese defensive operations throughout the war; few prisoners were ever taken).
The Japanese had fortified the island extensively with concrete pillboxes for machine guns and mortars and artillery pieces, and also with an extremely elaborate tunnel system. These tunnels would permit Japanese units to pop up behind the Marines and attack them from rear. Ultimately, one way of dealing with this turned out to be to deal with tunnel entrances whenever they were found by pouring flamethrower fire into their mouths, followed by the use of satchel charges to collapse and seal them. The flamethrowers would ruin the air inside, and sealing the mouth would then trap any survivors or at least make that exit useless.
If it turns out to be necessary for the US to send in a substantial ground force to Afghanistan, we're probably going to have to do the same thing with the tunnels there, only maybe even more so. While there is not (cannot be!) anything like the kind of density of tunnels as there were on Iwo, the ones they do have will be a substantial problem. One possible tactic on finding any tunnel mouth will be to toss in gas grenades, and then to seal the mouth. Tunnels have many virtues but ventilation is not among them; and if there is a substantial release of gas at a sealed entrance, it will eventually pervade the entire tunnel complex and force abandonment for a considerable period of time. That, of course, then leads to the question of lethal versus non-lethal gas. How ruthless do you feel?
We could use tear gas (CS), for instance, but the complex would become useful again in a few days at most. On the other hand, such a tunnel could be rendered permanently useless with mustard gas, which settles on surfaces, is a contact poison (gas masks are not a sufficient defense against it; you need full body coverage), and doesn't degrade if it isn't exposed to weather, which it wouldn't be underground. Upon discovery of any tunnel entrance, a hundred pound canister of mustard gas with a time-delay mechanism on it could be moved 20 yards inside, and then the mouth sealed with explosives. Then a couple of minutes later the cannister would release many thousands of cubic feet of gas over a period of a couple of minutes. That would be enough to render an extremely large tunnel system (one extending several miles) useless pretty much indefinitely. Mustard gas is 85 year old technology; I have no doubt whatever that we have more modern poison gases capable of even better effect. But this would also violate the Geneva Convention and could potentially lose us our position of moral superiority in the war. (It's arguable also that it is cruel, but is it really any more cruel than any other kind of killing in a war?) On the other hand, I really don't know of any other way to deal with extensive tunnels; we can't afford to pay the kind of price we paid at Iwo per square mile of Afghani territory cleared, and to eliminate a tunnel complex without gas you have to find and destroy every single entrance. For big ones that's not practical. The advantage of using gas is that you can eliminate a complex by finding only one entrance; you no longer care where the others are. Once you've driven your enemy to the surface, then he is much easier to defeat.
The "humane" way is to used non-lethal colored smoke. Then you use air recon to try to find other entrances as the smoke emerges from them, calling in either bombing missions or moving ground forces in to seal those. That's not very effective, though; too much chance of missing a few.
An alternative, which would so far as I know be completely legal under the Geneva Convention, would be to release explosive gas instead of poison gas, and then detonate it. This would turn the entire tunnel complex into one big fuel-air bomb, and a confined one at that. 500 pounds of propane could ruin a very big place, but it wouldn't deny that area to the enemy for further use unless it caused widespread collapses in the tunnel system, which would depend entirely on how well they'd built. Vaporized kerosene would cause a bigger explosion but wouldn't dissipate as far before the blast.
Yes, these are horrible thoughts. War is not a nice experience. But this is the kind of thing that military planners have to consider. The tunnels are a problem; how do we deal with them if we have to invade? There are people in our military now who are debating these and many other alternatives. I hope we don't have to deal with them at all, but if we do then I hope our planning people find a way which minimizes casualties among our own soldiers. What we don't want to have to do is go down in and root them out. (discuss)
Update: Having done more research I can now say that mustard gas would be a poor choice. It isn't really a gas but rather is a liquid; when it was used as a weapon in WWI it was placed in artillery shells which aerosolized it. The canister releasing it could do the same, but aerosols don't spread well. A better choice would be a true poison gas like phosgene, which is reasonably stable, highly lethal, and which is heavier than air. As a result, it would tend to spontaneously travel to the lower parts of the cave complex. It, too, would be a violation of the Geneva Convention. And I do know that there are persistent nerve gases which equally could serve as area denial weapons in caves and tunnels -- but that would unquestionably lose us any claim to moral superiority. As I think about this, I'm coming to think more and more that propane or something like it is a better answer. The big problem with it would be premature detonation caused by a flame source in the cave, reducing the effect of the blast. On the other hand, if word spreads that we're doing something like that, it might cause our enemies to think twice about continuing to use its caves, which would be all to the good.
Stardate 20010928.1136 (On Screen): Iain raises an interesting question: If we did manage to capture bin Laden, what would we do with him? Put him on trial and condemn him to life imprisonment? I think that's what a lot of people would like -- but then we'd face having Americans all over the world being taken hostage on a continuing basis as long as bin Laden and his supporters still live, as his supporters try to wangle a trade. How many American civilians per year are we willing to sacrifice for the privilege of holding bin Laden in our maximum security prison?
Execute him? A lot of people in the US oppose capital punishment, but how else to remove the threat of kidnapping from Americans operating around the world? Actually, the best answer would be for our forces to have "kill, not capture" orders; best to take him out as early and as cleanly as possible and avoid the whole issue. (Given that this is a war and not a criminal investigation, such orders would be completely justified: you don't have to prove guilt to kill an enemy in war; the fact that he's an enemy is sufficient.) It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to learn that our special forces operating in Afghanistan indeed have exactly those orders, especially considering how difficult and dangerous it would be for them to try to take him alive and then to try to extract him. Capturing someone unharmed who is surrounded by dedicated bodyguards is extremely difficult and dangerous because you have to shoot it out and that means you have to expose yourself; it's much easier (and less risky for our people) to kill them all, because you can use area effect weapons like hand grenades. I am not willing to sacrifice the lives of some of our best soldiers just to hold a trial. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.1020 (On Screen): The recording industry's latest great idea for putting the MP3 genie back in the CD bottle is bi-modal CDs. First on the CD would be the classic "Red Book" audio as needed by standard CD players. Then there would a file-formatted section which contained all the same music in a computer-format which had "intellectual property protection" mechanisms built in. They can produce disks like that, though if they do then we're going back to the 40-minute disk, since there won't be room for 70 minutes on a CD this way. But it won't do them any good.
A large number of the CD drives sold now for computers permit access in raw mode, which is a straight block-addressed read that completely bypasses the operating system's directory services. The data which a CD player reads can be retrieved from one of these new CDs in raw mode, ignoring the protected versions entirely. If the data has Macromedia-style errors incorporated, it will be possible to make a pass through the data to remove it. Any error correction that standard CD players can do to remove the crap can be emulated digitally in a computer; it doesn't have to be real-time since you're only doing it once. Then the data could be compressed and redistributed as an MP3 file. It only takes one group to write the necessary software and distribute it, and then the whole world will have the capability. It only takes one person who owns such a hybrid CD to create the MP3 files, and then they can be distributed widely thereafter with file sharing programs. This genie won't fit back in the bottle.
As long as a copy protected CD can be played on a standard CD player, and as long a there exist CD drives for computers capable of raw reads, then it will be possible to defeat the copy protection on those CDs. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.0955 (On Screen): The Microsoft anti-trust trial process continues. Suddenly I get the idea that a lot fewer people care about that as much as they used to. (Funny thing about that.) With the end of hyperbole I suspect there will be a marked decline in references to Microsoft as "the evil empire" (except facetiously) or comparisons between what they've been doing to the Nazis (which used to be common). I recall cases where people claimed that Microsoft were no better than mass murderers, but then these were people who hadn't actually lived through real atrocities. Suddenly things spring into focus and perspective. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.0941 (On Screen): I think one of the reasons that the US has a bad reputation in other nations is that we are such a mixed bag, so that someone looking at us can see in any given story nearly whatever they want to see. This report from the BBC is a beautiful example of that: The American Library Association has published a list of books which librarians have received requests to remove from library shelves because of what they contain. High on this year's list is the "Harry Potter' stories about an apprentice sorceror, because they might be teaching "satanism".
Someone who hates America will see closed-minded uneducated bigots who think that a marvelously written series of kids books should be censored because of narrow-minded religious sensibilities. On the other hand, someone who loves America will note that the list itself was publicized by Americans to show that such censorship attempts exist so as to try to make sure they don't succeed, and will also note that the Harry Potter books have sold extremely well in the US. All of those things are true. The US is difficult to categorize -- indeed, that is the whole point of the US. What this story really demonstrates is that the US is a nation which tolerates and even encourages an extremely wide variety of opinions -- and a wide variety of nearly everything else. Trying to put America into a small category becomes an exercise in "Blind men and the elephant".
Are Americans educated or uneducated? Open minded or bigoted? Intelligent or stupid? Vicious or kind? Creative or hide-bound? Reckless or cautious? Free spending or miserly? Forgiving or vindictive? Generous or stingy? Yes. Which can make the US come off as a loose cannon sometimes, which may be why even our friends fear us a bit. With so many voices speaking and saying so many different things, it can be hard for outsiders to determine which voices will prevail. (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.0917 (On Screen): Anyone remember how after OJ's acquittal he offered a reward for anyone who could finger the "real murderer"? (Remember how no-one ever claimed that reward?) The Taliban wants a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Council (a collection of 57 Muslim nations) for purposes of finding the real perpetrators of the WTC bombing. (And they're demanding to know, yet again, where all the US intelligence assets are so they can plug all the leaks. They're also complaining about spy plane missions over their nation. Can we have a big "Well, DUH!" please?) (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.0702 (On Screen): James Lileks advises on how to annoy a dentist. It strikes me as counterproductive to try to annoy someone who has a drill in his hand and is capable of causing you intense pain should he be so inclined. Generally I try to be polite and accomodating to people like that.
You have to learn the difference between people with titles and people with power. You do not hassle the clerk at the airline check-in, because if you do your bags will get sent to Anchorage while you're going to Bermuda. If you hassle a clerk at a hotel, you'll get the room which looks out over the freeway instead of the one that looks out over the swimming pool. You can hassle your boss but you do not hassle the group secretary. She doesn't have a title but she can make your life miserable. And I can't see any point in hassling dentists when I'm laying in their chair. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010928.0444 (On Screen): Poor (ahem) pitiable Larry Ellison. Such a shame. (Heh-heh-heh-heh...) After briefly moving ahead of Bill Gates to become the world's Richest Human, Ellison's holding have declined even faster than Gates' have, dropping Ellison to fourth position. Poor Larry -- how will he hold his head up in public? (discuss)
Stardate 20010928.0438 (On Screen): Well, one suspicion turned up empty: after extremely heavy investigation, there's no evidence that anyone with pre-knowledge of the attack attempted to capitalize on it in the stock markets. There were people who did make out because of the attack, but it looks as if it was simply chance. In one sense I'm sorry this turned out to be the case. If the bad guys had actually tried to mess around with stocks, it would have left a trail to try to find some of their money and seize it. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.2021 (On Screen): It returns from the underworld! Nothing can stop it! Sounds like something from a bad horror film advertisement, but what I'm really talking about is that key escrow is back in the news; the Senate is considering requiring it. It was a stupid idea last time and it is still a stupid idea. Strong crypto is a fact of life. It simply isn't all that hard to write strong crypto from scratch, and in any case strong crypto programs already exist in the world and cannot possible be recalled. Anyone who wants to protect their communication and doesn't care about the law will be able to do so, so all that mandated backdoors will do is to weaken the crypto used by legitimate users. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1730 (On Screen): Technology Review is one of my favorite sites on the web, and though it is run by MIT it isn't ordinarily explicitly about MIT. But they've given in to the temptation to give their own slant on the WTC bombing. That's completely understandable. One story which is worth reading is the personal experience of a man who was on the 70th floor of the first WTC tower to be struck and tells how he got out, and talks about what his wife and daughters went through before they found out he was safe. It reminds us that while there were a lot of tragedies, there were a lot more happy endings. There were about 30,000 people in the towers when they were struck and most of them got out safely.
That is, in fact, a testimonial to how well designed the towers actually were. No steel frame building is capable of standing indefinitely in the face of severe fire, and the original designers of the towers had a goal of avoiding catastrophic collapse for at least 60 minutes after an overwhelming fire started -- and they achieved that. One tower stood 62 minutes, the other 103. And because of that, most of the people were able to evacuate, and 24,000 people were saved.
Engineers always study their failures in detail, to learn as much as they possibly can from them. Everyone who took high school physics has seen the film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge when high winds destroyed it; that failure was extensively studied and all bridges built since then are resistant to those kinds of failures, and there has been no comparable bridge collapse anywhere in the world since then. Generally speaking, civil engineering is extremely good. We take it for granted, but shouldn't. Consider how little actual damage was done in San Francisco by its major earthquake a few years ago: a few buildings on landfill in NE SF collapsed when the ground they were built on liquified; one segment of one deck of the Oakland Bay Bridge went down, and a stretch of elevated freeway in East Bay collapsed. That was pretty much the extent of it. It could have been far, far worse; none of the large buildings there were even slightly damaged, for instance, and the Golden Gate Bridge came through with nary a scratch. And even the damage to the Bay Bridge was slight considering how large it is. They were able to repair it and put it back into service. That overall reliability of a huge number of structures in the Bay area (well over 99% survival rate) was due to analysis of prior failures; the buildings in SF survived because of studies done of all the buildings which had collapsed in the big one in 1905.
The WTC towers used a relatively innovative design where the outer wall of the building was load bearing. As a result it didn't have internal columns and this gave it more useful room inside as well as large open spaces on each floor. It also had a different effect: when the collapse finally came, it went straight down. Given the amount of damage and the ferocity of the fire, a collapse was unavoidable. But if the frame had been designed differently, the building might have leaned to the side and set off a far greater catastrophe: a domino-like sequence of buildings falling into each other and going over. Had that happened, the death toll might have reached a hundred thousand. In retrospect, these buildings did nearly everything you could have hoped that they'd do in the face of intolerable damage, up to dying in a way that didn't destroy their neighbors.
It isn't possible to build a large building that cannot be destroyed. But these buildings actually survived the initial insult extremely well, especially considering how much of the external load-bearing structure was destroyed in the initial impact. The remainder took up the load; had the insult been confined to the impact, the buildings would not have come down. It was the fire which did them in; the remainder of the load-bearing steel weakened in the heat, and the impulse from the top part of the structures falling then accordioned the rest of the structure.
What lessons will engineers learn from this and what will they do in future? It is, of course, too early to tell. It will take years for the analysis to be completed. Some things stand out already: For buildings the size of these, a 60-minute survival rate in major fire for the steel is not adequate. It needs to be twice or three times that. It probably isn't practical to extend it much further, though. And there probably should be more and better emergency staircases. The ones in the Petronas towers are particularly well built and are maintained at an atmospheric overpressure to keep smoke out, and if it is not already, then that will become standard design practice. The steel structure will probably be beefed up and a bit more redundancy added, so that it can sustain more damage without immediate catastrophic failure. I think that, on analysis, this will not repudiate the basic tube structure used; indeed, the fact that the buildings collapsed straight down instead of falling laterally into neighboring buildings will come to be seen as a plus. (It's been commented on that they came down nearly as cleanly as if they had been deliberately imploded.)
On a different note, though, the "Mine is longer than yours" race will probably come to an end soon. Even if someone is willing to build another huge tower, there will be more reluctance by people to rent space in it, and no single company can fully utilize a building that size. Even in Manhattan there is not the actual need to utilize ground space that efficiently; too many large buildings in too small a space not only represent a tempting target but also bring with them problems of traffic and congestion. This may well be the beginning of the last stage of the distribution of business away from urban concentrations. With modern telecommunications there actually is little benefit for a company to be in close proximity to many other companies; if the other company is three blocks away you talk to them by phone anyway, so what difference does it make if they're five miles (or five thousand miles) away? Business is already global, so why pack it into a few concentrations?
Large buildings represent a diminishing return anyway. One of the biggest problems with them has always been that as buildings grow taller, the amount of space inside the building dedicated to elevators grows even faster. Each additional floor you add gains you less and less actual useful space. At a certain point, most of the insides of the building would be elevator shafts. The WTC towers had an innovative solution to that: certain floors served as elevator stations. To get to one of the top floors, you had to "change trains" a couple of times. This permitted multiple elevator cars to operate in the same vertical shafts, increasing capacity. But that only delays the inevitable: A 200 floor building would have no useful space in it.
It's kind of a shame; there's something romantic about the constant race to build something even bigger than the last. Everyone knew it would come to an end eventually, but I don't think anyone thought it would happen this soon. If new structures are built on the site where the WTC towers once stood, I don't think they'll be anything like as tall. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010927.1506 (On Screen): The FBI has been doing a good job. They've released photos and some information about all the suspected hijackers. The fact that they've found photographs of them all is quite impressive, and the fact that they admit where there are holes in their data is even more impressive (several comments to the effect of "identity is in dispute"). I think it very likely that there is much more known about them than has been revealed here, but their admissions of ignorance will go a long way towards stilling concerns that they're on a witch hunt. Of course, now that these photos and brief descriptions have been publicized, more information about the hijackers will probably develop as folks recognize them and call in with tips. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1416 (On Screen): It bothers me a bit that the US has proposed a UN resolution which would request other nations to do something that we in the US cannot legally do. The resolution asks member nations to try to clamp down on the finances of terrorist organizations, which is fine. It asks that working to finance such organizations be made a crime -- which is reasonable. But it also asks that freedom of movement of suspected terrorists be restricted -- which is unconstitutional in the US. Other places it isn't, of course, but the US itself isn't capable of passing such a law and having it stand court challenge. If we're supposed to be the paragon of freedom in the world, why are we asking other nations to restrict the freedom of their people in ways we ourselves find abhorrent? (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1346 (On Screen): Occasionally a product comes out which sounds good but is probably useless in practice. Motorola has developed a device for cell phones which contains a cranked generator. If the phone battery runs down completely, a user can crank a built-in generator on this device for somewhat less than a minute and then connect it to their phone and draw enough power from it to let the phone operate for a few minutes, or so it is claimed. Just how useful is this, really? The scenario this is needed for would be someone whose car breaks down on a lonely road and discovers that their cell phone battery is dead. Is that really all that common? I'm a bit skeptical about getting six minutes of phone operation out of 45 seconds of hand cranking. Of course, if the road is busy then you raise your hood and wait for a cop to stop. If you're walking, you find a phone booth or go into a restaurant or store. (Anyway, who'd want to carry this gizmo with them when they're walking?) It just seems as if it satisfies a very small need. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where a product hits at just the right time. What with the disaster of two weeks ago, some people are (at least temporarily) beginning to view a cell phone as essential safety equipment, which leads to the obvious fear "But what if the battery is run down?" I suspect we're looking at one of those devices that are most often bought for people by other people ("Makes a great gift!!!"). (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1051 (On Screen): I don't know. Apparently a lot of people were deeply moved by this piece from The Onion. At least one web logger I read regularly linked to it, and I received email from someone about it. It didn't do anything for me, though. I don't think it's all that good of writing, and anyway it doesn't square with the Old Testament account of God. This God, who says "Never kill anyone at any time under any circumstances", supposedly; isn't this the one who took out the Firstborn of Egypt and levelled the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah and killed everyone living there, and turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, and dropped the walls of Jericho so the Israelites could slaughter the inhabitants? And who answered Samson's prayers to regain his strength so he could destroy a temple and kill everyone in it? And who seemed to bless interminable wars in which the Philistines got smited? (Seems like there was a lot of "smiting" going on in the Old Testament, actually.) And I seem to remember a story about David and a sling. Sorry, the God described in the Onion document isn't the God of the Old Testament; it's simply a thinly disguised opportunity for modern pacifists to speak ex cathedra. (It's also close to being blasphemous.)
In a sense, they're on the side of the angels here. I would like it if there was a way to get through this without anyone else getting killed, myself. But I don't believe that's possible. It's no longer a question of whether people will die, it's now only an issue of who they will be. If by killing some of our enemies we can keep some of our own people safe, then that is what I think we should do. If we do not do that then we sacrifice our own, and I think that is wrong. Our enemies have set the ground rules; we can only play by them. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1010 (On Screen): For those who say that revolutions and terrorist movements can never be ended, and that military intervention can never help, please note this case. A NATO force was invited into Macedonia by both sides in a civil war there, to supervise disarmament of the rebel force. They did so and are about to leave, and the Macedonian rebel movement is disbanding. While this is not inevitably what will happen in every case, this proves that it is possible. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.1002 (On Screen): The Taliban have delivered the message to bin Laden asking him to leave Afghanistan. The problem with liars is that their lies catch up with them: they have in the past said both that he had already left and that they didn't know where he was. They also claim he had nothing to do with the WTC bombings, but why should we believe that when they can't even tell a straight story about where he is? (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.0946 (On Screen): After years of losses, when the company appeared to be within weeks of death, Corel's board of directors finally bestirred themselves and decided that Michael Cowpland was not an asset. He was moved to a token unimportant position and eased out of the company, and new management took over -- and the fortunes of the company reversed almost immediately. Stupid business ventures were killed and the company concentrated on their core competence -- and they started making money. They have just announced their third successive profitable quarter and now look to have a decent chance of survival. Hell, to make any profit at all in the quarter just ended was quite an accomplishment. To do so with a basket case like Corel is a miracle. Of course, if I were a Corel stockholder (not a chance in hell, but if I were) I'd be asking the board why they hadn't done it at least two years before. In the mean time, I can think of a few other CEOs who also really ought to be "pursuing other opportunities". (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.0903 (On Screen): When I was about 12, my brother decided to try to teach me electronics and how to wire things up. He's four years older than I am (and we both ended up being engineers) and he'd been messing around for quite a while; he had a small workbench set up in his bedroom in the basement. I used to hang around down there. So he got a copy of Popular Electronics (we're talking about 1966 here) which had the schematic for some analog circuit in it maybe involving five transistors and told me to spend about 30 seconds looking at it. OK, whatever you say. Then he closed the magazine and we went to his workbench and started to work. And of course I didn't know what I was wiring, and said so and he said "Just bring the image back and look at it." Well, I can't do that, and said so. The session was not a success.
A couple of years later I was hanging out in his room laying on his bed reading the latest issue of Scientific American, while he was working on something at his workbench, and I read an article about eidetic (photographic) memories. And I said, "Hey, this is cool! There are people who can take pictures with their minds and hold them and look at them even after the picture is gone!" And he looked at me, astonished, and said, "I thought everyone could do that." I said, "No, it's extremely rare." And it is, but it turns out my brother is one of them. We did an experiment; the article had a picture in it of Alice looking up at the Cheshire cat sitting in a tree, and my brother looked at it for about 20 seconds, and then I took it away and concealed it from him and asked him questions like "How many rings on the cat's tail? How many flowers are there at the base of the tree and how many petals does each have?" And he answered all the questions correctly. Even among people with eidetic memories, my brother is rare. Most of them can do it with photographs, but my brother can also do it with abstract drawings, like schematics. Turns out that when he wanted to wire a circuit, he'd capture the drawing in his head. He could close the magazine because he didn't need it anymore. Whenever he needed to consult the schematic, he'd get kind of a blank look and peer off into space for a moment, and then get back to his wiring. That was what he'd been trying to make me do -- but since I don't have an eidetic memory, I couldn't.
The linked article talks about the latest release of Mac OSX. Henry Norr is a Mac fan from way back, but even he mentions that he still finds the dock to be somewhat less useful than it might be because of its exclusive use of graphics icons, as opposed to the mix of icons and text which is used on the Windows taskbar (which Norr says is more useful). And it suddenly occurred to me: Could it be that Jobs, who has always emphasized the graphic over the text, is an "image" thinker instead of a "word" thinker?
It's long been known that the subjective experience of thought for most people is of a "voice" inside the head. But for some people, the subjective experience is a series of images. Such people are not necessarily any less intelligent nor are they necessarily less articulate in expressing themselves verbally, but it is a difference nonetheless. It is not actually something you can detect from external behavior; picture thinkers can be great writers and word-thinkers can be great artists -- though I suspect it's more common to be the other way around. Research has shown that "verbal" thought occurs mainly in the left frontal lobe and that "visual" thought mainly in the right lobe, and that for most people the left lobe dominates; picture thinkers make up a few percent of the population. I happen to use both kinds; I switch between them freely and use whichever is appropriate for the kind of problem I'm trying to solve, and sometimes I use them both at once. I find that word-thinking is better for detailed problem solving and for when I'm writing, but that image-thinking is better for things like analyzing entire systems and doing timing analyses, which I can do in my head while other people have to do them on paper. Of course, these things vary quite a lot from person to person, and most word-thinkers use images some of the time and vice versa. But you do get people who go to extremes, and it just occurred to me that Jobs might be exclusively a picture-thinker.
Work with me here. If that's true, then for 25 years he's been attempting to design the perfect computer for picture thinkers like him, because he thinks "everyone can do that", the way my brother thought everyone had a photographic memory. So the Mac interface has always tried to use spatial and graphics and icons for things that were often controlled with text on other GUIs. And the Mac has collected a core group of believers while the majority scoff at its GUI concepts. It is perhaps no accident that the greatest stronghold of commercial Mac users is commercial artists, who would be expected to be predominately picture thinkers. The Mac true believers are absolutely convinced that the Mac GUI is well in advance of the alternatives because it matches the way they think more closely, and don't understand why the rest of us are not overwhelmed by its conceptual beauty. To them it seems obvious that this is how it should be done -- which might make sense for picture thinkers who don't understand word thinking.
The Windows interface, which is the overwhelming commercial success, is more generalized: it uses both text and image cues for most things. What that means is that it is usable by both word-thinkers and by picture-thinkers, and that both of them find it cluttered. The word-thinkers wonder what all those stupid graphics cues are there for, and the picture-thinkers criticize all the damned text -- and everyone thinks it is mediocre. But because it is generalized and uses redundant cues, it is more readily accessible to a broader set of people than any interface customized for one style of thinking.
Is there a competing extreme group on the other end? You bet: Linux users. Until recently, Linux was nearly exclusively text, and even today its GUIs are non-standard (three competing ones which are incompatible) and are not as broadly used as are the GUIs on Windows and the Mac. A Linux user will, generally speaking, opt for a text interface when he can, using graphics only when he must. A Mac user will (as a general rule) use graphics when possible and text only when forced to do so. The preferred Linux tool is a shell prompt; the preferred Mac tool is the mouse and things like the Finder. My conjecture is that Linux and the Mac attract people whose thinking modes are extreme, respectively towards word thinking and picture thinking (not exclusively, of course) with the majority, who are not extreme toward either type, landing in the middle and using Windows. The frustration of these two extreme groups comes from not understanding that their thinking modes are not, actually, the mode. They proselytize, "Of COURSE you can do everything with [words/pictures]; I do and I never need [pictures/words] at all -- and neither do you." And their words land on deaf ears and they get angry because others can't see the basic beauty of their extreme interface, which is actually tailored for the thinking processes of a minority of the population. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010927.0758 (On Screen): Don't peek yet: This article describes the formation of the Liberty Alliance Project. Let's see if we can guess what it might be, shall we? Is it an effort by the US government to rally the free nations of the world to fight against terrorists and authoritarian governments around the world? Nope. Well, is it an effort to oppose Attorney General Ashcroft's attempts to revoke the Bill of Rights in the name of fighting terrorism? Uh-uh.
No, it's a group of companies led by Sun Microsystems who are going to create a system to compete with Microsoft's Passport. The "liberty" to which they refer is liberty from the real Evil Empire, the one whose capitol is in Redmond. Scott McNealy needs to get a grip. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.0739 (On Screen): Never let it be said that the diplomatic situation in the Afghanistan region is straightforward. "The enemy of our enemy is our friend", right? Well, not necessarily. The Taliban is actually to a great extent a creation of Pakistan, who fostered it and supported it in the Afghani civil war, as a result of which the various members of the coalition known as the "Northern Alliance" are bitterly opposed not just to the Taliban, but also to Pakistan. The US is trying to cement an alliance with Pakistan because of its geographic importance, but it's clear that the Northern Alliance could be of great use to us. Not only are they a force to be reckoned with and a potential replacement for the Taliban, but they have substantial intelligence resources in the rest of Afghanistan which could be useful (if, that is, we trust them to tell us the truth). On the other hand, it's not clear that if the Taliban were to fall that the "Northern Alliance" coalition would remain together. For the moment they ally for self defense reasons, but if the Taliban fall they might begin to fight amongst themselves -- and regardless of who triumphs, there will be deepseated hostility to Pakistan. So Islamabad is not too thrilled about the US doing anything to bring the Northern Alliance back into power.
This is not insoluble, but it is a difficult problem. It seems to present us with a dilemma: how do we defeat the Taliban (if indeed we decide to attempt that) without in turn handing a victory to the Taliban's opponents who also hate our ally Pakistan? One possibility would be to use the former king of Afghanistan to unite all the forces and to create a new government in Afghanistan, which possibly might not be antagonistic to Pakistan and thus might be palatable to Islamabad. Another possibility is to take advantage of the fact that the countries which seem to be on our side in this are not too closely allied -- in particular, Russia. The Russians have been feeding material support to the Northern Alliance for years, and apparently intends to increase their support now. They've hinted that they'd like us to help, but doing that would anger the Pakistanis. However, some of our people might have an informal chat with some of the Russians and say "Hey, about them Northern Alliance guys; we can't help you support them or even publicly applaud you doing so, but just between the two of us here in private, we think it's a fine thing and we hope you'll do more of it, and by the way, next time you talk to them could you ask them about these five locations in Afghanistan and tell us what they say?" (discuss)
Update 20010928: Pakistan has made its attitude about the Northern Alliance public. I sure hope the ex-King of Afghanistan doesn't die in the next year or so; we're going to need him.
Stardate 20010927.0712 (On Screen): The government has announced that a military strike is "not imminent". Well, maybe. About the only thing we can be certain of is that if a strike were imminent they wouldn't tell us. It's not that they want to lie to us, necessarily, but what they tell us is also heard by our enemies. The last thing you want to do when you're ready to attack is to let your opponent know that the blow is coming. While we citizens may be intensely curious about it, we do not have a "need to know". So whever our forces do attack, don't expect to find about it ahead of time. In fact, there's speculation that both American and British special forces units are already operating in Afghanistan. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to discover that was true, but I don't expect to find out the truth of it for years, if I ever do. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.0654 (On Screen): This article talks about a group of people who, in the immediate aftermath of the WTC bombing, started archiving "rapidly changing websites" (among other things, quite possibly web logs) in order to capture and save their reactions to the event. Their intent is to republish on October 11. Isn't this a violation of copyright? Suppose, for example, that USS Clueless was one of the sites they captured. No-one from this project has contacted me to ask for permission to republish my material. While no explicit copyright notice appears on this page, under the Berne Convention that is not needed; copyright is automatic unless explicitly waived, and there is also no waiver on this site. But it's not just web logs; they're going to be republishing pages from mainline commercial news sites which have explicit copyright notices. Irrespective of the historical value of this exercise, I see no legal excuse for it. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010927.0620 (On Screen): Can Salon survive? I still have my doubts, but someone out there seems to think it's possible, because he just invested some money into the publication to keep it alive. Of course, it's a sign of how desperate things have gotten at Salon that they gave him so many concessions for such a small amount of money. For just three quarters of a million dollars they gave him a seat on the board of directors; two years ago it would have required a hundred times that much money for a a set on the board. (discuss)
Stardate 20010927.0608 (On Screen): Taliban propaganda is beginning to sound a bit frantic and even panicked. Excessive bravado tends to suggest fear to me, and that's what we're beginning to see. They're telling their people to return to the cities because there's no threat of bombing, and no-one seems to believe them. They claimed to be mobilizing a huge and potent army -- and no-one seems to believe that, either. Now they're reminding us of the trouble that the USSR had in the 1980's, just to try to make us fearful about invading. These guys are coming off as being incredibly inept; do they really think their pronouncements are going to make any difference to us? (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.2135 (On Screen): Jesse Jackson is a spooky man. Why does he always speak in the first-person-plural? He's been invited by the Taliban to head a peace delegation to Afghanistan. In response he says, a quote: "We must weigh what this invitation means. We're not going to be precipitous. If we can do something to encourage them to dismantle those terrorist bases, to choose to hand over the suspects and release the Christians rather than engage in a long bloody war, we'll encourage them to do so." He always does this; read any public statement by him and he always refers to himself with the plural pronoun. He's also more than a bit full of himself.
Let's be clear about something: Jackson is a private citizen. He has no more or less diplomatic power than I do. He is not part of the government and he doesn't represent the US. He has no right to make promises or to negotiate on our behalf. And in a circumstance like this, when a thousand delicate diplomatic points with fifty nations are hanging in the balance, the last thing that Secretary of State Colin Powell needs now is for Jackson to start meddling in the affair. If Jackson really wants to serve his country, the best thing he can do right now is to stay home and keep the hell out of it. Let the Taliban deal with Colin Powell; it's his job -- and unlike Jackson, Powell has a mandate from the citizens of the United States. Powell was approved for his job in a Senate hearing; Jackson's only qualification is that our enemy has asked for him -- and we do not generally let our enemies choose our diplomatic representatives. (discuss)
Update 20010927: It seems that the Taliban didn't actually initiate this: Jackson himself suggested it. Now I'm sure that we don't need him involved, anymore than we needed him involved talking to China about our spy plane.
Stardate 20010926.1927 (On Screen): What goes around, comes around. Remember how big record publishers sued Napster for distributing copyrighted music on the Internet? Now one of the big record distributors has lost a lawsuit for doing the same thing. They claimed that their contract which gave them the right to publish CDs also gave them net distribution rights, but a court ruled against them. It is to laugh... (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.1734 (On Screen): It beggars the imagination to think that people are actually using graphics editors to fake photographs of the WTC bombing. Someone actually cobbled together a picture which seems to show the first jet as it approached -- but the hoax falls apart on inconsistencies. Why would someone do that? (By the way, there's another inconsistency not mentioned at Hoaxwatch: the only way that this purported picture could have been found is if it had been taken with a Polaroid camera, but no Polaroid camera prints the date on the image.) (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.1656 (On Screen): In the summer of 1941, Germany started the largest land war in history when it invaded the USSR. Soviet forces were ill-prepared and were caught off-guard, and took horrendous losses. The front moved forward rapidly, just as it had previously in Poland and in France, and it was looking as if Germany was going to rack up yet another rapid victory over a major opponent. But Germany was slowed by the two traditional allies of the Russians: General Mud and General Winter. A combination of mistakes by Hitler, stiffening resolve by the Red Army, and the deployment of fresh divisions brought in from Siberia stopped the attack just short of Moscow. The Soviet government evacuated the capitol but Stalin himself stayed there. While it may well be true that if the front had collapsed that he might have had a quick escape planned, he did remain in Moscow as it was shelled and shared the danger with its inhabitants. No-one in the USSR wanted Stalin to die there but the fact that he did not retreat was a major factor in stiffening the morale of the Red Army. It showed his confidence in their ability to stop the attack. In many ways Stalin was a monster, but there was much to admire about him, too.
Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, is watching with growing concern as his nation disintegrates. The rule of law, such as it was, is nearly gone and crime is rampant; the morale of his army is at an all-time low and it is suffering massive desertions, and there is wholesale abandonment of the major cities of Afghanistan by their residents due to the non-trivial fear of US bombing; they're fleeing en masse to the borders with Pakistan and Iran. In order to strengthen the morale of his people, Omar issues a call for people to return to the cities, saying that the threat of American bombardment is receding. But he himself left the city of Kandahar and went into hiding a long time ago and he issues this "call" from an unnamed location. If he does indeed truly feel that there is no more threat of US bombardment, what better way to prove it than to return himself to Kandahar and to operate there openly? (Why do I have this feeling he's not going to do that?) (discuss)
Update: Of course, if Mullah Omar was truly concerned about the plight of his people, there is an extremely easy way to make sure that the US doesn't bomb: give up bin Laden and close all his training facilities. Judge a man by his actions, not by his words or his clothes. Mullah Omar is no saint; he's a petty tyrant just like so many who have come before him.
Stardate 20010926.1238 (On Screen via long range sensors): I'm not just sure where I stand politically on the Left/Right scale. I know people online that I clearly identify as "conservative" and some I clearly identify as "liberal", and I would venture to guess that they classify themselves that way, too. I tend to think of myself as centrist, but then I suspect most people think of themselves as centrist. One test of whether I'm liberal is whether I'm willing to criticize liberals, and indeed I am (as regular readers will know), so I guess I'm not, purely. (It's odd indeed that conservatives have readily sniped at their own when they go too far, i.e. the general denouncement of Falwell after his latest open-mike gaff, yet there has been little identifiable outrage by liberals about the outrageous statements of Michael Moore. Centrist liberals would do their cause good by denouncing their extremists; it would enhance their credibility.)
On the other hand, I'm less than sympathetic with extreme conservative voices. But nearly anyone on the political spectrum can identify people to the left of them and to the right who they do not respect. I guess the only real answer is that politically I'm an engineer: I tend to be pragmatic rather than ideological. I believe in doing things because they work, not because they satisfy some ideal goal, and I diss things which I think won't work for that reason alone. If I have any ideology at all, it's a general belief that people ought to be left alone to think and talk about and do more or less what they want as long as they don't hurt anyone else (which is why I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights). Thing is, lots of both liberals and conservatives believe that, so it's no help. I used to think of myself as "progressive", but that term has been coopted by the lunatic fringe, and I don't consider myself to be a political lunatic, either. And "libertarian" is even worse. (Of course everyone, even on the lunatic fringe, think they're reasonable.) I'm in favor of Gay Marriage and against religion in government-financed schools, which I guess makes me liberal, but I oppose political correctness and sensitivity training in the schools, which I guess makes me conservative. I dunno. Anyone care to help me in starting the Engineering Party in the US? Our twin mottos will be "Whatever works" and "Leave me alone." (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010926.1136 (On Screen): Intel has announced a new form of Flash memory which they say will be very useful for cell phones and PDAs. For PDA's it does in fact look pretty good, but I'm less impressed with it for phones. The advantage it offers is retrieval bandwidth, but that's not really the driving factor in memory choice for phone applications. The most important criteria are, in order: price, power consumption, size and weight, followed by speed. I see no suggestion here that this form of memory will be cheaper or use less power. That said, I see this mainly as an assault on AMD, whose flash memory business has been a cash cow subsidizing its assault, in turn, on Intel's microprocessor business. Wheels within wheels... (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.1119 (On Screen): I can think of no political action which would have more far reaching per cost effect than for the US to contribute a substantial amount of money to help feed Afghani refugees. This would prove first that the US is not fighting the nation of Afghanistan or its people, second that it doesn't want to needlessly victimize civilians, and third that it is not fighting Islam per se. It would placate those in the US and in Europe who fear the US has or could become a raging animal. Finally, it would make it much harder for our enemies in Islamic countries to demonize us. The price for our involvement would be that aid provided by us should be labeled as such so that the people receiving it know who is reponsible. It should not be too difficult for food and supplies we provide (or pay for) to have small labels saying "Provided by the people of the United States" (in appropriate languages) along with a small US flag placed on the packages. Has any nation in the history of war ever directly and substantially aided the civilians of its enemy during a war? If so I've never heard of it. The price would be low and the propaganda value immense. It would also be a good act on purely ethical grounds. I do not believe we have an obligation to do this, but I think we should do it nonetheless. (discuss)
Update: It turns out this is exactly what we're going to do.
Stardate 20010926.1004 (On Screen): This is probably the most acute and concise criticism I've seen of those who counsel pacifism by the US in the face of the WTC bombing. It is, of course, fictional, but it is dated September 24, 1940. On that day, a German bomber first dropped bombs on London. It was an accidental attack, but in retaliation for it the next day the RAF bombed Berlin. This, in turn, caused Hitler to order the Luftwaffe to cease bombing RAF airfields and to concentrate on British cities, which is generally regarded as the first of the three worst decisions he made in the war (the other two being to attack the USSR and to declare war on the US). Because of this shift in Luftwaffe targeting, RAF Fighter Command (which was on the ropes) was able to rally and to win the Battle of Britain, handing Germany its first and most important defeat. All the other defeats of Germany stem from this one. If Churchill had not ordered the bombing of Berlin, the Luftwaffe would have continued its campaign against the military targets of the RAF and there is a very good chance that RAF Fighter Command would have lost the Battle of Britain, leading to a cross-channel invasion, the destruction of the Royal Navy Home Fleet by the Luftwaffe, and the conquest of the UK.
Almost no-one in the UK in their right mind actually counseled pacifism at this time. This was after the fall of Poland, the fall of France, the Dunkirk evacuation and more than a month of heavy fighting in the skies over the UK. The people there knew that they were fighting for the life of their nation. Not everyone in the US is yet convinced of the seriousness of this war; I hope it doesn't take having an American city nuked to make them realize how important this is. (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.0931 (On Screen): If you owe a thousand dollars to a bank and can't pay, you have a problem. If you owe a million dollars and can't pay, the bank has a problem. If you owe a billion dollars and can't pay, the government has a problem. Or so the old saw goes.
During boom times, when there seemed to be no limit to "up", NASDAQ's rule about delisting stocks whose price dropped below $1 seemed reasonable. After all, only companies which are really losers have that happen. But now it turns out that 15% of the stocks listed on NASDAQ have a price near or outright below $1, what with the dot-com bomb and the general drop in stock prices of the last year. When one stock falls below $1, the company has a problem. When a 669 stocks fall below $1, NASDAQ has a problem -- and they're suspending their rule for delisting such companies, at least until the end of the year. It's a sign of the times, folks. (VA Linux gets a reprieve!) (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.0923 (On Screen): People everywhere, to some extent, but Americans in particular are in love with cheap gestures. The idea is that you need to feel as if you're doing something but you don't really want to do much. So you rationalize that by doing something small, if accompanied by millions of your fellows, that the result will be big anyway. Or by doing something small, you can inspire someone else to do something big, and then you can take moral credit for what they did. That's why people fall for chain letters that say "If you forward this to others you can help the plight of women in Afghanistan" and similar crap. It's a small gesture and it might help, right? (Well, no.) The main result actually turns out to assuage that person's conscience; now they've done something, so they no longer have to feel guilty.
You know where I think a lot of this comes from? Political polls. People have gotten in the habit of having their opinions felt in Washington just by thinking them. If enough people think like me, the pollsters will pick up on it and communicate for me to Washington, even if they don't call me specifically. I can effect political change just by sitting on the couch watching TV and thinking to myself; I don't have to write letters or call my congressman; I don't have to get involved in demonstrations. Just by being, I am doing. Nothing more is required of me.
I really wish people would get over that. Big change costs big effort and big money; really big change costs physical pain. World-class change costs lives. It's always been that way and it always will be. Ants do not move mountains by each one carrying only one grain of sand away and then calling it a day -- and they sure as hell don't do it by standing in a circle touching antennas together and wishing really hard that the mountain would vanish. I went out driving yesterday and saw American flags and patriotic banners hung on bridges over roads and highways all over the place. While I have nothing against the flag, I can't see what good that does. We're not going to win this war by waving flags. No-one has ever won a war by waving flags. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010926.0437 (On Screen): Remember those three hundred thousand well-experienced and equipped troops that the Taliban said they were mobilizing to fight against the US? It turns out that they're rounding up every young man they can find, handing him a rifle, and sending him to the front. That is just about as far from being "well-experience" and "well-equipped" as it can be, and historically the record of performance of such improvised and involuntary military formations has been dismal. Sad to say, they also tend to take very high casualties. (discuss)
Update: There ain't any 300,000 even with this conscription. The Taliban's military power is a shadow of what it once was, and even then it wasn't all that formidable. Morale is going like cracking ice.
Stardate 20010926.0427 (On Screen): "Arrested" doesn't mean "guilty". That's why we have due process. Let's hope Dr. Alhazmi doesn't suffer any long term discrimination due to having been arrested. It appears that the FBI got over-eager on this one. (discuss)
Stardate 20010926.0419 (On Screen): A crowd of people in Afghanistan has burned the long-abandoned US embasy in Kabul. Of course, when something like this happens in a totalitarian nation, there's always the suspicion that it was less than spontaneous. Anyway, it's an empty gesture at best and certainly will have no important effect on the flow of events. However, if we learned anything in New York, it was that we should not be complacent. This gesture by the Taliban did us no harm. The next one might be very bad. No-one should assume that no more American civilians will be killed in this war. (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.1445 (On Screen): One of the thousands of people killed two weeks ago was Barbara Olson, wife of US Solicitor General Ted Olson. He now has done an interview advocating the legal changes Attorney General Ashcroft has asked for in the name of fighting terrorism. Olson as a citizen has a right to say whatever he wants, but as Solicitor General I think it has to be pointed out that he has a conflict of interest. His wife was killed; he is, needless to say, filled with grief and rage and wants to get back at those who did it. It's a completely understandable feeling. I grieve for him. But could this cloud his judgement? There's a good chance of it. Should he be making public statements as Solicitor General about the case? I don't think so. (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.1429 (On Screen): Here's an example of why most of the US is contemptuous about the Bible Belt. A town in northern Georgia, in response to the WTC bombing, has decided to post two picture frames in every building. One of them contains the Ten Commandments. (Of course!) The other is empty, for "people who don't believe in anything." Apparently those are your only choices: Judeo-Christian teachings, or nothing at all. I have news for Mr. McMillon: I'm an atheist but I believe in a great deal. It just doesn't happen to be what he believes in. Of course, Mr. McMillon isn't concerned about non-Christians like me because "we don't have any of them here." I have a suspicion he's about to find out the hard way how wrong he is. In the meantime he might want to consult his city attorney for a briefing on what an establishment of religion is (and why it isn't permitted). (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.1418 (Crew, this is the Captain): It's interesting how a phrase can outlive its cultural origins and actually come to mean something entirely different. Take for instance, the phrase: "Let's call a spade, a spade." It means we should speak forthrightly, to tell the plain truth, to not let petty sensibilities stand in the way ot making a clear and necessary point about something, right? But what is a "spade", anyway? Why would you want to call whatever-it-is "a spade" as opposed to using some other label for it?
No, it's not another name for a shovel; it's an obsolescent term once used by American whites for people of African origin. You know, those people. A modern translation of it, carrying the cultural meaning it once had, would be: "Let's call a nigger, a nigger." It comes from the slight similarity between their skin color and the ink used to print black playing cards..
Nearly everyone who now uses the phrase would, ironically, never consider actually calling an African American "a spade" (or "a nigger" either). In fact, I wonder how many American blacks use the phrase without even knowing what it really means, or althernatively who use it fully understanding the irony of it? (discussion in progress)
Update 20010926: John writes to tell me that the phrase appears in the play "The Importance of Being Earnest". This unquestionably predates the racial meaning of the word "spade" in the US, and in any case Oscar Wilde wasn't American. I stand corrected.
Stardate 20010925.1210 (On Screen): The advertising wars continue, and the newest idea is to put a frame in the middle of the browser -- it ain't a seperate window, it's an object sitting in the middle of the current window -- which contains advertising. Either it sits there for a fixed time and vanishes, or it can only be gotten rid of by clicking. The sites and advertisers are still are thinking in the wrong terms: they're still thinking "captive audience", they're still thinking "push", and they're still thinking "obnoxious, in your face". This isn't going to improve the effectiveness of advertising, it's just going to cause backlash and increased sales of advertising blocking packages which, if they don't already stop this, will soon be able to. They still haven't absorbed the understanding that the viewer ultimately controls the experience on the web because he controls the computer which retrieves the data. Advertising will only succeed when it is invited in by the reader. (By the way, yesterday I finally got fed up with Norton Internet Security and I bought AdSubtract Pro and ZoneAlarm Pro. I'll probably be installing them in the next couple of days; I'll let you know what I think of them.) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010925.1124 (On Screen): Bonnie Erbe writes: Let's call this operation something other than "war." ... I don't know about you, but when I think of war I think of daily, protracted military battles between two defined enemies, each with a government-sponsored armed force, repeatedly engaging in armed conflict until one pummels the other into incapacity and the loser quits. The problem is that she's concentrating on the means by which war is often waged, not on what war actually is. War is what happens when diplomacy fails; it's the last resort by which a nation or power attempts to impose its will on another nation or power. While the examples of this we find most memorable do indeed involve huge armies fighting each other, it isn't invariably necessary for anyone to get hurt in war. For instance, "trade war" is well named: it truly is a form of warfare. Two nations or powers have a disagreement about an issue in their trade relationship and cannot settle it by talking, so one side begins to use force, usually in the form of boycotts or punitive duties on goods.
War is any attempt to use any kind of force to accomplish a political goal after diplomacy fails. Isn't that what we're about to do? We're calling it a war because it is a war. The fact that Ms. Erbe doesn't like the idea of our nation being at war doesn't change that fact. She can't escape it by word games. (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.0934 (On Screen): I dislike sloppy science. Researchers (sic) in the UK started with the obvious fact that when we consume salt we become thirsty. Since salt is a major component of many snack foods, they considered what economic effect there would be if the amount of salt in those foods was decreased. They calculated that on average people in the UK would consume 350 milliliters less fluid per day.
Up to this point, their science is sound, albeit a bit unexciting. But then they make a great leap into the void: this would devastate the soft drink industry. Since about a quarter of the fluid consumed in the UK is soft drinks, this would cause a proportional decline in consumption, an amount they quantize as 13 million can-equivalents per year. Would it, though? Would people instead drink the same amount of soft drink (or even more) but consume less water? Or would soft drink consumption decline but not by as much? Their calculation is based on the assumption that the decline in fluid consumption would manifest proportionally on all kinds of consumable fluid, but how do they justify that assumption? (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010925.0923 (On Screen): This is extremely scary: researchers have created a synthetic virus which, when given to voles, cause changes in their behavior. It happens to make them more friendly to other voles, but that's not the point. Is this a technology we really want? Could an infectious disease be created in humans which altered human behavior in a controlled way? It's a fascist's wet dream. Let's not go there. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010925.0919 (On Screen): For the last 80 years, the "Big Bang" theory has dominated cosmology (despite the efforts of Sir Fred Hoyle to boost the "steady state" theory). But it is troubling, even with the addition of "inflation" because it doesn't really provide a quantum theory of gravity, and it doesn't integrate well with string theory. This stuff is waaay over my head. I don't understand the math. (What do you expect? I'm just a dumb engineer.) But now a group has developed a completely new concept for creation of the universe. The work is still in its initial stages but it looks promising, and it integrates far better with string theory. It's interesting how scientists keep redesigning the universe every century or so. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010925.0742 (On Screen): A posting to Adequacy.org beautifully (and humorously) encapsulates the logic that extremists will use to try to use to capitalize on the WTC bombing as justification for pushing their own parochial agenda. Think it preposterous? Guess again: Brian Carnell reports on an extremist animal rights group (they oppose animal agriculture) who are trying to claim that farmers are part of an international terrorist movement, and that protests against the WTC bombing quite naturally must also become protests against raising animals on farms. Say what? (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.0713 (On Screen): Occasionally I read a news article which seems to be telling a good and important story, and then I spot a detail which suggests that the reporter doesn't have a clue. And I have to wonder what else he might have been confused about. This one is a case in point: it's about the tangled web of friendships and enemy relationships in Afghanistan. Then I stumbled upon this statement: In the early morning darkness today, he said, he fired two 81mm mortars from his desert base for an hour. The spent shells were still lying next to the guns a few hours later, the dirt stained black from the powder. That's a marvelously poetic image, but it's also nonsense. A mortar round doesn't leave a "spent shell"; the entire munition is launched by the detonation. A howitzer (an artillery piece) does, but howitzers don't come in an 81 millimeter caliber. The only way I can make sense of this for a mortar is that the 'spent shells" were actually duds, rounds which didn't fire and had to be manually removed from the mortar tube. But there isn't any way they'd look like "spent shells"; they'd look just like unfired ammunition. On the other hand, it may actually have been a howitzer and the reporter somehow got the phrase "81 mm mortar" fixed in his head. But that's a pretty big misunderstanding; a howitzer looks nothing at all like a mortar.
By the way, it's been more than a hundred years since any artillery piece "stained the dirt black from the powder". Everyone in the world switched to smokeless powder (nitrocellulose), which doesn't do that. Anyway, even earlier pieces didn't do that unless they were malfunctioning, in which case they'd probably also kill their crew. (An artillery piece which is leaking gas from the detonation is about one step from catastrophically failing.) So what else did the reporter get wrong in this moving story? How much of it is completely made up? (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010925.0627 (On Screen): The Reverend Rob Taylor, a Lutheran pastor, is also a reservist for the Air Force and now faces the possibility of being activated for the coming war. He laments his moral choice: "How can I with any credibility preach Sunday after Sunday about Jesus, who tells me to love my enemies, and yet be part of a combat support unit?" If he feels that way, why did he sign up to be part of the reserves in the first place? That's voluntary; no-one is forced to do it. For him to suddenly "get religion" just as he's faced with the possibility of actually having to serve in a real war isn't ethics, it's cowardice. If he really felt that way he should never had joined in the first place. "I like being in the reserves as long as there aren't any wars" isn't a statement of ethics, whether it's couched as one (by talking about Jesus) or not. (discuss)
Stardate 20010925.0618 (On Screen): Any major event will have cascading political fallout; causing winners and losers. Another big lower will be the protesters on the island of Vieques, who through the summer seemed to have won their politica point to get the Navy to stop using part of the island as a bombing range. Now, suddenly, that's looking unlikely. President Bush had ordered the Navy to stop using the range in a couple of years, but now Congress is set to vote on (and I expect to pass) a provision which would cause the Navy to keep using it until an alternative could be found. Only there really aren't any alternatives. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.2234 (On Screen): Kyle sends this link to a proposed means of secret communication which isn't a code and isn't a cipher. It consists of controlled insertion of noise into the data stream, with internal information allowing an authorized receiver to differentiate noise from data. The author refers to them as "chaff" and "wheat" respectively. It's an interesting idea but I'm not so sure it's as good as he thinks.
My first reaction to this was that there isn't any way that the value-space for the checksums can be larger than the value space for the clear packets, but that's not correct. Upon thinking about it further, I realized that you do the checksum backwards. To create a 20-bit checksum for a single bit, you create a checksum algorithm which converts that 20-bit value into a single bit (obviously parity would work but something better would be needed). Then when the clear bit is "1", you start selecting random 20 bit values and calculating their checksums until you get one which calculates a "1" and that's what you use. On the next bit if you again need a checksum for "1" you pick a new 20-bit value and again keep doing so until you find one which calculates a "1". For chaff bit of "1" you'd check random 20-bit values until you found one which calculated to '0" (i.e. to the wrong value). What you end up with, then is a big list of ordered pairs, one member of which gives the right answer and one which gives the wrong answer. Could this then be used as a means of searching an algorithm-space, since any algorithm which generates the same answer for both members of any pair in the entire message is obviously wrong? I fear that entirely too much information about the cipher itself is included in the message mixed in with the clear and chaff bits.
On the other hand, if the clear sequences are longer this adds a double problem. First, if for example the clear sequences are 10 bits long then it means that randomly checking longer checksums backwards lowers the chance of a hit. On average you'd need to check 512 potential checksums to find one that worked, if the checksums are longer than the clear sequences. If the checksums are equal or shorter, then either you need to use long clear sequences or you face a substantial risk of false positives on the decipher. Once the clear sequences become substantial in length, it may be possible to use statistical analysis of their entropy to differentiate meaningful ones from meaningless ones.
May I propose a different form? It would remain a symmetric cipher, which means that a key would have to be communicated between the parties. Both parties agree ahead of time to a random number generation algorithm (which is not secret) which uses an N-bit seed. They then agree ahead of time to N-M bits for the seed, with M being a number on the order of 24 (i.e. the seed is 256 bits and 232 are agreed to ahead of time as the secret key; 24 bits are reserved). If one party wishes to send a message to the other, he selects a rising sequence number of M bits in length and plugs it along with the agreed upon key into the random number generator. Half the number space of "M" would be reserved for one guy and half for the other. (Probably one guy always sets the high bit to 0 and the other guy sets it to 1. It's critically important that no value is ever reused.) This is then used to generate a bit mask, which would presumably be approximately half 1's and half 0's and would be about twice as long as the clear to be sent. Then he plugs in a bit of clear for every "1" in the mask and a random bit for every "0". (So the generated mask length would need to be long enough so that its population of 1's was as long as the clear message to be sent.) The message begins with the selected number (of M bits, which need not be secret) followed by the resulting spread bit sequence. The receiver plugs that number in along with the secret key, regenerates the mask, extracts out and concatanates the critical bits (correlating to 1's in the mask) and discards the others. The communication overhead is just slightly over 50%, which is far more efficient than the algorithm proposed by Rivest, whose overhead is anywhere from 3:1 to 100:1, and this algorithm is computationally efficient, scaling linearly with the length of the clear. If the random number generator is chosen well, then the only attack is brute force to try to guess the secret bits of the seed. If even one of those bits is guessed wrongly, then the resulting bit mask will be about 50% wrong, yielding about 50% true bits and 50% trash bits at random -- which makes it useless. There won't be any near misses. Since the spreading is bit-wise, there's no way to do a statistical analysis of entropy. So the attack would have to be exhaustive search, and since the seed for the random number generator can be arbitrarily large the cipher could be made arbitrarily strong. This cipher has two advantages over the one Rivest proposes; Rivest's cipher is either horribly inefficient in communication overhead or it is inefficient in calculation. My cipher is reasonably efficient at both simultaneously while being no less secure.
But there's really no point in doing either of them. They are inefficient the way steganography is at transmission time, but without the advantage of being surreptitious, and they are at best no more secure than existing ciphers while being less efficient in communications bandwidth. They combine the worst features of both. The only possible advantage either of these might have would be to evade a law, and they wouldn't, because technically they really are both encryption and would be banned like all the others. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.1929 (On Screen): Have I ever mentioned my other favorite sport to watch on TV? It's women's billiards, particularly 9-ball. There are, of course, many different kinds of pool; my own experience is primarily with 8-ball, which is a much easier game. I also did most of my playing on bar tables, where the tables are somewhat smaller and the pockets are bigger (so that the games are shorter and more quarters get fed into the machine) but I got to where I could sometimes run five balls and to where I was beginning to do serious planning. The difference between a beginner and an experienced player is cueball-control; each time you shoot a ball you're thinking at least two shots ahead. But I never really came remotely close to championship level; it's just that I got to the point where I wouldn't embarrass myself when I played against someone. However, it's been years since I did much shooting and I'm sure I'm out of shape. Still, I remember the planning. Of all major physical sports, I think that billiards involves more sheer thinking and planning than any other. Stupid people do not become champions.
Of course, one reason I like watching Women's billiards is that I'm madly in love with Jeanette Lee. I'm a sucker for oriental women anyway, and she's fashion-model gorgeous, as well as being one of the top ranked players in the game. And she always wears slinky black outfits, often made of leather. (My kind of woman!) Alas, she's happily married, and whenever she wins a tournament, she always talks to the camera and tells her husband George that she loves him. But there are other players I enjoy watching. Another is Vivian Villarreal, who is one of those tiny women who seems to have a nuclear reactor inside providing her with boundless energy. She is more emotional when she plays than you can believe; she tends to use a lot of body english. She's a kick.
But there has been an interesting invasion in recent years. The top two players in the world now are both from the UK. Allison Fisher has been the top-ranked women's player or so long that it's almost become a dynasty. The surprise is another Brit named Karen Corr. She used to be the top-ranked women's snooker player in the world, but moved into American billiards, possibly because the money is better. Anyway, like Fisher her experience with snooker has served her well, and she's the second ranked player in the world now.
The difference between an experienced player and a champion is the safe shot. There is nothing more artistic in the game than a great safe shot, and no-one does it better than Corr. Of course, part of the pleasure of a beautiful safe shot is admiration for the skill of setting it up, but part is seeing the schadenfreude of seeing the other player walk up to the table and start thinking about it. Sometimes a player like Corr may only let her opponent get up to the table three times in twenty minutes -- and every time the position is going to suck! The game achieves its peak when someone in that position makes a safe shot of her own; they may trade horrible positions back and forth three or four times.
Like watching "Junkyard Wars" and trying to figure out what they're going to do, watching billiards is an active experience, trying to predict how they'll set themselves up. Unfortunately, I usually don't do very well; I'm just not in their league. (I never will be, either. That's part of why they're fun to watch.) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010924.1800 (On Screen): Haven't we been here before? Yet another company claims to have found a way to copy-protect CDs -- they claim. This time they claim that they've found a way to prevent a full copy of a disc by embedding a hidden file. Two comments: how exactly would this affect a raw copy? How would it affect a track-by-track copy? A raw copy creates a disc which is exactly identical to the source; if the file doesn't screw up the source disk, it won't screw up the copy. A track-by-track copy only captures the data itself and won't even pick up this special file.
Of course, there's the third flaw: customer backlash. People like to be able to make copies of their discs, and there's already reason to believe that discs which are copyprotected will be subject to boycott. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.1740 (On Screen): In an attempt to railroad a horribly badly designed law through Congress, Attorney General Ashcroft testified today that "Time is of the essence." I'm sorry, wrong. When it comes to making laws which have such important effects on our civil rights, care is of the essence. There is no hurry; this law does not need to pass this week or even within the next month. Congress needs to do its duty and scrutinize it carefully, rather than letting itself be pressured into fast action by a crisis. The results of passing a bill this flawed could be even more catastrophic than the terrorism it purports to fight. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.1708 (On Screen): SiliconValley.Com lists the Fastest 50, the fifty companies in the Bay area whose sales grew the fastest in the last 12 months. A better name for them would be "Walking dead"; just look at their losses! As SV says, they managed to do $10 billion in sales, but only by losing $28 billion. Sounds like the remnants of the "new economy" to me. Those numbers are a bit deceptive; more than half the losses were by a single company (Verisign); but only three of the fifty actually managed to turn a profit. How many of them will be OOB by next year at this time? Recession, heck; this is just bad business practice. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.1639 (On Screen via long range sensors): There was a now-notorious film-clip played on CNN shortly after the bombing claiming to show Palestinians celebrating because of the WTC bombing. For a while there was a rumor going around that it was actually ten year old film, but CNN has claimed that it was actually shot when they said it was shot. But a publication in Germany has tried to trace down some of the people in it, and found a very different story. It appears that much of the film was staged and that the people in question were not really celebrating the bombing. I have no idea how reliable Stern Magazine is as a source (Andrew?); it could be the German equivalent of NewsWeek or it could be the German equivalent of the National Inquirer. For those like me who are German-challenged, here's the Babelfish translation. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010924.1629 (On Screen): While I don't wish business failure on any company (except Rambus and VA Linux) it sometimes almost seems fated for a company based on its name. Doesn't it seem even the faintest bit ironic that Upside just shut down its web site due to being unable to make it profitable? (discuss)
Update 20010925: "We will return!"
Stardate 20010924.1239 (On Screen): Television has found the answer to the mute button and potty break: they're going to use computer-generated imagery to insert products into already-filmed shows and movies. I can see it now: Humphrey Bogart sits morosely at his table (in a glorious colorized version of Casablanca) sipping a Zima and agonizing about how she left him in Paris. "Play it, Sam!" he mutters, and as we watch Dooley Wilson sing "As time goes by" we notice a conveniently placed box of Tide detergent sitting on top of his piano. (I keep mine there!) Out the window behind him we see a beautiful blue 2002 Mustang convertible (apparently belonging to Rick). Yes, I can see it now. (Groan.) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010924.1159 (On Screen): Talk about occupying the moral high ground: the Taliban have closed down the offices of one of the last few charitable agencies which was distributing food to Afghanistan's starving people, and have seized 1400 tons of food which hadn't yet been distributed. I think this should put to rest any remaining doubts about just how much concern the Taliban really have for the welfare of their own people. (discuss)
Stardate 20010924.0631 (On Screen): The Taliban claim they're mobilizing three hundred thousand "well-experienced and equipped" troops in preparation for possible attacks by the US. I don't believe a word of it; if they had the ability to mobilize a force like that, they would have wiped out the Northern Alliance a long time ago. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010924.0506 (On Screen): I keep running into this, people who are still trying to think of the upcoming conflict as some sort of international law enforcement operation, and trying to think of our opponents as criminals. They want them captured, they want the capture to be bloodless, they want trials and sentences. And they want indictments; they want to see evidence before our forces are committed to perform the arrests. It's not like that. This isn't a law enforcement operation, it's a war. War and Law Enforcement really have nothing to do with each other; they're handled according to entirely different rules, and what may be immoral in a law enforcement operation may be a moral obligation in a war.
Law enforcement is reactive; it happens when someone transgresses against citizens of a state, and it has the purposes of punishment, deterrence, and prevention of future crimes. Someone who commits a crime once is more likely to commit another, so if we lock them up they cannot do so. That may make someone else think twice before committing a crime. There's also a general consensus that someone who commits a crime should pay for doing so. The ultimate aim of law enforcement is to try to create conditions within a state where its people feel safe and can go about their busness without being threatened by others within the state. The critical point here is that crime does not directly threaten the state itself, only the citizens within it. That means that the process of law enforcement has to be balanced against other issues within the state, since law enforcement which is out of control can be worse than the crime it purports to prevent. So, for instance, law enforcement authorities place the safety of innocent civilians above all other things, and when innocents are in danger will take the risk of a micreant getting away rather than take the risk of killing or hurting innocents who get caught up in the situation.
In war, it is the nation itself which is at risk, and thus by extension every citizen within it. It isn't just the citizens who happen to be near where the crime was committed, but all of the citizens everywhere. A really horrendous crime (such as the Oklahoma City bombing) may kill a few hundred of us; a war threatens all 270 million of us. With stakes that large, the rules change. In war, the civil rights of citizens are routinely violated. For example, it is routine for young able-bodied men to be ordered to abandon their lives and to involuntarily report for service wth the military (the "draft"). While this violates their rights, it serves the greater good of preserving the nation as a whole, and it does not violate the Constitution. No right is absolute; these things are all balancing acts. When the fate of the nation itself is in peril, individual rights give way to some extent. (Of course, that argument can be used to routinely violate all our rights all the time, so it has to be watched carefully.)
Soldiers are not entitled to the same rights as civilians; a soldier who is tried is not entitled to a jury, for example. Legal proceedings in a Court Martial are not the same as in a civilian court. All this is necessary because an army must be efficient in order to be able to fight for its nation; the soldiers in that army must cede some of their rights for the greater good of preserving the nation.
Policemen involved in law enforcement in our nation should never even consider summarily executing a prisoner; but this is actually permissible under the Geneva Convention for enemy soldiers captured in a war, under certain circumstances. For example, if they're found to be operating in the wrong uniforms or in no uniform at all, technically they're "spies" and can be shot on sight without trial. Equally, enemy soldiers captured in the normal course of battle who are in the proper uniforms can still be shot if trying to take them captive would risk the survival of the capturing unit. This isn't common, but it is more common than most people realize.
Tho protection of innocent civilians is probably the top priority for law enforcement authorities, it is not and cannot be for soldiers. If the only way to win a war is to kill civilians, then they must die. It is better for a few thousand civilians to die than for the nation itself to be destroyed, risking the lives and safety of all 270 million of its residents. No-one wants to kill civilians, and certainly our army shouldn't seek them out to deliberately slaughter them, but their safety cannot be the paramount concern in planning of military operations. If the mere presence of civilians in a given area makes it off limits to military action by our side, our enemy will pick up on this very rapidly and put all their most valuable assets in those kinds of locations -- and we'll lose the war. In fact, the Iraqis tried to do something exactly like this during the Gulf War; there was a military command bunker they knew we were going to try to bomb, and they herded several hundred civilians on top of it, who then died in the bomb blast. It was unfortunate, but it was also necessary. Iraq didn't try that again, but if we had avoided that bunker, pretty soon there would be civilians forcibly detained and placed on top of every Iraqi military target.
The biggest difference between law enforcement and war is that war is not necessarily reactive. While we would consider it completely unacceptable to arrest and try someone because they might commit a crime, it is completely justifiable to fight a war against someone because they might be considering an attack against us. It's known as a spoiling attack and one of the classic examples of it was Israel's attack in 1967 against Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Law enforcement is about preserving the safety and prosperity of individual citizens of the nation. War is about preserving the safety and prosperity of the entire nation. Wars are fought when the goals of two groups are in direct opposition and they cannot come into agreement through diplomacy. Then you fight and whoever wins the conflict gets his way. And it is the threat of war which makes diplomacy work. When diplomats talk, the other side is more likely to make concessions to our side if they know that we're ready, willing, and able to attack them if they're not accomodating. Thus the willingness to attack, ironically, helps prevent war by making diplomacy more successful. The motivation for war is not retaliation or punishment, and we can legitimately fight a war against someone who has not done anything directly against us yet. In this case, we are at war with Al Qaeda not because there exists proof that they were directly behind the destruction of the WTC towers, but because they are dangerous, have attacked us in the past, and show every sign of being willing to attack us in future. Their continued existence represents a threat to the survival of the US and that is a sufficient reason to fight them, even absent anything resembling a legal case against them for involvement in the WTC attack. We're not trying to prove them guilty, we're trying to kill them so that they can't attack us in future. Trying to judge war by the standards of law enforcement will only lead to confusion and demoralization -- and failure, which is the greatest crime in war. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010924.0400 (On Screen): Bill sends in this link to a page which is the latest example of "It's really the US's fault". But the case it builds is remarkably weak and unimpressive. It claims that in May the Bush administration threatened the Taliban with bombing if they didn't turn bin Laden over to us for trial. Even if it's true (and it wouldn't surprise me) what of it?
Let's be clear that bin Laden was already wanted by the US for complicity in the first WTC bombing, the bombing of our embassy in Nairobi and the bombing of USS Cole. The Clinton administration had been applying "measured diplomatic pressure" on the Taliban for years to try to get them to turn bin Laden over to us for trial (amounting to the diplomatic equivalent of "Pretty please with sugar on top?") and the Bush administration began taking a harder line. But even if the US did directly threaten to bomb Afghanistan, does this excuse or explain the WTC bombing? No, it does neither. First, the hijackers began to infiltrate the US long before this threat; in fact many were here last year before the election. Some of them were taking pilot lessons in Florida last winter. So it is evident that the details of this attack had been put into place long before Bush was even sworn into office, let alone before his administration might have made that threat, which means that at worst, only the timing of the attack was changed by it; it would have happened whether the Bush administration had issued a threat of that kind or not. As to the claim of oil and gas interests being behind it, that's sheer moonshine. But then, if you look at the front page, the "editorial slant" of Global Free Press becomes blatantly clear. (What do you expect from a site based on Slashcode?) (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010923.1137 (On Screen via long range sensors): This London Times editorial speaks to the British about anti-Americanism and where it comes from, and about what he views America as really being about. I don't agree with everything he says, but most of it is important.
He points out peripherally that the US has a reputation in Europe for being uneducated. That's more than strange, because anyone's top-ten list of universities in the world will consist primarily of American ones. Nine of mine would be Harvard, CMU, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. I could make a good case that the tenth should be Johns Hopkins, and I can list off lots of other American universities which are world class: USC, UCLA, UCSD, Yale, RPI, Princeton, the list goes on. Any one of those would be a gemstone, a source of local pride, for any other nation in the world. Boston and the Bay area and LA each have more world-class universities in their metro areas than most nations. And when you think "High tech companies", which nation's companies are on the top of your list? Is there any British company you'd place in the top ten? (I can't think of a single British company I'd think of as being world-class high tech except ARM, and that's tiny. I'd put the Dutch company Philips in there; that's the only European company I can think of I'd put in the company of IBM, 3M, Dupont, Intel, Agilent, Applied Materials, Tektronix, Eaton and Texas Instruments. We have the best medicine in the world, unexcelled science and engineering and the world's best university system. Why is it that we're viewed as "uneducated"? Hmmph.
He talks a bit about American anti-Americanism (especially mentioning Falwell) but seems to miss the point that it is a strength of the US that it not only tolerates but encourages such dissent and is strengthened by it. It is precisely because Falwell can make an ass of himself on TV without any legal fallout at all that I know that I have freedom of expression. Still, his fundamental point is critically important: When it really comes down to it, whose side are you really on? (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010923.0947 (On Screen via long range sensors): Never let it be said that porn is not patriotic! A number of women who run their own pay-sites (like Busty Rachel, and Vixen) have gotten together and started a web auction where they are selling off their old lingerie (used! never washed!) with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. Now you too can bid on a stars-and-stripes thong bikini; it's for a good cause! Strangely enough, even though the auction has been running a week, there doesn't seem to be a single bid on anything. Let's get the word out, folks! (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0914 (On Screen): Ted Kaczinski, the Unabomber, is one of the most deluded and dangerous men the US has produced in a long time. His brother David is one of the finest and most principled men we have, who has been visited with enormous grief and pain because of his brother. Yet when the chips were down, David proved his integrity by turning in his brother when he feared that his brother was responsible for the bombings; had he not done so, Ted would probably still be killing people. There is no reason to believe that because a given person has done bad things that this has anything whatever to do with their family members. Osama bin Laden has 52 siblings (via at least twelve women), and it turns out that some of them live in the US and are philanthropists here. They have publicly condemned his actions and disowned him. They have nothing to do with their brother and should not be discriminated against. Their money is not covered with blood. (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0851 (On Screen): Genetic engineering has only just begun, and already they've created some pretty astounding things. Work to create certain important proteins in cattle, goat and sheep milk has been around for a long time, but now they're also working to use hog semen and chicken egg-white production as well. The reason these things are possible is that they don't actually have to locate all the genes involved in producing these substances. What they have to do is to find any one and figure out what its activation sequence is, which will always be contiguous with the gene itself. Once they know that, then if they can synthesize or borrow a gene for something they want to produce, by placing that same activation sequence on it then it will be produced at the same time as the other substance from which the activation sequence was deduced. The new gene can be placed anywhere in the genome at all (or in a plasmid) and it will work correctly. It doesn't have to be near the original, because the genome is content-addressed and not location-addressed.
One of the most amazing natural substances is spider's silk. It is enormously strong and has many other marvelous properties, and now it is being synthesized in goat's milk. Given what kinds of things we've done with plastics over the last fifty years (it is no exaggeration to say that they've completely changed our lives) the possibilities inherent in using some of the superb natural substances like spider's silk are boundless, not just in medicine but in many other places.
The miracles are there, waiting for us. And they're languishing because of superstition and paranoia. (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0833 (On Screen): Larry Ellison is now certifiably insane -- or stupid, or evil, or self-aggrandizing, or deluded. For all the bad things that people say about Bill Gates, no-one has ever accused him of wanting to rule the world. (Wanting to own it, yes, but not of wanting to rule it.) But Ellison wants everyone in the US to carry a smart card which identifies them and which accesses an entry in an (Oracle!) database which encodes their thumbprint. To get on an airline (or to do damned near anything else) you'd have to swipe your card and then press your thumb onto a glass square.
Forget, for the moment, the idea that this makes the most restrictive police state imaginable easy to implement. Forget all those niggling details like the Bill of Rights. That stuff doesn't matter. This system is waaaay over the top technologically speaking. First, computer-recognition of thumb-prints is sophisticated but hardly error free; what happens to someone when the ID system issues a false negative? What happens if they have a cut on their thumb? Or ink marks? What about amputees? When a system gets used millions of times per day, a false negative rate of .001% is too high, and there's no way it's going to be even that low.
What happens when some happy hacker breaks into the ID system and starts playing with the records? His high school teacher flunked him out of English, so our friend breaks into the system and hax0rs the teacher's record so that his thumbprint no longer matches.
What do we do in case of a telecommunications breakdown? How many redundant database systems will there be and where will they be located? How will they be connected to the phone system? What means will all those independent terminals use to reach the database, and will they be secure? If anything in the last two years has been demonstrated by the internet, it's that nearly any system ultimately has holes in it, and the only truly secure computer is one which isn't connected to anything else. But by its nature, this system has to be broadly connected; is it even possible for such a system to be as secure as this would need to be?
Oh, and then there's the issue of software bugs. Do we really trust Oracle to implement this mother? Ellison also offers to give this software to the US for free, but will maintenance be free? And what happens if Oracle goes OOB? (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0809 (Crew, this is the Captain): My most common referer is Google, by a long shot. I routinely get in the neighborhood of 30 refers per day from there, sometimes more, according to the Cobalt "referer" summary page on my server. I'd always assumed that this was just Google's crawler visiting me, I haven't been able to find the base log file where Apache saves that information, but the Cobalt summary pages also list the top 200 visitors and show their refers, and I was just looking through it, and indeed I am getting a lot of legitimate hits from there. If you hunt for "CDMA FAQ", I come up first. But that is because of how Google's ranking system works; my CDMA FAQ is heavily linked from other places, including especially from about.com (from which I also get a steady stream of refers) and since about.com ranks highly with Google, the fact that they link to me instantly grants me credibility with Google's rating system. But it occurred to me that Google actually can't differentiate that part of my site from any other, which means that my whole site has that same credibility rating in Google's eyes. As a result I may be coming up high in other searches. But I have no idea if it's true. I tried a few other searches for keywords like "beautiful women" and "terrorism" and I wasn't in the top fifty or so (which is where you have to be to get much traffic). On the other hand, when I searched for "terrorism theory" I came up second. So if people are interested in trying to drive hits to their site, there are two things to do: have something to say, and register with Google. (discussion in progress)
Stardate 20010923.0725 (On Screen): Where's Waldo? The Taliban say they've lost track of bin Laden, and they're doing their best to try to suggest that he's already left Afghanistan, so there's no real need to bomb us anymore, right? Right? Meanwhile, the opposition says that bin Laden is actually holed up with Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, and if the US would just drop a bomb on Omar's head, the whole problem would be solved. I don't believe either of them; the announcements are both just a bit too self-serving. There's a lot of disinformation in a war; let's be careful not to fall for the trap of "They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true." (discuss)
Update: The US government is skeptical about the Taliban's claims, to.
Stardate 20010923.0714 (On Screen): In Belgium, certain suspects were arrested and they also seized chemicals which could have been used to make explosives. When they say that, I have to wonder just what they found. A surprising number of common materials can be used to make explosives.
Ammonia and tincture of iodine are a lot of fun. Mix them together and pour the resulting fluid on something and let it dry; part of what remains is nitrogen tri-iodide, which is a contact explosive. High school students have been having fun with this one for decades, but the stuff is too sensitive to use for anything big time. Acetylene is also fun; take a solution of copper sulfate and bubble acetylene through it, and a blue powder will precipitate. Filter it out, and as long as it's wet, you're safe. Once it dries, you've got contact-sensitive high explosive in the form of copper acetylide (CU2C2 -- Kids, don't try this at home! You'll blow your arm off!). A tank of propane is a bomb, lacking only a detonator. For that matter, so is that tank of acetylene. But if you really want to make a big sound, then you load up on ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil, which is what McVeigh used in Oklahoma City.
Of course, not everyone who buys fertilizer is planning on making a bomb out of it. So it would be nice to know just what they did find that they are calling potential bomb ingredients. For example, if they had fifty pounds of potassium perchlorate, I'd be convinced. (Not too many other uses I can think of for that in those kinds of quantities.) But if all they found was ammonia, someone's trying to trump up a case. (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0645 (On Screen): Sad to say, the religious workers who are being held by the Taliban for the crime of preaching Christianity are pretty much doomed. Had the attack not happened, it was looking likely that they would be found guilty in a show trial but sentenced to a token punishment, and deported. If the US commences military operations against Taliban targets before their trial, which seems likely, I suspect the Taliban will throw the book at them. It's regretable, but the US cannot craft its entire foreign policy around saving eight people who knew they were taking a chance when they went in. I'm sorry for the parents of these missionaries, but that's the reality. Their best hope now is to be involved in a POW exchange after the war, or to be liberated by a resurgent Afghani Northern Alliance, who would most certainly set them free. (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0638 (On Screen): Something that doesn't make America great is the "Miss America" contest. It is an anachronism, a left-over from a chauvinistic time when the most important characteristic of a woman was how closely she resembled the current standard of physical beauty. I like looking at gorgeous babes as much as any man, but there's more to a woman than that (and I cannot stand to date a woman unless she's got a lot under the hood). The contest has tried, a bit, to add in just a trace of intellectualism, but the primary emphasis is still on physical beauty and shapely tits, on how well the woman can walk on spike heels and sway her hips while doing so, and on how brightly her teeth glow when she flashes that big smile at the camera. Brainless bimbos with big boobs are still favored to win. Some intelligent women have won the contest, but I think that's more due to chance rather than by design. Why does this travesty continue? (discuss)
Stardate 20010923.0618 (On Screen): Isaac Stern has died of old age. A Jewish immigrant from Russia as a child, he was one of the finest violinists of the 20th century, with a very long and distinguished career. In many ways, he epitomizes what makes America great; an immigrant and member of a minority group, he surmounted all that by talent and hard work, and was embraced by the nation with open arms. In many parts of the world, the fact that he was Jewish would have closed doors -- or lead to his death. But in America his talent was enough. A man of personal courage and integrity, his life's work was simply to make others happy with his performances. Any nation which nurtures such people is worth defending. (discuss)