Stardate 20010516.1320 (On Screen): Sean Meade (May 16, 2001 entry) doesn't like my opinions about creationism, and in defense of his position (that I'm wrong) he cites an authority rather than directly demonstrating a flaw in my argument. This is, unfortunately, a common mistake among creationists who seem to miss the fact that "science" doesn't speak with a unified voice. It is always possible to find someone with credentials who will support nearly any position. The mere fact that the person works for some major educational institution doesn't prove that the person is correct. (Einstein was legendarily skeptical about quantum mechanics -- and Einstein was wrong.) It's important to try to evaluate the person's argument directly, to read it skeptically, and to seek out other opinions. The mere fact that a given scientist's book tells you what you want to hear doesn't mean he's right.
I did a web search for some critiques of his position, and I found numerous ones, virtually all of which were scathingly negative. The only positive ones I found were from creationists who were cheering because "science had finally proved evolution wrong".
Some critical reviews of "Darwin's Black Box":
Finally, Behe's arguments, like those of Biblical creationists, are heavily larded with quotations from evolutionists, many taken out of context to make it seem that our field is riven with self-doubt. More than anything else, it is this use of selective quotation that shows Behe's close kinship to his religious predecessors. I am painfully and personally acquainted with Behe's penchant for fiddling with quotations. ... Apparently I am one of those faint-hearted biologists who see the errors of Darwinism but cannot admit it. This was news to me. I am surely numbered among the more orthodox evolutionists, and hardly see our field as fatally flawed."
H. Allen Orr (University of Rochester): "The first thing you need to understand about Behe's argument is that it's just plain wrong. It's not that he botched some stray fact about evolution, or that he doesn't know his biochemistry, but that his argument-as an argument-is fatally flawed. ... Behe's chief objection to Darwinism is flat wrong, and, bereft of this, he's got little to say. But when you do look at what else he says, you find a bizarre string of confusions and contradictions."
Don Lindsay: "Behe also doesn't seem to be aware of the basic way that the history of a molecule can be studied: namely, by examining its variation across a set of living species. If the tree of descent (phylogeny) of the creatures is known from other data, then it is sometimes possible to deduce a great deal."
Under the circumstances, I have to conclude that Behe's book is a waste of time. I'm also having a strong feeling of deja vu: this reminds me uncannily of Velikovsky. I'm afraid I'm not impressed by Sean's statement that Behe knows more than I do, or the implication that I should discard my position because of that.
Sean's direct answer to my point (that God is an incompetent engineer) is that God may well have been capable of designing a better human eye but decided not to for some unfathomable reason which we'll probably never know.
The difficulty with that point of view is that it is unfalsifiable. Once we decide that God is whimsical, then the force of gravity might reverse tomorrow morning, or the sun might rise in the west, or the sky might turn purple, or all the oceans might vanish. "God moves in mysterious ways." Indeed -- and if that is true then nothing, nothing whatever, is impossible, and nothing is certain.
As an engineer I find that kind of idea to be unpalatable for a simple reason: it doesn't matter whether it is true or false: it's useless. If a theory permits everything and forbids nothing, then it cannot be used to make any predictions. I prefer a "false" theory which correctly predicts the future to a "true" theory which predicts nothing whatever. (And I wrote about this at length last summer.)
(It is not my intention to run Sean down here nor to hurt his feelings; only to point out that religion is not science and the two should not be mixed. Both inevitably suffer when this happens. I would never want to try to take away Sean's Christianity.)
Stardate 20010516.0630 (On Screen): It seems to me that the people here are missing the point. It isn't important how many kids emerge into their twenties with a high school diploma; that's just a piece of paper. The really important question is whether they have more knowledge and more ability to use it. If we measured success of our educational system by the credentials it hands out, we could grant everyone a Ph.D at age 16 and our problems would be solved. I think it's self evident that this wouldn't solve anything.
Counting the number of credentials granted is meaningless if the meaning of the credentials is changing. It may well be the case that tougher graduation standards might result in fewer HS diplomas. Does it really do anyone any good to give them a diploma when they don't really deserve it? Doesn't that also dilute the value of the diploma for those who really did earn it?
The education industry has always been obsessed with credentials; this is one of the symptoms of the problem. A credential is supposed to be an indication of achievement, and it is the achievement that matters.
Stardate 20010515.2045 (On Screen): Well, he gets $375,000 per year for life. But despite what this article says, it's not going to be his life. If the company goes under, which now seems likely, then he'll just be one more creditor standing in line to pick over the bones. And depending on the terms of various contracts, he may not get anything at all.
And people wonder why there was a dot-com melt-down. I cannot believe that the board of WebVan would make such a deal for any chief executive. Hell, Lou Gerstner doesn't even have this kind of deal.
Stardate 20010515.1915 (Crew, this is the Captain): I'm reading a book called What Remains to be Discovered, written by a former editor of Nature Magazine (who surely must be competent in science). It is absolutely fascinating and I just finished reading his description of the immense unsolved problems in cellular biology. It got me thinking about some of the ways in which computers aren't going to be able to help.
Stardate 20010515.1435 (On Screen): Congressman Armey is concerned that the Department of Health and Human Services is going to assign every American a unique medical identification number. Congressman Armey is concerned that this could "seriously jeopardize citizens' medical privacy". Congressman Armey isn't living in the same country I'm living in, apparently.
Congressman Armey needs to read USS Clueless. No-one is going to need a unique medical identification number because the entire medical establishment is already using the Social Security Number for that purpose. (Except for Congressmen, who get their medical coverage from the US Navy.)
Stardate 20010515.1415 (On Screen): This is the stuff of which bad TV movies are made. But in real life it must have been hairy as heck. To stop this runaway train, first they had to chase it down from behind with another engine, and hook up while moving. That, alone, wasn't trivial, and it would have taken a long time to get an engine onto that track and to catch up with the runaway -- to do it, they probably had to exceed speed limits. Then once connected, the second engine was run backwards to slow the train down, which was really dangerous. (It could have caused a derailment.) And once the whole train was slowed down, someone actually jumped onto the leading engine as it passed him, which could easily have killed him if he'd missed and fallen under the wheels of the train. Expect to see a dramatization of this on Fox next fall, complete with romantic triangle.
According to this report, they tried to derail it but failed. That's the usual way to deal with a runaway and it's a good one, because it means they can pick where the wreck will take place so that no-one gets hurt. I wonder why they didn't succeed.
To me, however, the critical question is this: why didn't the dead man switch work? It's always been possible for an engineer of a train to die or become incapacitated while the train was moving, and if no mechanism existed for shutting the train off then it would eventually hit something and hit it hard. So locomotives have a shut-off mechanism where if a human doesn't actively indicate constantly "Keep going" then the engine's power will automatically shut down, bringing the engine to a halt. This is only prudence -- so why didn't it work?
It would also be kind of nice to know where the engineer is.
Update: it seems that this train wasn't required to have a dead-man switch. I bet that rule changes now. I'm amazed at this; every locomotive should have a dead-man switch.
Stardate 20010515.1215 (On Screen): I think Apple is making a mistake. 25 stores is at once too many and too few, and it will harm more than hurt.
25 stores will be enough to thoroughly ruin most of Apples remaining independent dealers, even those in places other than where the 25 stores are. Any which a couple of hundred miles of one of the 25 stores will lose business to them.
So it's too many, because it's enough to really hurt their dealers. But it's too few, because without the dealers 25 stores isn't enough to maintain a 3% market share, even with the online store.
It's also curious that Apple should do this when Gateway failed so miserably doing the same thing. Exactly why will it be any different for Apple?
Stardate 20010515.0855 (On Screen): The Fed has now set itself up. After four rapid half-percent cuts in interest rates so far this year, they're meeting today and it is widely expected that they'll cut rates again. Only now if they "only" cut a quarter point, it's going to be seen as a major disappointment. If you look at the history of the Fed, cuts as rapid as those this year are completely unprecedented, and now half-percent moves are seen as the norm.
My prediction: it will be a quarter percent cut -- and the stock market is going to tank afterwards.
Update: I was wrong. This is really going to put pressure on them the next time they meet. That's five straight half-point cuts, in just five months.
Stardate 20010515.0845 (On Screen): Are there more couples living together in the US now? Or are there more couples willing to admit it? Actually, I think it's probably a mix of both. It used to be called "shacking up" or other derogatory things, and any woman who did it was considered a bit of a slut. (Of course, with the classic American double standard about sex, there wasn't any equivalent negative about the man involved.) But this kind of thing has actually been going on a long time, as indicated by the fact that there is a body of law about it ("common law marriage"). So I think people having that kind of living arrangement used to lie on the census form and say they were married -- which in a sense they were.
But the culture started changing in the 70's, and in my generation there isn't considered to be any moral stigma associated with two "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters" (which is the term the Census bureau introduced in the 1980 census because they were getting so many "Other" responses in 1970).
Still, it's always important to understand that any kind of survey, even the census, tabulates what people say, which may or may not actually be true.
Stardate 20010515.0500 (On Screen): If this guy thought his phone calls were being redirected, just how difficult would it be for him to get some friend to go stay at one of the hotels in question and try making phone calls to him at the times he thought his calls were being stolen? I'm afraid I find this whole thing really quite unconvincing.
Stardate 20010514.1640 (On Screen): The Palestinians and Israelis are standing hip-deep in a pool of gasoline, throwing lighted matches at each other. I don't quite understand what outcome they expect from this. What I'm expecting is a bloodbath. I think we're very close to the whole thing going up in flames, and it's going to be ugly.
From my study of warfare and politics, I've come to understand that warfare is violence intended to achieve a political end. When the violence is motivated by revenge or hatred, rather than from cold calculation of a political goal, it invariably fails. And there is no case of which I'm aware where terror attacks on the other side caused it to lose heart and surrender.
Stardate 20010514.1550 (On Screen): I don't see how this solves anything. Like so many great breakthroughs in content protection, it's up against the same unclimbable mountains: installed base and consumer resistance. It is really hard to create a completely new and incompatible medium for distribution of music; in the entire 20th century there were only eight successful ones (cylinders, 78 RPM records, 45 RPM records, 33 RPM records, CDs, cassettes, 8-track tapes and portable MP3 players). Each time one was introduced, it had to have a substantial advantage over the previous generation in order to convince the consumer base to buy new equipment to use it, and even then the transition took a long time, with older formats coexisting with the newer ones for as long as fifteen years.
8-tracks and then cassettes offered convenience, especially in cars, and also recording ability. The CD offered greater capacity and better fidelity over the LP. The customer base was willing to switch because these new formats gave them something they never had before. And of course the portable MP3 player does everything a cassette does only with no moving parts, a smaller size and better fidelity plus a cachet of "coolness".
Just what does a content-protected electronic music player (i.e. the same as a portable MP3 player except with copy protection built in) offer that would cause a customer to buy it instead of a non-protected MP3 player?
Well, the answer is "the ability to play music not available in any other format". But that's a chicken-and-egg problem, because I can't see the music companies releasing anything exclusively in this format until there's a big installed base of players (say, five million or so), and unless there's a lot of really desirable music only available for it (say, 50% of the top hundred albums at any given time) I don't understand why any customer would want to buy one. It's not obvious how you bootstrap this product.
The chip described here is a perfect example of a technical success coupled with a complete marketing failure. It will do exactly what its creators say it will -- except that it won't, because it won't sell.
Evidently the lessons of DiVX and DAT haven't been learned by the industry. Customers, even the honest ones, don't like copy protection or technological limits on use.
Stardate 20010514.0715 (On Screen): This one's cool, too. Vodafone just managed to make a GSM 3G call in the UK, using experimental equipment. That was done here in the US with CDMA2000 last year.
Vodafone hopes to begin rolling out 3G by the end of 2002. Verizon and Sprint are both going to start CDMA2000 deployment by the end 2001.
Notice any mention in that article about 3G in the US? Neither did I.
There's something we engineers call "Not Invented Here syndrome" or NIH. It deserves a name because it's so common. Engineers are not dispassionate; they have egos like anyone else. Sometimes a corporate culture will become seeped with NIH, and this manifests as a belief that if something is announced by someone else then it must be crap. After all, if it were important we would have found it, right?
There are three stages in NIH when faced with a competing technology which is superior:
Europe is now in stage 3 with respect to CDMA.
Stardate 20010514.0615 (On Screen): I like this. The sheer arrogance it demonstrates is beyond belief. "The flavour that many GSM networks are expected to adopt is known as Universal Mobile Telecommunication Services (UMTS), but the US is adopting a different flavour in a move that could preserve existing incompatibilities."
What's actually going on is that GSM is switching from using a Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) scheme (which the article rightfully criticizes) to a Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) scheme. CDMA is much too difficult to explain here (but my CDMA FAQ goes into some aspects of it). The point, however, is that the sentence I just quoted makes it sound as if the Europeans set the standard, and then those silly Americans changed it just for the sake of being different. Grumble, stupid Americans.
It doesn't bother pointing out that it's actually exactly the opposite. IS-95 CDMA was invented here (by my former employer, Qualcomm) and has been in broad use in the US for at least six years. The new 3G standards being adopted by CDMA and GSM do indeed differ (most critically, in the chip rate) and the CDMA 3G standard (known as "CDMA2000") uses a rate which is upward compatible with the existing CDMA standard already deployed (IS-95). The GSM committee deliberately chose a different chip rate solely to make GSM's 3G incompatible with IS-95.
I might mention that it didn't work. Qualcomm has announced a phone ASIC which will support both CDMA2000 and W-CDMA.
Stardate 20010514.0530 (On Screen): This isn't going to work. The problem that recording companies are facing is that they desperately want to retrofit copy protection onto CDs, but the media format wasn't designed for it. Anything they do has to be backward compatible with the installed base of CD players while at the same time making it impossible for PCs to read the file.
I've read more elsewhere about the approach described here. A CD has a track on it which contains directory information. A CD player doesn't use it, but a PC does when trying to read the disk as data. What they've done is to screw up that track. So if you put the disk into a PC's CD player, you'll be able to play it through the speakers, but not digitally. The CD drive will be able to play it using RedBook audio, piping the sound directly to your sound card in analog (using that silly wire you always have to directly connect) but you wouldn't be able to play it digitally, with the data routing through the CPU. Which means you also won't be able to rip it. Your PC won't know how to access the disk.
Only you will -- it will just take some cleverness. There exist, for example, raw-mode drives. These drives have the ability to ignore the file system entirely and to access the drive using block numbers. At that point, the contents of the disk directory no longer matters. All that's important is how long it is (which is known) so that it can be skipped. Someone can write a program where you manually enter the track lengths from the CD case, and then snatch the files that way. This would get done by straight calculation, because CDs don't use any kind of variable compression. One second of sound always generates exactly the same number of bits on the disk. So if you know that a sound track is 3:27 then you'll know exactly how many sectors it uses.
There are, of course, details to work out, but they're not intractable. (It might be necessary to use interaction to precisely locate the track breaks, but once this is done the information could be published online.) As long as existing CD players can read a disk, a means will be found whereby PCs can do the same thing.
Stardate 20010513.1045 (Crew, this is the Captain): Does evolution really violate the laws of Thermodynamics? No. But it does violate the caricature of thermodynamics espoused by creationists.
Stardate 20010513.0645 (On Screen): The reports I've read say that Windows XP really is a superb product, described as merging "the reliability of Windows NT/2000 with the mainstream, up-to-date usability and technology support of Windows 95/98/ME". Perhaps so. But it's too bad that Microsoft has so little confidence in it that they have to continue to use coercion to force people to upgrade. If it's so damned good, why doesn't Microsoft believe that people will want to upgrade to it? Whenever someone pushes a product at me too hard, I always get worried about it.
Stardate 20010513.0550 (On Screen): I'm having an extremely difficult time feeling sorry for these people. During the high tech bubble, they borrowed money to exercise stock options, and kept the stock rather than selling some or all of it immediately. The idea was to wait until the stock price went even higher, cash out, repay the loans and pay the taxes which were due. What actually happened was that the stock price collapsed and now they're heavily in debt. The stock is worth much less than the taxes and loans.
They were making a calculated risk, but it's clear that they didn't really calculate it, or indeed even understand what they were doing. They simply assumed that the stock would continue to rise, and assumed that what they were doing was a sure thing.
I have friends in high tech who were in companies whose stock prices rose precipitously, and who had options, and none of them did this. When they wanted to exercise their options, they paid the taxes immediately. If they wanted to keep stock, they converted some of the options into cash to pay for the shares they kept. Coming out of it, the taxes were paid and there was no debt. While the stock they hold may not be worth as much now as it was when they exercised last year, they own the stock with no liability. They may not be rich but they're not bankrupt. That is prudent investing. My own options remain unexercised, so since I had no realized gain there is no tax liability.
Maybe the difference is that I'm old. I've been watching with growing horror at how badly young people have been managing their finances. In particular, I've been watching how they run up awesome debts, maxing out credit cards without realizing just how big a trap 21% interest rate really is. I have no debt and in my life the only loans I've ever had have been car loans -- and I've paid every one of those off early.
Perhaps the difference is that I've lived through a couple of recessions. For people under age 30, the one we're in now is their first. For them, prosperity seemed to go on "forever" and there was beginning to be a feeling that something fundamental had changed and that recessions were a thing of the past.
I like Las Vegas, but I have a very rational understanding of the situation there: I'm going to gamble, and I'm going to lose money when I do so. The more I play, the more I'll lose. If I play for higher stakes, I'll lose more money. (If I play craps, the money will flow like water.) I don't mind; I really enjoy gambling, and so I always budget myself a certain amount of money each day for gambling losses (just as I budget for food or for housing) and when I reach my limit I stop. I was playing blackjack and I saw a guy who was maybe 23 sit down next to me, lay $600 on the table and get a pile of green chips ($25) and start playing three or four of them per hand, and in about ten minutes he'd lost it all. With a really disgusted look on his face he stood up and walked away. And I suddenly realized: he'd expected to win. I didn't feel sorry for him, either.
(Mark Schwanhausser has it right.)
Stardate 20010512.1520 (On Screen): I believe we've found the new Craig Shergold. Irrespective of the noble goal of trying to recover a kidnapped child, if the letters this guy has been sending out are anything like what I think they are, we're going to be receiving them for at least ten years as they mutate and spread.
Indeed, perhaps that was the reason why someone started the virus. While I don't sympathize with this in the slightest, maybe the idea was to try to stop this meme from spreading like the Shergold one has.
Sadly, Jessica Koopmans has been found, dead. But we'll still be seeing appeals for information about her for years.
Stardate 20010512.1400 (On Screen): Third time's a charm, I guess. This is the third time AT&T will have broken itself up. The first time was as a settlement for the antitrust suit, yielding the "Baby Bells" plus the AT&T parent company.
Then AT&T itself decided to divide into three pieces. One of those pieces became Lucent (which itself did some sub-dividing) and one of the three retained the AT&T name. Now that company is going to divide into quarters.
I sometimes wonder about big business. Sometimes it seems as if every company on earth can think of nothing but acquisitions and consolidation. Other times it seems as if the only answer for anything is divestiture.
Stardate 20010512.1155 (On Screen): I just finished reading "Crypto", and I think it's fantastic. I recommend it highly. I knew some parts of the story (having lived through it) but there were a lot of things about it I didn't know, and it was interesting to see just how few degrees separated the various participants who ultimately broke the government's monopoly on strong cryptography.
It was particularly interesting to see just how influential and important two of my heroes were: David Kahn and Martin Gardner. Kahn's book is a must-read for anyone interested in cryptography. It is the essential history of the field right up to the point where computers changed everything.
And during the years he was writing it, Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American was invariably the high point of the magazine. I first learned about the RSA cipher and the concepts behind secure signing using asymmetric ciphers by reading Gardner's column. (I was one of the people who wrote to MIT for a copy of the original paper way back when; I still have my copy somewhere.) Martin Gardner is one of the three best writers about science in the 20th century. (The other two are Isaac Asimov and Stephen Jay Gould.) Gardner is probably more responsible for my everlasting fascination with mathematics than anyone. He could take awesomely technical subjects and make them completely lucid in just a few pages.
Stardate 20010512.1115 (On Screen): You know, I would be far more disturbed by knowing a lawyer turned away clients he didn't like than that he represented them. In the US we have a constitutional right to legal representation, and there is a moral obligation on any lawyer to represent anyone who needs help, and to do so to the best of their ability. How can anyone trust any lawyer if they knew that the lawyer could dump them at a moment's notice?
Mr. Bauer (ostensibly once a presidential candidate, though I never heard of him) says "Many lawyers would decline to represent a racist organization". He apparently hasn't heard of Skokie, where a Jewish lawyer working for the ACLU defended the rights of the American Nazi Party to have a political parade in the heavily-Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. Evidently Mr. Bauer believe that only people who agree with him have a right to legal representation.
Stardate 20010511.2215 (On Screen): The thing I like about this story is that the two major outsiders offering their opinions are solely concerned with economic factors. The HMO says that these drugs should be over-the-counter because if they are made OTC then the HMO won't have to pay for them anymore. (Medical insurance doesn't cover non-prescription drugs.) The drug company, on the other hand, opposes making the drugs OTC because if that happens either sales will drop (when users have to pay the full expense of $2 per pill) or they'll have to drop the price, both of which would result in lowered income for the drug company.
Neither seems to care about the patients. Your American medical system at work!
Stardate 20010511.1400 (On Screen): Man, with friends like this... "Hey, there's no way he murdered his wife. I know, because I offered to kill her, and he told me not to." Just the character reference everyone needs most.
Stardate 20010511.1230 (Crew, this is the Captain): Senator Feinstein has introduced a bill trying to restrict distribution of Social Security Numbers. She's wasting her time.
Stardate 20010511.0945 (On Screen): I guess this goes to show that "a picture is worth a thousand words" or something like that. But it's a sign of the times when even porn sites are having trouble making it commercially online. Jeeze, what's the world coming to?
Stardate 20010511.0515 (On Screen): Occasionally you see news reports where scientists make diametrically opposite claims. When that happens, you have to evaluate what they're saying to see just how good the evidence is, though that can require a lot of background. In this case, the opposite viewpoint is this one.
At this point there's little doubt that our evolutionary forebears developed in Africa and then spread out to colonize the world. Equally, there's little doubt that hominids left Africa a long time ago (a million years?). The open question, however, is whether there was a second invasion of more modern forms. The theory in question (which I think is correct) says that one particular group of hominids developed in Africa and again invaded the world quite recently (perhaps a hundred thousand years ago at most). This new form was sufficiently advanced that it was able to displace the local hominids everywhere, such as the Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia. Modern humans found everywhere are descended from this second invasion. Or so goes the "out of Africa" theory.
Other anthropologists don't agree with this, and believe that the separate "races" of humans we find around the world were the result of local evolution over a much longer time period.
These two news reports come down on opposite sides of this question. And both claim to be using data from genetic analysis to back up their points of view. So which is right? Let's look at it.
One group used genetic samples from thousands of living people all over the world, and compared them to see how similar certain genetic traits are. The other group derived DNA out of a single sample of bone preserved in the ground for tens of thousands of years.
Some kinds of biological constructs can be preserved for quite long periods of time. Some can't be preserved at all, or only in extremely strange conditions. But almost always there are gradual changes (i.e. fossilization or decay). Bone will be preserved at least in form, but DNA is notoriously unstable even when locked in a matrix of bone. It may be possible to salvage fragments of DNA from bone like this, but only enough for qualitative analysis, not enough for quantitative analysis. In other words, there might be enough to conclude that it came from some particular species, but not enough to permit detailed analysis of just how much different it is from the species norm. There's also a non-trivial concern that there may have been contamination of the sample, something which is surprisingly easy to do. (If you pick something up, you leave skin cells on it.)
On the other hand, DNA is preserved quite nicely in living creatures, and passed on to their descendants. So the DNA taken from living humans is fresh. Also, there are samples taken from more than 12,000 men in the second study, a much larger sample. And far more DNA could be gotten from each subject in the study, in the form of blood. Finally, they were relying on nuclear DNA rather than mitochondrial DNA, which for a number of technical reasons is a better choice for relationship studies.
I don't find the Australian study convincing. Their evidence is interesting but far from being as conclusive as Dr. Thorne tries to pretend. Also, his side in the argument (claiming separate evolution over a much longer time) has a nontrivial problem trying to explain native Americans. Unlike other places in the world, there's no doubt at all that native Americans colonized quite recently, no more than twenty thousand years ago. Yet they are both genetically and culturally as much different from their Chinese forebears as are those same Chinese different from the Australian natives. If there could be that much change in a population in such a short time in America, then why is there any theoretical need for a long time for differentiation in Asia?
Stardate 20010511.0440 (On Screen): What if they held a beauty contest and nobody came? I can't really say I'm too upset about the fact that world participation in the "Miss Universe" contest is fading out. I like looking at a beautiful woman as much as the next man (unless he's gay) but I don't think I've ever been able to watch more than a few minutes of one of these programs without cringing. It is simply the most vapid and exploitative experience imaginable.
It is, unfortunately, to beautiful young women what pro basketball in the US has become to many young black men: their way to improve themselves. But in both cases the number of people entering totally dwarfs the number who really succeed. It's true that a few young men who really do excel in basketball can hit big-time, and equally true that a handful of young women who get involved in beauty contests can make a bundle modeling or in show business. But it's a long shot; most don't. If someone really is trying to build a future, it's not a good choice.
Stardate 20010510.2050 (On Screen): Here's a "modest proposal": suppose that when votes in the UN are taken (outside the Security Council), that each nation's vote is weighted proportional to the amount of money it contributed to the organization during the prior 12 months. If some country wants more influence, then it can contribute more money. If it objects to some other country having too much influence, it can ask that country to contribute less. (At this point I'm quite sure the US would be willing to reduce its contribution if anyone asked it to.) Interesting thought, hmmm? As it stands, it makes no sense to me whatever that a country like Botswana (with a population smaller than San Diego county) should have a vote equal in influence to that of India or the US.
Stardate 20010510.2015 (On Screen): Norman Spinrad was an unusual writer, even in science fiction circles (an eccentric bunch to be sure). He is best known to people outside the field as the author of the Classic Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine", generally considered one of the best episodes of the series. Indeed, many of the most memorable Trek episodes were written by established SF authors like Harlan Ellison or Theodore Sturgeon.
But Spinrad's published work was much different, and tended to the outrageous. Some science fiction writers try to extrapolate what is likely to occur, or what might occur if we're not careful. Spinrad was more interested in anti-utopias, though by no means always. It wasn't so much that he thought these things were likely as that they were an interesting way to stretch the brain. In one story a guy actually does sell the Brooklyn Bridge. (The buyer later sends him a gold brick made of real gold.) My favorite novel by him is "A World Between", which contains extensive graphic sexual images none of which is gratuitous. Every bit of it is necessary for the plotline. Most of them are political advertisements on a world where there is absolutely no censorship and where the political system, "electronic democracy", is based on what the internet might become in about a hundred years when everyone has a political right to broadband access. The story it tells is outstanding, but that's not what I wanted to talk about here.
In 1973 he published a book of short stories and included in it was one story called "The American Pastime." It's a series of vignettes told in first person by various people in the storyline, with each one taking up where the previous one left off. The first one is told by a network producer whose network just failed to get an NFL broadcast license and is about to get ruined in the ratings. So the top execs there offer this guy a choice: come up with something that can outrate the NFL, or get fired. So he sits down one Sunday with some choice hashish and starts watching a football game, and lets the creative juices flow. And he meditates on the fact that football is a stylized simulation of combat, and realizes that the way to get better ratings is to try something even more like combat. His brilliant concept is to permit the man carrying the ball to punch any defensive player, and for defensive players to be able to use any violence at all against the man with the ball. Violence against an offensive player without the ball, or by them, is a fifteen yard penalty and loss of down against the offense, or fifteen yards and first down against the defense. Voila! "!!Combat Football!!"
And it goes from there. Each step along the way is perfectly logical in context, but by the time we're done what we end up with is truly grotesque: six teams oriented around ethnic groups instead of cities. The players play without any armor or protection; one team is of blonde whites, one team is blacks in afros (1973, remember), one team is hippies (1973), one is made up of outlaw bikers, one of gays, and one of mexicans. They do it up with costumes and suchlike, the white team dresses in stars and stripes, the mexicans dress like gauchos, and you can just imagine how the bikers and gays dress. They do it up wrestling style. At the time, racism and stereotypes were a staple of pro wrestling in the US. That kind of thing has fallen by the wayside as time has gone on, but when I watched wrestling in the 1960's it was very common. (Fortunately, it didn't do any permanent damage to me. I was very lucky.)
Which is why the XFL, now dead, is so strange. We came just this close to Spinrad's vision, because the driving force behind the XFL was the guy who runs the World Wrestling Federation -- and Spinrad's concept was a merger of football and wrestling (which is stated in the story, by the way). I wonder why Vince McMahon never twigged to the idea -- someone should have loaned him Spinrad's book. He wouldn't have given a damn about political correctness, needless to say; the WWF is already about as politically incorrect as it can be.
Sadly, we're also seeing the other part of Spinrad's anti-utopian vision: riots in the stands, with dozens of fans being killed per game. I think that Spinrad would rather have been wrong about that.
All material © 2001 Steven C. Den Beste