Monday, December 31, 2007

A new blog

There is a lot I like about Blogger. I've been using it since June 2006, and I'm mostly happy about the way it works.

But not completely happy -- there are a few things that are irksome, such as:

  • No satisfactory way to get a cut tag into long posts. And I have a tendency to write a lot of long posts -- at least long enough that I need cut tags.

  • No way of removing or renaming the images you have uploaded. At this time, the only way to delete an image is to delete the whole post.

  • No good way of backing up your blog. I had a good, simple script using wget but since Google changed the layout of Blogger, it no longer works so well (or at all).

  • Google seems to have a very flighty attitude to making Blogger available to third party applications. The original Blogger 1.0 API does not work with Blogger 2.0; the Blogger 2.0 Atom API is now being deprecated in favour of yet another API. No wonder I haven't been able to find an Linux app that can successfully communicate with Blogger.

So I have decided to experiment with another blog, over on Wordpress. That doesn't mean I'm abandoning Blogger for Wordpress immediately, or at all.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Family walking on all fours

National Geographic has an article about a Kurdish family where five out of the nineteen siblings in one family walk on all fours instead of upright.

Scientists who have studied the three sisters and two brothers insist that it is not a hoax.

Uner Tan, a Turkish neurophysiologist, has studied them and believes they are "evolutionary throwbacks" to our ancestors. A team of German scientists led by Stefan Mundlos believes they have found the precise gene which has knocked out their ability to walk upright.

It's not clear what they mean by "the" gene that controls bipedalism: walking on two legs successfully requires many features, both anatomical and mental, and knocking out just one of them will cause the whole system to break. To take an extreme example, it's hard to walk upright if you have no legs. Less extreme example: the move to bipedalism would have required changes to our hips and backs. Our backs are still not completely evolved to suit our upright stance, which is why people are prone to back problems. Comparing us to our cousins (gorillas, orangutans, chimps and bonobos) shows that we have significantly longer legs than they do, relative to our body-size. The evolution of bipedalism would have required all these features to evolve more-or-less in lockstep (albeit presumably in fits and starts), and it isn't credible that there is a single gene that controls them all.

Nevertheless, certainly there could be a single gene -- or many single genes -- that the lack of could disable bipedalism. If you remove the accelerator cable from a car, the car won't move, but that isn't to say that the accelerator cable is the thing that makes cars move forward.

After studying the family, the British evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey pointed out that the genetic mutation alone wouldn't be sufficient to cause the lack of bipedalism. He gives equal credit to a family that was accepting of the children's strange gait, and making no efforts to cajole them into standing upright. Sensible, so far. But then he goes on:

"This is for real," Humphrey said. "You only have to look at the calluses on the hands of the young man [Huseyin] to see he's been on his hands for a very long time."

Why single out Huseyin? Don't the other four siblings have calluses on their hands? And walking on your hands is hardly the only way to make them callused.

I don't have any specific reason to expect a hoax, but calluses on the hands of one of the five siblings is hardly a reason to give the all-clear. Nevertheless, in the absence of any specific reason to expect a hoax, I think it is worth treating it as genuine.

The behavior could potentially reveal much about our own evolution, Humphrey says.

"Here we've got a living example of how it might be for a member of our species to walk on four legs," he said.

Most experts assume that the quadruped ancestors of humans walked in a similar way to apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

But the Turkish brothers and sisters walk on only their wrists or the heels of their hands, with their fingers held off the ground, the researchers say. This position appears to have saved their fingers from damage; the sisters, for instance, engage in both crochet and embroidery.

Chimps, our closest living relatives, use their whole hands and fingers for walking.

"Chimpanzees basically wreck their fingers by walking on them," Humphrey said.

[...]

"I think this new evidence, suggesting that [early-human ancestors] walked on their wrists, is much more plausible and interesting," Humphrey said.

I question this completely. Chimpanzees wreck their fingers? Chimps have very good manual dexterity, I'd need to see some support for this astounding claim before accepting it.

But even if correct about chimpanzees, Humphrey's claim that the siblings walk only on the heels of their hands isn't supported by the evidence available. The article has one photo of four of the siblings walking. In it, you can clearly make out just two hands on the ground, and in both of them, the people are clearly using their entire hand, fingers and all.

Walking on all fours
(Click image for full view.)


The photographic evidence contradicts Humphrey's claim, and calls into doubt Uner Tan's conclusion that this is a viable model of pre-bipedal human movement.

If you try it for yourself, I'm confident you'll find that it is impossible to do what the researchers claim. With the heel of the hand, or the palm, flat on the ground, it is virtually impossible to bend the fingers back far enough to keep them off the ground. There's maybe a couple of millimetres give in the finger joints, and it is quite tiring. There are basically three ways of hand-walking: with open hands flat on the ground; on closed fists; or on the knuckles of the fingers, as apes do when knuckle-walking. I do not believe there is any evidence at all, either in anatomically modern humans or any plausible ancestor, for a mode of quadrupedal walking where the fingers are held up off the ground.

There is no doubt at all that human development is complex. The five siblings in question all display a range of congenital deficiencies, include mild mental retardation and lack of balance. It is absolutely possible that whatever genetic damage the five siblings have -- and it might be as little as a single gene -- could lead to them doing the "bear crawl" into adulthood.

But I am extremely skeptical that this gives us any insight into human evolution. For Uner Tan to describe this as "backward evolution" is as absurd as it would be to describe Tay-Sachs disease as backwards-evolution, or sufferers of Huntington's Disease as "evolutionary throwbacks" to an otherwise unsuspected ancestor. The siblings are clearly broken. They're not a throwback to "primitive Man". The most one could say is that, possibly, early pre-bipedal ancestors of human beings may not have had the gene which the siblings are missing. But that's not the same thing: if you rip out the computer chip from a modern Ford Fiesta you don't get a Model T Ford, you get a broken Fiesta.

(Unlike modern cars, biological organisms are astonishingly good at continuing to work with bits missing. As fragile as living things are, we're also incredibly resilient.)

Update, January 3rd: More information here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The war on the unexpected

Bruce Schneier has a good name for the faux-war on terror the cowardly Chicken Littles have created: the War on the Unexpected. Anything different or unexpected must be a threat:

We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn't the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it's happening everywhere. It's a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense. ...

The problem is that ordinary citizens don't know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can't tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.

The full article is well worth reading, and contains many links to actual cases of the most awe-inspiring stupid security "threats". None of the examples quoted above are made up.

In recent weeks:

  • Concert-goers to an open-air concert in Perth were told that picnic blankets and rugs were prohibited as they were a security risk. Adding a note of the surreal, the tickets warned patrons not to bring "crocodiles or spears" to the concert.

  • A blind calypso musician and his band thrown off a plane after another passenger complained they had been in high spirits earlier but were now sitting quietly.

  • An orthodox Jew on a train was arrested after passengers panicked on seeing him praying while sitting next to a man wearing a turban.

  • A Florida bomb squad called in to blow up a typewriter.

  • Police evacuate everyone within a mile radius of some fake dynamite taped to the side of a house.

    (The comments on that story are interesting: in summary, it seems that the cops simply followed the Department of Transportation's guidelines, which seem to be massively over-cautious compared to the guidelines offered by the Department of Defense and usual practice for disarming known high-explosive bombs.

Earlier incidents in the war on the unexpected:

  • An Australian pub patron thrown out by bouncers for reading a book called The Unknown Terrorist.

  • A Canadian firetruck racing to a fire in New York was stopped at the US border for eight minutes while border officials checked the firefighters' IDs and the truck's licence plates.

  • In 2005, a man in the UK who fell into a diabetic coma on a bus was shot twice with a Taser gun by police who feared he may have been a terrorist.

Are we feeling safer yet?

Copyrighting the pyramids

How crazy is this? Egypt has announced that they are copyrighting the pyramids, and intend charging royalties to anyone who copies them.

Zahi Hawass, the charismatic and controversial head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the move was necessary to pay for the upkeep of the country's thousands of pharaonic sites.

"The new law will completely prohibit the duplication of historic Egyptian monuments which the Supreme Council of Antiquities considers 100 per cent copies," [Zahi Hawass] said.

...

However, the law "does not forbid local or international artists from profiting from drawings and other reproductions of pharaonic and Egyptian monuments from all eras - as long as they don't make exact copies."

"Artists have the right to be inspired by everything that surrounds them, including monuments," he said.

Asked about the potential impact on the monumental Luxor Hotel in the US gambling capital of Las Vegas, Mr Hawass said that particular resort was "not an exact copy of pharaonic monuments despite the fact it's in the shape of a pyramid".

If the copyright only applies to exact duplicates (that is, the same shape and materials inside and out) one wonders that the point of retroactively copyrighting something created more than four thousand years ago? Are there really that many people making exact life-sized duplicates of the Great Pyramid of Giza?

Another study criticising voting machines

Over the last decade or so, the American political machine has become rotten to the core with vote fixing, secret counting, lost votes and other "irregularities". (Those with long memories of infamous political bosses like William Tweed will see this corruption as a return to normality after a half century of relative honesty and transparency.)

As Bruce Schneier reports, more and more US states are realising just how bad the electronic voting machines are. Like California before them, Ohio has just published a massive study on voting machines and found that they are insecure, untrustworthy, vulnerable to malicious software and operator fraud, and easy to undetectably hack using simple tools.

Colorado has decertified most of it's electronic voting machines. California seems to be ready to do the same, and surely Ohio can't be far behind. In 2006, New Mexico changed to a paper ballot system. Unfortunately for every politician who understands about the risks, there's another who is either ignorant, in denial, or actively pushing for insecure voting systems ("all the better to make sure the right person wins, my dear").

In related news, it seems that Diebold -- not the worst of the bad bunch at all, merely the first to be caught -- is re-thinking their voting machine business.

And in other news, former staff at Sequoia Voting Systems printing plant have gone public with claims that in 2000 they were ordered to send inferior quality punched cards to West Palm Beach (Florida), purposely misprinted, so that the cards would fail and Sequoia could push it's more profitable touch-screen voting machines to the states.

Testing airport security

You're probably familiar with any number of ad hoc experiments where some journalist, law-enforcement officer or random clown successfully smuggles a gun or knife onto a plane, demonstrating the weakness of airport security.

These sorts of anecdotes make powerful memes, but what does the scientific evidence say about airport security?

According to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health, there's no evidence that X-raying carry-on luggage, taking off shoes and confiscating small items has prevented any hijackings or attacks.

The TSA defended the searches, claiming that they confiscated 13 million prohibited items in one year, "most" of which were cigarette lighters.

Bruce Schneier responded:

This is where the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that's a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats. The TSA is reacting to false alarms. Now you can argue that this level of failures is necessary to make people safer, but it's certainly not evidence that people are safer.

The report in the British Medical Journal points out that widespread screening for threats to public health are usually only enacted if there is clear evidence that they work -- otherwise they do nothing to improve health and safety, but merely waste a lot of time and money for no gain:

With $6.5 billion spent globally on airport protection each year, the public should be encouraged to query some screening requirements – such as forcing passengers to remove their shoes, the researchers said.

"Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?" they asked.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Silly Season

The Christmas/New Year period is traditionally known as the Silly Season. This year, the entire month of December has been not just silly but crazy. Not only have I been very busy at work with my normal doing-two-jobs-for-one-pay duty, but on top of it all we've moved offices.

Consequently my rostered day off went down the toilet. I've put in a lot of late nights, up to and including after midnight, in the period just before we moved, and Mrs. Impala and I spent most of a weekend painting the new office, thanks to the old tenants who decided that "make good" actually means "oh, nobody will notice that we haven't sanded down the repairs to the plaster, or repainted, or actually cleaned the carpet".

At least, the real estate agent didn't.

In no particular order, some things I have learnt:

  • Catching a taxi in the city at 1am on a Friday night is not easy. There's a chronic shortage of taxis, and a chronic oversupply of drunks and clubbers.

  • People (and by people I actually mean a group of five drunken twenty-something baboons men) will actually step out into the middle of the road and try to stare down on-coming traffic, forcing the taxi to come to a complete stop. Eventually, due to some variety of random Brownian motion, they eventually staggered around enough to leave a car-sized gap between them, otherwise I'm sure I'd still be there two weeks later.

  • Having even a mildly sprained back really, really sucks. My heart goes out to those with serious back problems.

  • My room in the new office is the one room that isn't detectably air conditioned, so while everyone else is complaining of frost bite and wearing woolly hats and gloves, I'm melting into a puddle. Why am I not surprised?

  • After stripping the server room of all unessential servers and equipment, we were left with no fewer than thirteen servers. Thirteen. For a company of about a dozen staff.

  • When Melbourne has rain in December, it REALLY rains. And when it does, traffic slows to a complete stop.

I'm hoping that with Christmas just around the corner, things will settle back down to normal soon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Market failures

Slate has an article discussing the ways that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the free market can be very bad at providing goods and services that are outside of the norm.

This brings us back to Nike's new shoe. Foot Locker is full of options that fit me and most other Americans. But American Indians make up just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, and with feet on average three sizes wider, they need different-sized shoes. If we had all voted in a national election on whether the Ministry of Shoes should make wide or typical-width shoes, we surely would have chosen the latter. That's why Friedman condemned government allocation. And yet the market made the same choice. If Nike's announcement looks like a solution to this problem of ignored minority preference, it really isn't. The company took too many years to bring the shoe on line, and according to the Associated Press, the new sneaker "represents less of a financial opportunity than a goodwill and branding effort."


The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a different sort of market failure: the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. This might be defensible if the rich were getting richer and the poor richer too -- in fact I remember being suckered into believing this myth as a teenager, but as the WSJ explains, in fact the poor are getting poorer, the middle class are treading water to keep from sinking, while only the rich are moving ahead. America hasn't been so unequal since the 1920s.

Share of national income going to the richest 1%

Sunday, November 18, 2007

If Rudy Giuliani is Ras Al Ghul, is John Edwards Batman?

Ezra Klein suggests that Rudy Giuliani is really Ras Al Ghul:

Our society has reached its peak of decadence, imperialism, and corruption. By appealing to those worst excesses of the American psyche, Giuliani will get elected, and blow up the world, thus wiping our unsalvageable civilization from the map, and bringing the global order into balance. In other words, Rudy Giuliani is really Ra's Al Ghul. Discuss.

Over at Making Light, Teresa Hayden writes a long post about Giuliani. If you thought he was the hero of September 11, "America's Mayor", you couldn't be more wrong: Giuliani is the classic example of the incompetent, selfish, arrogant politician gaining political rewards for dealing -- badly -- with the problems that he himself caused in part.

Most people don't realise just how much of the disaster that was 9/11 was caused by Giuliani's decisions, starting with his decision -- against the advice of anti-terrorism experts -- to site the Emergency Command Centre in the World Trade Building, in a building that had already been attacked, so it would be convenient to City Hall. A nice short walk for Rudy.

There's more, much more. No wonder the New York firemen blame Giuliani personally for the deaths of so many of their fellows:

On 9/11 New York was left without an emergency command center because Giuliani, going against the advice of both the police and fire departments, decided to locate the center conveniently near City Hall in World Trade Center building 7, along with tanks containing tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel—in direct violation of New York City fire laws. This was despite the 1993 WTC bombing that proved it to be the number one terrorism target. It was this decision that put him on the street on 9/11 instead of inside a command center coordinating operations. Ironically, this also put him in front of hundreds of media cameras, sparking his image transformation into a “hero.”

While our “hero” was posing for the cameras, however, there was no communication possible between the police department and the fire department, whose REAL heroes were rushing to their deaths inside the towers. And there was likewise no communication between the police officers who identified an open stairway for escape from above the fire zone and the 911 phone operators who were telling soon-to-be-dead office workers to stay put and wait for the firefighters. Giuliani had been aware of the inadequacy of the emergency services’ communications equipment for many years, but did absolutely nothing about it. This criminal negligence also doomed hundreds of firefighters that were unable to hear orders to evacuate the north tower prior to collapse.

Whatever possibility existed for communication between the police and fire departments, whose radios operated on different frequencies, evaporated when Giuliani visited a makeshift fire/police command center that had formed in his absence. There he ORDERED THE POLICE BRASS TO LEAVE and accompany him uptown. This “heroic leadership” effectively put the fire department and police department commanders in different physical locations with no communication possible between them.

Present Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated that he doesn’t have any idea who was in charge on 9/11 because Bernie Kerik and all the top chiefs in the police department basically acted as bodyguards to Giuliani and no one was running the shop.

[Source: The Myth of Giuliani and 9/11]

Those wacky Republicans

It certainly seems to be a pattern... Republican politician makes a career out of discriminating against gays, then gets caught in some sordid, dirty, anonymous tryst with another man.

Last time it was Bob Allen; before him it was Larry "Wide Stance" Craig; and now, Representative Richard Curtis -- what is it with men with a personal name as a surname? -- finds himself in a gay sex extortion scandal after allegedly promising a young man $1000 for unprotected sex, then claiming he only had $100.

Curtis denied he paid the man for sex, and said he had given him gas money.

Now, I don't really care what body parts people insert in other body parts, so long as everybody involved is a consenting adult, but this is newsworthy because Curtis has a history of voting against bills giving homosexuals equal protection under the law: in both 2005 and 2006, he voted against granting civil rights protections to homosexuals, and then in 2007 he voted against a bill creating domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Update: Tom's Modern World has a good cartoon covering my thoughts on this issue:

Hypocritical

Making Communist Yugoslavia look good

It's certainly very special when the Home of the Free makes Communist Yugoslavia under a despotic totalitarian government look good, but the experience of photographers in the USA is doing that.

Avram Grumer explains:

Back in the ’80s, my parents (who are Balkan folk dance enthusiasts) visited what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist nation. While there, my father photographed a picturesque lake. He snapped off a shot or two, and was interrupted by a government official who told him that photographing that lake was forbidden, due to the presence of some militarily sensitive facility (I forget what; a power plant or something). My father put the camera away, and that was it. They didn’t confiscate the camera or the film, didn’t make him expose the roll to the light, didn’t haul my parents off for an interrogation. A print of the photo hung on my parents’ wall for years; no sort of industrial facility is visible in it. It’s just a photo of a pretty lake.

Compare that with the treatment this Japanese tourist got at the hands of Amtrak and the New Haven police:

The Japanese tourist was ordered by a conductor on an Amtrak train from New York to Boston to stop taking photos of the scenery "in the interests of national security", and threatened to confiscate his camera. The tourist, who spoke little English, complied with the order and put the camera away in his bag. Nevertheless, at the next stop, the train was bordered by police, who threatened to remove him with force:

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. [...] The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, "is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that Amtrak has no such policy prohibiting photography on their trains.

The witness to these events wrote:

It doesn't take more than five minutes, in any airport in this country, before I hear the loudspeaker, "The current terror threat is elevated." We hear “terror” endlessly – traveling, at home, on television, in the news. Recent political campaigns have reminded – no, badgered – us, to be very afraid. What did Franklin Roosevelt say, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Terror. Paranoia. We can no longer differentiate between terrors. Is this our generation’s enlightened contribution to American culture?

Watching police escort a visitor off the train, I felt anger, not comfort. This action was beyond irritating. It is intolerable, unacceptable. If it bothered me, it paled in comparison to the way it inconvenienced, and will long trouble, this visitor to our country. We disrupted his travel plans and family reunion. Even greater than the psychological damage we inflicted is the harm we’ve done to ourselves. We missed an opportunity to show kindness, to be ambassadors of goodwill. The visitor will return home. He will indeed impress many people – not with pleasant memories and pictures of a quiet morning trip along the New England coast, but with a story of being removed and detained by American police for taking pictures. Do we imagine we’ve gained anything because a single visitor returns home with stories of mistreatment?

Such blatant attempts to intimidate photographers aren't limited to tourists or Arabs. Avram Grumer links to a number of sites documenting these incidents. At one of these sites, "C.E." explains that he's been a professional photographer for thirty years, been taking photos all over the world, during martial law, before and after military coups and terrorist bombings, and even once accidentally inside a military base, and he's never been subject to as much harassment as he receives in the USA. And he is an American.

I think the best, or at least the most amusing, comment explaining why these events are becoming more common came from Chris Waller, talking about the similar situation in the UK:

Increasingly in Britain a lot of overweight young men of low intelligence who are otherwise unemployable are being stuffed into ill-fitting uniforms and given the idea that they are saving the Western world from sinking into chaos as a result of terrorism.

Follow that spam!

Make Wade over at the CA Security Advisor Blog decided to find out what happens when you buy from a spammer.

Our journey begins outside of Washington, DC. I am sitting at my desk, going through my SPAM filtered email, when I see one that catches my eye, “Dreams can cost less repl1ca w4tches from r0lex here”. Sounds interesting I thought, and I could use a new watch. Knowing the harmful effects of opening unsolicited email, I decided to open the email in a controlled virtualized environment.

It seems that the spam most likely originated in a small church in Washington State, probably from a malware-infected computer used by Cheryl Neff, the assistant to the senior pastor. Mark followed the link in the email to a professional-looking, but temporary, website. Using a credit card opened specifically for the experiment, he then purchased a set of earrings for $77 including postage and handling.

Mark followed the money, from websites in China and Korea, through a series of shell companies starting in Las Vegas, and finally ending up in Cyprus where the money was collected. Surprisingly, the earrings may have been shipped from China, but if they were, they got lost in the mail, because the parcel never arrived.

I'm fascinated by the fact that spammers can actually find any buyers at all. Economists will often talk about trust issues. For example, banks tend -- or at least they used to, before the economic rationalists moved in -- to go for big, imposing, expensive buildings, with high ceilings and marble floors and Grecian columns as far as the eye could see. The more risky the industry, the more important to convince people that you are trustworthy by showing commitment. "You can trust us not to take your money and run, because we've invested a lot in this business and we won't be going anywhere for a long time". And yet this seems to go right out the window when it comes to on-line purchases, at least for those who buy from spammers. Most spam websites are active for only a few weeks, before they are close down and re-open under a new name. But there seems to be an never-ending stream of buyers.

It's tempting -- oh, so very, very tempting -- to just put it down to pure, unadulterated stupidity. But that's a simplistic answer. Many buyers are hardly stupid: they have good white-collar jobs, educations, can walk and chew gum at the same time.

So what's going on? Is it that buyers are so naive that they can't recognise that they're being scammed? Is spam just the 21st century version of the old con of selling the Brooklyn Bridge to some country bumpkin, still with hayseed in his hair, visiting the big city for the first time?

I think there's more to it than that. For various reasons (advertising, welfare, the legions of pop-psychology books...), we live in a society that encourages a sense of wishful thinking, that wanting something to be real makes it real. Not that Homo sap needs much encouragement to wishful thinking and delusion. Rather than "if it seems to good to be true, it probably is", too many people act as if "if it seems too good to be true, it will be true anyway just because you deserve it".

Add to that the widespread use of credit cards, which encourages people to act as if money didn't matter even when it does, at least until all five of your cards are maxed out. Since you're not really paying for the goods, the credit card is, the risk is minimal -- or so seems to be the perception.

But one thing that doesn't make any sense to me at all is that people can take seriously any advertising written as shoddily as "repl1ca w4tches from r0lex here". This is worse than Greengrocer's Apostrophe; worse than VCR instructions translated into English from Chinese by a Korean. Not only does it look careless and incompetent, it is a deliberate attempt to bypass software that filters out spam. That screams "Deceit!". Why would anyone choose to buy from somebody who as good as says "Hey, I'm lying to you right now"?

Monday, November 12, 2007

They make it hard to do the right thing

Studies into file-sharing patterns at American universities repeatedly show that the major factor involved is less price and more convenience. It's often been said that you can't beat free, but in fact you can: it's worth paying something for fast, reliable, good service.

There aren't a lot of television programs I watch, but there are a few. I have most of them on DVD box sets, but for the couple remaining, what to do? I for one would never Break The Law, but it gets tiresome watching the latest episode of Heroes by remote viewing: psychic powers are notoriously fickle and unreliable, and can sometimes be slow and flakey.

So I was very excited to receive an email from Amazon telling me that, as somebody who had purchased the Heroes Season One DVD, I might be interested in purchasing Season Two episodes for just ninety-nine cents. Would I ever -- with the current exchange rate, that's around the "sweet spot" that I'd be prepared to pay for Internet downloads.

Alas, it is not to be. They don't want my money:

Before you can download your Unbox video, you need to install the Amazon Unbox video player. ... Currently, the Unbox video player only works on PCs running the Windows XP operating system (see all system requirements) and is only available to our customers located in the United States (see all terms of use).

This is wrong in so many ways...

  • There are standard, open formats for video that are viewable on any computer fast enough to deal with video. Your old Apple II won't make the cut, but there's no technical reason for restricting users to only people using Windows XP.

  • Bittorrent and other file sharing technologies don't restrict users to those in the United States. If the studios want to compete, they better start learning that the marketplace is now global: 95% of potential viewers are not in the USA.

  • Don't try to lock people into your shoddy, proprietary technology: I expect to use the browser and video player of my choice (within reasonable technical restrictions) to watch the videos.

Get with the program guys. You can compete with free, because people do want to pay for the videos they watch. You just have to make it easy for them to give you money, and provide a good service.

Internet tutorials

Justin a.k.a. _harlequin_ on LiveJournal rants the good rant about technical Internet tutorials:

I've been reliving this experience recently by trying to learn to program AVR microcontrollers in C from internet tutorials for "beginners", written by adults with mental capabilities similar to those of the ten-year-old, who hadn't yet grasped the concept that beginners (funnily enough) don't have an expert’s vast array of existing expertise.
It’s cute in a ten-year-old. But coming from an adult, it makes you want to hit them.

Adding insult to injury, they focus on explaining the obvious as if you are a moron rather than a beginner, whilst being completely oblivious to the number of advanced, unexplained steps they unthinkingly used to get there. If these people wrote cooking tutorials, they would go something like:

First, we start with some flour. This is flour [example of flour]. It is white and powdery. You can buy it at a place called a "shop", or a "supermarket", trading for it using a thing called "money". Next, the muffins come out of the oven, cooked and ready. You tell when they are baked correctly because they are brown. Not too brown [example of too brown], and not too light [example of undercooked muffin], just right.

And now you know how to make muffins!


SOMEONE SLAP THIS IDIOT!

Thanks to Mrs Impala for pointing me at this one.

Secrecy is like a weed

Unless you take steps to keep it under control, it spreads and takes over everything.

The Bush government has been one of the most secretive ever, for less reason than ever before. This stain has started spreading to even scientific organisations like NASA, which has refused to release the results of a survey into airline safety.

Anxious to avoid upsetting air travelers, NASA is withholding results from an unprecedented national survey of pilots that found safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than the government previously recognized.

NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since ending the interviews at the beginning of 2005 and shutting down the project completely more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge the results publicly.

Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers.

The Associated Press learned about the NASA results from one person familiar with the survey who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss them.

A senior NASA official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, said revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits [emphasis added].

Heaven forbid if the airlines profits were hurt because people could make informed decisions. That's not the capitalist way!

Secular Party of Australia

Thanks to PZ Myers:



Or see the Secular Party of Australia on YouTube.

Bush elephants

Bush elephants

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Raising our kids to be sheep

One of the side-effects of the utterly moronic "Zero Tolerance" policies of many schools and governments is that it is teaching our kids to be sheep, devoid of moral sense or an understanding of consequences. What else did we expect to happen when we teach our children that taking a butter knife to school is as worthy of punishment as taking a shotgun?

From Berkeley County, Amber Dauge was expelled from school for accidentally taking a butter knife to school:

"I know I made a really stupid decision but I don't think I should be expelled for it," Amber Dauge said.

Amber says that stupid decision was taking a butter knife to school. She ran out of the house to meet the bus while making a sandwich, when she realized she had the knife. She put it in her bookbag, then she put it in her locker at Goose Creek High school. She forgot it was there until a few weeks later when the knife fell out of her overstuffed locker.

"A kid behind me yelled out a comment that I was going to stab someone with the knife and everyone started laughing and the teacher saw it," Amber told us.

You got that everybody? Taking a butter knife to school is "a really stupid decision".

(Putting aside that it was hardly a decision as such, just a spur of the moment thing.)

No.

Voting for a political party that plans to strip you of your legal protections is "a really stupid decision". Taking a third mortgage on your house to buy shares in a company selling paper clips on the Internet is "a really stupid decision". Putting weed killer in a Coca-Cola bottle and then storing it in the kitchen is "a really stupid decision". Using a lit match to look inside your car's petrol tank is "a really stupid decision".

Kicking kids out of school, destroying their chances of getting educated and condemning them to a life as an angry, bitter second-class citizen is "a really stupid decision".

Taking a butter knife to school is so trivial it doesn't even show up on the radar. As sins go, taking a butter knife to school is up there with such heinous crimes as scratching your ear or eating a boiled egg on Tuesdays.

Supporters of Zero Tolerance actually consider the injustice it results in as a plus. The so-called reasoning behind that is that because the rule is inflexible, those at risk of breaking the law are forced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy talk. This puts obedience to the law above the consequences of the law. It is no virtue to obey bad laws, although it may be the path of least resistance. Any law that requires unreasonable steps to avoid breaking it is an unreasonable law, and an unreasonable law is unjust and therefore a bad law.

Some might argue that if the consequences of the act are sufficiently terrible, then unreasonable steps to avoid it might be needed; but that's simply stupid. By definition, if the steps required to avoid breaking the law are unreasonable, either they cause more harm than breaking the law, or they are impossible or impractical to do. Otherwise they would be reasonable!

If obeying the law causes more harm than the thing it is trying to prevent, then we would be better off without the law (it's a bad law); and if it is impractical or impossible to obey the law, then no matter how much you punish people the law will still be broken. A law that can't be obeyed is also a bad law, because we're better off without it: we'd still suffer the consequences of the bad actions, but we'd avoid the needless and pointless punishments. Whipping a baby for wetting itself doesn't stop it wetting itself, and it harms the baby for no good reason. Needless to say, not only are bad laws useless, they can even be counter-productive: people can be driven into socially harmful behaviour.

Whether they are Politically Correct liberals, or conservative god-botherers like "Louisa" who wrote:

I think the School did the right thing the school's laws were made to be obeyed by all students. If the school was to compromise for one, {after all even a butter knife could kill someone}then the next incident? the student would expect the same. Compromise is not the answer. God Is!

they're all moral midgets who shouldn't be trusted with deciding what underwear they wear, let alone something important like the education of our children.

    "Zero Tolerance" in this case meaning "We're too stupid to be able to apply conscious thought on a case-by-case basis". -- Mike Sphar

Grass jelly

Note to self: it doesn't matter how tasty it looks on the label, or how fascinating and exotic it sounds, grass jelly is not fit for human consumption, no matter what millions of Asians say.

Or maybe it's just that I have a surfeit of yin and need more yang in my diet.

Scrumping for loquats

Some of my favourite fruits are loquats. I have fond memories from my teens of climbing loquat trees on my parents farm and gorging myself on the fruit. Since moving back into the city, it's been very hard for me to find them: although there are trees dotted around Melbourne, they have a short season and I haven't seen any greengrocers selling them.

Loquat fruit on tree
So I was especially pleased when Mrs Impala found a tree overhanging a lane way not too far away, and last Saturday we went scrumping. We collected about two kilos of loquats. Yum!

For those who have never tried them, they are a little larger than cherries, yellow when ripe, with between one and four large seeds. They are mostly sweet, although the skin can be a little tart. The flesh itself has a flavour vaguely like a cross between lychee and cantelope.

Top cop criticises war on drugs

Sometimes I think the only people who support the War on Drugs must be on drugs themselves. Never have I seen such a long-lasting, counter-productive policy that is so much worse than the thing it is supposed to be curing.

The Agonist reports that UK Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom took a swipe at the drug war recently:

[Brunstrom says:]
Some say legalization is immoral. That’s nonsense, unless one believes there is some principled basis for discriminating against people based solely on what they put into their bodies, absent harm to others.


This phrasing presents as unpalatable the idea that taking some drugs is intrinsically immoral. However I think it is a moral position held, consciously or unconsciously, by a large fraction of people. Fundamental moral opposition to drug taking may underly some of the difference in the way society treats recreational drug use compared with other risky activities pursued purely for pleasure such as scuba diving or handgliding. Many factors contribute to peoples moral opposition to drug use, some well considered but also some which are ill thought through and have their roots in less salubrious areas of human nature and history.

It is important to examine the roots of commonly held moral beliefs surrounding drug taking because they form the social background to media and policy on the subject. The dramatic changes in policy towards homosexuality in Western democracies in the 20th century could not have occurred without corresponding shifts in moral beliefs in those societies. One key component in ensuring we have better drug laws in future is to raise the standard of the moral debate about drug use from its currently often infantile level.

One of the things that strikes me is the inconsistency in the conservative position on drugs compared to much of the rest of conservative policies.

The stereotypical conservative supports a hard-line prohibition on drugs -- at least, some drugs: I've written about the hypocrisy of anti-drug pundits like Rush Limbaugh and politicians like Jeb Bush before. One of the major arguments supporting that hard-line is the idea that people are weak-willed and easily manipulated into taking drugs against their better instinct. In the conservative mind-view, people are easily manipulated into acting against their own better interests and against their own wishes -- but only when it comes to drugs. When it comes to nearly everything else, the modern conservative position is that people are in full command of their actions: there's no suggestion that (e.g.) advertising might manipulate people into needless consumerism or eating unhealthy junk food.

While progressives like myself have a nuanced view of human nature, that our actions are caused by a mix of factors, some internal and some external, the typical conservative view is schizophrenic: it flip-flops between treating people as masters of their own destiny and slaves to temptation, depending on whom they wish to punish.

Here's a lawsuit I'd like to see

Nicolle O'Neill, of Los Angeles, is suing heiress Paris Hilton for billions of dollars for stealing her look.

According to MX on 1st November, page 3, O'Neill filed a suite claiming "emotional distress" because Hilton ripped off her "stiling" [sic] tips. O'Neill claims that Paris Hilton got the idea to expose her "je-streeng underware" [sic] from her.

And they say MX doesn't cover the important news...

Why the writers are striking

Thanks to Bek for pointing this out to me:



Or go here to see it on YouTube.

I've often said that there are copyright thieves and pirates, and most of them work for the studios. I for one have all but stopped watching television. I have my DVD collection and *cough* off-site backups, and while I'm sorry that the strike will interrupt Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, I support the strike whole-heartedly.

Taxes

I came across this fascinating little snippet of Australian tax law:


For the purposes of making a declaration under this Subdivision, the Commissioner may:

  1. treat a particular event that actually happened as not having happened; and

  2. treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:
    1. having happened at a particular time; and

    2. having involved particular action by a particular entity; and

  3. treat a particular event that actually happened as:
    1. having happened at a time different from the time it actually happened; or

    2. having involved particular action by a particular entity (whether or not the event actually involved any action by that entity).



Oh-kay.

It's good to be back

Between all the extra hours I've been putting in at work, and a few distractions in my private life (good friends going overseas, snakes in the house, house-sitting for other friends, and my brother's future self sending him messages by hologram), I haven't been able to do any blogging. Let's hope I can keep up with all the things I want to write about.

Thanks to Neuromesh for his gentle ribbing about my lack of blogging. (BTW, I love the new banner at the top of the page. Well, I say "new", but it's probably been there for months. Years even. But it's new to me.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Another missed anniversary

The weeks just fly past so quickly these days, and I keep missing significant anniversaries. Not so much personal ones, but historical ones.

One week ago was the anniversary of a terrible day of tragedy, when a group of unscrupulous, murderous thugs committed an atrocious crime against a democratic nation:

The September 11, 1973 military coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and replaced it with a right-wing junta lead by General Augusto Pinochet.

After the election of leftist Salvador Allende in 1970, the US government (then lead by Richard Nixon) waged undeclared economic war on Chile, hoping to bankrupt the nation. U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry said:

Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.

President Nixon ordered CIA director Richard Helms:

Make the economy scream [in Chile to] prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.

For three years the US and Chilean right-wingers tried to destabilize Chile and cause Allende's government to fall, leading to severe economic problems (including runaway hyperinflation) but despite this his party's popularity was actually higher than ever.

So in 1973, encouraged by the CIA, the Chilean military attempted, but failed, a coup in June, followed by a second, but successful, coup on September 11.

Within days, the military junta had arrested 40,000 people. Many of them were tortured and killed. Pinochet's regime was likely responsible for the murder of close to three thousand political enemies, and the torture of tens of thousands of others. In the first three years of the coup alone, 130,000 people were arrested. Over the course of Pinochet's criminal regime, at least 27,000 people were imprisoned and tortured without trial.

By the standards of some murderous dictators, Pinochet was relatively small-time. Nevertheless, a crime is a crime, and 3,000 murders is enough of a crime for some countries to invade two countries.

Amusingly, while Pinochet was no friend to the poor and middle-class of Chile, neither was he the lapdog of the old right-wing industrial oligarchy that supported his grab for power. Pinochet removed the trade protections and subsidies that allowed the oligarchy to maintain their economic and political power. Pinochet ran the country for the benefit of the wealthy, but they were his wealthy friends and international investors, not the old guard.

There's no honor among thieves.

Which reminds me... apparently there was another historically significant crime committed on September 11. Details of that crime and its consequences have not fully come to light.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

George's residency over now

Alas and alack, George Kamikawa's residency at the Rainbow Hotel has ended :-(

Last time I managed to get to see George play was back in February. Now he's heading back to Japan for personal reasons, but (fingers crossed) he'll be back in Melbourne in October.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Buffy Season 8

As people might have noticed from previous posts, I'm a huge fan of Joss Whedon's work: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity. I liked Fray, although I didn't go into raptures of ecstasy over that one like some people. Even Alien Resurrection, which was as horrible and deformed a monstrosity as the Ripley/Alien hybrid itself, nevertheless showed signs of Whedon's talents. Beneath the horrible, drool-covered grubby fingerprints and suspicious stains, one can just barely detect the faintest signs of an actual good story and interesting characters.

Particularly given the goodness that was Fray, I was hoping for fireworks from the comic book series of Season 8 of Buffy. Alas, it was not to be -- the first four issues haven't impressed me. The story itself is okay, but I expected better than okay from Joss. But it feels simultaneously rarefied and compressed: there's not enough happening, but what is happening happens too fast, if that makes sense. Perhaps that's a limitation of comic books compared to television, I don't know.

But the killer for me is that I just don't think the artist is good enough. There seems to be a tradition now for comics to have really good artwork on the covers and shockingly incompetent artwork inside. Take this example of somebody who supposedly is Giles:

Giles
Take away the cup of tea and he could be any guy in glasses -- take away the glasses and he could be any guy. It's not just Giles either -- the artist hasn't really captured the look of any of the characters from the series.

The characters faces are terribly inexpressive. They're supposed to be talking, and yet their mouths look like they're glued shut. There is little sense of kinetic motion in the artwork either: apart from action scenes, most of the time people look like badly-posed wax dummies.

I'm disappointed, and will have to think long and hard before buying any more of the series.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Those wacky Japanese

After Friday's 12 hour day at the office, I ended up putting in a mere 11 1/2 hour day today. (Just call me Aussie salaryman-san.) Sigh. There's a few stressful things happening at work at the moment (and by "a few" I mean "a lot"), so when I got home I ended up doing something I don't often do: browsing the web randomly with my brain switched off.

(By the way... à propos of nothing, dark chocolate-coated strawberry licorice is a drug. I can't believe I ate the whole pack in one sitting.)

Purely by chance (by which I mean Google) I came across this fine blog, by Jeff, a 20-something American in Tokyo married to a local woman.

Jeff's back in California, fighting the bureaucrats to get his wife allowed to join him, so he hasn't exactly been posting much as late, but check out the archives. Not all of the pages are exactly Safe For Work, but there's also a lot of fine amateur photography of Japan, so I'm sure you can plead ignorance if you get caught reading a post about bikini-clad Japanese women.

I've just spent the last few hours reading almost the entire blog just for the sheer joy of all the WTF? moments like:


Jeff clearly loves Japan, but he is no one-eyed Japanophile -- he's fully aware of the dark side of Japan's culture, like the hierarchical salaryman culture, the racism and ignorance, the corporate serfdom, and the reluctance to face up to underlying problems when you can merely paper over the cracks instead. And although he jokes about it, I detect a note of ambivalence about Japan's constant in-your-face sexual imagery. There's a culture gap between the West and Japan, but it isn't insurmountable. And in the meantime, it gives us something to laugh and shudder at.

As the Japanese no doubt do about us.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Why is there something rather than nothing?

One of the supposed "deep" questions that (we're told) only religion can answer is the question, Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Science might be able to explain the workings of the universe, but it can't explain why the universe exists, or so the philosophers and priests say.

But why shouldn't the universe exist? It's been assumed at least as far back as Leibniz that "nothing" is simpler than "something", that nothingness "just happens" but to get the material universe you need to do a bit more work.

But that's just an assumption. Why shouldn't there be Something rather than Nothing? Perhaps the best answer to the question is "Well, why not?". Maybe there can't fail to be Something. There's Something because there cannot fail to be Something.

There's no reason to prefer the assumption that nothingness is simpler than something. We have no experience of nothingness. Nothingness is not the same as a lack of some particular object. There is nowhere we can go or to point to and say "Look, there's nothing. It needs no explanation. Now, how did something form from it?"

We once believed that "Nature abhors a vacuum". Although we now know that it is relatively easy to remove all the matter from a volume of space, indeed most of the universe is a low-grade vacuum, we could easily revise the old saying as "Nature abhors Nothingness". Everywhere you go, there are electromagnetic and gravitational fields -- and even if you could shield a volume of space from them (how???) you can't avoid having space and time itself. Getting space-time isn't hard, it's already there. Getting the nothingness in the first place is hard.

It isn't as if nothingness floated around in space for millions of years before suddenly exploding into something in the Big Bang. Time and space themselves began in the Big Bang. There was no "before the Big Bang". The very question "what happened before the Big Bang?" is meaningless, like "what's north of the North Pole?".

We shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that Something needed to be somehow created from Nothingness. Maybe the natural state of being is that Something is easy and Nothingness would be the hard thing to explain -- except that naturally if there was Nothing we wouldn't be there to ask why there was Nothing rather than Something.

(We wouldn't be where?)

There is no justification for the priests' assumption that only God or Gods can explain why there is Something rather than Nothing. Consider: suppose we said that God created the universe from Nothing. But hang on a second -- we had just agreed that Nothing existed. How does God fit into Nothing? Isn't God Something? If you're going to say that God existed, why not just accept that the universe existed and be done with it?

"How do you get Something from Nothing?"

"Well, start with Nothing, then add one God that you had prepared earlier, and voilà! you have Something."

Cosmic Variance has more:

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe.

So the universe exists, and we know of no good reason to be surprised by that fact.


If you spend some time reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, you may notice the knots philosophers have tied themselves into by confusing privatives like "holes" with actual things. Our human penchant for reification, as useful as it can be, also confuses us.

Atheists in foxholes

Reader Tootsie's Mom (hi!) raised the question of the lack of atheists in foxholes in this comment.

At the risk of driving away a valued reader, I have to respond that Tootsie's Mom is wrong: there are atheists in foxholes, both literally and figuratively, for all that the religious try to comfort themselves by denying it. For example, Master Sergeant Gid L. White wrote a public letter to Katie Couric chastising her for publicly propagating the untruth that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Another atheist who has been in foxholes is this guy's dad.

And as I've written about here and here, football star Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan, was also an atheist.

But what if it were true? Suppose that, when disasters are upon us or the bullets are flying, even the most hard-bitten rationalist atheist turns to the god or gods of your choice. What would that mean about the existence of god?

Very little. Just because we clutch the security blanket doesn't make it effective. Those who have watched as many Road Runner cartoons in their youth as I have will remember the running gag where the Coyote would often find himself standing beneath a falling anvil or rock. He would invariably get a look of resignation and despair and hold up a ridiculously tiny paper umbrella over his head, hoping against hope that, this time, it will protect him.

It never did.

I leave the last word to PZ Myers, who wrote:

It has always seemed to me that that old myth is actually an admission: an admission that religion is driven by fear. Just crank up the terror on people, it's saying, and we can get 'em to believe anything. There might be some truth to that, but if anything, it's an adage that is damning to religion, saying that faith is an exploitation of human weakness.

The Chaser security prank success

Have you ever wondered what sort of security AUD$250,000,000 buys? (Early reports suggested the cost of the security for APEC was $165 million; later figures suggested it actually cost $250 million. Either way, it is a lot of money.)

Apparently very little.

People are talking about The Chaser's wonderful prank where they drove a car with a fake Osama bin Laden right up to the highest security section of last week's APEC conference without being stopped. PZ Myers thought it was pure entertainment; Bruce Schneier is also a fan.

All the stupid security theatre and money wasted -- Australian taxpayers' money -- and it was only when Chas Licciardello, dressed as Osama bin Laden, stepped out of the car shouting "Where is my friend Bush? It has all been a misunderstanding!" that the security realised that something was wrong.

[Sarcasm alert] It's hard to blame the security guys. They're doing a simple job for lots of money: keep out people who don't belong. If they got fooled by The Chaser's cunning plan to put a Canadian flag on their cars, well, ask yourself: who wouldn't have been fooled? Just because "Osama bin Laden" was sitting in the back seat of a supposedly Canadian vehicle, well, that's hardly suspicious. And tell me that you too wouldn't have been fooled by this inauthentic-looking insecurity pass:

Insecurity pass

(Click image for full view.)


The Australian media, especially the Herald-Sun, loves to throw around the word "hero" to describe any Australian who basically isn't a total and complete waste of space. Saved thirty-seven children from a burning building? Hero. Rescued a cat stuck in a tree? Hero. Got hit by lightning and didn't die? Hero. Fell down drunk and chipped a tooth but didn't cry? Hero. But I think they really missed an opportunity to use the term appropriately. The Chaser guys might have been doing television comedy, but they were also making vitally important social commentary. As taxpayers and members of society, we are entitled -- no, not an entitlement, we have a duty -- to ask if our money is being put to good use. Spending a quarter of a million dollars, or even half that, for security which can be breached so easily is worse than a joke. The entire country should be thanking The Chaser for revealing that the Emperor has no clothes. Not only are they risking jail, but they actually risked their lives to make a point: all it needed was one trigger-happy government sniper on the rooftop and they could have been killed.

What we've learnt is that actual terrorists could have strolled right up to the restricted zone with no difficulty at all. Anybody could have done it. While the police were busy shutting down the entire city of Sydney (at who knows what economic cost) and keeping democratic protesters at least ten kilometres away from the conference, Osama bin Laden himself could have strolled right up to George Bush and given him a wedgie.

Or detonated a bomb.

If the clowns running this nation had really cared about security, instead of just the security opera of 24/7 helicopter fly-bys, snipers on rooftops and stopping tourists from taking photos, they would have held the conference somewhere inaccessible, like Canada did in 2002 when they held the G8 Conference in Kananaskis, population 429.

[Aside: I like these people.]

There's a certain level of tension between the needs of democracy -- the right of people to protest where they will be heard by those making the decisions -- and of security. Personally I think that the needs of democracy should outweigh those of security. Presidents and prime ministers might come and go, but democracy needs to survive. Protesters should be allowed to protest right outside George Bush's bedroom window, at least from 9am to 5pm. But if you want to put security first, then don't hold your conference in Sydney. Hold it miles away from any population centre, where you have more control over who comes in. That's good security and good economics.

Instead, what we got was bad security and bad economics, but lots of security opera. Good security should be as close to invisible as you can afford -- just visible enough so you know it's there, but not so much that it disrupts normal activity. Instead Sydney was completely disrupted, money was wasted, and for no good effect.

Naturally, the con artists who have wasted our money aren't happy about being exposed. NSW police minister David Campbell threw a hissy-fit at the tricksters:

An angry David Campbell denied he was embarrassed by the comedians' ability to penetrate APEC's restricted zone - rather, he was pleased the "multi-layered" security had worked.

He said the prank was inappropriate and he "did not see the funny side at all".

The Chaser's production team had been specifically warned by police to behave responsibly during the APEC security lockdown, he said.

"[Police] said 'we understand that parody and satire are entertaining and fun, many people watch the program and enjoy it, but please understand the seriousness of this matter and please take caution as you go about making your program.

"That seems to have been thrown out the window and that, I think, is inappropriate."

What's inappropriate is that Campbell hasn't been laughed out of town. Humourless, pretentious gits like him have no clue and should have no place in positions of power. Alas, the way of the world is that those who shouldn't have power so often do. The skills needed to become powerful so rarely include the skills needed to govern wisely.

The reality is that tricksters like The Chaser don't just make us laugh. Satire and parody are not just fun entertainments; they have a vital role in society. It has been said that medieval Fools, alone in the court, were permitted to make fun of the king and thus keep him from becoming too egotistical. (I doubt this was true in general, but it makes a nice story.) By puncturing the undeserved egos of the incompetent, tricksters help reduce the harm they can do. Far from being irresponsible, puncturing the illusion of security theatre is a fine example of civic responsibility.

Campbell had two possible responses to The Chaser's actions: he could admit to being embarrassed by the security failure and promise to do better, or he could bluster and blame the messengers. He choose to bluster and blame the messengers, and for that he should be out of government so fast it leaves his head spinning.

Unfortunately, for all of Australia's reputation as a nation of larrikins with a healthy disrespect for authority, we're becoming a nation of sheep who only do as we're told. (But that's a topic for another day.) Australians seem to have taken The Chaser team to heart, but not enough for them to demand real changes to the political system which allows the government to engage in this expensive security opera with no genuine benefit. While I would like to think that next time NSW voters go to the polls they will remember this and vote accordingly, the cynic in me expects that by this time next week it will all be forgotten.

This prank has punctured another myth. By showing just how easy it is for anyone to get through the loudest security money can buy, it puts a whole different perspective on terrorism. It doesn't take a devious master criminal to get through security. So where are all the terrorist attacks? If Chas Licciardello can get so close to the President of the USA, why hasn't a real terrorist managed it?

It isn't because the terrorists are afraid of our security, or because they're less competent than The Chaser. It's because they're few and far between. Despite the constant cries that the sky is falling, terrorists are thin on the ground. Unless you live in one of a few high-risk places, terrorism is a rare risk. The dangers of over-reaction are far greater than the danger we're trying to protect from.

The Chaser's press release can be read here; over here we have a long thread of comments where one angry right-winger (claims to be an ex-soldier; reads more like a scared little boy) gets angry at The Chaser for exposing the Emperor's New Clothes and says they should have been shot to punish them for discovering just how lousy the security really was. Oh my.

Thanks to Hasimir, who first brought The Chaser's cunning stunt to my attention (via Mrs Impala).

Honey chai latte

Lipton has introduced a new chai latte product.

Lipton chai latte
Lipton's powdered chai range now includes regular (I love it), Vanilla (even better) and Hazelnut (ho-hum). Joining them is the new Sweet Honey chai.

Sweet honey hey? I'm glad they didn't use bitter honey, or salty honey, or tastes-like-crushed-rock honey. They probably wouldn't be anywhere near as tasty.

Bin Laden rants again

Compared to previous time Osama bin Laden has made threats against the US and West, there's been little attention paid to his latest rant. Apart from the general silence, those few commentators who have talked about him have been mostly saying he made no threats against the US. Juan Cole wonders why they are denying he made threats.

Nevertheless, I think bin Laden is essentially irrelevant in the big picture. Not because he can't cause trouble, but he's essentially a murderer and trouble-maker, not a genuine threat against democracy and the West. He could kill some people, but he can't overthrown Western civilization and install a global Islamic theocracy. Not that he ever could, despite the Chicken Little cry-babies on the conservative-right of politics. (No, the only ones who are destroying the Western virtues of freedom, democracy, tolerance and liberty are our own leaders.)

Bin Laden is especially irrelevant in Iraq. Despite propaganda from the US government, al Qaeda In Iraq doesn't take orders from bin Laden, and even if they did, they're a tiny player in the civil war. As Juan Cole puts it:

Bin Laden, however, is not now and perhaps never has been a credible actor in Iraq. Most Iraqis are nationalists and would not want a Saudi telling them what to do. He made a big but perhaps unavoidable error in attacking the Shiites, and so denying his movement a nationalist platform. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a small cult of hyper-Sunni bigots and serial murderers. Instead of playing Abdul Nasser, who attracted the allegiance even of many Shiite Arabs in his day, Bin Laden long ago chose to play the role of a cultist, a David Koreish with better explosives.

[...]

Bin Laden is like a venomous snake, always dangerous, and you never want to underestimate a cobra if it is in striking distance. But Iraq isn't the Afghanistan of the 1980s and 1990s, and if Bin Laden thinks it is, he is very out of touch.

Watching the last six years of stupidity unfolding has just made me more sure than ever that the right response to 9/11 was to treat it as a crime, not an act of war. Maybe the Taliban would have needed some sabre-rattling to cooperate, maybe we'd even need to send in troops to force the issue, but the fundamental strategy would be to treat bin Laden as a mass-murderer, capture him, put him on trial in the Hague, and lock him up to rot forever. No martyrdom for Osama!

Instead, we had the stupid games of the Bush administration threatening war if Afghanistan didn't hand bin Laden over for trial. When the Taliban offered to comply (see also here for another offer), the US invaded. Then, with bin Laden trapped like a rat, US forces were told to stand-down and watch as he escaped into the wilderness. Having sworn that nothing would stand in his way of catching bin Laden, Bush soon lost interest, and apart from occasionally remembering to mention the bogey-man, there has been no serious attempts to catch or kill bin Laden for years now.

A cynic would suggest that having bin Laden free to make threats suited the US government's purposes better than having him in jail or dead. A trial wouldn't have given them the excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Mad King George visits Oz

As part of this week's APEC conference, Junior President George Bush [pic] visited Australia. According to MX "news"paper:

It took 4 jumbos, 16 cars, 1 ambulance, 250 Secret Service agents, 200 Government representatives, 150 security advisers, 50 White House aides, 15 sniffer dog teams and 5 chefs to move George Bush 300m today

Five chefs? As a dinkum Aussie, I take offense at that. We're a first-world, Western country. Our cuisine is quite similar to much of the USA's. We have no shortage of meat, which should make self-professed "meat guy" Dubyah happy. And we're not in the habit of poisoning visiting leaders of our major allies and trading partners no matter how much they deserve it. So why does Bush need to bring not just his own chef, but five chefs? He's only here for a week.

RMIT professor Noel Turnbull was quoted as comparing Bush's entourage as being more akin to something from King Louis XIV's reign:

"It's all pretence," Turnbull said. "The entourage is there to add lustre, not to add intelligence or anything else."

It makes a change from Junior Bush acting like Mad King George (see also here) but the analogy goes further. Like the Sun King, Junior Bush is a great believer in absolutism: the President is the law, never mind the pesky Constitution. Existing laws are there to be given lip-service to, obeyed if convenient and if not, ignored or replaced. And while Le Grand Monarque worked hard to keep his nobles so busy copying his extravagant fashions they had no money left to challenge his rule, Junior works hard to bankrupt the nation. (What's the point of being rich if you aren't surrounded by dirt-poor peons to lord over?)

ANU historian Dr Douglas Craig said that the security operation was justified for a disliked nation that had already endured a leader's assassination. (Actually, there have been four successful assassination attempts on US presidents, and seventeen unsuccessful ones). Two thoughts come to mind: many other nations have seen their leaders assassinated; and perhaps -- just a thought -- if the US is disliked, perhaps the government should consider ways to have people hate them less? You know, like, not acting like a schoolyard bully so often.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Some snippets on file-sharing news

I haven't written about the music industry and file-sharing for a while, so this is a good time to catch up on some news.

Apple's iTunes continues to be the biggest on-line seller of music around, and Apple still refuses to licence their Digital Restrictions Management software to other companies. Nevertheless, one company has found a way to compete with Apple, and has been rewarded by becoming the second-biggest seller of music on-line: eMusic sells mp3s without DRM software. The big labels are reluctant to compete with Apple by offering unencumbered music, so eMusic concentrates on the indie and over-25s markets, and with five million sales a month, it is extremely profitable for them and the bands.

Faced with interoperability problems and consumer surveys that show that UK consumers believe that only DRM-free music is worth paying for, the music labels are rethinking their approach. EMI already sells DRM-free music on iTunes; Universal is about to offer DRM-free music (but not on iTunes); and the CTO of label Gracenote is predicting that the major labels are likely to drop DRM for downloads within six months.

Meanwhile, the RIAA's battle against file-sharing isn't going well. One cleared defendant has been awarded $68,000 to cover her legal fees; another cleared defendant has launched a class-action suit against the RIAA for malicious prosecution; and another defendant has had the lawsuit against her dismissed with prejudice.

File-sharing is, essentially, normal, in the same way that taping music off the radio or TV shows off the telly are. Even the children of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman turn to the file-sharing networks to discover new music. The tide has turned, and we're far better off reforming copyright law to make sure artists remain compensated than we are trying to enforce out-dated laws.

Attempts to shut down torrent-tracking sites still fail; the Pirate Bay has just re-launched Suprnova.org with a taunting message to the executives who tried to shut them down:

"Finally, some words for non-internet loving companies: This is how it works. Whatever you sink, we build back up. Whomever you sue, ten new pirates are recruited. Wherever you go, we are already ahead of you. You are the past and the forgotten, we are the internet and the future."

Home-made album hits the top of the charts

This is me, catching up on old news... thanks to Geek at Play comes this report from April: classically trained pianist and acoustic guitarist Kate Walsh's home-made album is (was) at the top of the iTunes album charts, knocking Take That off the top of the chart.

("Take that, Take That!")

Acoustic guitarist Kate Walsh has knocked Take That off the top of the iTunes download album chart - but does not even own an iPod.
The 23-year-old guitarist recorded her album in a friend’s bedroom and named it Tim’s House in his honour.

For good or ill, the Internet is revolutionizing the distribution of music.

Oh noes!!! Muh yum cha is stoleded!!!

Oh woe, oh woe!!! The best yum cha restaurant in Melbourne the southern hemisphere the world the entire known Universe, Ocean King in Glen Waverly, has stopped doing yum cha.


(Click image for full view.)

When will we get a PM we deserve?

When will Australia get a Prime Minister who will put Australia first? Our PM, "Honest John" Howard, has promised to stand by the US in Iraq regardless of the danger to Australia and the complete lack of any tactical or strategic benefit to our nation.

Mr Howard said Australia should stand by its ally in difficult times.

[...]

"One of the things that influenced my thinking is the belief that in the difficult time for your major ally, you should deliver as much international support and display as much international solidarity with your most important ally as is most appropriate."

This is the second time in recent months that Howard has nailed his flag to Bush's discredited, unpopular Iraq War. Six months ago, he tried a cheap-shot at Democrat presidential-candidate Barack Obama, and ended up embarrassing himself and his country when Obama challenged Little Johnny to put his money where his mouth is by sending more than a handful of troops to Iraq.

Somebody should take Howard aside and mention quietly to him that a true friend of the US would help them reduce their addiction on oil and violence, not encourage it. A true friend says "Come on mate, you've had too many, time to go home" and not "Fark ya all, me mate and me 'll take on any barstid in the house!". Especially when your contribution to the war effort is a few hundred troops deployed in the least violent part of Iraq.

In World Wars I and II, it was "for King and Country", and nary a word about whose king and country our boys were dying for. At least in WW-II there was an actual sense that our security was at risk from Japan, even if it turned out after the war that Japan had little or no interest in or capability of invading Australia. In Vietnam, it was "All the way with LBJ" -- our then-Prime Minister, Harold Holt, picked up the Democrat's slogan and made it his own, and we know how the Vietnam War turned out.

And now Iraq, where Howard has been one of Bush's most enthusiastic supporters (despite the lack of actual practical assistance in this ill-planned war), assuring the people of Australia that he had personally seen all the reams and reams and reams of conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, no matter what the UN weapons inspectors said.

(That evidence turned out to be either non-existent or wrong. There was the plagiarized student's essay, the poor-quality forged papers claiming Saddam was buying uranium ore from Niger, and the lies told by the drunken Iraqi defector "Curveball". Curveball is an especially interesting example, because the West Germans who were handling him warned the US that his reports weren't trustworthy, but he became the centrepiece of the Bush administration's case for war because he told them what they wanted to hear.)

Australia's politicians have a long and inglorious history of putting our interests a distant second to those of the UK or the USA. It says something about our search for a national identity that many Australians don't even see anything wrong with that. For all our supposed patriotism, when it comes to international politics Australia is much abused and put upon by the US and UK, and we always come back for more.

Actually, I can think of one Prime Minister who did attempt to put Australia's national interest ahead of that of the US's -- Gough Whitlam, who was preparing to stand up to the US over their secret military base at Pine Gap. Coincidently, Whitlam was sacked by our Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. Despite the CIA referring to him as "our man Kerr", and despite the fact that he was an executive board member of a CIA front organisation, there's no reason to think Kerr acted at the instigation of the USA. (The coincidences sure stack up, don't they?)