Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Berlusconi and shamelessness

This article about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's outsized sexual peccadillos casts him as an unapologetic sexual gourmand. His friends call the allegations against him ludicrous; as one put it:
“What should be clear is a person who is seventy-four, who is one year older than me, can’t do what he is suspected of doing.”
Yet Berlusconi's behavior seems emblematic of a larger problem: Italian society devalues women.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks seventy-fourth in women’s rights, between the Dominican Republic and Gambia. Women constitute a smaller percentage of the workforce in Italy than in any other country in the European Union, apart from Malta, and those who work make barely half as much as their male counterparts. Emma Bonino, a Radical Party leader, told me, “When I was Minister of European Affairs, in 2007, I had to prepare a report on the status of women in Italy. The data came in, and I remember that I rejected it twice, saying to my staff, ‘That’s impossible: it cannot be so bad.’ ”
In other words, what Berlusconi is suspected of doing seems all too plausible in light of what seems to be pervasive male chauvinism in Italian culture.

Like some politicians and commentators in the U.S., Berlusconi has charmed (if that's the word) those who crave what looks like refreshing honesty in their public officials. Rather than being embarrassed by behavior that outrages the public sensibility, they relish the publicity. They tap into a sense that many, if not all, who proclaim fealty to standard pieties are just mouthing the words. The renegades like Berlusconi trade on the perception that many in public life are hypocrites. Berlusconi and his ilk proclaim, proudly and loudly, "I'm doing what comes naturally."

I'll admit, it is kind of refreshing to hear somebody say that -- up to a point. How long, though, do we sit back and let our admiration for sheer gall override our need to examine the underlying behavior itself?

However much we admire Berlusconi's shamelessness (and that's what it comes down to: we admire it), we need to remember that what he and his fellow boasters are boasting of is behavior that damages all of us. We don't need and can't afford to be completely uninhibited, as Berlusconi and his ilk are: we need boundaries that let us live together. Otherwise, our social compact falls apart.

The politics of shaming are dicey: they all too readily lead to grotesque abuses like the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. But it seems to me the balance has swung way too far in favor of unregenerate boils on the body politic like Berlusconi and Rush Limbaugh.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Seismologists on trial

Normally I get POed that people believe folklore or superstition rather than scientific theories. This story, though, ticks me off because people have totally unrealistic expectations of what scientists, in this case seismologists, can do.
Earthquake prediction can be a grave, and faulty science, and in the case of Italian seismologists who are being tried for the manslaughter of the people who died in the 2009 L'Aquila quake, it can have legal consequences.

The group of seven, including six seismologists and a government official, reportedly didn't alert the public ahead of time of the risk of the L'Aquila earthquake, which occurred on April 6 of that year, killing around 300 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
An article in Nature from last year shows that this trial has been in the works since a few months after the 2009 quake. It seems that the Italian government had assembled an expert group to advise it on the risk of an earthquake in the Abruzzo region, which had experienced a number of small earthquakes in the run-up to a 31 March 2009 meeting. At a press conference after the meeting, a public official, Bernardo De Bernardinis (who was not a scientist), summarized the findings of the expert group thusly:
"the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable".
That was, to be charitable, an inaccurate characterization of what the expert group actually had said. The Nature article quotes from the minutes of the 31 March 2009 meeting to demonstrate that most of the experts were careful to emphasize the impossibility of predicting a quake. Nevertheless, De Bernardinis made his dumb statement, and the major problem for the expert group is that none of them contested it at the time. (De Bernardinis is also on trial.)

At least some of the quake victims who pressed for the trial apparently aren't as ignorant of reality as they appeared in, e.g., the LiveScience article to which I first linked. From another Nature article:
Vincenzo Vittorini, a physician in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were killed in the earthquake and who is now president of the local victims' association '309 Martiri' (309 Martyrs), hopes the trial will lead to a thorough investigation into what went wrong in those days. "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".

He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level.
While it's likely that some public officials knew what buildings were most at risk, the members of the expert group most likely didn't. Putting them on trial is abusive, even if the victims' aim is understandable.

What we seem to have is an irresponsible statement from a public official, lax or unenforced building codes, and the reality that in any community there will be structures that won't survive an earthquake. There's probably a lot that can and should be fixed, but faulting scientists for doing their best (except in handling public relations) isn't going to get anyone anywhere.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The History Channel loses its mind

Mark Burnett, best known for producing the reality TV series Survivor, will make a series out of the Bible for the History Channel.
The series will combine live action with computer-generated imagery to retell stories ranging from Noah and the Ark to Exodus to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It will not be a documentary but rather a scripted, acted drama.
A drama? A channel supposedly devoted to history is airing a drama? And a drama based on a work whose historical accuracy is, shall we say, not well substantiated?

I understand why some deride the network as "the Hitler Channel": in the past, the network has aired a lot of World War II-related material. I happen to like that period of history, but it's an awfully narrow slice of time (and space: the shows have tended to focus exclusively on the role of the U.S.) on which to hang an entire channel. There's a lot of room for improvement and variety -- call it five thousand years' and an entire planet's worth.

But instead of surveying the history of all of humanity, the History Channel has chosen to go down an unfathomable path. More than a few of its shows dabble (or wallow) in paranormal nonsense: "Ancient Aliens," "Armageddon," "The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon," "MonsterQuest," "MysteryQuest," "Nostradamus Effect," "UFO Hunters." I can barely muster the energy to list all the dopey "reality" shows infesting the schedule: "American Pickers," "Ax Men," "Ice Road Truckers," "IRT Deadliest Roads," "Madhouse," "Mounted in Alaska," "Pawn Stars," "Swamp People," "Top Gear," "Top Shot." Then there are the purely silly things, like "How Bruce Lee Changed the World," "Mega Disasters," "Stan Lee's Superhumans," "Star Wars Tech," and "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed." (I loved Star Wars, but come on.)

That's an astonishing amount of time and money dedicated to utter ahistorical foolishness. And even some of the channel's best shows have little to do with history: "Life After People," "Modern Marvels," "Underwater Universe," "The Universe."

(The network lists its shows on its Web site.)

The History Channel is not alone in having a name that is no longer suitable to its programming. American Movie Classics and Music Television, to name but two, have abandoned large chunks of their schedules to programming at which their names never hint. But AMC was cut off from a huge number of films locked up by its competitor, Turner Movie Classics, so it had no choice but to throw the dice and hope for the best. MTV's youth orientation requires it to recast itself periodically to stay relevant. What is the History Channel's excuse for its steady drift toward mentally enfeebling dreck?

I'd like to see truth in advertising. How about rechristening the History Channel "The Mystery Channel," referring to its odd preoccupation with the supernatural? Or what about "The Hysteria Channel," since it seems to have an obsession with disasters? Or maybe "the Manufactured History Channel," since so much of its programming consists of cheap, emptyheaded faux-reality shows?

Just stop pretending the channel is interested in history.

Links before I sleep

A few links to stories that I found interesting, sans (much) comment:
  • "May 21: The Rapture Meets My 40th Birthday", Maud Newton

    Posted on 19 May. A discursive reflection on "Rapture Readiness," a family history of iconoclasm and preoocupation with the Bible, aging, and the writer's bemused relationship to organized religion.
  • "Here We (Don't) Go Again: Revisting [sic] the Millerites in Light of 5/21/11", Kathryn Schulz

    Another pre-21 May blog entry, this one focusing on the End of Days prediction made by William Miller in the 19th century. Schulz describes how Miller and his followers explained away their error, all the while cautioning us not to be too smug because everyone employs the same blame-deflecting strategies.
  • "The Dark Arts", Sarah Ellison

    Voice mail hacking by the British media, and the apparent conspiracy between News Corp and Scotland Yard to hush up the extent of this illegal activity.
  • "Keys to the cloud castle"

    A brief overview of the secret-keeping strategies available to those who use cloud-based storage, with special attention to the accusation that Dropbox misled its users as to what strategy it used to secure their data.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Graham Linehan and Osama

No great newsworthy story here, just a Twitter joke that got out of hand. Linehan is one of the creative geniuses behind the British sitcom "The IT Crowd," whose first season made me laugh much, much harder than anything on U.S. television.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Camping unrepentant

Having wrongly predicted the world would end on 21 May 2011 at 6 PM (I'm still not clear on the time zone), Camping rephrased, but did not retract, his forecast of doom. According to SFGate.com:
"Were [sic] not changing a date at all; we're just learning that we have to be a little more spiritual about this," he said in a rambling 90-minute radio broadcast that was part sermon, part press conference. "But on Oct. 21, the world will be destroyed. It won't be five months of destruction. It will come at once."
At least he won't post any more billboards.
"We don't need to talk about it anymore," Camping said. "The world has been warned - my it has been warned. We have done our share and the media picked it up. The world has been warned that it is under judgment."
Third time's the charm, or so Camping must be hoping after having swung and missed twice. (He first predicted the end would come in 1994.)

Actually, I suspect Camping just doesn't give a damn. He has deluded himself and others into believing he has a special insight into the Bible, a document of whose historically muddy origins he must either be ignorant or heedless. He is old enough not to care what harm he does with his confident predictions of doom. Worse, he might even believe his own propaganda and think he is doing the Lord's work.

If Christianity is The Answer, I'm headed to Hell. My torment will be an eternity of listening to Harold Camping in the next-door pool of fire lamenting, "Where did I go wrong?"

Ailes, Beck, and Fox

New York magazine has a long, slightly gossipy article about how Roger Ailes got to the point where he had to fire Glenn Beck, after having wooed Beck to Fox a mere two years earlier. Beck was merely one of the many high-profile commentators, most of them former Republican politicians, that Ailes secured in the wake of Barack Obama's presidential victory, all in an attempt to secure Fox News' audience at a time when the country seemed to have turned against conservative politics.

Behind-the-scenes personnel changes, a perceived hardening of the tone at Fox News, disputes between Fox News heavyweights like Sean Hannity and Beck, and even clashes between Ailes and members of Rupert Murdoch's family -- this article has a lot of juicy details about how Ailes has navigated a turbulent decade in his job, even as he has put hundreds of millions in profits into Murdoch's pocket and turned himself into a presidential kingmaker.

Apple responds to Lodsys

Apple finally has responded to Lodsys with a letter from Apple Senior VP and General Counsel Bruce Sewell.

MacWorld tidily sums up Apple's legal interpretation of Lodsys' contentions:
These developers aren’t infringing Lodsys’s patents, because they’re using Apple software and hardware to provide the functionality that Lodsys alleged needed licensing. Apple’s point is that, since the technology is Apple’s, Apple’s license is sufficient.
That's pretty much the case that third-party developers have been making all along, and it's the reason they've been agitating for Apple to do something. These words, from the opening paragraph of Sewell's letter, must have those developers breathing huge sighs of relief:
There is no basis for Lodsys’ infringement allegations against Apple’s App Makers. Apple intends to share this letter and the information set out herein with its App Makers and is fully prepared to defend Apple’s license rights.
Now, you can parse this statement quite legalistically and note that Apple has not declared it will defend those developers. Given Apple's legal theory that its own license for the patent(s) in question suffices to cover its developers' use of the licensed technology, it's hard to imagine Apple not weighing in on any patent-infringement litigation Lodsys chose to pursue against those developers. However, that doesn't automatically mean it will pay their legal fees if Lodsys sues.

I maintain, though, that Apple knows it cannot afford to leave those third-party developers out in the cold. Those developers, especially on the iOS side, make Apple's products attractive to consumers. If Lodsys does sue one of those developers on the basis of the infringement it alleged in its notice letters, I think Apple will arrange to defend the developer somehow. I will also bet that Apple's legal team took ten days to respond to Lodsys in part because it needed to figure out how it would defend such a developer without causing adverse fallout for Apple itself.

This is why Harold Camping is harmful

We're still here? Blast. I thought a zombie apocalypse would have been the perfect way to end this blog.

An AP article reported on the aftermath of the non-Rapture predicted by Harold Camping.
“I had some skepticism but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God,” said Keith Bauer — who hopped in his minivan in Maryland and drove his family 3,000 miles to California for the Rapture.


“I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth,” said Bauer, a tractor-trailer driver who began the voyage west last week, figuring that if he “worked last week, I wouldn’t have gotten paid anyway, if the Rapture did happen.”
You can believe what you want to believe as long as you don't try to foist it on the rest of us (a point I made in a much more long-winded way last year). Except for the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) Camping and his followers caused with their billboards, theirs was a relatively benign intrusion into the rest of our lives, especially compared to brown stains on humanity's underwear like the hate-filled, hatemongering Fred Phelps.

That said, Camping's obsession with end times hasn't done anybody any good, with the possible exception of the ad agencies who own those billboards.

Camping, a wealthy man, has a moral obligation to to help those of his followers who suffered economic harm. If he hadn't told them again and again in his radio broadcasts that the end of days was at hand, they wouldn't have given up on this world in preparation for the next. He also should apologize to them for his overweening and unjustified confidence in his own discernment -- in short, for being arrogant.

For their part, Camping's followers have some reflecting to do. Obsession with the afterlife has the bad effect of diminishing one's interest in, and attention to, this life. It not only hurts the obsessed, it hurts all those who otherwise might have benefited from the obsessed's continued participation in the daily business of living.

I can't fathom what was going through the minds of people like Bauer. Do they know what driving their families across the country to witness the Rapture sounds like? It sounds like they were thinking of the Rapture as Woodstock. Wouldn't they land up in heaven (or not) no matter where they happened to be on earth when the end came? What was the point of camping out three thousand miles from home? Were they going to wave a lighter as they were taken up to heaven? Was it about celebrating?

Perhaps heaven wouldn't sound so much "better than this earth" if they would put more energy and thought into living and less into worrying about what happens afterwards.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The CDC has a sense of humor

The blog entry is "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse".
There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example.

An honest CEO

Courtesy Daring Fireball, a remarkably self-deprecating (or clear-eyed, depending on your point of view) assessment by a startup CEO of his own performance.
We have not launched as many new features as I would expect, or even drastically improved the ones we launched with. I own these problems, they can be traced directly back to my inabilities and inexperience, sometimes directly, other times in the form of my not having anticipated or recognized situations for what they were as soon as I could have.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

She threw stuff too

I don't know whether to believe this or not, but that woman who wouldn't shut up on Amtrak is also reported to have threatened and thrown things at other passengers in the course of her self-involved ride.

I guess it's Lakeysha Beard's world: the rest of us are just supposed to suffer her interminable blabbering in dignified silence.

Of Lodsys and Apple

While not obsessing about the matter, I've been reading whatever crosses my path about Lodsys's attempt to extor--er, obtain royalty payments for a patent that allegedly covers in-app purchases. Lodsys went after small iOS developers rather than Apple, undoubtedly because the patent troll knows small developers don't have the resources to sustain a legal fight. More information can be found in a MacWorld analysis (link courtesy of Daring Fireball).

The question every article I've read raises is, "Where's Apple in this fight?" Although not directly contacted by Lodsys, Apple undoubtedly has heard from developers who were, since a clause in the developer agreement requires them to notify Apple of any action that could affect Apple's legal rights. Apple, however, has made no public comment about the matter.

I'm not surprised Apple hasn't commented yet. If third-party developers face a few unpleasant options, so does Apple.

Third-party developers are widely seen to have only these choices:
  • Agree to Lodsys's terms for royalties, including retroactive ones. This has the unsavory side effects of encouraging Lodsys to pursue this extortionist tactic with other developers and of giving the vulturine entity more money to do so. However, it gets the cooperating developers out from under the threat of litigation.
  • Seek a reexamination of the patent in question. This requires money, but not nearly as much as litigation would. Unfortunately, this move doesn't preclude Lodsys from litigating in the meantime.
  • Call Lodsys's bluff. It's barely possible Lodsys doesn't want to litigate. However, everything I've read suggests the patent troll is well enough funded to go to court, and it has everything to gain by making an example of a small developer or two. (It also has little to lose, since it doesn't need anyone's good will to prosper -- good will I guarantee it doesn't have).
That's all developers can do with respect to Lodsys. With respect to Apple, they have exactly one course of action: they can threaten to pull out of iOS (and possibly Mac OS X) development altogether. This is a threat Apple must take seriously, especially on the iOS side, where it is the great variety and high quality of apps that makes the platform so appealing to consumers.

In fact, the threat is not merely to Apple. As the MacWorld article notes, the tactic Lodsys is employing is very likely to work against Android or other development platforms as well, using the same or other patents. What Lodsys is doing, therefore, has the potential to cripple software development by individual developers and small companies.

First Amendment discussions often revolve around the "chilling effect" a restriction on speech would cause. Lodsys's predatory actions create an analogous chilling effect on development.

So with its prosperity threatened in a fundamental way by Lodsys, why hasn't Apple responded?

I suspect this is an emergency for Apple's legal team. I don't know whether that team wargames worst possible scenarios, but even if it does, this particular approach might well have gone unnoticed, or at best unplanned-for. I'd guess they're scrambling to figure out a response. The trouble is, Apple's options aren't all that appealing, either.
  • Apple could agree to defend third-party developers against Lodsys. To those developers, that's the only responsible action for Apple to take, since the developers, as far as I know, are simply using APIs and toolkits provided by Apple to take advantage of in-app purchasing. Developers, logically enough, claim they did everything right and if somebody's not happy about it, it's Apple's fault.

    Apple could litigate Lodsys into the ground. Unfortunately, it would set what could be a very costly precedent: who knows whether there aren't other, better-funded patent trolls who would be happy to take on Apple in court? (Okay, that's not very likely, but it's a tactic that a behemoth like Google or Microsoft might find palatable at some point.) Moreover, there is always the possibility that Apple could lose in court, in which case it could have to pay out much, much more than it would have otherwise.
  • Apple could reach a settlement with Lodsys that grants third-party developers the right to use the patented process. In the short run, this would probably be significantly cheaper than litigating. However, it sets a potentially costly precedent, as Lodsys and other patent trolls would be emboldened to pursue the same tactic with other patents.
  • Apple could do nothing, on the pretext that Lodsys hasn't threatened it. That would be tantamount to kissing off the entire third-party development ecosystem around its products, which would be disastrous for the company.
Which of these would you choose? I certainly don't know, and I'm glad I don't have to make the decision.

So I understand Apple's failure to make a public statement so far. I have no doubt the company will respond in some way, eventually. It must.

As for Lodsys, I think every one of its executives should be publicly shunned. The only executive identified on Lodsys's Web site is Mark Small, so start by shunning him. Do no business with him. Refuse to accept his dry cleaning. Don't serve him in a restaurant. Let your leaves blow into his yard. Don't invite him to parties. Glare at him. Refuse to let him into traffic. Fart in his general direction. Proclaim your home and your business to be "Mark Small-free" zones.

You get the idea.

Yakker yanked

A woman spent sixteen hours talking on her cell phone ... on a train ... in a designated "quiet car," where cell phones are not allowed and conversations are to be kept at a low volume. That, apparently, led to a confrontation with other passengers. According to one account,
Lakeysha Beard of Tigard was charged with disorderly conduct after police said she got into a “verbal altercation” with passengers on the train. The other passengers complained she refused to put down her cell phone, even after train staff made repeated announcements for passengers to not use cell phones, according to police.

When a passenger confronted her about her loud talking, police said Beard got aggressive.
She was removed by police from the train in Salem, Oregon.

She claims to have felt "'disrespected' by the entire incident."

You gotta be kidding me.

Lady, you don't know what disrespect is until you've been forced to endure somebody else's inane conversation(s) for sixteen straight hours.

If it's physically within your power, just shut up.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

About Thomas Drake: Mr. President, you need to read this

The New Yorker has another terrific piece by Jane Mayer. Among other things, Mayer previously wrote for the magazine about the billionaire Koch brothers (I linked to both her article and the Kochs' response). In her latest piece, she profiles "a former senior executive at the National Security Agency," Thomas Drake, who is accused by the Justice Department of having
... willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents.
You'll note that Drake isn't accused of leaking information to al-Qaeda, or to Iran. (Originally, Drake was accused of retaining classified documents, and of participating in a conspiracy to leak classified information.) Essentially, he is accused of the same thing Daniel Ellsberg was accused of during the Nixon administration: leaking inconvenient secrets to the public. In Drake's case, he provided evidence of the N.S.A.'s costly decision to farm out an information-trawling software project to the private sector, rather than adopting an in-house skunkworks project that already had demonstrated some success. The private-sector project never got off the ground, and the N.S.A. eventually killed it -- but only after $1.2 billion in taxpayer money had been spent on it.

From Mayer's article it's impossible to say whether those championing the failed project should have known better. I'll generously accept the possibility that this was a costly but innocent mistake. On the other hand, the prosecution of Drake and the threatened prosecution of others who, with Drake, protested the wasteful expenditures to the Pentagon's Inspector General, seems indefensible. Those quoted in favor of prosecution speak in vague generalities about the principle of never endangering "the troops" by leaking sensitive national-security information, but none of them is quoted explaining exactly how the documents Drake is alleged to have wrongfully handled and shared endangered anyone. Here's the most on-point remark Mayer quotes:
“This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”
Let's remember, once again, that the project about which Drake is alleged to have leaked information never worked. No intelligence-gathering capability was adversely affected. Indeed, I would like to ask Welch how much more intelligence and analysis $1.2 billion, properly spent, could have garnered.

I'll call your first attempt to justify this prosecution a swing and a miss, Mr. Welch. Care to try again?

Mayer quotes observers who collectively make a powerful argument that the pursuit of this case sets a terrible precedent for our legal system.
Morton Halperin, of the Open Society Institute, says that the reduced charges make the prosecution even more outlandish: “If Drake is convicted, it means the Espionage Law is an Official Secrets Act.” Because reporters often retain unauthorized defense documents, Drake’s conviction would establish a legal precedent making it possible to prosecute journalists as spies. “It poses a grave threat to the mechanism by which we learn most of what the government does,” Halperin says.
The Espionage Act has rarely been used to prosecute leakers and whistle-blowers. Drake’s case is only the fourth in which the act has been used to indict someone for mishandling classified material. “It was meant to deal with classic espionage, not publication,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University who is an expert on the statute, says.
Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, warns that, if whistle-blowers and other dissenters are singled out for prosecution, “this has gigantic repercussions. You choke off the information that the public needs to judge policy.”
One of the other criticisms of national-security prosecutions like Drake's is the inconsistency with which the law is applied.
In recent years, several top officials accused of similar misdeeds have not faced such serious charges. John Deutch, the former C.I.A. director, and Alberto Gonzales, the former Attorney General, both faced much less stringent punishment after taking classified documents home without authorization. In 2003, Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national-security adviser, smuggled classified documents out of a federal building, reportedly by hiding them in his pants. It was treated as a misdemeanor. His defense lawyer was Lanny Breuer—the official overseeing the prosecution of Drake.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served in the Bush Justice Department, laments the lack of consistency in leak prosecutions. He notes that no investigations have been launched into the sourcing of Bob Woodward’s four most recent books, even though “they are filled with classified information that he could only have received from the top of the government.” Gabriel Schoenfeld, of the Hudson Institute, says, “The selectivity of the prosecutions here is nightmarish. It’s a broken system.”
Obama comes in for special criticism because so many had hopes he would change George W. Bush's obsession with perceived national-security threats. Many of Drake's problems, for instance, arose from the anger of Bush administration officials over the December 2005 revelations in the New York Times of the N.S.A.'s warrantless wiretapping program against U.S. citizens. The Bush administration was determined to discover who had leaked the information to the paper, and suspected Drake of being one of the leakers.

Drake himself was one of those who thought Obama would turn things around.
“I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said. He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”

“But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”
And speaking of that Times article:
In 2008, Thomas Tamm, a Justice Department lawyer, revealed that he was one of the people who leaked to the Times. He says of Obama, “It’s so disappointing from someone who was a constitutional-law professor, and who made all those campaign promises.”
The treatment of Tamm, by the way, shows how selective prosecution is.
The Justice Department recently confirmed that it won’t pursue charges against Tamm. Speaking before Congress, Attorney General Holder explained that “there is a balancing that has to be done . . . between what our national-security interests are and what might be gained by prosecuting a particular individual.”
President Obama, you need to end the Justice Department's prosecution of Thomas Drake. To pursue it would be a repudiation of your self-professed admiration of whistle-blowers. Some of us have cut you a lot of slack, permitting you to disappoint us on health-care reform, financial regulation, climate change legislation ... the list goes on. But if you carry on George W. Bush's shameful legacy of curtailing our civil liberties, we will consider you complicit with him.

How ironic, and tragic, it would be if the nation's first African-American president were remembered not for advancing the country further toward a freer future for all, but for overseeing “the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state,” as Yale law professor Jack Balkin puts it.

Are you going to start healing the wounds inflicted by the privacy-contemptuous Bush administration, Mr. President, or are you going to worsen the damage?

Roseanne on Charlie Sheen

First Kirk Cameron, now Roseanne. Have I gone stupid for TV stars? Maybe. But I liked Roseanne's eponymous series, whereas I had no use for the inanities of Cameron's show. Roseanne had some bite to it.

At any rate, she was asked to weigh in on Charlie Sheen's troubles, and she has done so in a New York magazine piece.
... it was assumed that I know a thing or two about starring on a sitcom, fighting with producers, nasty divorces, public meltdowns, and bombing through a live comedy tour. I have, however, never smoked crack or taken too many drugs, unless you count alcohol as a drug (I don’t). But I do know what it’s like to be seized by bipolar thoughts that make one spout wise about Tiger Blood and brag about winning when one is actually losing.
If you're on the fence about Roseanne as a person, if you can't decide whether she has the biggest ego this side of Donald Trump or is the most maligned celebrity since Fatty Arbuckle, this article won't help. You can read into it bitter self-aggrandizement or saddened, unjustified martyrdom. My personal take is, she still has issues to work out. I won't get into whether she's telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth: I doubt I'll ever know.

I think she has an insight into Sheen that most of us don't. I don't care about that, though. I found her reflections on herself to be more interesting.

Religionists respond to Hawking

You might have heard that famed physicist Stephen Hawking proclaimed there was no afterlife.
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark," he added.

Hawking's latest comments go beyond those laid out in his 2010 book, The Grand Design, in which he asserted that there is no need for a creator to explain the existence of the universe. The book provoked a backlash from some religious leaders, including the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, who accused Hawking of committing an "elementary fallacy" of logic.
Lord Sacks' claim was laid out in an article last September:
Writing in the Times, the chief rabbi said: "There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. The Bible simply isn't interested in how the universe came into being."
(The Times article is behind a paywall.)

Frankly, Lord Sacks' distinction is a little subtle for me. Perhaps it's because I've been overly influenced by the utterances of literalist, fundamentalist Christian sects here in the U.S. The idea that the Bible "isn't interested in how the universe came into being" is, I'm sure, literally anathema to those folks.

But even accepting that the Bible is a moral guide rather than a history textbook doesn't quite resolve my confusion as to Lord Sacks' point. If all of existence can be explained without reference to a creator -- and Sean Carroll convinced me -- then I don't see where Lord Sacks finds room for interpretation. As far as I can tell, he didn't address Hawking's claim at all.

At least Lord Sacks tried, and probably had some more or less cogent argument in mind. Over here, in the colonies (whoops, did I just write that?), we have no one of nearly as high intellectual stature contesting Hawking. Instead, it's former TV star Kirk Cameron shooting off his mouth:
"Why should anyone believe Mr. Hawking's writings if he cannot provide evidence for his unscientific belief that out of nothing, everything came?" Cameron queried.
Cameron, whose claim to scientific credibility is, um, nonexistent, is calling Hawking's belief "unscientific"? To borrow from J.M. DeMatteis' Justice League dialogue, "Bwahahahahahahaha!" That's funnier than anything Cameron did on TV.

That Cameron never has heard of quantum physics is manifest. That he wouldn't accept its findings if he had, is even clearer.

Cameron also, and unfathomably, whines that Hawking's disability renders it impolite to attack him.
"To say anything negative about Stephen Hawking is like bullying a blind man. He has an unfair disadvantage, and that gives him a free pass on some of his absurd ideas."
Why does Cameron feel he's in such a superior position -- in any way -- that "saying anything negative" about Hawking is "bullying"? I trust I won't be the one to break the news to Cameron that, save in physical vigor and fervor of religious belief, he is undeniably inferior to Hawking.

Kirk, don't play in science's sandbox: you simply aren't equipped. Go back to your evangelical movies, secure in the stature you've attained in that world. In matters of belief, you cannot be assailed. In matters of ... just about anything else, well, stick to your day job.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

About the Templeton Foundation

Further to an earlier entry about Lord Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize, here is a February 2011 story in Nature on the Templeton Foundation and why it makes so many scientists uncomfortable to be associated with it, even if the association is only in the public's mind. The piece is (to my mind, surprisingly) sympathetic toward the foundation, but makes clear why the wariness among scientists exists.

Halliburton fracking info, week 26

Huh -- I thought I was only a week behind, but here it is, four full weeks since I last checked in on Halliburton's fracking fluids disclosure page. In those four weeks Halliburton added three formulations for Colorado:
  • Colorado Denver Julesburg (DJ) Basin Hybrid Formulation
  • Colorado DJ Basin WaterFrac Formulation
  • Colorado Piceance Basin WaterFrac Formulation
The information for all formulations includes the last date and time the information was updated, and an explanation of how the items in the "common uses" category were chosen:
Items identified in the "common uses" column were chosen in part because the constituents found in these products exist in roughly the same concentrations as would be found in fracturing materials at the wellhead. In some cases, however, concentrations present in consumer product are either not publicly available or in higher percentages than would be found at the wellsite.
It's still a meaningless category intended entirely for public-relations purposes. I marvel that Halliburton thinks it can make its fracking formulations (and their consequences) warmer and fuzzier by claiming they share ingredients with cottage cheese or dish soap.

(If you want to know "week 20 from what?" you can either follow the previous-entry links backwards or go directly to the original entry about Halliburton's fracking information.)

Apple University?

Is Jobs is the embodiment of Apple or is Apple already Jobsian, imbued with his ethos?
That, in a nutshell, is what the market would love to know most about Apple. Not what products are in the pipeline, but what the company's future will be once Steve Jobs leaves the stage.

Horace Dediu comments on a project that in 2008 was announced as "Apple University." The thinking then was that this was some sort of higher-education project along the lines of iTunes U. Today, however, Fortune reports that "Apple University" is actually an internal effort:
According to the article in Fortune and some additional details from another source, Joel Podolny has been building an understanding of how Apple is run. He’s then been asked to codify this understanding into a curriculum that can be taught to Apple employees.
Other companies have attempted to preserve and to pass on their cultures. In Silicon Valley "the HP Way" is legendary. "The AOL Way" is a bad joke. "The Apple Way"? Knowing Jobs' drive for perfection, I'll guess it will take its place alongside HP's rather than AOL's.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether it is possible to pass along Jobs' famous esthetic sense. Can tastefulness be taught? Is it possible to instill the intuition that tells one, "This is ready to sell"?

That esthetic sense is not limited to the entirety of a product. Jobs famously not only is able, but more than willing, to consider details most people would deem trivial. Nevertheless, he is not considered a micromanager because he doesn't typically get wrapped up in them: only the metaphorical rough edges capture his attention.

The other, seemingly magical component to Apple's success in the last decade has been the company's ability to identify viable markets for new products. The company's track record has been enviable, if not quite perfect (e.g., Apple TV), but what isn't clear is how much of this track record is due solely to Jobs. If "the Apple Way" can inculcate whatever abilities are needed to continue this pattern of successful diversification (without loss of focus), the company's future is secure.

(Daring Fireball provided the link to the Fortune article.)

Living happily

The art of living happy is, I believe, the art of being agreeably deluded; and faith in all things is superior to Reason, which, after all, is but a dead weight in advanced life, though as the pendulum to the clock in youth.
Humphrey Davy (1828), quoted in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes (2009)

For a scientist, as Davy was, to express such sentiments is a bit surprising. However, I'm not quite at the stage of "advanced life" Davy was when he wrote this, so for all I know I might be ready to embrace some degree of delusion in my later years.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

India and Pakistan

We (the U.S.) gave one a ton of money. We gave the other the back of our metaphorical hand. So, uh, how did that work out for us?

The New Yorker has the answer.

(Spoiler alert:
India has become the state that we tried to create in Pakistan. It is a rising economic star, militarily powerful and democratic, and it shares American interests.
If the measure of our aid is the gratitude of the Pakistani people and the loyalty of their government, then it has clearly been a failure.

Or maybe that wasn't such a surprise to you? Well, read the article anyway, because there are a lot of unsavory facts about our involvement with Pakistan that U.S. taxpayers really should know.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

The deficit in chart form

James Fallows in The Atlantic headlined his piece, "The Chart That Should Accompany Every Discussion of Deficits,", and indeed, that chart would cut through a lot of nonsense coming from unrepentant trickle-down proponents. The chart elegantly captures the amount of the U.S. deficit projected from 2009-2019, in trillions of dollars, due to each of five factors:
  • the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • the George W. Bush tax cuts
  • the recovery measures
  • the costs associated with TARP and bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
  • the economic downturn
The economic downturn is a large and persistent factor, as you'd expect. The TARP and Fannie/Freddie costs were significant in the last couple of years but practically vanish going forward; the recovery measures, too, loom large in the shorter term (until 2013) but drop to a relatively small amount after that.

The cost of the wars is a persistent burden over the decade, like a layer of fat over everything else, accounting for hundreds of billions in spending every year.

However, by far the biggest contributor to the deficit over the decade are the Bush tax cuts. Right now their impact rivals that attributed to the economic downturn; by 2014 they outstrip the downturn's effects, until by 2019 they dwarf the latter.

I have never been tempted to include a graphic in this blog -- until now. However, by way of compensation, let me point you to the source for this chart, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities article "Economic Downturn and Bush Policies Continue to Drive Large Projected Deficits." The CBPP article provides important context for the chart.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Paper Tigers," Wesley Yang

Are you Asian-American? Then you must read Yang's article in New York magazine.
“The loudest duck gets shot” is a Chinese proverb. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is a Japanese one. Its Western correlative: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Going along to get along is a strategy with built-in limits in an individualistic society like the U.S., but it is the strategy that Asian cultures inculcate with great success, even when the subjects have never set foot in an Asian country.

Interestingly, although Yang cites story after story reinforcing the need to break the Asian cultural straitjacket from within, he is ambivalent about putting in place yet another strategy-for-success for himself:
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.

Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life.
Sounds like Yang is yet another passing stranger. More power to him.

Algorithmic complexity in financial markets

A fascinating essay by Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books is a good introduction to the software used to conduct certain kinds of automatic trading on today's exchanges. The programs attempt to spot significant leading market indicators like atypical buy or sell orders, or unusual share price fluctuations, and to respond to them before the rest of the market can do so. Of course, would-be buyers and sellers are both using software, so computers essentially are vying with other computers for market advantage on behalf of their human or corporate masters.

The prospect of making large amounts of money in this way has led, rather naturally, to an arms race: software on both sides attempts to gain advantage either by ever more clever concealment of buying or selling so as not to perturb the current share price unduly, or by ever faster recognition and response.

What the computers are doing is what human traders always have tried to do: take advantage of market inefficiencies to benefit themselves or their clients. Nothing here is illegal: no one is acting from a privileged position, e.g., as an insider with non-public information. However, the interaction between programs can have unforeseen consequences, such as the "flash crash" on 6 May 2010 that caused overall U.S. share prices to fall by some six percent in less than five minutes.

An investigation of the crash concluded that an innocent attempt to carry out a large, but not unprecedentedly large, sale of futures contracts triggered a feedback loop in which trading software, behaving exactly as designed, was driving down the price of such futures at alarming speed. Automatic "brakes" (enacted via software, of course) were applied by the exchange in which the futures were being traded, temporarily suspending trading. The safeguard was designed to allow human investigation of, and intervention in, such atypical occurrences. The pause worked, in the end, but not before the market tripped over more automated behavior, namely, the inability, by design, of some of the software to cease trading entirely.

I'm glossing over details in MacKenzie's account (and MacKenzie's account itself is undoubtedly a gloss on the actual details), so be sure to read it for yourself. The point to take away, though, is that the safeguards built into all this software are limited. The trading pause imposed by the exchange, for instance, was five seconds. That pause was not intended for computers, remember: it was designed for human beings to investigate possible computerized misbehavior.
This is a situation that in the terminology of the organisational sociologist Charles Perrow is one of ‘tight coupling’: there is very little ‘slack’, ‘give’ or ‘buffer’, and decisions need to be taken in what is, on any ordinary human scale, a very limited period of time. It takes me five seconds to blow my nose.
To quote one description of Perrow's concept of tight coupling,
Tightly coupled systems are highly centralized and rigid. Output is closely monitored within specified tolerances. Subsystems are interdependent. Change causes massive ramifications throughout the system. Tightly controlled time schedules with little slack are sensitive to delays. Production sequences must be strictly followed. Substitutions are not easily accomplished and equipment breakdowns can bring the entire system to a halt. Safety features must be designed into the system because human intervention is not easily accommodated. Emergency override features may be built-in, but systems design makes on-the-spot, field expedient solutions difficult.
Moreover, "the market" sometimes consists of a set of "trading venues," each with its own set of software controls, the whole coordinated nowhere by anyone. This kind of market undoubtedly is complex beyond the ability of any person to understand. And here we come to the heart of the danger MacKenzie sees:
Systems that are both tightly coupled and highly complex, Perrow argues in Normal Accidents (1984), are inherently dangerous. Crudely put, high complexity in a system means that if something goes wrong it takes time to work out what has happened and to act appropriately. Tight coupling means that one doesn’t have that time. Moreover, he suggests, a tightly coupled system needs centralised management, but a highly complex system can’t be managed effectively in a centralised way because we simply don’t understand it well enough; therefore its organisation must be decentralised. Systems that combine tight coupling with high complexity are an organisational contradiction, Perrow argues: they are ‘a kind of Pushmepullyou out of the Doctor Dolittle stories (a beast with heads at both ends that wanted to go in both directions at once)’.
Like our computers themselves, whose software environments long ago exceeded any human being's ability to understand them in toto, the software-mediated trading environment we have created is a system we simply do not understand. Until or unless humans develop a new science of "accident avoidance" that doesn't require full understanding of complex systems, there will continue to be unforeseen consequences of innocent activities in our markets.

(Thanks to The Browser for the link to MacKenzie's essay.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why bin Laden had to die

It's pretty obvious to me why a live, captive bin Laden would have been inconvenient to the U.S. government, but in case you'd like to see the reasons bin Laden had to die rather than be captured laid out in black and white, Prof. Paul Campos set them out in the Daily Beast. The bottom line:
The killing of bin Laden illustrates how the war on terror isn’t really about pursuing rational policies designed to lessen the already-small risk of terrorism, but rather about appeasing a nation in the grip of deeply irrational, but politically useful, fears.

"Al3x's rules for computing happiness," Alex Payne

Via Marco Arment, an incredibly useful and relatively short list of rules to make you happy about using your computer.

Well, let's back up: I interpret Alex Payne's rules as mostly being applicable to tech-savvy people. Why? It boils down to this one rule of what software to use:
Use a plain text editor that you know well. Not a word processor, a plain text editor.
Now, this one makes total sense to me. I compose these little blatherings as plain text files on my own computer in vi (or, to be precise, vim) before copying and pasting them into Blogger's text fields. It might strike you as a suboptimal work flow, but it's serviceable and it allows me to keep my own personal archive of my posts. Considering that a blog in its essentials is HTML, and HTML is plain text data, using vi to create my posts makes perfect sense to me.

But then, I know the difference between "plain text" and whatever MS Word does.

I haven't used a Windows system in years so I don't know what ships with Windows as the default plain-text editor. I very much doubt that default text "editor" is either easy to use or powerful, though, because Microsoft has a huge vested interest in steering people toward Word. As far as most Windows users are concerned, Word is the default text editor. They have no idea that Word doesn't save "plain text."

So telling Windows users to use a plain text editor is meaningless. That tells me Payne wasn't thinking about ordinary users when he put his list of rules together.

Having said all that -- boy, are Payne's rules sensible. They're two and a half years old, and they're still good advice.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pakistan's military is on shaky ground

In the wake of the bin Laden killing, an opinion piece in a Kurachi-based publication, dawn.com, challenges Pakistan's people to confront the elephant in the room.
Today is the time to hold the military accountable for their failures and their actions and bring some direction to the state of affairs.
Pakistan's military either did not know bin Laden was hunkered down in a big house mere feet from major military intallations, or did know and kept mum. Neither case covers the military in glory.

Worse, Pakistan's military either knew the U.S. was planning its raid and held back its forces to avoid a dangerous confrontation between itself and its patron, or did not know about the raid in advance and took an unconscionable amount of time to respond. Considering how damaging the delay has been to Pakistan's reputation, the obvious face-saving explanation would be collaboration with the U.S. And yet:
It is stupid, nay unimaginable, that our forces collaborated extensively and do not want to take credit for it. They would not risk inviting the wrath of the international media that they have called upon themselves today.
So as things stand, Pakistan's military has lost a lot of prestige no matter where the truth lies. For that reason, claims the writer, the Pakistani people will have no better opportunity to challenge the military's hitherto unquestioned supremacy in the country's politics.

The scope of action called for is daunting, considering the outsized role the military plays.
Summon the Army Chief. Summon the bureaucrats. Summon the experts. Summon everybody. Make them testify. Ask them the tough questions. Make the report, if not the proceedings, public.

What should they ask them? I cannot imagine that anybody would even want to ask the unimaginable (did we protect him?). It can only be an intelligence failure inquiry.
I don't quite know whether this means the writer has ruled out the possibility that elements of the government knowingly sheltered bin Laden, i.e., the idea is too absurd to be countenanced, or simply is acknowledging the impossibility of getting a straight answer to the question. (The piece is a little rough in spots, grammatically speaking.) It's also not clear to me whether the writer considers calling the military to account the responsibility of elected officials, or of the people themselves.

What comes through loud and clear is the desire for change exposed by this episode -- the same desire for change that the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and other countries have expressed, to varying degrees, in the last couple of months. And Pakistan's military has lost the respect of its people, the most critical factor in keeping the country peaceful and united under military rule.

An interesting question that this piece doesn't raise (because it's focused on domestic Pakistani concerns) is whether the U.S. may have done itself more harm than good by so undermining the reputation of Pakistan's military. If the writer's unhappiness with the military is true of the population as a whole, we could see a clash between the military and civilians that will result in significant civilian casualties. Even worse, the military could splinter and throw the country into civil war. In that case, in addition to the terrible loss of life on both sides, the world would have to be concerned about the fate of Pakistan's nuclear ordnance. Would killing bin Laden have been worth such terrible consequences? We can only hope we don't have to decide.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Minnesota GOP Gaiman hater

I'm a fan of writer Neil Gaiman. I'd like to think, though, that I would have been outraged by Minnesota House Majority Leader Matt Dean's hateful remarks directed at Gaiman even if I had never heard of the celebrated author of DC/Vertigo's Sandman.
Dean also singled out a $45,000 payment of Legacy money that was made last year to science fiction writer Neil Gaiman for a four-hour speaking appearance. Dean said that Gaiman, "who I hate," was a "pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota."
The Onion has a bit more information on what appears to be the tempest in the tea (Party) pot.

It's pathetic that the Tea Partiers have such a persecution complex when their irrational determination to find bias where none exists is responsible for the tone of remarks like Dean's. And it's even more pathetic for mental midgets like Dean to endorse the thoughtless pillorying carried out by the Republican Party's irrational base.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to antagonize your colleagues

  • Be passive-aggressive even as you protest you're just trying to be reasonable.
  • Protest that you're listening even as you ignore what others are saying.
  • Complain woefully about all the work you're doing, implying that others aren't carrying their load.
  • Play the martyr.
  • Be self-aggrandizing.
  • Talk so much and so often that you exhaust the ability of anyone else to have a cogent discussion.
(Yes, this is based on a real person.)

Don't make bad meetings worse

I've learned in a couple of decades of attending meetings of all kinds that sometimes you have to restrain yourself from speaking. If, that is, you want the meeting to end.

Meetings involving engineers can be aggravating: engineers tend to be less well socialized, less adept at reading and responding to subtle behavioral cues, than normal people. Yet I will choose a meeting of a hundred poorly socialized engineers over one with a dozen community activists any day. The engineers, by training and temperament, are inclined to get to the damned point. They also recognize facts when they see them, and respond to rational arguments.

Community activists, on the other hand, are often people with more zeal than talent. (If they could get paid for their zealousness, they'd be getting paid instead of being community activists.) The fact that they get excited by something the rest of the community does not, means that the activists are a little odd. Sometimes, they're more than a little odd: they're flat-out nuts.

You'd think that the lofty goal toward which they're donating their time would keep them unified. You'd be wrong. The contention usually comes down to incompatible visions of how to achieve the goal. In more troubled cases, "the" goal is sheerest illusion: two or more factions are pursuing different ends without realizing it.

But even if they can reach consensus on a goal, they can't stop being odd, or nuts. And that's what kills meetings.

It only takes one person with a bone he can't stop picking to bring an otherwise rational discussion to a halt. The fussiness or crankiness or belligerence or outright malice he brings to the table infects everyone else, and before you know it, a verbal brawl has broken out. Even if the brawl is avoided, the discussion still simmers along but gets nowhere.

A strong leader can keep a meeting from rat-holing. However, a strong leader is anathema to a meeting of community activists. (Given the angular personalities involved, perhaps it's instinctive wisdom for the group to deny such power to any one member.) The most that can be tolerated is a moderator to preserve what Wodehouse called "the decencies of debate." I think it would be better for a verbal brawl to break out, because at least such a shouting match might tire the participants enough to give up the battle in a reasonable amount of time. Preserving the decencies of debate just allows the debate to go on, and on, and on, and on.

Perhaps the worst problem afflicting these people is a profound inability to analyze their own behavior. They rail at the group's dysfunction, but have not the slightest idea that they're major contributors to it. It's not unexpected -- if they knew how odd or nutty they were, they wouldn't be odd or nutty -- but it is unfortunate.

If you found yourself in such a gathering, your first impulse would be to fix it. You'd want to make people see how fruitless their rat-holing was. You'd want to explain just why the "debate" is pointless.

And you'd make things worse. You'd be throwing oil on a fire.

The only way to deal with these people is to let them have their say, then move on as quickly as possible. Don't make things worse by trying to argue with them. Just stay quiet, and keep reminding yourself that you're foregoing the pleasure of telling them how foolish (or selfish, or otherwise deficient) they are for the arguably greater pleasure of getting the damned meeting over sooner.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Osama's death

I don't have much to say about bin Laden's death. The best encapsulation of my feelings is a quote from Tim Carmody, writing for Kottke:
I hope we can exorcise this man, his damage, and the damage he helped incite us to, from our lives. I have to hope that we have enough strength left in our democracy to do that.
I'm as relieved as the next U.S. citizen that he's dead. But I'm not treating this as an excuse to party in the streets, as the crowds gathered last night at Ground Zero and outside the White House did.

The "war on terror" goes on -- except that, to borrow from The Wire:
Det. Ellis Carver: You can't even call this shit a war.
Det. Thomas Hauk: Why not?
Det. Ellis Carver: Wars end.
It ain't a war -- and it ain't over.

Now get back to your lives.

That helium balloon is valuable

It's not really news: I had heard this a year or more ago. This, though, is the first article to which I can link that explains why helium is a scarce commodity, and why it will only grow scarcer and more valuable as time passes.

Unlike its flammable elemental sibling hydrogen, helium can't be produced through relatively simple chemical processes on Earth. The only way I know of to produce it, in fact, is through hydrogen fusion, a process which on Earth is currently only possible through uncontrolled reactions, e.g., the H-bomb. And although helium isn't consumed through any of its uses, i.e., it's not transformed into something else through combustion or chemical reactions, it's nevertheless exceedingly difficult to recycle. Unlike most of the gases comprising our atmosphere, helium is light enough literally to float away from the planet.