Thursday, June 30, 2005

Building life

J. Craig Venter in an Edge interview
The third and last area we're using is in synthetic biology. Trying to understand the basic components of a cell, we've tried knocking out genes, and trying to see what gene cells could live without, but we get different answers every time the experiment's done, depending on how it's done, whether it's a batch growth, or you require cloning out of the cells, different growth requirements. We decided some time ago the only way to approach this was to build an artificial chromosome and be able to do evolution in the laboratory the way it happens in the environment.

We're building a hundred cassettes of five or more genes, where we can substitute these cassettes, build an artificial chromosome, and try and create artificial species with these unique sets. But now with 8 million genes, and as this work continues, it's conceivable within a year or two having data bases of 30, 40, 100 million genes. Biology is starting to approach the threshold that the electronics industry passed where all of a sudden people had all the components and could start building virtually anything they wanted, using these different components. We have a problem, we don't understand all the biology at first principle levels yet, but we're getting the tools, we're getting the components where we can artificially build these, and we think we can, in the computer, design a species, design what biological functions we want it to have, and add this to the existing skeleton.

Understanding the gene components, working forward from those, we're applying this to energy production. We've tried to change photosynthesis by taking oxygen insensitive hydrogenases, and we're converting all the electrons direct from sunlight into hydrogen production. We're doing this with a molecular switch, so you can throw the switch and hydrogen bubbles off and you turn the switch off chemically and it stops the production. We're also trying to come up with new ways for fermentation from wood. So we're approaching things on a broad level, looking at genes as the fundamental components of biology and the future of industry.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Inez Tenenbaum

lost a good race for Senator from South Carolina last year. I supported her. She is now at the end of a small fund-raising campaign to keep her current job as state Education Superintendent. She is worth supporting.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Kristoff on the deficit

Nicholas Kristof is sounding off about the Bush deficit.
The biggest risk we Americans face to our way of life and our place in the world … may come from this administration's fiscal recklessness and the way this is putting us in hock to China. …

Critics have pounded the Bush administration for its faulty intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq. But President Bush peddled tax cuts with data that ultimately proved equally faulty - yet the tax cuts remain cemented in place.

Go to and read Mr. Bush's speech when he presented his first budget in February 2001. He foresaw a $5.6 trillion surplus over 10 years and emphasized that much of that would go to paying down the debt.

"I hope you will join me to pay down $2 trillion in debt during the next 10 years," Mr. Bush said then, between his calls for tax cuts. "That is more debt, repaid more quickly, than has ever been repaid by any nation at any time in history." His budget message that year promised that the US would be "on a glide path toward zero debt."


More than two centuries of American government produced a cumulative national debt of $5.7 trillion when Mr. Bush was elected in 2000. And now that is expected to almost double by 2010, to $10.8 trillion. …

[I]f you need to visualize the victims [of Bush's fiscal recklessness], think of your child's face, or your grandchild's.

President Bush has excoriated the "death tax," as he calls the estate tax. But his profligacy will leave every American child facing a "birth tax" of about $150,000.
A friend made this same point to me the other day. By giving these enormous estate tax breaks to billionaires, Bush is forcing the rest of us to make it up. He didn't cut spending; he simply shifted the tax burden from those who can afford it, i.e., his friends, to the rest of us. Well, it may backfire on him. He may save his friends tons of money, but if ruins the country in the process, his friends won't thank him when they realize that the world Bush left to them is much uglier than the world we had before Bush. They can lock themselves inside barbed-wire enclosed compounds, but they won't like it in there.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Republicans don't like intelligent discussion

They may like the idea of intelligent design, but apparently real thinking isn't their thing. Here's what a story in the Washington Post says.
[O]n Capitol Hill, it's hard to find a Republican with anything nice to say about National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service. Instead, they denounce them as liberal and elitist
NPR does provide intelligent presentations of both liberal and conservative opinion. But apparently the Republicans can stand only far right opinions expressed in loud voices.

Microsoft is thinking

Fortune reports on work Microsoft that is doing to prepare its Small Business Software.
Before they wrote the first line of code for Office SBA, Taneja
and his researchers observed work processes at dozens of small
companies. "We wanted to find out how small businesses use
technology and how technology can make them more productive,"
Taneja says. They watched CEOs, accountants, salespeople,
marketing executives, and others as they navigated the working
day, always looking for points of "friction," which Taneja defines
as "time wasted getting information that already exists elsewhere."
(Friction is another popular concept at Microsoft, made famous by
Bill Gates' 1995 book, The Road Ahead, a paean to an IT-enabled
state of business grace that Gates called "friction-free capitalism.")

At Microsoft "friction" is also roughly synonymous with "Post-it
notes." Whenever a Microsoft executive mentions Post-its, you can
be sure that he is referring to some inefficient, predigital business
practice that a Microsoft application was built to rationalize. Office
SBA, for example, will ship with a new version of Business Contact
Manager, an Outlook add-on that allows salespeople to access every
client's sales and credit history at a glance, rather than laboriously
gather information from old invoices and contracts in the back office.
"We found that sales and marketing people didn't tend to document
their leads properly," Taneja says sorrowfully. "A lot was happening
on Post-its and whiteboards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Biomimetics reports on Technology that imitates nature.
Engineers are looking increasingly toward nature as an inspiration for technological innovation. The field of biomimetics will soon be more accessible to engineers, as scientists at the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England are developing a "biological patent" database, wherein natural structures with potential technological significance (like the hook and loop structure that became Velcro) are archived. That a structure exists in nature, having necessarily been tested and refined in order to survive, automatically gives it a leg up on human-generated concepts. A gecko can defy gravity and crawl on the ceiling because of a weak intermolecular attraction between hair-like setae on their feet that, if reproduced synthetically, could yield revolutionary new adhesives. Robotic engineers, especially keen observers of nature, often look to animals to create a robot's pattern of motion that would enable it to negotiate terrain such as the moon too rocky to be traversed by a robot on wheels. While nature has yielded many unlikely technical advances, the Centre's Julian Vincent believes we have only scratched the surface, and that the flow of information between the biological and engineering communities needs to be reversed, so that instead of a newly discovered structure being shopped around for potential use, "biomimetics should be providing examples of suitable technologies from biology which fulfill the requirements of a particular engineering problem.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Support the freedom to read

American Civil Liberties Union is collecting signatures.
The Patriot Act�s infamous Section 215 grants the FBI the power to seize a vast array of sensitive personal information and belongings including medical, library and business records using a secret intelligence court that does not require any suspicion of individual criminal activity. Although a court order is required to obtain these records, judges are compelled to issue them, making judicial review in this process nothing more than a rubber stamp.

Giving our government this kind of power to spy on innocent people is un-American. We need to build on our latest success and continue to push for much-needed reforms of the Patriot Act.

Pakistani (and American) outrages

In a column about Pakistani mistreatment of women, Nicholas Kirstof includes the following paragraph.
I've heard from Pakistanis who, while horrified by honor killings and rapes, are embarrassed that it is the barbarism in Pakistan that gets headlines abroad. A word to those people: I understand your defensiveness, for we Americans feel the same about Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. But rooting out brutality is a better strategy than covering it up, and any nation should be proud to produce someone like Ms. Mukhtaran.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Long Bets

The site includes bets and predictions. A fair number of well known people participate.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Jill Stewart has a column in Monday's NY Times in which she says that Schwarzenegger is a good guy but that he is wasting his energy by fighting personal fights.
In both cases, the unions cleverly made the debate about 'Arnold' rather than about the specific policy, and the news media lapped it up. Worse, the governor let them get away with it. Rather than remaining above the fray, he got caught up in name-calling, referring to the political leaders fighting his budget plans as 'the Three Stooges.' He failed to explain to voters what was really going on. He was on the defensive. His poll numbers plunged.

In these tough times, Mr. Schwarzenegger's vaunted political independence is a handicap. He has few allies in Sacramento with whom to form a coalition. Yes, he's a moderate who has created the most bipartisan administration since the days of Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan, appointing scores of Democrats to top jobs and judgeships. But the Democratic-majority Legislature is crammed with rigid ideologues on both sides who care little about the governor's evenhandedness. Of 120 legislators, I'd describe fewer than 10 as moderates.

And now Mr. Schwarzenegger is compounding his mistakes by pursuing his special election. Yes, reform is needed, but in opening a special-election season he's handing the unions a vast platform from which to pummel him. It's nice to know he's gutsy, but he should be spending his time fixing nuts-and-bolts problems, not gearing up a messy political campaign.
From the tone of the article, it's clear that Stewart is a Republican partisan. But she also makes some good points. Schwarzenegger is not a conservative ideologue. The problem with Schwarzenegger, as with so many politicians, is that he is intellectually dishonest. He can't tell the truth, and he favors exaggeration and insult to honest debate.

Here, for example, is how his website quotes him calling for the special election.
"When I was elected governor I said I would put California's financial house in order and reform a government that no longer listened to the people," said Governor Schwarzenegger. "Without reform, we are destined to relive the past all over again -- 22 billion dollar deficits, higher car taxes and the threat of bankruptcy. We cannot just stand around while our debt grows each year by billions of dollars.
The fact is that Schwarzenegger has done nothing to "put California's financial house in order." He did worse. He repealed the car tax, a progressive tax that would have helped close the budget deficit. He borrowed $15 billion instead of finding some way to pay for it. And his current budget is just more of the same. That's not being responsible; that's "standing around while our debt grows each year." Of course, that's another bit of dishonesty. The debt can't grow each year. By law the state budget must be balanced. That's why it took an initiative to borrow the $15 billion he borrowed last year.

But worse, not only does Schwarzenegger do nothing, but he blames the legislature for his own failure. That's intellectual dishonesty. Schwarzenegger may not be a conservative ideologue. He may even have some good intentions. But he isn't an honest politician either. And if he continues to operate the way he has been — by attempting to bully people instead of speaking honestly about issues — he deserves whatever defeat he brings on himself. Stewart should know that.

I take it back. She does know it. See her column of May 27, Arnold, Babe, You're Messing Up.

Mukhtaran Bibi

Nicholas Kristof writes of the continuing saga.
After the Pakistani government tired of kidnapping Mukhtaran Bibi, holding her hostage and lying about it, I finally got a call through to her.

Pakistani officials had just freed Ms. Mukhtaran and returned her to her village. She was exhausted, scared, relieved, giddy and sometimes giggly - and also deeply thankful to all the Pakistanis and Americans who spoke up for her. …

From Karachi to the Khyber Pass, Pakistan is one of the most hospitable countries I've ever visited. So, President Musharraf, if you want to improve Pakistan's image, here's some advice: just prosecute rapists with the same zeal with which you persecute rape victims. …

On Friday, Ms. Mukhtaran told me that one of the prime minister's aides had just called to offer to take her to the United States. It seems Mr. Musharraf wants to defuse the crisis by allowing Ms. Mukhtaran a tightly chaperoned tour of the U.S., controlled every step of her way.

"I said, 'No,' " she said. "I only want to go of my own free will."

Hats off to this incredible woman. President Musharraf may have ousted rivals and overthrown a civilian government, but he has now met his match — a peasant woman with a heart of gold and a will of steel.

Who is Bill Frist?

David Brooks, whose columns I usually find shallow, describes Bill Frist then and now.
[When he first ran for office,] Frist was [neither] political [nor] ideologically conservative. He barely voted before he ran for Senate. Tom Perdue, his first campaign manager, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 'Quite frankly, for the first three or four months I wasn't sure he was a Democrat or a Republican. I think I helped him become a Republican.' That may be overstating things, but for his first years in the Senate, Frist seemed to fit the mold of the Tennessee Republican, the mold of Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander - conservative but pragmatic, energetic but not confrontational.

But the Senate changes people. Senators are endlessly polished and briefed; they spend their days relentlessly speechifying. The White House beckons, and some come to seem less like human beings and more like nation-states. Opinions turn into positions. Beliefs grow more abstract. Individual traits become parts of the brand.
Since 1961, more than 50 senators have run for president and they have all lost.

Frist too appears to have been gradually altered. Many who've known him say it's hard to square the current on-message leader with the honest young man of [his memoir] 'Transplant,' the stiff, ideological politician with the beloved community leader who made such a mark on Nashville.

Sometimes in their quests to perform greater acts of service, people lose contact with their animating passion. And the irony is that the earlier Frist, the Tennessee Republican, the brilliant and passionate health care expert, is exactly the person the country could use.
Does Frist have the internal strength to return to what Brooks hopes is his real self? Or is the intellectually dishonest poseur he has become his real self?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

I was wrong about the stock market

Two months ago, in Stocks Plunge to Lowest Point Since Election I wrote that the stock market was tanking. After all, the dollar was vulnerable due to our massive deficeits (fiscal and trade), oil was at record prices, and IBM was seeing sluggist sales. That doesn't seem to be the case. At the end of that post, I also suggested that the market may just be in a rut between 10,000 and 11,000 on the Dow. It currently seems to be moving toward that upper limit. We'll see what happens when it gets there.

A guy who writes a free weekly technical analysis is Colin Twiggs at Incredible Charts: Stock Trading Diary.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Global cooling

John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research has a plan for global cooling. I ran across it in a letter to the current New Yorker. But it isn't new. Here's a web page from a year ago. There was also an article in the Guardian Unlimited last February.
John's idea, which has not been fully tested, is to increase the number of water droplets in about 10% of the world's marine stratocumulus clouds. This could be accomplished by bolstering the number of tiny saltwater droplets that act as cloud condensation nuclei, meaning they would serve as centers for the production of additional droplets.

Such a process would make the clouds whiter, increasing their albedo, or ability to reflect solar radiation back into space. If the clouds' reflectivity could be boosted by a few percent (which could be amply achieved by doubling the droplet numbers), this would compensate for a doubling of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and, at least in theory, produce a cooling that would compensate for global warming.


It was in today's LA Times and today's Science News online. Here's the Science News description.
The puzzle typically consists of a nine-by-nine grid. Some of the spaces contain numbers; most of the spaces are blank. Your goal is to fill in the blanks with digits from 1 to 9 so that each row, each column, and each of the nine three-by-three blocks making up the grid contains just one of each of the nine digits.
It started out in Japan. Then it moved to Great Britain. Now it's invading the US.

There are numerous websites devoted to Sudoku, including sites with solvers. Here's one written in JavaScript from Sudoko Solver by Logic, which runs right in your browser with no downloads. You can copy the example problem above into it's grid, and it will solve it.

This site even explains the solutions it finds. The overall strategy is to keep a list for each cell of the numbers that aren't eliminated by their appearance elsewhere in the same row, column, or block.

For example, number the columns from left to right 1 - 9, and label the rows from top to bottom, A - I. Cell A3 has the following possibilities: 2, 3, 8, and 9 since none of those number appear in row A or in column3 or in the top left block of 9 cells. But cell A3 is the only cell in column 3 that still has a 2 as a possible value. Therefore, that cell must be 2. By the same reasoning, F4 must also be 2. And the same is true for C6. Originally A6 could have had a 2, but the 2 in A3 eliminated the possibility of putting a 2 in A6. So the 2 in column 6 must be in C6. This entire problem can be solved this way.

In some problems, the solution is not so easy. There may be a point at which no value is determined. At that point, one must guess and proceed. If one ever gets stuck, then one must backtrack and try a different value. Because the problem may require this sort of backtracking, it has been shown (see the Science News story) that Sudoku is NP complete.

Bush's lame duck exit strategy

In his remarks at the 2005 President's Dinner at the Washington Convention Center last night, Bush outlined his exit strategy for leaving the White House. He will declare defeat and blame it on the Democrats.
We hear 'no' to making tax relief permanent. We hear 'no' to Social Security reform. We hear 'no' to confirming federal judges. We hear 'no' to a highly qualified U.N. ambassador. We hear 'no' to medical liability reform.
Congratulations to the Democrats. Three cheers for the nay sayers! These Bush initiates deserve "no"s.

More evidence of a lame duck

From the NY Times, where a larger image is available.
Forty-two percent of the people responding to the [most recent NY Times CBS News] poll said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling his job, a marked decline from his 51 percent rating after of the November election,

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

I recently commented on the need to rehabilitate the notion of taxes. Without taxes, we would have no government; without a government, we would not have the civil and economic cocoon within which we live. But how can taxes be linked more directly to that infrastructure? What if we eliminate all current taxes and replace them with the following?
  1. A value added tax. This would tax consumption, which is a good idea. It is successful in Europe.
  2. A corporate equity tax. Give the government a non-voting share in every corporation. This would be a recognition of the fact that corporations exist only as entities created by government. Since they owe their existence to the government, and since they owe the existence of the arena in which they operate — a free, open, and lawful marketplace — to the government, the government should have a share of each of them.
  3. A property tax. The argument given above that corporations exist and owe much of their value to the government holds for property as well. Were it not for laws of ownership, there would be no property, which is a legal construct.

Is the lame duck beginning to quack

I was wrong when I called the election for Kerry last year. Perhaps I can do better this year. Is this the beginning of the Bush Lame Duck presidency? Here are two stories from today's Washington Post.

House Votes To Curb Patriot Act
The House handed President Bush the first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act, voting yesterday to curtail the FBI's ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations.

Bush has threatened to veto any measure that weakens those powers. The surprise 238 to 187 rebuke to the White House was produced when a handful of conservative Republicans, worried about government intrusion, joined with Democrats who are concerned about personal privacy.
Exit Strategy on Social Security Is Sought
With the Senate Finance Committee at an impasse on Social Security and House leaders anxious about moving forward, Republican congressional leaders have told the White House in recent days that it is time to look for an escape route.

Senate GOP leaders, in discussions with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and political officials, have made it clear they are stuck in a deep rut and suggested it is time for an exit strategy, according to a senior Senate Republican official and Finance Committee aides.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fat Found to Accelerate Aging Process

From The Washington Post
Scientists have produced the first direct evidence that fat accelerates aging, possibly speeding the unraveling of crucial genetic structures inside cells that wither with age.

A team of researchers from the United States and Britain found that the more people weigh, the older their cells appear on a molecular level, with obesity adding the equivalent of nearly nine years of age to a person's body.
UPDATE: my previously unidentified Pentagon source, who as it turns out has a wide range of areas of expertise, notes that this makes baby fat an oxymoron. On the other hand, it doesn't appear on, which claims to have the largest (if not the funniest) online list of oxymorons. It doesn't even have deafening silence, the example given on oxymoron - OneLook Dictionary Search, which I checked because the GMail spell checker has never heard of oxymoron.

Thomas Friedman talks about Iraq

Friedman has always supported the war in Iraq because he thinks that a democratic Iraq can make a lot of difference in the Middle East. His current assessment is that it's still possible, but … . Here are some excerpts from his column.
Iraq is inching toward a dangerous tipping point - the point where the key communities begin to invest more energy in preparing their own militias for a scramble for power - when everything falls apart, rather than investing their energies in making the hard compromises within and between their communities to build a unified, democratizing Iraq. …

So far the Iraqi political class has been a disappointment. The Kurds have been great. But the Sunni leaders have been shortsighted at best and malicious at worst, fantasizing that they are going to make a comeback to power through terror. As for the Shiites, their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been a positive force on the religious side, but he has no political analog. …

I still don't know if a self-sustaining, united and democratizing Iraq is possible. I still believe it is a vital U.S. interest to find out. But the only way to find out is to create a secure environment. It is very hard for moderate, unifying, national leaders to emerge in a cauldron of violence.

Maybe it is too late, but before we give up on Iraq, why not actually try to do it right? Double the American boots on the ground and redouble the diplomatic effort to bring in those Sunnis who want to be part of the process and fight to the death those who don't. As Stanford's Larry Diamond, author of an important new book on the Iraq war, "Squandered Victory," puts it, we need "a bold mobilizing strategy" right now. That means the new Iraqi government, the U.S. and the U.N. teaming up to widen the political arena in Iraq, energizing the constitution-writing process and developing a communications-diplomatic strategy that puts our bloodthirsty enemies on the defensive rather than us. …

Calling for more troops now, I know, is the last thing anyone wants to hear. But we are fooling ourselves to think that a decent, normal, forward-looking Iraqi politics or army is going to emerge from a totally insecure environment, where you can feel safe only with your own tribe. is fighting to Save NPR and PBS

Click here to sign a petition.
The House is threatening to eliminate all public funding for NPR and PBS, starting with 'Sesame Street,' 'Reading Rainbow' and other commercial-free children's shows. Sign our petition to Congress opposing these massive cuts to public broadcasting.

Shared Concern Initiative (SCI)

I just came across the Shared Concern Initiative (SCI).
The Shared Concern Initiative (SCI) idea was originated, in the context of the Forum 2000 Conference in Prague, by HH the Dalai Lama in cooperation with Václav Havel, HRH El Hassan bin Talal and Frederik W. de Klerk. The SCI is an open and informal group of recognized personalities representing various cultures, historical backgrounds, religions, and traditions.

In the interest of fostering principles of good governance, respect for human rights, and tolerance, the SCI contemplates to address, by the issuance of joint-statements, the important challenges of today's world with the understanding that changes towards the better can be effectively promoted with a common voice.
The recently issued an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sounds like a good idea. I'm not sure that they are doing very much, though. I came across it in a column Václav Havel had in today's Washington Post.

Microsoft looks to extinguish LAMP

ZDNet reports that Microsoft is continuing its fight against open source software.
At Microsoft's TechEd customer conference last week, executives spelled out the company's lineup to combat these cut-rate incursions onto its turf.

In particular, the company is focused on improving its alternatives to the so-called LAMP stack, the combination of the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database, and scripting languages PHP, Perl or Python.

Microsoft's anti-LAMP strategy is to heap features into its low-end products and to build a comprehensive set of tools--spanning development to management--in the hopes of making Windows Server more attractive.

Because open-source products can, in general, be downloaded for free, Microsoft has to compete against them by drawing attention to the 'total cost of ownership.' It must make the case that, all things considered, Windows applications are cheaper over the long term.
Of course what Microsoft isn't saying is that total cost of ownership also depends on future costs for upgrades and enhancements and on the compatibility of one's infrastructure with other systems. Once one chooses Microsoft, one has from then on given up the possibility of using non-Microsoft software. At that point, one is totally dependent on the pricing decisions Microsoft makes. That destroys any total-cost-of ownership advantage Microsoft may make.

The problem with making a Microsoft decision is that it precludes you from adding non-Microsoft software in the future. Microsoft makes sure one can't "mix and match" basic software. One should never make oneself that dependent on any one company.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Freedom isn't free

When justifying the costs in dollars and lives of the war in Iraq, conservatives like to argue that Freedom Isn't Free.

The same conservatives continually demonize taxes of any sort. Yesterday in California, for example. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fearlessly argued that the state should not try to raise money by increasing residential property taxes — even though no one has proposed doing so. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes him as saying
They want to back us into a corner so eventually they can force us to raise taxes.
What is damaging about the conservative success in demonizing taxes is that people have come to believe that Freedom is Free. Democrats should take advantage of this misunderstanding (and the popularity of the Freedom Isn't Free slogan) to point out how dishonest most anti-tax Republicans are.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Raped, Kidnapped and Silenced

Unbelievable. Read this Nicholas Kristof story about how Pakistan is treating Mukhtaran Bibi. (See original story.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Thought for the day

It's been pointed out before (but as far as I know, not in the same paragraph) that one can give away both love and information without diminishing one's own supply of either. Often, by giving these away, one receives more in return.

It would be nice to end this with a snappy observation about what love and information have in common, but none occurs to me.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Nicholas Kristof says that a little bit of attention can save thousands of lives in Darfur. But we aren't even doing that. See Kristof's video report (approximately 7 1/2 minutes).
Mr. Bush values a frozen embryo. But he hasn't mustered much compassion for an entire population of terrorized widows and orphans. And he is cementing in place the very hopelessness he dreads, by continuing to avert his eyes from the first genocide of the 21st century.

Two books recomended by Popular Science

Surviving Armageddon
[Although] Surviving Armageddon … has all the elements of destruction, as its subtitle 'Solutions for a Threatened Planet' suggests, it spends as much if not more time on positive solutions to disaster as it does on what can go wrong.

It's not that McGuire, Professor of Geophysical Hazards (neat job title) and a volcanologist (or vulcanologist as used to be the proper English term before Mister Spock confused things) is vastly optimistic, especially about the dangers of global warming if some countries, particularly the US, don't start to act, but rather that he puts forward a spectrum of proposed solutions from sensible to downright loony, and picks out the most useful possibilities, then like the rest of us, crosses his fingers that the powers that be will get it right.
On the whole it's a very good book.
Also, (available only from The Eternal Child: How Evolution Has Made Children of Us All by Clive Bromhall.
People are very strange apes. Haven’t you every wondered how natural selection has led to our peculiar weakness? We’re practically hairless, we’re slow with our feeble two-legged gait (sad to say, we can be outrun by a rabbit), we have feeble teeth compared with our closest relatives, we have thin, non-protective skins and we can’t even climb trees very well because we don’t have the opposing big toe on our feet. In fact we’re predator bait – we ought to have been wiped out pretty quickly as a tasty, easy-to-catch snack.

Bromhall points out in this entertainingly written page-turner that all our apparent survival weaknesses (I’ve only highlighted a few of our oddities) are throwbacks to infancy. We are big babies. Many of the strange features we have are shared with other apes while they’re still forming, but by the time they’re mature they have grown out of them.

So why did we manage to survive with all these negative factors? Why weren’t we naturally selected out? Because, Bromhall argues, these are just side effects of the desirable part of staying infantile. Mature male chimpanzees, for example, are horrendously egotistical. They are incapable of cooperation. A group of more than a handful of chimps will self-destruct. But to survive in the savannah conditions that helped form us needed apes that could cooperate, that were relatively non-aggressive to each other. And that behaviour is another aspect of the ape before it matures. By staying baby-like we were much more likely to form a big enough group to survive against the fast and ferocious predators of the savannah.

It’s wonderful stuff – can’t be recommended more.
Presumably other childlike qualities such as intellectual flexibility also helped. Of course there are many of us who have not remained as childlike as one would hope.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The MacIntel Computer

If you care, you've probably already heard that Apple is switching from the PowerPC to an Intel chip. John Dvorak makes an interesting point.
Apple and its BSD-UNIX kernel running on the Intel platform should outperform Windows by an extreme … So [Steve] Jobs can change his comparison advertising from PowerPC versus Intel to OS-X versus Windows on the exact same chip. The publicity potential here is chart-topping. What Mac user won't enjoy this show once it gets going?

I've never understood why the Mac nuts are in such denial over this platform shift. This change to Intel will not only save the platform but potentially drive it into a position of dominance. What will be lost, of course, is the niche and mystique aspect of the Mac which many of its users seem to relish as part of some misguided superiority complex.

A more interesting scenario to me is examining the possibility that Windows users can switch to the Mac OS on their Intel machines. Is this going to be possible?
This seems like the real sleeper possibility. Will Apple allow its operating system to run on computers that are purchased as Windows machines? It should be possible since they will run on the same chip. What will Microsoft do? Will it attempt to prevent such dual use computers. Will they get away with it? What will Apple charge for the operating system if a Windows user wants to buy it and install it on his PC? A well-worked out plan could help Apple stage a real comeback for the Macintosh environment. One major issue will be the file systems. How can such a dual-use computer share files. What will Microsoft do to prevent file sharing?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Tom Friedman seconds David Brooks

Earlier today I wrote about David Brooks column in a posting entitled, "Liberalism breeds conservatism? How can we get cling-free liberalism?." Now in "A Race to the Top" Tom Friedman is says the same thing.
French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day. Good luck. …

"This is not about wages at all - the whole wage differential thing is going to reduce very quickly," said Rajesh Rao, who heads the innovative Indian game company, Dhruva. It is about people who have been starving "finally seeing the ability to realize their dreams." Both Infosys and Wipro, India's leading technology firms, received more than one million applications last year for a little more than 10,000 job openings. …

[T]his is a bad time for France and friends to lose their appetite for hard work - just when India, China and Poland are rediscovering theirs.
It's clear to me that Friedman is right. There are smart people all over the world. We have to figure out what we have to offer that's special.

In my opinion it's our relative open-mindedness, our relative intellectual flexibility, our relative lack of corruption [I heard an NPR report on Iraqi justice. An Iraqi said that it was the same as ours, money counts. "You pay your lawyers; we pay our judges, but it amounts to the same thing."], our relative rule of law, and our relative freedom. If the Bush administration doesn't destroy our primary advantages, I think we'll do ok.

The great chain of being

From an article by Sean Nee in the current Nature.
Around a billion years ago, a great experiment occurred: Bacteria and Archaea came together in a fusion event to synthesize a whole new domain of life, the Eukarya. Sadly, the outcome was rather uninteresting: the resulting organisms displayed a very limited metabolic repertoire and much restricted habitat requirements.

Over the past 600 million years the Bacteria, Archaea and microbial Eukarya have continued to evolve into brand new niches. As it happens, a few branches of Eukarya — plants and animals — grew freakishly huge bodies. They also created both new substances for bacteria to exploit, such as plant lignins, and new environments for microbes to inhabit, such as feathers and urinary tracts. Indeed, some of the richest and most interesting ecologies on Earth can be found inside the animal gut.

One of the huge species, Homo sapiens, got remarkably self-important. But when, to his surprise, a virus wiped him out, most of life on Earth took no notice at all.

Treatment of prisoners

My source, who has taken to calling herself "an unnamed source at the Pentagon" and who will reveal her true identity in 30 years, claims that the administration's detainee treatment policy is fully consistent with the Geneva Neocon-ventions.

Liberalism breeds conservatism? How can we get cling-free liberalism?

Normally I'm not particularly impressed with David Brooks. His columns are often either superficial or not very coherent. But today's column makes an important point — although its opening sentence, "events in Western Europe are slowly discrediting large swaths of American liberalism" is much too partisan for what turns out to be an interesting column.
Over the last few decades, American liberals have lauded the German model or the Swedish model or the European model. But these models are not flexible enough for the modern world. They encourage people to cling fiercely to entitlements their nation cannot afford. And far from breeding a confident, progressive outlook, they breed a reactionary fear of the future that comes in left- and right-wing varieties - a defensiveness, a tendency to lash out ferociously at anybody who proposes fundamental reform or at any group, like immigrants, that alters the fabric of life.

This is the chief problem with the welfare state, which has nothing to do with the success or efficiency of any individual program. The liberal project of the postwar era has bred a stultifying conservatism, a fear of dynamic flexibility, a greater concern for guarding what exists than for creating what doesn't. [Emphasis added in both cases. ra]
Brooks identifies a weakness in certain liberal perspectives. Clinging to anything can be stultifying — even if it's clinging to something good. We must stay aware of where the world is moving and not focus on hanging on to the past. That's called conservatism.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

What a difference an ass makes!

A friend wrote,
Did you catch George Bush's latest attempt to use big words?

I wouldn't make fun of him — I don't think fancy words are a big deal and I butcher plenty myself — except he went out of his way to say that he thought Amnesty International gets its reports from people who "disassemble … pause pause pause … and that means not tell the truth" — defining it for everybody.

Except, of course, disassemble means to take apart (as in what he has done to transatlantic coalitions, the Geneva conventions) and is not dissemble which is what he did about weapons of mass destruction.

Here's the story from the Asia Times Online
Stung by Amnesty International's condemnation of US detention facilities in Iraq and elsewhere overseas, the administration of President George W Bush is reacting with indignation and even suggestions that terrorists are using the world's largest human-rights organization.

The latest denunciation came from Bush himself during a White House press conference on Tuesday. 'I'm aware of the Amnesty International report, and it's absurd. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world,' he said, and added that Washington had 'investigated every single complaint against [sic] the detainees.'

'It seemed like [Amnesty] based some of their decisions on the word and allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people [who] had been trained in some instances to disassemble [sic] - that means not tell the truth,' Bush went on. 'And so it was an absurd report. It just is.'

At issue is an Amnesty report released last Thursday that assailed US detention practices. Since its release, a succession of top US administration officials and their right-wing backers in the major media has denounced the London-based group in what appears increasingly like an orchestrated effort to discredit independent human-rights critics. A similar campaign appeared to target Newsweek magazine earlier this month.

'It looks like a campaign,' Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocacy chief Reed Brody said on Tuesday. 'There's been a real drumbeat since Amnesty published the report. It seems like there's an attempt to silence critics.'
And here is a list of other sources.