Wednesday, October 26, 2005

EFF is asking for your support

Did you know that Xerox color laser printers print a series
of secret dots on every page that identify the time and
date you printed a document plus the serial number of the
printer you used? EFF technologists helped break the code,
and EFF then broke the story of this new privacy-invasive
use of technology. Dozens of other manufactures hide similar
tracking dots in their documents, and we're working to break
those codes, too. And as always, we'll be there to make sure
that law enforcement officers and others do not misuse this

When technology collides with your rights--your rights to
speak freely, to guard your privacy, to innovate, or to make
fair use--the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is there.
This year, we've fought to protect the confidentiality of
bloggers' sources. We've fought new search and wiretap powers
for the government through expansion of the PATRIOT Act and
the federal wiretap law. We've fought the resurgent broadcast
flag, which seeks to downgrade what you can do with television
shows at the same time it makes your TV obsolete. We've fought
to keep elections/voting machines honest and auditable. We've
fought to protect innovation. We've fought to save orphan works,
to promote anonymity, and to hold back the tide of punishing
Internet regulation.

You've been a strong supporter of freedom in the past. As we
approach the holiday season, please support EFF with a financial
donation so we can break more secret codes in color laser printers
and continue the fight to protect your rights.

Please paste the following URL into your browser and donate to EFF today:

Thanks in advance for your help.
The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this and other important issues are best understood as protecting the common.

Wal-Mart Memo Suggests Ways to Cut Employee Benefit Costs

The New York Times reports
The memo acknowledged that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had to walk a fine line in restraining benefit costs because critics had attacked it for being stingy on wages and health coverage. Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.

Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.
Wal-Mart and General Motors are the two most public cases, but most large companies have a problem with health care. Someone on the conservative side will eventually break and decide that our current approach to health care is broken. Perhaps then we'll start thinking serious ly about a real health-care system in this country. I'm surprised that it is taking this long.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Thursday, October 20, 2005

More about prayer

In a previous posting I tried to imagine what people who pray think of themselves as doing. The best I could come up with was that it may be an invocation and re-awakening of a sense of awe and inspiration in themselves. It occurred to me that another option is that people who pray may think of themselves as having a conversation with God. From my own perspective it's hard to know what that might mean. But I can imagine thinking through (fantasizing, although I don't want to be deprecatory) a conversation with a trusted counselor and mentor. That might constitute another aspect of prayer.

OpenOffice celebrates turning 2.0

OpenOffice celebrates turning 2.0
Nearly 50 million copies of OpenOffice have been downloaded, but only recently has the software become a more serious threat to long-dominant Microsoft Office. Version 2.0 brings some significant new features, and Google has pledged to help distribute OpenOffice through a high-profile pact with Sun. But perhaps more significant, uses the standardized OpenDocument format that stands in stark contrast to Microsoft's proprietary formats.

To support

the families in Dover Pennsylvania who are suing the school board not to teach intelligent design: American Civil Liberties Union.
'Intelligent design' is not a scientific concept. It's a religious concept. And because I don't subscribe to that particular brand of religion, I feel that I and my daughter, my family, are being ridiculed, and my daughter feels the pressure. I reserve the right to teach my child about religion... And I have faith in myself and in my husband and in my pastor to do that, not the school system."

-- Christy Rehm, a plaintiff in the ACLU's intelligent design case taking place in Dover, Pennsylvania

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sign the pledge

Democracy For America
I pledge to only support candidates who:
  1. Acknowledge that the U.S. was misled into the war in Iraq
  2. Advocate for a responsible exit plan with a timeline
  3. Support our troops at home and abroad

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Marijuana-like drug multiplies neurons

From Science News Online, Oct. 15, 2005
animals injected with high daily doses of [HU210, a drug that stimulates cannabinoid 1 receptors with a strength 100 times greater than that of pot] over the course of 2 weeks had about 30 percent more newborn nerve cells than did rats given AM281 or a solution without either drug.

Animals given the 2-week course of HU210 also showed less anxiety and depressionlike behavior than did rats not given the drug.


In my previous posting I said
I haven't heard anyone explain … in a relatively straightforward way what they think of themselves as doing when they pray.
I've been thinking about it a bit more. My sense now (from what I imagine people are really doing when they pray and from what people tell me about it) is that prayer is not an attempt to do something in the sense of accomplishing an end. It's probably more like an attempt to invoke an internal state, similar to what one does when one listens to music or participates in some other activity that leads to an internal change.

In writing this I'm not attempting to be cynical or deprecatory. I suspect that people who pray have a sense of awe and inspiration about the way they look at the world that they enjoy when they experience it and that prayer is a way of helping themselves remember and return to that state. In many ways I am now imagine prayer as analogous to what people do when they listen to music that inspires or transports them or when they participate in an artistic experience that they find transforming. I also imagine that it's like reading a book that reminds one of a particular way of looking at the world that one finds inspiring and comforting. I also imagine that it's like taking a drug or doing some other ritual that brings one to a state of mind that one finds positive an agreeable.

So when Bob Park asks whether Harriet Miers believes that physical effects are caused by people putting their hands together, etc., I think he is asking the wrong question. Physical effects are caused—in the minds of the people who pray—in the same way that internal physical effects are caused when people engage in nearly any activity. But for Bob Parks to imply that everyone who prays believes that prayer overrides the laws of physics is to probably misunderstand the nature of prayer.

I didn't start writing this post as a defense of prayer. I don't pray, and I'm certainly no expert on or spokesman for prayer. Perhaps many who pray will disagree with what I've just written. But having thought about it, I can understand for myself why some people would pray and why it's no more foolish a thing to do than, for example, playing a musical instrument.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bob Park on prayer and Harriet Miers

on Harriet Miers (The preceding link is to the current "What's New." If it's later than Oct 21, this comment will presumably be archived at Oct 14.)
After nominating Harriet Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court, President Bush sought to reassure religious conservatives by stressing Miers' evangelical Christian roots. Bush said it's part of who she is. He's right, but traditionally the personal religious views of nominees are not taken up in the confirmation process. If the First Amendment is upheld, it shouldn't matter. So forget religion. Far more important in the Twenty-First Century is the nominee's views on science. There are, after all, few cases that come before the courts today that do not have a scientific component. Scientists must construct a list of basic questions that would give some insight into the nominee's views on science. For example: do all physical events result from earlier physical events, or can they be caused by clasping your hands, bowing your head, and wishing? Send your suggestions to What's New. WN will print the best of them.
When I was a kid, I often wondered what it meant to pray. That is, besides saying the words, what did people think of themselves as doing when they prayed. I never got a good answer, but I thought that perhaps I would understand when I grew up. Now that I'm grown up, I still don't understand, and I haven't heard anyone explain to me in a relatively straightforward way what they think of themselves as doing when they pray.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Knowledge freed from its husks

[In this entry and in all entries in this blog, selecting some text and releasing the mouse button will perform a Google search on that text.]

If you enter
capital Bhutan
into the Google search box, you will get at the top of the page

Bhutan — Capital: Thimphu
According to - More sources »

You get the same thing if you enter: Bhutan capital.

My first question is: what sort of parsing does Google do? It certainly does some parsing of queries. If you enter an address, it recognizes it as an address. It apparently also recognizes UPS numbers, stock symbols, etc. For example, if you enter IBM, the first entry will be a stock quote and chart.

The point is not how clever Google is in parsing, or knowing where to go for stock quotes. It's the capital of Bhutan that I think is really significant.

I mentioned the talk recently by Pierre de Vries in which he talked about "digital technology sloughing off the husk of 'stuff' in which information has always been wrapped." Is this an initial example? Does Google recognize the question about Bhutan and know that the answer is somewhere on one of the pages it has scanned--but not necessarily which one? (With stock quotes, it knows in advance where to go.) If the page where it normally looks for "Capital Bhutan" is no longer available, will it look elsewhere? I tried the same search but restricted it not to use the original site. I didn't get an answer. But I'm not sure that's a good test.

If you look for
France president
the answer is retrieved from a different web page. The
Zimbabwe president
is retrieved from yet another site.

I think of this as a first sign of a new form of intelligence. Google (let's assume) can parse the query to mean "president of France." It can do enough parsing of the web sites it scans to know where that information is stored, and it can rank the reliability of those sites well enough to pick one as the place where the answer is given. In other words, the web is Google's database of knowledge. Google is not dependent on the precise structuring of that database. If that's the way it works, I find it pretty impressive. The knowlege has been freed from this husks that contain it. If one husk disappears, the knowledge will still be there in some other husk.

Whenever I'm talking with someone and a question comes up, my thought is "Ask Google; Google knows." What I normally mean is that with the appropriate queries, I can find out. But these examples are turning "Google knows" into something closer to the truth.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

failure - Google Search

The first entry in a Google search for failure is Bush's official biography. failure - Google Search. The second is There must be a war going on.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Little Things Mean a Lot

Peter Coffee tries to make an interesting point—but I don't think he succeeds. He wrote about the fact that this year a number of vehicles passed the DARPA Grand Challenge, whereas no vehicles got very far past the starting line last year.
The vehicles that finished the DARPA course this year weren't 20x faster or 20x more powerful or 20x more thoroughly instrumented than the ones that did so poorly last year. [And the sensors, actuators, and software weren't 20x better either.] Rather, this year's entries didn't make the same kinds of stupid mistakes, or have the same kinds of fatal weaknesses, that kept last year's entries from doing as well as their overall high levels of engineering and construction should have allowed.
So why did at least some of this year's vehicles perform 20x better than the best of last year's? Clearly this has something to do with an implementation of an abstraction that was (more or less) correct this year and not correct (or not correct enough) last year.

A program with a tiny error in it may not run at all. (If the error is a syntax error, it won't even compile.) Fix the tiny error and the revised program will run (in some sense) "infinitely" better. So for one thing, there is something wrong with the metric being used. This year's system were not 20x better. They were correct, whereas last year's were not. The corrected program is not infinitely better than the uncorrected one—although it might be infinitely more useful to users. So one must be very careful about metrics and the significance one gives them.

But besides the metric issue, I think that a bigger point is that (as Peter says) in complex systems, little things can mean a lot. Is there really much else one can say about that?

Does the first amendment protect federal (and state) whistle blowers?

A case to be heard by the Suprmem Court this week pits a Los Angeles deputy prosecutor against "the system." The details are here. [N]o law effectively protects federal workers who report malfeasance as part of their job duties. And coverage of state workers is patchy. As a result, those workers we depend on for our safety have often faced a terrible conundrum: either remain quiet and allow fraud and wrongdoing to occur, or speak out and risk retaliation. It seems to me that support for whistle-blowers is needed. But is whistle-blowing protected by the first amendment in such a way that the government cannot punish the whistle-blower by, for example, demotion? I'm not realy sure what the issue is here. I guess we'll here more as the case is presented.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Schwarzenegger the bully

The AP reports :
Firefighters who battled a 24,000-acre blaze last week accused their supervisors Thursday of forcing them to participate in a news conference with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been at political odds with unions representing firefighters and other public employees.

Schwarzenegger's appearance at a command center in Thousand Oaks came as he pushes ballot initiatives opposed by firefighter unions, including Proposition 75, which would require unions to get members' permission before dues could be used for political purposes.
At the event Sept. 30, the governor shook hands and posed for pictures with a crowd of firefighters and other emergency workers.

Firefighters were 'ordered and forced' to participate, Los Angeles County firefighter Greg Alldredge said Thursday at a news conference. 'We were very displeased with this - having to shake hands with somebody who really doesn't support us.'

Ventura County Fire Capt. Jack Nosco said he was among the firefighters ordered to flank Schwarzenegger at the event, in which the Republican governor lavishly praised several departments that extinguished the blaze along the edge of Los Angeles.
'We declined to do it voluntarily,' Nosco said.
According the the LA Times story, when asked about it,
Schwarzenegger said everybody is ordered to do things at one point or another.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Catholic Church and homosexuality

As you have probably heard, according to a Vatican official, the Catholic Church will soon reaffirm its position that homosexuals shouldn't be ordained as priests.

What strikes me as most interesting about this is the implication in this position that homosexuality is part of the essential nature of a person rather than a choice. The Catholic Church bans women from the priesthood, not because of any choice the woman has made but because she is a woman. This doctrine seems to put gays into a similar category with respect to having a condition that they can do nothing about. It certainly doesn't suggest that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice" as some anti-gay factions suggest.

In some ways, then, this decision by the Catholic Church is good news for gays. It puts the gay community and the Catholic Church on the same side with respect to whether or not homosexuality is a choice.

Monday, October 03, 2005

United States as a Debtor Nation

The Institute for International Economics has a new report on The United States as a Debtor Nation.
The United States has swung from being the world's largest creditor to the largest debtor nation. At the end of 2004, it had net external liabilities of $2.5 trillion, or 22 percent of GDP. The current account (goods and services, transfers, and capital income) is massively in deficit—about $670 billion in 2004, or about 6 percent of GDP. If corrective measures (US fiscal adjustment and a further decline of the dollar) are not taken, the current account deficit will reach about 7½ to 8 percent of GDP by 2010, and net international liabilities will reach about 50 percent of GDP.

The rising imbalance will increasingly put the US economy—and hence the world economy and especially developing countries—at risk of a major crisis, as foreign investors lose confidence and US protectionist pressures mount. The longer the needed adjustment is delayed, the more wrenching it will be, triggering high interest rates, US recession, a greater decline in US households' living standards, and more damage to the global economy.

In the late 1990s, the rising trade deficit and associated borrowing from abroad were benign, and the additional foreign resources were directed toward more investment. But now such resources largely finance US private and government consumption rather than productive investment. A favorable consideration is that the United States has a higher rate of return on direct investment abroad than the rate on foreigners' direct investment in the United States. This has kept net capital income positive, so the United States is not yet a net debtor nation when measured by economic burden of payments. Moreover, when the dollar depreciates, there is a windfall gain on equity assets abroad, which are denominated in foreign currency. But despite these two advantages, the author's projections show a sharp deterioration in the net foreign asset position going forward, as even net capital income swings into large deficit.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Friends of the Commons

From Friends of the Commons
The market has its advocates. They're called conservatives.

And the government has its backers. They're called liberals.

But who's looking after the commons — the vast realms of nature and society that we inherit together and must pass on, undiminished, to our children?

We are. And we hope you will, too.

Friends of the Commons is a new citizens' group that reports on the state of our commons and supports other citizens working to protect and expand our commons.
And from their future page
In the 20th century, the market triumphed over all. It defeated communism, leveled national boundaries to trade and brought material abundance never seen before.

But the market’s triumph was accompanied by huge unpaid costs — bills that are now coming due. Of these, the most momentous are those owed to nature and the poor.

The 21st century must not only pay these bills. It must, at the same time, solve two systemic problems: How can we share a crowded planet with billions of other humans, other species and ecosystems? And how can we improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike?

The unbridled market can’t solve these problems alone. It needs a counterpoise with a different calculus. The ideal counterpoise isn’t, as many thought in the 20th century, the state. It’s the commons.

Government’s job in the 21st century is to restore the balance between the commons and the market that grew so distorted in the 20th century. This can be done without raising taxes or expanding bureaucracy.

The Commons as a Movement

More from
The commons is something very new and quite ancient. Its newness can be seen in the huge variety of commons proliferating on the Internet: free software and open source software, open archives, Wikipedia, peer-to-peer file sharing, open science initiatives, the open access movement in scholarly publishing, social networking software, and on and on. These innovations constitute the new digital commons. Yet as novel as these developments are, the commons is as old as the human species, which has always been rooted in communities of social trust and cooperation — a fact now being confirmed by evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists.

The real aberration in human history is the vision of humanity set forth by neoclassical economics. Homo economicus defines human beings solely as rational, ahistorical individuals who invariably seek to maximize their material utility through market exchange. It also asserts — astonishingly — that all of society should be organized around this vision. This is the fragile fiction that is beginning to be unmasked — by free software, by anti-globalization advocates, by environmentalists and others.

The Commons

Pierre de Vries in his Deep Freeze 9 blog has a nice piece about how the notion of a commons is at the center of many current political conflicts. He includes this quotation from David Bollier.
The re-election of George W. Bush makes it abundantly clear that a fierce new round of pillage and plunder is about to begin. Over the next four years, market enclosure will be taken to new extremes -- oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness, more privatization of government drug research, giveaways of the broadcast airwaves, the shrinking of the public domain, among many others.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


A number of high profile science and public policy intellectuals have formed DefCon.
DefCon will provide mainstream America with a countervailing voice rooted in original American principles, focusing on respect for:
  • Separation of church and state as a core value in law and public policy;
  • Independence of the judiciary — safeguarding the courts from archconservatives who wish to undermine the Bill of Rights;
  • Science, medical research and technology and their crucial role in economic prosperity;
  • Individual privacy including the right to decide for oneself whether to have a baby or how to die and equal rights for all couples regardless of gender.
Although I agree with the position DefCon takes with respect to abortion, right-to-die, gay marriage, etc. (the fourth bullet), I don't think that should be part of their agenda. These are social issues and cannot be blamed on a failure of church-state separation.

I would prefer to DefCon focus on more concrete issues in which religion attempts to limit freedom (including the freedom to do and to educate about science) by manipulating the power of the state.