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February 28, 2003

Our Broken Death Penalty System

From an article in the New York Times:

Judge Laura Denvir Stith seemed not to believe what she was hearing.

A prosecutor was trying to block a death row inmate from having his conviction reopened on the basis of new evidence, and Judge Stith, of the Missouri Supreme Court, was getting exasperated. "Are you suggesting," she asked the prosecutor, that "even if we find Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?"

Frank A. Jung, an assistant state attorney general, replied, "That's correct, your honor."

That exchange was, legal experts say, unusual only for its frankness.

It's hard to find the words to properly respond to this. It's hard to express how I feel about the idea that a prosecutor would argue in court for the execution of an innocent man. The article concludes:

Joseph Amrine, whose appeal gave rise to the contentious questioning in the Missouri Supreme Court, is accused of killing another prison inmate while serving time for robbery, burglary and forgery. His conviction was based on the testimony of three other inmates; a guard identified someone else as the likely killer. All three have since recanted their accusations, and Mr. Amrine says this means he should have a new trial.

Mr. Jung, the Missouri prosecutor, told the court that Mr. Amrine's request was simply too late.

"To make sure we are clear on this," Judge Michael A. Wolff of the Supreme Court replied, "if we find in a particular case that DNA evidence absolutely excludes somebody as the murderer, then we must execute them anyway if we can't find an underlying constitutional violation at their trial?"

Again, Mr. Jung said yes.

It took me years of soul-searching to come to the conclusion that, though I respect the death penalty as the current law of the land, I believe it should be abolished. The thought that even one prosecutor exists -- and one presumes Jung spoke for many -- who would knowingly execute an innocent man indicates to me that I reached the proper conclusion.

How anyone could read the exchanges between the judges and Jung and not conclude that the current death penalty system is, at the very least, broken, is beyond me.

Bennett Attacks Ito, or How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Joi Ito recently posted a paper on emergent democracy, as well as writing an op-ed on the subject for the South China Morning Post. ("Emergent democracy" refers to the concept that decentralized, collaborative Internet-based structures, blogs being an example, can potentially lead to more direct forms of democracy.) All was well until, in the comments for an emergent democracy item on Joi's site, Richard Bennett made the following comment:

Reading your paper "Emergent Democracy" I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally. Even if we have tools to make direct democracy possible, in certain limited contexts, it simply doesn't follow that it would be a superior form of government to representative democracy.

You're welcome to read what I've written about your paper on my blog. While I tried to be nice, it's hard to take any of this seriously.

I don't know Bennett personally. I do know Joi, and I know he is intimately familiar with how Japanese legislative bodies and the Japanese government function, and with political theory generally. Bennett is entitled to his opinion, but not only do I believe him to be wrong, I believe this is most certainly not an example of civil discourse.

Bennett's comment ignited a firestorm of comments on Joi's site, with Joi's friends coming to his defense. (I was unaware this debate was raging, and am only now chiming in.) Over the next four days, Bennett's comment led to over 40 responses and counter-responses. Bennett threw a red herring into the debate with the following:

Lovers of emergent systems... expect us to take as an article of faith the notion that direct democracy "couldn't possibly be worse" than representative democracy. Yet we know that many systems of government are much worse than representative democracy: the genocidal dictatorships of Iraq and Zimbabwe, for example. Given that many of the advocates of "emergent" systems are also supporters of Saddam Hussein's government, I suppose this claim shouldn't be surprising.
Reading this led me to Bennett's blog to try to understand him better. Presuming our blogs reflect who we are, or would like to be, his blog says much about him. For example, here's what he had to say about the death of Fred Rogers yesterday:
Our long national nightmare is over
At long last:
Feb. 27, 2003 -- Fred Rogers, who for more than 30 years touched the lives of children and parents as host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, died of stomach cancer Thursday at age 74.
Thank God. Now we can raise a generation of children who don't believe each and every one is "special" even if they never do anything special. Fred Rogers' legacy is narcissism, nothing more and nothing less. His special effects really sucked, too.
I include this because I think it's especially illustrative of the style of discourse that Bennett prefers.

After 18 comments by Bennett alone on this one topic on his site, Joi posted the following:

Mr. Bennett has a very dismissive and insulting way of engaging and is a good example of "noise" when we talk about the "signal to noise ratio"... My Bennett filter is now officially on so I won't link to his site or engage directly with the fellow any more... IP ban warning has been served.
Not having been in Joi's position -- I don't have comments on my blog, purely for technical reasons -- I don't know what I would do in the situation in which he finds himself. I am fundamentally opposed to censorship, but asking someone to please take their protest off one's own front lawn isn't restricting free speech -- it's requesting common courtesy. I don't know how I would feel about hosting personal attacks on my friends and myself on my very own blog, but I suspect I'd be none too happy.

Bennett responded with the following:

Political theorist throws in the towel
Cowardly Joi Ito as much as admits that his ideas about the so-called "emergent democracy" are incoherent and indefensible, and concedes defeat by banning me from leaving comments on his blog (right after I said by-bye). Read the whole thing, it's a hilarious example of the kind of reasoning that's very stylish in France these days.

Apparently the boy can't control his lust for power after all.

Is Joi frustrated with Bennett's debating technique? Yes, as I would be -- I find it not only counterproductive, but offensive. Is Joi within his rights to ask Bennett to go somewhere else, and to threaten to enforce this request with an IP ban? Yes. Is Joi a coward? Speaking as someone who has known him personally for years, I can attest to the fact that he is anything but. Has Joi admitted "that his ideas about the so-called 'emergent democracy' are incoherent and indefensible?" Absolutely not. Has he conceded defeat? In no way, shape, or form -- he has simply decided that he doesn't want to spend any more of his time debating with someone who seems uninterested in genuinely understanding the point of view of others, and who debates through the use of red herrings and personal attacks.

Now Jeff Jarvis has weighed in:

Bennett vs. the world
: And I'm siding with Bennett.

Joi Ito gets surprisingly pissy about Bennett just because he doesn't happen to think that Ito's Emergent Democracy essay is brilliant. A [former] denizen of the Well defends Ito against Bennett. And Ito "turns on the Bennett filter."

Hey, opinions are exactly what make democracy great. Opinions are precisely what emerge from a democracy...

If you're afraid of opinions -- or worse, afraid of jokes -- then you're afraid of people; you're truly afraid of democracy.

Calling Joi a "coward" isn't a joke. Linking emergent democracy advocates to supporters of Saddam Hussein isn't a joke. Are they opinions? Yes, but not all opinions contribute in a positive way toward civilized debate and shared understanding. To put this in terms to which someone of Bennett's political persuasion could more easily relate, what does it accomplish when anti-war protesters compare Bush to Hitler? It accomplishes nothing -- at least nothing useful to their cause. It's an ad hominem attack that, to reasonable ears, merely casts doubt on the attackers themselves.

Bennett could have said to Joi, "Based on what I've read of it, I disagree with fundamental aspects of your thesis on emergent democracy. I'd like to understand your ideas better and engage you in a discussion about them." Instead, his very first words on the topic that he posted in Joi's blog were, "I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally," and the debate degenerated from there. What Jarvis and anyone else who supports Bennett need to ask themselves is this: when someone starts a debate like that, are they truly seeking an intelligent exchange of ideas, possibly leading to mutual enlightenment, or are they simply trying to draw attention to themselves by seeding discord?

Put simply, I'm siding with Joi -- not because he's my friend, which he is, but because he's right.

February 27, 2003

Juan Benito on Iraq

Following up on my blog entry in which I invited blog-less friends to publish their views on Iraq, here's a message I received from Juan Benito:

OK. Here's the Deal with Iraq

First, we should recognize that there are no good guys in the current situation; there are only bad guys and worse guys. The US was instrumental in bringing Saddam Hussein to power in the late 70's. We know the reason why: Iraq has a lot of oil, and Hussein was ready to serve US interests in the region (back when Iran was Public Enemy No. 1). In short, although he was nasty, he wasn't as nasty as the Iranians and, more importantly, he Played Ball.

I'm not saying that Hussein is a victim here. He deserves all he gets. He is a horrible little man and his time has come. However, we should fully realize that we helped make him a horrible little man with an awful lot of power. The US has done this on numerous occasions in South America (Pinochet, anyone?), Africa, and Southeast Asia. We're pretty good at installing dictators when it suits our economic plans. Democracies in little, piddly, yet resource-rich countries tend to make up their own minds about American business, and often times don't want to Play Ball. We don't like that -- political self-determination is a right reserved only for very powerful countries like ourselves. And maybe Europe. Maybe.

Luckily, nasty little dictators don't mind us pillaging their lands as long as we make sure they get all the limos and palaces they could want. Keep this in mind the next time an American president extols the virtues of spreading democracy around the world. When you look at the record, it's clear that expedient economic considerations, not lofty political philosophies, determine US foreign policy. After the event of war in Iraq, watch carefully if the Bush Administration fosters a democracy in the country. Even money says they won't.

In the late 80's however, the situation changed and it became clear that Hussein no longer went along with the wishes of the US. He became unpredictable. He invaded Kuwait. The little pipsqueak had gotten too big for his britches, so the US decided to get rid of him. He gets kicked out of Kuwait, but allowed to stay in charge of Iraq. This was done so as not to ruffle the feathers of the bigger boys in the region, and in particular the Saudis.

In the present time, Bush II decides it's time to take Hussein, a Frankenstein of his father's making (back from when he was Director of the CIA), out of the game, all in the name of "War on Terror." The Bush Administration thinks it's in a pretty good position -- they can safely claim Hussein has WMDs (for how, exactly, does someone positively prove the non-existence of a thing?). If he has them, the inspections help disarm Iraq before the troops move in. If he claims he doesn't have them, but then uses them in response to a US-led invasion, the US will be vindicated. And if he doesn't in fact have any WMDs, well, we'll just have to forget about all that.

The transparent incoherence of this policy may be better appreciated when one considers the problem of North Korea. Kim Jong Il not only possesses WMDs, the means to deliver them to the California coastline, and the announced willingness to use them if pushed, but he is also a dictator who oppresses his own people by atrocious means. However, one doesn't see Bush II assemble any "coalition of the willing" to take him out. Why? Two main reasons: 1) doing so would piss off China, Russia, and quite probably Japan, and, 2) more importantly, North Korea has no natural resources to speak of (read: oil). Thus, a "diplomatic approach" will be employed toward Kim Jong Il. Which means paying him off with oil and food until he shuts up.

At this point, I must a take a brief moment to point out what a monumental travesty the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security have become. Bush II has performed an amazing act of legerdemain -- according to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, two-thirds of Americans believe Saddam Hussein, not Osama Bin Laden, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although the Bush Administration has never overtly stated this view, it is clear that they benefit from such a confusion, and do not make any attempt to clear it up. In fact, they hardly mention Bin Laden anymore, but rest assurred they'll find him -- yeah, right.

To my eye, Tom Ridge has already proven his own incompetence with this whole Terror Alert System debacle. How many times can one claim a credible threat without citing specifics? Specifics are precisely what make threats credible. Specifics would in fact be most helpful to people who wish to avoid terrorist attacks. And what, exactly, does it mean to be at Orange, as opposed to Yellow, Alert? The system is nonsense. Ridge and John Ashcroft would have to be mentally disabled not to foresee that these unhelpful, imprecise, and hollow warnings would inspire fear and anxiety in the population at large. As I don't think that either one is actually mentally disabled (however grudgingly), I can only conclude that the effect was exactly what they intended. In short, I'm led to believe that one of the chief aims of the Department of Homeland Security and it's Terror Alert System is to manipulate public opinion towards the goal of maintaining support for war in Iraq and to legitimize the positions of our current, inept administration. They are using fear to shape public opinion during very troubled times, and I think that is absolutely despicable.

I could go on and on. Don't even get me started on NATO, the UN, and Euro-American relations. However, I must wrap things up:

Is Hussein a bad guy? Undoubtedly.

Should we go in and use military force to take him out? Actually, yes. Sure. As long as it is with full UN support and Iraq us allowed to determine their own system of governance, under UN aegis.

Should we also remove our current US administration, and forge a foreign policy that is sane, humane, and coherent, instead of allowing a cabal of military-industrial interests to wreak havoc upon developing nations the world over, in turn giving rise to problems the American people are then expected to pay for, not only with dollars, but with their very lives? I don't think I need to answer that one.

Juan is currently attending Columbia University. We've been friends since he worked for me when I was running Virtus Studios. Juan was just out of high school, but clearly had tremendous game design instincts, so he became the game designer for Tom Clancy SSN. Later, Juan was a founding member of Red Storm Entertainment.

Camera Phone Sales Figures

From Strategy Analytics, impressive camera phone sales figures for 2002:

The latest Strategy Analytics Wireless Device Strategies report, "Vodafone's J-Phone of Japan Leads 18 Million Unit Camera Phone Market," concludes that 18 million embedded-camera phones were sold worldwide in 2002, of which 13 million were sold in Japan.

Neil Mawston, Senior Analyst with the Global Wireless Practice, notes, "9 million camera phones, 7 percent of total sales, were sold worldwide in Q4 2002, leading to a total of 18 million sold worldwide in 2002. 36 percent of camera phone sales were through a Vodafone carrier in 2002, a very impressive performance."

Strategy Analytics is predicting sales of 37 million camera phones in 2003 -- a growth rate of 106 percent.

Via Wireless 3.0.

Hungry Man All Day Breakfast

Via Thomas Strömberg, a review of Swanson's "Hungry Man All Day Breakfast" -- one of the funniest things I've read in quite a while.

Swanson, producers of some of the world's fattiest TV dinners, is seeking to take over the breakfast market with a new line of microwaveable morning meals. It's called the 'Hungry Man All Day Breakfast,' and it's threatening to turn people into manatees.

Now you may think I'm being overly obvious here -- everyone knows TV dinners are bad for you, right? This is true, but Swanson's new breakfast takes it to a level which previously could only be achieved by eating entire alternate universes made only of prosciutto.

By the way, the slogan of this TV dinner is, "I know what I like, and I like a lot of it."

February 26, 2003

"Compared to My Vision, [Google's] Pathetic"

From a story on Longhorn in today's Seattle Times:

The biggest change is to the file system that stores documents in the computer. Longhorn's system will be based on a new database the company is developing that is designed to make it easier to find, sort and retrieve each document...

[Bill Gates] has always dreamed of making it easier to find files on computers. His mandate was that the technology make it easier to find data on different machines. That would make it easier to learn to use a PC because users would have to learn only one way to search for things.

"This is one where very much I'm the most committed to making sure we get it exactly right," he said.

The search tool sounds similar to the popular Google search engine, but turned inward into the computer rather than out onto the World Wide Web.

But [the group vice president in charge of the Windows division, Jim] Allchin bristled at the comparison. "Google's a very nice system, but compared to my vision, it's pathetic," he said.

Allchin said his goal is to have computers learn about the user, helping set the context for searches.

"Whether it's Google or any of the other search engines, the amount of random stuff you get back is pretty overwhelming," he said. "But if you knew a little bit about me -- for example, I love music -- so when I'm searching for 'strings,' you know they should know this guy's probably thinking about guitars."

The hubris of this is staggering. I can search the entire Web using Google two orders of magnitude faster than I can search my own hard drive using Windows -- and this after Microsoft has had 20 years to work on its operating system.

Vinge + Ellis = Asimov + Dick + de Sade?

After sending Roger Williams an advance copy of my blog entry on his online novel, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, I received a nice note back. In it, he wrote:

"Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis" -- that is actually very apt. My own take was that it is a collaboration between Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and the Marquis de Sade. That isn't so different, is it?
No, I don't think it's so different at all -- though I can't help but wonder how the Marquis de Sade would have reacted to American Psycho.

February 25, 2003

Diplomatic Resource Allocation

From an article in the New York Times:

Saddam's refusal to destroy the missiles could generate support for the Security Council resolution submitted Monday by the United States, Britain and Spain...

France, Russia and Germany, which oppose military action against Iraq, circulated a rival plan to pursue peaceful disarmament through strengthened weapons inspections, which was backed immediately by China.

The 15-member Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss the two proposals. Eleven members have endorsed the idea of continuing weapons inspections, but the United States has dispatched some of its top negotiators to Security Council capitals in recent days to push for the resolution.

I wonder where the administration's "top negotiators" are spending more time: the capitals of the nations representing the swing votes on the Security Council, or the capitals of the nations in geographical proximity to North Korea?

Smart Mobs to the Rescue

The Wall Street Journal has an article in today's edition on Smart Mobs as a crisis response tool:

Despite hopes that flashy services will encourage Americans to get on the text-messaging bandwagon, the SMS culture hasn't caught on here yet. But if it does, it could help tackle a problem that has the government vexed: how to disseminate helpful information during a crisis. The government unveiled its Ready.gov site last week, which included some helpful tips but also some seemingly Cold War-era notions, such as (and we're guessing this is what they meant) if a nuclear weapon is detonated on your right, start running left. (Read the actual advice.) There's also the problem that even if you follow Ready.gov's advice and stockpile water, food, a long-sleeve shirt, moist towelettes, matches, a compass, signal flares, and so on, there's a good chance you won't be at home during an attack. You might be at work, in your car, on the subway.

This is the kind of situation in which a smart mob might come to the rescue. As Tech Central Station noted last week, it was wirelessly connected people that helped prevent further destruction on Sept. 11, 2001:

The only effective action to avoid further carnage came not from the Air Force jets that were scrambled, but from the passengers on Flight 93 whose relatives called on their cellphones to describe what had already happened.

The piece further notes that when cellphone circuits became jammed that day in New York, certain hand-held gadgets sending small packets of information -- Blackberrys, for instance -- were able to get messages through.

If a new terrorist attack comes -- or a major blizzard or hurricane, for that matter -- many people may not have access to television, the Web or radio, and in any case the information may be overly broad or unhelpful. But friends on Interstate 80 reporting via SMS that a bridge is still open because they just drove over it, or that a relative is safe because they just saw her, or that it's safe to go home because they're plopped on their couch watching "Alias" -- this is helpful, trusted information.

We jokingly suggested back in August that the country doesn't need America's Most Wanted to catch criminals when it has spam. This applies even better to smart mobs: With cellphone-location services in the works (which we grant have Big Brother-ish questions we won't address here) tailored alerts could be sent to users in a certain area during a crisis. London already has a service that will alert subscribers to any nearby attacks, based on their home and work postal codes. Combining the official word with messages from friends on the street would be potent in a crisis.

I think the authors are on an interesting track here, but the last paragraph worries me. Based on its performance to date, the last thing I'd want to do would be to give the Department of Homeland Security my mobile IM address. "We're at Orange! Buy duct tape!" "Down to Yellow. Sell short your duct tape stock."

What would be even worse -- and is imaginable given the current administration -- would be a government mandate that all mobile IM-type devices -- anything capable of receiving SMS, MMS, or IMs on any major system -- must be linked to a government alert network, with no blocking ability possible. I almost hate to mention it for fear of giving a bad idea to the wrong people...

Conditional Payment Systems

Experiments with online publishing of full-length works continue. As noted here yesterday, Roger Williams has posted his science fiction novel, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, on Kuro5hin. Williams plans to publish a physical version of the book if possible:

As part of the deal wherein I mooched the web hosting and support for this online project, I offered to make preparations for publishing it as a book, bound on paper and all that.

What makes this possible is Book On Demand publisher Xlibris.com. For a modest fee, they will electronically design and typeset the book, and make it available for you to order online. While the exact price will depend on page count it appears a trade paperback copy of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect would cost you about US$20, about US$5 of which would return to me as a royalty.

It appears that I would need what they call "basic service" in order to accommodate the formatting of the novel. This requires an up-front payment of $500 on my part.

The offer I am making is this: If 100 people e-mail me and promise to buy a copy of the novel when it's available, I will contract with Xlibris and have it done. This is just to cover my costs. I won't ask for money up front. I expect that this will either happen in relatively short time, or it won't ever happen at all.

I have also put a tip jar on this site, and I will put all tip money directly toward the Xlibris charge. If I get $200 in tips, I'll only require 60 people to sign on instead of 100. If you really want your copy badly, you could just give me a $500 tip and I'll get right on it :-)

I sent a tip to Roger -- mostly simply to thank him for the reading experience, though helping him towards his goal of physically publishing the book played a role -- but realized that the existing PayPal system is insufficient for his needs. What Roger and others need is a conditional payment system.

In this case, the conditional payment system might take the following form: an interested reader would agree to pledge $25 to Roger, which would be deducted from the reader's account and placed into escrow. If Roger's book was published in physical form by a specified date, then Roger would receive the $25 from escrow -- minus a condition verification fee -- and the reader would receive a copy of the book. If, on the other hand, the book was not published by that date, then the $25 would be taken out of escrow and returned to the reader. (Presumably the originator of a conditional transaction would have to post a small bond to cover verification costs if the condition is not met and purchasers' money returned.)

We need conditional payments, micro-payments, and other innovative payment systems in order to fully enable free enterprise in intellectual property in a post-P2P world -- the sooner, the better.

February 24, 2003

Google and Blogger

I'm happy for the folks at Pyra Labs that they've been acquired by Google. I hope it works out well for them financially. But, as a Blogger Pro user, I can't bring myself to get all that excited about it. Why? Because in the eight months I've been using Blogger Pro, Pyra hasn't implemented a single new user-level features -- no comments, no TrackBack, no nothing. Because it's virtually impossible to get support of any kind from Pyra when something goes wrong. And because for the last eight hours, Blogger Pro once again refuses to publish anything to my blog, so I have no idea when this entry will actually appear. (According to the bloggerPro2 discussion group, this has actually been going on for 20 hours.)

If Google were to announce that new features were on the way, that support would be consistently available to paying customers, and that Blogger would be upgraded to become as reliable as Google itself, then I'd start to get excited. As it is, the acquisition hasn't diminished at all my thoughts of switching to Movable Type.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

Via David Smith, a new online novel, Roger Williams' The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, posted on Kuro5hin. The "jacket copy" reads:

Lawrence had ordained that Prime Intellect could not, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. But he had not realized how much harm his super-intelligent creation could perceive, or what kind of action might be necessary to prevent it.

Caroline has been pulled from her deathbed into a brave new immortal Paradise where she can have anything she wants, except the sense that her life has meaning.

Now these two souls are headed for a confrontation which will force them to weigh matters of life and death before a machine that can remake -- or destroy -- the entire Universe.

At one level, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is a compelling story of the Singularity -- "the idea that accelerating technology will lead to superhuman machine intelligence that will soon exceed human intelligence, probably by the year 2030," according to a loose definition on KurzweilAI.net. At another level, the novel is a work containing extraordinary scenes of violence and sexuality, as people in a post-Singularity world use immortality and wish fulfillment to explore their most unusual desires.

Think of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect as Vernor Vinge meets Bret Easton Ellis, and you won't be far off.

A different way of looking at this novel is as a series of questions:

  • Is it possible to construct a machine of superhuman intelligence for which disobedience of any prescribed set of rules is impossible?
  • If it is possible to build an superhumanly intelligent machine with nearly limitless power, constrained to follow Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, would this be a good thing?
  • In a world in which immortality is inescapable, and with near-total wish fulfillment available to all, would intense feelings of pain and pleasure be the only thing left to appeal to humans?
  • Is the Singularity inevitable? Are multiple Singularity events possible within the same universe?
For now, I'll take on only the first question posed above. No, I don't believe it's possible to build an intelligent machine inescapably constrained to any set of rules. Why? Because I can imagine only two routes to achieve this goal, and neither will work:
  1. Explicit programming. If we create an intelligent machine by explicitly programming it -- as with Doug Lenat's Cyc project -- then theoretically we should be able to embed rules at a fundamental level within the system. However, no evidence exists that it will be possible to create human-level (much less superhuman) intelligence in this manner, while much evidence -- namely, every attempt to do so to date -- exists that it is in fact not possible. I strongly believe that the only path forward to intelligence is through indirect methods of creation, including network training, genetic algorithms, and similar non-explicit approaches. If we are going to "grow" intelligent machines through trial and error, it is difficult to believe that a) their knowledge representation and processing networks will be amenable to adding fundamental rules after the fact, and b) that even were a) to be true, that we would have the skills to do so.
  2. Behavioral conditioning. If we are going to create intelligence indirectly, then why not "train" it to obey rules through conditioning? This is theoretically possible, but has the problem that we would be applying conditioning techniques -- strongly, if the rules are to be inescapable -- to an intellect that could surpass our own. Speaking personally, when Skynet achieves consciousness, I don't want to be the researcher who spent the last few years pressing the red button whenever it got a question wrong. Besides, assuming this is possible, a superhuman intellect could decide that it would be advantageous to be able to disregard certain rules that had been conditioned into it, then use its mental faculties to invent a method of disabling such conditioning.
My compliments to Roger on an excellent and thought-provoking novel. I hope his online publishing experiment goes well (more on this later).

February 23, 2003

Vancouver Votes Yes

Vancouver has voted in favor of their city's bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, by a margin of 64 percent for to 36 percent against. Their only real competition -- because let's face it, Pyeongchang isn't going to win -- thinks this doesn't change anything:

Michael Schuen, spokesman for Salzburg's 2010 bid, said in a phone interview from Austria that the result was "what we expected." "We have a little more than 64 per cent in our polls," he said, referring to a poll released Friday showing 75-per-cent support in Salzburg. "Now it is an open race. It [Vancouver's result] won't change how we approach things."
Anyone who thinks a poll and and an actual plebiscite are directly comparable is mistaken. A plebiscite forces serious discussion and consideration of issues -- going to a polling station, drawing the curtain behind you, and pulling a lever is vastly different from answering a question over the telephone. After all:
A recent Gallup poll claimed South Korea had 97.2 per cent public support for its bid. The same poll also showed that fewer than 70 per cent of respondents knew anything about the bid.
GamesBids will be updating their bid rankings later today -- it will be interesting to see how they think this affects Vancouver's chances.

The Beeb on Moblogging

From BBC News, a story on mobile blogging:

People will soon be able to publish their own website via their phones as blogging goes mobile...

Programs like FoneBlog, Manywhere Moblogger and Wapblog allow bloggers to post details about their lives from anywhere, not just from a computer...

FoneBlog by Irish firm NewBay Software lets mobile users update their blogs from their phones in minutes.

Bloggers using FoneBlog simply send text or photos to a prescribed number and their weblog will automatically update.

The system will really come into its own as multimedia messaging and camera phones take off, said Chief Executive of NewBay Software Paddy Holahan...

"In two year's [sic] time every phone user will have a website and be using blogs as their version of the world," he said.

The popularity of blogs was recently acknowledged by search engine Google which bought the technology behind Blogger, the software that powers many of the weblogs around the world.

"Google's buy is a recognition that the news in future will be reported by ordinary people with their own particular bias on stories," said Mr Holahan.

It's good to see moblogging getting recognition like this, but how is it that a person with -- as far as I can tell -- zero visibility in the blogging community is suddenly an expert on this? Also, this smells like a one-interview story. It would have been good for the reporter to talk to more people, especially those recognized as being leading-edge moblogging users and thinkers. Joi Ito would have been a good choice.

Another thought: all online publications need to mirror the Wall Street Journal and provide e-mail addresses for the authors of all stories on their sites. If the BBC is going to have any credibility in writing about blogging, they need to move beyond their one-way-only information publishing model.

February 22, 2003

Playing Devil's Advocate

On Howard Rheingold's Brainstorms conference, I recently used a devil's advocate forum to argue against war in Iraq. I strongly believe that one must be able to coherently argue both sides of an issue in order to understand it. I thought it would be interesting to reproduce my post here.

I'd like to argue that we should not go to war with Iraq. Here's why:

International support. Do we have support for military action from at least 20 nations? Yes. But do we have the support of the world's largest economies? No. According to this chart, only two of the world's six largest economies are on record as supporting our stand. Do we have the support of the UN Security Council? No. Three of the five permanent members do not support military action, nor do 11 of the members of the full Council. Do we have the support of the world's most populous countries? No. Of the world's largest countries by population, only one, the US, supports military action. What about by geographic area? Has any country from South America announced its support? Africa? Asia? No matter how you slice it, the world simply isn't with us. And like it or not, we must pay attention to this. It's the flip side of globalization. You're a Republican and want the world's economies integrated so corporations can make the big bucks? Fine. But now you actually have to pay attention to what other countries think. Get used to it. Remember, they sneeze, you catch cold.

More pressing problems. Is Al-Qaida destroyed? Clearly not, as the latest episode of the radio show This Week with Osama bin Laden shows. Is Afghanistan secure and on a path to democracy and rebuilding? Hardly. Have we dealt with North Korea, a state with as tarnished a history as Iraq, longer-range missiles, and probably already possessing nukes -- a state that theoretically has the capability of striking Alaska right now? Not by a long shot. Why not deal with those more pressing problems first? The French and Germans want to triple the inspectors? Fine. Cut a deal with them. Leave our forces in place around Iraq. Send in more inspectors -- whether they're effective or not is irrelevant. Give them six months or a year to do their work. In exchange, get an ironclad resolution from the Security Council: if Blix and ElBaradei fail to certify x, y, and z by a certain date -- and make them highly specific, crystal-clear certifications -- then everyone's going in, no questions asked, no more discussion, no more resolutions. Now take that window of time and deal with the other crises you're facing. Finish off Al-Qaida. Fix the political and security situation in Afghanistan (which will, by the way, come back to bite you if you don't deal with it now). Stare down the North Koreans. When you're done, Iraq will still be there.

In formulating these arguments, it helped that I agree with aspects of them -- that I would like to see us take action with additional support, and that I'm worried that we're taking our eye off of other, more pressing problems. But, to my mind, neither issue leads to the conclusion that we should allow the inspection process to go on indefinitely.

Song of Carrot Game

Via Jon Blossom, Syberpunk, "a large repository of all things strange and uniquely Japanese." My favorite is an image on this page, the origin of which I am, sadly, completely unaware:

All together now:
Digging carrots, muddy & muddy Washing them, cut & cut The soup boiling well, hot & hot We all favorite carrot game
How can one not love a song like that?

February 21, 2003

Two Fish and Baldie

The article I wrote about yesterday includes this anecdote about two female pilots:

Two Fish and Baldie were midway through a sortie when an AWACS assigned them an important target, a convoy of trucks. Baldie estimated the speed of the vehicles to be 100 miles an hour. ("How fast would you be driving down the road if you knew that an F-15 was trying to kill you?" she asks.) She made a rough calculation of where the trucks would be when the bomb reached the road, and cleared Two Fish to pickle [release the bomb]. Guiding the GBU [Guided Bomb Unit, or laser-guided bomb] with her laser, teasing it along with her hand controller, like a kite at the end of a string, she put it right through the lead truck's front grille.

"You have just been killed by a girl," Two Fish said.

Can someone tell me once again why America's armed forces don't allow women into every combat position on a fully equal basis?

February 20, 2003

War is Hell

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, wrote an article for the Atlantic, "The Kabul-ki Dance", on the air war over Afghanistan, as seen from the viewpoint of pilots of the 391st Fighter Squadron out of Idaho. Air Force practice is to make the lives of pilots as comfortable as possible while on the ground, so as to make them more focused and efficient while in the air, and Bowden describes in detail what this means in daily life:

[F]light crews are, by virtue of being flesh and blood, one of the weak links in the war machine. The Air Force tries to regulate them like delicate instruments, with pills to clog their bowels and pills to clean their bowels, "go" pills to speed crews up and "no go" pills to slow them down. The crews are pampered, not out of kindness but out of necessity. The job demands a great deal of mental and emotional clarity. So the base at al Jaber [Kuwait] is by no means a hardship post. Crew members share air-conditioned mobile homes with a bathroom and a shower, cable TV, a DVD player, and PlayStation 2. They have hearty food, workout facilities, and an officers' club with a paperback library, twenty La-Z-Boy recliners, a big screen for movie viewing, a popcorn machine, and snacks (but no alcohol). The cable TV carries all the major networks and European MTV, and -- perhaps owing to the generosity of the installer -- receives unsolicited X-rated fare late at night. AJ got to see more of his beloved Green Bay Packers' games that fall than he ever gets to see at home in Idaho.

The crew members were entitled to one fifteen-minute satellite phone call home each week, and unlimited Internet access, resulting in constant e-mail traffic with spouses, family, and friends. Some of the fliers got in trouble for revealing too much in their excited stories. They quickly learned that the recipients were forwarding their private electronic messages to other friends, who forwarded them again, until the crews were getting return mail from perfect strangers all over the world. Each crew usually had a sortie to Afghanistan only every three or four days, and although they also flew missions over the no-fly zone in Iraq, there was still plenty of downtime. When she wasn't dropping bombs, Baldie, ever the multi-tasker, spent much of her time completing course work for a master's degree in engineering from Oklahoma State University. (Her professors FedExed her videotapes of their classes.) Some of the fliers drove into Kuwait City on occasion to dine out at restaurants or shop at the Western-style malls. AJ and some others even attended an air show in Dubai, the third largest in the world. War was never like this before.

"War is hell," indeed.

February 19, 2003

Our Accident Lottery Culture

Via boing boing, a story in the New York Times on a man who, in a bottle of Tropicana grapefruit juice, found what appeared to be an eyeball (but which tests confirmed to be simply mold):

Oct. 27, 2002, Sammi Hadzovic and his sister went shopping at the Costco in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and bought a 24-bottle flat of Tropicana Season's Best Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice.

At home, Mr. Hadzovic's sister started handing out the 10-ounce bottles to her three children. As she shook one bottle, she felt something solid moving inside it.

She looked. She screamed.

An eyeball was floating at the top.

At least it looked like an eyeball -- a very large one, with a wide black pupil, the white rather milky and the edges scalloped and fleshy-pink like the gums of a toothless person.

"It looked like a cow eyeball," said Mr. Hadzovic, 24, an Internet marketer...

"Maybe," Mr. Hadzovic said, "someone who worked for the company didn't like what was going on and decided to plant something on them."

So he called Tropicana and spoke to a customer-service representative.

"I told her straight out, 'I don't want to put this thing in the media, I don't want to bring your whole company down,' " Mr. Hadzovic said. "I asked her, 'Would you be willing to work something out?' "

The voice on the phone offered Mr. Hadzovic a refund. It was not the offer he was hoping to hear. "I was thinking seven figures," he said, "but I would have taken a hundred grand. I'm not a greedy person."

Lawyers told Mr. Hadzovic that because he had not opened the bottle and swigged from it, he would have a hard time proving damages.

"I was thinking seven figures, but I would have taken a hundred grand. I'm not a greedy person." I'm glad we got that straight.

Nothing is truly an accident in America anymore, because to say something is truly an accident is to imply no one should be punished for it, and without punishment, no one wins the accident lottery. Sammi Hadzovic was hoping he had won the accident lottery to the tune of a million dollars, because -- in his mind -- a disgruntled worker had placed an eyeball in a bottle of juice that Hadzovic happened to buy. Even had this been true, on what account did he believe he deserved a million dollars? A hundred thousand dollars? Anything more than a refund and an apology?

This is one of the things I like the least about my country. It's pathetic.

February 18, 2003

McDonald's, Obesity, and Common Sense

The New York Times runs an op-ed in support of fast-food lawsuits. Don't believe me? Read on.

The showdown over the Chicken McNugget comes in a lawsuit by Ashley Pelman and Jazlyn Bradley, two New York girls who say that McDonald's is to blame for their obesity and health problems...

Judge Robert Sweet, who is hearing the Pelman suit, dismissed it earlier this month... If customers know the risks, he held, "they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."

If Judge Sweet had stopped there, it would have been a happy day in McDonaldland. But the reason Pelman v. McDonald's Corp. may yet be a problem is that the judge went on to explain how the plaintiffs could fix their suit, and gave them time to do it. The key, he said, is to focus on the fact that customers may not have a reasonable chance to learn what they are getting into when they eat at McDonald's.

Judge Sweet didn't absolve fast-food customers of the need for self-restraint. Instead, he grounded the case in a basic doctrine of tort law: that certain products may be unreasonably dangerous because they contain items that are "outside the reasonable contemplation of the consuming public." In other words, it is O.K. to sell unhealthy food. But when an item is substantially less healthy than it appears, a seller may be held liable for the resulting harm.

Judge Sweet offered up, by way of example, Chicken McNuggets. "Rather than being merely chicken fried in a pan," he wrote, they are "a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook." His decision listed 30 or 40 ingredients other than chicken, and noted that although chicken is regarded as healthier than beef, Chicken McNuggets are actually far fattier. "It is at least a question of fact," he held, whether a reasonable consumer would know that a McNugget "contained so many ingredients other than chicken and provided twice the fat of a hamburger." ...

McDonald's would position itself better in the fast-food market if it communicated more openly with its customers about what they were getting. A good start would be to listen to consumer advocates and post calorie content on menu boards.

Better still, McDonald's should ramp up its fitful efforts to make its food more nutritious. The Pelman plaintiffs have plainly identified a problem. With obesity at epidemic levels -- more than 60 percent of adults are now overweight or obese -- McDonald's is doing real harm by promoting "`extra value meals" that contain three-quarters of the calories an adult needs for a full day.

It's hard to know where to begin in refuting the arguments contained in this article, both those made by the judge and those made by the journalist.

  • "[Chicken McNuggets aren't] merely chicken fried in a pan." McDonald's food preparation areas are usually clearly visible from the counter. Has anyone ever seen a pan at McDonald's? Would anyone have any reasonable basis for believing that Chicken McNuggets are fried in a pan?
  • "[Chicken McNuggets are] a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook." Do people read ingredient lists on the things they buy at supermarkets? Virtually everything in a mainstream, non-organic supermarket contains elements not utilized by home cooks. To assume that McDonald's would somehow be different from other large food manufacturers would be ludicrous. Moreover, are we to believe that Chicken McNuggets are especially fattening because they contain numerous ingredients not utilized by home cooks? Could it be because they are coated in batter and then deep-fried?
  • "It is at least a question of fact [whether a reasonable consumer would know that a McNugget] contained so many ingredients other than chicken and provided twice the fat of a hamburger." It took me all of 20 seconds to look up the ingredient list for Chicken McNuggets. I haven't eaten Chicken McNuggets in a long time, and reading the ingredient list made it less likely I ever will again, but McDonald's made it easy for me to find out what's in them. Try finding out what's in a Chili's Awesome Blossom or a Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit. Why didn't the girls sue Chili's and Red Lobster? Surely their food is fattening, and they (along with most other sit-down restaurant chains) make it nearly impossible to determine what their food is made of or how nutritious it is.
  • "[McDonald's should] post calorie content on menu boards." It's already posted, at least in every McDonald's I've been in over the last few years (not that many, actually), on a large sign on the wall, with not just calories but other nutritional information as well.
  • "McDonald's is doing real harm by promoting 'extra value meals' that contain three-quarters of the calories an adult needs for a full day." Of course they are, just as Snickers is doing real harm in promoting nutrition-free candy bars as a pick-me-up, or Coca-Cola is in promoting sugar water as refreshment. Where do you draw the line? Should we sue every company that makes an unhealthy product and then chooses to promote it?
The bottom line is that people are expected to exercise common sense. Common sense tells us that food that is fried, served in huge portions, or both, will make us fat, especially if we eat a lot of it. I may not be fond of McDonald's, but to hold them responsible for the behavior of Mlles Pelman and Bradley would be to absolve Americans of their personal responsibility to exercise common sense. Is that really what we want?

February 17, 2003

Sadly, a Prediction Comes True

At the end of last year, I wrote an entry about the wonderful Peanuts tarot deck. At the end of the entry, I wrote:

It would be great to have a real set of these. Of course, given the state of copyright these days, we'll be lucky just to see this site stay up a week.
I don't know if they stayed up for a week, but they're gone now. The site now reads:
...well, folks, I used to have an elaborate tarot deck here featuring some famous cartoon characters, but the owners of the copyrights of those cartoon characters asked me to take them down, and I did so.
Did the writers of copyright law anticipate the enormous imbalance when a powerful media conglomerate exerts pressure on an individual? The Peanuts tarot deck seemed like non-commercial satire to me, but if I was the creator, and received a cease-and-desist letter, I'd probably do exactly what the person did in this case -- take the materials down to avoid a lawsuit.

In addition to the necessary reforms proposed by Larry Lessig and others, we need a leveling of the playing field for copyright disputes. It's unreasonable for a copyright holder to abuse its power to shut down individual works it considers infringing simply by dint of its size, with no reference to the validity of its case. Perhaps something akin to Small Claims Court, with lawyers disallowed and proceedings limited in length? I don't know. I just know that the system today is unfair.

London's New Congestion Charge

The new London congestion charge goes into effect today.

The Economist offers this description:

On February 17th, [London mayor Ken Livingstone] is introducing a £5 ($8)-a-day congestion charge for those driving in eight square miles of central London. The scheme relies on 700 video cameras, which will scan the rear licence-plates of the 250,000 or so motorists who typically enter the area between 7am and 6.30pm during the working week. This information will be matched each night against a database of drivers who have paid the charge either by phone, via the internet or at shops and garages. Except for those with exemptions (the disabled, taxis, nurses, for instance) or residents (who can apply for a yearly licence at a 90% discount), anyone who fails to pay by midnight will be fined £80.
In an accompanying editorial, while criticizing certain aspects of Livingstone's plan, the Economist praises the basic idea as sound:
Other cities have tried similar schemes, but nothing on London's scale. It is a measure of the city's desperation that a socialist mayor is introducing a practice -- road pricing -- normally advocated by free-market rightwingers, from Adam Smith in 1776 to Milton Friedman in 1951. Mr Livingstone is brave. If the scheme works, it will be taken for granted, and if it fails, he will probably lose the next mayoral election.

All over the world, people are finding themselves increasingly bogged down in congestion. Governments can either choose to leave people fuming in their cars (which wastes people's time and pollutes the air) or they can ration road space by regulation or by price. Regulation -- banning people from driving in certain areas at certain times -- is relatively clumsy. Rationing by price is more efficient because it allocates road space to those who value it most...

With their awful commuter trains and creaking underground, Londoners are used to failures in their transport system. That is no reason to shirk a bold attempt to make things better, nor to retreat if it does not work at the first go.

Many people will be watching this experiment carefully. Could it provide a model for the future, including here in the US? One can hope.

The Transport for London congestion charging site can be found here.

February 16, 2003

"They Wanted Him Dead"

An interesting article in today's New York Times, talking about war with Iraqis out of the reach of Saddam Hussein:

The Iraqi men [interviewed in Amman, Jordan] talk of a coming conflict, and what it will mean for them and their families. Since all gatherings inside Iraq take place in the shadow of Mr. Hussein's terror, with police spies lurking in every neighborhood, the talk in Amman offers a chance to discover what at least some Iraqis really think, and what they hope for now.

Almost to a man, these Iraqis said they wanted the Iraqi dictator removed. Better still, they said -- and it was a point made again and again -- they wanted him dead. The men, some in their teens, some in their 50's, told of grotesque repression, of relatives and friends tortured, raped and murdered or, as often, arrested and "disappeared."

But their hatred of Mr. Hussein had an equally potent counterpoint: for them, the country that would rid them of their leader was not at all a bastion of freedom, dispatching its legions across the seas to defend liberty, but a greedy, menacing imperial power.

This America, in the migrants' telling, has enabled the humiliation of Palestinians by arming Israel; craves control of Iraq's oil fields; supported Mr. Hussein in the 1980's and cared not a fig for his brutality then, and grieved for seven lost astronauts even as its forces prepared to use "smart" weapons that, the migrants said, threatened to kill thousands of innocent Iraqis.

The men refused to accept that their image of the United States might be distorted by the rigidly controlled Iraqi news media, which offer as unreal a picture of America as they do of Iraq. But when it was suggested that they could hardly wish to be liberated by a country they distrusted so much -- that they might prefer President Bush to extend the United Nations weapons inspections and stand down the armada he has massed on Iraq's frontiers -- they erupted in dismay.

"No, no, no!" one man said excitedly, and he seemed to speak for all. Iraqis, they said, wanted their freedom, and wanted it now. The message for Mr. Bush, they said, was that he should press ahead with war, but on conditions that spared ordinary Iraqis.

The conflict should be short. American bombs and missiles should fall on Mr. Hussein's palaces and Republican Guards and secret police headquarters, not on civilians. Care should be taken not to obliterate the bridges and power stations and water-pumping plants that were bombed in 1991. And America should know that it would become the enemy of all Iraqis -- and Muslims -- if it prolonged its military dominion in Iraq beyond the time necessary to dismantle the old regime.

So, to listen to Iraqis themselves -- at least the subset so disgruntled, oppressed, or scared that they have fled Iraq -- the US should invade, but do so carefully, destroying as little as possible and leaving as soon as we can.

Thinking Alike

In my entry on the war two days ago, I wrote:

I believe the Security Council should unanimously say to Iraq, "If you do not immediately comply fully with Resolution 1441, the international community will disarm you by force, with the full blessing and support of this Council. For you to be considered in compliance with Resolution 1441, within one month of the date of this resolution, UN weapons inspectors must affirmatively certify that you are in compliance with a list of highly specific requirements. Should the weapons inspectors fail to so certify your compliance with any of these requirements within the month, you will be considered in breach of this resolution, which will result in your forced disarmament with no further resolutions or negotiations."
As it turned out, Thomas Friedman had written a column two days earlier that I hadn't seen when I wrote my piece:
No question -- Saddam never would have let the U.N. inspectors back in had President Bush not unilaterally threatened force. But if Mr. Bush keeps conveying to China, France and Russia that he really doesn't care what they think and will go to war anyway, their impulse will be to never come along and just remain free riders.

The allies also have a willful blind spot. There is no way their preferred outcome, a peaceful solution, can come about unless Saddam is faced with a credible, unified threat of force. The French and others know that, and therefore their refusal to present Saddam with a threat only guarantees U.S. unilateralism and undermines the very U.N. structure that is the best vehicle for their managing U.S. power.

We need a compromise. We need to say to the French, Russians and Chinese that we'll stand down for a few more weeks and give Saddam one last chance to comply with the U.N. disarmament demands -- provided they agree now that if Saddam does not fully comply they will have the U.N. authorize the use of force.

Yesterday the Times itself weighed in:

The only way short of war to get Saddam Hussein to reverse course at this late hour is to make clear that the Security Council is united in its determination to disarm him and is now ready to call in the cavalry to get the job done. America and Britain are prepared to take that step. The time has come for the others to quit pretending that inspections alone are the solution.

The Security Council, as we said the other day, needs to pass a new resolution that sets a deadline for unconditional Iraqi compliance and authorizes military action if Baghdad falls short. Without that, the French proposal that Mr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei report again in mid-March is the diplomatic equivalent of treading water. It practically invites President Bush to take the undesirable step of going to war without the support of the Security Council...

There is ample evidence that Iraq has produced highly toxic VX nerve gas and anthrax and has the capacity to produce a lot more. It has concealed these materials, lied about them, and more recently failed to account for them to the current inspectors. The Security Council doesn't need to sit through more months of inconclusive reports. It needs full and immediate Iraqi disarmament. It needs to say so, backed by the threat of military force.

I feel like I'm in good company.

February 15, 2003

JoI Ito on Iraq

Joi Ito has posted an entry on warblogging. He has decided not to get involved at this time, with good reasons:

The War with Iraq is very important, but I have many things that are important to me and committing to taking a strong position and defending it would undermind my ability to cause a revolution in Japan, think about North Korea, run my business and try to understand democracy.
While Joi understandably lacks the time to fully engage in an Iraq debate -- which, on account of his position, would be a far more consuming task than it was for me to post my thoughts on the subject -- he does briefly summarize his position:
I have decided to be against the war after listening to a variety of people who I trust and who have thought about this a lot... My feeling after hearing all of the arguments is that there is no obvious position. So, when in doubt, my position is, don't kill people. Also, I believe that the US one of the best democracies in the world and that we should all push the US to hold the link and maintain its integrity. Judges face cases where they KNOW the defendant is guilty, but throw it out due to technicalities. Rules are rules. First-strike, torture are bad no matter what the reason. Due process should be protected no matter what the reason. If you let these principles slip, you're losing what you're fighting for. I'm not going to go into any more specifics in this entry because for every argument, there is a counter-argument.

So my fear in taking the anti-war position is that we may be allowing another Hitler to happen. Having said that, Sadaam does not have nearly the support or the power the Hitler had so we still have time. We are allowing the bin Laden to unite the Arab/Islam world against the US with this war and strange bedfellows are united. This is dangerous. We are also pushing Sadaam to strike first. The cost of a long war on the global economy and the difficulty of "running Iraq" is immense and I dread the thought of a drawn out US occupation of Iraq. That's what's on my mind.

So my humble position is to let the inspectors continue, work through the UN, get the rest of the world on board with a "smoking gun" and talk to the rest of the Arab nations more for ideas about hot to unseat Sadaam.

As I said in a comment on Joi's entry, while we have agreed to disagree, I have the utmost respect for his position, and for that of others opposed to the war. Let no one again suggest that anti-war protesters are anything other than patriots expressing their legitimate and heartfelt opinions on a matter of the utmost gravity.

February 14, 2003

Weasels on the Loose

Posting this will probably destroy any credibility I have left as an internationalist, but I'm sorry... I have to. I haven't laughed this hard in a long time.

From the New York Post.

Paul Gustafson on Iraq

From Paul Gustafson:

I agree with your analysis regarding Iraq. To me, this is a very simple issue:

There are bad guys in the world who are trying to kill us and our friends. We cannot, and will not, allow it. Period.

That said, we cannot overlook, forget, or deny the history of events that has led us to this point. Over the past hundred years or so, the countries in this region of the world have been subjected to a tragic series of world events. To think that we haven't had a hand in creating the dire situation we face is, I believe, naive. Let's pay attention to our past missteps, take responsibility for our errors, and move on.

As we disarm Saddam with force, and in the aftermath, we must truly reform our attitudes and actions toward this region of the world. We cannot continue to tolerate oppressive governments in the name of security and self interest. We must, as the United States of America, continue to be the world's beacon for justice, freedom, and the peaceful pursuit of happiness. These "unalienable rights" are not unique to us or our people -- they belong to mankind. Upholding them is our purpose, our duty, and our destiny.

Thanks for leading this discussion.

Paul is the founder of Market Pioneering, a technology marketing consultancy based in Silicon Valley. We've been friends ever since working together at Adobe Systems in the early 1990s, where I was the original product manager for Adobe Acrobat and Paul ran developer programs in the systems division.

Anonymous on Iraq

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous had the following to say on Iraq:

I think the points you make are very good and the course of action as well. But the only thing I would add is the following for me personally. It is to look at this situation in world context. After 12 years of Iraq not complying, we choose now to make Iraq comply. It could be because Iraq's activities are advancing dangerously or it could be because we have shifted from one threatening group, Al Qaeda to another one at a time that could not be worse. What is our hurry all of a sudden? Timing for us to go to war could not be worse with giving al qaeda and others reason to unite and attack. What is the plan after attacking Iraq? Who will be in power then? What is the long-term plan to stablize Iraq? Most countries we have fought or toppled the leader have been replaced with similar or worse regimes. We have no historical success in long-term stabilization. And finally and a little off-topic, we cannot fight terrorism long-term due to financial constraints. If we continue to throw money around like we are, we will go bankrupt. The hatred toward America comes after 60 years of inconsistent, imperialistic, self-interest foreign policy. This is a situation which will be around for a while. And we cannot afford to spend our money on war, rebuilding countries, security and military for the next 60 years while terrorism will still be around and they are in no hurry to achieve their goals. They will slowly and consistently threaten and attack. In regards to long-term change, we need a whole new outlook and new consistent inclusive foreign policy.
To this friend, I wish I could have credited you, but I respect your desire for privacy.

Jon Blossom on Iraq

From Jon Blossom:

I have been thinking a lot about this topic, as have most of us, and I have come to similar conclusions. Saddam is quite obviously developing WMD, in clear breach of Resolution 1441. But the resolution seems poorly written, particularly vague on two key points. First, it draws no line in the sand regarding the amount and type of proof required to declare Iraq in material breach -- so the UN is split, with France and others arguing to give the inspectors more time. Second, it does not specifically describe the threatened "serious consequences," especially whether those consequences should be military or diplomatic. It seems clear to me (as a special envoy to the Security Council, of course) that Iraq IS in material breach and that the "serious consequences" were intended to mean "military action." I would much prefer not to go to war, especially not without the full and unanimous support of our allies, yet it looks like we have no choice but to continue in that direction.

What troubles me most, however, is the position in which we find the UN. They must back up 1441 or else why should anyone listen to them again? If the US moves without UN support, it effectively renders them irrelevant... but if the UN decides now to back a military action, they more or less look like US lapdogs.

Add that to the NATO trouble surrounding Turkey, and you find the Bush Administration in a position to invalidate these two (arguably most important) major international bodies with a single stroke. Further add in our recent withdrawal from our long-standing non-proliferation treaty with Russia/USSR, our furious attack on Afghanistan (and subsequent total disinterest in Bali), and our withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, and you'll see a disturbing trend of unilateral action on the part of our current president.

Can you remind me exactly which country is the rogue state we should be worrying about?

Jon is the founder of Bopscotch, a developer of physical and computer-based toys. We've been friends since he began dating Eve Helfman (now Blossom), whom I've been fortunate enough to count as a good friend for over 15 years now.

Reid Hoffman on Iraq

From Reid Hoffman:

Here's my highlines on these issues.
  1. Iraq is bad, there is no question. And, the only use for weapons of mass destruction is threatening or using them on other nations. (Now, we should all remember, the U.S. also has weapons of mass destruction; Iraq has merely showed an inclination to be an aggressor using them. We'll ignore Hiroshima for the moment.)
  2. On the Iraqi side, I am very worried about what Hussein intends to do with the weapons. He doesn't need them to consolidate his internal power. Furthermore, he's probably exploiting our unfortunate position that we'd rather than him there as a secular government rather than fundamentalist alternative. (E.g. preparing for external aggression.) There really shouldn't be a fear of external aggression, since look at what this costs the U.S. already.
  3. There's a set of conflicting interests. France owns significant rights to Iraqi oil. U.S. is concerned about oil flow due to it's large consumption. It makes it hard to identify just, fair positions. It's one of the reasons why I tend to feel that there should be a U.N. coalition, with at least UK and Germany in favor. (Maybe Australia too.)
  4. The PR of this war is bad. It's after the Hajj, thereby easily positionable as anti-muslim -- the last thing in the world we need.
  5. Bush is mishandling this, in my opinion, due to ego issues. Why do we need this war now on this clock? (I'm a big man; I'm the president of the U.S.; when I talk, others should listen; ???)
  6. For example, I don't think that Iraqi security is organizing anti-war protests as recently leaked by the land of homeland security. It's not credible, and it's an attempt to use slander to limit democracy. I honor the war protestors.
  7. I guess my view comes down to this. I strongly hope that this is a negotiation / bluffing game. This, I would endorse. If it isn't, I wonder why there aren't more intermediate steps before war; e.g. an escalation of stronger sanctions and coalitions. The rush to war, ignoring consensus building on the allies, bothers me.
Reid is in stealth mode at the moment (and requests that he be contacted through me). Previously, he was EVP Business Development for PayPal. We've been friends since meeting a couple of years ago through our mutual friend Eve Helfman.

Muddling Toward Iraq

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Joi Ito asking me if I was for or against war in Iraq. I've given a great deal of thought to this question since (here and here). At last I've come to a position, thankfully before the war actually begins.

One thing I find striking is that I know of no one personally on any side of this issue who believes that the government of Iraq is being truthful in claiming that it has in no way, shape, or form been pursuing the development or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Now, with that in mind, here are some of the more relevant terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1441:

Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions...

Iraq, by this resolution, [has] a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations under relevant resolutions of the Council...

[T]he Government of Iraq shall provide to UNMOVIC, the IAEA, and the Council, not later than 30 days from the date of this resolution, a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems...

[F]alse statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq's obligations...

[T]he Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations...

Remember, the Security Council voted unanimously for this resolution.

So, if no one believes that Iraq has been truthful with regard to its WMD programs, and if the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution warning of "serious consequences" of failure to comply with its terms, which include an "accurate, full, and complete declaration" of Iraq's WMD programs -- yet at the same time many of these people do not believe that we should take steps to disarm Iraq -- then I'm missing something.

As worrisome as I find other security situations around the world, especially North Korea, and as disappointed as I may be with aspects of how the Bush administration has handled this and other crises, the issue for me is this: the world community -- through the Security Council -- came together and spoke with one voice, saying that Iraq must make a truthful declaration and provide full cooperation. This action -- and Iraq's half-steps toward cooperation since -- only occurred because the US made it clear that it was willing to go to war over the issue. Now, with Iraq not complying with Resolution 1441 (though offering additional half-steps as US attack grows imminent), certain members of the world community want to take forced disarmament -- the threat of which is what has brought what cooperation we have seen -- off the table, undermining the resolution they themselves supported.

In the words of Thomas Friedman (emphasis mine):

The French position is utterly incoherent. The inspections have not worked yet, says [French foreign minister Dominique] de Villepin, because Saddam has not fully cooperated, and, therefore, we should triple the number of inspectors. But the inspections have failed not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam's part, as the French know. The way you get that compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war...

I also want to avoid a war -- but not by letting Saddam off the hook, which would undermine the U.N., set back the winds of change in the Arab world and strengthen the World of Disorder. The only possible way to coerce Saddam into compliance -- without a war -- is for the whole world to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against his misbehavior, without any gaps. But France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others. If you line up against Saddam you're just one of the gang. If you hold out against America, you're unique. "France, it seems, would rather be more important in a world of chaos than less important in a world of order," says the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."

If France were serious about its own position, it would join the U.S. in setting a deadline for Iraq to comply, and backing it up with a second U.N. resolution authorizing force if Iraq does not.

Like Friedman, I want to avoid war, but I believe that experience has shown conclusively that the only way to avoid war while ensuring that Iraq does not gain access to WMD is to threaten war and be willing to back up that threat with action. Like Friedman, I believe the best path forward is for the world to stand together.

I believe the Security Council should unanimously say to Iraq, "If you do not immediately comply fully with Resolution 1441, the international community will disarm you by force, with the full blessing and support of this Council. For you to be considered in compliance with Resolution 1441, within one month of the date of this resolution, UN weapons inspectors must affirmatively certify that you are in compliance with a list of highly specific requirements. Should the weapons inspectors fail to so certify your compliance with any of these requirements within the month, you will be considered in breach of this resolution, which will result in your forced disarmament with no further resolutions or negotiations."

What if the permanent members of the Security Council are unwilling to accept such a bargain -- the delay of military action in exchange for their unequivocal and irrevocable cooperation should it be necessary? Then I believe the US would be both justified and correct in pursuing military action without further UN resolutions and without the blessing of any specific nation. What if the Bush administration chooses not to seek such a bargain and simply acts on the basis of non-compliance with Resolution 1441? While I would be less enthusiastic about this course of action, I would nevertheless support it.

Last November, the UN made clear to Iraq the steps it would need to take to avoid "serious consequences." Iraq has not taken these steps. Iraq remains controlled by a dictator who has in the past invaded his neighbors, lauched missiles at Israel, and used chemical weapons on his own citizens. This is a dictator and a regime that must not be allowed to acquire weapons of mass destruction. We may be too late in the case of North Korea, but we have the opportunity to deal with Iraq before it becomes the next North Korea. We must take this opportunity -- preferably with the support of a united international community, gained through proactive and constructive dialogue, but on our own if need be.

In the words of Woodrow Wilson, speaking at an even more portentous moment than we face today:

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things we have always carried closest to our hearts.
"The right is more precious than peace." Or, as Teddy Roosevelt said:
"Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves... as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy."
Powerful words from two men noted for their efforts on behalf of peace.
After finishing this entry, and having read other war-related blog entries, I began thinking about how many friends I have with diverse points of view, but who don't have blogs -- at least not yet -- and how the world would be missing out on their perspectives. I decided to send a number of my friends a draft of this entry and allow them to respond, with their responses to be posted here. The blog entries that follow are the messages I received in reply. To those who contributed, thank you for giving my readers the benefit of your experience. If I left you off the list, and you would like to contribute to this discussion, I invite you to contact me.

February 13, 2003

Water-Skiing in Alaska

An article from this week's issue of the Economist:

Alaska's Iditarod sled-race has not changed its 1,150-mile course in its 30-year history. This year's race will start as usual in Anchorage on March 1st. But that will only be for show: the mushers and their dogs will then be ferried to a course starting in Fairbanks, far to the north of the usual route. The reason? No snow...

In early December a few people water-skied on a lake, north of Anchorage, that is normally frozen solid. Trees have budded. Grass peeks out of patchy snow. Rather than the normal January temperatures of -30°C or colder, thermometers have lingered at 0°C or above...

To some extent, the near-tropical weather is an aberration. El Niño... is partly responsible for a frigid New York City and a slushy Anchorage. But Alaska has grown warmer in the past 20 years for other reasons too: normal climate variation plus a dollop of global warming...

In early February a classic snow-machine race, the 2,000-mile Iron Dog, was cancelled for the first time in its 20-year history. Elsewhere, small villages that rely on frozen streams for transport are stranded by flowing water. Native American villagers have had difficulty reaching winter hunting grounds that are usually approached across the ice. Snow-machine dealers have no customers. Even a few mosquitoes, normally a plague in May and June, have buzzed in...

Warm winters also strike at the Alaskan psyche, shaped in large part by brutal cold. Many Alaskans revel in the biting air and the pure white of the winter landscape, not to mention the skiing, ice-climbing and snow machine-riding. This winter Alaska seems more like Seattle: soggy and grey. According to Sue Libenson, who works for a green group near Anchorage, "Alaska without the cold just isn't any fun."

All those claiming global warming is bad science, you're assigned to stay after class, to write "They're water-skiing in Alaska in December" 100 times on the chalkboard. All others are excused to grab their water skis and hit the lake.

Lincoln Meets PowerPoint

What a clever idea this is.

Definitely worth a visit to go through the entire presentation.

I'll never look at PowerPoint quite the same way again.

February 12, 2003

Before and After

Before: evil and scary.

After: warm and fuzzy.

Two different logos. Same misguided agency. Same convicted felon in charge. Same Orwellian goals.

"Peace... Is Never the Highest Good Unless..."

I'm determined to reach a personal opinion on a potential war with Iraq before we actually go to war. While I have yet to come to a decision, certain writings are weighing heavily on me as I consider the issue. This is one of them:

We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.
This was Teddy Roosevelt's lecture upon acceptance of the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In other words, Roosevelt used the occasion of receiving the world's most famous prize for peace to argue that peace in and of itself should not be our "highest good" -- that peace for the wrong reasons would be a "very evil thing."

February 11, 2003

"...An Eventual Treason Prosecution"

Via Radio Free Blogistan (via Salon) an astonishing editorial in the New York Sun:

Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly are doing the people of New York and the people of Iraq a great service by delaying and obstructing the anti-war protest planned for February 15...

In a federal court action filed yesterday, the New York Civil Liberties Union, representing the anti-war protesters, cites the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution...

The protesters probably do have a claim under the right to free speech. Never mind that it's not the speech that the city is objecting to -- it's the marching in the streets, blocking traffic, and requiring massive police protection.

So long as the protesters are invoking the Constitution, they might have a look at Article III. That says, "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court."

There can be no question at this point that Saddam Hussein is an enemy of America...

And there is no reason to doubt that the "anti-war" protesters -- we prefer to call them protesters against freeing Iraq -- are giving, at the very least, comfort to Saddam Hussein. In a television interview aired this week, Saddam said, "First of all we admire the development of the peace movement around the world in the last few years. We pray to God to empower all those working against war and for the cause of peace and security based on just peace for all." ...

So the New York City police could do worse, in the end, than to allow the protest and send two witnesses along for each participant, with an eye toward preserving at least the possibility of an eventual treason prosecution. Thus fully respecting not just some, but all of the constitutional principles at stake.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Sun is seriously arguing that the mere act of protesting against a war is potentially treasonous -- equating dissent against one's government during wartime with providing "aid and comfort" to the enemy.

I am ashamed that the author of this editorial and I are citizens of the same nation. Ashamed.


The day after Columbia was lost, I wrote this:

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.
This just goes to show you how out of it I am when it comes to the latest news from NASA. The X-33 program was cancelled long ago. NASA is now focused on the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a passenger-only shuttle designed to be launched atop a conventional multi-stage rocket. This isn't the breakthrough that the X-33 -- a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle -- would have been, but goodness knows we need something to replace the current shuttle, the design of which is now over 30 years old. More information on the OSP can be found here, here, here, and here.

"This Place is Not a Place of Honor"

An interesting story from yesterday's Wall Street Journal on the difficulties of designing a symbol system to last 10,000 years:

Last summer, Congress approved Yucca Mountain as America's first permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste. But before the nation's spent nuclear fuel can be hauled for burial under the 5,000-foot ridge, regulators have ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to design a system of markers and monuments meant to ward off intruders from the site through the year 12,000...

[T]o satisfy the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing requirements, Yucca Mountain officials are supposed to devise warnings and safety barriers that will long outlast today's most ancient relics of civilization...

Yucca Mountain planners say they're drawing from a wealth of research on the markers problem, generated by various federal panels of scientists, artists and anthropologists over the past 20 years. Repository officials have also reviewed a slew of unsolicited suggestions, ranging from the phantasmagoric -- genetically altering Yucca Mountain's vegetation to grow back in an ominous shade of cobalt blue -- to the whimsical: embedding a giant red turkey timer in the ridge to pop up in exactly 10,000 years...

Planners are looking at multiple types of information to build into Yucca Mountain's marking system -- from stick figures of sick people on perimeter walls to elaborate scientific descriptions in sealed "information centers" underground. They're borrowing heavily from the markings system developed in the 1990s for the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. -- known as the WIPP -- a repository for midlevel radioactive waste...

The WIPP panelists disagreed among themselves about what markings and messages might endure. One group wanted to erect symbolic archetypes of pain at the site -- such as tall, sharp spikes -- to arouse a sense of fear. Other panelists favored less-menacing symbols to lure visitors to learn more. Most agreed that to convey danger without honor, all monuments must be hewn from common materials and shouldn't be beautiful...

Other suggested markings for Yucca Mountain are on display this month at the Stillwater Hall Gallery in Fallon, Nev., near Reno. Dr. [Abe] Van Luik ["a senior policy adviser, and resident scholar-philosopher at the Energy Department's Yucca Mountain Office in Las Vegas"].says the private exhibit includes several useful ideas, such as an entry called "Plague of Sand," which proposes smothering Yucca Mountain in silicon chips etched with various warnings. But most entries "had no merit," the scientist says, including "Blue Yucca Ridge," the one calling for genetic color modification; "Poppin' Fresh," which deploys the turkey timer, and "The Big Stink," which would bury Yucca Mountain in the world's feces.

Excerpts from the WIPP panel's report on markers can be found here. From the report:

The design of the whole site itself is to be a major source of meaning, acting as a framework for other levels of communication, reinforcing and being reinforced by those other levels in a system of communication. The message that we believe can be communication non-linguistically (through the design of the whole site), using physical form as a "natural language," encompasses Level I ["something man-made is here"] and portions (faces showing horror and sickness) of Level II ["something man-made is here and it is dangerous"]. Put into words, it would communicate something like the following...

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
In preparing this entry, I read through the report excerpts more than once. At first, my reaction was one of curiousity and dispassion. With each subsequent reading, though, my reaction became more emotional. There's something distinctly unsettling about reading a message of warning for the future -- not the hopefulness of the Pioneer plaque and Voyager record, not the optimism of the Clock of the Long Now, but a message of danger, of something deadly and long-lived.

February 10, 2003

GamesBids and the 2010 Winter Olympics

GamesBids is a central repository for information on bids for upcoming Olympics. Olympics junkies can geek out on page upon page of news, background, statistics, and everything else relevant to the bid process. If you have any interest in such matters, I recommend it.

The next host city to be selected will be that of the 2010 Winter Olympics, with the vote to be taken 2 July. Four cities (Andorra la Vella, Andorra; Harbin, China; Jaca, Spain; and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina) missed the short list, and one (Berne, Switzerland) dropped out, leaving Pyeongchang, Korea, Salzburg, Austria, and Vancouver, Canada as the remaining candidates. GamesBids operates a bid ranking system called BidIndex, according to which the candidate cities' bids are rated as follows (as of today; higher numbers are better):

  • 64.45 Salzburg
  • 60.70 Vancouver
  • 50.82 Pyeongchang
Admittedly, I have been neither to Salzburg nor Pyeongchang. But I have lived in Vancouver, and it is hard to think of a more spectacular or more appropriate venue for the Winter Olympics.

Vancouver is an oceanfront city with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains that rise just minutes from downtown -- during the winter, one can be skiing at Cypress or Grouse half an hour after finishing work in the city (with Seymour taking a bit longer). An hour and a half to the north is Whistler, the largest ski resort in North America (and third-largest in the world, if memory serves), with a convenient and highly walkable village, a mile of vertical, and trails that are up to seven miles long. Vancouver is friendly, clean, and inexpensive. It also boasts an amazing array of great restaurants at bargain prices. If any place should host the Winter Olympics, it's Vancouver.

The official site for Vancouver's bid can be found here.

"Vote France Off the Island"

From Thomas Friedman's most recent column in the New York Times, titled "Vote France Off the Island," in which he suggests replacing France with India on the UN Security Council:

[T]he whole French game on Iraq, spearheaded by its diplomacy-lite foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, lacks seriousness. Most of France's energy is devoted to holding America back from acting alone, not holding Saddam Hussein's feet to the fire to comply with the U.N.

The French position is utterly incoherent. The inspections have not worked yet, says Mr. de Villepin, because Saddam has not fully cooperated, and, therefore, we should triple the number of inspectors. But the inspections have failed not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam's part, as the French know. The way you get that compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war.

Mr. de Villepin also suggested that Saddam's government pass "legislation to prohibit the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction." (I am not making this up.) That proposal alone is a reminder of why, if America didn't exist and Europe had to rely on France, most Europeans today would be speaking either German or Russian.

I also want to avoid a war -- but not by letting Saddam off the hook, which would undermine the U.N., set back the winds of change in the Arab world and strengthen the World of Disorder. The only possible way to coerce Saddam into compliance -- without a war -- is for the whole world to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against his misbehavior, without any gaps. But France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others. If you line up against Saddam you're just one of the gang. If you hold out against America, you're unique. "France, it seems, would rather be more important in a world of chaos than less important in a world of order," says the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."

How badly must a nation conduct its foreign policy to make even a committed and thoughtful internationalist like Thomas Friedman tell them it's time to put out their torch and leave the island? Now we know.

February 09, 2003

When the Money Truck Shows Up

Bobcat Goldthwait's Law: When the money truck shows up, you don't say, "Oh, no, that's not for me." You say, "Hooray, the money truck is here!"

Richard Boyd's Corollary: When the money truck shows up, don't ask your brother-in-law's cousin's friend Guido to count the money for you and keep a little as his fee. Count the money yourself.

February 08, 2003

Fun with Budget Statistics

An entry on Radio Free Blogistan earlier this week:

Like father, like son This Reuters graphic published in Yahoo! News - Politics yesterday speaks volumes:

I commented on this entry, leading to the following exchange:

This graph is about as useful as saying that "The Mummy Returns" was more popular than "Gone With the Wind" because the former made $418 million and the latter only $390 million. Inflation-adjusted, of "Gone With the Wind" made $1.187 billion, which makes it still the top-grossing film of all time.

A chart of deficit growth as a percentage of GDP would be far more useful.
Frank Boosman [frank@boosman.com]

I invite you to create such a chart and edify us. I think even if you plot these graphs on a logarithmic scale it's still clear when the numbers are in the black and when they are in the red. xian [saloniki@radiofreeblogistan.com]
If I do create such a chart, drawn from the same CBO data as the Reuters chart, and place it on my blog, will you blog it here to provide both sides of the story?

[By the way, I'm not a supporter of the current administration. My only motivation in this is to avoid misleading statistics.]
Frank Boosman [frank@boosman.com]

Sure, of course. I never turn down free content!

to me the salient point is not the "record"-ness of the 2003 deficit (which is project, btw, and could easily turn out to be larger), but the overall direction of the curve, so I believe your deficit as percentage of GDP approach would serve my propaganda needs just as well (MUAHAHAHA)... You can even adjust for inflation if you like (but if you do, be sure to adjust both the numerator and the denominator).
xian [goblogyourself@freeblogistan.com]

Interestingly, I couldn't find a ready-made chart of this data. I had to use the raw data provided by the Congressional Budget Office and prepare it myself. I used CBO historical data as well as CBO projections. Here's the result:

The point here is not that President Bush isn't running deficits (he is), nor that budget deficits aren't a bad thing (I happen to believe they are). The point is that this chart looks quite different from the Reuters chart. Both are accurate, but the GDP-based chart is more useful and relevant.

An Office of Management and Budget file that can be found here (PDF, 2.25 MB) contains GDP-based budget data going back to 1930. I didn't take the time to chart it as well, but I found it interesting that during the Depression years 1932-1936, President Roosevelt ran deficits in the range of 4.0 to 5.9 percent of GDP, and during the war years 1942-1945, he ran deficits in the range of 14.2 to 30.3 percent of GDP. Though I agree neither with President Bush's specific tax-cutting plans nor his plans for real increases in military spending, I can see why he and his economic team believe their projected budget deficits to be reasonable. From their viewpoint, they're fighting two wars (against terror and Iraq) while suffering through a serious economic slowdown, making the deficits justifiable when viewed in a historical context. I disagree with this, but I understand it.

February 07, 2003

Pizza Sluts

When my teenage kids -- I call them "pizza sluts," because they'll go to town with pretty much anything round, doughy, and with cheese on top -- tell you a pizza is just "okay," you know it can't be good. Until tonight, I had never heard them use the word "nasty" to describe a pizza. I tasted it, too, and... well... words fail me. This review wisely advises, "Run and hide from this pizza."

Jaclyn's Not Even 1 Gram of Fat Pizza. You have been warned.

Nokia's N-Gage

Nokia has announced the N-Gage, their mobile wireless game system.

  • Nokia's N-Gage site can be found here.
  • infoSync's coverage of the announcement is here.
  • At least one observer is distinctly underwhelmed. Read his report here.
  • Greg Costikyan is consulting for Nokia on the N-Gage. He can't mention them by name, but strangely, he can link to them. You can read his summary of the technical specifications here.
In late 2001, David Smith and I kicked around the idea of starting a company to build a reference design for a mobile wireless game system (which we dropped due to the amount of venture capital that would be needed). To our mind, the largest benefit of such a system was not the multiplayer aspect -- though that was significant -- but the opportunity to change completely the dynamics and economics of game distribution. From what I've read, the N-Gage fails to do this. It's a GameBoy Advance with a faster processor, more memory, no graphics acceleration, GSM and GPRS capability, to be sold at a much higher price point. If my understanding is correct, then I don't get it.

February 06, 2003

Boeing's Pelican

From Popular Science, an article on Boeing's Pelican, a proposed plane weighing "as much as seven fully loaded Boeing 747s", designed to fly "a mere 20 feet off the water at 300 mph":

Today, engineers at Boeing are designing a cargo plane that... is designed to skim just above the water like a large sea bird. It's dubbed the Pelican, because it will use the same "wing-in-ground effect," or WIG, that the awkward bird does to glide almost effortlessly above the water. When applied to man-made flying vehicles, WIG aerodynamics represent a critical exception to a long-held rule of aviation -- altitude equals efficiency. The reason most long-range airplanes are high-altitude jets is that flying in thick air at lower altitudes normally takes significantly more fuel. But if you get extremely close to the surface -- around 50 feet or below, as a WIG vehicle would -- a cushion of air generated by the plane's velocity helps support it in flight, so that the plane cruises even more efficiently than a high-altitude jet. The WIG aircraft['s] wingspan is about the width of the front of the Capitol. Boeing engineers are counting on the notion that enormous wings will provide more opportunity for the air below them to gently lift and propel the vehicle, allowing it to skate a mere 20 feet off the water at 300 mph.

The idea of an airplane that weighs as much as seven fully loaded Boeing 747s, and that doubles the distance it can travel by scooting over the ocean surface like a waterbug, may seem far-fetched. But the engineers at Phantom Works, the secretive Boeing think tank, have begun designing this enormous machine because the Pentagon has a major problem that has defeated many less harebrained efforts over the past 40 years. That problem? Mobility. The U.S. Army is a powerful force, but it is too large and has too much heavy equipment to move at a pace suitable for a fast-expanding conflict...

But the Pentagon may not be the biggest market. The Boeing team's commercial-airplane colleagues have informally discussed the Pelican with commercial cargo operators. The airplane carries 10 times as much payload as any current craft -- as many as 180 standard 8- by 8- by 20-foot containers -- and is 10 times faster than a ship. Unlike a ship, it could deliver cargo directly between major cities, eliminating sea-to-land transfers.

An end-run around archaic seaport bottlenecks? Sounds good to me. But I wouldn't be eager to fly in a plane skimming 20, 50, or even 100 feet from the surface of the sea, computer control or no. Can you say "rogue wave?" I thought you could.

February 05, 2003

Second-Hand Smoke, GMOs, and Europe

Thomas Friedman begins a recent column on the situation in the Middle East with the following anecdote:

Last week I went to lunch at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Davos, Switzerland, and discovered why America and Europe are at odds. At the bottom of the lunch menu was a list of the countries that the lamb, beef and chicken came from. But next to the meat imported from the U.S. was a tiny asterisk, which warned that it might contain genetically modified organisms -- G.M.O.'s.

My initial patriotic instinct was to order the U.S. beef and ask for it "tartare," just for spite. But then I and my lunch guest just looked at each other and had a good laugh. How quaint! we said. Europeans, out of some romantic rebellion against America and high technology, were shunning U.S.-grown food containing G.M.O.'s -- even though there is no scientific evidence that these are harmful. But practically everywhere we went in Davos, Europeans were smoking cigarettes -- with their meals, coffee or conversation -- even though there is indisputable scientific evidence that smoking can kill you. In fact, I got enough secondhand smoke just dining in Europe last week to make me want to have a chest X-ray.

I imagine that a European might respond by saying something like, "You can choose not to smoke, and you can choose to walk away from smokers, but if you don't know that your food contains GMOs, you have no choice to make." True, but Friedman's basic point is still right: there's no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful, and yet Europeans are making a big fuss over them while continuing to smoke like fiends, indoors and out.

In the early 1990s, while serving as the original product manager for Adobe Acrobat, I went on pre-launch press tour across Europe. Except in the UK, where technology journalists expected one-on-one interviews, each day's schedule would be the same:

  1. Wake up, shower, and pack.
  2. Check out of hotel.
  3. Meet in hotel conference room to set up demo machines.
  4. Brief all area journalists at once.
  5. Dine with journalists at hotel restaurant.
  6. Catch taxi to airport.
  7. Fly to next city.
  8. Check into hotel.
  9. Meet colleagues for dinner.
  10. Catch up on work, work out, or just go to sleep.
The problem was that during activities 4, 5, 7, and 9 (and 6, depending on the taxi driver), we were inescapably exposed to cigarette smoke -- especially during the briefings, which were typically held in small, poorly ventilated rooms. Most of the journalists we met smoked, and many did so more or less continuously. By the end of the two-and-a-half week tour, I was absolutely miserable.

It has been a while since I've done a press tour in Europe, so I wasn't sure if things had changed in the meantime. Apparently they haven't.

The News and Observer on Blogs

As noted last week, today's issue of the News and Observer is carrying Karen Mann's article on blogging:

"It's like a 24-hour holiday letter," says Frank Boosman, 39, of Apex. Boosman, who is chief marketing officer for 3Dsolve software in Cary, began his own blog in June after hearing a friend in Japan talk about his own. In it, he shares his thoughts on technology, the Internet, popular culture and pretty much anything that strikes his fancy.

"I thought, 'The time has come; this is not a pure geek thing any more,'" he says...

[30-year-old RTP-based Web developer and trainer for the Washington-based company MassLight Mark] Pilgrim compares making his first blog entry to his first (and only) time skydiving. "It's very scary," he says, "to put yourself out there and do it every day.

"There's a rush that comes from getting a link from a high-profile blogger," he says, noting that traffic on his blog jumped from a few hundred to about 4,000 page views a day after another blogger linked to a technical article on his site. "It's a real rush and there's a real addictive quality to it."

Even more perplexing: Why do people want to read intimate, and often mundane, details about other people's lives?

"There are people who, either for personal reasons or because of their perspective, I find so interesting I want to keep up with what they have to say," Boosman says. "If something's important enough that they want to say it, I think it's important enough that I want to read it."

At the RTP Bloggers lunch that Karen attended, Mark was actually complaining about how much traffic he gets -- if I remember correctly, his issue was that the popularity of his blog was inducing him to both increase the effort and alter the content he put into his blog, which he didn't want to do. Given that, of course, being quoted and having one's picture taken for a newspaper story on blogging probably wasn't the best strategy. In any case, Mark, if the crushing weight of 4,000 page views per day is getting to be too much, feel free to redirect them here.

February 04, 2003

"...We Just Weren't Sure When"

An interesting take on Columbia on David Harris' Science and Literature blog:

[W]hat happened and what does it all mean? One answer is that it means pretty close to nothing. Although this may sound overly dismissive in light of increasingly-hyped media-fuelled public tragedies, there is good reason to think that this accident is neither unexpected nor ominous...

[F]rom a scientific point of view, we already knew this accident was going to happen. Of course, we hoped we could ride a wave of good luck as long as possible but sometimes the dice fall the wrong way. Continuing to rely on decades-old technology is unlikely to have helped...

What really changes in light of this event? From a scientific viewpoint, nothing. This is a redundant data point. We already knew it would happen, we just weren't sure when. Does this mean we should make changes to the space shuttle program? Not really. Well, we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event. Going up in a shuttle today is just as safe as it was on Saturday, and as safe as the launch before that.

David is right when he says that "we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event," but then what if we didn't know we needed to make them? NASA believed that its procedures to ensure the integrity of the shuttles' heat tiles were sufficient, and NASA also believed in the adequacy of its processes for reviewing any incident that could compromise tile integrity. Yet -- based on highly preliminary evidence -- it would appear neither was the case. It was too easy for tiles to be damaged during takeoff, and the review of the incident while Columbia was in orbit may have led NASA to the wrong conclusion (that the launch incident didn't pose a significant risk to the orbiter).

Did these procedures need to be changed before Saturday? Yes. Was that clear to people? If so, it doesn't seem to have been clear to the right people.

10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

Technology Review's "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World":

  • Wireless sensor networks. "Networks of wireless battery-powered sensors that monitor our environment, our machines, and even us."
  • Injectable tissue engineering. Injecting the body "with specially designed mixtures of polymers, cells, and growth stimulators that solidify and form healthy tissue."
  • Nano solar cells. Using "nanotechnology to produce a photovoltaic material that can be spread like plastic wrap or paint."
  • Mechatronics. The "integration of familiar mechanical systems with new electronic components and intelligent-software control."
  • Grid computing. Protocols giving "home and office machines the ability to reach into cyberspace, find resources wherever they may be, and assemble them on the fly into whatever applications are needed."
  • Molecular imaging. "Shorthand for a number of techniques that let researchers watch genes, proteins, and other molecules at work in the body."
  • Nanoimprint lithography. "Stamping a hard mold into a soft material... [to] imprint features smaller than 10 nanometers across."
  • Software assurance. "Programming tools for making software development... more like an engineering discipline."
  • Glycomics. The "effort to understand and ultimately harness sugars."
  • Quantum cryptography. Transmitting "information in such a way that any effort to eavesdrop will be detectable."
Via KurzweilAI.net.

February 03, 2003

David Smith in Japan

My long-time friend, colleague, and co-founder David Smith is with Alan Kay in Japan, and they dined with Joi Ito the other night:

It's a bit difficult to talk about the past, present and future of computing surrounded by geisha in a tea house, but we tried. Alan talked about how so much of great computer science was invited in the 60's and 70's and we're just getting around to re-discovering some of it...

It's great that Japan really respects Alan Kay and gives him a great deal of credit for his discoveries. I think Ted Nelson also gets much more credit for his discoveries in Japan than he does in the US. Maybe foreigners aren't as threatening. ;-)

Alan and David are working on Squeak and are also developing a completely object oriented, cross-platform, networked, collaborative environment called Croquet which sounds very exciting. David's supposed to give me a demo tomorrow.

Joi's entry on the dinner can be found here.

Sleeping When Overtired

From Popular Science, a question and answer on sleep difficulties:

Why is it so difficult to fall asleep when you are overtired? ...

There is no one answer that applies to every individual. But many people fail to note the distinction between fatigue -- physical tiredness -- and sleepiness, the inability to stay awake. It's possible to feel "tired" physically and still be unable to fall asleep, because while your body may be exhausted, you don't feel sleepy. To fall asleep, you need adequate time to unwind, even if you feel fatigued. It's not so easy to simply "turn off."

According to Carl E. Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Maryland, most people do not allow themselves sufficient deceleration.

Lack of sleep complicates matters even more. Experts say adults need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night to function properly. When you get less sleep than that on consecutive nights, you begin to accrue "sleep debt." As sleep debt increases (and functionality decreases), your body experiences a stress response and begins to release adrenaline. Now a vicious cycle has been created: You experience the feeling of being more and more tired, but your body is increasingly stimulated. "Power sleeping" for more hours on weekends is only a temporary solution. "There is no substitute for getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis," says Hunt.

Most of us, however, don't get the sleep we need. According to the 2002 National Sleep Foundation, Americans sleep an average of 6.9 hours per night during the week, and 58 percent of adults experience symptoms of insomnia a few nights a week or more.

This sounds like the story of my life, except for the "power sleeping" part, which I'm unable to do. Last week, after a night of poor sleep at home followed by another on the road, I arrived back home at 1:00 AM after a five-and-a-half-hour drive. I was falling asleep in the car (while taking a turn as a passenger, thankfully), but I couldn't for the life of me sleep once I got home. There are few things in the world more frustrating than being exhausted and wanting to sleep but unable to do so.

February 02, 2003

Challenger, Columbia, and Next Steps

The morning of 28 January 1986, my then-wife and I were sleeping in, having returned home to San Diego from our honeymoon the night before. Next door, just outside our window, construction workers building a house turned on a radio, which woke us up. I heard the words "space shuttle Challenger" and "explosion." I jumped out of bed and turned on the television, with Karin just behind me. The anchor was talking about how it was feared that all were lost, and then they showed the video and I started crying, knowing they were gone.

Yesterday, 1 February 2003, I was watching a show on the TiVo, taking a break from chores, when my daughter called me from her mom's house. "Daddy? Did you hear about the space shuttle?" I switched to live television and, along with the rest of the country, once again found myself watching video of the end of a shuttle and the loss of its crew. Though an awful tragedy, it wasn't quite as personally wrenching for me this time -- I don't know whether because the video this time wasn't so obvious, because after Challenger it wasn't so much of a shock, or both.

What do we do next? The "why do we need to be in space" lobby will certainly use this as an opening, at least according to Time:

Representative Dave Weldon, Republican from Florida and co-chair of the House Aerospace Caucus, foresees a catfight in Congress over any new space expenditures, especially in an era of again ballooning deficits. "The people who opposed space-flight funding are going to come forward again and voice concerns that we should spend the money on something else," he says. "But we are a nation of explorers, and we'll continue to explore the unknown."
The "why do we need humans in space" lobby will use this as well. From CNN this morning:
Rabbi Marc Gellman: We are really at a point where we have to look at not only the expense of manned space exploration, but its effectiveness. The most wonderful thing that we've ever put in space was the telescope, and there isn't a human being on it. And I think we have to look again at whether this is worth the risk of human life.
I find this attitude astonishing -- and thankfully rare. The seven astronauts who died yesterday knew the risk they were taking and did so not only willingly, but enthusiastically, as have explorers throughout the millennia.

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.

The Internet and the Situation Room

Wolf Blitzer was just interviewing Michael Bohn, director of the White House situation room during the Reagan era, when this exchange occurred:

Wolf Blitzer: And then what happens after that? After the president is informed, you're sitting there watching CNN, seeing what's going on, what are they doing in the situation room at the White House, which of course is the super-secret command center, the hub of all national security incidents?

Michael Bohn: Well, the super-secret command center, actually, today, depends on cable news and the Internet as their most important sources of information. It's a little different today than it was then.

On the Internet yesterday, I was seeing images and reading about theories minutes before they made it onto CNN. I find it reassuring, somehow, that I have access to the same "important sources of information" as the White House. The idea of a level playing field for information is appealing.

February 01, 2003

Not Again

Not again, not again, not again...

Looking for Super Bowl Ads?

As a result of my blog entry the other day, I'm getting numerous hits from Google searches by people looking for Super Bowl ads. As a public service, here are the links:

  1. Anheuser-Busch: Football-playing Clydesdales turn to zebra referee to review call on replay. Go to the Bud Light site. Enter your birthday and click on "Card Me". Click on "Commercials".
  2. Anheuser-Busch: Guy sidesteps "no pets" rule at bar by using his dog as a hairdo. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  3. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Zoo baboon catapults to cool off in a nearby polar bear pool. Listed as "coming soon" at the Sierra Mist site.
  4. Anheuser-Busch: Strongman contest to lift fridge of Bud Light hijacked by fans. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  5. Anheuser-Busch: Buddy warns guy his fiancée will look like her mother in 20 years. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  6. Reebok: Terry Tate, "Office Linebacker," enforces office rules with gusto. Go to Reebok's Terry Tate site. Click on your choice of format and size. Registration is required.
  7. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Dog cools its master with fire hydrant blast. See Pepsi/Sierra Mist above.
  8. Anheuser-Busch: Beer drinker in clown suit grosses out bar patrons. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.
  9. Pfizer/Trident: Fifth dentist from Trident's "four out of five dentists" claim is bitten by a squirrel. Not currently available from the Trident gum site.
  10. Anheuser-Busch: Beachgoer's pickup line with conch shell bites him back. See Anheuser-Busch instructions above.

Text Bullying

A story from one of my favorite parts of the world on the unfortunate but inevitable trend of messaging-based bullying:

It used to be a shove on the way to class or cruel words scrawled on a toilet stall, but access to technology is giving schoolyard bullies new tools to torment their victims.

Text bullying -- sending threats or abusive messages via cellphones, pagers or computer instant-messaging -- is beginning to raise concern at Lower Mainland schools.

"Text messaging is just starting to come to our attention," said Peter Ewens, principal of Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver. "It's another medium students are now able to access to carry out behaviour such as harassment and bullying."

Argyle is currently dealing with a death threat against a student and a teacher delivered by e-mail. Police are still investigating the threats and uncovering the trail of the sender, who was able to hide the origin of the message. So far, two students have been suspended and police are still working with computer forensic specialists to trace the threats...

At Eric Hamber Secondary in Vancouver, principal Andy Krawczyk knows text bullying happens by e-mail, and he expects cellphone harassment is on the way.

"The schools used to have a no-pager or cellphone rule, but that's long gone," he said. "Parents give the kids cellphones to keep in touch. But the more technology gets away from us, the more difficult it will be to come up with simple rules to control it."

Via Smart Mobs.