Archive for February, 2005

Teh Oscars

Monday, February 28th, 2005

If you love abusive commentary as much as I do, then you’ll probably find The Superficial’s coverage of the Oscars to be the most funniest thing ever. Dig it: ‘6:01 – Joan Rivers. Botox. “You go girl”. J Edgar Hoover. Brando doing Elmer Fudd.’

Categories Horxed

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

Valued author hossman wrote to point out that the category icons aren’t linking properly to their corresponding categories. It looks to be related to the get_category_link() function in WordPress, which changed as part of the recent upgrade to version 1.5. I then noticed, too, that the list of categories in the lefthand column isn’t alphabetizing the way it should.

I’ll see what I can do about those. Note, though, that I’m also considering just saying goodbye to the current design, and doing a new one based on the Kubrick theme that ships with WordPress 1.5 as the default. It’s clean and snazzy, and taking away nothing from the fine work ymatt did coming up with the current site design, I think I’m ready for a change.

The only downside is that apparently about 150,000 other WordPress users have had exactly the same idea, such that lots and lots of weblogs are turning up with the default Kubrick-based theme.

Will have to think about this more after the Oscar party. Stay tuned for further details!

Mejia’s ‘Regaining My Humanity’

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

A really impressive essay, written from prison by the now-freed Camilo Mejia, on why he refused to continue fighting in Iraq: Regaining my humanity.

I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission. But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been.

‘A Scanner Darkly’ Trailer Available

Friday, February 25th, 2005

I know that valued reader Sven, at least, will be interested in this: QuickTime trailer for A Scanner Darkly.

Some more about the movie from Philip K. Dick’s children: Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly film adaptation.

Cool Romance Novel Covers

Friday, February 25th, 2005

I really like some of these: Longmire does romance novels.

McConnell on the Rise of US Fascism

Friday, February 25th, 2005

I know there are those who dismiss such alarmist talk, but I honestly believe that the greatest danger facing our country today is the rise of US fascism.

It’s not just lefties like me who see things this way. Witness the following article from The American Conservative‘s Scott McConnell: Hunger for dictatorship.

Doolittle on Bush’s Cowardice

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Jerome Doolittle calls the bully what he is: The C word.

Undercover in the McDonald’s Bathroom

Friday, February 25th, 2005

The classy gagsters of Improv Everywhere post about a really sweet bit of urban guerrilla comedy they recently carried out: Mission: McDonald’s bathroom attendant.

Thanks to Hiro/Aaron for the link.

Aliens Are (Not) Among Us

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

Some people just don’t care about outer space. Even the smartest, most curious folk sometimes suffer a precipitous drop-off in interest when the subject matter shifts beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Like Sherlock Holmes, from A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

(Though see this site for a second opinion on Dr. Watson’s diagnosis of Holmes’ astronomical ignorance: The astronomical Holmes.)

Anyway, the fact is that you will sometimes find an intellectual who gets really snarky when talking about extraterrestrial subject matter. Like Lee Siegel, TV critic for The Nation. Here’s an excerpt from Alien nation, his review of an upcoming Peter Jennings special on ABC that apparently gives sympathetic treatment to the idea that we’re being visited by aliens:

Jennings is very respectful to the “witnesses” who claim to have seen aliens flying over their barnyards, etc., or who insist that they’ve been abducted (they should be so lucky). There is something in Jennings’s open attitude to all of this of the new deference to so-called religious people that suddenly seized the commentating classes after the election last November. These UFO true believers, after all, are animated by some kind of religious-ish impulse, some thirst for ultimates; or maybe some wish to be jolted out of their dulled senses. In that sense, they are also like generations of vanguard artists, yearning to shock and be shocked.

But there is something else in Jennings’s preening solemn tones (his megalomania is extraterrestrial; so is his tendency to pronounce words like “project” two different ways). There is in Jennings’s voice this surging American love for the absurd, and therefore contemptible person. From politics to reality shows, we seem to like to be surrounded by people ruled by greed, hampered by stupidity, blinkered by obsession. These sad bored UFOers, their faces blank, their land-locked figures full-sail with heartland obesity, their eyes shining with their earth-centric, mundane, child’s fantasy of a populated universe–the spatial, secular version of the religious, temporal dream of a populated eternity–these people are easy to laugh at, and therefore easy to accommodate.

When my friend Arktos (who goes by J.A.Y.S.O.N. when he shows up at saw this piece, it bothered him:

Behind you! Arktos!

Arktos says to you, “thats mean”

You say to Arktos, “what’s mean?”

Arktos says to you, “the ufo thing”

Arktos says to you, “and the heartland obesity thing”

You scratch your head in thought.

You say to Arktos, “what ufo thing?”

You say to Arktos, “oh, the alien nation article by lee siegel?”

Arktos nods to you.

Arktos says to you, “yeah, i wanted to write, ‘dear guy, sorry for not believing the same things you do, i’m clearly stupid, and also i’m sorry for being fat and living in ohio'”

You say to Arktos, “ah. I didn’t realize you were a Believer in UFO visitation.”

Arktos says to you, “let me put it to you like this”

Arktos says to you, “i’m a fortean, i acknowledge the possibility, but like i more just hate smarmy fucking writers”

Arktos says to you, “i understand that people are bad about the ufo thing, but like, that guy is an ass”

This led to a long (too long, I’m sure, in the view of many who witnessed it) discussion of the possibility/probability of life existing beyond earth. Once we got past the fireworks, it eventually emerged (I think) that we both basically hold the same view (that we don’t have any idea, really), and only diverge in terms of which of the two alternatives (there is life beyond earth, or there isn’t life beyond earth) we find more outré.

For those who like to assert, however, as Arktos seemed to be doing during the initial phase of our discussion, that the nearly infinite number of worlds out there makes it virtually certain that life has originated more than once, let me offer the following analogy:

Imagine a die with an unknown number of sides, with that number of sides represented by X. (Former D&D players will have no problem with this part.) The sides are numbered sequentially, from 1 up to X. We’re walking along, and we happen to come upon this die resting on the ground with a 1 showing on its upper face. Now ask yourself: Without knowing how many sides the die has (that is, without knowing the value of X), and without knowing how many times the die is going to be rolled (which we’ll call Y), can you predict the likelihood that a 1 will be rolled again?

The answer clearly is no, you can’t. In fact, even if you know that Y (which in this analogy could be equated with the number of places beyond earth that are suitable for life) is a very large number (as it surely is), you still can’t say anything about the probability of another 1 being rolled without knowing something about the value of X (which I’m letting stand for the probability that, given a place suitable for life, life will actually emerge there — which readers who share my obsession with this stuff will recognize as the term f-sub-l from the infamous Drake equation.)

Janus/Onan tried to shoot this down with the following:

Janus says to you, “Well, no.”

Janus says to you, “If you’re going to insist upon an artificially estimation-poor model, then the case for life elsewhere actually gets vastly stronger.”

Janus says to you, “100% of the planets with which we’ve had nontrivial experience have been teeming with life. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to extrapolate that around 100% of all others are.”

But as I pointed out in response, that doesn’t wash. You can’t take the presence of life on earth as a suitable basis for extrapolation, because the fact that we’re even here to do the extrapolating requires that we be on a planet suitable for life. (See the anthropic principle.) The presence of life on earth tells us that there is, in fact, a 1 on one face of the die, and that it was rolled at least once. It tells us that the emergence of life is possible. It doesn’t tell us how likely that event is.

See, sticking with the analogy, we don’t get to even consider the question until a 1 has been rolled (because until then, there’s no one to do the considering). So the fact that we’ve got that single case of a 1 having been rolled really tells us nothing, beyond the fact that the probability of rolling a 1 is greater than zero. But again, since we don’t know the value of X (the number of sides of the die), we can’t say whether the chances of rolling 1 a second time in Y tries is astronomically high, astronomically low, or somewhere in between.

We just don’t know.

Proceeding scientifically, there are two possible hypotheses: A: Life has emerged exactly once in the universe. B: Life has emerged more than once in the universe. The presence of life in a single place in the universe (on earth, that is) is accounted for equally well by both hypotheses. If you want to argue that one or the other hypothesis is more likely than the other, you’re going to need more data.

To date, we really don’t have that data. A small number of people have reported seeing alien spacecraft, and even being abducted and probed, but at this point it’s not clear to me that that counts as evidence of anything other than the weirdness of people, generally. And we’ve done SETI listening with radio telescopes, and landed probes on a few nearby planets and moons, without turning up any compelling evidence of life (so far).

I’m rambling; sorry. Let’s finish this up with another Holmes quote, this time from The Second Stain:

“You are off?”

“Yes, I will while away the morning at Godolphin Street with our friends of the regular establishment. With Eduardo Lucas lies the solution of our problem, though I must admit that I have not an inkling as to what form it may take. It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Do you stay on guard, my good Watson, and receive any fresh visitors. I’ll join you at lunch if I am able.”

Those who currently claim it is “probable” (or even “virtually certain”) that there is life beyond earth are theorizing in advance of the facts. In effect, they are manifesting a religious faith in things unseen. Which is fine. I’m cool with faith. But it’s not science. And at least for the moment, it doesn’t persuade me.

Smackerel’s Paean to HyperCard

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

It’s occasionally too self-promotional for my taste, and has a definite tinge of that ‘we used to walk to school in the snow… and we liked it!’ thing. But as someone whose first hands-on multimedia experience was making HyperCard stacks with a Mac SE, and who was moved to tears (literally) by the Visual Almanac demo I saw at the 1989 National Computer Graphics Association meeting, this piece made me feel nostalgic: When multimedia was black and white.

Sam’s Instructions for Destroying the Earth

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2005

A good way to while away a spare 15 minutes: Browsing some net.kook’s fun obsession. Like this one from Sam Hughes: How to destroy the Earth.

HST’s Final Column: Shotgun Golf

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2005

What would be exceptionally weird is if the publicity of his apparent suicide led this proposal of Hunter Thompson’s, described in his final column, to actually take hold: Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.

Baby Girl Has ‘Parasitic’ Head Removed

Monday, February 21st, 2005

This story creeps me out, kinda, but I find it hard to ignore nevertheless. From MSN, via Boing Boing: Baby stable after second head removed.

It’s not clear to me from the article, but the impression they give is that the second head was more or less aware:

The head that was removed from Manar had been capable of smiling and blinking but not independent life, doctors said.

I wonder what would have happened to the parasitic twin if she wasn’t removed. She didn’t have lungs, and wouldn’t have been able to speak, or go through a lot of other normal child development. Maybe she, and her host, wouldn’t have even survived. But I wonder about the medical ethics of deciding to, in essence, murder the partial individual in question. If the second head had been allowed to live long enough, and if she could have achieved the means of communicating with the outside world, what would she have said about the question of whether or not she should be killed to give her host twin a chance of a better life?

Is the “capable of independent life” thing a pointer to the relevant area of medical ethics, with the thinking on the part of the doctors being that, like an unborn fetus, a parasitic head that could not survive on its own definitionally doesn’t fall under the protections of their professional oaths?

I’m not trying to start an argument here. I’m just legitimately curious about the issue, having never heard of such a case before.

In my initial version of this posting, I was referring to the second head with the pronoun “it.” Only after thinking for a bit did I decide that I should dignify the individual in question with “she,” and had to go back to edit myself. I note that the author of the Reuters story linked to above was careful to avoid that conundrum by always referring to “the second head,” “the second twin,” and “the conjoined organ,” never using a pronoun. That seems significant to me, somehow.

It’s probably the case that the conjoined twins would not have been able to live beyond a certain age. Certainly the surviving one has a much better shot at what most people would consider a normal life with the parasitic twin removed. It may well be that killing the parasitic twin was the right thing to do.

But the article sure seems to go out of its way to describe the event as if that wasn’t what actually happened. And that feels to me like it might be fundamentally dishonest.

I don’t really know. But I invite others’ opinions on the subject.

Holdaway’s ‘The Known Soldier’

Monday, February 21st, 2005

I somehow missed this in my earlier browsing through Larry Holdaway’s site: The known soldier. It’s a composite image created by combining the portraits of 1087 American soldiers killed in Iraq between March 2003 and October 2004.

Holdaway describes it as “haunting,” which is a pretty good word for it. He has some more composite images of a political nature, too, including one of the man whose war made the first composite possible.

Gods, Mounstrous and Fetching

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Some loosely coupled links for your morning:

An African lion (maybe?) is loose near the Reagan Presidential Library: Lion or tiger, not bear, oh my! And this is an interesting time for me to read that story, because I am just now in the midst of David Quammen’s excellent Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.

In the book, Quammen speculates about what it means to be a large hominid near, but not quite at, the top of the food chain, contemplating the existence of various alpha predators (lions, tigers, leopards, crocodiles, grizzly and polar bears, a few sharks), all of whom share the tendency to occasionally have one of us for lunch.

Quammen is the author of the even-more-excellent The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, so you can bet Monster of God deals with the consequences of our making it so those alpha predators disappear, and the tension between those who think such predators should be exterminated, and those who think they should be preserved.

But speaking of God and gods reminds me of a site I came across the other day by following the back link from a cherished commenter. You’ll recall that I previously linked to Jason Salavon, a digital artist who created averaged versions of each of four decades’ Playboy playmates. Now reader Larry Holdaway has done something similar with the faces of 295 porn stars and nude models, to produce Clotho, Lachesis & Atropos, that is, the three Fates. It’s pretty cool.

While checking that out, I noticed another interesting item from the God- (or gods-) obsessed Holdaway: God and the tool making apes, which links to a 1998 Douglas Adams speech, in which the late author said the following:

…early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way.  Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’  Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question.  Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’.  And so we have the idea of a god.  Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’  Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well.  Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

Okay. Enough rambling for one morning.


Monday, February 21st, 2005

From CNN: Hunter S. Thompson dead at 67.

The writer himself, Hoag said, will be missed. “There’s no one in the world these days who writes the truth … as he seems to, to me,” he said. “He spoke to the world and said what people were afraid to say.”

Bacevich: No Victory in Iraq

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Here’s a great opinion piece from Andrew J. Bacevich. It ran in the LA Times opinion section today; with a suitable web-hostile login you can read it (for now) here: We aren’t fighting to win anymore.

…following the heady assault on Baghdad, the conflict took an unexpected turn — precisely as wars throughout history have tended to do. As a consequence, today a low-tech enemy force estimated at about 10,000 fighters has stymied the mightiest military establishment the world has ever seen. To be sure, the adversary cannot defeat us militarily. But neither can we defeat it. In short, U.S. troops today are no longer fighting to win, but simply to buy time: This has become the Bush administration’s substitute for victory. Worse, in a war such as in Iraq, time is more likely to work in the other guy’s favor.

Whether this reality has yet to fully sink in with the majority of the American people is unclear. No doubt President Bush hopes the citizenry will continue to snooze. Better to talk about Social Security reform and banning gay marriage than to call attention to the unhappy fact that we are spending several billion dollars per month and losing, on average, two soldiers per day — not to prevail but simply to prolong the stalemate. Moreover, if the administration gets its way, we can expect that expenditure of blood and treasure to continue for many months, until there emerges an Iraqi government able to fend for itself or Iraq descends into chaos.

Enrst Mayr, R.I.P.

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

I hadn’t noticed that Ernst Mayr died a couple of weeks ago: Ernst Mayr, 100, premier evolutionary biologist. Upgraded to WordPress 1.5

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

There are lots of new goodies in WordPress 1.5, so tonight I upgraded the site to use it. Everything seems to be working at this point, but if you notice something wacky please let me know.

My main motivation in doing this upgrade is to fix some of the problems I’ve had with comments. Those problems have taken two forms: people I didn’t want to have commenting (basically, spammers) leaving comments, and people I did want to have commenting (you, the cherished readers) trying to comment and failing, due to the measures I was employing to stop the first group.

Anyway, the new version is reported to have some nifty new features to make this all work better. But I’m too tired to play with it now, so the comment spammers get a night to muck around to their hearts’ content (well, except spammers don’t have hearts).

Tomorrow I’ll take a look and see if I can get things working properly. Again, though, if you notice anything about the new system that seems noteworthy, let me know. Thanks.

MSN Travel Directions

Friday, February 18th, 2005

I previously mentioned that I’ve been looking for a new job lately, which has had me spending a lot of time in interviews talking about my personal history as a web app developer. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days of gopher servers and the Internet Hunt, when geeking out with a modem was something cool and subversive. And then that jwz item I just posted made me think about the Netscape/Microsoft browser battles, and that in turn made me think back even further, to when we had the Apple/Microsoft graphical computing battles (anyone remember Windows 1.0?)

And then I came across the following: MSN encourages the scenic route. The cycle just keeps repeating. It’s another Microsoft “solution” that sort of looks like what the other guys are doing, except that the first few releases are a total joke. It’s like little kids with mudpies; “See? See what we made? We’re just like those other guys at MapQuest and Google Maps.”

I guess us monkey boys who believe in actually building tools that work should laugh while we can. Tomorrow billg is going home with his overthruster, and he’s taking 90% of our market share with him.

Mud pies for everyone!