Saturday, April 13, 2002

Cats and dogs, living together... Mass hysteria! : What kind of world do we live in where the former pinko, "We will bury you!", sworn enemies of capitalism, communists have a flat tax, and we, the former and still money grubbing capitalist running dogs (what in the world does that even mean?), do not?

Last year, President Vladimir Putin introduced a flat tax on income of 13 percent — the lowest rate in Europe — designed to draw more Russians out of the "shadow economy" and make them honest taxpayers.

The results have been dramatic. Revenue from personal income tax shot up nearly 47 percent last year, and tax revenue overall rose 50 percent, according to government figures. Early results from 2002 look even better.

Think about that as you stare down the barrel of April 15th. Let the thought bounce around your head as you fill out your 1040A and all of its myriad associated forms. Let the words roll off your tongue as you spend hours reading through reams of instruction booklets trying to figure out if you can deduct the cost of those cream pies you bought to throw at Al Gore.

The Russians have a flat tax.

Okay, so the rest of their tax system is apparently a disaster area, but they're actually making progress. What do we have? A gordian knot of laws and no Alexander handy to cut through it. Not even the almighty IRS can figure out exactly what all of those laws and regulations say. A byzantine system of laws and regulations with enough holes in it for a thousand colanders, giving rise to entire armies of specialists who'll help you navigate the loopholes and save you just enough money to... Well, to pay for the specialists to help you navigate the loopholes.

Would a flat tax be an improvement? I can't say for sure, economics certainly isn't my strong suit and for the most part economic theory gives me a migraine so I leave such things to people far smarter than I. But to be honest I can hardly see how it could make things worse and it really should be something under serious consideration.

Friday, April 12, 2002

A beautiful hood in the neighbor day : I spent much of the day at the hospital with SWVCTM and her father. Today was the bone scan, but she won't really know anything until the Oncologist appointment on Tuesday. Ain't waiting for bad news grand?

Speaking of news of the bad variety, most of the waiting rooms at the hospital had TVs in them and they were all turned to CNN. Walking into the radiology department was my first exposure to today's bad news from Israel. If the death of five people and the wounding of ninety - eight critically and eleven seriously - can be referred to in such mild terms as "Bad News".

What was that I was reading yesterday about the Palestinians wanting peace in Jerusalem? Funny way of showing it. Welcome, Secretary Powell, for your first day here we'll blow up a bus, and for your second a market close enough for you to hear the explosion.

Powell was being driven to a helicopter pad near the Knesset, about one kilometer away, en route to Israel's border with Lebanon to view first-hand evidence of Hizbullah attacks against communities and IDF installations in the area.

He heard the explosion. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was with Powell in the vehicle, reportedly said: "Do you see what we have to deal with?"

At least Powell's meeting with Arafat has been called off... for now.

The meeting might be rescheduled for Sunday, a senior U.S. official said. But a spokesman said Powell "expects a clear denunciation of terrorism" and of the new bombing in the meantime.

Two bomb toting murderers in as many days, but if, and it's rather a big one under the circumstances, they can manage not to murder any more random civilians for a day and if Arafat denounces terrorism - as if his previous attempts to do so have ever been sincere or changed anything - Secretary Powell will meet with him? Exactly how many chances is Arafat supposed to have here?

As for the Palestinian leader, Fleischer said, "Today would be a very good day for Yasser Arafat to publicly denounce terrorism and show some statesmanship."

Don't hold your breath, Ari.

Mohammed Dahlan, head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service for the Gaza Strip, said Israel's military offensive was to blame for creating suicide bombers.

Right, because there weren't any murdering scum strapping bombs to themselves to see how many Jews they could take with them to the great beyond before Israel's military offensive, right?
Blogtopian Ethics : There's been a lot of discussion of John Hiler's article on Blogging, amateur journalism, and ethics. I would particularly recommend Susanna Cornett's, of cut on the bias, discussion on the subject as a counterpoint.

As far as I can tell Mr. Hiler is quite sincere, but perhaps on the wrong track. Bloggers are biased? Of course we are, so is every other human being on the planet. Professional journalists like to fancy themselves independent and unbiased but they're about the only ones who believe that's true. Is there anyone on earth who believes that the New York Times isn't biased in favor of a liberal world view? Both individuals and institutions carry with them bias, it is impossible to remove that from the equation - certainly not registering for any particular political party does nothing to do so whatsoever.

Bloggers aren't subject to peer review? Don't be silly. Bloggers routinely peer review other blogger's material - sometimes praising, sometimes ripping it to shreds. I personally find it ludicrous to say that because a professional journalist's material goes through the hands of a copy editor that means it's peer reviewed anyway. It is at absolute best a loose use of the term. The copy editor is beholden to the same institutional biases as the journalist likely is and in fact is in a symbiotic relationship with the professional journalists they edit. Having more than one set of eyes does not automagically mean there is independent review.

The biggest flaw that I can see is that basically Mr. Hiler wishes to treat bloggers as journalists when by and large we are not and do not claim to be.

As has been observed in a number of places, most of the "warblog" world breaks down to "linkers" and "thinkers".

Linkers are akin to an editor and intelligent search engine rolled into one. The Godblogger, Professor Reynolds, is one of the best known examples of this, Stephen Green, the VodkaPundit, is another. While on occasion they write a longer piece, for the most part they link to articles they find interesting and write anything from a sentence to a paragraph or two containing their own thoughts on the subject at hand. Certainly this kind of blogging is not journalism per se, and I can think of no close analog to it in print journalism. The closest one might come is a reviewer of books, movies, concerts, whatever, only in these instances they're commonly reviewing journalists and other bloggers. Pretty much by definition, one does not expect objectivity out of reviewers - by its very nature reviewing is subjective.

Thinkers take a starting point, often something a professional journalist writes, and from there write their own thoughts. There is usually a link or three, but for the most part what you're reading is their thoughts - often in an extended format. The Captain, Ms. Cornett, and myself are all examples of this. You'll find quotes and links, but by far the vast bulk of what you'll find on these kinds of sites is original writing, our thoughts on this subject or that. This is, again, not journalism per se, it is mostly opinion writing. Pretty much by definition, one does not expect objectivity out of opinion writers - by its very nature opinion writing is... Well, an opinion.

There are exceptions, of course, there is some more standard reporting that goes on in Blogtopia. But that's comparatively rare. Certainly it's not the bulk, or anything close to, of what is being done. And the categories are not always cut and dried - Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom does something of a hybrid of the two, for instance.

Presuming one believes that the professional journalist's code of ethics means anything in the real world - certainly not something I would be willing to grant - such a thing might be applicable to someone trying to do original reporting. But what about reviewers and opinion writers?

Pick up your local newspaper and you will find both reviewers and opinion writers who are being paid for their trouble. All of them have biases and those biases are going to play a role in what they write and how they write it. When you flip open your paper to the opinion section and start reading a columnist for the first time you likely know absolutely nothing about them. You might or might not be able to figure out from their name or picture - assuming either are there (in the case of an editorial there may be no name or it may be gender ambiguous) - the writer's gender and approximate age, but there is likely no eight paragraph dissertation at the end telling you exactly what the writer's age, work history, religion, political affiliation, and last ten opinions they expressed are.

So what happens, how do you figure these things out? You start reading the paper on a daily basis. It doesn't take long for you to figure out that some of the regular columnists express opinions on subjects you're interested in. You find them interesting or insightful so you keep reading them. Other columnists you decide are, well, chuckleheads you have no real use for so you don't bother reading them. Over time you learn a fair amount about those writers that you read - some from what they state, some you surmise from what they say. The same pattern occurs with reviewers. Over time you figure out which movie reviewers, for instance, have similar tastes to yours and cover those kinds of movies you're apt to be interested in seeing. Those reviewers that have tastes wildly divergent from yours or only review material you've little or no interest in are not of much use to you so you don't bother reading them.

What is the reviewer or opinion writer's obligation to journalistic ethics? Are they supposed to remain objective and unbiased? Hardly. Are they obligated to inform and include every bias they might have? Hardly, it wouldn't really be possible for them to and it is expected that an intelligent reader can derive what they need to know for themselves. To form an opinion about the opinions expressed and thus an opinion on the person expressing them.

The same applies to bloggers, as far as I can see. Why should it be any different for us?

I've been reading blogs for a long while now, I've only been writing one for a short time. When I come upon a new blog I typically know absolutely nothing about the author, but I can surmise what I needed to know from what they write.

Susanna Cornett is a religious woman. How do I know that? Did I know it the moment I went to her site for the first time? Nope. Did I have to ask her? Nope. Is there a page somewhere on her site that told me that? There might be, but if so I've never seen it. I know it because she's discussed it in the context of some of her opinions. Is it relevant? Sometimes yes, mostly no, it's just one of the many little things I, and presumably her other regular readers, have picked up in the course of reading her opinions. It is one of a myriad elements that go into deciding whether her site is one worth the time to read on a regular basis. And, as far as I'm concerned, her site is one that certainly is worth the time. Not because she's religious, that's not overly relevant to me personally one way or the other, but because she is a good writer who writes on subjects I find of interest.

I don't need to have these things spelled out for me, and in fact I would perhaps find an attempt to do so suspect. A simple statement from Ms. Cornett saying "I'm a religious woman" really tells me little. A simple statement from Ms. McArdle telling me that she's a B-school graduate tells me little. What I need to know in order to evaluate whether or not these writers are going to be of interest to me is how these facts play into what and how they write. The facts themselves are not useless, in both instances they are sometimes highly relevant to what and how these two women write, but I can easily derive them from what they write and the facts themselves are only a small part of what I need to know. As an intelligent reader (or, at least, one who fakes it reasonably well) I don't need a listing of facts about someone in order to figure out whether this is someone worth my time, whether this is someone I should listen to and trust.

The trust issue does not come down here to objectivity. I do not expect objectivity from Ms. Cornett, Ms. McArdle, The Captain, The Blogfather, Mr. Goldstein, or any of the other bloggers listed in my "Daily Reads" section. I would hope that no one is coming here to read "It Can't Rain All The Time..." believing that I am objective in what I write. I am not, nor would I ever claim to be. What you get here are my thoughts and opinions on various subjects of the day that interest me. What you can trust is that I will say what I think in the best manner I know how, I wouldn't bother writing this in any other fashion and I am in that hopefully no different from any other opinion writer.

If you find my thoughts, opinions, and writing style interesting, hopefully you'll come back - perhaps even "peer review" via the comments section or by dropping me an email. If you don't find my thoughts, opinions, and/or writing style interesting, you won't. To me it's really that simple and not any different from how I approach reading other bloggers and professional opinion writers and reviewers.

Update: Mr. Hiler writes a response to some of his critics.

Thursday, April 11, 2002

And the 'blog rolls on : Two new ones for the 'blog roll - Give War A Chance and On the Third Hand. War profiteers they are, I tell ya', but interesting sites nonetheless.

I still have no idea what I'll do when the list gets too long for me to keep up with it all, I suppose I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.
Have phone, won't travel : Arafat, isolated and powerless (yeah, right), still managed somehow to make a call to Egypt -

Speaking by cell phone from his West Bank, Ramallah, compound, Arafat told some 5,000 people inside the Abbassiya Cathedral that the "Palestinian people will die in defending ourselves" against Israeli military attacks on Palestinian territories.

I've got to tell you, that guy has to have the best cell phone batteries on the planet. It keeps going and going and... I mean, wasn't he nursing a nearly dead cell phone battery like five days ago or something? And yet still it goes.

Do you suppose they've got Sprint PCS over there? I'm betting they don't 'cause the only way this makes sense to me if it's one of those situations where he said "We need a mill in the steeple" and the cell system was so lousy they thought he said "We need to kill some people". See, it's all a big mistake and if those mean ol' Israelis would just let Arafat out he'd explain it all.

"The aggression that continues today against the Church of the Nativity ... is a crime ... we will continue to defend these churches regardless of anybody. We will die in defending ourselves," he said to loud applause.

So 200 Palestinian gunmen break into a church and take hostages but they were only there to defend the church? 'Cause you know if they hadn't gone there the Israelis would be leveling it right now. See, they only went there to defend the church, not because they're terrorist buttheads and knew that if they didn't find someplace to hide the Israelis were going to arrest them. The Palestinian gunmen were so concerned with the safety of a sacred Christian shrine that they had no choice but to break in at gunpoint. Makes perfect sense to me.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath also addressed the crowd, saying "Palestine suffers in all its sacred places ... but we fight in Palestine despite the difficulties. We will fight for peace in Jerusalem."

Peace in Jerusalem or Jerusalem in pieces? See as far as I can tell Jerusalem is a pretty peaceful place when some nutjob isn't blowing up busses, pizza places, and discos there. I somehow doubt the good Cabinet Minister's real problem is the lack of peace in Jerusalem, it's that there's all those damn Jews there polluting the place.

But really it's all a mistake, really it is. See, they've had this problem for a long time, going all the way back to WWII. Hitler said "Let's go make some news" but what the guy on the other end of the phone thought he said was "Let's go bake some Jews". All a horrible mistake. Forget about Secretary Powell, if we could just get that Sprint PCS guy to the right places there'd be peace in the world.
Have I got a deal for you! Yahoo, among other big-name internet companies, has changed their privacy policies to allow them to not only bury your e-mail account in spam, but to also send you snail-mail and call to try and sell you something the moment you sit down to dinner.

Yahoo, the vast Internet portal, just changed its privacy policy to make it clear that it has the right to send mail and make sales calls to tens of millions of its registered users. And it has given itself permission to send users e-mail marketing messages on behalf of its own growing family of services, even if those users had previously asked not to receive any marketing from Yahoo. Users have 60 days to go to a page on Yahoo's Web site where they can record a choice not to receive telephone, postal or e-mail messages in various categories.

As it happens I have a Yahoo account, both because I use Yahoo messenger to talk with my sister and because I run a fair sized email group (what in the old days we would have called a listserv - ah, the memories). I heard about this little fun by Yahoo last week and went to check it out. Now I could swear that when I signed up for a Yahoo account I specifically made sure that I checked the boxes telling them that I wasn't interested in getting unsolicited email about trout fishing, or whatever in the world it was they were hawking, but apparently not. It seems I agreed - nay, was apparently desperate to - receive email on just about anything and everything one could imagine and further I would be perfectly happy if they sent me all kinds of junk mail and called me at home. Needless to say, I changed my mind and all of their little options.

Of course Yahoo isn't the only one doing this and the irony is that the article I linked to above is on Yahoo, albeit cut-and-pasted from the New York Times.

Now I understand that Yahoo and the rest of them have to make money somehow. The "free" services are basically a loss-leader, and that's fine - until it starts becoming a game of bait-and-switch. What I don't get is what anyone hopes to accomplish with all of this advertising beyond annoying potential customers.

Cold calling? I don't answer my home phone, period. Everyone important to me has my cell phone number and can reach me there anywhere at any time. If you call my home phone you'd best leave a message. If I'm home and the message is interesting I might pick up, otherwise I hope you and my answering machine have a fruitful relationship. Even at that, I still find the endless number of hang-up calls - where the auto-dialing machine calls my machine, discovers that it's a machine, and hangs up, leaving an "Unavailable" (I wonder why?) on my Hello Kitty caller ID equipped portable phone. If I see a Telezapper for cheap I just might pick one up. Those work by emitting a tone when the phone is picked up that sounds to the auto-dialer as though the line were dead.

Junk mail? Eighty percent of my snail-mail goes into the recycle bin anyway. It's not like you can't spot junk mail easily and dispose of it. My only regret is that I don't have a fireplace. I could have fuel for the winter just rolling up junk mail and burning it. No doubt the inks are toxic when burned or some such.

And spam? Oh puhlease... Let's have a look at some of my recent spam -

Best Kept Free Porn Secret !!

I guess it'll be kept a secret !! I have about as much interest in porn as I do in trout fishing.

Homes from $199/month, Cars from $500

Uh-huh, and I've got a bridge to sell you real cheap.

No Fee Listings

Since I deleted the mail unread I'll never even know what kind of listing it was. Sad, eh?

Individual dental plans for just $99 per year! Just $139 for you and your family!

Ummm, I have dental insurance, but thank you for your concern. No doubt if I didn't the first place I would look is your fly-by night internet dental insurance company...

Your Credit Has Been Approved!!

Dang, they're good! They don't even know who I am, I haven't applied for any credit, and yet already they know I'm credit-worthy? Wow.

Up To $50 Bonus from InterCasino in April

Sorry, I feel embarrassed enough when I spend a buck on the lottery.

Get 250 Color Business Cards FREE!

Ummm, I'm a housewife. I would need business cards why exactly?

Cram Your Bank!

Uh-huh. Sounds like just the get-rich-quick scheme I'm looking for.

Little or Poor Credit?

How'd you know?

For Real Men Only!

Then why in the christ are you sending it to me?

FREE! Liquid Lipstick, FREE! Retinol Eye Gel, FREE Shipping!

FREE! FREE! FREE! Wow! I'm! excited! But! alas! it's! not! Estee! Lauder! so! I'm! not! interested!

FREE Mickey Mouse Backpack !

Well at least that has comedy potential... And, it's FREE. Not FREE!, mind you, only FREE, but that's close enough. And if you got it you could scream "There's a mouse on my back, there's a mouse on my back!" and sue Disney or somethin'.

A Secret About Women

Shhhhh! You weren't supposed to tell, dammit.

Spam, like junk mail, in invariably easy to spot and delete without wasting the time to read it. When you're in one of those silly moods where you do actually look at it, most of it looks like it is the result of some bizarre cloning experiment involving Jerry Springer, Ron Popiel, and the guy on the street corner who runs the three card montey game.

Does anyone take any of this junk seriously? I mean, seriously, how many idiots could there be on the 'net? Okay, so don't answer that, but still... How many people are there out there to fleece? As they say, a fool and their money are soon parted, so what do you do once you've run out of fools? And is it really worth it for a company like Yahoo to piss off 99.99998% of their subscriber base just for that 0.00002% response rate? Apparently Yahoo thinks so, but I have to wonder.

I'm sure I must be wrong, but sometimes I think pretty much all of advertising is a bad joke. A joke on us because all of the money companies spend on it raises the price of goods substantially, a joke on the companies because it doesn't really do squat.

Take softdrinks. In my not so humble opinion Diet Pepsi Twist, Diet Doctor Pepper, and Pepsi One make up the triumvirate that is the true elixir of the gods. Is dressing up Britney as some 50's version of a porn star going to change my soft drink buying habits by one iota? Nope. Nor do I particularly care if some sports star I've never even heard of thinks I should "Do the Dew" (do).

The sports guy ones really get me. Yeah, I know, I'm not in the demographic they're trying to reach, but I sit there and some guy who's obviously supposed to Be Somebody is telling me I should buy this or that. First, I've generally not a clue who in the world he is that makes him Somebody, and second why should I or anyone else care? Does it matter to me that George Foreman (one of the few I can identify) thinks Midas is great? Does the fact that he was a boxer and is apparently a nice guy - the naming thirty-three kids George aside - make his opinion on car repair more valuable to me? No, not really.

I suppose guys probably feel the same way when they see some superdupermodel (faster than a speeding bullet, able to throw up off of tall buildings - though if you say anything bad about Liz Hurley hawking Estee Lauder I'll hafta hurt ya') hawking MAC or what have you. Then again, MAC doesn't sell a lot of products most guys want to buy but women do have cars that need to be repaired, tennis shoes to buy, and soft drinks to... Well, drink.

And what's with the pharmaceutical ads, anyway? You see some woman out in a field breathing in the fragrant air on a spring day... "Ask your doctor about Celebrex!", fade to catchy little tune. Why, you didn't even tell me what in god's name it's for! So, what, I'm supposed to call up my doc and go and see him just because of an advert? Me - "Doc, what about Celebrex?". Doc - "Do you have allergies?". Me - "No.". Doc - "Then why in the hell are you asking about it, ya' dumb bitch?". Me, pouting - "They told me to, they said it might be for me.". Doc - "Oh, okay. Well here, have this 'script and a few free samples so you too can skip through a virgin field on a sunny spring day.". Me - "But you said I don't need it...". Doc - "Shut up and take your pills.".

Car adverts especially get to me. It's not just a car ya' know, it's a religious experience. Buy our car and you'll get laid, have mystical powers of acceleration, be closer to your loved ones, find peace with the 98 octane gods, in short it will give meaning to your miserable, worthless, waste of good oxygen life. Does anyone watch a car ad and think "Oh shit, I've got to go buy a car!"?

I'm not completely immune to the lures of advertising, of course. Show me an advert for a new skin care or house cleaning product and I'll start salivating - it's a very Pavlovian response, dontchaknow. You say your new and improved superduper orange clean Lysol will make my life a thousand times easier? I'm there. Got a new Oil of Olay eye lotion - contains Q10! - that'll not only make me look like I'm fourteen again but convince people I'm smarter, too? Gimme, gimme, gimme! But usually somewhere between those thoughts and the visit to the store common sense steps in and says "Hey, stupid, you're gonna get ripped off". Sometimes I tell common sense to go away and leave me the hell alone - and I have a graveyard of products under my sink and in a drawer in the bathroom to prove it - but usually I listen, if with some sad regret. Hah, Noxema, you ain't getting me this time!

For the most part all I figure advertising buys you is brand recognition and a handful of impulse sales. Brand recognition is worth something, I'm sure, but is it really worth the obscene amount of money spent on advertising? Are they getting anything close to a good return on that expense? As for those few impulse sales, for a big company I can't imagine it's more than a blip on their expense sheet. For the 'net spam bozos, isn't that all they get?

Get Vitara FREE With Your Viagra Order!

I don't even know what Vitara is and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know. As for my Viagra order... Yeah, you just hold your breath waiting on that one.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Another day, another bombing : A Palestinian nutcase blew up a bus near Haifa, killing eight and wounding twenty.

I try and imagine what it must be like to know when you get on a bus to go to work that some fruit loop might get on at any point and blow you and your fellow commuters to kingdom come. To live with that knowledge day-in and day-out for years. I just can't imagine what that must be like.

On the other hand, I can imagine how my country might respond if it happened here even once. Oh yeah, that's right, I don't have to imagine it, it happened on a grand scale. Afterwards there were a few people (mostly in the media and academia) who wanted to engage in navel gazing about "root causes". Guess what, most of us didn't and don't give a happy hang about "root causes". When someone wants to kill you and yours, has already managed to kill 3,000 of your fellow citizens, the whys just aren't that important - there is no why on earth sufficient to justify killing people at random. What was and is important is stopping them, stopping it from ever happening again.

That is how I and many - most, if the polls are any indication - Americans felt after the terrorist atrocities of September 11th. Why on earth would anyone expect the Israelis to feel any differently when their people are being murdered simply because they got on the wrong bus?
Things that make you go "Huh?" : This line in a WaPo article caught my eye -

The deaths of the Israeli soldiers Tuesday came as Israel commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day with emotional ceremonies that included wailing sirens and a momentary halt to traffic. The ceremonies underscored the belief held by many Israelis that the recent suicide bombings are an example of anti-Jewish violence.

Belief? What exactly are they supposed to think, that the suicide bombings are examples of anti-French violence?
Our man Powell : Banana Counting Monkey notes how the media seems to feel that Secretary Powell visiting the Middle East is more important than when Vice President Cheney recently did -

I've noticed that the media treats Bush sending Powell to the middle east as being more important that Cheney going a few weeks ago. Last I checked, the Vice President is a more senior member of the US administration than the Secretary of State. Did I miss something here, or is it just that the media simply favours Powell more?

To put it mildly. The media, as well as many EUrocrats, see Secretary Powell as their kind of guy. To them he is "reasonable" - which basically means they believe he thinks as they do. They see President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and most of the rest of the Bush administration as being "cowboys" (or, I suppose, cowgirls in the case of Ms. Rice and others). When Cheney went to the Middle East, well what did you expect? The oaf didn't even deign to meet with Arafat in his concrete cave. Now that Powell is going, well now something might get done - that something being forcing Israel to cave in, of course. It must be driving them absolutely nuts that Powell is apparently taking the most circuitous route possible to get there... Eventually. No doubt that's the fault of the cowboys in the Bush administration, if not the head cowboy himself, and if it were up to Secretary Powell himself they would have used an SR-71 to get him there as quickly as possible.

Now it seems to me that a lot of the grief Secretary Powell has taken from people like me is perhaps a little undeserved. After all, the man is simply doing his job - that being to try and present and argue for a diplomatic solution whether one is entirely reasonably applicable or not. He is, after all, the Secretary of State, that's what he's paid for. But on the flip side, I don't get why he's the great hope of so many in the media and EU. He is, after all, not an autonomous player in this. No matter how much you agree or disagree with whatever opinions you may think he holds, in the end he works for President Bush. Like any other (albeit extremely high level) employee, his range of options is limited and set by his boss - it can't reasonably be any other way. Even presuming he wished to, Secretary Powell can't go to Israel and say and do whatever he wants. Not if it violates his bosses' wishes, not if he wishes to keep his job.

So what exactly is it that the media expects of Secretary Powell that they clearly didn't expect of Vice President Cheney? That Powell will arrive in Israel and, whatever his cowboy boss might think, simply order the Israelis out? Sorry guys, ain't happenin'. Secretary Powell may or may not be one of the "cowboys" and certainly through his advice and how exactly he handles Bush's wishes he has some room to maneuver. But in the end he works for the head cowboy and though I've not always been thrilled with some of the opinions Secretary Powell has expressed I think he's far too good a man to violate his President's wishes in the way the press seems to almost be hoping for.

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Tag, you're it : The FDA has told Applied Digital Solutions that their Verichip implant is not a medical device and thus can be sold without needing FDA approval. This was the last hurdle before Verichip could be sold, they expect to start selling them in the next few weeks.

Verichip is a subcutaneous RFID implant. Basically it's about the size of a grain of rice and they stick it just under your skin. When a scanner is passed over it a number corresponding to you is reported. That number can be tied via databases to your medical info or whatever else. Currently it doesn't provide any actual information on you, just a presumably unique number. They hope to be able to come up with similar devices that will store more information and, possibly, be tied into GPS so that a person with the chip can be tracked. The latter sounds like something of a fantasy - or nightmare, depending on your point of view - at this point as there isn't a GPS receiver small enough to be implantable right now.

The nightmarish possibilities for such a thing are obvious, what I can't figure out is what possible benefit it could be to anyone. The article offers a few, but they seem questionable at best.

The company said it has targeted VeriChip and its "life-enhancing" technology toward patients who may arrive at hospitals unconscious or unable to speak, [...]

They provide an example of this -

A South Florida man, Jeff Jacobs, is expected to be the first recipient of the VeriChip. The plight of the Jacobs family has been well publicized: Jacobs, a 41-year-old dentist, must take up to 10 medications a day for a variety of ailments, including cancer and a degenerative spinal condition.

According to his family, Jacobs has arrived at emergency rooms several times unable to speak.

As unfortunate as Mr. Jacobs condition is, what exactly is the Verichip going to do for him that couldn't be done far more easily and just as effectively now? The Verichip simply provides an identification number that then has to be looked up to find medical history. The same thing has been done quite efficiently using bracelets, necklaces, and other pieces of readily identifiable medical warning jewelry for quite some time. Moreover, such medic-alert devices don't require a special reader and often have room on them to actually include critical information that can be read by anyone on the scene. Even if the Verichip contained his entire medical history, which it does not, medic-alert jewelry would still seem to have a number of obvious advantages in an emergency situation.

The biochip also could prove valuable for tracking children, Alzheimer's patients and convicted felons on parole.

Track them how, exactly? The only way I can see this having any practical use is if scanners were ubiquitous. If that were the case than potentially anyone with one of these things in them could be tracked at any time without their even being aware of it.

Brazilian politician Antonio de Cunha Lima has been trying to become the first South American to use the implant chip, according to published reports. Brazil has the fourth highest kidnap rate in the world, after Colombia, Mexico and Indonesia.

If this man were kidnapped what good would having a Verichip in his arm do exactly? The only practical application I can see would be possibly making the identification of his body - were the kidnappers to kill him - easier. That presumes, of course, that the morgue has a scanner and tries to use it on every person who comes in just in case the body is one of the eight people in the entire country who have the chip implanted.

This sort of device is pretty much the ultimate privacy destroyer. The number of ways we can be tracked currently is stunning, but almost all of those require some sort of overt action - using your ATM or credit card, for instance. But with something like this in you it becomes possible for you to be scanned and identified by anyone at any time without your necessarily even being aware of it. Toss in GPS, as this company is fantasizing, and you don't even need to be scanned. You'll have a transponder in you that you can't turn off and can't easily remove.

It is perhaps a little premature to get too worked up about this, but I can easily see how this could go. Remember your Social Security number? Originally it was never supposed to be used for identification purposes beyond your SSI account. In fact the original SSN cards (an old boss of mine showed me his) were quite explicit about that. Now, if you want to do just about anything someone is going to ask for your SSN. Want electricity turned on in the house you just bought? Better have your SSN ready. You don't have to give it to them... Unless you want electricity. The same with getting a job and too many other things to mention. You could get by without handing it out to everyone and their brother, but only if you're willing to live in a log house somewhere in the back woods of Montana. No one is likely going to force you to get an implant, it'll just become darn near impossible to do much of anything without one. And if you don't have one, well, what is it you're trying to hide?

Unfortunately their are far too many parents out there who will quite happily tag their children the way they do their dog in the vain hope that should something nasty happen to Junior the chip will somehow help - how exactly will remain something of a mystery. That, I expect, will be the big starting point - "For the children!" - has become the rallying cry for just about every incursion into privacy in the last few dozen years. Add in the elderly, criminals, and anyone else you can get away with forcing this on and pretty soon they're ubiquitous.

I hope I'm wrong, I really do, but I don't at all like where I see this going.
Rot-roo : South Korean parents are getting their kid's tongues snipped in hopes that it'll help them speak English.

It is a simple procedure: Just a snip in a membrane and the tongue is supposedly longer, more flexible and - some South Koreans believe - better able to pronounce such notorious English tongue-teasers as "rice" without it sounding like "lice."

On the one hand this is pretty darn tweaked, especially as there doesn't appear to be any hard evidence that it works. On the other you almost have to admire such maniacal dedication to learning another language. Although, come to think of it, it'd be a lot easier to admire if they were doing it to themselves and not to their kids.

It is not unusual for 6-month-old infants to be put in front of the television for as long as five hours a day to watch instruction videos [...]

[...]

Child psychiatrists report cases of preschoolers suffering anxiety from too much pressure.


Okay, so maybe real hard to admire.
Gone, but not forgotten? : The ever hunkalicious (hey, so I like older guys, so sue me) Rummy made an interesting (albeit not unique to him) observation -

Rumsfeld said it was "interesting to me" that no bin Laden videotape has surfaced in months.

Given OBL's massive ego, that's more than a little interesting - as any number of Bloggers have noted. I suppose it's possible that a daisy cutter or three was sufficient to put the fear of US into him, but I really find that hard to imagine. I'd like to think that the lack of any more blathers from OBL means he's a sticky spot on a rock somewhere, but that might be a little too much to hope for.
Moderate Palastenians : Is Arafat a moderate?

"He's never been so popular," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst in Jerusalem. "What Bush doesn't understand is that Arafat's stand is more moderate than most of the Palestinian public. He has been willing to compromise more than the average person."

Now there's a happy thought...

Not.

It has seemed fairly clear for a while that in a number of instances in the Middle East the "leaders" are actually a lot more moderate than a lot of the people they're leading. Basically many of the leaders have tried to foment as much anger and rage, directed at Israel and the West, as possible because it served their purposes. But it's a double edged sword at absolute best and now a lot of the followers are even nuttier than the leaders. Not, mind you, that the anger and rage itself bothers any of these leaders in and of itself, but it does limit their control and that, I'm sure, bothers them quite a lot. I doubt that at this point Arafat could stop the suicide bombings and other atrocities even if he wished to - not that I imagine he wishes to. In many of the other Arab countries the leaders are constrained in the extreme by the rage and anger they themselves have worked to create. If they don't feed it adequately it'll be their heads on a pike in the city square. They've created the petard and now it's lit, if they make one wrong step it'll be their butts that get blown to Allah.

Since the terrorist atrocities of September 11th we've been told over and over that our fight is not with the Arab people but instead with their leaders and the nutjob terrorists they finance and encourage. Fair enough, but on a practical level I'm not so sure how true that's going to turn out to be. In Iraq and Iran you may or may not have a situation where the people are more ticked off at getting kicked in the hind end every five minutes by their leaders than they're mad at us - maybe, or maybe not. Either way, what about the rest of the Middle East?

If this political analyst is correct and Arafat is more moderate than most of the people he's supposedly leading... Well that is truly a scary thought. That rage is not going to go away just because their leaders are toppled, you don't put out a fire that's that hot by tossing a little water on it.
Just eat it : By now everyone knows Saddam has supposedly turned off the oil spigot to protest the Israeli's efforts at self defense (hey, if everyone else can characterize it they way they want, so can I). The Bushies response?

"We ought to remind them that they're going to have a hard time eating their oil," Condoleeza Rice said.

I knew there was a reason I liked that woman.
The truth, and nothing but the truth : I found this article intriguing.

The legal doctrine of absolute privilege - allowing state experts to make defamatory statements even if done in bad faith - is at the heart of an intriguing new lawsuit pitting two prominent psychiatrists against one another.

Am I reading this right? Basically the state can hire an expert to testify against you and said expert can quite happily lie through their teeth with no legal consequences? How in the world does that make any sense?

In her 68-page ruling, Fletcher found that allegations contained in Gastfriend's affidavit - the heart of the state's case against Kobrin - were simply not true, including the claim that Kobrin provided substandard treatment for his patients, and that two of Kobrin's patients had died in his care. In fact, they were still living.

Uh... Well that's a big "oopsie", eh?

Apparently, "absolute privilege" or no, Kobrin is suing anyway. I'll be curious to see if it gets him anywhere or not.

Monday, April 08, 2002

PBS's Wheel O' Fortune : Do you ever watch Antique Roadshow? You know the drill, they come to some city or other, set up shop in a convention center, and anybody and everybody shows up with half the junk from their attic to show to the experts.

So Grandma Moses comes in with something that looks like it might actually be older than she is. They sit her down with some middle-aged guy with a bad comb-over and a British accent - 'cause you know if he's got a British accent he must be smart. The British dude starts telling Grandma all about whatever do-dad she's brought in. Sometimes he tells her it's a worthless piece of junk, in which case we watch Grandma deflate faster than a shredded tire. Other times he tells her that it's worth fifty Gs and you see the dollar signs in Grandma's eyes as she yells "Cha-ching!" and does an arthritic dance. At the end they flash whatever value range the dude with the British accent came up with at the bottom of the screen.

Now you know a lot of those who hit bigtime in the British dude lottery are heading to an antique store or an auction house the minute they leave whatever convention center the Roadshow is at that week. Someone should be following them with a camera.

Roll clip -

British Dude: "Your antique spittoon would easily bring in $25,000 at action."

Cut to auction house scene -

Narrator: "Agnes Warthal put her spittoon up for auction the next day. The highest bid was $1.25 - Canadian."
And the 'blog rolls on : Eh, you've probably already seen these, but just in case you haven't you should go read The Captain's article on international law, opinion, and the decisions Israel and we must make. Also see what the multi-personalitied Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom has to say about what happens when you step in something academic - me, I really hate it when that happens.
Pattern recognition : The EU is threatening billion dollar sanctions against Israel.

The European Union is preparing billion-dollar sanctions against Israel if Ariel Sharon continues to defy international opinion and reject calls for an end to his invasion of the Palestinian territories.

In wholly unrelated news (snark), the EU is planning on sending millions of dollars to Arafat and his cronies.

So, let's see, the EU wants to bankrupt Israel and prop up Arafat. The Nobel Peace Prize committee wishes it could strip Peres of the Peace Prize they gave him but they don't seem to have any problem with Arafat, that paragon of Ghandi-like peaceful protest. A Belgian court wishes it could indict Ariel Sharon, but unfortunately for them everyone laughed at them when they tried.

I would ask if there's a pattern forming here, but that pattern became depressingly obvious a long while back.
No duh? : Ewan McGregor says that he was disappointed in how Star Wars: Episode I turned out.

The actor, who plays the Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, said the 1999 film "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" was "kind of flat."

Ya' think?

Actually "kind of flat" is putting it way too mildly. When most of your audience is sitting there hoping that the main characters will all suddenly get flattened by the Empire it's never a good sign.

Episode II will be much better, he says. Then again, what else is he going to say?
Spelunking : I'm sure I must be about the last person on earth to think of this, but it occurred to me yesterday to compare Arafat's current abode to that of another famous figure from the Middle East. Arafat (Which title is it this week? Chairman? General? Fuhrer?) is in a windowless office in the middle of a building and what's that kind of like? Why it's kinda like being in a cave, ain't it?
Stop or I'll shoot! : Pilots want to be armed. The majority of the public wants pilots to be armed. But Tom "Look at the pretty colours!" Ridge and Norman "Have they named everything after me yet?" Mineta don't want pilots to be armed.

Why?

I just don't get why this is even a point of debate. Given the nature of the job you have to have trust in a pilot when you get on a plane. Your life, literally, is in their hands. We expect that these people are highly trained and, especially, are calm and cool under pressure. One would expect that if there's anyone on earth that - given the right training, the proper weapon, and the proper rounds - should be considered trustworthy with a gun, it would be an airline pilot. Let's face it, if they intended to harm someone, lots of someones, without very good reason, they hardly need a gun to do so.

Ah, but see we don't need to have armed pilots because now we've got improved screening and fortified cockpit doors.

Improved screening? Since when? Hardly a day goes by when there isn't a report of someone waltzing onto a plane or away from security with a weapon. The government's own tests indicated that nothing has really changed as far as airport security is concerned. Which would probably be because nothing really has changed. Expecting that airport security would magically improve because the paychecks were now coming from the feds was a bad joke. The only thing that's changed is that airports have now become even more inconvenient for regular travelers than they were before - something I would have scarcely believed possible pre-September 11th. Not exactly an improvement when you think about it, given that inconvenience is unlikely to deter a determined whackjob.

As for the fortified cockpit doors, those might - might - stop someone from gaining access to the cockpit and taking control of the plane. Unfortunately that leaves the badguys, assuming the passengers can't, won't, or don't just beat them to a bloody pulp and throw them out the nearest available pressure door, free to do whatever they like to the passengers, the rest of the crew, and the rest of the airplane. Not exactly an optimal situation.

Ah, but if pilots were armed you'd have to worry about accidental discharge or theft.

Huh? I somehow doubt what the pilots are asking is that they be allowed to walk around with gun on their hip looking like Wyatt Earp. You put the thing in a steel box in the cockpit with a combination on it that only the pilot and copilot (assuming both have received the proper training) know. Accidental discharge isn't overly likely under those circumstances and theft requires that you've already gained access to the cockpit and can force the pilot to open the box. If a terrorist has gotten that far, well whether or not they get a gun pretty much becomes a moot point.

A pilot and/or copilot having access to a gun doesn't necessarily mean that it'll do any good. But it does provide an option for defending the plane that they do not have available now. Depending on the circumstances it might make a big difference in the outcome of an attempted hijacking.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

You've got mail : Remember the anthrax attacks? Yeah, those. It seems like the FBI has been about as effective at finding whoever was behind those as OJ has been in finding the "real" killers.

Now government sources are telling NewsWeek that tests they've run indicate that the anthrax in the Leahy letter is more sophisticated than anything the US government has ever produced or even knows about. The coating was something they've never seen before and the milling was finer than anything previously seen.

It seems, at least from the article, that they're still hawking the single loner psych profile theory only now it's a single loner who's a bloody genius. That theory has never seemed to carry a lot of water as far as I can see, nor has it seemed to have led them anywhere. The strain of anthrax involved was apparently a common one, so that doesn't exactly provide a lot of clues. Given that this is a form of weaponized anthrax apparently never seen before, that pretty much shoots down the "loner who worked in a government lab and stole some anthrax when laid off" theory down - if we don't have it, they couldn't have stolen it. And, granting that I don't really know diddly about the subject, this doesn't seem to be the kind of thing one exactly does in one's garage on the weekends. The milling equipment alone must cost a fortune and as it would have to be fairly specialized equipment it's probably not something you could just go down and buy at Home Depot. Assuming, of course, that you already had the ability to grow anthrax, had anthrax to start with, had the chemicals necessary to make the coating, and knew how to do so - all without accidentally infecting yourself.

In short, is it just me or does the whole single loner thing seem like a whole lot of bunk?
Send in the clones? : There are reports that a woman is eight weeks pregnant with a clone. Or at least that seems to be what everyone believes was claimed, though it seems to me that isn't exactly what was said -

[...] Dr Antinori revealed: "Our project is at a very advanced stage. One woman among the thousands of infertile couples in the programme is eight weeks pregnant."

Now maybe I'm just still in a Clinton-inspired "That depends on what the meaning of 'is', is" mode, but it seems to me the good doctor left himself more than a little bit of weasel room there. And if you think I'm being too suspicious, consider this - if they had successfully implanted a woman with a clone and she was eight weeks along, and if they were perfectly willing to reveal this knowing that it would make a splash in the media, why would it have come out as an aside in an obscure Q&A session rather than a big honkin' full-out media blitz?

In any event, this news has, unsurprisingly, caused more than a little upset and condemnation in some circles.

Doctors have reacted with scepticism and outrage, but admitted human cloning was inevitable unless there was a worldwide ban.

As a practical matter, a worldwide ban ain't gonna happen and it's questionable if even that would stop someone, somewhere, from going through with this despite whatever consequences there would be. Fact of the matter is, it probably wouldn't be that hard to hide such activities from any kind of ban if you really wanted to.

The good doctor says -

People criticise us saying we are pandering to the vulnerable but we are doctors and will not harm a person, he reiterated.

Hmmm, more weasel words? Or does the word "person" include the cloned-zygote/embryo/fetus? The problem being, of course, that to date all mammalian clones have displayed problems, there doesn't seem much room to believe it'll be any different with humans than it has been with other mammals. It's hard to imagine that if this woman is indeed eight weeks pregnant with a clone that the child will come to term. To date our record with cloning animals is lousy and it has in some instances required the creation and implantation of hundreds of zygotes before getting one successful birth. If the child were to somehow come to term it is even more difficult to imagine that it too wouldn't suffer from genetic problems as other clones have, possibly with problems that wouldn't be detected until years down the line. Until you can make it work, and work well, on other mammals, trying this with a human is unconscionable. Even then, well human reproductive cloning is questionable in my mind.

I'm not against cloning per se, and even when it comes to human reproductive cloning I go back and forth some. Mostly I can't figure out a reason on the macro level to do it. It isn't exactly like we've got a population shortage doing things the old fashioned way. It doesn't seem likely that having genetic duplicates of particular individuals is, in and of itself, going to be apt to be of any particular benefit to humanity at large. On the micro, individual, level, yeah, I understand it. There are lots of people who are infertile - guess what, I'm one of 'em - and that pretty much sucks blue iguana eggs - to put it mildly. I understand wanting a child that is your own, a part of you, believe me I do. But how far should we as a society go in order to fulfill that desire?

I don't know, I really don't, and I have very mixed feelings on the matter.

One of the things that worries me about all of this is that we really don't know what in the hell we're doing. Like most of what constitutes medicine, this stuff works because it works. What do I mean by that? I mean that through a little knowledge and a lot of trial-and-error we've discovered that if you do X and Y you get Z - most of the time. Problem is, we really don't know how exactly X and Y lead to Z, what all of the in-between steps are. Poorly understood natural processes take over and do most of the work for us.

Look up the pharmacology data on a dozen drugs at random and I'll bet you at least half - probably more - of them will include the words "The exact mechanism is not understood" or something along those lines. The general public has the impression, and it's certainly one that in general the medical community wishes you to have, that when a doctor gives you a drug they know exactly how and why that drug works. In the vast majority of cases, not so. I suspect the general public would be quite shocked if they knew just how big many of the gaps in our medical knowledge are. That isn't to say that we haven't learned a lot, we have, but the fact is that what we don't know would fill a whole lot more books than what we do.

For the most part this doesn't matter all that much, neither you nor your doctor really cares exactly how a particular drug or therapy does its job just as long as it does. But when you're talking about trying to make zygotes that will eventually be babies and even little mistakes can have huge consequences for them later in life, it seems to me that you'd damn well better have a whole lot better understanding of what you're doing than we do today.

Update : I'm not the only one wondering about weasel words -

It was unclear if Antinori had clearly stated that the woman's pregnancy was a result of cloning.

I had also wondered about this -

Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology and a leading cloning scientist based at the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he is extremely angry at the news but very sceptical.

He says the scientific community would have no way or verifying whether the baby, if it existed, was a clone or a normal child.

"I do not trust these people to tell us the truth," he said.
Brilliant, just Brilliant : I've been wondering what all the screaming this week in techie-land about Brilliant was but for most of this week I haven't had the time to do much besides skim my mail and write a post or three. Today I took the time to find out.

Wow.

It turns out it has to do with KaZaA. In case you've never heard of it, KaZaA Media Desktop is currently one of the more popular media "sharing" programs out there - think Napster. Now it's no secret that programs like KaZaA, indeed an awful lot of freeware these days, comes loaded with advert programs, many of which are spyware - spyware as in they phone home periodically and tell people about your web habits so that they can try and serve you adverts aimed at your particular interests. It doesn't exactly take a genius to figure out the inherent privacy concerns, which alone is a good reason not to install such software and to have Ad-Aware installed, up-to-date, and to run it periodically. A good firewall program, like Zonealarm wouldn't hurt either. Both programs are available in free versions (while I'm at it, here's a freeware virus scanner that will also watch your incoming and outgoing mail as well).

The thing is that KaZaA goes well beyond the usual spyware games. The KaZaA install routines apparently include software from Brilliant Digital Entertainment called Altnet Secureinstall. It's apparently in the EULA, but who actually reads those things?

"You hereby grant (Brilliant) the right to access and use the unused computing power and storage space on your computer/s and/or Internet access or bandwidth for the aggregation of content and use in distributed computing," the terms of service read. "The user acknowledges and authorizes this use without the right of compensation."

Sound scary? It is. Basically using their P2P software Brilliant can use your machine for their purposes. Your machine becomes a part of their network and you've already agreed to let them have your "unused" clock cycles, bandwidth, and storage space for whatever purposes they might wish. This software has been included with KaZaA since last fall, there are millions of people out there who have this installed on their systems and likely don't even know it.

Apparently Brilliant hasn't started actually doing this yet, but they plan to in the next month or so. They claim it's going to be an "opt in" system and for now they plan to use it as a new way to distribute adverts. Uh-huh, I'm sure that'll last.

It wasn't all that long ago this would have been called a Trojan, and rightly so.

If you have KaZaA installed on your system (and, if you do, I'm sure you're using it only for legal and honorable purposes, right?) you can find instructions on how to remove this godforsaken bit of software here. The amusing part is that removing Brilliant's software apparently doesn't effect KaZaA at all, though I find it hard to imagine that KaZaA won't fill in that loophole soon.