31 January 2006

How, exactly, did Salman Rushdie harm Islam?

Blasphemy is a strange crime. First you create a religious system. In this system you have one or more extremely powerful gods. Then you claim that insulting the god(s) somehow harms these omnipotent beings, and thus those who commit such an offense need to be punished.

I do understand that people get offended when their belief systems are mocked. It's just that freedom from being offended is not a human right.

What about the "harm" that mockery does to a religion? Sorry. I just don't get how, say, this could possibly "harm" Christianity. And I don't think that Islam is so fragile that a few disrespectful drawings of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper pose any threat whatsoever.

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Hamas wins

I don't get it. Why is everyone so surprised by Hamas's winning a majority in the Palestinian elections? When I was in that part of the Middle East (admittedly, it was back in 1990), the Palestinians I talked to, in both Jordan and Israel, viewed Hamas very favorably, preferring to focus on the social services that Hamas provided rather than the terrorism in which it engaged. Besides, the religious motivation of Hamas members seems to lead to less corruption than that exhibited by Fatah. I would have been surprised if Hamas didn't win, or at least do very well.

But the US State Department didn't ask me, and so now we're seeing the spectacle of an administration which claims to want to spread democracy, trying to strangle the winners of an election that went the "wrong" way. The whole point of democracy is to create a process by which a majority of the governed can choose the government it wants. It is decidedly not to select a government that is acceptable to the Bush administration. And as long as an elected government respects human rights, acts as a responsible member of the international community, and holds regular, free, and fair elections, the US should be willing to work with it.

It almost enough to make you think that Bush & Co don't really believe in democracy.

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"Metallic penile adornment"?

Here's an article you won't want to miss, on "the terrible, terrible things that some men do to their dicks". It'll make you giggle or cringe, depending on your gender. Here's one bit that will haunt me for a bit (sorry):
Always - if you must disregard rule five — check said orifice first. This includes knot holes in trees. Knot holes are often nested by creatures who may misinterpret your intentions.
On the "setting your penis on fire" front, during my first year in college I had the good fortune to witness the final performance of the Flaming Mouse, in which a member of my college would douse his penis in lighter fluid and set it on fire, to the delight and amazement of a large and very appreciative audience. He did this a total of ten times over the course of his college career, and said that it felt like a mild sunburn for about a week afterwards. Still, it's not recommended.

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Toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia

You might remember my suggesting that most "mental illness" would be found to be, in fact, bodily illness, either genetic or infectious. Now there's some more evidence for that, at least in the case of schizophrenia:
Research published in Procedings of the Royal Society B, shows how the invasion or replication of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii in rats may be inhibited by using anti-psychotic or mood stabilising drugs.

The researchers tested anti-psychotic and mood stabilising medications used for the treatment of schizophrenia on rats infected with T. gondii and found they were as, or more, effective at preventing behaviourial alterations as anti-T. gondii drugs. This led them to believe that T. gondii may have a role in the development of some cases of schizophrenia.

Dr Joanne Webster from Imperial College London, and lead researcher said: "Although we are certainly not saying that exposure to this parasite does definitely lead to the development of schizophrenia, this and previous studies do show there may be a link in a few individuals, providing new clues for how we treat toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again—conditions like schizophrenia and depression are probably best understood as symptoms, rather than illnesses in and of themselves.

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22 January 2006

Reasoned but passionate debate on the substantive political issues of our time

Unfortunately, there's precious little of it these days. Instead, what you hear is much more like this.

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21 January 2006

Bush is #1!

Sen. Hillary Clinton...charged that the Bush administration "will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country."

She's wrong. As a serious student of politics and history in high school and college and a close observer as a journalist for more than a half-century, these presidents were the five "worst"...

USA Today editorial

Mr. Hamilton: What I'm suggesting is that this place is the crummiest, shoddiest, worst-run hotel in the whole of Western Europe.
Major Gowen: No. No. I won't have that. There's a place in Eastbourne.

— from
Fawlty Towers

And just what does USA Today list as reasons the Bush League shouldn't be considered the worst, or even one of the five worst?
His tragic "pre-emptive" war against Iraq may well go down as the biggest foreign policy blunder ever, especially if he "stays the course" and the unconscionable cost in lives and dollars goes on.

But domestically, except for the foul-up of the follow-up to Hurricane Katrina, Bush has done reasonably well. His leadership helped rally the country after 9/11. The economy is not great, but OK. In the areas of health care and education, he gets pretty good grades.
"...helped rally the country"? He could have used the emotion and sense of shared fortune among Americans to help create a better America. Instead, his "with us or against us" rhetoric and actions have polarized the US and alienated the world. His economic policies have further divided the haves from the have-nots. The major health care initiative he has inflicted on the US is the new Medicare, which has been a disaster for everyone but Big Pharma, and the real disaster hasn't hit yet, but will when people start falling through the "doughnut hole".

Economically, things are far from OK. The staggering deficits resulting from idiotic tax cuts, coupled with the inability of the White House and Congress to control spending—not to mention the war ("Don't mention the war!"), which might wind up costing $2 trillion—guarantee overly high tax burdens in the future.

But what about education? Bush's signature program, "No Child Left Behind", is a perfect example of an unfunded mandate:
THE federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002 may go down in history as the most unpopular piece of education legislation ever created. It has been criticized for setting impossibly high standards—that every child in America must be proficient in reading and math by 2014—while providing meager financing, as President Bush has budgeted billions less than what the law allows.
And let's not forget his ignoring warnings that al-Qaeda was intending to strike the US, alienation of America's oldest ally, opposition to any independent inquiry into 9/11, opposition to popular elections in Iraq, refusing to speak with those who disagree with him, appointing unqualified cronies to high office, refusal to be honest about his National Guard "service" or history of drug use, denying turkey dinner to troops in Iraq who don't support him politically, claiming "Mission Accomplished" when clearly it hadn't been—and then lying about who was responsible for that, illegally wiretapping when he could easily have gotten warrants, admitting that he violated the law but that it didn't matter because laws "curtsy to great kings"...I could go on and on, but it's not really necessary.

Worst. President. Ever.

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20 January 2006

You know how many time zones they got?

Here are a couple of questions that every fledgling programmer should be asked:
  1. How many time zones are there in the world?
  2. How many hours are in a day?
The naïve answer—the answer I would have given—to both is "24". And that answer is wrong for both.

It turns out that the world has many more than 24 time zones. For instance, so that nowhere in India is local sun time too far off from the official time, the country is 5:30 later than GMT. And Nepal, just to show that it's different from India, is another 15 minutes later.

The answer to the second question is "it depends". I discovered this when I was analyzing some logs from machines in several locations around the world. One thing I was calculating was their productivity per hour, and I calculated it by taking the amount of work each had done during a calendar day and dividing by 24. One day I noticed that all of the machines in the US showed about a 4% drop in productivity; the ones in other countries didn't. The next day they were all back to normal. This puzzled me until I analyzed the logs over the previous year, and found a day when US machines had a 4% increase in productivity. That day was exactly 6 months earlier. The culprit was daylight savings time, which creates a day in October that's 25 hours long, and one in April that's 23 hours long.

So time is harder than you might think, and takes some work to get right.

(And if you don't know the answer to the question in the title to this post, you need to listen to more Negativland.)

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The US scores an own goal in Pakistan

A reader asked that I comment on the recent bombing in Pakistan, which, we're told, was intended to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological leader of al-Qaeda. Although he seems not to have been there, 18 others were killed, possibly including al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and two other al-Qaeda leaders.

The rationale for this comes from the "great man" theory of history, which places a great deal of importance on key individuals. The idea is then that, by getting rid of the person, you can stop the history that would have resulted from his life. It's easy to see why the people who made this decision like this theory of history.

There are two major problems with acting on this theory in this way. One is that individuals rarely are as important as all that. If Newton had died as a child, what would the impact have been on, say, calculus? The answer is "very little". Leibniz was developing calculus about the same time, and it's his notation that we use today. The reason that so much credit is given to Newton in this area is that he did it first, not that only he could have done it.

Al-Zawahiri's contributions to al-Qaeda have been primarily ideological. He studied under Sayyid Qutb and took his ideas in a new, more murderous direction, first with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and then with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Even if the theory were correct, by the time a "great man", whose work consists of ideas, can be identified as a target, he has likely already produced his most important work, and martyring him tends to enhance the perceived worth of those ideas. So even if the attack had succeeded in killing al-Zawahiri, his ideas would live on.

The other major problem with the thinking behind this attack is that it presumes that al-Qaeda is controlled by its "leaders", and if those leaders are killed, the organization will fall apart, much as an ant colony deprived of its queens will perish.

Unfortunately for the planners of the attack in Pakistan, al-Qaeda seems to be a much looser organization, if indeed it can be described as an "organization". It seems rather to be a description of adherents to the ideas espoused by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. Killing them would not kill their ideas, and so al-Qaeda would live on. The only effective way to fight al-Qaeda would seem to be to make the ideas themselves unattractive. Although various countries have tried to battle ideologies by making them illegal—for example, the Falun Gong in China, neo-Naziism in Germany, and Christianity in Rome—many humans rather perversely see the persecution as a validation of their beliefs.

The best way to kill an ideology is is for the general public to stop believing in its importance. Bombs won't make that happen. Neither will dishonest PR campaigns. The best weapon is demonstrably better ideas. And this is where this bombing had its greatest failure. By killing innocents—and they will be seen in the Islamic world as innocents, no matter if they were hosting al-Zawahiri—the case that democracy, and human rights, are a better way than the religious purity of al-Qaeda becomes harder to make.

We have a good story to tell, a story of better governance, of more dignified, more meaningful lives. The noise from bombs like the those in Pakistan last week makes it harder for people to hear it.

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19 January 2006

Sure, monkeys seem cute

Monkeys seem like they'd be great pets until you actually get to spend some quality time up close and personal with them. Then you discover that they are highly intelligent, extremely agile creatures with all of the emotional maturity and impulse control of a 2-year-old human. I know of committed pacifist vegans who have not killed their local monkeys only because a) they couldn't catch them, and b) guns are too hard to get where they live. Another friend in Phnom Penh who lived near the Post Office there, had so much trouble with one that she talked a wildlife NGO into shooting it with a tranquilizer gun and taking it far, far away.

Now the monkeys in Phnom Penh have learned a new trick—they are stealing bags of glue from people addicted to sniffing it. Monkeys are hard enough to deal with at the best of times. I can't imagine what a monkey high on inhalants would be like.

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18 January 2006

The perils of net fame

A while back I wrote about the guy who created the Million Dollar Homepage. He recently received an extortion e-mail, demanding (in rather poor English) $50,000, lest a DDoS attack be launched against the site. He didn't pay, said attack duly happened, and his site went down. So he's upgrading the site security. But there should still be a lot left out of that million dollars.

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A terrorist plot foiled!

Well, OK, it wasn't in the US, but it was in the UK, which has been our most faithful ally in the GWOT. Still, a blow has been struck against the Islamo-Fascists, yes?

Um, not exactly:
SPECIAL Branch cops smashed a plot to kidnap little Leo Blair while monitoring a small band of fanatical dads, The Sun can reveal.

They stumbled across the startling plan as they investigated the activities of men on the lunatic fringe of the Fathers 4 Justice group.
As far as I can tell from the article, they didn't need to tear up their constitution (not that they could, not having one—but they also don't seem to have violated their laws) in order to foil this nefarious plot. These people would not have been identified by the racial profiling advocated by US wingnuts. It just took good solid police work, and any arrests and trials will happen in the criminal justice system, and not in offshore extrajudiciary prisons answerable only to Tony Blair.

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Captain Kirk donates a kidney...stone

In yet another episode of How the Famous Lead Odd Lives:
Actor William Shatner has sold his kidney stone for $25,000, with the money going to a housing charity, it was announced Tuesday. Shatner reached agreement Monday to sell the stone to GoldenPalace.com.
At least Shatner seems to be having fun with his rather unusual fame.

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15 January 2006

Religious nutcase leaders, only one of which has nuclear weapons (so far)

"God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."
— George W. Bush, quoted by Mahmoud Abbas
In November, the country was startled by a video showing Mr Ahmadinejad telling a cleric that he had felt the hand of God entrancing world leaders as he delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly last September.
— from an article in the Telegraph about Iran's President
The Telegraph goes on to say:
All streams of Islam believe in a divine saviour, known as the Mahdi, who will appear at the End of Days... His return will be preceded by cosmic chaos, war and bloodshed. After a cataclysmic confrontation with evil and darkness, the Mahdi will lead the world to an era of universal peace.

This is similar to the Christian vision of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the Hidden Imam is expected to return in the company of Jesus.

Mr Ahmadinejad appears to believe that these events are close at hand and that ordinary mortals can influence the divine timetable.

The prospect of such a man obtaining nuclear weapons is worrying.
Well, yes, that is a worrying prospect. It's worth noting that one of these religious nutcases already has access to nuclear (or, as he says, "nukular") weapons.

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13 January 2006

Death from above

OK, imagine this: you're somewhere in Africa, hunting or gathering or something, keeping an eye out for predatory cats and the like. Tragically, though, you forget to look up. That's when a predatory bird swoops down, pierces your skull with its talons, and then waits for you to die before feasting on your flesh.

That's apparently how at least one of our ancestors died.

Sweet dreams!

Houston-area TV stations refuse to air ads about DeLay

Quivering with courage, three Houston TV stations decided that their fear of Tom DeLay outweighed what remains of their commitment to free speech, and refused to air ads which detailed the connection between DeLay and Jack Abramoff. And so, bit by bit, our media become more independent of the idea that they should serve the public interest, or the truth.

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Body armor: everything just peachy, but we're going to make it better

Stung by a report that said that many soldiers died due to inadequate body armor, the armed forces respond:
The Army plans to send thousands of ceramic body armor plates to Iraq this year to better protect soldiers while the Marine Corps already is delivering such gear, military officers said Wednesday.

In a private appearance before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the officers defended the body armor available to U.S. troops. A Pentagon study done last summer but only disclosed recently found that improved armor may have prevented or minimized torso wounds that proved fatal to Marines in Iraq.
Huh? I think they're saying that the body armor the troops already have is adequate (otherwise they're open to accusations of inadequately protecting soldiers), but they're going to upgrade it anyway. Either it's already adequate, in which case upgrading it is a waste, or it's not. If the latter is true, we sent our soldiers to Iraq with inadequately armored vehicles and inadequate body armor. This is what they call "supporting the troops"? Or do they think that putting a yellow ribbon magnet on your SUV is enough?

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Let's stay safe out there!

One thing that travelers often don't think about until just before they leave is health. In my experience, most travelers will have some health issues when in other countries, even if it's only loose bowels due to changes in their drinking water. (And that's true of everyone, not just people from rich countries—Mexicans are advised not to drink the water in the US.) It's generally a good idea to investigate health risks a few months before you leave, as some immunizations take a while to take effect.

Something that people from rich countries often don't consider is that for diseases which are rare in their home countries, the standard of care may be better overseas. A friend of mine caught malaria in India, and then some months later started having similar symptoms again, and went back to the US. The doctors there decided his malaria had recurred, and tried to treat it as such. In the end, he had to spend several days in the hospital, and was near death, because what he had was, in fact, typhoid. It's likely that had he stayed in India, it would have been recognized and properly treated much sooner, as both diseases are common there.

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11 January 2006

Being annoying can be hazardous to your health

An Australian woman will face court charged with repeatedly stabbing her partner because he played an Elvis Presley song over and over again, police said Tuesday.
The song? Burning Love. The article says the man will survive the attack. There's no word on the fate of the disc.

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Spielberg, hoist on his industry's own DRM petard

Every time I think about this story, I smile from sheer schadenfreude:
By tomorrow [BAFTA members] have to nominate the films they think worthy of accolade, and Spielberg's Munich was expected to be among them, tipped for awards both in Britain and at the Oscars.

But the preview DVD sent to the academy's members is unplayable on machines used in the UK.
The reason the discs couldn't be played? DVD region encoding.

For those of you who spend all of your time in one country, every DVD is encoded for a particular region, and can only be played back on DVD players set to that region.

Most players can switch to a different region, and will ask if you want to do that if you insert the disc of The Office that your friend in the UK sent you. Problem is, the player will change regions a limited number of times (5 or so), and once you exceed that number, the player will never let you change the region it's set for again. So if the last disc you inserted was from Africa, that player will, in perpetuity, play only discs from Africa.

DVD regions were a stunningly bad idea from the get-go, especially for those of us who regularly travel to more than one region. But Hollywood insisted on them, and so they were implemented, and I'm smiling because Hollywood so richly deserved to have this bite them in the ass.

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03 January 2006

Drugs and blogging just don't mix

As you may have read previously, I've been on prednisone this last week. It's quite a nasty drug, which is used to, in effect, shut down the immune system.

Why, you might reasonably ask, would I want to do this, especially when living in the famously disease-ridden tropics? Well, it wasn't my preference, but my doctor asked me to. He wants to see if everything that's happening with my lungs is due to sarcoidosis, or something else. Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease, and shutting the immune system down greatly reduces inflammation.

The reason prednisone isn't used continuously is that its long-term side effects include osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, glaucoma, etc. In the short run, it's given me extreme fatigue and listlessness, wild mood swings, swelling, continuous hunger, and lots of hiccuping.

There may be an added twist. No one knows what causes sarcoidosis, but there is some evidence that it's due to a bacterial infection. If that's true, then using prednisone to treat it should allow the disease to spread, and possibly prolong the course of the disease. And it seems that's exactly what happens.

My choice, though, was to take the prednisone, or forgo treatment. And so I've been taking the prednisone. Last dose in four hours. I'm going to be very glad when this is done.

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