28 February 2006

Of course, fraternal twins don't necessarily look alike...

This story is amazing:
When Kylie Hodgson gave birth to twin daughters by caesarean section, she was just relieved that they had arrived safely.
It was only when the midwife handed them over for her to hold that she noticed the difference between them.

Remee, who weighed 5lb 15oz, was blonde and fair skinned. Her sister Kian, born a minute later weighing 6lb, was black.
Both of the grandfathers of the twins are black; both grandmothers are white. General coloration is thought to be determined by several genes, which is why children often have skin tones intermediate between their parents. But in this case, against extremely long odds, one twin seems to have gotten all the genes for dark hair and skin, and the other all the ones for fair.

I bet they're going to get really sick of explaining this to people who object, "But you can't be twins!"

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20 February 2006

Of course, "normal people" have nothing to fear

According to the Hatch Act, political bumper stickers are allowed on cars parked on federal property, with no stated limitation on either size or number of stickers. So by the current rules, Scarbrough's car would seem to be legit--unless the "elsewhere" of the pamphlet rule is meant to extend to personal property as well as government property.

If that's the case, both Scarbrough and his coworker said, "That's news to me." It would also be news to the dozens of people parked in the Natural Resource Complex with bumper stickers reading, among other sentiments, "My Dad is a Marine," "Create Peace," "POW/ MIA," and others of both the pro-choice and pro-life variety.

But after going through the incident, both Scarbrough and his coworker are insistent: it's not the location or size that mattered in this case. It's the message.
— from the Boise Weekly, in an article on Scarbrough's being made by Homeland
Security officers to move his vehicle and its anti-war messages away from his workplace
Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day last week and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden.

The men looked stern and wore baseball caps emblazoned with the words "Homeland Security." The bizarre scene unfolded Feb. 9, leaving some residents confused and forcing county officials to explain how employees assigned to protect county buildings against terrorists came to see it as their job to police the viewing of pornography.
Policing Porn Is Not Part of Job Description
It took me a half dozen e-mails and telephone calls over three days to just to confirm that yes, the Directorate of National Intelligence, or DNI, the new-ish uber-spooks body — has opened an office to deal with state and local law enforcement.

And it took me a few more inquiries before the DNI gave up the name of its head, Michael Tiffany, though nothing more.
— Jeff Stein, National Security Editor, CQ.com
Secret police, arbitrary (mis)enforcement of laws—America is cravenly allowing the Bush administration to, bit by bit, create a police state.

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18 February 2006

Now Alec Baldwin shoots at Whittington!

Luckily for Whittington, Baldwin was only using words, and he's not all that good with them. And Whittington is the wrong Republican to be going after—he's deserving of respect, a member of the honorable opposition. Want to know why? Go read Molly Ivins on the subject. Here's a sample:
...Whittington is seriously civilized, particularly on the issues of crime, punishment and prisons. He served on both the Texas Board of Corrections and on the bonding authority that builds prisons. As he has often said, prisons do not curb crime, they are hothouses for crime: "Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants."

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I can do 8th grade math! Kinda...

You'd think that after spending 12 years getting a BA in math, I would have no problems with a test that purports to tell you if you could pass 8th grade math. And sure enough, I got 10/10—but that was only because I guessed right on this question:
-7 is:

a. Irrational
b. An integer
c. A whole number
d. A prime number
I hate it when test creators don't carefully check their tests. Depending on how you define "whole number", either b or c could be correct. According to the Wikipedia (and my memory, which is even less reliable), a whole number can be either a positive integer (1, 2, 3, ...), a nonnegative integer (0, 1, 2, ...), or any integer (... -1, 0, 1, ...).

This isn't, however, as bad as the questions from Thailand's test of English I posted a while back.

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17 February 2006

The US decides to help fix Iran

US to promote change in Iran

The Bush administration, frustrated by Iranian defiance on its nuclear program, has proposed spending $85 million to promote political change inside Iran by subsidizing dissident groups, unions, student fellowships and television and radio broadcasts.
The problem is, we've made ourselves so poisonous to Muslims that none of the recipients can be seen to be accepting help from Americans.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice...said Wednesday that the administration had also worked out a way to circumvent U.S. law barring financial relations with Iran to allow some money to go directly to groups promoting change inside the country.
Gee, waddya think that way was? Did Bush decide he didn't have to follow that law, either?
Senior State Department officials said that they did not intend to publicize recipients of the financing, for fear that they could be jailed or even killed.
See, that's the sort of thing that might make you a little reluctant to accept this money.
...the United States has been cautious about supporting dissident groups, fearful that Iranians, even those sympathetic to the West, might view these efforts as an echo of past U.S. meddling in Iran's internal affairs.
Yup, when you take anti-democratic actions while preaching democracy, people tend to think you're less than sincere. In Iran, in particular, the US-backed ouster of the democratically-elected Mossadegh and installation of the autocratic shah hasn't been forgotten. Together with US support for the military takeover of Algeria, support for Israel's clearly anti-democratic actions against the Palestinians, support for Musharraf in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt—I could go on and on—the US just doesn't have much credibility in the region.
...some conservatives at the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office are known to be resigned to a nuclear-armed Iran and to argue that the best way to address that problem is by opening Iran to democracy and reform.
I think at this point they're right. I'm disturbed, but unsurprised, at the implication that the ideological purge of the military policy-makers (isn't it disturbing how Stalinist the US is sounding these days?) has left only "right-thinking" conservatives in place.

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A Mac OS X virus had to happen someday

So the dread day has come, the day when the first OS X virus got released into the wild:
A malicious computer worm has been found that targets Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X operating system, believed to be the first such virus aimed specifically at the Mac platform.

The worm is called OSX/Leap-A, according to a posting on the Web site of antivirus software company Sophos, which said the worm is spread via instant messaging programs.

The worm attempts to spread via Apple's iChat instant messaging program, which is compatible with America Online's popular AIM instant messaging program, according to the Sophos Web site.
The worm sends itself to available contacts on the infected users' buddy list in a file called "latestpics.tgz," according to the Sophos Web site.

The worm will not automatically infect Mac computers, but will ask users to accept the file, Weafer said.

Symantec ranked the new worm as a Level 1 threat (with 5 being the most severe).
So be careful, especially with files sent to you via iChat. But no need for paranoia yet.

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15 February 2006

These guys claim they're good at protecting us?

Pre-Sept. 11 intelligence conducted by a secret military unit identified terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta 13 different times, a congressman said Tuesday.

Kimberly Hefling, AP

...FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

Presidential daily briefing, 6 August 2001, entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike in US"

The deaths and suffering of thousands of Hurricane Katrina's victims might have been avoided if the government had heeded lessons from the 2001 terror attacks and taken a proactive stance toward disaster preparedness, a House inquiry concludes.

Lara Jakes Jordan, AP

Really, would it be possible for the Democrats to be any worse than this? Well, OK, I suppose it might. But not much. At this point, I wish we could give them a chance.

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Please let these tiny computers arrive soon

I walk around with a backpack nearly all of the time, because I like having a 17" screen to work on and so I need a pretty big bag to carry it in. I would be so happy to have a full-featured big-screen computer I could carry around in my pocket. Not possible, you say? Maybe it is.

<rant>Look at the title of the article I linked to. "Future PC's". The purpose of an apostrophe is not to provide a warning that there's an "s" approaching; it's to signify possession ("Bill's obsessions") or to indicate that letters have been omitted ("I can't stand it"). Neither is true in this case. The title should be "Future PCs".</rant>

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Copyright in the digital age

There's a fascinating talk by Lawrence Lessig up on his site about Google's Book Search, and the lawsuits that have been brought against it. These cases focus on the doctrine of "fair use". This doctrine is what, for instance, allows me to quote from copyrighted materials, so long as I'm not using too much of that material.

Lessig builds the legal case for Google on two basic arguments. The first is that there's a transformation of some kind on the work. Google Image, for instance, creates thumbnails of (possibly copyrighted) images, and then uses those thumbnails to link to the originals. This has been held to be fair use. Lessig argues that what Google Book Search is doing is analogous; it's giving users a reduced portion of the work—in this case a "snippet" of text—which links to the original, or to the publisher's site or some such.

The other argument is that Google Book Search remedies a market failure for a portion of the books indexed. Books which are in the public domain (about 16% of the total) are not in question; books which are currently in print, or have recently gone out of print (another 15%) are being dealt with by negotiations between Google and the publishers in question. The problem comes with the remaining 69% or books which are still under copyright, but are no longer in print. In many, perhaps most, cases, the copyright holder cannot be identified or located. As a result, there's a piece of property which is said to belong to someone, but because the owner is unknown, it cannot be bought and sold. This is a clear market failure.

I would think that for most authors, the problem is not so much potential loss of royalties as it is lack of exposure. Most books sink without a trace. And if Google Book Search helps little-known books find an audience, I think it would be welcomed by both authors and readers. As with music and movies, it's the desires of the few very popular creators that are being allowed to drive decisions. It's not good for the arts, it's not good for the vast majority of creators, and it's not good for the rest of us. Who wants to listen to Top 40 radio all of the time, or read only Tom Clancy, or watch only Bruce Willis movies?

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Who has a fetish for only schoolgirls' right slippers?

After a year of living in Japan, I had say that the place and its people were relentlessly fascinating. Vending machines containing beer, 10-kilo sacks of rice, porn videos, and cans of hot coffee. Trains which, when they missed the spot where they were supposed to stop by a meter or less, would back up. Fast-food drinks, in a cup, with a lid, all presented in a paper sack. It's a very strange place.

It's nice, though, to see that they have UFOlogists just as wacko as the American ones.

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Who has a fetish for only schoolgirls' right slippers?

After a year of living in Japan, I had say that the place and its people were relentlessly fascinating. Vending machines containing beer, 10-kilo sacks of rice, porn videos, and cans of hot coffee. Trains which, when they missed the spot where they were supposed to stop by a meter or less, would back up. Fast-food drinks, in a cup, with a lid, all presented in a paper sack. It's a very strange place.

It's nice, though, to see that they have UFOlogists just as wacko as the American ones.

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You can't buy popularity

Apparently we're not as dumb as they think:

Bush Administration Spent Over $1.6 Billion on Advertising and Public Relations Contracts Since 2003

Bush's approval rating drops to 39 percent

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10 February 2006

Did Cheney tell Libby to out Plame?

This could be some real trouble for Dick Cheney:
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said in documents filed last month that he plans to introduce evidence that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, disclosed to reporters the contents of a classified National Intelligence Estimate in the summer of 2003.
In a Jan. 23 letter to Libby's lawyers, Fitzgerald said Libby also testified before the grand jury that he caused at least one other government official to discuss an intelligence estimate with reporters in July 2003.

"We also note that it is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors," Fitzgerald wrote.
The White House, of course, had no comment.

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Abramoff and Bush

It is stunning to watch this administration's reaction when confronted with bad news. No matter what, their first reaction is always to deny it. Global warming doesn't exist, the president isn't unpopular, Bush opponents aren't excluded from events, no one at the White House leaked Valerie Plame's identity, a plane was headed for the White House on 9/11, Bush completed his National Guard service, etc., etc. I think their calculation is that by the time the truth comes out, the media will have moved on, and people will only remember the denials, not the truth.

A recent example is the White House's statements that Bush doesn't know disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and while Abramoff might have been at a few large gatherings at the White House, Bush certainly doesn't know him personally. It seems that the White House has asked at least one photo studio to hide pictures of Bush and Abramoff together.

These claims never passed the sniff test. It strains credulity beyond all reason to believe that Bush, who takes good care of his big donors, would not do what he could to stay close to Abramoff, one of the Bush Pioneers.

According to Abramoff, the White House is simply lying about his relationship with Bush. He says he met Bush "almost a dozen" times, and that Bush even invited him to his ranch.

Now, I don't trust Abramoff any more than I trust Bush. But given that Abramoff has little to gain from saying what he's saying, and Bush has a lot to gain from what he's saying, I would give Abramoff the benefit of the doubt in this case.

What puzzles me, though, is why the White House didn't just say, as the scandal was breaking, that they were shocked at the allegations, give the money back, and swear to be more careful about who they associate with in the future? Why lie as the knee-jerk response? Maybe it's just that longstanding habits are hard to break.

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08 February 2006

Virtual war. We all knew it was coming.

I, for one, didn't expect it to be against the Danish. Apparently, crackers in the Muslim world have been attacking Danish websites in retaliation for, um, some cartoons. See, this is why they say that "truth is stranger than fiction". From the article:
The number of Danish websites alone - those carrying a '.dk' suffix - knocked offline in the past week numbered 578 between 30 January and 6 February, according to Zone-H.org, a cyber-crime observatory that tracks website defacements. Hundreds more websites of European, Israeli and American companies and private citizens have also been defaced during that period, with the vast majority occurring after the re-publication last week of the cartoons in European newspapers.
It is a little worrying, how many sites were vulnerable. With any luck, these attacks will help strengthen defenses as weaknesses are exposed.

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Huh. Eating less fat doesn't make you healthier? Obesity might result from an infection?

In recent health news, it turns out that a low-fat diet doesn't affect your chances of getting cancer or heart disease:
The $415 million federal study involved nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 who were followed for eight years. In the end, those assigned to a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes as those who ate whatever they pleased, researchers are reporting today.

"These studies are revolutionary," said Dr. Jules Hirsch, physician in chief emeritus at Rockefeller University in New York City, who has spent a lifetime studying the effects of diets on weight and health. "They should put a stop to this era of thinking that we have all the information we need to change the whole national diet and make everybody healthy."
This certainly does fly in the face of current conventional wisdom on the subject.

Even more interesting was this little tidbit:
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have found that mice and chickens infected with a common human virus put on much more fat than uninfected animals. They have also discovered that the same virus is more prevalent among overweight people, a strong indication that it may also cause obesity in humans.
Ulcers, and now, possibly, schizophrenia and obesity? It may yet be that nearly all of our bodily ills are due to genetics and bugs.

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Bush hears some criticism!

This must have been an unpleasant surprise for Bush:
"[Coretta Scott King] extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there," Lowery said.

The mostly black crowd applauded, then rose to its feet and cheered in a two-minute-long standing ovation.

A closed-circuit television in the mega-church outside Atlanta showed the president smiling uncomfortably.

"But Coretta knew, and we know," Lowery continued, "That there are weapons of misdirection right down here," he said, nodding his head toward the row of presidents past and present. "For war, billions more, but no more for the poor!" The crowd again cheered wildly.

Former President Jimmy Carter later swung at Bush as well, not once but twice. As he talked about the Kings, he said: "It was difficult for them then personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps." The crowd cheered as Bush, under fire for a secret wiretapping program he ordered after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, again smiled weakly.
So, Mr President, think you've run through all that "political capital" yet?

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My dad's got a blog!

For some sane discussion of life from a religious perspective (dad was a minister for about 40 years, and a missionary — no, not that kind, rather the kind that goes to help people instead of converting them — for five), go take a look at his blog. He's currently posting his Mind Matters columns from years past, which are certainly worth a read. And if you like what you see, be sure to leave a comment.

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07 February 2006

Doctors have more interesting jobs than most of us

Don't believe it? Go have a read at Things I Learn From My Patients. Random sample:
if you are going to have a leg amputated in a car accident be very sure that the neighborhood dog is not lurking in the area...they tend to take what they can get.

That broken hand you deliberately smashed with a hammer will get you ONE PRESCRIPTION FOR VICODIN, NO REFILLS. Do not go home and remove the cast and try to return to the ER two hours later to get more. We are busy, but we will remember you.

If you're a 13 year old girl with a long arm, fiberglass cast on it's totally OK to go swimming at the beach (she didn't even try the usless bag with duct tape trick). When your dripping, sand filled cast starts to itch be sure to use a bent coat hanger to pull out all the cast padding. Since that won't work (I swear I'm not making this up) go ahead and pour salt down the cast on the assumption that it will soak up the water. Once your arm is a red, macerated mess come on down to the ED.
Aside from the stupidity of this course of action this girl also had a weird affect so I asked if she was developmentally delayed. This thoroughly annoyed the girl and her mother but the dad said, "Well I can see why you might think that but no."

...don't allow someone with a known poorly controlled seizure disorder to perform oral sex on you...

If your family/doctor/government whatever has taken away your drivers license because you have frequent seizures and refuse to take your pheno, please use a riding lawn-mower as your primary means of transportation. Chances are, you won't seize, hit a telephone pole, burn your leg and scalp on the mower as you fall off of it, and cause a power outage in your surrounding area.

This stuff goes on for 38 pages. It makes for an absorbing afternoon.

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The future of computing?

There's now an online image editor at http://pxn8.com/. Go play around a little—it's limited, but a nice proof-of-concept. For many people, I expect this to be the way computing will be delivered in the future. Rather than millions of people each buying and installing an application on their own computer, and then having to deal with upgrades and bug fixes and conflicts and the like, the application will reside on a server, and the user's computer will just display the user interface.

One effect would be to greatly reduce the hardware requirements for your desktop computer, making it (in theory) much cheaper.

You'd think this would be a boon to the developing world, and it may yet be. There are a couple of major obstacles, though. One is financial—online tools like PXN8 will probably be provided on a subscriber basis, and very few people in the developing world have a way (or, indeed, the money) to pay for things online. The other roadblock, though, will be bandwidth. The megabit connection I have here in Bangkok, which costs me $25/month with no data transfer charges, could cost me as much as $2500/month next door in Cambodia. There's just no way that the average Khmer could afford a fast enough connection to make PXN8 a viable alternative to $2 bootleg Photoshop from the market.

Update: As Tharum points out in the comments, even better than bootleg Photoshop are FOSS solutions, notably GIMP (available for Unix‑y OSs including Mac OS X, and Windows).

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02 February 2006

Does the US not want to win the GWOT?

This is from a recent White House gaggle (via the always excellent First Draft):
Q According to data currently available at the Department of Homeland Security Funded Terrorism Knowledge Base, the incidents of terrorism increased markedly in 2005: worldwide attacks were up 51 percent from the year before, and the number of people killed in those attacks is up 36 percent; since the year 2000, attacks are up 250 percent, and deaths are up 550 percent. How do you reconcile those numbers with your claim that you're winning the war on terrorism and putting terrorists out of business?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, just look at the facts. If you look at the facts, many of al Qaeda's known leadership have been put out of business. They've been brought to justice. They've either been captured or killed. No longer is America waiting and responding. We're on the offense; we're taking the fight to the enemy. We are engaged in a war on terrorism. The enemies recognize how high the stakes are. And one thing the President will talk about, continue to talk about tomorrow night and in the coming weeks, is that we continue to face a serious threat. This is a deadly and determined enemy. But the difference is now that we've got them on the run, we've got them playing defense, we're taking the fight to them. And all of us in the international community must continue to work together...
This reminds me of nothing so much as the war on drugs. In that "war", law enforcement forces focus on the amount of drugs seized, and assume that this reduces harm to citizens rather than reflecting the amount of drugs available. But they have no intention of doing anything that might actually reduce the perceived need for the "war" on drugs, because that would reduce their budgets. The drug lords, in turn, want things to stay as they are so their profits remain high. The interests of the criminals and the police are aligned, and citizens suffer as a result.

Similarly, in the GWOT the Bush administration is focusing on the number of terrorists captured or killed, rather than the number of people and amount of property destroyed by terrorists. They've created this enormous "anti-terrorism" bureaucracy, and should they actually reduce terrorism they reduce the justification for their own existence. If they redefined their mission as reducing terrorism, rather than capturing and killing terrorists, they might accomplish something. As it is, they've given themselves perverse incentives to increase the amount of terrorism, so as to justify bigger budgets—and the numbers the questioner quotes above show that they're succeeding.

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What the $#%& were they thinking?

Right now I'm watching Martin Scorcese's Casino on TV. To meet Star Movies's "standards", they've removed every instance of the word "fuck" from the film. According to the IMDb, that's 422 instances. Many lines contain awkward long silences in them; some scenes are reduced to several split-second flashes. It's pretty distracting, and I have to wonder why they even bothered.

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Parochial Americans

Unless you're an American, you probably didn't know that the Super Bowl, the American football championship, will be held this coming Sunday. In the US it's a pretty big deal; something like 90 million Americans will watch it. But to claim, as this article does, that it's "the world's biggest sports event", is just absurd. True, the NFL claims "a potential worldwide audience of 1 billion" for the game, but that seems unlikely, given that I've never met a non-American who's ever said they've seen a Super Bowl. Besides, I could claim "a potential worldwide audience of 2 billion" for this blog; it doesn't mean I actually get that many hits.

The worldwide audience for the World Cup final game has been estimated as high as 2 billion. The draw for the final round alone was seen by 300 million. The cricket World Cup is also seen by 2 billion, and the Rugby World Cup has been seen by as many as 2.5 billion.

The world's biggest sports event? The Super Bowl isn't even close.

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