Monday 29 December 2003

Hive Minds, Blogs, and Brains

I´ve been meaning for some time to post some of my thoughts and deductions on the nature of Intelligence, and especially the "emergent behaviour" of groups of intelligent, semi-intelligent, or unintelligent nodes.
Which is jargon for how beehives and nations can be considered in some sense to be thinking creatures in their own right, independant of their constituent bees and citizens.

But now Steven Den Beste has trumped me, and has produced one of the finest pieces of writing on the subject I´ve ever read, in or out of a PhD thesis. Please go read the whole article, it´s another one of Steven´s tour de forces, inordinately long and yet full of meat. Low-fat. Juicy. Brain food at its finest.

There are a few things I would have added, had I written the article:
  • A little on Naked Mole Rats, the only mammal as far as I know that behaves in agregate more like a colony life-form (like a beehive, a coral reef, or a portugese man o´war) than a group of independant animals.
  • How the complexity of behaviour (and hence intellect) of a colony/hive-mind can be less than any of its component parts: Ask yourself, which is more complex, the behaviour of a lynch-mob, or the behaviour of one person in it? Which has the higher IQ?
  • Like Steven, my intuition says that Chaos theory means that Digital hardware (e.g. computers as we know them) cannot behave the same way that Analog hardware ( e.g. biological brains ) do. Yet as I´ve blogged before, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the contrary, and at the lowest level, everything (except according to recent theory, time) is quantised (hence in some sense digital) anyway.
  • Something on the various prosthetic Brain parts, Cyborgs and Hybrots that have appeared in previous posts of mine - and the demonstrations of short-circuiting the Brain.
  • Some speculation on exactly why
    Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.
    How "emergent behaviour" describes remarkably well a Theory of how Democracies work as well as they do, the paradox of why Meritocracies have a poor track record in comparison, and exactly how a Representative Democracy may be an optimised synthesis of the two.
But that´s about it. There is the makings of a cracking good book in this post of his, I hope he has time to write one.

Sunday 28 December 2003

Happy Birthday Fedsat

Amidst the somewhat discouraging news - or rather, lack of news - about Beagle II, I was reminded that I missed a very important Birthday.


It went up on December 14, 2002, and since then has done some 5000 orbits and travelled 230 million kilometres. It scored 2 notable Space Firsts, the demonstration of self-healing by FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) of radiation damage, and the first use of Ka-band communications by a microsatellite. Oh yes, it´s also our first satellite in 30 years, one of the most complex satellites of its size ever built, and won an award as one of the top 5 Enginering Achievements in Australia for 2003.

From a CRCSS Press Release:
If everything had gone according to plan, Australia´s FedSat satellite project would have been a stunning engineering achievement. That it succeeded despite the collapse of its foreign prime contractor made the achievement even more remarkable.

Left with little more than an incomplete shell, unassembled pieces and unfinished software, the engineering team from the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems hastily revised their plans. Instead of having the satellite bus (its structural framework of solar cells, power and control systems) completed in Britain, the team relocated to Canberra, taking the pieces with them.

And instead of facing only the difficult enough tasks of integrating the satellite´s four complex payloads with the structure, and testing the completed satellite, the team was now confronted with the need to first complete the platform, while simultaneously dealing with increased project costs and the rapidly-approaching launch deadline.
To call the software "unfinished" is a bit of a misnomer: I think about 5% of the code remained unchanged, large slabs had to be completely re-designed, and even more created from whole cloth. The hardware was in similar shape, and the test instrumentation even worse. And the requirements kept on increasing, we ended up with rather more than 4 experimental payloads. Never mind, it all worked out in the end. At one stage, when things were looking a little dicey about a year before launch, I told the head of Auspace that they would - or rather, that I guaranteed the software we were writing would work, I staked my personal and professional reputation on it. And workled it did, as the electronics and structural teams performed magnificently too. As well as being as fine a bunch of people as I´ve ever worked with, they were, and are, bloody good Engineers.

Another group of similar sorts, also trying to do the fiendishly difficult on a shoe-string has been blessed with less luck than us so far. Here´s hoping that despite the decreasing odds, contact will be established on Mars and we can say that "The Beagle Has Landed". My fingers are firmly crossed anyway, a technique that worked during the Fedsat launch.

Saturday 27 December 2003

Traditional Aussie Christmas Fare

We spent Christmas and Christmas Eve indoors (wayyy too hot outside) feasting on Home-made Coleslaw (Cabbage, Carrots, Celerey, Onions, and Mayonnaise), Homemade Potato Salad with Spearmint and Peppermint from our garden, Pasta Salad, Smoked Seasoned Turkey, Chilled Roast Turkey, a leg of Ham, then (fruit)Mince Pies, Christmas Cake, Mango Jelly (Jello in US English) with sliced fresh Mangos in, Blue- and Rasp- Berry Jello/Jelly, homemade Fruit Salad with locally-grown seedless grapes of 2 varieties, Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples, Japanese Ya pears, lashings of Mango, fresh oranges, and both Ice and Fresh Cream. Bowls of locally-grown cherries. Watermelon. Oh yes, there was some iceberg lettuce, cucumber, and beetroot salad too, and bread rolls. And the Camembert, Jarlsberg, Edam, Sage Derby and Colby cheeses, with chilli-stuffed olives. Chocolate in wholesale quantities, and as the piece de resistance home-made caramels from a good friend in Minnesota (who incidentally is Gnat Lilacs´ Nana).

Shandy and Ginger Beer to wash it all down, with a glass of Methode Champagnois from Germany for the toast. Some nice Earl Grey tea to go with the cake.

I confess it was 48 hours before I spared a thought for the 12 million people suffering from Malnutrition in North Korea. Something must be done, I just don´t know what.

Australian Space Programme

I´ve written in past posts about the Chinese space programme, and even the Nigerian one. But I´d missed this little article from the Sydney Morning Herald.
Nine private and public stakeholders have joined the Australian Space Network and others will be recruited next year.

The network founders set three initial goals:
  • A Fedsat 2 satellite operating by 2005;
  • Australian instruments on Mars by 2010; and
  • Australian-produced microsatellites orbiting Mars by 2015.

The network's aim is to bring the country's space professionals and companies together to compete for high-technology projects sponsored by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency.
I´m still Googling to find where to sign up.

Wednesday 24 December 2003

Rudolph's Performance Appraisal

I once had an experience much like this, only worse. I left the firm as soon as I could. Shortly thereafter the management fired the last remaining competent employees, and a few months later that branch was closed down. Office Politics.

So please Read the Story....

Tuesday 23 December 2003

Why is a Rocket like a Zeppelin?

Go over to SpaceDaily to find out.

Really, there are some astounding - and worrying - parallels.

While we're on matters Spacey, has a picture-filled post on the Mars Landers that (hopefully) will soon be busy exploring the Red Planet.

Finally, the Rocket Man talks about Incremental Development in the context of Space Travel. As Incremental Development has been the tool of choice for making complex Software Systems since the year dot, I think he´s right on target.

Monday 22 December 2003

In Defence of Polly Toynbee

OK, for those who haven´t caught up with the Blogosphere, Polly Toynbee is the Guardianista who publically confessed to having fallen for a Nigerian Scam.
With embarrassment, feeling a fool, I admit I was a victim of a Nigerian fraud. Looking back now, I can't think why I was so easily taken in but I did make a reasonable check.
Ms Toynbee has been the butt of many jokes for this. The general concensus amongst right-wing blogs is "Typical Leftie, Dumb as a Post, you have to be not just Thick but extraordinarily Thick to fall for a Nigerian Scam."
But having read the article, I must disagree. The Scam was not the ordinary "Greetings, I´ve just stolen $25 million and I need someone to get it out of the country..." type, but a relatively sophisticated Spanish Prisoner variety, complete with plausible documentary evidence, designed to pray on people who wear their hearts on their sleeve. To Altruism, not Greed.
A hand-written letter arrived from a Nigerian 14-year-old called Sandra. It was nicely written on a religious school's headed paper, though not too perfect, telling me her sad story. Both her parents had died and she had to complete her last two years of school. Her results were good, and it would only cost £100 a year for the last two years to cover the cost. I wrote back and I also wrote to her headmaster, whose name appeared on the school letterhead, at a PO box. He wrote back in more adult handwriting to say Sandra was indeed a needy and promising student, and he enclosed her last term's report. It was an impressive document, each subject carefully filled in by a teacher with different writing, giving an excellent but not over-the-top report, with some subjects subtly lagging a bit behind. So I sent a cheque for £200 and received another of Sandra's letters, a bit too full of God's mercy and Jesus's blessings for my taste. I had an idea I might keep in touch with her to see what became of her. If I had any doubts, £200 was a modest sum for all the effort a fraudster took to create these letters.
Ms Toynbee made a reasonable, rational decision : the amount involved was "modest" and the evidence was plausible enough to believe. If true, the payoff was huge, if false, the penalty minor. And examine the evidence, the detail, she looked for. Plausible Notepaper. Different hands for the teacher. It took a fair degree of sophistication to fool her. She continues:
But it wasn't about the £200. Not long afterwards my bank received a letter with a perfect copy of my signature, giving my bank account numbers, asking for £1,000 to be transferred at once to a bank in Osaka, Japan.
Which indicates a somewhat sophisticated gang of international professional con-artists, not the "e;e-mail em all, and one in a million´s bound to be a moron" type. Given her high-profile as a compassionate, caring, left-leaning liberal (who presumably is thus both gullible and well-off), I have no doubt she was quite carefully targetted.

I´d like to think I wouldn´t have fallen for the same thing - I certainly would have performed some additional checks - but it would not have taken much more in the way of evidence to convince me that the original letter was possibly genuine. I cannot call her an Idiot for falling for this one.

And I must give her full marks for Courage. Her article is a warning, along the lines of "Here´s the mistake I made, so you won´t have to.". And she deliberately and knowingly holds herself up to public ridicule in order to do so.

So, in short, she not only admits her mistakes, but has the guts to say so in public, that others may learn. Two qualities in remarkably short supply amongst the Left in general, and not as common as I´d like amongst the Right either. She was also not afraid to put her money where her principles were, to do just a little bit of good in this sad old world. Another quality sadly lacking in both the Left and the Right.


Later on she shows the almost universal unconscious racism of the Chattering classes, and the undercurrent of Anti-Americanism, blaming everything on the US, Bush, and Big Oil :
The image of capitalism now being spread about the world is cowboy stuff: little gleaned from America extols the virtue of regulation, restraint and control. We reap from the third world what we sow: if some Nigerians learned lessons in capitalism from global oil companies that helped corrupt and despoil that land, it is hardly surpising they absorbed some of the Texan oil values that now rule the White House.
Cartoon History 3To the extent that her comments hold substance, as has been mentioned by other commentators, it´s not that them Playful Innocent Darkies have been corrupted by the White Man´s Evil Cunning, it´s more of a case of some Western Organisations following the same business-model as Medieval Robber Barons, who in turn were but naive tyros compared to the sophisticated West-African Empires of the Middle Ages. I suggest she go read Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe Vol III, which has a shallow but entertaining treatment of the subject - along with a bibliography of primary sources for deeper study. (No, I don´t get paid for the link to And the implication that Nigerian Scamming is "All Bush´s Fault" is ...umm... less than intellectually rigorous. It´s embaressingly Daft.

But ignore the mild Ignorance and unconscious Racism that underlies and passes for much of today´s Leftist doctrine, and there´s much to admire. To all my comrades-in-arms who are Fighting the Good Fight against Saddamists and Idiotarians, if you haven´t given Toys to Iraq, or contributed in some other small way to alleviating the world´s misery, (Carmel and I sponsor a kid in East Timor via the CCF) then may I humbly suggest that the criticism of Polly Toynbee be accompanied by some action. She gave $500 (Aus) to some thieves, thereby increasing in some small way the world´s woes. How about we raise the same amount for victims of Islamofascists and Saddamites who genuinely need it? Otherwise we´ll be like the Idiotarians : all incompletely-thought-out good intentions and words, without the guts or rationality to back them up. If your Randite principles stand in the way of giving anything to anyone, maybe they need re-examination. Circumstances alter Cases, and you should never let your philosophy prevent you from doing the right thing. If (like me) you´re distrustful of Foreign Aid and Charities generally, there are links above to two which are bona fide. Or there´'s always the Magen David Adom, the child that the Christian- and Muslim- dominated ICRC (International Commitee of the Red Cross/Crescent) doesn´t want to acknowledge. Over to you.

Breaking the Law

Someone only a few kilometres away from me, at the Australian National University, has been breaking the law. Not content with Squeezing Light and teleporting it, they're now flagrantly violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The 2nd Law, that in a closed system things get messier over time, has long been known to be a true as a statistical approximation. It was also thought to be less true when dealing with short periods of time and small scales. For example, it´s possible that all the air molecules in the room you're in will suddenly, and by chance, all congregate in a corner of it, leaving you gasping in vacuum. But although possible, if you ran a trillion universes each for a trillion times the period since the Big Bang, odds are that that state of affairs wouldn´t occur in even one of them.

The odds of Michael Moore looking like Twiggy tomorrow are considerably greater.

What the ANU team have done was to make an experiment that gave some insight into just how small things have to be, and over what time periods, effects similar to eggs unscrambling, or things falling up happen.
[The] Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the disorder of the Universe can only increase in time, but the equations of classical and quantum mechanics, the laws that govern the behaviour of the very small, are time reversible.

A few years ago, a tentative theoretical solution to this paradox was proposed - the so-called Fluctuation Theorem - stating that the chances of the Second Law being violated increases as the system in question gets smaller.

This means that at human scales, the Second Law dominates and machines only ever run in one direction. However, when working at molecular scales and over extremely short periods of time, things can take place in either direction.

Now, scientists have demonstrated that principle experimentally.
The research also has practical application is the near-future:
The scientists say their finding could be important for the emerging science of nanotechnology. Researchers envisage a time when tiny machines no more than a few billionths of a metre across surge though our bodies to deliver drugs and destroy disease-causing pathogens.

This research means that on the very small scales of space and time such machines may not work the way we expect them to.

Essentially, the smaller a machine is, the greater the chance that it will run backwards. It could be extremely difficult to control.

The researchers said: "This result has profound consequences for any chemical or physical process that occurs over short times and in small regions."
From the looks of it, many biological processes could be subject to such small-scale time-reversal effects, though for such short periods that it´s "lost in the noise". Nanotech - a subject of great importance which I´ve been meaning to post on for a while now - may be different. Nanothech may be harder than we think. Stay Tuned, because if you´re in the 20-to-60 age band, your life (or at least your longevity) may depend on it. The Jehovah´s Witnesses are probably right in this regard, just not for the reasons they think.

Not Many People Know That...

Samizdata.Net has a truly educational article about the Bizarre state of International Airline Regulation.

OK, compared with the recent Libyan renouncement of Nuclear and Germ Warfare, and the capture of that Stalin-manque Saddam, this may appear of no great worth and moment.

Yet it affects every person who flies over national borders.
It was recently announced that after talks between the British and Hong Kong governments, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways had won its long desired rights to fly from London to Sydney, Australia. In return for this, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways were given the right to fly from London Heathrow to New York and other cities in the United States. Various observations were made about how an additional competitor on each route would increase competition and give passengers lower fares and more options.

While this is true as far as it goes, this is a pretty bizarre paragraph if you think about it. Why does the British government have to negotiate with the Hong Kong government before a private company can fly to Australia? In what parallel universe is the quid pro quo you must offer to get your airline permission to fly to Australia the permission for another airline from a third country to fly to New York?
Please go read the whole thing to find out how this truly dadaesque set of affairs came about, what "fifth freedom" rights are, and more. As I said before, it´s an education.

Saturday 20 December 2003

The Tragedy of Transnationalism

Steven Den Beste has written a stunningly effective critique of Transnationalism as it is practiced today.

I'm an unashamed Transnationalist. And I agree that the Iraq war was the greatest blow to Transnationalism that's ever been. It was truly tragic that the US didn't have the support of the UN. Not because the US was wrong, but because the UN has gone off the rails so completely in the last 60 years.

My brand of Transnationalism is not the corrupt variety practiced so imperfectly by the United Nations. It's the Transnationalism embodied in the Atlantic Charter of August, 1941, and before that Franklin Deleano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech of January the same year.

I quote the Atlantic Charter in Full:
The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.

First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;

Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measure which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.
You can´t get more Transnationalist than that. I think this has been relabled recently. It´s now called "The Bush Doctrine". The action against the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was totally in accordance with article 8, as would any action, by military force or otherwise, against the Juche regime in North Korea.

I'll also quote the Four Freedoms :
In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor --anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
The United Nations, founded in San Francisco just before the bombs were dropped at Horoshima and Nagasaki, was supposed to embody these principles. And here and there, partially, falteringly, it does so. The (UN) World Health Organisation (WHO) so far has resisted the slow corruption that has claimed organisations such as the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and most notably, the UN High Commission on Human Rights. The (UN) International Labour Organisation (ILO) continues to do good work behind the scenes. The (UN) Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) still does more good than harm, though that may change soon. The (UN) World Bank... means well, but hasn´t exactly covered itself with glory. For every two quiet successes, there is at least one horrible and spectacular failure.

But the UN, by its inability or unwillingness to support the US in Iraq, as well as its persistent victimisation of the State of Israel, has shown that it´s moribund, yes, even more so than its predecessor, the League of Nations.

The UN has betreayed its charter, and especially the addendum from 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I´ll quote a few articles :
Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In Saudi Arabia, the penalty for Apostasy - leaving Islam - is death. Yet Saudi Arabia remains an influential member of the UN. Why?
Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
But see what has recently happened to bloggers who try to take advantage of this "Freedom" in Iran. Then there's the Great Firewall of China. Or ask any of the Independant newspapers in Zimbabwe - oh, that´s right, there aren´t any any more. Yet China, Iran, and Zimbabwe remain in the UN. Why? Then there´s Cuba. And Syria. And.... the list is long.

Can the UN be salvaged? I really hope so, but I´m not confident any more. Maybe 3rd Time´s the charm, and we should start with something less ambitious than the UN. Something where a broad adherence to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms is required for membership, with continuous review. Something with Teeth to enforce those principles on Tyrannies, yet the flexibility to tolerate minor differences of doctrine - Gay Marriage, Capital Punishment, Gun or Drug Availability, that sort of thing.

Initial members: US, UK, Poland, Spain, Australia?

Maybe the Tragedy of Transnationalism will turn into a Triumph.

Maybe Pigs will Fly.

We can but hope.

Canberra Blogging Cabal

The inaugural meeting of the Canberra Blogging Cabal was held today. This involved the conspicuous consumption of Pizza, Pasta, and three different types of Gelato. It was great to meet the famous Sasha, and infamous Daily Snake Whacker Tex.

Both have hidden depths. One did an Honours course in Sociology, the other was involved in a Chinese music educational programme. (Bonus points if you guess who did what).

Despite the fact that it kept the rain off on the way home, I suspect Tex wasn´t overly impressed while riding in my 15-year-old Daihatsu Charade. Even if it did have 90 more ccs capacity than his racing bike.

Weird Wide Web

Philosophical Humour

From the Product Warnings section :
Solipsism Warning:

The consumer should be aware that he or she may be the only entity in
the universe, and therefore that any perceived defects in product
quality are the consumer's own fault.
You´ll also find other interesting bits, such as The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook and A New Refutation of the Very Possibility Of Al Gore.

Finally, there's the The Non-Philosopher's Guide to "Can Bad Men Make Good Brains do Bad Things?" which explains many philosphical conundra in terms that even I can understand. As well as satisfying my quota of Brain links for this week.

Latest on the US Navy´s Menu : Spam

From Slashdot comes a news item that confirms yet again my contention that there is no place for commercial-grade software in a military-grade environment. All the evidence points to one of the US Navy´s latest ships, the San Antonio being used by Chinese spammers as an e-mail relay for them to broadcast their odious product to the world.

9 seconds to Mach 1

Exactly 100 years after the Wright Brothers made their 12-second flight, SpaceShipOne lit its rocket motor for the first time. 9 seconds later, it broke the sound barrier, and 6 seconds after that, when the rocket was shut down, it was at Mach 1.2 , and climbing to over 20,000 metres.
This has to be the first time that any first powered flight of an aircraft broke the sound barrier, and augers well for the Rutan team being the ones to claim the X-prize.

All I can say is "Bloody Hell!" Oh yes, and sincerest congratulations.

The Results are in

I´ve been studying a Masters of Information Technology, and have just received my final grade.

Case Studies in Industrial Computing      High Distinction
Comparative Information Modeling          Distinction
Datacommunications: Design and Management Pass
Object Oriented Systems Modelling         Credit
IT Specialisation Project 4 (Double Unit) Distinction
Ethics and Technology                     High Distinction
Web Site Operations & Publishing          High Distinction

From my reading of the Academic handbook, it appears that with those grades, I´ve managed to get a "Masters with Distinction".

OK, back to normal posting. Well I was pleased, even if no-one else is terribly interested.

Thursday 18 December 2003

Programming, Rosetta Stones and French Toast

It´s tricky trying to explain Software Engineering to people who know nothing about Software. It´s difficult enough explaining it to Programmers. But explaining Programming, and Programming languages to people who know nothing about Computers is comparatively easy.

I´m giving it a shot anyway. This post attempts to explain programming to non-programmers, though even they might find an insight or two.

Anyone who's ever followed a recipe when cooking has "executed a program". A program is merely a set of data (ingredients) and an algorithm (method) for manipulating the data. So a recipe for French Toast may say something like "Take an egg, and a slice of bread. Beat the egg, then dip the bread in it until soaked. Then put the bread is a lightly greased saucepan and cook till golden brown."

The egg and bread are ingredients that get transformed by the process; but the saucepan iand stove are also ingredients too, though they don't change. They're constants.

Such things as the exact size of the egg, and the exact size of the slice of bread aren't stated. It's assumed they´re about average - and that the egg is a hen´s egg, rather than one from a Quail or an Ostrich. It's also assumed that the bread is white, that a normal-sized saucepan is available, that there´s an unstated means of heating it to a reasonable temperature, and the exact amount of grease (and type of oil) is not defined. It´s also not stated what you do with the French toast afterwards, nor that it would be a really good idea not to leave the saucepan heating on the stove after you´ve finished.

There´s an awful lot of assumed knowledge in that simple recipe. It will work very well though, provided the assumptions are valid. Attempt to follow it with a saucepan only 3 cm in radius (as some for cooking fruit for crepes are), or using Pumpernickel, or an Ant's egg, or without a stove, or using a Blast Furnace, and it is unlikely to produce useful results.

Alas, Computers do not have "Common Sense". They won´t check the assumptions unless specifically ordered to do so. Programming a Robot to cook french Toast would be non-trivial. Even getting it to pick up the toast and transfer it into the pan would be a major exercise. The Human Nervous System does some very spectacular processing when picking something up, involving the co-ordination of many muscles, feedback loops so that objects are grasped firmly, neither crushed nor too loosely, based upon the sense of touch.

Next time you cook, or even walk, think about what you´re doing: but be careful. Most functions, like walking, are performed largely automatically, rather than requiring conscious intervention. Consciousness, while immensely powerful, is slow. If you think about things too much you may end up flat on your face.

Programmers have invented a multitude of special notations for writing these complicated instructions. When you get down to the lowest level of the electronics, the computer is capable of understanding only a very few basic operations. To add 2 numbers, for example, might require several separate instructions: one to take a number form memory and put it in a "Register" or place where you can perform mathematical operations. Another instruction to take another number from memory and put in into another Register. A third instruction to take the contents of the two Registers and add them together into one of the two previously-used Registers. And a final instruction to take the result and put it somewhere in memory for later use. All of these instructions are represented by simple numbers, 348 might mean "Add Register 4 to Register 7 and put the Result in Register 4" for example. But it´s more usual to write the instructions in a slightly less cryptic form, in an Assembly Language notation. So instead of writing 348 the programmer will write ADD R4,R7, which a simple program called an Assembler will translate to 348.

But it´s possible to make more complex programs that take much higher-level, human-understandable instructions like "Let A = A+B;", and have them automatically translated or "compiled" into machine-readable code. And that brings me to the subject of different Computer Languages.

The Hello World collection is something of a Rosetta Stone for them. It´s traditional for neophyte programmers to learn how to write a program that does nothing but print the words "Hello World!" as their first step in learning a new language. If you have a look at the entry in the collection for, say, Ada, you will see that there is a lot of impedimenta in even the highest level language. (By the way, there is a mistake in the example, Hello is spelt Hallo in the end Hello; bit, showing how easy it is to make an error in even the simplest task. The example won´t Compile.).

If you´re game, have a look at the Z-80 Assembler version, which is at a very low level indeed. Most of the words in it are "Comments", text which is not processed by the assembler program, but only there to explain to a human reader what the heck is happening, and why it´s being done that way. You will see why Programmers prefer high-level languages, and why Assembler programmers tend to look down their noses on people who do things the easy way.

Another, more advanced Rosetta Stone is the one for the Towers of Hanoi game. This game involves 3 poles, and a number of rings with holes in the middle, of differing sizes, with the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top, all on the rightmost pole. The idea is to move the rings to the left pole, one at a time. You can move the rings to any pole you like, but at no time must a larger ring sit on top of a smaller ring.

Again, take a look at the example for Ada, and the example for i860 Assembler.

OK, that´s it. I´ve simplified things a bit, but not by much. You should now have a undertanding of Programming, what it is and what it isn´t. So next time some Geek tries to blind you with Science by saying "I´m translating some FORTRAN into BASIC, but I´d really like to re-do it in Assembler." you will have some idea what that means.


I regularly review the sites in the "Referral" list. OK, it´s for ego-boo. But also, it´s because I regularly find treasures there, interesting URLs I never would have found otherwise. And to be a source for Interesting URLs is one of the prime reasons for this blog´s existence.

The political and just-plain-good blogs I link to are an eclectic bunch. I haven´t chosen them to represent any sort of "Spectrum of Opinion", though they certainly do that. They authors have several things in common: be they Libertarian/Randite or Marxist, 55- or 15-years old, they´re able to teach something, and willing to listen to and learn from differing opinions, with courtesy and respect.

But getting back to the concrete, here are some good ones that I've found recently.

Tram Town is an Ozblog I'm sorry I've missed before. Reading through the archives is consuming much of my valuable time, but the quality makes it compulsive reading. Had I not come across this, I might never have known about the Stairways to Heaven CD, where a multitude of artists give their renditions - or renderings (as in "Rent : to tear asunder" or "Render : To deconstruct by boiling") the Led Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven".

They also have a banner link to one of my favourite Weird Wide Web URLs, Britney Spears Guide to Semiconductor Physics.

Another Goodie is Hold the Mayo. This one I didn´t get directly from the referrer´s list, but via the Rocket Man. Who by the way has some interesting calculations showing why building a SSTO (single Stage To Orbit) lifter is so much harder than building a 747.

This blog has a good article about those of us who were born in the era of the Beatles, the tail-end of the 50s, the just-post-baby-boomers and just-pre-Generation Xers. In a blog chock full of interesting posts, he makes a stunning confession:
(and I work in marketing!).
See, I told you it was an eclectic mix. (I´m puzzled about this white stuff called "snow" of which he speaks though.)

Wednesday 17 December 2003

G'Day Whackers

One of my favourite Ozblogs, Whacking day was most complimentary in a link to this site.
I owe Tex a beverage-of-choice: not so much for the link, but for the many months of enjoyment and intellectual stimulation I've had from his site.

And Apropos of nothing whatsoever, here's a (slightly edited) post I made to a mailing list recently, on the subject of Spin and the Media:
Here's an illustrative scenario, as I see it:

Reality: 3 Iraqi teenagers in Falujah out to prove their manhood open fire
a few bursts with their AK-47s at a passing HMMV, missing completely. The
US soldiers, lacking a clear target, withold fire. One unlucky 7-year-old
a few streets away gets burnt by a spent bullet, is patched up by a US first
aid post and sent home.

As reported by....

CENTCOM: At 0150 an incident occurred at Falujah. Shots were fired, and one
Iraqi civilian was lightly wounded and evacuated to a US army hospital. There
are no other casualties reported at this time.

FOX: American forces beat off yet another attack by Saddam Loyalists today,
and although Pentagon sources refused to be drawn on enemy casualties, they
are reported to be heavy, with none of our boys wounded. Enemy bullets just
bounced off our Hummer Tanks, and American Marksmanship and laser-guided
rounds soon cut down the attackers, who broke and fled.

BBC: Are American Forces panicking? That's the question all Iraqis are asking
today, as reports of yet another massacre by out-of-control US soldiers reached
Baghdad. Several children, some as young as 18 months, are reported killed by the US
forces indiscriminate use of massive firepower, including Tanks and Helicopter
Gunships. Eyewitnesses say that the Americans may have mistaken a car backfiring
for an attack, and started spraying automatic weapons fire indiscriminately.

CNN: The Iraqi quagmire continues, with continued attacks on US forces,
escalating in violence. In the latest, as always, the victims of US retaliation
were mainly civilians, often as young as seven. Today's special report is on these,
the most innocent victims of the "War Against Terror" - the Children.

NPR : Yet another blow to the Bush administration today, as US forces came
under sustained attack for several hours. Reports of heavy civilian casualties
keep coming in, and the question is, what is our Exit Strategy now?

Stairway to Heaven

As famous composers might have written it. From Gustav Mahler to Glenn Miller, Beethoven to Bizet, and performed by the University of NSW Symphony Orchestra. Listen to it, and you too will realise that there's such a thing as genetically-engineered music.
(Seen via a comment on LGF)

Then there´s the inimitable way Rolf Harris renders it, which is in a class of it's own. Thank God.

Tuesday 16 December 2003

Criswell Brain Predicts

I normally contribute most of my observations on the Global (rather than local) political scene over on The Command Post. Which incidentally has been periodically snapshotted by the US Library of Congress as a "Site of Historical Importance", so my words have been captured for posterity. (Thinks: I wonder what Scholars in the 2600s are going to think of this?) But I digress.

One observation I recently made was over at Tim Blair's Blog. It was in the nature of 4 predictions. See how I did :
Predictions of coming SMH and Indimedia stories:

  1. Seething over the inhumane treatment of a Prisoner of War being shown in a degrading video. Allegations that this is a War Crime and Bush the War Criminal. Calls for his trial by an International tribunal. Bush that is, not Saddam.
  2. It's taken Halliburton 8 months to grow a Clone using their diabolical Genetic Modification techniques. They got the DNA from the martyred children, Uday and Orsay. It's a fake by a fake President, just like 9/11 and the Moon Landings were faked. And it's all Bush's fault.
  3. Yeah, yeah, they captured Saddam. But what about Bin Laden? Iraq's a Quagmire, and it's all a plot by Bush to mislead the Murican People and get them to forget about important stuff. Like the genetically-modified plastic turkeys they forced the soldiers to eat.
  4. It's actually bad news, this will trigger off a whole new round of attacks on America and its Allies. Australia will be less safe than before because of.... well, just because. And it's all Howard's fault. And Bush's.
Those were the predictions. Here's the Reality:
  1. From Medienkritik :
    (German TV station) n-tv ("Bilderserie"): As a proof he (Bremer) presented the pictures of the caught arch enemy, even though the showcasing of POW's is forbidden by the Geneva Convention.
    and from The Australian :
    It was beyond belief that anyone could feel compassion for Saddam Hussein in the wake of his capture, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today.

    Some critics have expressed concern about images being broadcast around the world of the haggard former dictator of Iraq after his capture by US troops.

    But Mr Downer said the broadcasts were not in contravention of international laws.

  2. From columnist and noted intellectual Phillip Adams, in The Australian :
    Ok, he looks like Saddam Hussein. He sounds like Saddam Hussein. And, yes, he has the same DNA. But can we be sure that it is, in fact, the former Iraqi leader? And not just some poor turkey? Another of his hapless body doubles? Or even a clone?
  3. From The Australian :
    Joseph Cirincione, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, characterised the dictator's capture as "largely irrelevant in the larger war against terrorism".

    "Saddam means nothing to al-Qa'ida and all the al-Qa'ida-like forces," he said.

    It is bin Laden who singlehandedly "has bedeviled American efforts on the war against terrorism", Time magazine editor-at-large Michael Elliott wrote yesterday.

    "The capture of Saddam helps, but so long as bin Laden remains at large, all the power and high-tech wizardry of the American armed forces are still losing the battle...
  4. George Galloway :
    This will not stop the Iraqi resistance... if anything, it may set the resistance free, if you like, from the cloud of Saddam Hussein, and transform it into a purely national resistance movement without the charge that it's being controlled from behind by the deposed president.

Silly me. I thought these comments would be by the Moonbats at Indimedia, the same people who believe that the Moon Landings were faked and that Bush uses Zionist Orbital Mind Control Lasers on the "Sheeple" to keep them in line. The people who think the "X-Files" and "Bowling for Columbine" are documentaries. But I hedged my bets and mentioned the Anti-War Sydney Morning Herald as well, not that I thought mainstream media, and especially not The Australian (my dnoc as Norman Geras would say) could be quite so loony. Oh well, you live and learn.

Monday 15 December 2003

How to Dispose of a Monster

Can we take it as read that Saddam Hussein is a mass-murderer responsible for hundreds of thousands of gruesome deaths? Good.

I'm against the Death Penalty.

There are some very exceptional circumstances where I consider it tolerable. Not desirable, but tolerable. In cases of Cruel and Unusual Crimes, it may be a lesser Evil. It may bring such vast relief to relatives of victims that Justice has been seen to be done that the harm is greatly outweighed by the good. But that alone is not sufficient for me to approve, merely not condemn. In cases where the mere existence of someone as a living breathing entity will cause danger and human suffering - such as the threat of sypathisers taking hostages to procure his release, then on Utilitarian grounds the criminal should be disposed of, and quickly, and that I'd thoroughly approve of without reservation. Both grounds apply in this case. So although I'm against the Death Penalty, for Saddm Hussein I'm more than willing, I'm almost enthusiastic about making an exception.

But I'd never ask anyone - a hangman or executioner, to do something I wouldn't do myself, nor approve of it. And that leads to a moral quandry.

Justice, even tempered by mercy, cannot be done to Saddam Hussein. His crimes are so enormous that there is literally no punishment I can think of that is even remotely appropriate to fit the crime. Even such barbarities as slowly feeding him into a shredder feet-first, or giving him a succession of sub-lethal doses of mustard gas until he's insane with the pain isn't enough. It's a mere shadow of what he's done to others, and he only has one body, so the process couldn't be repeated even once, let alone hundreds or thousands of times. And even that inadequate measure is not something I could ever condone, nor bring myself to do. It sickens me. I'm sure there are many medically trained people who can think of far worse things, while keeping him alive for far longer. But that way lies Madness, the philosophy of such physicians as Dr Mengele. Similarly any medical experimentation involving vivesection, even if it would do physical good. Because it would do us, the executioners, irrepairable spiritual harm.

Several solutions commend themselves though:
  1. Let him go - to walk free from the Courtroom, and into the tender mercies of the Iraqi populace. You know the phrase "He was torn to pieces by the Mob"? Well, it can be literally true. Everyone can get a bit. This may be the solution that gives greatest closure while not soiling our own dainty hands with his blood. We may have to do this, as in any Adversarial system of Law, there's no way he could be given a "fair trial" in the accepted definition of the term. But this smacks of acting as Pontius Pilate.
  2. Pretend we hadn't found him. Put him back where he was, in the spider hole. Fill the entrance with bricks, just as it was when they found him. Then park a Tank on top for, oh, six months. Let the relatives of his victims visit the site, and allow them to listen carefully to see if he's still screaming. A more humane (because quicker) variation would be to Install a toilet whose drain leads to his personal septic tank and sepulchre. But even that I find personally distasteful, even thinking about it makes me feel soiled spiritually.
  3. Televise the Torture Chamber, take him in there, close the door and cut the TV coverage, and play pre-recorded fake screams for a few days while quietly killing him immediately. By all means harvest all usable organs, and I'm not too bothered about whether the anaesthetic merely paralyses him, or causes unconsciousness. Keep the head (minus corneas) for placing on a suitable pikestaff.
The last of the three seems to me to be the best solution. It provides comfort to the grieving, perhaps saves a few lives, and causes minimal damage to our souls with minimal hypocracy. He's done enough damage already.

But I'm open to other suggestions, ranging from the traditional (burning at the stake) to the modern (radiation poisoning).

Wormholes and FTL

No, when I say "Wormholes" I don't mean Saddam's hiding place.

New Scientist reports on some calculations regarding FTL (Faster Than Light) travel, and conclude that it may just be possible. But a bit costly :
To keep the wormhole open wide enough would take a negative field equivalent to the energy that would be liberated by converting the mass of Jupiter.
That's a serious engineering problem.

(Seen via En Banc, an interesting Legal Blog.)

The Dark Side of the Claus

Saddam CapturedAnyone else think he looks like some malignant , malevolent Santa Claus? Not so much Saint Nick as Old Nick?

Meanwhile, have a look at the reactions carefully selected by the BBC. You can't make this stuff up.
It's good that it's clarified where Saddam Hussein is now. But I do not hope that people forget now that George W. Bush has lead the world into a war without proof of WMD and a connection to Osama bin Laden. What Bush did was wrong. And Americans need to remember that next year when the presidential elections take place.
Michelle Mauriere, Leipzig, Germany
Americans must not lose sight of the fact that what this is, is a war on terror - are we closer to the goal of that? I doubt it, when you consider the ground realities in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention elsewhere in the Middle East.
Uma, Mumbai, India
The American administration must now be very nervous. If a proper war crimes tribunal is allowed, Saddam will implicate most of them (and previous UK administrations as well). I think we should think where Saddam's support, funds and weapons came from when he was actually committing the worst atrocities for which he may now stand trial.
Peter Budek, Bedford
I don't see the arrest of Saddam Hussein making any difference to the coalition's problems in Iraq. This establishes Bin Laden as the world's No1 terrorist, and I suspect that the Iraqi dissidents will now turn to him to organise their campaigns against the coalition forces, if they have not done so already. All that will be derived from this is a couple of days good PR for Bush and Blair.
Frank Redmond, London, UK
But hey, in the interests of balance they give opposing viewpoints too. The next comments are:
The capture of Saddam is good news for world peace that cannot be denied. But the capture of him alive is an even better result. In essence, what the Bush Administration do with him now is the key. We can only hope this will prove yet another spectacular failure on their part that will result in a continued, inflammatory and detrimental reaction in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. In turn this should prove yet another disaster for Bush and his re-election plans. In the long run it is this ultimately that is an even better prospect for world peace. Don't be too surprised if you see Saddam smiling.
Derrick Donald, Sydney, Australia
Great! Now some stability might return to Iraq. While they put him on trial for war crimes, they can put Blair and Bush on trial too. Lets not forget they waged an unprovoked war of aggression without a UN mandate, and they lied to their electorate regarding the "Intelligence!
Derek Haslam, South Shields
Can't be any fairer than that. At least, the BBC can't.

Sunday 14 December 2003

Find your own Ethical Philosophy

Seen on Quidquid Requiritur is yet another quiz. This one's interesting. It attempts to determine your own Ethical Philosophy.

For what it's worth, my own results (Top three) were:
1. Kant (100%)
2. John Stuart Mill (94%)
3. Jeremy Bentham (81%)

Certainly I must do some study on Kantian Philosophy. From what little I've read, I like the cut of his jib. I've always considered myself more a Utilitarian/Benthamite than anything else, so the quiz is at least partly accurate. Then again, there are dozens of Philosophers not on the list, and only 12 questions. But not a bad first approximation to the truth, given those conditions.

Nature, Nurture, and Nazis

As the parent of a 2-year-old son, I have a more-than-passing interest in the development of small children. My studies of the Human Central Nervous System seen as a computational device lead me to believe that the differences between the most intelligent of us, and the most "developmentally challenged" are relatively small. Not exactly "lost in the noise", but not far off that.

Yet my experiences at school and University lead me to the opposite conclusion: that there is a very large difference in capability between the A-students and what we used to call the "Duhh Division". People who were quite bright, just not educationally gifted nor intellectually inclined.

Now why should this be so? The Human brain starts off with rather more grey cells than it needs - so much so that many of them die off before puberty completes. What's important is not the number of neurons, but the richness of the connectivity, how they self-organise. While the number of components decreases with age, the interconnections increase, and the behaviour becomes "richer". To take an analogy, it's not the power of the computer you have on your desk, it's whether you're on the Internet or not.

So much for the computer-science view.

From the pediatric behaviour view, I've observed that some kids are just natural learners, from age Nought. You can't stop them from exploring, getting into things, examining books ( OK, so it's mostly by taste..) and sampling other interesting items. At least one toddler of my acquaintance is a real handful, and has managed to destroy or damage several hundred dollars worth of electrical equipment (fortunately most of it was repairable).

Others are quiet, curious but not overly-so, and seem content with examining computers without wishing to disassemble them to see how they work.

So my hypothesis in the great "Nature vs Nurture" debate is that some kids will excell, regardless of any environmental difficulty that besets them. Too poor to own books? They'll find a Library for themselves. School a dead loss? Well, they'll just get themselves an education despite the Teachers, outside of school hours.

Other children of equal potential ability require a more benign environment. One where there is a Social Reward for study. A society which looks up to and respects Scholarship, rather than one where material Wealth is the only route to respect. Without peer or parental pressure, they'll just go-with-the-flow, gaining "street smarts" but nothing else. And if the wealthiest, most respected people in the neighbourhood are the Crack dealers, then why should they be any different? (And by the way, don't disparage street-smarts. Those of us with a touch of Asperger's Syndrome have great difficulty reading people. Computers and Rocket Science is so much easier, take it from me... )

Nazi Propaganda Poster

All of these thoughts were inspired by a post I read over at Little Green Footballs, about how a section of the German "Peace" Movement is raising funds for the Ba'athist thugs in Iraq. You know, the people who not only kill US soldiers, but also Red Cross workers etc and generally try to make everyone as poor as possible so they can regain power. The Ba'ath, or to give it its official title, the Arab National Socialist Party.

My immediate reaction was "Ah, the Germans keeping up the fine old tradition of National Socialism". I was reminded of a poster I'd quoted in an earlier post on this blog. The one that reads "Check the Warmongers of the World". It seems apt for this new German National Socialist "Peace" movement. Then I thought about it for a while. You see, I spent about 5 years working in Germany, at Atlas Electronik GmbH. I should be the last person to engage in even midly racist German-bashing. I really enjoyed my time there, I met a lot of people who I both liked personally and had immense professional respect for. I liked Bremen.

And yet... Bremen is a nice place, but there was something missing. It took me a while to figure it out. Eventually, it was a memorial near Domsheide ( Cathedral Heath ), near the statue of Roland by the Schnoorviertel (Schnoor quarter - a remnant of Medieval Bremen) that clued me in. It was to a group of Bremers who had been beaten to death on that spot for the crime of being Jewish. What was missing were the Synagogues, the Kosher Delicatessens and Butcheries, a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that had been lost, maiming the whole social body.

In the 30's the German Nation and People had gone mad, and blown their own brains out. Even the late-and-unlamented Dr Haber, who did so much to ensure that Prussia was able to first use Poison Gas in World War One, had been persecuted for being a Jew. A large slice of the Doctors, Intellectuals, Scientists and Engineers in Germany had been ... liquidated. Converted to Soap, Lampshades, and Soot. But how come so many of the Best and Brightest were Jewish?

That led me to think about what it means to be a Jew. I'm not a Red Sea pedestrian myself (though with one Jewish Great-Grandmother I may well have qualified for Auschwitz). I don't have the right to consider myself an heir to the victims of the Holocaust - except inasmuch as I'm a Human Being, just like them. But is Judaism a Religion? Yes, but I know several Israeli Jews who are convinced atheists. In fact, Atheism seems to be the norm for many. Is it a Race? I've met Jews who were "Black as the Ace of Spades" to use a very non-PC phrase, and others who were purebred Han Chinese. So that one can be discarded. Is it a Nationality? Perhaps.. but if so, it's separate from the state of Israel. There are plenty of Israeli Bedouins and Druze, and plenty more Jews who are anti-Zionists. Israel as a state did not exist from 70 AD to 1949 AD, but Judaism most certainly did.

One stereotype about Jews that from my own experience is more true than not is that they're Swots. Nerds. Not exactly teacher's pets, but more likely to get A's than D's. Now this may come from the tradition of Talmudaic disputation (much like the Jesuit tradition of acedemic excellence due to theological disputation). But I think it's more than that. Scholarship is admired in every Jewish tradition I'm aware of, be it the Kibutznik Socialist Atheist one, or the Ecstatic Ultra-Orthodox and Hassidic varieties.

The High School I went to had a large contingent of Jews - about 30% were absent during Jewish holidays. I spent many a happy hour at school in the Debating team (I was the token Goy), and in Germany, when I worked alongside a bunch of Israelis, I had a whale of a time discussing philosophy, religion, politics, science... Damn, I miss that.

And that's what brought me to the "Nature vs Nurture" bit. A kid who's got potential, yet not the somewhat abnormal ultra-curiousity of the compulsive learner will do best when put in such a Scholarship-admiring environment. The compulsive learner will do well in almost any circumstances, but even he (or she) will benefit, and certainly be a lot happier if it's not considered "weird" to want to stay up past midnight reading.

So there you have it - and possibly an insight into my somewhat rambling thought processes. It's not the number of neurons, it's the richness of the connections.

Thursday 11 December 2003

Ignore or Spin, that is the Question

Some readers may be aware that there was a large Demonstration against Terrorism in Iraq recently. But only if they've been getting the data from Primary Sources. People who actually took part, and took photos.
From FrontPage Magazine :
Almost 20,000 men and women - twice the number reported by al-Jazeera - marched across central Baghdad, while others repeated the move in different cities of Mesopotamia yesterday. The demonstrators, from all walks of life and from all religions and ethnicities of Iraq, shouted one slogan in Arabic: "La' la' lil irhab. Na'am, na'am lil dimucratiya." That is: "No, no to terrorism. Yes, yes to Democracy!"
The only papers to cover it took it from the KnightRidder Washington Bureau.
Five thousand to 10,000 Iraqis tried to send terrorists a cease-and-desist message Wednesday from downtown Baghdad in the biggest demonstration against violence to date
Even then, what they're saying isn't exactly what eyewitness bloggers who took part are reporting:
In Baghdad, the protesters snarled traffic by filling Fateh Square near the National Theater and Fardos Square in front of the Palestine Hotel. Chanting "No, no terrorism" and "Yes, yes Islam," they carried photographs of religious leaders and unfurled banners that read "The Iraqis Should Not Forget Palestine."
...not everyone was feeling peaceful. "What did Saddam do for us? He slaughtered us all. What did the Americans do for us? They slaughtered us all," said an angry woman in a head-to-toe black abaya.
The rest of mainstream Media is just pretending that it didn't happen.

Helping Daddy

Andrew and the CD

Nearly 2-and-a-half, and already changing CDs on Daddy's computer...

Conan the Librarian

Conan the Librarian


The Norm has Moved

Normblog (by My Favourite Marxist) is now at

If you haven't bookmarked it already, you've missed out on some very cogent posts, from subjects such as the Morality of Forgiveness without Contrition, through to the Religion of Rugby, and how the Far Left has lost its way. (And more to the point, how it can get back to its Humanistic roots.). Jazz. Poetry. Humour. And most of all, Wit and Wisdom.

Turn of Phrase of the Week

From Transterrestrial Musings :
In addition, his numbers are simply pulled out of the air, or perhaps some danker, less sanitary location--I don't want to know...

Tuesday 9 December 2003

Scum-Sucking Bottom-Feeders, and Incompetent Too

Much as I support The Gubernator (Arnold Schwartznegger), especially after the smear campaign against him, I have to say that at least one member of his staff needs firing.

From The Australian :
With her lawyer Gloria Allred by her side, Miller made the groping allegations in a news conference on October 7, the day before the California recall election.

Within hours, the Schwarzenegger campaign sent an email to several reporters directing them to the Los Angeles Superior Court website and instructing them to type in the name "Rhonda Miller".

That produced court records for a woman named Rhonda Miller with a long criminal record.

The email, sent by Schwarzenegger adviser Sean Walsh, said, "We have to believe that as a lawyer Gloria would have thoroughly checked the facts and background of the individual she presented at a news conference today."
Except of course that the Criminal "Rhonda Miller" on the site was a different person entirely. And the reaction of Governor Schwartnegger's Lawyer?
Schwarzenegger attorney Marty Singer denied that Walsh's email suggested Miller had a criminal record. The email "does not state specifically that this is the same woman who was making the claim the night before the election," Singer said.
Here in Australia, that "defence" would greatly increase the damages awarded. Only a hopelessly incompetent Lawyer would use it in Australia. Of course things may be different in California, and there is little doubt that Rhonda Miller's complaint was part of a carefully-orchestrated smear campaign by political opponents.

As for the title of the post? The old joke : "What's the difference between a Lawyer and a Catfish? One's a Scum-sucking bottom-feeder, the other's just a fish."

So Arnie, fire Sean Walsh, whose actions descended below the sewer your opponents were slithering in. Oh yes, and get a new Lawyer. A Competent one. If it comes to a Jury trial, after Marty Singer's remarks, you may need one.

Monday 8 December 2003

The Unkindest Cut of All

Sticking knives into people is wrong.

It's always wrong.

There's never a case where cutting people with knives is or other blades is wholly right, moral, ethical or proper.

It always is accompanied by physical damage to the victim, damage which may never heal, and which historically has caused untold pain and suffering, be it via dagger, sword, guillotine or scalpel.

But... it can be the lesser of two evils.

Society accords a respected place to people who actually make their living out of carving people up, sometimes removing whole organs. We call them "surgeons".

We also have places for people who carve up others for fun, we call them "mass murderers" and shun them.

So the next time someone says "War is never justified", and that "Saddam could have been contained indefinitely", think about the role of Surgery in Medicine. Whether the diseased organ was infectious or not is still subject to controversy: but that the surgery relieved untold suffering is only deniable by the terminally reality-challenged. And by the doctors who were making a nice living out of the drugs they were giving the patient that actually increased the damage, the "Oil for Palaces" programme so dear to the hearts of Chirac and Putin.

Sunday 7 December 2003

Internet Mk2 enters Beta Testing?

From the Sydney Morning Herald comes some news full of omen and portent :
American scientists and researchers, frustrated that the internet's popularity has crowded them out and slowed serious research, are building their own new information superhighway.

The National LambdaRail system, described by some as the internet of the future, is an $US80 million ($108 million) fibre-optic network designed to do for science in cyberspace what motorways did for two-lane roads.

On this thoroughfare, speed will be measured in billions of bits a second and information will zip across the US on beams of light.

The first leg of National LambdaRail is a 1084-kilometre segment of optical fibre linking supercomputing centres in Chicago and Pittsburgh. It was brought online last month.

Over the next year, a consortium of technology companies and research universities will add 16,000 kilometres of fibre to create the largest and fastest scientific research network in the world.

The consortium says National LambdaRail will be available only to scientists. But the technology tools being developed for it will lay the foundation for future networks capable of "extreme multimedia" that could enable doctors to perform surgery a thousand kilometres away, permit high-definition videoconferencing and open a door to virtual reality gaming that could make today's internet look like a country back road.

LambdaRail reflects researchers' growing concern that the internet - with its 180 million connected computers, 40 million websites, and a growing number of hackers, crackers, spammers, worms and viruses - is no longer the kind of place to do serious science.

"The great success of the internet is its ubiquity and its shared nature," said Ron Hutchins, associate vice-provost of Georgia Tech and its chief technology officer.

"Unfortunately, the great downfall of the internet is also its ubiquity and shared nature."
Aye, there's the rub. But why do I say this is a Beta Test of Internet Mk 2? Because we've been here before.
Paul Barfield, a board member of National LambdaRail, said the system was also designed to help scientists and engineers go "back to the future" by creating the kind of free-thinking environment that, during the 1970s, laid the foundation for what would become the internet.

Many of the networking fundamentals that make possible the seamless flow of information on today's internet emerged from the tinkering that computer scientists did, out of the public eye, on ARPA net, a Pentagon-financed system that linked four computing centres.

In a world where society now depends on the internet as much as it relies on electrical power grids and pipelines, Georgia Tech's Mr Hutchins said scientists simply did not dare experiment with "the net" itself.

"What we need," he said, "is a place where we can crash and burn without bringing down the whole system."
But unless they've got new protocols that mean you can trust the sender's address, the same SPAM problems that SPAM bedevil the SPAM Internet SPAM now SPAM will SPAM SPAM occur SPAM SPAM SPAM in SPAM SPAM future SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM.

Friday 5 December 2003

When good Wallaroos turn Bad

From The Australian :
A 67-year-old woman had to fight for her life after being attacked by an angry wallaroo at her home in southern Queensland.
Believing him to be thirsty, she brought him a bucket of water.

"He looked at it and just came at me with his claws," Mrs Sinton told National Nine news.
The animal grabbed Mrs Sinton around the neck, kicking, scratching and headbutting her as she reached for a shovel to fend him off.

"I really gave him hard hits on the head," she said.

The old shovel then fell apart and the wallaroo turned on Zac, Mrs Sinton's cattle dog.

She ran for her car, with the roo following her, and managed to phone her husband who grabbed a rifle.

The roo tried to wrestle the firearm away from him.

"He grabbed the barrel," Mrs Sinton said.
Mr Sinton finally managed to shoot the rogue wallaroo but not before his wife had suffered numerous cuts and bruises to her arms and body.

Thursday 4 December 2003

Mr PIcasso Head

Via the Volokh Conspiracy by way of TexasBestGrok, here is Mr PIcassohead

Rational Marxism

For how long have Marxists been saying things like this ?
The US administration and the other governments in the coalition, with their customary cynicism, exploited that goal, and the issue of weapons of mass destruction, to promote their shared vision of an international order that is safer for capitalism, implying, among other things, more liberal democracies, with more compliant governments; more "free" trade, in oil as in other commodities; and more effective joint action against terrorism. There is every reason to think that they are insincere about much of this programme, and that their definitions of such terms as "democracy" or "terrorism" differ from ours. There is no reason, however, to think that they are insincere about all of it ; the western "left" has no monopoly on self-deluding idealism ; and it makes more sense to assess each scene in this continuing drama on its own merits, by the light of the doctrine of the lesser evil, than to either buy into the whole deal or reject it out of hand simply because it isn't revolutionary socialism. Given the widespread popularity of capitalism and the vanishingly small support for socialism in the contemporary world, it would be stupid to expect anything more radical. On the other hand, as long as we are to be ruled by capitalist states, which would you rather be ruled by: a coalition of liberal democracies that pay at least lipservice to free speech, or any number of ruthless genocidal dictatorships that want to revive the worst aspects of the Middle Ages (and we don't mean folk songs or William Morris wallpapers)?
It could just as easily have said something like :
There is every reason to think that Marxists are insincere about much of this programme, and that their definitions of such terms as "democracy" or "terrorism" differ from ours. There is no reason, however, to think that they are insincere about all of it ; the western "Right" has no monopoly on self-deluding idealism ; and it makes more sense to assess each scene in this continuing drama on its own merits, by the light of the doctrine of the lesser evil, than to either buy into the whole deal or reject it out of hand simply because it isn't Free-Market Capitalism.
There are about a million things wrong with unrestrained Capitalism. You can easily miss many of them, but just a few weeks work providing "Meals on Wheels" or similar voluntary community service will thrust them right in your face. Yes, Laissez-Faire Capitalism may be - in fact from the evidence it is - the best way of providing personal freedom and greater economic benefits overall, but there are always exceptions, people who "fall through the cracks" and don't benefit from the greater wealth, and may even go backwards. And Monopolists who deliberately use the Free Market's mechanisms to make it less Free.

I've always thought that there were rather more than a Million things wrong with Marxism. The whole "Labour Theory of Value" is a self-evident crock, and for every rabid Capitalist Carnegie there was a Brezhnev, or Pol Pot. The difference between a scalded finger and being cut in half with a chainsaw. (Note : Scalded Fingers are Bad, I'm not saying they're good, just not comparable with bisection.). The Tancte de Sangria - the Taint of Blood - that prevented the East German Children of University graduates (unless they were Party Members) from being admitted to Uinversities so as to destroy the Bourguoisie reminded me of similar exclusions of those of non-Aristocratic Stock from the corridors of power, back in the 17th century and earlier.

But it appears that Gulags, Repression, and the Nomenklatura are no more an indivisible part of Marxism than Sweatshops and Ruthless Exploitation are indivisible from Capitalism. They're diseases that the philosophies are prone to, but only tendencies, not predestined certainties. And it appears that although I still differ, and differ radically, from the writers of the quoted article on the question of means, we are very close indeed when it comes to ends. Norman Geras isn't the only Rational Marxist.

New Labor in Australia

Most of this blog's readership is outside Australia, and probably knows even less about Australian politics than I do about the US or UK political scene. Who's the leader of the UK Conservatives? No idea, but at least it's not someone with a double-barrel name any more. What are the major political parties in the UK? Labour, Conservative, and .... Democrats? Social Democrats? Is there still a Liberal Party (under that name) stubbornly refusing to die? There's bound to be some Greens.

As for the US, the Democratic contenders are... Dean (who will get the job), Kerry, and the always-amusing-but-seriously-loopy Kucinich. And some others.

I've already posted a potted summary of Australian Political parties, so go read that to learn about the Dramatis Personae.

Recently - as in, the day-before-yesterday, the ALP (the party in Opposition) changed its leadership. Mark Latham won in a <sarcasm>landslide</sarcasm>, 47 to 45. Now what type of man is he? Well, there's an article in the Herald-Sun that will make interesting reading, especially to non-Australians. Some choice quotes:
I'd been appalled when he'd boasted of breaking the arm of a taxi driver in a brawl over a fare, and when he jeered former Liberal Tony Staley, who needs crutches to walk, as "deformed in every sense".
So I ignored Latham, and chatted instead with Geoff Clark, the Aboriginal leader.

But within minutes, one of Latham's drinking mates peeled off and plonked himself in my face, screaming obscenities for at least 10 minutes and plucking at my arm, clearly spoiling for a fight he didn't dare start.

It was Steve Roach, a Labor identity and CFMEU union official, and I ordered him out of the pub.

I later asked Latham whether he'd sent Roach over to me, but he refused to answer - though he later told Parliament he hadn't, then added I was a "nancy boy", anyway.
"I'm a hater," the man yesterday voted Labor's new leader brazenly told the Bulletin only last month.

And so he is. He's told how he teaches his sons to "hate" Liberals. He's also set them the example by using Parliament to attack a female journalist as a "skanky ho", or filthy whore.

He's branded another media critic as a "fair dinkum nutter", and yet another as a "drug addict".

HE'S even denounced civility as a conspiracy against poor people, and praised parents who were "having a go at the ref, yelling abuse" at their children's games as "the good parents, the ones who care".
All this is not just a bit of colour and movement, good for a laugh or a look-at-me headline, and of no political consequence.

On the contrary, that hate has affected his political judgment, to disastrous effect for Labor, if not for Latham personally.

He has gone on to call Prime Minister John Howard an "arse-licker" and the Liberals a "conga line of suckholes", and in February, excited by the cheers of Labor's anti-American Left, labelled US President George Bush "flaky" and "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory".

His extravagant abuse of Bush, by the way, came in a speech on Iraq during which he failed criticise Saddam Hussein.
Australians love a Larrikin - even one to whom it's all a political act. But we despise bullies and thugs. I'm personally willing to suspend judgement until I see more of the man, but odds are that Bob Carr ( Premier of NSW and arguably the most successful Labor politician in the country ) was right when he said just a few days ago:
"Mark Latham as leader of the federal Labor Party? That would be a diverting nine months."

Wednesday 3 December 2003

Carceri et Dracones

Roman D20Truly there is Nothing New Under the Sun.
(Carceri et Dracones is 'Dungeons and Dragons' in Latin, IIRC.)

The picture is of an Icosahedral die made of glass, dated to the 2nd century AD, used to play a Roman Game of unknown characteristics.

But then again, we live in a world of rapid change (so much so that it's a cliche). But who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that they'd be selling DNA Sequencers as Kids toys?

Monday 1 December 2003

Another Blow for Japan.

Some musings on reliability, and Disposable vs Re-Usable boosters.

After 5 consecutive flawless launches of the Japanese H2A launcher, a failed strap-on booster coupling meant a flight had to be destroyed.


Rand Simberg says:
No matter how vaunted your quality control, and technological prowess, it is simply not possible to reliably or affordably build vehicles for which each flight is a first flight and a last, particularly when you build so few.
Or as we say here, "Sh1t Happens".

I'm not sure that he's wrong, but in all other similar human activities, such as Drag Racing, where the last 5% of performance is crucial, most of the vehicle has to be replaced with new parts after each run.

Mars Recon OrbiterMeanwhile, the always-readable Rocket Man reveals what he's been working on, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He also name-drops shamelessly:
As I have said before, I sometimes forget that the projects I work on are not that well known to the general public. I have worked on Cassini, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Polar Lander, Mars Climate Orbiter, Stardust, Genesis and other spacecraft, and after a while it sort of becomes routine to work on them. However, I am always surprised when I tell people what I do for a living and they are actually interested in hearing about it.
Sure you are.... :-)
One of my sayings is that most jobs are 90% routine and 10% interesting. My job is no different in that I spend a lot of time working on a CAD system, doing drawings, ordering parts, supervision fabrication, going to meetings, etc. But my 10% is generally much more interesting than most peoples 10%.
Having seen the amount of skull-sweat involved in the mechanical engineering of FedSat, the extreme pains that were taken to keep the CAD model in lockstep with the actual hardware and the myriad minor design changes necessitated during development, I can say that his modesty knows no bounds. While I was frantically scribbling away on the whiteboard brainstorming how to get that ferschlugginer potrzebie of a mass memory unit to work within very tight time constraints, the mech eng guys had to completely re-design the baseplate to gain a vital 3 cm of additional clearance due to a late-changing physical requirement. His saying reminds me of the song's lyrics:
And all the Science
I don't Understand.
It's just a Job, 5 days a week.
Sure it is... And like me, he may not understand all the Science, but he sure understands the Engineering. The Rocket Man also has a gift for understatement that would do a Pom proud.
Building a spacecraft that can make it all the way to Mars and successful complete its mission is not easy.
I can believe that.
I have never worked on an Earth orbiting satellite,
<humour>Not that he looks down his nose at us poor peons who have only worked on one itsy-bitsy satellite in Low Earth Orbit not even 1000 km high... </humour>
...but I do know that the Earth's magnetic field offers some protection from the Suns radiation as they orbit the Earth. Mars does not have the same protective magnetic field as Earth, so from the time they leave Earth orbit, Mars spacecraft are subjected to the unfiltered effects of the Suns radiation. This radiation is very hard on the electronics aboard the spacecraft and great efforts are required to make sure they will work properly during the mission.. Mars does not have the same protective magnetic field as Earth, so from the time they leave Earth orbit, Mars spacecraft are subjected to the unfiltered effects of the Suns radiation. This radiation is very hard on the electronics aboard the spacecraft and great efforts are required to make sure they will work properly during the mission.
Beneath the Van Allen Belts, Orbits are, as he says, protected against much of Dat Ol Debbil Radiation. Alas, the Van Allen Belts themselves protect the Earth by "trapping" a lot of the charged particles within them, they're far worse for Rad Hazard than open space (except during a solar flare). And in the South Atlantic Anomaly, the belts dip to 200 km altitude, which means that Polar Orbital (ie North-to-South) satellites in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) get toasted on at least two passes every 24 hours, plus a lesser toasting over each of the poles every 50 minutes.
But that's just minor detail, his main point is sound: that the Radiation dose that spacecraft get when the journey interplanetary distances means that they must be extremely Rad-hardened. Those going near Jupiter must have even more protection, and 7x redundancy or better to survive the radiation maelstrom there.

Anyway, please go read the whole thing.. He describes the infinite care and patience in testing required to have a chance of successful mission completion. Nothing can guarantee success, but skimping on any one of the myriad steps is guaranteed to cause a disaster, sooner or later.
... the next time you hear about a spacecraft that successfully completes its mission to Mars you will hopefully have a better appreciation of just what it took to accomplish that feat.
Abso-freaking-lutely. Bon Voyage, MRO, you're in good hands.