Sunday 29 February 2004

Today's Brain Link

In more ways than one... an article in Popular Science summarising the state-of-the-art in linking brains with robotic prostheses. Money quote:
For decades scientists have pondered, speculated on, and pooh-poohed the possibility of a direct interface between a brain and a machine -- only in the late 1990s did scientists start learning enough about the brain and signal-processing to offer glimmers of hope that this science-fiction vision could become reality. Since then, insights into the workings of the brain -- how it encodes commands for the body, and how it learns to improve those commands over time -- have piled up at an astonishing pace, and the researchers at Duke studying the macaque and the robotic arm are at the leading edge of the technology. "This goes way beyond what's been done before," says neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering. Indeed, the performance of the center's monkeys suggests that a mind-machine merger could become a reality in humans very soon.
Nicolelis and his team are confident that in five years they will be able to build a robot arm that can be controlled by a person with electrodes implanted in his or her brain. Their chief focus is medical -- they aim to give people with paralyzed limbs a new tool to make everyday life easier. But the success they and other groups of scientists are achieving has triggered broader excitement in both the public and private sectors. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has already doled out $24 million to various brain-machine research efforts across the United States, the Duke group among them.
As someone should have said about financing Medical Research,
There's Gold in them thar Pills!
Sorry. Anyway, I've posted before on this subject, saying things like "this will happen soon". Now I can give a reasonable estimate of what "soon" means : Five Years.

Thursday 26 February 2004

Keep Your Eye On the Ball

Tex over at Whacking Day has a pithy, pungent post, an open letter to the USA in general. While my style is a bit less vituperative (look it up), he's nailed it.

Wednesday 25 February 2004

Good Morning Mesopotamia!

That's the title of a continuing series of articles from "Ranger Rick", a reporter in Iraq. Essential Reading.

Tuesday 24 February 2004

Metrics, Body Counts, and Tech Support Hell

Experience has shown that one really, really, really good way of getting a good system/result is to start with a reasonably adequate one, and have a half-decent but systematic way of making it better. This, in a nutshell, is what a lot of the guff and jargon about "process improvement" is all about.

You find it in all sorts of areas; for example, we have a system of Laws, and a Parliament to make new ones and fix old ones. There's more than a grain of truth in Lenin's "Continuous Revolution" idea.

In Sodtware Engineering, "Continuous Improvement" is the one technique that has a proven track record of making intolerable situations tolerable, fair situations good, and good situations outsanding successes. It's a technique that's being applied with considerable success to all sorts of business practices. But there are pitfalls....

One of the hardest things in all this is to figure out how well you're doing. Often your true goal is something impossible to measure directly. It's often something like "Happiness", "Customer Satisfaction", or "Justice". Even "Are we winning?". You need a Metric - a means of measurement - that has some reasonable correspondence with the unmeasureable or difficult-to-measure definition of success. You then make changes, and see how well (or badly) the changes worked by how the value of the metric changes. Reward areas where the metric increases, Punish areas where it decreases.

But all too often, what originally was a good (or at least plausible) Metric to start with becomes bad, and worse than bad, as people try to maximise the Metric at the expense of the ultimate goal. One of the very worst and most inhuman examples of this was the "Body Count" in Vietnam. The Idea - quite plausible - was that the US would best deal with an enemy by a battle of attrition. Simply put, kill all the Commies, and Communism wouldn't be a problem any more. (Whether this was desirable or not is another matter, one I'd rather not get into.) Anyway, the "Measure of Success", the "metric" by which performance was judged, was the report of how many bodies were left on the battlefield. Unit commanders that reported hundreds, with mass slaughter of the enemy, got promotions and other rewards for performance. Those who reported merely that there was no enemy activity due to a programme of mass innoculations, health-care and prevention of corruption got replaced. Soon it became a matter of professional survival for inflated body-counts, with no resemblance to reality, to be reported as a matter of course. Innocents were often targetted, not out of malice, but with a reckless disregard for morality, in "free fire zones", where any movement, be it by a civilian population, native wildlife, or enemy combatant was deemed to be enemy activity, and "serviced" with mass firepower. It sounds good on paper to report an enemy "Self-Propelled Logistics Carrier" as being destroyed, until you realise that what that actually meant was that a family's Water-Buffalo, or even one of the few remaining wild Elephants had been machine-gunned.

The above doesn't give a true or complete picture of the Vietnam tragedy, but there's enough truth in it to explain exactly why General Schwartzkopf was so adamant, even fanatical, about not giving "body count" data during the 1990 Gulf War. It also explains why the US and other Western forces have been so keen on "Smart Bombs" and other precision weaponry. Nothing can stop the unavoidable catastrophes of innocents being killed by faulty weaponry or misguided missiles, especially when said populace is being used as involuntary human shields againt an ethical opponent. But the butcher's bill can be reduced, as witnessed by the latest military actions in Iraq. And the military is working on ways to improve.

But the inhuman "Body Count" mentality survives in business practices. A recent article in Slashdot about Technical Support is an example. From the original article in Salon (Guarded by Adware) :
When we pick up the phone we're lying. We don't really work for the company we say we work for. Because of the expense of housing and running a technical support operation, many computer manufacturers choose to outsource the work. We work for one such outsourcer, though you'd never know it just to talk to us. To the customer on the other end of the line the distinction, while important, is invisible.

Outsourcers are paid by the computer manufacturer based on the number of calls they handle. The more calls we take, the more the outsourcer is paid. So naturally everything that happens in this vast carpeted warehouse of cubicles is done with an eye toward speed. Our managers stress something called "average call time," which is simply the average amount of time a tech spends on each call. They want us to be under 12 minutes. Our phones monitor our ability to reach this magic number as well as the total number of calls we take, the number of times we ask for help, how much time we take between calls, even the amount of time we spend in the restroom. In short, your phone is always watching you.

Twelve minutes can sometimes be difficult even if you know what you're doing. It is impossible if you don't have a clue. The stress of always being on the clock without really knowing how to do your job has already claimed a third of my classmates...
In the comments on the article is more information about this particular firm:
Just to give my fellow slashdotters an idea of what working for this company is like:

They employ over 5,000 of the worst possbile computer illiterates I've ever seen. most have never even seen the inside of a computer. they specificly say during interview "We do not prefer experience or certifications. We will give any one with computer knowledge a job but prefer that *we* train you"

They pay $11/hr WHILE logged into the phone, minimum wage when not logged in (which btw will be most of the time).

Security is soo tight there all employees are run through a metal detector coming AND going from the complex (would say building but there are 6 of them). I asked once why they did this they responded "to protect the employees from the employees" referring to a couple times people started shooting guns in the call center.

This company is evil incarnate. the place is a total sweat shop. 3-400,000 sq ft per building of cubicles. It's soo disorienting navigating the cubicle farm you have to go by the signs posted.

Oh and everything the article said about the place is true. yes they are one of the largest support providers, they do compaq, HP and IBM, plus bellsouth/comcast, directv, and a bunch of others. All they care about is getting you off the phone in 12 minutes (thats what the dead giveaway was, totall company policy, if you spend 15 minutes you have 3 supervisors breathing down your neck). they will even go so far as you find a reason to manually disconnect @ 13 minutes telling you to call back again.
Go read the whole article - the one who gets promoted to "Mentor" and then "Manager" is the least helpful of the lot, who disconnects after a few seconds (but therefore has a really, really high number of calls-per-hour "serviced"). The one who resigns in disgust is the one person who others rely on to actually help people.

See what I mean about Inhuman Metrics?

O Tempora! O Mores!

No, not a post about Japanese Fried Veggies. A post I have difficulty classifying as Programming, or Weird Wide Web, or even Political comment. I recently found that Ken and Barbie have split. Yes, Barbie Millicent Roberts is now single. (Great Trivia question that one : What is Barbie's middle name? But I digress). Anyway, she's shacked up with an Aussie (figures) named Blaine. Blaine? Not exactly a common name in these parts.

Googling brought me to a website that attempts to explain Object Oriented Programming using Ken and Barbie as an example. Which says something about programmers, but I'm afraid to speculate what it says....

Anyway, the programming site has this little gem buried in it:
A guy walks into the Toys-R-Us toy shop in downtown Cleveland and says to the assistant: "Could you please show me your Barbie dolls? My daughter's birthday is today and I have to get something she will love!"

She says, "Certainly, sir. Here, we have:
Fashion Barbie @ $15.95
Vacation Barbie @ $15.95
Housewife Barbie @ $15.95
Divorcee Barbie @ $215.95!"

The guy asks in astonishment, "Why is Divorcee Barbie so much? She looks the same to me."

The assistant answers, "Well, sir, Divorcee Barbie comes complete with Ken's car, Ken's house, Ken's golf clubs, his gold MasterCard, his yacht and his summer home."
Oh Times! Oh Customs! Still, it sounds better in Latin.

Monday 23 February 2004

Jounalistic Ethics

A lot of journalists seem to think that Ethics is the county in England next to Thuthics.

A case in point ( courtesy of The Eternal Golden Braid) : Wood TV's mendacious hatchet job against an inoffensive Science Fiction Magazine. The scope of the distortion is breathtaking: it goes beyond exaggeration, and strays into the realm of the bald-faced lie.

To see just how bad the story is, read the magazine's reply : but a better way would be to go to the current issue and read some of the stories yourself (a few are available free). According to Wood TV, remember, these are "Adult" stories, in a salacious Porno Mag. If so, Ik ben Nederlander.

This may seem like a Tempest in a Teapot, but when exactly did we allow such deliberate fabrication of "news" to become something no longer extraordinary? At what time did the profession of "journalist" become as besmirched as "used-car salesman"? Did the problem always exist as bad as it is now, or has it gotten worse, or is it that the Internet has caused us to notice it more?

Sunday 22 February 2004

Chinese Space Programme Update

From China's official Xinhua News Agency :
China, which last year became the third nation to blast a man into space, plans to send two astronauts up on a five-to-seven-day mission in 2005 and later build a space station, China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Saturday.

Wang Yongzhi, chief designer of the nation's manned space program, told CCTV preparations for the launch of the two-person Shenzhou VI craft were proceeding smoothly.
"We will continue by launching Shenzhou VII, Shenzhou VIII and so on, carry out spacewalks, make space dockings and set up a space laboratory," Wang told CCTV.

He said astronauts would stay aboard the orbiting lab for short periods, with spacecraft ferrying them back and forth. Eventually, China would launch a larger space station capable of carrying out more extensive experiments, he said.

China's team of 14 trained astronauts, including Yang, have been placed in seven pairs to train for the next mission and three of the pairs will be finalists to fly it, Xinhua news agency said early this month.
For those of us who remember Mercury and Gemini, this sounds like a replay, only in fast-forward. And it only took the USA less than 10 years from its first crewed mission into space till the time Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon.

Saturday 21 February 2004

Everybody Wants ta get inta da Act

As Jimmy Durante used to say. As regards new (locally) Interplanetary Spacecraft, here's what the Russki's are doing (acording to CNN):
Russian engineers have begun design work on a new spacecraft that would be twice as big and spacious as the existing Soyuz crew capsules, the nation's top space official said Tuesday.

The new craft will be able to carry at least six cosmonauts and have a reusable crew section, Russian Aerospace Agency director Yuri Koptev said at a news conference. Soyuz carries three cosmonauts and isn't reusable.

The spacecraft, designed by the RKK Energiya company, will have a takeoff weight of 12-14 metric tons (13-15 tons) -- about twice as much as the Soyuz, which was developed in the late 1960s.

Energiya has also proposed developing a new booster rocket based on its Soyuz booster to carry the new spacecraft to orbit.

Koptev wouldn't say how long it could take to build the spacecraft or how much it would cost, but said that Energiya had done a lot of work on the new vehicle already.

"It has already reached a serious project stage while the Americans are only talking about their spacecraft," Koptev said, referring to U.S. plans to build a new spacecraft.
So There.

As Schnozzle Durante would say, "Good Night, Mrs Calabsh, Wherever you are. "

Or as Neil Armstrong said, "Good Luck, Mr Gorsky".

The Australian Space Programme

Australian-American Astronaut Andy Thomas speaks of it - or rather, the lack of it, in the Age :
Because Australia has not been involved in space exploration in any degree to speak of, it is becoming further behind other countries in owning and embracing a fundamental capability in the modern world.

"I think that's going to be a loss for Australia in terms of economic loss in the future. I think it tends to hinder education and stifles R&D and these are activities that are important for any modern society . . . you get innovation, you get start-up companies, you get economic progress, and Australia's going to lose in the long term by not having a philosophy that embraces these."

Thomas says young Australians also lose out because it denies them the opportunity to be involved in the space program. "I tell them to write to political leaders and start pushing them. And I think a new generation of Australians will grow up, hopefully influenced by what they've seen me do, and they will enter into positions of influence where they can change future federal policies, and I think that will be very healthy for the future of the country."

Australia's involvement in space travel is, indeed, limited. Most attention centres on NASA's Tidbinbilla tracking station,
...and incidentally, not far from where I'm writing this
...which is only in the country because of Australia's geographic position. In December 2002, the first Australian-built satellite in 35 years ; the $20 million, 60 kilogram, half-metre, cube-shaped micro-satellite FedSat ; was launched on a Japanese rocket. This is something Australia should do much more of, says Thomas.
Hear Hear! As for me, I'm singing "Once I built a Spacecraft, Now it's done: Buddy, Can you spare a Dime?" (The Tip Jar's on the left)
"The pay-off for human space exploration is undeniably long term, so I don't think it's wise to say, OK Australia, jump on this and send astronauts to the space station. But Australia should have an interest in space technologies because they are of paramount importance in modern defence systems."

"The Iraq war hinged on information that came from satellites . . . and if Australia's going to have a strong presence in its local region against threats from other countries, which we know now are steadily increasing and becoming more and more real at the terrorist level, then Australia must have its own space-based assets with which to defend itself."
Well, yes. FedSat proved that we can do this, and that it needn't cost the Earth. Should we do it locally, there are immediate tax benefits (it's highly labour-intensive, so the Government will get at least 30% of the cost in tax revenue), and there are export opportunities, even though the Aussie Dollar is now more like 80c US than the 47c it was 2 years ago. But then again, I'm not exactly objective here. I just don't want to have to wait 35 years before the next time we put up a satellite.

Thursday 19 February 2004

The Australian Mufti Speaks Candidly (but not in Australia)

As I wrote on The Command Post, the Mufti of Australia has been a little more forthright about his views when in Lebanon than he is in Australia. Here's a sample :
I blessed Hizbullah for liberating the prisoners and the bones of the Shahids and I praised it and its sacrifice. Hizbullah has become a model for all the Mujahideen in the world. Most of the Australian people do not support the policy of the Australian government, which has placed Hizbullah on the terror list out of submission to the U.S., and the Australian prime minister will pay the price for this in the next elections.
Here's another one, reported by a United Arab Emirates newspaper :
The media all over the world are controlled by Zionist fingers, particularly the Western media, and that includes Australia, in which the media are under Zionist hegemony. But in Australia, which unlike the West and the U.S. is multicultural, the media are less racist in their enmity to Muslims and Islam. This is evidenced by the fact that we won the last media battle in Australia...
(Source: Middle East Media Research Institute. Assuming this, and the other more inflammatory remarks he's made in various Arab newspapers are reported here, I'd say he's just scored a spectacular own-goal in the media. He's obviously not got his head around the fact that communication is globalised: the time when you could say one thing to one set of people, while saying something different somewhere else in the world - and not get caught is over. And now we know what he really feels, and what he stands for.

Wednesday 18 February 2004

Streets Paved with Gold

Crimson RosellaIt's often said about the great and fabled cities of the world that they are "Paved with Gold". Now please bare with me for I'm about to tell you about Canberra. "A Good Sheep-station, Spoilt." as one wag put it.

About a week ago, we had an almighty thunderstorm. Feline and Canine variety, a massive rainfall in a short period (and how we need that rain - we're still on stage 3 water restrictions due to the water supply having been damaged by last year's Firestorm)

In the morning, we found a very bedraggled and exhausted bird in our garden. No obvious damage, just too weak to fly, and utterly soaked and shivering. So I captured it in a cardboard box, and put a towel over the top - any passing Moggie would have considered it a banquet. A quick phone to the RSPCA, and then a trip past the bare plains (still no sign of regrowth after the Bushfires) to the RSPCA animal shelter about 20 km away - which was saved from fire only by heroic actions by the people there. Anyway, they gave the bird (identified as a Crimson Rosella) a quick examination, while waiting for the Vet to come later on for a complete check-up. It appears he had a bruise on one wing, and was missing a major tail-feather, but was otherwise just weak and exhausted.

Yesterday, I got another call - the bird had made a complete recovery, and would I like to release him in the same area he was picked up? So I collected him, and Andrew watched as the little parrot gave an indignant squawk, then a vertical take-off from out of the box, a quick Immelman over the house, then departed for parts unknown at high speed.

And that got me to thinking about living here. We take the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, the various Rosellas, the Grass-Parrots, even the Galahs (pink-breasted Cockatoos) for granted. In Fable, the streets of London are paved with Gold, but in Reality, the skies of Canberra are filled with Cockatoos, Galahs and Multicoloured Parrots far, far more than London has of Pidgeons. And I know which I'd rather have - roads made of some soft yellow metal, or a riotous assembly of shrieking, whistling, squawking and rattling rainbows in the trees.

Even just looking at the monetary value (always a dubious metric of real worth), we must have at least a billion dollars worth just flying around, entertaining us every day. Just the regular visitors to our back yard would be worth more than our house. Which in a way, somehow feels exactly right.

Sunday 15 February 2004

I fear Greeks, even when bearing Gifts

Or in the original, "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes". In fact, I also fear Belgians, Spaniards, and Swiss too. And as for Danes, here's an e-mail I just received:
hello, I am from Denmark and you'll don't believe me,
but a trojan horse in on your pc.
I've scanned the network-ports on the internet. (I know, that's illegal)
And I have found your pc. Your pc is open on the internet for everybody!
Because the services.exe trojan is running on your system.
Check this, open the task manager and try to stop that!
You'll see, you can't stop this trojan.
When you use win98/me you can't see the trojan!!

On my system was this trojan, too!
And I've found a tool to kill that bad thing.
I hope that I've helped you!

Sorry for my bad english!

Attached was a file that went straight into my Vivisection Bin, where I carefully pry the thing apart to find out exactly what the worm/virus/trojan is, and what it does. Using my UberGeek powers, I soon identified it as the WORM_SOBER.C. A full description of what it does is available. I also received a "You are an Idiot" version on the same day, so this virus is probably undergoing a resurgence.

So You Have Been Warned.

But if the warning comes too late, a removal tool is available.

Saturday 14 February 2004

Swimmer drives shark from water

That was the headline in this article from the ABC :
A man has survived a shark attack on the New South Wales central coast and then driven himself to seek treatment with the shark still attached to his leg.
Luke Tresoglavic from Lake Macquarie says he was swimming near Caves Beach on Tuesday when a wobbegong shark latched on to his leg.
"I just instantly grabbed hold of it with both hands as hard as I could to stop it shaking," he said.
"I just realised I had to swim in like that, hanging on to it.
"Once I got on to shore, a couple of people tried to help me but I could not remove it, it was stuck there.
"So I got up into my car and then drove to the clubhouse and luckily the guys down there had a clue what to do."
Surf lifesavers removed the 60 centimetre shark by hosing it with fresh water. you do.
A Wobbegong has peg-like teeth, anyone who's been attacked by one looks as if they've had a fight with a sewiing-machine. But as Sharks go, they're much less dangerous than most.
A mate of mine had a similar experience with a pack of metre-long sharks - the dangerous (as in "biting chunks out of you" rather than puncturing ) variety. He walked out of the water with two of them still attached (he'd already killed one), and disposed of them both with his fishing spear. Not a lot worse than really bad dog bites, so he said.

Wednesday 11 February 2004

Today's Brain Link

Courtesy of Normblog. My own results :
Alan, your hemispheric dominance is equally divided between left and right brain, while you show a moderate preference for auditory versus visual learning, signs of a balanced and flexible person.
Balanced? Few who know me would say that <g>
Your balance gives you the enviable capacity to be verbal and literate while retaining a certain "flair" and individuality. You are logical and compliant but only to a degree. You are organized without being compulsive, goal-directed without being driven, and a "thinking" individual without being excessively so.

The one problem you might have is that your learning might not be as efficient as you would like. At times you will work from the specific to the general, while at other times you'll work from the general to the specific. Sometimes you will be logical in your approach while at other times random.
I prefer the term "intuitive"...
Since you cannot always control the choice, you may experience frustrations not normally felt by persons with a more defined and directed learning style.

You may also minimally experience conflicts associated with auditory processing. You will be systematic and sequential in your processing of information, you will most often focus on a single dimension of the problem or material, and you will be more reflective, i.e., "taking the data in" as opposed to "devouring" it.

Overall, you should feel content with your life and yourself. You are, perhaps, a little too critical of yourself - and of others - while maintaining an "openness" which is redeeming. Indecisiveness is a problem and your creativity is not in keeping with your potential. Being a pragmatist, you downplay this aspect of yourself and focus on the more immediate, the more obvious and the more functional.
Reasonably in agreement with my own assessment - other tests I've done show that I have far less left/right hemisphere differentiation than most people. I'm ambiclumsy (rather than ambidextrous), and dyslexic as the result. But there are certain advantages when it comes to marrying originality and creativity with rigour and logic, something that's essential when architecting large systems, be they computer programs, town plans, bridges, business processes or aircraft. But as for "High Art" - my music teacher said it best: "Very Poor even though he lacks talent.". *Sigh*. Still, I'd need a lot more evidence before I placed much faith in this methodology. Interesting though.

The actual numbers :
Auditory : 53%
Visual : 46%
Left : 50%
Right : 50%
Go take the test yourself.

Greater Love hath No Man...

From The Australian :
When Ted Von Nida saw a crocodile chomping his howling dog in its jaws he knew he had to act fast.

The seaplane pilot was about to take his three dogs for a run on Sunday afternoon when the croc struck outside his Trinity Inlet home near Cairns.

Mr Von Nida said he had just turned his car around when he noticed something was wrong with the animals, which were standing next to a shallow culvert.

He says two of the dogs were frozen to the spot, looking first into the drain then back at him.

"I got straight out of my car and raced to the bank and saw my dog Buffy in trouble. He was trying to climb, like he was trying to get up a flight of stairs, and the croc had him and was just shaking him.
When he moved within a few metres of the crocodile, it released the dog and charged, he said.

"The croc saw me and heard my voice and thought here's a bigger meal."

Mr Von Nida estimated the crocodile to be about 2.3 metres long.

"It was a full-blown charge and there was a bow wave off his head."

As the crocodile circled Mr Von Nida retreated to find his dog, which suffered several long cuts to its leg.

"(Since the attack) I've been spoiling him and just giving him steak and sleep," Mr Von Nida said.
Four years ago, Mr Von Nida said Buffy's mother had a similar close call when a croc grabbed her by the snout as she was swimming.

"I had an oar and slapped the surface of the water with it (which) must have scared it off."

Mr Von Nida said he would always do all he could to save his dogs, which he loved for their unconditional friendship.
I'd say that the Unconditional Friendship was a 2-way thing in this case.

Blogger Ate My Homework

..or at least, my latest posts. Hopefully this one will work.

Tuesday 10 February 2004

Weird Wide Web

A Robot for solving Rubik's cube. Made from Lego.

Lego Robot

Saturday 7 February 2004

A Chamber of Horrors

I've said before that "Something must be done about North Korea".

The reasons I supported, strongly supported, a war to ouster Saddam Hussien in Iraq were twofold:
  1. He was a threat to us all, inasmuch as he had been proven to be dabbling in Nuclear and Biological weapons research, had been proven to use Chemical weapons against his enemies, and had been giving aid to all manner of terrorist organisations, some of whom had training camps in Iraq. He had a record as a "loose cannon", a brutal thug who let no international law, nor custom, nor convention stand in his way. It was only a matter of time before the threat became imminent (if it wasn't already) and then actual rather than potential.
  2. He engaged in mass murder and all manner of barbarities, torture, genocide, and wholesale slaughter, while his spawn went in for retail sadism. Iraq was a Torture Chamber for many, and a Prison for all. When there's proof beyond all doubt that this occurs, such things should not be allowed to stand.
I've seen nothing post-war to change my views. Fortunately, Saddam Hussein was less far along with his Nuclear Programme than we thought, even in our most wildly optimistic forecasts. He tried to use Chemical Weapons against the Coalition, but the cupboard was bare. For which we should be profoundly grateful. But the hundreds of mass grave sites, and the hundreds of thousands of bodies buried there show that he was worse than we imagined. We should have gone in sooner.

And that brings me to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( DPRK) - North Korea.

Over on The Command Post, there's an article showing the Nazi-style horrors in the North Korean Death Camps. If anything, North Korea is worse than Iraq ever was, in every way. As I've posted before, it's straight out of 1984.

So why aren't we doing something about it? Well, there are several reasons.

Firstly, unlike Iraq, North Korea hasn't invaded anyone recently. Not for over 50 years, anyway. This means that the UN - the "coalition of the willing" 1950-style actually fought against North Korea under the UN banner - hasn't passed over a hundred resolutions against the DPRK. Anyone who doubts that the UN is still a force to be reckoned with in international affairs should take note : the US will not act Unilaterally. However... the fact that the DPRK openly admits to cheating on the inspection regime of the Non-Proliferation treaty before formally withdrawing from it is, or should be, a causus belli. The actual withdrawal is not.

Second, there's a practical problem. Seoul, a city of some 10.5 million, is within artillery range of the border. And the mountains along that border are honeycombed with tens of thousands of artillery emplacements, and garrisoned with many, many rockets and long range guns, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ammunition. Should war be declared, Seoul will be put under a bombardment only matched by what the Russians did to Grozny. It would not be unrealistic to talk of a million dead in the bombardment, and another million dying from indirect effects ( disease, no clean water, wounds untreated, no power ). It matters not whether Nerve Gas would be used, or even one or two Hiroshima-sized nuclear warheads.

Thirdly, another practical problem. The US is busy in Iraq right now, there's no way it could occupy North Korea, only destroy it. And that means killing the very people we're trying to save.

Fourthly, there's a problem, and an opportunity : China. The DPRK is firmly in China's back yard. There's no way that China could tolerate external intervention that leaves foreign forces on the Yalu. Last time this happened, a Chinese Horde poured over the border and beat the Foreigners back to what is basically the current border. The DPRK is kept alive - such as it is - by a stream of Oil flowing over the Yalu from China. Should China decide to cut off the supply, then the DPRK would either have to go to war, or fold within months.

But Kim Jong-Il is no Gorbachev: not for him going silently into that good night, he will rage against it, and kill as many others as he possibly can. Millions, certainly. And he's supported by a thoroughly indoctrinated Military Class, trained from early childhood in Xenophobia, Racism, and seeing the peasant masses as potential "enemies of the state", and of the God-King, Kim. Bumping him off might well lead to an even worse Catastrophe than having him alive.

Read what Anne Appelbaum has to say in the Washington Post. She ends with :
Later -- in 10 years, or in 60 -- it will surely turn out that quite a lot was known in 2004 about the camps of North Korea. It will turn out that information collected by various human rights groups, South Korean churches, oddball journalists and spies added up to a damning and largely accurate picture of an evil regime. It will also turn out that there were things that could have been done, approaches the South Korean government might have made, diplomatic channels the U.S. government might have opened, pressure the Chinese might have applied.

Historians in Asia, Europe and here will finger various institutions, just as we do now, and demand they justify their past actions. And no one will be able to understand how it was possible that we knew of the existence of the gas chambers but failed to act.
Auschwitz is happening again. People of good will let it happen, sometimes under their noses. They perhaps could be pardoned, many just didn't believe that such a thing could exist. We don't have that excuse.

So what can we do? Start by pointing your browser to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). Because I for one don't have the power to launch a war of Liberation, and even if I had the power, even risking, let along bringing about, a war where hundreds of thousands, or even millions would die, is not something I could do. Then again, I'm neither the PM nor the President. Thank God.

(Thanks to Instapundit for the HRNK link)

A Cheaper Shuttle

The ever-readable Rocket Man has a post by reader Kelly Starks that has some interesting numbers regarding the cost of SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and TSTO (Twin Stage To Orbit). Of particular interest is DARPA's concept of using upstream water-injection cooling, and LOX (Liquid Oxygen)-injection on conventional military Turbofans to reach Mach 6.

I've been interested in such Hybrid systems since I took a supposedly reasonably accurate SR-71 Flight Simulator for a spin (literally) and had it zoom to 160,000 ft, after a Mach 3+ run at 80,000 ft followed by a shallow dive and pull-up when the air got thick enough to give some bite for a controlled entry into a climb. Of course I wasn't able to recover controlled flight afterwards, and in the simulation the airframe broke up on what was essentially re-entry. But a purpose-designed aircraft just might be able to get a parasite payload up to 200,000 ft on a ballistic trajectory, given enough momentum. The numbers are in the right ball-park.

The great advantage of this is that no new technology is needed. Get an off-the-shelf Russki booster up that high and going that fast, and you start to get really high payload ratios.

Instead of the $10,000 a Kg you get with the very best rockets today, you might get as low as $1,000 a Kg. That's less than 1/20 the cost of a Shuttle.

Thursday 5 February 2004

Not a Norwegian Blue

...but an African Grey. Today's Brain post is about African Grey Parrots, or rather, one particular African Grey Parrot, called N'Kisi.
N'kisi, a six-year-old African grey parrot bred in captivity, has astounded scientists with his 950 word vocabulary, humorous expressions and apparent telepathy.

N'kisi, the companion of New York artist Aimee Morgana, is said to be the first parrot of his kind to go beyond mimicking speech to develop other language skills.

He uses words in context, with past, present and future verb tenses.

Grace Roselli, N'kisi's teacher, says he invents novel words outside his existing vocabulary, including "flied" in place of "flew." Creativity in describing new ideas is a trait typically exhibited by children.

The parrot is also able to link pictures to real people or objects. N'kisi first saw primate expert Dr. Jane Goodall in a photograph with apes. When the two were later introduced to each other, he greeted her with "Got a chimp?"

He also seems to have a sense of humor. Observing a fellow parrot suspended upside down on a perch, he quipped: "You've got to put this bird on the camera."
As I've posted before, my researches on Artificial Intelligence have led me to some uncomfortable conclusions about the boundaries between "People" and "Animals" . I'd include N'kisi as a "person", even if his conversational skills are limited. That's not to say that he should be entitled to a vote, for example. But he should be secure in his person, to kill him would be murder rather than vandalism.

Wednesday 4 February 2004

Not Just Racists, Plagiarists too

First the original.
Then the copy.

While reading Socialism in an Age of Waiting, I found a link to Hak Mao, which in turn had an article about a film called Max, dealing with an alternate history of Adolf Hitler. This led me post a comment about Norman Spinrad's book, The Iron Dream, and also to do a Google on it. Which led in turn to the Aryan Unity site.

You never know what's under a rock till you turn it over.

Tuesday 3 February 2004

Oi Mane Padme Hum

From Utterly Boring's Thoughts of a Jewish Buddhist :
Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with posture like that.

There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle maintenance, do the following: get rid of the motorcycle. What were you thinking?
Go read the whole thing.

Sunday 1 February 2004

Now it can be told...

From The Australian :
China's first astronaut was given permission to crash-land his spacecraft in the Australian outback in case of an emergency under a secret agreement between Canberra and Beijing.

But the Government did not tell the public of the disaster plan, despite alerting state and federal emergency services to the fact that a Chinese astronaut and his spacecraft might suddenly fall from the sky.

China quietly approached the Australian Government with its request in October last year, shortly before launching its first manned space flight with astronaut Yang Liwei aboard.

The successful launch received worldwide attention, but the Chinese did not reveal Australia's supporting role in the historic mission.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was to find the Chinese capsule if it crashed in this country.

But the only key to the spacecraft in Australia was held by a Chinese embassy official in Canberra.

The plan required that the Chinese official be flown to the site of any emergency landing to open the spacecraft and let Australian rescuers in, which would have ensured Australian scientists did not enter first and conduct an impromptu inspection of China's rocket technology.

Police sources have told The Weekend Australian four areas of the outback were designated as possible landing zones for any emergency landing of the craft, known as Shenzhou V or "divine vessel".

These crash zones included a remote desert location in the far southwest of the Northern Territory and another in northwest South Australia, as well two remote locations in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia.
...the latter quite near where Skylab ended up, in fact.

A User Evaluation

This time, of the STS (Space Transportation System) known as the "Shuttle". From the ABC :
Story Musgrave, a veteran of six shuttle missions, says the spacecraft has too many flaws to be an acceptable risk.

The warnings come as NASA prepares to retire the shuttle to make way for technology to deliver on US President George W Bush's proposal that US astronauts establish a permanent base on the moon by 2015.

Dr Musgrave says the shuttle was hastily and poorly designed during the Cold War space race.

"What people don't understand is that you can't make this thing safe - it's the most dangerous vehicle ever contrived and it always was that dangerous," he said.

"But NASA didn't want it to be that dangerous, so they started telling themselves it wasn't and they started to believe themselves."
Remember, the Shuttles are 30 years old. Not the design, that's much older, the actual spacecraft themselves. Not many people drive cars built in the mid-70's, with the original parts. Fewer still drive cars designed in the 60's.

I happen to disagree in detail with Dr Musgrave : Objectively, the 5% failure rate of the Shuttle is about average for reliable space hardware, and it's far safer than any other US manned spacecraft (Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, X-15). And the Shuttle was neither poorly nor hastily designed, for the time and within the budgetary constraints. But then again, It's not my life on the line. And I agree that it's not good enough, cannot be made so, and needs mending with a new 'un.

Today's Interesting URL

The 101 Dumbest Moments in Business. The "most shameful, dishonest, and just plain stupid moments" this year, anyway. Some highlights :
In July, a McDonald's outlet in Chicago's Field Museum is closed by health inspectors who discover that the food preparation area is backed up with raw sewage and that employees have changed the expiration dates on 200 cartons of milk.

In December, Toyota apologizes for its advertising in the Beijing-based monthly magazine Auto Fan. One ad depicts a Land Cruiser towing a truck that resembles a Chinese military vehicle, thus insulting China's ever-sensitive army. The other ad shows a stone lion - a traditional Chinese symbol of power - bowing down to Toyota's Prado, a word rendered in Chinese as badao, or "domineering."

Part 1 The PC in the WC. On April 30, Microsoft U.K. issues a press release touting a new product called the iLoo, an Internet-enabled toilet equipped with a Wi-Fi broadband connection, a plasma flat screen, a waterproof keyboard, and sponsored toilet paper festooned with Web addresses. According to the release, the iLoo will "allow instant logging on."
Part 2 Johnny on the spot. Twelve days later, after much snickering in morning newspapers and on late-night talk shows, Microsoft flacks back in Redmond come up with a clever strategy for damage control. The iLoo, says spokeswoman Kathy Gill, was merely an "April Fool-like joke."
Part 3 Something doesn't smell right. The next day, realizing that nobody's buying the April-Fool's-joke-29-days-after-April-Fool's-Day explanation, Microsoft calls back reporters and admits that it had told an iLulu: The project was indeed real but has subsequently been killed. "We jumped the gun basically yesterday in confirming that it was a hoax," says MSN group product manager Lisa Gurry. "In fact, it was not."

Over the course of six months, the sheriff's department in Lubbock County, Texas, catches five suspects attempting to fool urinalysis using the Whizzinator, an artificial penis that dispenses fake pee. Says a straight-faced Dennis Catalano, the owner of the company that makes the device and also sells dried urine, "How people choose to use it is beyond our control."

In January, British radio station BRMB is fined £15,000 for holding a contest in which entrants are challenged to see who can sit on a block of ice the longest, with the winner getting free concert tickets. The station got the idea from a New Zealand website, but unlike the Kiwis, the Brits use dry ice, which, at -109 degrees Fahrenheit, is unkind to human flesh. Three participants are hospitalized.

Pretty in Pink

RAF Pink TornadoMaybe one of the advantages of having a more "Politically Correct" mixed-gender armed force will be the abandonment of some Macho Bulldust. From Jim Dunnigan's Strategy Page :
Deciding what color to paint aircraft has always been a contentious issue. Many different color schemes have been tried over the years. At one point, the U.S. Air Force ran some extensive tests and concluded the color that best hid an aircraft in flight was a shade of pink. The results of this effort were never implemented.
One can guess why - somehow Macho Fighter Jocks just wouldn't be comfortable zooming around in something the same colour as Lady Penelope's Rolls-Royce. Of course, some military forces, such as Britain's SAS have been using pink as a camo colour for decades, such as their famous Pink Panther LandRovers. (As an aside, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward's Biography makes fascinating reading.) Anyway, the picture on the right is of an RAF Tornado bomber in a low-visibility colour scheme : "Desert Pink".