Monday, December 27

Iraq isn't is like Vietnam, take 2

I posted on the Iraq = Vietnam topic some months ago. A new article in Slate, Iraq 2004 Looks Like Vietnam 1966 neatly falsifies the "light casualties" meme. The authors, former officers, show that after adjusting for wound lethality (better military medicine) and troop counts (Vietnam had three times more U.S. troops in 1966), we've got the same fatality rate as the prior quagmire.

As an interesting aside: they cite a study that showed improved civilian trauma medicine accounts for most of the decline in the domestic murder rate over the past 40 years.

I'm glad I live in the mountains

14,000 dead throughout South Asia from a tsunami triggered by a Richter 9 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra.

In my wife's home town of Penang, over 350 miles from the quake epicenter, 38 are dead and 30 missing. My nephew Jason lives there and reported in this afternoon — he's fine, but there's been a lot of destruction.

Saturday, December 25

Gadget Porn

Check out Ambient Devices, which has two amazing widgets:
  1. The Dashboard, which is a panel of three analog gauges, each of which can be connected to the internet-sourced variable of your choice (DJIA, Metro Traffic, or custom feed).
  2. The Orb, a ball that glows red to yellow to green depending on the relative change in one of the variables mentioned above.
Both items are $150, but that's not bad considering it apparently includes a lifetime subscription to a wireless paging network.

Credits: Found this on Josh Rubin's Coolhunting, which is a hipper Gizmodo.

Friday, December 24

The Three Laws of Security

When someone says something confusing about computer security, now you can say "I think that's just a restatement of Schiffman's second law."

  1. Locks Only Keep Out Honest People: Security measures inconvenience authorized users more than their adversaries.
  2. Ask, "Qui Bono?": The "pointless hassle" security procedure is there for a reason — only not the reason you think.
  3. Outrun the Other Hikers, not the Bear: If you're a harder target than all others equally or more attractive, you're working too hard.

Tuesday, December 7

Eat barbeque, sleep better

Over at Educated Guesswork, in a response to a post on "Me-too drugs", a commenter wonders why Grapefruit juice inhibits the metabolization of non-sedating antihistamines.

I'm glad you asked that question.

Grapefruit inhibits the activity of the liver enzyme cytochrome P450-3A4, which metabolizes about half of the medicines in the modern pharmocopia. (One third of the rest is handled by P450-2D6). One look at the list of drugs using, inhibiting or potentiating P450 might lead you to conclude that every pair of drugs will strongly interact. Check out Flockhart's canonical P450 interation table.

Of the thousands of interesting interaction inferences that can be made from this table, note this one: eating charbroiled meats should help reduce a coffee buzz.

Monday, November 29

A place for your ideas

While prowling Matt Blaze's crypto webpage I came across the Halfbakery, "a communal database of original, fictitious inventions". My favorite one so far is the Custard-Filled Speed Bump.

Apparently, you're welcome to add your own ideas, if you register. I just may do that — I've always wanted a place to publicize my improvements to the outdated Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie.

Saturday, November 27

Bad Security = Bad UI?

While poking around on the website for CMU's Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, I came across some interesting papers from July's DIMACS Workshop on Usable Privacy and Security Software. I enjoyed several of the papers, including:

  • Matt Blaze's Toward a Broader View of Security Protocols where he advocates attention towards what he calls "Human Scale Security". His agenda is twofold: 1) apply lessons from folk process design to computer systems, potentially aligning the security intuition of laypeople with future computer security systems; and 2) apply computer security protocol design and analysis to traditional manual processes and so discover flaws in them. A cute analysis of restaurant-to-diner bill presentation protocol is included where he suggests improving the protocol (reducing six round trips to five) by handing the credit card over to the waiter when asking for the bill. This "optimization" ignores the possibility that the diner's choice of payment mechanism may depend on the amount of the bill.
  • Simson Garfinkel's Best Practices for Usable Security In Desktop Software has a nice payoff slide: The Pure Software Act of 2006 which has truth-in-labeling icons for "self-installs", "monitors", "unremovable", and so on.
  • Chris Long's Chameleon: Towards Usable RBAC describes a role-oriented shell, which I think is only a half-measure, but absolutely nails the top-level problem statement: what permissions are reasonable to grant depends on the user's context. Long uses an example I've used myself for ten years — the disk format program, signed by Microsoft or not, is malware if it is sent to you in the guise of a (say) screensaver. I call this "obtaining informed consent" and I think it may be the final security frontier.
  • Angela Sasse's Usable Security: Beyond the Interface piles on the observations until you cry uncle: we know perfectly well people don't do what security people tell them to do. She has a few suggestions on what to do about this.

Workshops like these, emphasizing human factors and economics in security (rather than, say, cryptography) show the field is coming to grips with its manifold failures. Maybe there's hope!

Saturday, November 20

Catch them if you can; if not, file a 1099

Frank Abagnale, famously portrayed in Catch Me If You Can, has been a consultant and lecturer on fraud prevention ever since...well, you know. He's got a website where he sells products such as his $75 Document Verification & Currency Transaction Manual containing, among other things, "authentic full color specimens of all U.S. and Canadian driver's licenses and license plates".

Rob Rodin turned me on to a document Abagnale authored, sponsored by the Union Bank of California, imposingly titled Check Fraud, Identity Theft and Embezzlement. It's full of good, prosaic advice (interspersed with pitches for UCB services) on preventing the named frauds, such as to avoid using polymer film typewriter ribbon when writing manual checks — easily lifted by a forger with scotch tape.

Mostly prosaic advice, as I said. But there is one amusing suggestion:

If an embezzlement or check fraud loss does occur, whenever possible, file a 1099 on the perpetrators and let them deal with the IRS of the rest of their natural lives.

Sunday, November 14

I'd prefer not to.

I know I haven't been blogging. Sorry to disappoint you. I'll be back soon, I promise.

Wednesday, November 3

Top Ten Reasons to be Glad He Won

  1. No need for expensive wedding presents for gay friends.
  2. Impoverished elderly means cheaper domestic help.
  3. $4/gallon gas makes roads less crowded.
  4. Investment strategy a no-brainer: short the dollar.
  5. Heating bills should go down as globe warms.
  6. Ends sleepless nights worrying about IVF clinic zygotes.
  7. "Left Behind" will make a great mini-series.
  8. Islamic youth have something to be enthusiastic about.
  9. Fewer drug side-effects for millions of Americans.

....and the #1 reason to be glad he won:

  1. French more pissed-off at us than ever.

I figured out who to blame...

John McCain.

The people have spoken, goddamn them.

Charles Pierce quoting Mo Udall on Altercation.

Sunday, October 31

All politics is local

Nevada is a red state, and Northern Nevada even redder. Here in Douglas County, Republican party affiliation runs 2-to-1 over Democrat, and that held up pretty much in our social circle.

Well, we've made some new friends now, starting with the people we met through the Douglas County Democratic Women organization. DCDW is a pretty impressive organization — formed only ten months ago, it has catalyzed a large volunteer base for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. A lot of people getting into political action for the first time (since college, anyway). Thank you, Karl Rove.

Phylis and I have been walking our precinct, making phone calls, even standing on sidewalks waving placards. This is part of the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) "ground war" effort the parties talk about; I don't know how much good it does but I'm pretty sure this is the biggest effort the Democrats have made in Northern Nevada.

Vote! Go Kerry!

Friday, October 22

Sunday, October 17

A Programming Koan

Found this in which references the original source via this (currently broken) link.
The Koan of Lazy Evaluation

Michel Mauny was giving a guest lecture to new computer science students. After the students were seated, Michel pronounced: "Today's lecture will be about Lazy Evaluation".

He paused for a moment, and then concluded with: "Are there any questions?"

Saturday, October 16

Moronic Convergence

You remember, perhaps, when some years ago the digerati talked about media convergence. I stupidly thought the issue was that traditional media merging with interactive media. As it turns out, the convergence was that news got taken over by entertainment.

It's been noted elsewhere that the way to think about Limbaugh, O'Reilly is as entertainers (O'Reilly said this of Limbaugh, if not himself). Stupid, annoying entertainers, but annoying is the idea — think commercials. So liberals have been recruiting comedians as their "commentators" (e.g., Al Franken).

When you think about it, the end of TV journalism was an inevitable consequence of deregulation. If the airwaves aren't a resource to be administered as a public trust, then spectrum licensees have no responsibilities to other than their stockholders. Since broadcasters have to find audiences which are, how do you say it, broad, they have use their asset (airtime) to best effect. And, as George Guilder once observed, the only thing we all have in common are our purient interests. QED.

Not that TV journalism was so wonderful in the golden age: self-satisfied, simplistic, biased to the established view. But it was journalism, at least sometimes.

Now for the obligatory compelling link — that's what blog posts are about, right? OK. Many people seem to prefer The Daily Show as their news source (me too), but the really funny part is that the only guy who seems to believe that there could be such a thing as responsible TV news is John Stewart.

There's a nice piece on Media Matters (itself a nice website) which has the transcript and video of Stewart on Crossfire Friday. Stewart is chastising his hosts (Carlson and Begala) for their degraded state, and their defense is tbat he's a pretty poor newsman himself:

CARLSON: When politicians come on...

It's nice to get them to try and answer the
question. And in order to do that, we try
and ask them pointed questions. I want to
contrast our questions with some questions
you asked John Kerry recently.
STEWART: If you want to compare your show to
a comedy show, you're more than welcome to.
CARLSON: No, no, no, here's the point.
STEWART: If that's your goal.
CARLSON: It's not.
STEWART: I wouldn't aim for us. I'd aim for
"Seinfeld." That's a very good show.
CARLSON: You had John Kerry on your show and
you sniff his throne and you're accusing us
of partisan hackery?
STEWART: Absolutely.
CARLSON: You've got to be kidding me. He
comes on...
STEWART: You're on CNN. The show that leads
into me is puppets making crank phone calls.

I can't even stomach The News Hour anymore. I used to joke that if there was a serial killer on the loose, they'd have a panel with three guys: one who thought that serial killing was an unmitigated evil, another who thought that serial killers had gotten a bad rap, and a third guy who hadn't quite made up his mind.

More realistically, a panel commenting on a creationism story would have one scientist speaking up for evolution, one for creationism, and a historian who is neutral on the subject. This composition would be OK with me if there were nine thousand and two people on the panel: 9000 scientists for evolution balancing the other two guys.

Wednesday, October 6

Beyond Schneier

Bruce Schneier has a new blog. His most recent post is an article he wrote for the International Herald Tribune discussing the Department of Homeland Security's insistence that all passports (US or otherwise) be machine readable using RFID technology:
Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

You gotta love the guy.

Monday, October 4

George W., nuclear proliferation wonk

Poor W. Even when he had something coherent to say in the first debate, he came off as an irritable kook:

KERRY: [...] With respect to North Korea, the real story: We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea. Secretary Bill Perry negotiated that under President Clinton. And we knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power. Colin Powell, our secretary of state, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialog of working with the North Koreans. The president reversed it publicly while the president of South Korea was here. [...] While they didn't talk at all, the fuel rods came out, the inspectors were kicked out, the television cameras were kicked out. And today, there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea.

BUSH: The minute we have bilateral talks, the six-party talks will unwind. That's exactly what Kim Jong Il wants. And by the way, the breach on the agreement was not through plutonium. The breach on the agreement is highly enriched uranium. That's what we caught him doing. That's where he was breaking the agreement.

Sort of like the Odd Couple scene: "it's not spaghetti, it's linguini!" Although it sounded like a silly detail, W's uranium vs. plutonium point was an reasonable one. The reactor that the IAEA had its inspectors and cameras in was for making plutonium. That was the part of the agreement that was verifiable, so the North Korean started producing uranium out of sight of the inspectors.

I could imagine any number of points that W. might have attempted to make with this fact, but apparently the retrieval of this data made his brain overheat.

Right Stuff remains in equilibrium

Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper is dead. Famously the best fighter pilot he himself ever saw, Gordo's death leaves only three surviving Mercury program Astronauts: John Glenn, Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter.

He cleverly arranged to die the same day that Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne made its second sub-orbital space flight, winning the Ansari X prize.

Monday, September 27

Burn the disk packs!*

Buried in Adam Rifkin's post on the Google Labs Aptitude Test is a request that I answer the one of the test's questions:

5. What's broken with Unix?

How would you fix it?

I think it was unwise of Adam to ask for my response to this question — after all, the name for this blog was originally supposed to have been Don't Get Me Started (turns out that had already been taken, several times). It's pretty difficult to take this question seriously, though, so the danger isn't all that great. And to be fair to the author of the GLAT, it's fairly clear that this question isn't meant any more seriously than the rest of the "test".

For Adam's pleasure I could try to answer the question, but to keep the answer's length reasonable I'd have to choose between Unix the thing and Unix the idea. Even that's not a clear distinction.

So, unless something else compels me, I won't answer, except with a parable. Uh, not actually a parable, but more like a rave. Not my rave but one I once heard. Uh not really the one that I heard, really my version of what I heard. At least I think I heard it. OK. Somebody (John Wharton?) explaining why he hated Intel's processor:

No, I won't use the freaking Pentium 4, 'cause inside a Pentium 4 is a Pentium III, and inside that is a Pentium II, and inside that is a freaking Pentium nothing, and it doesn't stop there. No, inside a Pentium is a 80486 which I won't use because inside that is a freaking 386, and inside that is a 80286. You know, of course, that inside the 286 is an 80186 and inside that is the freaked freaking 8086 which has an 8085 inside, and inside of that is an 8080, and as we all know, inside that is an 8008 and inside that is a 4040 and inside that is the freaking 4004 and inside that is a freaking japanese freaking calculator

Since I heard the original version in the mid-80's, the rave presumably started from the 386. And, of course, the speaker didn't actually say "freaking".

[*] Stoney again, I think; but Alan claims the slogan too.

Friday, September 24

Capitalist Pig

I've already posted about becoming an advertiser. Now I've discovered a new (to me) way to monetize my success in building Recondite's readership to its currently impressive levels.

I've already made the changes. This commercial activity is less visible than AdSense, though — can you figure out what it is?

Principia Securita

I found another book at Digital Guru: UC Davis Prof. Matt Bishop's Computer Security: Art and Science. Apparently, it's been out since early 2003, but this is the first copy I've seen. Bishop is well-known for the practical advice he's published on writing secure privileged programs.

I've only read the table of contents and dipped-in here and there, but it seems incredibly comprehensive. At a little less than 1100 pages, it's 58% the length of Russell and Whitehead.

It's got the obligatory chapter on Bell-LaPadula1, and three chapters on crypto, but that's out of 35 chapters. Less usual, and more welcome, is the chapter on identity, and the four chapter-long section on assurance. There are five chapters in the "End Matter" section that seem like padding (I mean, a does a chapter on symbolic logic belong in the book?), but there may be requirements in textbook publishing I don't understand.

Unfortunately, it doesn't have any material on security and economics or human factors; of course, that's a fault shared by almost all other books on computer security.2

As I said, it's quite comprehensive and it looks like a great combination reference and textbook. I'm glad I bought it. Now I've got 900-odd pages to go...

[1] The Bell-LaPadula Model was developed in the mid-60's as a formal description of the necessary properties for computer systems supporting military-style classification of information. There's a hierarchy of classification labels (e.g., Unclassified ← Confidential ← Secret ← Top Secret) for data, and system users have clearance to corresponding levels. Sigh. Most thinking about computer security has started from this point — too bad it has nothing to do with the requirements of real systems.

[2] With the exception of Ross Anderson's Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems. But Anderson's book actually has surprisingly little material on economics and the book is far less comprehensive than Bishop's.

HAKMEM redux

While I was in the Bay Area last week I went browsing at Digital Guru bookstore in Sunnyvale, not far from where the old Computer Literacy used to be on Lawrence Expressway.

One of the books I found there was Hacker's Delight, a book very much in the spirit of the venerable MIT AI Labs memo HACKMEM.1 Whereas HACKMEM touches on mathematics, circuits and even cosmology2, Hacker's Delight pretty much sticks to (computer) mathematics.

The book has a nice website that goes along with it.

[1] Guy Steele's forward to the book also notes the resemblance.

[2] Check out Item 154, where Gosper proves that the Universe is two's-complement.

Wednesday, September 22

What is this feeling?

I feel guilty that I haven't been blogging. The problem is I only feel like blogging about politics right now, but my words seem inadequate to express how I think and feel. In listening to the Wicked cast album, I realized there was a song that says it very well:

What is this feeling, so sudden and new?

I felt it the moment I laid eyes on you.
My pulse is rushing, my head is reeling,
My face is flushing — what is this feeling?
Fervid as a flame... does it have a name?

Loathing! Unadulterated loathing!
For your face, your voice, your clothing!
Let's just say... I loathe it all.
Every little trait, however small,
Makes my very flesh begin to crawl,
With simple utter loathing.
There's a strange exhilaration,
In such total detestation.
It's so pure and strong!

Though I do admit it came on fast,
Still I do believe that it can last.
And I will be loathing, loathing you
My whole..... life...... long!
©2003 Wicked A New Musical

Monday, September 13

Virtually Madison Avenue

Check it out: Recondite now has Google AdSense towers in the sidebar. I would have done it from the founding of the blog, only Google wouldn't have me until now. First, they said that their topic analyzer didn't give good results (i.e., couldn't choose appropriate ads) for the blog. Next they said Recondite didn't meet their policy standards, but I contested that decision and they later reversed themselves. I suspect it was the sentence "I hate W." which was classified as hate speech rather than political discourse...

For those who don't know about AdSense: it's Google's program to place ads on the pages of independent web-sites. Google selects and places ad content on a participating website, and pays the publisher for click through.

You have no idea what satisfaction it gives me to be living in the world I imagined fifteen years ago. Of course, I thought micro-publishing would involve micro-payments, not Google aggregating the payments until it was worth writing me a check.1 But that's a detail.2

So here we are; the future has arrived — every man his own (commercial) publisher at less effort than, say, writing a letter. An opinion utopia, Gentlemen, if you can keep it.

[1] In Recondite's case, I suspect they may never have to write one.

[2] A detail, that is, to someone who wants to make predictions. For someone like me who tried to create micro-payment protocols, it was more than a detail. But let that one pass.

Saturday, September 11

Misunderestimating the problem

Angry Bear has a nice post on how Bush's "medical tort reform" doesn't address the explosive rise in our health-care costs.

According to the CBO, malpractice lawsuits cost about $24 billion in 2003. Their estimate is that tort reform could save around 25%, making for a $6B savings. But 2003 spending on health-care in 2003 was almost $1.6 trillion — so we're talking about less than 0.4%. Since health-care costs increased about 7% that year, it's clear that "tort reform" doesn't help.1

As Angry Bear says, Bush isn't interested2 in policies that lower health care costs, but I know someone who is.

[1] A subtle point nonetheless worth making is that the CBO study shows the growth rate in malpractice awards is half the growth rate of health-care as a whole, so tort reform is even less relevant than the above analysis indicates.

[2] Bush's plan doesn't lower costs, but it is good for HBOs, insurance companies, and the AMA. Of course, it's tough on the poor slob who gets the wrong leg cut off. Compassionate conservatism strikes again.

Thursday, September 9

Give Until it Hurts

Make a significant contribution to the Democratic National Committee and I promise I'll try to do something nice for you.

To participate:

  1. Give money via that link.
  2. Tell me how much you gave and who you are via email.
  3. Suggest something you'd like me to do for you (e.g., cook you a meal, write you a testimonial, fix your computer, write your business plan, etc.)

If it's practical for me to do and it is commensurate* with your contribution, it'll be more likely that I'll do it. If you gave $10,000, for example, I think it'd be fair for you to ask me to clean your house for a week...

[*] You're even more likely to get me to perform if the request seems small in comparison with the donation!

Too Good to be True Department

Notice of Predisposition: I hate W. Okay? Believe me. Ask anybody.
Disclaimer: I don't have any special talents regarding document forensics.

Right. The Boston Globe and 60 Minutes Bush national guard service stories were based on materials allegedly from the personal records of the now-deceased Colonel Jerry B. Killian. It seems quite obvious to me that the August 18th document is a crude forgery.

I say a crude forgery because it was done with MS Word using out-of-the-box defaults for font, font size, margins and other settings. If you type the text into Word (I did, look here) you get an identically-appearing result, minus the scrawled signatures and the (trivially simulated) photocopy/fax artifacts.1

The giveaways are:

  1. Alignment of the first character of the date line with the period in the first paragraph.
  2. All four line breaks in the first paragraph.
  3. Superscript "th" in "187th", fourth line, first paragraph. This is what you get with Word's default settings in the "Autocorrect Options..." menu dialog "Autoformat as you type" tab "Ordinals (1st) with superscript" setting.
  4. As was immediately observed, the whole damn memo was in a proportionately spaced font, pretty freaking good for a typewriter issued to an Air Force Reserve desk in 1973.2

I've just noticed that both Powerline and Ratherbiased pretty much cover the same ground.

Message to Democrats: Given the forger seems to be either very stupid or alternatively, hoping it will be detected, this could easily be a Republican dirty trick. DROP THE TOPIC, NOW

Update (9:20pm): Wow, there's a lot of stuff in the Blogosphere about this. The most convincing, showing an overlaid fax and Word reconstruction like mine is Little Green Footballs.

[1] Formatting details: Five tabs before typing the date line, three returns after. Double returns after "Memo", "Subject" lines, and each paragraph.

[2] Yeah, sure, the IBM Executive series typewriters. Give me a break.

Saturday, September 4

On the Unreliability of Human Bodies

A recent article in the September issue of IEEE Spectrum is titled Why We Fall Apart. It analyses human aging using reliability theory, simplifying the same authors' 2001 paper in J. theor. Biol. The Reliability Theory of Aging and Longevity.

Reliability theory is pretty mundane stuff1, although for complex systems the calculations are complicated (hence the software tools). It's used by engineers to make predictive models of failure. Among other uses, this is how designers calculate the MTBF figures you see quoted in disk drive specifications.

The essential point of the article is this: you can model the human body as being comprised of a combination of irreplaceable, redundant, non-aging parts, some of which are defective to begin with. Doing so predicts the salient characteristics of human mortality:

  1. The infant mortality period, which, not ironically, is a term from both reliability theory and population dynamics.
  2. The normal working period.
  3. The aging period with exponentially increasing failure probability described by Gompertz 200 years ago. That is, after age 25 or-so, the probability that you'll survive another year declines very rapidly.2
  4. The post-aging or late-life mortality period with linear failure probability. That is, after age 95 or-so, your probability of surviving for another year is bad, but pretty much the same as it was the year before.

The post-aging characteristic of mortality statistics is related to convergence, the fact that an 80 year-old Indian has a similar life-expectancy to an 80 year-old Dane, although the life expectancies of Indians and Danes are quite different. This reliability theory model accounts for convergence and late-life mortality nicely.

A consequence of this explanation of aging is that one way to control it might be to avoid developmental damage in vitro. Don't skimp on those anti-oxidants, mothers-to-be!

[1] See an overly simple tutorial here.

[2] Actually, mortality increase during aging is not the same in living things as in redundant machines. Failure rates in such machines follow the Weibull distribution. But that's because classical reliability theory assumes that when machines are created, all their parts are working. If you assume that there's a high probability that components are faulty, you pretty much get a Gompertz distribution.

Friday, September 3

Another anniversary

Recondite is three months old. One change I've decided on today: the tagline at the top will change fairly often.

What better way to celebrate than to talk website statistics?

  1. 56% of visitors use Netscape, the other 44% IE. I would think that means recondite has readership skewed much more towards Unix (and Mac) than 'net users in general.
  2. Current visitors per day average just below 50. High-water mark was August 11th, the day after I posted about Peter Deutsch's pycore, almost 1200 visitors that day.

I have no idea, really, what people like me to write about. In the absence of requests (hey, that's the ticket! radio show formats for blogs!), I guess I'll continue the random walk through topic space.

Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks.

Thursday, September 2

Iraq's not like Vietnam at all...

Let's see.
  • Country with no strategic value to US. Nah, Iraq's got oil. (Vietnam had fish sauce, but US had no Pho shops in '62).
  • Country mostly jungle and mountainous, providing cover for enemy movement. Nope, not much jungle in Iraq. Enemy seems to be able to move pretty easily anyway, though.


  • US government claims general population welcomes military presence; check.
  • Determined, indigenous enemy utilizing guerilla tactics; check.
  • US forces rely upon heavy armor and aerial bombardment, creating resentment in local population; check.
  • Enemy possesses source of supply and sanctuary in neighboring countries; check.
  • US government delusionally claim signs of progress everywhere, doubters are called unpatriotic; check.
  • Enemy is a coalition of nationalists and holders of a global triumphantalist ideology; check.
  • US forces isolated from population by culture and language, dependent on local allies of dubious loyalty; check.
  • Scenes of widespread violence and death on nightly news; check.
  • Conventional wisdom is "no alternative to victory", elites are secretly pessimistic; check.
  • American intervention universally deplored, even by close allies; check.
  • Concern over deepening commitment causes US strategic shift to "localization"; check.
  • Widespread suspicion of profiteering by companies with ties to administration; wait — did the Vietnam war have that?

Nah. The comparison's ridiculous.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Convention Speeches*

Sometimes I despair at the asymmetry between offense and defense. I'm not talking about the "war on terrorism", I'm talking about liars.

To protect commercial airliners from a couple of nuts with boxcutters we have to spend billions on baggage scanners and add an hour or more of delay for each of the million plus airline travelers each day.

Similarly, I could write a book exhaustively refuting just two sentences from Laura Bush's convention speech:

I could talk about the fact that my husband is the first President to provide federal funding for stem cell research. And he did it in a principled way, allowing science to explore its potential while respecting the dignity of human life.

I could talk about the fact that the $25 million in federal stem-cell research funds her husband allocated is less than 0.004% of the federal healthcare research budget. That it's less than 1/10th the funding put up by little Singapore, an economy 1/100th the size of the US. That it's about the amount of money being spent on political advertising for California's Prop 71 (which proposes $3 billion of state money for stem-cell research).

But I may as well rely on Michael Kingsley excellent LA Times Editorial:

It is true indeed that Bush's predecessors, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, failed to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Even Abraham Lincoln. Not a penny for stem-cell research from any of them. Historians believe this might have been because it didn't exist yet. But that's just a guess.

George W. Bush gave this nascent research a tiny sliver of money and piled on a smothering load of restrictions. As Laura Bush did not note, that makes Bush the only president to ever authorize federal rules against stem-cell research.

It is characteristic of Bush that he would not see, or have no patience for, the irony of justifying a policy on moral grounds and then, when it comes under attack, claiming that the policy is not having the very effect he is supposed to want. Meanwhile, it is characteristic of the Bush political machine to be utterly fearless about insisting that things are the way it would be convenient for them to be, despite the evidence that things are the way they really are.

The purpose of Bush's stem-cell policy is to discourage medical research using embryos. Bush supposedly thinks that these clumps of a few dozen cells are every bit as human as the people who will suffer and/or die from diseases that stem cells could cure. He had better believe that, because stem-cell research uses embryos being discarded by fertility clinics and doesn't actually add to the embryonic death toll at all. Only a deep conviction about the humanity of these microscopic dots (which have fewer human characteristics than a potato) could justify sacrificing real human lives to make the purely symbolic point that the dots are human too.

Scientists are in agreement that Bush's policy is succeeding. Stem-cell research has been drastically slowed. Yet Bush surrogates now pretend that the policy's real success is its failure to stop this research completely. Hey! You're supposed to think all those embryos being used in privately funded research are human victims, remember? It's a huge tragedy, remember? Stop bragging about it.

You should read the whole thing.

I could go on about this, but I'd never be able to get to Laura's next sentence, let alone her husband's speech.

[*] (Updated 10pm) Damn it, I just noticed that Fred Kaplan of Slate posted an article earlier today with the same title as this one. Well, that's just too bad, I'm not changing it.

Wednesday, September 1

Ich bin eine Republikaner

The Gubernator's convention speech is so easy to parody that only someone with no self-restraint would stoop to it. OK, here goes:

My fellow body-builders, my fellow Americans, how do you know if you are a Republican? Well, I tell you how. If you believe that government should be accountable to the people who make the big political contributions, not to any random idiot, then you are a Republican.

If you believe a person should only be told the things they need to know, not every detail of what their leaders do, then you are a Bush Republican.

If you believe claims of improvement in America's strategic, environmental and economic prospects more than you believe the evidence all around you, then you are a Republican.

If you believe our educational system should be accountable for our children's progress (learning abstinence and creationism), but cabinet officials needn't be accountable for the performance of their departments, then you are a Bush Republican.

If you believe that your leaders should bombastically praise our military while ignoring their advice, shortchanging them in men and material, all the while cutting soldier's benefits, then you are a Bush Republican.

If you believe that the best way to protect our way of life requires keeping American citizens jailed for years without access to courts or council, to strip-search Teddy Kennedy when he goes to the airport, and cutting the budget of the Air Marshal service, then you are a Bush Republican.

If you believe that our country is governed best when its laws and initiatives are ironically named ("Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" are my favorites), then you are a Bush Republican.

And, ladies and gentlemen, if you believe that we must be fierce and relentless in promoting Haliburton and other companies in the oil business, then you are a Bush Republican.

Now, there's another way you can tell you're a Bush Republican. You have faith in big business, faith in the resourcefulness of rich people and faith that losers deserve their fate. And to those critics who are always harping about the unchecked greed of our President's corporate cronies, I say: Don't be economic girlie-men.


Monday, August 30

Getting it straight

A recent Educated Guesswork post missattributed one of my favorite sayings.

The correct story, as told to me by Peter Hart: he and Ed Feigenbaum were walking somewhere at Stanford. The great John McCarthy brushes by without acknowledging their greeting. "I wonder what resource he's conserving?" Ed says.

Thursday, August 26

What becomes a programmer most?

What do Richard Stallman, James Gosling, Charles Simonyi and Bill Joy have in common?

Famous hackers all, yes, but oddly, their initial fame came from text editors: (Teco) Emacs, (Unix) Emacs, Bravo and Vi, respectively.

Of course, Cap'n Crunch wrote EasyWriter, but he was famous for other things first.

12% = 3 x 4% and I say to hell with it

Judge Richard Posner is guest blogger over at lessig blog. He's had several posts on the topic "Break Up the CIA?" which I hastened to comment upon, suggesting that he was Screwing-up the Lede. He responded, and I replied at length, which I reproduce here.

Judge Posner,

Your response to my "it's not just about the CIA" comment had two main points: 1) the CIA is the key component of the intelligence establishment and 2) a plan like Senator Robert's to reorganize the 15 agencies would be extremely disruptive.

The evidence appears to indicate that the CIA is important but not valuable. The CIA's failures of analysis are legion and are too numerous to list here. It's not hindsight to point out that well before their most recent failures in Iraq, they failed to correctly analyze the progress of North Korean ballistic missile programs, Indian nuclear weapons programs, Libyan nuclear weapons programs, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet strength in the 80's, the significance of Jihadists prior to '94, etc. The record shows an inability for CIA analysis to be relevant to US strategic interests.

WRT CIA collection, it seems clear that the agency had no significant assets in North Korea or China in the 1950s, in North Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, in the Soviet Union during the entire Cold War, in Iraq in the first Gulf War, or in Jihadist organizations during the 90's.

WRT CIA operations, "covert actions" performed by the agency have too frequently been major failures and public relation disasters (not to mention yielding "blowback"). Supporters of the CIA suggest that their successes are unheralded but this claim is risible: in the credit-hungry and leak-ridden environment inside the beltway, no success, however small, is unheralded for long. Note, for instance, the heavily publicized role for CIA irregular forces in the action against the Taliban, and for missile-wielding Predators in Yemen.

Finally, to your other point, disruption. A preservationist argument can always be made, no matter how bad the current situation. The question is not what disruption will be done by change, but is change required? No doubt you would accept that a drastic reorganization of the intelligence services could be required in some circumstances, despite high transition costs. Are these the circumstances? I suspect they are.

Tuesday, August 24

I Want My WebTV (that doesn't suck)

I bought my Mom a WebTV* many years ago, when it first came out. It fills a need: an appliance to access the web simple enough for everyone. At least, that should be the selling proposition.

I mean, just because she wants to use the web and send me email, Mom should not have to know how to upgrade to the latest version of Windows. Or patch. Or worry about the virus-of-the-week. To make that happen, she needs a box that isn't configurable, isn't expandable, that "just works".

WebTV would be just the ticket, if it didn't suck so much. Here's what it would have to do to not suck:

  1. Work with providers other than MSN.
  2. Support broadband (i.e., the freaking box needs an ethernet port).
  3. Have video output that can drive a HDTV: Component video, VGA, DVI or HDMI.
  4. [Extra credit] Support USB (so you can use a modern printer, and maybe CF readers).
  5. [Bonus Round] Support more data types (e.g. PDF) without opening Pandora's box.

I know about Cidco's mailstation (which is apparently not available anymore), and I've seen some other boxes that could fill the bill if someone would provision and support them properly. BTW, my Mom would still happily pay the 22 bucks per month — that's what Microsoft is extorting from her now.

[*] Now it's called msnTV, of course, but I refuse to call it that.

Monday, August 23

Screwing-up the Lede, Again

The national press often gets big stories wrong. And usually even those of us who care about the particular story shrug off their errors. But I'm pretty annoyed this time, so I'm taking this one on — forgive me for making my point in a roundabout way.

Suppose that an influential Senator proposes to reorganize a major portion of the federal government. The status quo is a dozen plus agencies (depending how you count) with a total annual budget of about $40 billion, allocated as given in Figure 1 (the "F+6" bar represents seven agencies I have aggregated together). Some of these agencies report directly to a cabinet-level officer, some not, but the only common authority across all of these agencies is the President. A separate matter, but worthy of note is that Agencies N, S & D are operated by the Department of Defense.
Figure 1

The Senator proposes consolidating the agencies into five, with a single cabinet officer heading four of them. All of the personnel from the old agencies N, P & D would no longer be DoD employees, but would work for civilian agencies.
Figure 2

The consolidation plan is complex, but some high points are:

  • New agency W is old N plus F and bits of S, C & D
  • New agency X is old P plus bits of old F, C & D
  • New agency Y is the bulk of old C & D
  • New agency Z is old S plus bits of C & D
  • T is unchanged

OK, I hope you're still with me. What would you say if all the major papers ran this story as Senator Proposes to Break Up Agency C.

What's that? No reporter, you say, would fixate on the relatively minor issue of the allocation of 13% of the total budget and manpower represented by Agency C. Well, that's exactly what all papers are leading with. In case you haven't guessed: Agency C = CIA; Agency F = FBI; Agency N = NSA; Agency S = (Satellites) NRO; Agency P = (Photos) NGA; Agency D = DIA without tactical groups; and Agency T = tactical military intelligence groups. A typical headline and first graph (from the NYT today):

An Angry Republican Roils Intelligence Waters


Published: August 24, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 - The very idea of dismantling the Central Intelligence Agency, Senator Pat Roberts concedes, is one that he could not have conceived of proposing even a year ago.


Notes: My source for much of the (estimated) budgetary data comes from My take on how the new agencies would be organized is based on the very sketchy data gleaned from TV interviews with Senator Roberts. Also, to note my bias: I think the Senator's idea is a good one.

Monday, August 16

Channeling my inner teenager

As previously reported, last week I went to my Mars High all-class-years reunion. The reunion was originally to be held in St. Petersburg, Florida, on August 14th — the place and time, coincidently, someone had invited Hurricane Charley. We, along with the rest of the population of the Tampa bay region, were evacuated to Orlando. That's where Charley decided to go too. But enough about the weather. Let's talk cheerleaders.

Your Correspondent hadn't ever been to an reunion before, although he'd known for some time that ISB alumni organization held them periodically. I don't know anyone there, he said. I won't have anyone to talk to. I hated high school anyway, he remembers. He goes this time because people he did remember from school sent email, asking him to come. But because of the weather, for the first few days he's without them.

Vintage Jailbait One's high school reunion may be the only situation where a middle-age man can make salacious comments in public regarding pictures of 16 year-old girls without being arrested. Reunion attendees have a badge hanging around their necks with name, graduation year, and their yearbook picture. He approaches a nice lady the apparent age of his wife of 25+ years. He bends over and squints at the badge with photo. Suddenly, hunched-over, he realizes: this woman was once the blond big-breasted shiksa senior he fantasized over in his sophomore year. He drools a bit, he straightens-up. She doesn't mind! In fact, she appreciates the attention! He enjoys looking at these pictures very, very, very much. It's probably because when he's looking at them...just for a moment...the teenager inside stirs and looks at the picture too.

Bring Out Your Dead Some of the classmates who aren't there get discussed a lot. There's Steve, he was shot ("murdered") while robbing a liquor store — 20 years after high school, though. He was on PCP or something. Then the suicide — they tell the story about how Trey died. Somebody has new details on the story, they will work that into the narrative. Then a woman he doesn't know tells him a long story about how she saw Trey that day. If she had done this or that, she could have saved him. No you couldn't, he thinks, but I could have. Show of hands, everybody, who else thinks they killed Trey?

Whatever Happened To so-and-so, is a popular question, naturally. He has done some research on the matter. Three of the girls I hung out with, Barbara, Berry, and Eddie, are professors, he says. That's gotta be a record. And HKP, you have no idea how well he's doing, he practically runs Singapore. Charlie, he's a big time screenwriter, wrote K-Pax and The Mighty. Nobody responds in kind — they shame him for being so status-conscious. They tell him instead: what's-his-name became a missionary; so-and-so gave up his practice to treat AIDS in the Thai hill country, wasn't that just like him?

Instant Intimacy Which people you were buddies with isn't that relevant here. You can talk to anyone and get an immediate confession of some secret. I didn't menstruate until I was in college, one woman tells him. I've brought some Cialis with me, says some guy. He tells some of his secrets, too.

Cheerleader Coverage He keeps looking at these women, and the photos of young girls around their necks. He makes a point to talk to every one of the former cheerleaders. Of course, we remember you, Allan, they say. We watched you watching us, sitting on the bench when we practiced. We thought you were cute. And smart. Oh you were so pretty, he sighs. Then stutters: not that you're not pretty now, of course! And they discuss for a minute what they've both done in the intervening 34 years. Or ask what happened to her brother. You know, he says, we've just spoken more words to each other than we did in all of high school. Oh, they say, we were too shy to talk to you Allan, why would you want to talk to us? Sure, he says, that's your story.

Reunion Junkie His buddies finally show, complete with spouses, he follows them around like a puppy. He loses his voice; from singing Satisfaction at 3am, or from his logorrhea? He gets into two class photos, Zellig-like, thinks of trying for the other classes too. All those years, 34 years. When is the next reunion, he wonders, hope there's going to be a hurricane then too.

May you live in (cryptographically) interesting times

Eric Rescorla has a post on the consequences of rumored and actual breaks in commonly used cryptographic hash functions. Since this stuff is being reported as of August 16th, I guess it's what you call breaking news, yes?

Anyway, EKR's post says that since the breaks are in collision-resistance, rather than preimage-resistance, it doesn't have a major impact on security protocols. I don't think so.

Hash functions with weak collision-resistance would be a very bad thing for non-repudiation in signature applications.

This has been described before in motivating the so-called birthday attack* in digital signature applications. That is, you as the originator of a signed message could generate two messages: the first a commitment that you'd like the recipient to rely upon and the second that you'd later claim you'd actually said instead which commits to you to something less than the first.

The birthday attack assumes that collision are hard and that you need to pre-compute a large collection of, for instance, good/bad contract pairs. If collisions are easy, you have a more realistic prospect of coming-up with a plausible pair of good/evil offers.

[*] The commonly-cited countermeasure for the birthday attack is for the counter-party to non-materially modify the offered message before signing. This ignores the fact that there are applications requiring non-repudiation that aren't two-party contracts.

Friday, August 13

Rich Parker, where are you?

OK, so we were evacuated from St. Petersburg and put up in a nice hotel in Orlando.

Now they tell us that Charlie is going to miss Tampa entirely and, in a surprise move, is heading straight for Orlando!

I must say, however, for a Category 4 Hurricane, nothing much is happening so far. Wait...uh, isn't that a bad thing?

Thursday, August 12

Reporting Live from Hurricane Charlie

I flew into Tampa this evening. I did check the weather online before I left my house in Tahoe at 5:45 AM. When I arrived at the Tampa airport, I learned that much of Tampa Bay Region was under evacuation orders. The largest evacuation, they're saying on TV, in the area's history.

I had a lot of luck, though. The organizers of the reunion managed to get a block of rooms in Orlando (well inland) and bussed everyone who was already in St. Petersburg to the new hotel. I rented a car at the airport and now after a four hour drive (usually 90 minutes, I'm told), I can blog from the comfort of a very nice room: the Rosen Centre Hotel. They're charging me a "distressed traveler's rate" of about $48, for a room that I estimate would usually cost $200.

And there are a lot of ISB'ers milling about in the bar downstairs. So, assuming I can get home when the weekend is over, I can say this was the most pleasant emergency I've ever been in.

Hurricane watch

Leaving on a jet plane tomorrow for Florida. Why go to Florida in August, you ask, especially when there are two, count-em, two hurricanes going through.

Hard to explain, you think, but there is my high school reunion happening in St.Petersburg. Not every day do you get to see your former classmates from Mars High.

Buggy Style Sheets

OK, I just noticed I had some funky Read this! link at the end of every one of my posts. This arose from adding a feature to my blogger template to permit for abridging posts.

I think I've fixed it.

Monday, August 9

You don't tug on Superman's cape...

My long-time colleague, L. Peter Deutsch has taken on a project that might change things for Python users. LPD is, of course, the man who made Smalltalk go too fast1,2, the reason Adobe invented Postscript Level 2 (to keep him busy), the man who wrote the Lisp 1.5 interpreter for the PDP-1 while still in short pants. LPD is going to make Python go fast. Don't bet on Psyco.

Here's a long message from Peter regarding his plans, posted here by permission (click the permalink at the end of this post to see the whole thing):

pycore is a project to create a new implementation, also called pycore, of the Python language and libraries. It has the following goals, roughly in descending order of importance:

  1. Radically improve the performance of many Python programs.

  2. Reimplement as many C-coded Python libraries as possible in Python while retaining acceptable performance.

  3. Be able to run any Python program (some possibly slower than CPython) that does not:

    1. Depend on libraries implemented in C that haven't been recoded in Python;

    2. Use some of the more arcane customization facilities;

    3. Depend on being able to manipulate 'int' and 'long' as separate types, rather than having the implementation choose how integers are stored;

    4. Subclass any of the built-in types (bool, int, long, tuple, list, str, unicode, and possibly others).

pycore works by translating compiled Python bytecode to the bytecode of VisualWorks, the Cincom Smalltalk implementation. The VisualWorks JIT compiler is a mature, high-performance engine that is undergoing constant improvement, specifically optimized for a non-type-declared object-oriented language with inheritance: it is a good match for (the normal usage patterns of) Python.

pycore actually includes three different execution mechanisms:

  • A Python bytecode interpreter;

  • A Python-to-VW bytecode translator that represents all objects as dictionaries, and does explicit dictionary lookups for every attribute access (both data and method);

  • A Python-to-VW translator that represents (most) data attributes as Smalltalk instance variables and (most) methods as Smalltalk methods.

The interpreter is currently complete, except for 'exec'; the simple translator is substantially behind; and the optimized translator is only at the design stage. Nevertheless, some Python programs run faster even with the pycore simple translator than with CPython, for example:

  • Recursive fibonacci function, 9x faster

  • Iterating over a large list of integers, 5x faster

  • Creating a list element-by-element, 2x faster

  • Accessing an attribute by calling a method, 2.5x faster

On the other hand, replicating a collection: (1000000 * 'x'), is 7x slower.

So there are many challenges ahead.

We know of 5 other current projects with somewhat similar goals.

  1. Psyco is a fine-grained JIT compiler with dynamic customization. It should do much better than the VW JIT on numeric and string/array inner loops; however, its performance on method invocation is poor. In contrast, the VW JIT has very efficient invocation.

  2. PyPy aims to recode the Python interpreter and libraries in Python, and then use unspecified compiler technology to create a fully compiled system. pycore should be able to leverage the recoded libraries.

  3. Jython is a Java implementation of Python. While it compiles Python to Java, it discards most of Python's unique abilities in doing so (e.g., the ability to add attributes to any object, the ability to change the bindings of methods at run time, all the customization hooks, etc.) pycore does not need to discard any of these abilities: in principle, we believe we could support *all* of Python's extensive customization facilities without losing any performance in the usual cases.

  4. IronPython is a compiled implementation of Python on top of Microsoft's Common Language Runtime (CLR). Its author recently joined the Microsoft CLR group. It is in an early stage of development.

  5. Pirate is a Python compiler that targets the Parrot dynamic-language virtual machine. It is in a very early state of development. The pycore interpreter should be able to run all the test code on the Pirate Web site, and the simple compiler isn't very far behind.

There are surely others we don't know about.

pycore is currently a one-person project. Depending on what happens with the other projects listed above (especially PyPy), it may never get any bigger than this. Indeed, there's no commitment that the present person will ever deliver anything, although if he gets tired of it, he'll make sure that it gets out into the world with an Open Source license so anyone else interested can pick it up.

And when the hackers all get together at night

You know they all call Peter boss.

[1] Of course, Smalltalk was too fast already, even before Peter made it faster.

[2] I helped. See the POPL Paper.

Friday, August 6

OK, now they're making me mad!

You may have heard that there's trouble at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They've lost a few disk drives, among other things. Maybe they had bomb blueprints on 'em, I dunno.

In a unrelated development, oil prices have passed $45 per barrel.

I thought you ought to know:

  1. The Bush Administration has proposed a replacement for the University of California as the manager of Los Alamos. The company they propose is Haliburton.
  2. With oil prices at an all-time-high, the administration has resumed buying oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

As the Bolsheviks used to say: the worse, the better.

Wednesday, August 4

Physicist Discovers Bogon

Shahriar S. Afshar claims to have performed an experiment which contradicts Bohr's Principle of Complementarity, that is: light behaves as a either a wave or a particle depending on what sort of experimental apparatus you have — it is impossible to do an experiment which observes wave and particle properties of light simultaneously. I was taught that Complementarity was the bedrock of Quantum Mechanics, which is, as we all know, "the most well tested and successful theory in the history of physics".

Except it is apparently quite possible to perform such an experiment, and Afshar has done it.

Great edifices of philosophy have been built based on Complementarity and Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation. My father must have been very impressed by Bohr's arguments, because he described these ideas to me when I was very young*, I suppose to impress upon me how mind-expanding science could be.

My favorite suggestion on how to adapt to the new result is to agree that there's no such thing as a Photon.

There was a brief discussion of the experiment and what it may mean on the July 30th episode of NPR's Science Friday. The July 24th issue of New Scientist magazine had a cover story on the topic, but registration is required to read it.

[*] "Light is both made up of things that are like rocks and is like the ripples a rock makes when you throw it in the lake — how could light be like both of those?", he'd say.

Tuesday, August 3

Reduction to a previously-unsolved problem

Ed Felton blogging from the Meltdown Conference:
The security session descended into a series of rants about the evil of spam. Lately this seems to happen often in conference panels about security. This strikes me as odd, since spam is far from the worst security problem we face online. Don’t get me wrong; spam annoys me, just like everybody else. But I don’t think we’ll make much progress on the spam problem until we get a handle on more fundamental problems, such as how to protect ordinary machines from hijacking, and how to produce higher-quality commercial software.

Tell it, brother.

Happy Second Anniversary!

Recondite is two months old. Gosh, it seems more like sixty days!

Monday, August 2

High School on Mars

I'm going to an "all class years" reunion of my high school, weekend after next. I've never been to a high school reunion before (although I've seen the movie) — I'm a little apprehensive.1

My high school was kind of unusual and this explains why the class sizes are too small to have a normal reunion of a single graduating class: I graduated in 1970 from the International School of Bangkok ("ISB"). When I tell people that, I typically get one of two reactions:

  1. What were you doing in Bangkok? I tell the questioner I went originally on a sex tour but lost my passport.
  2. No kidding, I went there too! Believe it or not, I've met several other people who went to ISB. One guy is a friend of mine in Tahoe. Another ended-up working for me. Nice to know: no matter how wierd you are, there's always company for you.2

I was there because my parents were, of course, and my parents were there because my Dad worked there. My Dad worked there because he was a civil engineer and there was a lot of work in Thailand during the Vietnam War — designing bases for the US military. We had a lot of fun, we scions of the colonizers of Asia. Essentially immune from Thai law, we were unusually liberated 12 year-olds: driving motorcycles, buying dope from street vendors and hanging-out in bars.3

Anyway, if you went to ISB too, it's not too late to register for the reunion. See you there!

[1] I'm worried the seniors are going to beat me up again behind the teen club.

[2] Would this be a good time to mention that I was the first person to be Bar Mitzvah'ed in Thailand?

[3] I haven't really researched the matter, but my understanding is that the Status of Forces agreement between the Thais and the US Military made arresting an American dependent too problematic for the Thais to attempt.

Friday, July 30

This is why the Internet was invented

Unbelievably cool: check out eMachineshop. Link courtesy of Survival Arts.

Just what I needed: more to read

I just read a nice essay called Great Hackers and saw again an old Orson Scott Card essay about how programmers are like bees. I got these pointers from Perry Metzger's blog, Diminished Capacity, which seems worth following.

I don't know why I haven't come across Paul Graham before, he seems to be the kind of Lisp wizard that I've always found simpatico. He's apparently written a new book Hackers and Painters which is now on my wishlist.

Thursday, July 29

Dead Commie Defends Property Rights

I may be the last blog to link to Jibjab's This Land campaign song, but check it out anyway.

After you see it, you should see this article in ReasonOnline regarding the potential copyright suit from Woody's estate (thanks to lessig blog for the pointer).

No kidding — he fought in Vietnam?

Actually, I thought Kerry did pretty good tonight. Chris Suellentrop in Slate said that in Tuesday's speech Gore hit the third gear he usually skips between robot and mental-patient. The appropriate driving metaphor for Kerry's speech tonight is: he stayed on the road.

It's often observed that a presidential re-election is a referendum on the incumbent. So, Kerry has to not seem risky or erratic and keep his negatives down. This is what kausfiles calls the Eddie Yost strategy (after the Red Sox player who became an All Star by leading the league in walks and hence time on-base).

If Kerry manages it, though, with any luck G.W. will defeat himself.

Ron Reagan, Boy Scientist; OR, Give Pro-Lifers a Choice

Did anybody listen to Ron Reagan pitching stem cell research to the Democratic Party Convention on Tuesday? He, like his father, can harness his own delusions to create simple and compelling visions:

Now, imagine going to a doctor who, instead of prescribing drugs, takes a few skin cells from your arm. The nucleus of one of your cells is placed into a donor egg whose own nucleus has been removed. A bit of chemical or electrical stimulation will encourage your cell's nucleus to begin dividing, creating new cells which will then be placed into a tissue culture. Those cells will generate embryonic stem cells containing only your DNA, thereby eliminating the risk of tissue rejection. These stem cells are then driven to become the very neural cells that are defective in Parkinson's patients. And finally, those cells with your DNA are injected into your brain where they will replace the faulty cells whose failure to produce adequate dopamine led to the Parkinson's disease in the first place.

In other words, you're cured. And another thing, these embryonic stem cells, they could continue to replicate indefinitely and, theoretically, can be induced to recreate virtually any tissue in your body. How'd you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.

Not that stem cells are chopped liver, but — way to overkill, Ron-boy. I know the Demo leadership wanted him up there to show that the Reagan kids hate G.W., but couldn't Ron stick to something he knows about? Like, uh...Ballet?

And, I don't know about you, but with the "personal biological repair kit" thing I thought he was talking about keeping a clone of me in a hospital drawer, ready to bin-out for spares whenever I need them.

Later, he tries to sell the "its only a bunch of cells" POV to the right-to-lifer-but-scared-of-Altzheimers:

It is a hallmark of human intelligence that we are able to make distinctions. Yes, these cells could theoretically have the potential, under very different circumstances, to develop into human beings — that potential is where their magic lies. But they are not, in and of themselves, human beings. They have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain. Surely we can distinguish between these undifferentiated cells multiplying in a tissue culture and a living, breathing person — a parent, a spouse, a child.

Uh, yeah, but viable embryos in the womb likewise "...have no fingers and toes, no brain or spinal cord. They have no thoughts, no fears. They feel no pain." What's your point? You might be able to trick the right-to-lifers for a while, but they'll remember soon enough that they are in the business of not drawing lines between fertilized eggs and squalling babies.

I say: don't dodge the issue, sharpen it. Tell the anti-choice lunatics that they can live forever, but they've got to mince-up teensy unborn babies to do it. They'll take that deal (they never gave a damn about babies anyway), and that'll put a stake through the heart of the abortion issue once and for all.

Sunday, July 25

Poor girl. But now we can see you in the dark!

Tropicana and FriendWe noticed some time back that Tropicana seemed friskier than ever despite her 15 years. She had also lost a fair bit of weight, without any loss of appetite, but that seemed like an improvement — she had always been overweight. But when she seemed to be vomiting too frequently we decided to take her to the vet who, after a blood test, diagnosed her with Hyperthyroidism.

We might enjoy a friskier, skinnier Tropicana, but the condition is quite dangerous, leading quickly to heart disease and other serious conditions. The immediate treatment is multiple daily doses of Methimazole, from which we have learned that she really does not like to take pills.

Unless we want her to keep taking these pills the rest of her life (the pills have a high incidence of side effects) we have two treatment options. The first is a partial or total Thyroidectomy, which has a high rate of complications and is contraindicated for older animals and may require subsequent lifetime dosing of thyroid hormone pills.

The other alternative, and an attractive one, is a single dose of Iodine-131 which is calibrated to kill the overproducing portion of the thyroid. Quite a simple procedure, but it has some consequences. Basically, the patient becomes too radioactive for the NRC to permit us to take her home in less than a week (the half-life of I-131 is 8 days). Tropi isn't going to like being away from home, and in isolation to boot.

Also interesting is the fact that for two weeks after she comes home, we'll have to treat the contents of her litterbox as radioactive waste. Hard to believe, but at least one cat owner was fined for improper disposal in these circumstances.

There are quite a few clinics that perform this procedure; we may take Tropi to Radiocat in San Mateo next month.

Saturday, July 24

Like the Soviet economy, only less rational

Last week's issue of The Economist (June 15th) had a survey of health care economics (registration required for some articles). They note an agency problem from hell:

In this third-party-payer market, doctors play an ambivalent role: they both supply medical care and demand it on behalf of their patients. This can create “supplier-induced demand”. Victor Fuchs draws an analogy with the car market. Suppose, he says, car dealers had to certify whether you needed a new car, and you were not paying for it directly out of your own pocket: there would be a lot more luxury cars around.

Stalin didn't bother with proper price mechanisms or labor incentives either, but at least he would shoot the managers of factories that were not productive.

Monday, July 19

Yeah, but at least he's not Bush

Jesse Walker in Reason Online on Ten Reasons to Fire George W. Bush; reason #10:

He's making me root for John Kerry [who]...voted for the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, McCain-Feingold, and the TSA; who endorses the assault on "indecency"; who thinks the government should be spending even more than it is now. [...] True, Kerry doesn't owe anything to the religious right, and you can't blame him for the torture at Abu Ghraib. Other than that, he's not much of an improvement.

Yet I find myself hoping the guy wins. Not because I'm sure he'll be better than the current executive, but because the incumbent so richly deserves to be punished at the polls. Making me root for a sanctimonious statist blowhard like Kerry isn't the worst thing Bush has done to the country. But it's the offense that I take most personally.

Well, maybe Kerry's a sanctimonious statist blowhard, but he's my sanctimonious statist blowhard. And don't forget: he's not George W. Bush!

Saturday, July 17

You like me! You really like me!

Uh, OK, maybe not. But that's the way it feels when Recondite gets hits. Problem is, some days are much better than others.

I only today decided what it correlates to: my hit count goes up a half day after I post (I usually post late at night). I refused to believe this at first: how could readers decide to visit only when there's a new post unless they visited first to see if there was a new post?

The answer: one can check for a new post without triggering my hit counter. Via RSS, for instance. So, here's a post. Why don't ya come up and see me sometime?

Friday, July 16

Law by Categorical Imperative

On learning that Martha's being put away for some months for lying to FBI agents, I got to thinking: is there any law against FBI agents lying to a suspect during an investigation? I suspect not.

There seems to be a lack of symmetry in the legal treatment of citizens with respect to government officials. Another example: it's against Federal law to assassinate people holding high Federal office, but if a Federal official murders an ordinary citizen, they'd have to be charged under state law.

Kant would not have approved, I think.

Monday, July 12

Say it ain't so, Little Joe!

The boys on horseback
Not of significance to you, perhaps, but I live only a few miles from the place those heros rode smiling through every week during my childhood.* So it is with some sadness I note that Tahoe's Ponderosa Ranch is closing.

[*] Well, at least it looked like it. Actually, the background was composited-in.

Saturday, July 10

More Memoir: Chemistry for Software Engineers

In 1978 I worked in the northwestern corner of the Fairchild Mountain View campus, not far from the Rust Bucket, in Transistor Plant #2. I didn't make transistors; I was a computer programmer. Most Fairchildren knew a lot more about chemistry or physics or even soldering than I did, but very few of them knew anything about programming.

On my first day of work, I show up at Transistor Plant #2 and I'm stopped at the guard shack. They're expecting me. I'm to go the the badging office, then personnel, then to orientation.

Orientation involves going into a little makeshift theatre; 16mm projector and a few chairs, but I'm the only hire today. The first movie is mostly cartoon, something like "The World of Chemicals" or "Our Friends, the Chemicals". Probably made by DuPont or Dow and shown to middle school students. The second movie has lower production values and is much more serious. Guy in white coat with clipboard doing a lot of talking:

At Fairchild, in your job you'll be around chemicals. You should know about them: such-and-such gas is odorless and tasteless and is poisonous to one part in seven zillion. Such-and-such liquid is odorless, no one knows how it tastes, is too corrosive to be contained by any material other than so-and-so. Next gas, another liquid, etc.

OK. We have a bunch of safety equipment around here. Learn how to use them. Here's what an eyewash station looks like; here's a map that shows where they are. Here's what the emergency showers look like; pull on this chain and water dumps on your head. Here's what the oxygen man-packs look like, here's how you put one on. Here's a decontaminating suit, but they're hard to find and you may not have time to put one on. Here's what the gas leak panic button looks like; try not to hit one unless you mean it.

Uh, let's see. If you see a spilled liquid in your area, don't move and use one of the red phones on the wall to call extension 44673428. If you see a leaking pipe call 44764328 unless it's a gas pipe, and then you call 47643843. If the liquid is flowing towards you and your route is blocked you'll need one of these pails of vermiculite...

The room is kind of dark but I try to scribble down the numbers and otherwise make the notes that might save my life when the movie ends. The orientation lady detects my panic and tells me that this safety stuff is just a formality. I should report to work now.

Apparently my office is 17-273; I have to go to the end of this hall, turn right, then left, go through the double doors, end of hallway, left, right, etc. I pass glass walls behind which people in gauze smocks and showercaps are rolling carts which have salami-sized glass tubes or blue plastic lunchboxes on them. Other rooms have fat ladies in the smock+showercap outfit sticking something small into a hole in a box that has one big red and one big green light on it. I get lost, but there is some logic to the numbering. I'm in hallway #12 now, next to office 12-782. Left here, right there, I won't be all that late.

I come upon an enormous puddle of some colorless, odorless but doubtless foul-tasting liquid. Not seeing a red phone anywhere nearby, I turn around and look for another route.

Friday, July 9

Tall Latte with no Volatile Organic Compounds, Please

It turns out that the place for lunch nearest CommerceNet is the Veritas headquarters cafeteria, which is open to the public. I went to the place with all the other new guys who are, of course, considerably younger than I. A nice cafeteria it seemed, and after we collected our food we moved outside near a very pretty pool and fountain among shiny tall buildings with shiny people scurrying to and fro. Fork to mouth I suddenly realize that I am sitting in the phantom shadow of the "Rust Bucket". I worked nearby from 1978 to 1981.

The Rust Bucket was, from the early '70s to the early '80s, the intergalactic headquarters of Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation (aka Fairchild Semiconductor). It was a gigantic, hideous lump of CORTEN® steel with Wilfred J. Corrigan (CEO) at the top, hundreds of confused and terrified executives in the middle, a dysfunctional and uneconomic semiconductor fabrication facility at the bottom and, deep underground, a large number of leaking storage tanks holding sundry unpleasant liquids.

You won't be surprised to hear, although my lunch companions possibly were, that Veritas and its cafeteria are at the location of what the EPA calls the Fairchild Semiconductor portion of the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Superfund Site.

The new guys had a thought for the history of the location — Netscape had lived and died just down the street. But Silicon Valley was born right where they were scarfing their wood-fired personal pizzas.

Tuesday, July 6

Two Little Words

I've always admired Christopher Hitchens. Not for his politics; a reconstructed Trotskyite may as well be an unreconstructed conservative — there's no place interesting to go when you start from there. Rather, I enjoy the master polemicist responsible for a superb hatchet job on the fanatical Mother Theresa (see the book).

Most recently he traces the roots of modern discourse to the subtle influences of the British Empire.

Monday, July 5

Demiheros of Computer Architecture

Unsurprisingly, in designing a new trading card series there is strategy involved. In our case, the Heros of Computer Architecture series may need some cards with players less fundamentally valued than others to assure a dynamic market. We need less interesting, albeit equally famous, computer architects.

Therefore, for the fourth in our series we pick Michael J. Flynn. Professor Flynn didn't invent any computers anybody ever heard of (he did work on some important ones), but he was the first to note that a system could have one or more processors which could work on one or more sets of data. This stunning observation yielded the SISD/SIMD/MIMD acronym triad known as the Flynn Taxonomy. He also made an observation now called the Flynn Limit, to wit: it is very hard to execute more than one instruction per clock cycle. Three acronyms plus one slogan equals immortality.

Mike Flynn taught me the lesson that has always guided my career: if you can't be great in your field, be early.

Saturday, July 3

Help Wanted

Programmers only: Don Knuth, you may know, has been for some time writing Volume 4 of The Art of Computer Programming. This, he says, should be available in 2007 with Volume 5 following in 2010; in the meantime you should own the first three volumes. Much has been written on Knuth, such as this 1999 piece in Salon.

For the new volumes, Knuth decided to retire the hypothetical MIX computer used for programming examples in vols 1-3, in favor of a brand new, modern (but still hypothetical) RISC processor he calls MMIX. This change motivates a significant porting project:

All of the MIX programs in Volumes 1--3 will need to be rewritten in MMIX, before I finish the ``ultimate'' edition of those volumes that I plan to write after Volume 5 is completed. The current target date for the ultimate volumes is the year 2011, so there is plenty of time to do the conversion. But I think it will be an instructive undertaking if different groups of students from around the world try to do the necessary translations first, perhaps in friendly competitions, long before I get into the act.

If you want the job, you'd better hurry-up — lots of the positions have been taken. Apply at MMIXMasters.

If recoding algorithms from one machine language to another doesn't interest you, perhaps you'd be interested in:

...a level-50 exercise that asks a highly motivated reader to ``Write a book about operating systems, which includes a complete design of an NNIX kernel for the MMIX architecture.''

Ken Thompson, call your office.

Happy Anniversary!

Recondite is one month old today. In that time we've amassed a readership numbering in the ten's of people; people who, mind you, have shown themselves to be among the most sophisticated and well-informed of all the digerati. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Friday, July 2

Instant Immortality

I've come up with an aphorism that captures my feeling about where the effort in building secure systems needs to go. Echoing the old saying about the importance of tactics versus logistics in military studies I say:

Amateurs study cryptography; professionals study economics.

The Tokens on the Bus Go Round and Round

Well, I said yesterday I was going to say more about Dataflow computing and how that has lead to new features in modern microprocessors. Turns out, someone has written a paper on the topic.

So for the third* in our series of Heros of Computer Architecture trading cards, we include the name of Jack Dennis, the originator of the Dataflow concept.

[*] The first two in the series being Burton Smith and Arvind. Collect them all!

Thursday, July 1

Arvind, call your office

Computer Architecture Department: I was planning a blog entry which could have been called Sun's Throughput Computing is Warmed-over Intel Hyper-Threading Which is a an Uncredited Ripoff of the Denelcor HEP. But I couldn't think of a title. Well, I could, but it would be Shame On You, Sun Microsystems, If That's the Best You Can Come Up With.

In researching that topic I found a more interesting instance of the wheel of reincarnation. Dataflow architecture is back, at least at the University of Washington's Wavescalar project. More tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can look at home page of the Annette of Computer Architecture.

Monday, June 28

You mean I do have a right to an attorney?

The Supremes have decided that US citizens have the right to due process when detained as Enemy Combatants by the US Military, even if they are being sequestered on the Moon or Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. And federal courts have jurisdiction to consider habeas corpus petitions. I feel better now that Justice O'Connor, in writing the opinion for the 6-3 majority, has reminded those of us who had forgotten:

...a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.

She also says:

[Hamdi] unquestionably has the right to access to counsel in connection with the proceedings on remand.

not clear
that you have these rights if you had somehow turned your shoes into a bomb, but one thing at a time.

Friday, June 25

The End of Starbucks

Three cups of bubble tea
It has come to my attention that some of our readership is unaware of the existence of
Bubble Tea
, a.k.a. Pearl Tea. Invented in Taiwan twenty-odd years ago, Bubble Tea is a catch-all term for a tea-based drink, often fruit flavored, invariably sweetened, with some lumps (the bubble part) thrown in, sipped through a large diameter straw. The lumps are made of tapioca, or taro, or even seaweed jelly. The drink can be hot or cold, may not contain tea at all (you can get coffee), and the lumps are actually optional. As with most fads, of course, some people are quite devoted to this drink.

Being the custard pao1 that I am, I'm quite fond of the stuff. For our ang mo2 readers who are willing to try it, here's a list of locations. One popular Bay Area spot I can recommend is the Fantasia Cafe in Cupertino Village on Wolfe Road.

Starbucks hasn't yet figured-out that over 10% of California's population is East Asian. Fifteen years from now, when Fantasia buys Starbucks, remember you heard it here first.

[1] "Custard pao": private family idiom (pao=bun), a.k.a. hard-boiled egg; the opposite of banana.

[2] "Ang mo gwee": Hokkien (Chinese dialect) idiom for Caucasian; literally "Red-haired devil".