Sunday, April 18, 2004

J. Lethem on SF

The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction; a brief essay by Jonathan Lethem.

One particularly brilliant passage:

In a literary culture where Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthelme, Coover, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, and Steve Erickson are ascendant powers, isn't the division [between science fiction and literary fiction] meaningless?

But the literary traditions reinforcing that division are only part of the story. Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they're all ugly in the same way, so you can't distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for 12-year-olds. Sadly enough, that confusion is intentional . . .

Sing it, brother.

Anyone who's seen a Jonathan Lethem book on the shelf will recognize that he's been savvy enough to rescue his own books from the fucking ugly conventions of SF cover art. When will the rest of the industry wake up?

Friday, April 16, 2004

VoodooPad: Wiki for the desktop

Many people are leery of switching to Linux because they believe there's a lack of usable software. However, as a Linux user, I actually seldom feel envy for the software available on other platforms. In fact, I'm quite hooked on KDE, and definitely feel its absence when I'm in some other environment.

Well, the other day I actually felt envy for OS X users. In my copious free time I could hack up a large subset of this functionality myself, of course, but right now, OS X is the only place this software exists.

Women look best once a month

So says a recent article in Nature. So, ladies, if you want to impress a guy, wait till you're ovulating, I guess.

What I found most intriguing in this article, however, was the last paragraph, which talks about earlier studies:

Earlier studies have indicated that men might use other clues, such as female body odour, to help them pinpoint their partner's fertility. Others have shown that a woman's ears and breasts actually become more symmetrical in the days leading up to ovulation.

Women's ears become more symmetrical. How does that even work? The world is filled with wonders.

Parasitic ants that don't ruin the neighborhood

Darwin's law spawning more of its infinite game-theoretic variations...

L. minutissimus is a unique social parasite in that it lives entirely within the colonies of other ant species. But unlike parasitic slave-maker ants, which raid and virtually destroy the colonies of unsuspecting hosts, L. minutissimus appears to move in and live amiably with its host. Such organisms are called inquilines.

Mellifluous and cool vocabulary word of the day: inquiline.

Microsoft vindicates my Mozilla-pushing ways

I tell all my Windows-using friends, acquaintances, and family members not to use Internet Explorer. I usually foist some variation of Netscape/Mozilla on them. Some of them grudgingly comply, whereas others simply can't be bothered (due to IE's omnipresence, faster startup times, and compatibility with the plethora of poorly designed websites that only work with IE). Either way, they usually think of my insistence as the inexplicable eccentricity of a left-wing geek.

Well, Microsoft is now telling users that if they use IE, they should not click on hyperlinks:

The most effective step that you can take to help protect yourself from malicious hyperlinks is not to click them. Rather, type the URL of your intended destination in the address bar yourself.

Welcome to the Stone Ages, folks. In other news, Toyota is now telling everybody that, rather than providing air bags and seat belts, customers should just avoid driving across intersections. Instead, get out of the car and push!

Or you could switch to a different brand.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Clarke smacks down White House charges

Salon's generally both predictable and pain in the ass, but their Richard Clarke interview is quite compelling:

[Salon:] The vice president commented that there was "no great success in dealing with terrorists" during the 1990s, when you were serving under President Clinton. He asked, "What were they doing?"

[Clarke:] It's possible that the vice president has spent so little time studying the terrorist phenomenon that he doesn't know about the successes in the 1990s. There were many. The Clinton administration stopped Iraqi terrorism against the United States, through military intervention. It stopped Iranian terrorism against the United States, through covert action. It stopped the al-Qaida attempt to have a dominant influence in Bosnia. It stopped the terrorist attacks at the millennium. It stopped many other terrorist attacks, including on the U.S. embassy in Albania. And it began a lethal covert action program against al-Qaida; it also launched military strikes against al-Qaida. Maybe the vice president was so busy running Halliburton at the time that he didn't notice.

[Salon:] Did Cheney ever ask you a question of that kind when you were in the White House with him?

[Clarke:] No.


[Salon:] Dr. Rice now says that your plans to "roll back" al-Qaida were not aggressive enough for the Bush administration. How do you answer that, in light of what we know about what they did and didn't do?

I just think it's funny that they can engage in this sort of "big lie" approach to things. The plan that they adopted after Sept. 11 was the plan that I had proposed in January [2001]. If my plan wasn't aggressive enough, I suppose theirs wasn't either.

New York Times drops ball on Ernest Strada

Today's NYTimes article on the Rice testimony is accompanied by a photograph of Rice embracing a white-haired man (the latter's face is not visible), accompanied by the caption:

After testifying before the Sept. 11 commission, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice embraced Ernest Strada of the Village of Westbury, N.Y., whose son, Thomas, died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Ernest Strada? The Mayor of Westbury? The Republican Mayor of Westbury?

The Republican politician who got trotted out for a dutiful appearance defending his party's figurehead on Hardball (talk show of irresponsible right-wing blowhard pseudo-journalist Chris Matthews)? The Republican politician who was tapped for GOP-friendly quotes by reporters at The Washington Times and The Weekly Standard, publications famous for their right-wing slant and distortion?

I have no doubt that Strada's grief at the loss of his son is real. I suspect that his faith in Bush is real as well. But it's a simple journalistic error not to point out that the Sept. 11 victim conveniently on hand for a stage-managed hug with Condoleeza Rice was a Republican Party politician.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Two very cool posts on Google

My first reaction to the announcement of gmail, as Foolish Mortal will verify, was that the 1GB of mailbox storage would be a neat free backup solution. My home directory contains more than 1GB, but I probably only have a couple hundred MB of important stuff. Chances are that Google's got way better backup plans than I'll ever have the time or money to arrange --- fire, earthquakes, and bombs probably won't destroy all their data, and hundreds of simultaneous hard disk failures won't even make them flinch. I could sign up for gmail, and then mail my (suitably archived and encrypted) files to my gmail address in order to back them up.

Today I saw two very cool blog posts that make me realize I was thinking small potatoes. First up is on "The Secret Source of Google'a Power"; and next, the post that actually led me to the first, J. Kottke on GooOS: the Google Operating System (even cooler than it sounds, although Kottke goes a little overboard with the starry-eyed predictions in the last couple of paragraphs).

This puts me in mind of an odd irony, which has been been noted so many times by now it's a cliché, but whatever. Back in the 50's, computers were these big honking things that took up entire rooms. People believed that, in the future, there would be dumb terminals everywhere that were connected to these massive supercomputers that would answer every question. In the 80's it became commonplace to scoff at this idea, because the personal computing revolution put little computers everywhere. Of course, people thought, that vision of big honking supercomputers that take up entire rooms is completely outdated. And now...

(Of course, to be strictly accurate, both visions were wrong. It's a commplace in ubituitous computing circles that once a technology becomes sufficiently advanced, it disappears as a technology per se, and becomes embedded in everything --- that, eventually, computers at all scales, from the microscopic to the gargantuan, will be a part of everyday life. Speaking of a "computer", as an "object that uses computation", will eventually be as rare as speaking of an "object that uses electricity" or an "object that uses physical force".)

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Bush hobbles EPA regulators

Today's Sunday Times article on power plant environmental regulation is unfortunately linked way down the NYTimes home page, under the Science section, with the rather opaque link text "Changing All the Rules". It's unfortunate because it contains some of the most frustrating and devastating indictments of the Bush administration's environmental record yet. Every American ought to read this article.

Reporter Bruce Barcott writes about an obscure EPA regulation called "New Source Review", which requires electricity companies to install the latest pollution-control equipment whenever they upgrade their plants. Choice excerpt:

Of the many environmental changes brought about by the Bush White House, none illustrate the administration's modus operandi better than the overhaul of new-source review. The president has had little success in the past three years at getting his environmental agenda through Congress. His energy bill remains unpassed. His Clear Skies package of clean-air laws is collecting dust on a committee shelf. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains closed to oil and gas exploration.

But while its legislative initiatives have languished on Capitol Hill, the administration has managed to effect a radical transformation of the nation's environmental laws, quietly and subtly, by means of regulatory changes and bureaucratic directives. Overturning new-source review -- the phrase itself embodies the kind of dull, eye-glazing bureaucrat-speak that distracts attention -- represents the most sweeping change, and among the least noticed.

The changes to new-source review have been portrayed by the president and his advisers as a compromise between the twin goals of preserving the environment and enabling business, based on a desire to make environmental regulations more streamlined and effective. But a careful examination of the process that led to the new policy reveals a very different story, and a different motivation. I conducted months of extensive interviews with those involved in the process, including current and former government officials, industry representatives, public health researchers and environmental advocates. (Top environmental officials in the Bush administration declined to comment for this article.) Through those interviews and the review of hundreds of pages of documents and transcripts, one thing has become clear: the administration's real problem with the new-source review program wasn't that it didn't work. The problem was that it was about to work all too well -- in the way, finally, that it was designed to when it was passed by Congress more than 25 years ago.

Having long flouted the new-source review law, many of the nation's biggest power companies were facing, in the last months of the 1990's, an expensive day of reckoning. E.P.A. investigators had caught them breaking the law. To make amends, the power companies were on the verge of signing agreements to clean up their plants, which would have delivered one of the greatest advances in clean air in the nation's history. Then George W. Bush took office, and everything changed.

All this puts the lie to the absurd contention, by Naderites and others, that there was no difference between Bush and Gore, or that there is still no (big) difference between Bush and Kerry. Some point out that many of Bush's legislative initiatives have failed; but that argument is either disingenuous, or willfully ignorant, because the executive branch possesses enormous power that doesn't require Congessional approval to exercise. And the difference between a Bush administration and any Democratic administration likely to take office today is still enormous.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Bush doesn't give a shit about tracking down terrorists

Jeanne points to a Times article stating that Bush has turned down the IRS's request for more investigators into the sources of terrorist funding:

The Bush administration has scuttled a plan to increase by 50 percent the number of criminal financial investigators working to disrupt the finances of Al Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist organizations to save $12 million, a Congressional hearing was told on Tuesday.

Twelve million lousy dollars! Holy shit! That's right folks: $1.5 billion to promote marriage is dandy, to say nothing of hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the rich, but $12 million to track down terrorist financiers breaks the piggy bank. All credible reports say that stateless groups like Al Qaeda depend heavily on an international network of financial supporters. The IRS possesses particular institutional expertise in finance. A serious strategy for attacking terrorism should give them funding and tap their resources, in cooperation with the FBI and the CIA and under the direction of the DHS.

I've realized that one of the recurring themes on my blog is that the Bush administration has never demonstrated any seriousness about attacking terrorism. Terrorism is a particularly vicious form of crime; terrorists must possess the classic criminal triad of "motive, means, and opportunity" as a prerequisite for committing terrorist acts. The Bush administration has shown no interest in any of these: they attack neither motive (by adopting a foreign policy less likely to win Al Qaeda converts), nor means (by tracking down the financiers, which according to credible reports include many Saudis), nor opportunity (by investigating the intelligence failures that made the attacks possible, or by increasing port security).

In other words, on national security, the current Republican Party leadership is a total joke.

Which puts the lie to the weird popular conception in America that conservatives are somehow "stronger" or "tougher" on national security than liberals. As far as I can tell, this attitude stems mostly from two factors. First, there are lingering grudges from the culture clashes of "the Sixties" --- "Those Democrats are the same long-haired hippies and peaceniks who protested against Nixon!" Second, and I think even more importantly, I think people have a reptilian-brain-stem instinct which tells them that muscular, aggressive rhetoric correlates with effective self-defense: "I am a lizard which raises my frill and hisses loudly at any challenge, therefore I will hurt people who try to hurt me, therefore you want me on your side." Of course, this instinct is completely obsolete in the modern world, when ingenuity, craftiness, and alliance-building are more effective means to self-defense than aggression. But primitive instincts persist, and too often prevail.

Kerry to Bush: If you really believe Clarke is lying...

Nathan Newman reports on Kerry's rejoinder to Bush administration claims that Richard Clarke is lying:

"My challenge to the Bush administration would be, if (Clarke) is not believable and they have reason to show it, then prosecute him for perjury because he is under oath," Kerry told CBS's MarketWatch

Heh. Newman notes that as long as they don't prosecute Clarke, they are tacitly admitting that he's credible.

Isn't it great to have a candidate who, you know, actually fights back? Let's imagine the alternate universe where Lieberman was nominated:

"My challenge to Richard Clarke would be, if you really believe in these divisive claims, which are tearing the nation apart in a time of crisis, why didn't you raise them before we went to war? It simply isn't credible," Lieberman told CBS's MarketWatch.

He added: "So really, Clarke should just shut his trap and vote for Bush in the upcoming election, like I'm planning on doing. I mean, voting for me would just intensify the partisan bickering in Washington, which is something I really want to rise above."