Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Scorecard 2005

I now undertake the painful exercise of revisiting this year's resolutions.

Will complete bulk of thesis research so I can graduate in 2005-2006 academic year.
Verdict: Done. There's some significant (though mostly uninteresting) technical work that remains, but I plan to defend in summer 2006. I'd probably be done with the technical work, and in the midst of writing the actual dissertation document already, if it weren't for the fact that I've been simultaneously looking for a job. Blech.
Will donate larger fraction of income to charitable organizations.
Verdict: Failed. I did not donate a significantly larger fraction of my income to charity this year, and I'm not in a position to remedy this in the next two days.
Will limit blog-reading to two times a day, or fewer.
Verdict: Mixed. Most days I keep to this. Having my XML feed reader hacked into a more usable form helped. Some days I don't read blogs at all, because I'm confident that I can catch up on anything interesting the next day via my feed reader. However, other days I fall off the wagon, particularly if I'm trying to avoid something.
Will strive for more generosity of spirit and less petulance in my blogging.
Verdict: Failed. My most popular post this year, by far, was this rather obnoxious post on Intelligent Design (which, incidentally, is now the #5 hit on Google for "intelligent design debate" [UPDATE 6 Jan: And also one of BlogPulse's top 25 blog posts of 2005. Wow/argh.]). The runner-up for most popular post was this evisceration of Jonah Goldberg. And, although most of my posts are less vitriolic than these, I feel that my tone has been splenetic more generally as well.
Will publish one, preferably two conference papers.
Verdict: Failed. I did, however, get two conference papers rejected, which is something of an achievement I suppose. On the brighter side, my reviews have been decent, and I'm presenting at a workshop in the coming year.
Will learn how to deal with conference deadlines without skipping the gym, spurning my friends, and generally dropping off the face of the Earth.
Verdict: Mixed. The degree to which I drop off the face of the Earth has diminished somewhat, but I do live a pretty lousy life in the month leading up to a deadline. On the other hand, my papers get rejected, so maybe I should learn to drop off the face of the Earth more. Paul Graham has interesting things to say about this.
Will buy and read:
Verdict: Mixed. Of the above, I only read Collapse, and about half the books I bought over the holidays. I did read some other interesting books (though I didn't finish as many as I'd have liked), of which I'll recommend a couple:
  • Iron Council by China Miéville. The folks at Crooked Timber have said volumes about this, and I don't have anything new to add for now, but it's a lovely book. I also read Perdido Street Station on a plane; it's less good, but managed to keep me up on the red-eye from Seattle to Newark. I'm going to be flying around a lot in the next couple of months, and I'll most likely be reading more of Miéville --- at least The Scar, to complete the New Crobuzon novels.
  • Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, by Albert O. Hirschman: I'm still in the middle of this, but if you're even vaguely interested in politics, economics, or game theory, then you really owe it to yourself to read this sometime. It's a slim little volume, easy to carry around, and easy to read, though digesting the ideas fully will probably take me a lot of mulling (which, of course, I don't really have time to do these days, but whatever, I'll probably do it anyway).

Well, all in all, it was a pretty mixed year. I suppose I'll be making new resolutions (or renewing the old ones) soon. Have a Happy New Year all, unless I'll be seeing you in the next couple of days, in which case I'll wish you Happy New Year in person I suppose.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Manual blogspamming via Technorati: Grrrr.

I'm writing today to note a mildly noxious form of spam that's cropped up a couple of times on this blog, and that popped up again tonight. My last post about the Massachusetts Little Red Book/DHS hoax got a comment that was only marginally on-topic, and frankly struck me as a total non sequitur. It was evident that the post's satirical content, for example, completely sailed over the commenter's head. Or, more likely, the commenter simply hadn't read my post at all, since the comment consisted solely of two links to his own blog posts about the Little Red Book hoax. Hence, the comment seemed like some kind of self-promoting spam. So I deleted the comment, of course, but I also got annoyed enough to fire up Sitemeter and go a-hunting. The comment was posted at about 8:40 p.m. PST, and bingo, here we go:

The IP address is located in Wisconsin, and the blog in question states prominently that the author's located at Marquette University, so this is probably our man. Note that this guy spent a grand total of 15 seconds reading my post before composing his perfunctory, self-promoting comment. Gee, either he's a speed reader, or... hey, let's look at that referer --- it's cut off in the picture, but he came from the Technorati search for "student mao massachusetts". I wonder if this person's spammed his comment onto other blogs on this search?

Hey, that comment looks kind of familiar... (I'd go on, but I think I've proven my point.)

Therefore, "John McAdams", I christen thee spammer, sad sack of dittohead wingnuttery that thou art, so desperate for traffic that thou goest commenting onto random Technorati blogs for attention.

And let that be a warning to other would-be Technorati spammers out there: this blog's not a platform for you to misdirect traffic towards your own site. If you're not here to have a conversation, then crawl off and spread your ant droppings somewhere else. Or better yet, use comments as they were meant to be used, and don't try to promote yourself that way at all.

On newspapers and trust

On December 17, a regional Massachusetts paper called The Standard-Times reported that agents from the Department of Homeland Security visited a student's house after he checked a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book out of a library. Today, we learn in the Boston Globe that this story was actually false. Now, clearly, this is an example of the incredible dangers inherent in the technology of newspapers, which permit reporters to publish things that are false! It's true that the error was eventually corrected, but the story was out there for a whole week, and it's far from clear that people who read the original article will see the follow-up reporting.

And look --- the Standard-Times posted a corrected article, but the old article's still available in the newspaper archives, where any schoolchild could come across it! Why don't these irresponsible editors send the archived article down the memory hole, for the children?

Emboldened by the unencumbered freedom of the printing press, reporters are out there spreading scandalous untruths about our national security apparatus. It's clear that the system of reporters and editors digging up facts and reporting them, without the oversight of a national Ministry of Information, cannot be allowed to continue. Or rather, I am personally all in favor of newspapers, but unless newspapers voluntarily submit themselves to scrutiny by a private-sector Ministry of Information, which consults with the government to ensure accuracy and fairness, then in the next election, who knows, maybe some reporter will report something inaccurate about a politician, and the political pressure to regulate newspapers will become overwhelming. And people like John Seigenthaler will have to step in to defend them.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Respectable arguments against same-sex marriage

Random late-night browsing whilst procrastinating w.r.t. proofreading a camera-ready copy of a paper: as a thought experiment Belle Waring constructs an intellectually non-ridiculous argument against same-sex marriage; and (linked from the above comment thread) a plea for intellectual humility from Jane Galt, of all people, that's also not entirely ridiculous.

I have two reactions. First, any intellectually honest person who opposes same-sex marriage for the linked reasons should also support denial of marriage benefits to childless heterosexual couples. But opponents of same-sex marriage won't come out against childless heterosexual couples. Why not? Because society views childless heterosexuals (unlike homosexuals) as first-class citizens, and therefore, it would be incredibly unpopular to infringe on the autonomy of heterosexuals. People believe that heterosexual couples have a right to choose both marriage and childlessness for themselves. Besides, some childless heterosexual couples are childless for painful personal reasons; adding insult to injury by denying them marriage benefits seems beyond the pale. I could say closely analogous things for committed homosexual couples --- that they have the right to choose marriage, and that denying them benefits is cruel --- but the anti-same-sex-marriage forces wouldn't care. Therefore, let's admit the role that power, stemming from bigotry, plays in the acceptance of even the relatively respectable arguments proposed by Galt and Waring: although we would not treat heterosexuals this way, we will treat homosexuals this way, because it is popular to do so, and therefore we have the power to do so.

Second, on a somewhat different track, I want to make a larger point, which is that sometimes the well-being of society simply must defer to individual rights. Individuals are ends-in-themselves, whereas society is a means to furthering the ends of individuals. If guaranteeing individual rights commensurate with our values ultimately leads to the breakdown of society, then so be it.

It is conceivable that a society built upon individual autonomy, civil liberties, and equality before the law cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is conceivable that on the grand scale of history, each era when such institutions prevail is a brief interlude, like foam on the crest of a wave, which inherently rises and then subsides, whereas discrimination and oppression are a sturdy bedrock which endures. It is conceivable that the American experiment in constructing ever-widening circles of social equality contains the structural causes of its own collapse, and that it will therefore recede and be replaced by something more morally repugnant and more sustainable.

So what? Happiness is always finite, but at least it is happiness. Most love affairs contain within them the seeds of their own destruction, but this does not compel us not to love. If equality before the law cannot endure forever, then at least we're lucky enough to have lived in a time when it prevailed. Maybe in some distant future, after same-sex marriage and America's million other concessions to the pursuit of individual happiness have destroyed America, and some dark millennia have passed without us, some other people will, for a fleeting few centuries, be lucky enough to live in such an era again. If so, then I hope that they, too, refuse to destroy their happiness in order to save it.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The death penalty vs. war

A propos of nothing, I was thinking today about a comparison I've frequently seen made between the death penalty and war --- viz., that if you believe killing in war is sometimes justified, then you cannot be philosophically consistent and also categorically oppose capital punishment. I find this comparison rather fatuous. Under conditions of war, there is no reasonable way to accomplish your goals --- like stopping the Axis powers from taking over the world ---- except by killing large numbers of people. If you try to stop the Axis powers from taking over the world, many of their people will shoot at you, and will not stop shooting at you until they are dead. And the goal, in this case, is unquestionably good: if the Axis powers take over the world, then a lot of people will die or suffer horrific oppression.

Capital punishment is a completely different beast. At the point where capital punishment comes into play, the person to be executed is sitting inside a steel-barred concrete cell. However horrific we find this person's psyche, (s)he is essentially a helpless worm in the unyielding grasp of the state's fist. Now, consider what further objectives society has, and whether these objectives can be accomplished by nonlethal means. I'd claim the only unquestionably good aim here is to defend society against future violence, which can be accomplished by keeping that person in the cell forever. There's an array of other, far more questionable objectives, like vengeance or emotional satisfaction, that may require you to execute this person, but it's hardly inconsistent to believe that such objectives do not justify killing.

Or, to put it another way, justifiable killing requires that the aim be just, and that there be no other way to accomplish that aim. One can therefore consistently believe that for a modern nation-state, killing in war is justified, but capital punishment is not.

Incidentally, note that the above implies that if a nation can attain its war aims without killing people, it is obligated to do so. It also implies that if the governing power is too insecure and weak to guarantee incarceration for a complete human lifetime, then it may be justified in killing instead. The latter's interesting for two reasons. First, it probably describes the conditions under which Old Testament moral codes were crafted. Second, if you believe, as I do, that we may enter a future phase of history when human lifespans exceed those of nation-states, then capital punishment may be justified again.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

On Wikipedia and trust

So, the Seigenthaler affair is getting a lot of coverage, and now that my deadline's past I feel that I can weigh in. Katharine Seelye, in a recent Week in Review, asked:

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler's biography, true?

Seelye then went on to discuss the inaccuracies in Wikipedia's Seigenthaler bio, of which Seigenthaler complained in a recent USA Today Op-Ed.

Ah, the irony: Katherine Seelye wrings her hands about people making stuff stuff up. The Wikipedia entry can be fixed by anybody. Seigenthaler could have just clicked the "edit" link and corrected the mistake. But the damage Katharine Seelye did in her 2000 election coverage can never be undone. I find Seelye's distorted coverage of the distinction between the Gore and Bush budgets particularly irksome, but perhaps you'd prefer Seelye's deceitful coverage of the Gore/Bradley primary debates.

So do I trust Wikipedia? About as far as I trust a newspaper, or Brittanica, or a recently published peer-reviewed scientific result; which is to say, not really. All knowledge I obtain through all these sources is merely provisional and subject to change. But absolute trust isn't a useful benchmark of value here. If I held all my information sources to the standard of absolute trust, then the only things I'd believe would be machine-checkable proofs of mathematical theorems (which, by the way, excludes nearly all nontrivial published theorems in the math and computer science literature). But that would be a ridiculous way to live. The right question here is: are we better off because this resource exists? Or, in other words, is the net value positive? And for Wikipedia, the answer's undoubtedly yes, at least for me.

Therefore, my answer to Wikipedia critics is: if Wikipedia's net value to you is negative, then don't use it. On the other hand, if you want me to stop using it, you must convince me that I'm mistaken, and that I'm worse off now than I was before Wikipedia existed. That's a pretty tough sell, because I'll require empirical evidence --- not that Wikipedia has errors, which it obviously does, but that Wikipedia's meaningfully worse than the alternatives. I don't believe that's the case. In my area of expertise (programming languages), Wikipedia's relatively reasonable. It's at least as good as any coverage in the popular press, or even most of the computing industry press. Of course, Wikipedia isn't TAPL, but then nothing is.

Finally, let's remember that Seigenthaler hardly needs our pity or assistance here. In his Op-Ed, he painted himself as a helpless victim, but he's a heavy player in media circles. He's heavy enough to get an Op-Ed published in USA Today simply because he found some random nonsense on the Internet. Think about that: if I got an Op-Ed published every time I found nonsense on the Internet, I'd have more bylines than Krugman, Dowd, Brooks, and Friedman put together. He's heavy enough that the Wikipedia prankster was forced to resign from his (non-journalism) job, presumably because the prankee (a co-worker of the prankster) was a friend of Seigenthaler family and wanted to remain in their good graces. Ask yourself this: has anybody ever forced someone out of a job simply to remain in your good graces? And he's a heavy enough player that the noises he's making about Wikipedia inviting regulation, e.g. in this CNN interview, might be taken seriously. Seigenthaler says:

Next year we go into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me, and hits others.

I'm afraid we're going to get regulated media as a result of that. And I -- I tell you, I think if you can't fix it, both fix the history as well as the biography pages, I think it's going to be in real trouble, and we're going to have to be fighting to keep the government from regulating you.

Elsewhere in the interview, he disavows wanting the government to regulate Wikipedia. However, Seigenthaler's tone bears no small resemblance to a mobster's when warning a shopkeeper that if he doesn't pay for protection, hey, it's a dangerous neighborhood, and somebody might come along some night and burn something down. The truth is, people like Seigenthaler are a much greater threat to a free society than Wikipedia or its vandals.

Incidentally, the fantasy nightmare scenario that Siegenthaler spun on CNN bears no resemblance to reality. Wikipedia existed during the 2004 election. The Bush and Kerry articles were vigorously vandalized, and vigorously corrected, and today they're probably among the most factually accurate public sources of information about the two former candidates. There was no Wikipedia Chernobyl, no meltdown of defamation and reaction. The process worked. Of course, veteran newsman and paragon of journalistic integrity John Seigenthaler could not be bothered to investigate what happened during the 2004 election before speculating on national television about what could happen during the next election. Which, if you think about it, sort of undermines his point.

Further reading: John Seigenthaler Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy and talk thereof.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Friendster vs. Google

I recently logged onto Friendster, for the first time in months, on a lark, and the next day I got a Friendster message from an old high school acquaintance who's on the service. This puzzled me, because Friendster's messaging interface bites hard, and because you can get my email address within seconds via Google. Surely anybody who wants to get in touch with me, and who knows my name, should be able to email me...

Then I realized that my time in academia's showing. I have a personal home page, as does everybody else in (North American) computer science academia. When you want to look someone up, the first thing you do is Google their name. But the vast majority of people still, a decade after the web revolution, do not have home pages. (Maybe this is a good thing for those of us who do, since it makes it easier to find us.) Most people don't live in a well-indexed world. They live in a world where the people from their past simply disappear, and it takes something like Friendster, or Facebook, or whatever, in order to reconnect them.

It seems obvious that this is both bad and fixable...

Friday, December 02, 2005

24 hours to certify Diebold source code?

Via IP today, I learn that the North Carolina State Board of Elections claims to have reviewed and certified the reliability and security of Diebold election machines' source code in less than 24 hours after it was placed in escrow.

All I can say is, North Carolina's State Board of Elections must have software quality assurance engineers the likes of which the world has never seen, engineers who can conjure comprehensive test suites out of thin air faster than mere mortals can even type them up, and who can construct proofs of program correctness in Hoare logic on-the-fly while reading source code, and who don't need symbolic model checkers because they can simulate thousands of Büchi automata in parallel in their heads while filing their fingernails.

Or, hey, here's a thought: maybe the board conducted some kind of sham certification process and rubber-stamped the software without really examining it. Nah...

My previous posts on election machines: Voting Machine Abuse Link-O-Rama; Close your eyes and hum pretty songs and maybe the code will fix itself; Further links on voting machine manufacturers' arrogance; Krugman on voting shenanigans [etc.]; Electronic election idiocy from Tom Zeller.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hillary Clinton betrays the First Amendment and wastes the government's time with video game sales bill

Tonight, Politech brings me news that Sen. Hillary Clinton is, with Sen. Lieberman's help, introducing the "Family Entertainment Protection Act", which will impose fines on retailers that sell "M-rated" video games to minors.

Stuff like this is a perfect example of why I will never feel excited about Sen. Clinton as a politician. This bill's wrong for all sorts of reasons. First, and most obviously, it infringes on people's First Amendment rights, or at least skirts perilously close (because it subjects video games to legal restrictions that don't exist for any other expressive medium, and are therefore not content-neutral). Second, the problems it addresses can be also solved by technological measures, like parental control interfaces on game consoles, which the industry's already implementing. Third, the law will waste the resources of Federal law enforcement agencies, which have plenty of real crimes like fraud and terrorism to deal with. Fourth, even if enforced, the law will probably do little to reduce the incidence of children playing violent video games.1 Fifth, it's ridiculous to have a Federal law about this when local community standards about acceptable game use may vary widely. Sixth, it's ridiculous to suppose that sixteen-year-olds and eight-year-olds need to be "protected" in the same way.

Finally, even if none of the above were true, the bill would still be a waste of time and energy. There are about ten thousand more important issues that Clinton could be acting upon, and it's a sign of her extraordinarily misplaced priorities that she's choosing to insert herself into the news cycle with this one.

But none of this matters to Sen. Clinton. Sen. Clinton thinks she can buy off "values" voters by offering up this bill, and so the bill gets offered. The Lieberman co-sponsorship is telling, because I think it reveals the proper way to think about Clinton: she's basically a slightly more mediagenic version of Holy Joe. Whenever the going gets tough --- and even when times aren't tough, but she just wants some attention --- Clinton will instinctively tack rightward on culture issues and national security issues2, because she fundamentally believes that's how Democrats win elections. If Clinton has failed, thus far, to equivocate on Intelligent Design, it's only because she doesn't think it's a big enough vote-earner.3

And the kicker's that this particular element of the ploy, at least, probably won't even work. Are suburban parents really going to vote for Clinton because she came out against violent video games? If so, then I weep for our nation.

1. When I was a kid, I didn't have the cash to buy video games on my own. My parents bought them for me. Even if I got a game through other means, like borrowing from a friend, it was never a big secret what my siblings and I were playing: the cases were lying around on the floor, and the gameplay was right up there on the television screen, for anyone in the den to see. The problem (to the extent that any problem exists) is not that stores are selling mature games to little kids. The problem's that parents aren't paying attention to the games that they buy for their kids, and that they permit to be played on the family television. Legal penalties for selling to kids are just a non sequitur.

2. Speaking of national security, let us also contemplate the irony of Clinton's bill in light of her consistent support for, you know, actually real violence on a massive scale, in the form of the Iraq war.

3. Incidentally, McCain has already made the opposite calculation w.r.t. Intelligent Design. Why this man gets credit for having greater integrity than, say, Rick Santorum is a freaking mystery to me. I hypothesize it has something to do with the fact that Santorum's obviously a bigot, which is an unforgivable media sin, whereas McCain's merely incredibly bad on civil liberties, women's rights, and labor rights, which all fly right under the radar for well-fed pundits. Don't get me wrong --- as long as the Republicans remain a band of plutocrats, theocrats, and criminals, McCain's a useful guy to have around in the Senate. But I've got no particular affection for him, and I certainly don't want him to be President.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Terror Networking =~ Muslim Matchmaking?

OK, either Amazon's getting punked here, or some keyword algorithm has gone deeply awry...

[Screen grab from Amazon]

The ads rotate, so I can't get this to reappear deterministically, but click through the link enough times and you'll see it. (Merely reloading may not work, since Amazon will assign you a GUID in your URL, and appears to stop serving sponsored links after a couple of reloads.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Melanie Wyne makes no sense

Melanie Wyne's recent editorial on open source for CNet is a cornucopia of hackish distortions, falsehoods, and ridiculous non sequiturs.

The backstory: Massachusetts recently proposed that all government executive agencies should standardize on the OpenDocument format for office files, plus PDF for document interchange. The OpenDocument format's been independently implemented in at least two office suites, and it's backed by OASIS, a consortium of people and companies (including IBM, Sun, Adobe, Corel, and many others) that are trying to do for office formats what the W3C did for the web: make it so that everybody in the world can view every document reasonably well, regardless of what software you use. The W3C's efforts are at least partly responsible for the fact that you can choose to use whatever software you want --- Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, or whatever --- to browse the web, and expect that most pages will basically work. This will be especially true if the website developer follows W3C guidelines, and writes clean standards-compliant code.

The State of Massachusetts would like this to be true for all government-related office documents too, not just web pages. It would be really nice if, in five years, citizens of the State of Massachusetts could open any electronic documents they get from the State of Massachusetts using the software of their choice, and if government contractors could submit electronic documents to the State of Massachusetts that were created using the software of their choice. Therefore, they are electing to have all executive agencies switch over to OpenDocument. It's important to realize, here, that any company is absolutely free to build office software that reads and writes OpenDocument file formats, without asking permission, and to license that software however they choose. And because the specification's publicly available, there's actually some faint chance that this might actually happen, with less of the random brokenness that happens today when you open a PowerPoint presentation in Impress.

Now, according to Wyne, for Massacusetts to contemplate standardizing on OASIS formats is cause for "IP owners" to "worry". Wyne can't back up this statement with anything more than a vague haze of innuendo and guilt-by-association. Her argument is essentially:

  1. Open source software developers participated in the design of OpenDocument.
  2. Some open source software developers have allegedly goofy ideas (like the principle that a nation ought to set its own IP laws, a principle that I suspect most members of the U.S. Congress would agree with).
  3. Therefore, OpenDocument is a step down a slippery slope towards rampant government confiscation of intellectual property, and the end of innovation.

This argument's pretty self-evidently ridiculous, so ridiculous that it's hard to debunk, simply because it's hard to pull apart the logic of an argument that simply has no logic. However, here's a shot. There are roughly three kinds of intellectual property: copyright, patents, and trademarks. To illustrate the absurdity of Wyne's claim that standardizing on an office format amounts to intellectual property confiscation, consider the following three hypothetical conversations between Melanie Wyne and the State of Massachusetts:

State of Massachusetts: Thank you for calling, how may I help you?

Melanie Wyne: Hi, I'm opening a restaurant and I'd like to submit a liquor license application online.

State of Massachusetts: OK, you can submit it in OpenDocument or PDF format at the following website---


State of Massachusetts: Uh, excuse me?

Melanie Wyne: You're infringing on my copyright!

State of Massachusetts: In what work?

Melanie Wyne: Uh... All of it!

State of Massachusetts: Okay. If you'll hold just a second, I'll transfer you to State Services for the Mentally Ill...

A couple of minutes later...

Melanie Wyne: Oh, hello, I was wondering where I can get a pamphlet on coping with mental illness.

State of Massachusetts: OK, you can visit our website, or we can mail it to you if you provide a postal address, or we can email it to you in OpenDocument or PDF format---

Melanie Wyne: HOLD IT! You're a clever bastard, but you won't infringe on my patent that easily!

State of Massachusetts: (silence)

Melanie Wyne: I hold a patent on batshit insanity, and if you email me a document in OpenDocument or PDF format, then I will lose my rights to that patent!

State of Massachusetts: Riiiiggghhht. OK, so, I've traced your phone number to an address and I'm going to initiate an intervention here. Some nice men and women in white coats are going to knock on your door shortly. Do not be alarmed. They are there to help.

A few weeks later...

State of Massachusetts: Ms. Wyne, you've been making super progress! Look at how little of your applesauce you spilled this morning. You barely even need that bib!

Melanie Wyne: Agagooga! Me like applesauce!

State of Massachusetts: That's right, Ms. Wyne, you do! You like applesauce. Now, we'd like to talk about enrolling you in an outpatient program... (Pulls out Tablet PC running Windows and document detailing plan).

Melanie Wyne: WAWAWAWAWAWA!! You infringing my trademark!

State of Massachusetts: ...

Melanie Wyne: Put it away! Put it away! Aaaaah! My precious trademark!

State of Massachusetts: (Puts tablet away) Now Ms. Wyne, you know --- you know, that really doesn't make any sense. You're going to have a lot of trouble integrating into broader society if you throw a nonsensical hissyfit every time you see anything related to open source software. If you keep doing this, then we'll have to stop giving you the applesauce.

Melanie Wyne: HA! I KNEW you wanted to infringe my property rights! Communists!

But, of course, Wyne's motivation for slamming OpenDocument need not make any sense. Wyne works for the "Initiative for Software Choice", a partly Microsoft-funded group whose Orwellian name belies their mission to advocate for competitive advantage for proprietary software. Wyne's dinner depends on her ability to shill for pro-Microsoft (and anti-open source) positions regardless of principle; in a very real way, Microsoft ideology is wired up to Melanie Wyne's limbic system. I have to say, though, that Microsoft's not getting a very good deal for its money. It's possible to shill for somebody while still making some semblance of sense. You'd think that with all their billions, Microsoft would be able to buy a higher grade of hack.

p.s. The Open Data Format Initiative has interesting notes comparing the "Initiative for Software Choice" with its opposite, the Sincere Choice project led by Bruce Perens.

p.p.s. For what it's worth, I got the Wyne article link via Symbolic Order, whose blog came up in referers but whose analysis of the situation is (alas) no better than Wyne's.

Windows / Thinkpad / Matsushita drive absurdity

I recently booted my Thinkpad into Windows (a relatively rare occurrence) and discovered that my CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive had disappeared from "My Computer". This drive reads and burns discs just fine under Linux, and always has, so I knew it wasn't a hardware problem. I concluded that a recent Windows Update must have broken the driver, and subsequently spent a few hours trying to fix things. This procedure which included using the Microsoft troubleshooter, downloading and running the IBM/Lenovo software update agent to update all my Thinkpad drivers, uninstalling allegedly troublesome pieces of software, and even writing a stack of bootable floppy diskettes (wtf, am I in a time warp back to 1994?) to update the drive's firmware. All to no avail.

The ultimate problem? After extensive Googling, I discovered that Windows sometimes creates these things in the registry called "Upper Filters" and "Lower Filters" which have the effect of making drives disappear. Apparently, the solution is to fire up regedit, search for '{4D36E965-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318}' under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE/SYSTEM/CurrentControlSet, and delete the UpperFilters and LowerFilters keys in subkeys of this key.

Erm, right. And people knock Linux for requiring you to spend time tweaking obscure configuration files?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Collaborative online playlists linkdump

Here's what I probably should have posted earlier in the week, instead of this. Googling for "collaborative playlist" yields a number of online playlist sharing services. None of them make it easy to collaboratively build a playlist, but they're interesting enough that it's worth pointing to them anyway. Here's a roundup from DJ Alchemi.

The most interesting service here is probably webjay, wherein users create playlists that typically link to direct (and legal) downloads all over the web. Webjay will keep you in loads of new music for a long time. Alas, Webjay's model isn't that great for compiling mixes that include the music you've ripped from your CD collection. Also, users can copy links from each other's playlists, but it's not easy to put up a playlist and ask the world to help you improve it.

Mixmatcher (currently down) does permit users to add tracks to each other's playlists, or edit the order of tracks, but doesn't allow track deletion --- even by the playlist owner. (Better not mis-click when you're adding tracks to your playlist.) Mixmatcher's also rather slow and flaky, and the track addition interface is a pain.

The remaining playlist sharing services appear to be structured around vanity (i.e., showing off your music preferences, and getting people to rate them) rather than collaboration (i.e., people helping each other find music). Blech.

Jon Udell has some thoughts on collaborative playlists as well.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


(Warning: LiveJournal-ish conspicuous display of musical preferences ahead. Skip if you value your time.)

I have two mix CDs (or, if you like, mp3/ogg playlists) that have been sitting half-formed on my hard drive for months. I realized today that I may never complete them unassisted, so I am (in the lazyweb spirit) asking for help. Since my friends are, on average, more musical than I am, this might even work.

And, even if you can't be bothered to help me out, maybe you'll find parts of these useful as kernels for your own playlists...

Here's the first one:

  1. E-Pro [Beck, 3:22]
  2. Remote Control [Beastie Boys, 2:58]
  3. Organ Donor (extended overhaul) [DJ Shadow, 4:25]
  4. Failure's No Option [The Herbaliser (feat. Cappo), 3:01]
  5. Galaxy Bounce [The Chemical Brothers, 3:27]
  6. Black Steel [Tricky, 5:40]
  7. Machete [Moby, 3:36]

This partial mix starts off strong (the transition from E-Pro to Remote Control is, in my completely biased opinion, almost uncanny --- try queueing them up) but I need about a half-dozen tracks to finish it off.

The second mix is more downtempo, suitable for wallowing in a gray Pacific Northwest winter:

  1. Girl on the Wing [The Shins, 2:50]
  2. The World May Never Know [Dr. Dog, 3:02]
  3. The Fairest of the Seasons [Nico, 4:06]
  4. Jesus, Etc. [Wilco, 3:50]
  5. We Float [PJ Harvey, 6:09]
  6. Porcelain [Moby, 4:00]
  7. Hell is Round the Corner [Tricky, 4;30]
  8. Hymn of the Big Wheel [Massive Attack, 6:36]
  9. Starcleaner [Brian Jonestown Massacre, 2:28]

The end of this mix is basically complete. I need about four or five tracks to lead into "Girl on the Wing", though I'm also open to suggestions for changes in the middle.

Suggestions? Post here, or post on your own site and let Technorati pick it up. I am moderately obsessive about getting mixes right, and I will buy entire albums, if necessary, in order to get a track I need.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Dilbert

So, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, is an Intelligent Design apologist, even though he feels compelled to issue unconvincing denials. I don't really have much to say about Adams and ID per se, beyond commenting that Adams is clearly a moron. However, this topical hook gives me a good excuse to ask: What the fuck is the deal with Dilbert?

I've always hated Dilbert. Well, hate isn't the right word, because it implies a level of respect that the Dilbert comic strip does not merit; it would be more accurate to say I feel contempt or irritation towards the Dilbert strip. We're supposed to identify with the endlessly put-upon Dilbert character, and sympathize with all the indignities he suffers, but how much sympathy can you feel for a character who never, ever does anything to fundamentally change his situation? I, and many people I know, have worked in IT in some capacity or another for many cumulative years, and we don't answer to pointy-haired bosses. Guess why? Because we don't choose to put ourselves in those situations, and also because --- I hate to be completely elitist about this, but I will be --- we're good enough at our jobs to quit and get better offers if we end up in that sort of terrible situation. Also, we have some modicum of self-respect.

But let's leave aside the fundamentally self-imposed mediocrity of the Dilbert character. Let's examine the quality of Dilbert purely as a comic. Comics rise or fall based on two elements: the art, and the writing. In both of these areas, Dilbert sucks.

Is Dilbert well-drawn? Don't make me laugh. Could Adams ever, in his wildest dreams, approach the astonishing visual inventiveness of Bill Watterson? Ha! Does his art have even an ounce of the grace of Charles Shulz's? Ha! Ha!

OK, I've just mentioned two of the all-time greats of comics; let's drop it down a notch and compare it to relative neophytes like, say, Cat and Girl. Look at the use of space, and the visual rhythm established by the alternation of light characters on dark background with the inverse. Look at the delightful posture of the girl in the final panel. Or, if you prefer relatively conventionally blocked strips, then have a look at Piled Higher and Deeper, which is drawn by an assistant professor instructor/researcher of computer science at Caltech... in his spare time (not something that junior CS profs faculty at Caltech are known to have in great supply). The expressiveness of the characters' faces and postures carries this strip.

Look at those comics, and then look at Dilbert. The comparison's just embarrassing. Adams's compositions are boring; his lines are clunky; there's not an ounce of visual wit. I think you could draw a reasonable Dilbert comic by pasting clip art of Dilbert characters at random inside three panels. To call Dilbert's art amateurish would be an insult to amateurs, since I've known a few amateur cartoonists in my life and literally every single one has been a better artist than Scott Adams.

So much for drawing. Is Dilbert well-written? Pffft. I could point you once again to any of the comics above for examples of superior writing, but there's plenty more where that came from. Let me pick just one more example. Let's compare Dilbert to another geeky comic about people wasting their lives on pointless endeavors --- consider Penny Arcade, which is about two extremely profane and narcissistic souls who would be content to spend their lives sitting in front of a television playing video games, and occasionally committing petty acts of violence. Penny Arcade also happens to be drawn far better than Dilbert, but for the moment I wish to draw your attention to how this strip's writing, for example, tweaks the rules of pacing for a three-panel strip: an offhand joke's crammed into the top half of the first panel, and the setup appears in the second panel. Also, notice the third panel's deft use of implication and parallel syntax ("I've got an idea."..."I don't have any ideas."), where a lesser writer would have simply had the murderous character declare his intentions directly. And then there's this rather touching strip about a nervous father-to-be, which pretty much speaks for itself.

Dilbert? Um, right. First, it's utterly conventional: there's a setup, a beat, and a punchline. Second, the punchline's invariably weak: in the case of the comic linked above, the boss wants to hear what he wants to hear. Ha ha. Yep, comedy gold.

So, basically, Dilbert's art sucks, and its writing sucks. There are zillions of comics out there that are objectively better in every way. So what is the deal?

I don't know, but I conjecture that Dilbert is Cathy for the disgruntled, self-pitying office drone set. It's a crude, one-joke strip that compensates for its shoddy quality by flattering the prejudices and salving the insecurities of its target audience. Of course, every artist and writer knows that pandering to your audience's pettiest psychological needs isn't exactly a formula for producing great work. Great art works --- including great comics --- always possess a certain integrity. It's an integrity that Scott Adams's work lacks, either because of his character, or, more likely, because of his middling talent.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising, then, that Adams considers the arguments put forth by Intelligent Design and evolution advocates equally (in)credible. When you've spent your life being rewarded for producing crap, then maybe you begin to lose the ability to distinguish between crap and its opposite.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Realities of cybercrime (online lectures)

I've been pointing to this UW/UCSD/UC Berkeley cybersecurity course a lot this quarter, but IMO last week's lectures, on large-scale Internet criminal activity, were some of the best yet. If you care even a little bit about Internet security (and if you're reading this in a web browser, you should) then you ought to watch them. These are so good that I'm going to do more than link to the online archive this time; I'm going to link to individual lecture videos and slides.

(Note that if you get WebViewer, you'll get synchronized slides and video, but you should be able to follow along reasonably well by manually paging PDF or PowerPoint slides with the video.)

  • First up is Microsoft's David Aucsmith. Aucsmith's got decades of cybersecurity experience, plus access to a wealth of empirical data on real-world, large-scale patterns of cybercrime that few people in the world can match. There's a ton of interesting stuff here. Among other things, Aucsmith's data on the typical timeline of exploit development has actually caused me to change sides in the "full disclosure vs. 'responsible' disclosure" debate.

    [ Video: Windows Media, streaming WebViewer, WebViewer download ]
    [ Slides: PDF, PowerPoint ]

  • Next up is University of Washington's Steve Gribble, speaking about a study that he and some colleagues did recently on spyware "in the wild". Some interesting/shocking tidbits include the fact that about 0.1% of all "randomly selected" web pages contain a "drive-by download" spyware installer (see the talk for details about what "randomly selected" means). Also, Gribble et al. found some form of spyware in one out of eight downloadable executables on the web. And that's just the spyware their methodology can detect. Incredible.

    [ Video: Windows Media, streaming WebViewer, WebViewer download ]
    [ Slides: PDF, PowerPoint ]

  • Last but not least, there's Turing Award winner/distributed systems demigod Butler Lampson --- who's currently at Microsoft, but is best-known for inventing just about everything under the sun while at Berkeley, Xerox PARC, and DEC SRC. Lampson's got two things to say here. First, he says you can only improve Internet security when there's a credible way to punish people for being bad to you. Second, he says you can only improve computer system security by dividing your computer into two halves, one trusted and one not-trusted, which he calls your "green box" and "red box" respectively. This is probably the most entertaining of the three lectures, mostly because of Lampson's brash, mile-a-minute speaking style.

    [ Video: Windows Media, streaming WebViewer, WebViewer download ]
    [ Slides: PDF, PowerPoint ]

BTW, the videos above are all quite large --- on the order of 100 MB each, so treat appropriately.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Flavors of intellectual property, and the Kansas NAS/NSTA affair

PZ Meyers points to Jennifer Granick's WIRED News editorial on the NAS and NSTA's decision to deny Kansas permission to incorporate NAS/NSTA science teaching standards into the state curriculum. It seems the NAS/NSTA doesn't want Kansas to use their materials to help implement the state's ridiculous curricular choices on biology and evolution.

A number of people have expressed mixed feelings about this. PZ ultimately comes down on the side of the NAS/NSTA. Donna Wentworth at Copyfight takes the opposite position. My reaction's straightforward: the NAS/NSTA's motives are good, but their actions are wrong, and copyright's not the appropriate legal mechanism for their purposes. Therefore, I believe the NAS/NSTA should let the goofballs in Kansas Board of Ed. use their materials. Furthermore, I believe the law should allow Kansas to do so, regardless of what the NAS and NSTA choose. While I'm wishing, I believe that Kansas should toss those clowns off its Board of Ed. Well, reality disappoints me in manifold ways, but that's nothing new.

Let's consider why some people might consideer the NAS/NSTA justified here. PZ suggests that NAS/NSTA are trying to prevent adulteration and misrepresentation of their work:

What the Kansas school board has done is to take a legitimate set of science standards, and patched in odd little bits of anti-science nonsense here and there, and called that their science curriculum. NAS and NSTA are merely saying, "Hold it! You don't get to trade off our name as scientific institutions and label that monstrosity 'Science'!"

However, it's not clear to me that the Kansas State Board of Ed. is actually representing their curriculum as consistent with NAS/NSTA's views. In fact, they're probably not --- as Granick writes:

NAS and NSTA do not have to endorse the Kansas Board of Education's decision to teach intelligent design. The theory isn't supported by science, and Kansas should not be able to imply that teaching it comports with NAS or NSTA standards. United States trademark law would certainly prohibit Kansas from claiming NAS or NSTA approval for its alternative curriculum.

If Kansas were to claim or imply that the NAS and NSTA endorse the Kansas science curriculum's shoddy science --- or even sow confusion about whether they do --- then NAS and NSTA would be within their legal rights to stop this trademark infringement.

In other words, to the extent that the NAS/NSTA have a legitimate legal interest here, it's in protecting the integrity of their names. This class of problems is covered by trademark law. Markets, whether in goods or information, work best when actors have "perfect information", which includes knowing the truthful past history of actors. Trademark law protects markets from the confusion that would result if one could muddy the waters around a name.

But NAS/NSTA aren't invoking trademark law. They're invoking copyright, which is a completely different kind of intellectual property. The purpose of copyright law is to provide an incentive to produce novel works, by allowing a creator to capture some of the work's economic value.

Copyright accomplishes this value-capture by granting the creator a limited, transferable monopoly on copies and derivative works. This seems like a fine mechanism for capturing economic value for the creator. But under current law, copyright's limited monopoly includes a veto power on whether derivative works can be created at all.

In my opinion, this is completely wrong. Copyright should never grant the author control over whether a derivative work is made, only on how the value from those works gets distributed. First, I don't believe creators have any moral right to prohibit derivative works, regardless of those works' nature. Second, in the US, intellectual property law's purpose is not to protect creators' moral rights, but to "promote the progress of the useful arts". Therefore, I believe derivative works should always be permitted, even where the uses involved far exceed traditional "fair uses", so long as the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. The creator of the derivative work does not create confusion as to the authorship and provenance of the work and its elements.
  2. The creator of the original work receives fair compensation for the dilution of that work's economic value, if any significant dilution occurs.

Obviously, in this case, the NAS and NSTA couldn't care less about economic value. Their invocation of copyright is in no way about preserving the incentive for them to continue producing teaching standards. It is about preventing the creation of a derivative work. And in the general case, preventing derivative work creation does not "promote the progress of the useful arts" (except indirectly and by accident, which isn't a principled basis for designing law).

Of course, I'm hardly a fan of so-called Intelligent Design, and none of the above exonerates, in any way, the Kansas School Board of Ed., which richly deserves all the contempt that has been heaped upon them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Immortality and infinite fatness

Today's PrintCulture reviews Harold Bloom's recent book. It mentions, among other things, Bloom's "potentially violent endomorphic bond with Falstaff" and Bloom's belief that the tragic view of life is justified by the fact that we will all die.

Like most people, I've wondered for a long time whether there's any logical reason that mortality must, necessarily, be sad. When I think about it, it seems to me that we are forms in four-dimensional space-time, and we are finite in all four of those dimensions. I cannot find any logical reason to believe that the finite duration of our being is necessarily any more tragic than the finite height, width, or depth of our being. Or, in other words: why do people wish to be immortal, but not infinitely fat?

Of course, when we're talking about Harold Bloom... nah, too easy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Never order from Abebooks

I recently had to rush order a whole mess of books for my sister, who's studying abroad and needs me to postal-relay books for some research she's doing. So, I hit the usual suspects --- Powell's,, and Amazon --- and ordered them. Powell's and orders both went off without a hitch. However, if you've shopped at Amazon lately, you'll probably have noticed that Amazon is increasingly functioning as a sort of "alternative eBay" clearinghouse, rather than a retailer in itself. Search for any dozen items on Amazon, and at least half of them will be offered by other vendors through Amazon, which acts only as an intermediary.
Most Amazon vendors have reasonable service, albeit not quite as slick as Amazon's itself. Abebooks does not. Abebooks is itself an intermediary for many independent book resellers, and the one book I ordered through Abebooks (from "Moth Y Monarch Books" in Pennsylvania) is the only one that still, two weeks after I ordered it, has not arrived, even though I ordered expedited shipping. (Curse you, Moth Y Monarch Books, and curse the horse you rode in on!) No doubt there are many perfectly good bookstores selling through Abebooks, but ordering through them is a crapshoot.
We tend to think of Amazon as a retailer, but Amazon's moving towards being strictly an intermediary and technology provider, and "outsourcing" the actual work of retailing (i.e., stocking and shipping real physical stuff to real people) to other businesses. I wonder whether this won't hurt them in the long run. Amazon's not the online retailer with the best prices, nor is a search through Amazon's catalog as comprehensive as an eBay + Froogle search. Amazon's main competitive edge is its superior service. Amazon says over and over that they "expect all sellers to maintain the same high standard of customer service that does", but clearly that's not true --- if it were true, then Abebooks, which consistently gets about 20% negative ratings, would have been kicked off the Amazon roster long ago.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Thoughts on "nucular"

And now for something more trivial... in a lecture I attended two weeks ago, physicist Richard A. Muller of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs mentioned that Edward Teller --- one of the inventors of nuclear weaponry --- used the term "nucular" to refer to the weapons he was creating. As a result, many of the scientists who worked under him, as well as their lineal "descendants" in nuclear weapons science, adopted the term.

So, ironically, you have a situation where most educated people think saying "nucular" signifies that you're an uneducated rube, but if you go into the national laboratories where actual experts in nuclear weaponry congregate, some of those experts commonly say "nucular" and nobody bats an eye.

(Now, the spelling "nucular" never caught on in polite society, but it seems to me that (sorry Jacques) the oral form came first, and therefore the pronunciation "nucular" can claim correctness as easily as the spelling "nuclear".)

Nevertheless, this fact hasn't stopped journalists and even tenured linguists from devising explanations for this "mispronunciation". I wonder whether Kate Taylor, Geoffrey Nunberg, William Safire, or the editors of the various dictionaries concerned ever bothered to ask the inventors of nuclear weaponry as to how they believed it should be pronounced?

Incidentally, if you look a little further, the story thickens. Wikipedia claims that Teller's testimony against Oppenhiemer, at the latter's 1954 security clearance review, led to a rift between Teller and many of his peers:

Oppenheimer's security clearance was eventually stripped, and Teller was treated as a pariah by many of his former colleagues. In response, Teller began to run with a more military and governmental crowd, becoming the scientific darling of conservative politicians and thinkers for his advocacy of American scientific and technological supremacy.


In the 1980s, Teller began a strong campaign for what was later called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derided by critics as "Star Wars", the concept of using lasers or satellites to destroy incoming Russian ICBMs. Teller lobbied with government agencies—and got the sanction of President Ronald Reagan—for his plan to develop a system using elaborate satellites which used atomic weapons to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles. However scandal erupted when it later became apparent that the scheme was technically infeasible and that Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) had deliberately oversold the program and perhaps had encouraged the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error.

Now, given that "nucular" seems, anecdotally, more common among conservatives than liberals, and more common in Southern dialects of American English than in Northeastern or West Coast dialects, we arrive at an intriguing question. Is the "nucular" versus "nu-clear" split a reflection of that original social rift between the tribes of Oppenheimer and Teller? When G. W. Bush's says "nucular", is it because he and his father absorbed it from the conservative establishment, which in turn absorbed it from the hawkish national-security wonks who lunched with Teller in the late 50's and 60's? When liberals roll their eyes at "nucular", are they unconsciously recapitulating the contempt that Teller's peers felt at his betrayal and subsequent flight into the arms of the right?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sensible countermeasures against mass casualty terrorism

I've pointed several times, in this forum, to a multi-institutional course about cybersecurity and homeland security that's being offered this term at UW, UC Berkeley, and UCSD. One of the things that comes up in the lectures (video and slides available online) is that there are, in fact, many simple measures that would mitigate the casualties from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks.*

It's commonplace, especially among conservatives, to say stuff like "you won't win the war on terrorism with defense --- you have to go on offense!" This is true, as far as it goes: in an open society, it's not feasible to defend every target against terrorist attack, which means that you can only prevent mass casualty terrorist events by using a mixture of diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, and military action. But this can't be an excuse for neglecting defensive measures, some of which would do considerable good.

For example, taking refuge in fallout shelters, even very crude ones, considerably mitigates the damage of a nuclear attack. Nuclear explosions kill people within a certain radius through raw blast force and heat, and there's not a whole lot you can do inside that radius. However, outside that radius, you want to be insulated from radioactive fallout for about 48 hours (by then, the fatality rate from radiation poisoning has dropped dramatically --- the most dangerously radioactive elements of fallout are also those that decay most rapidly). You can avoid radiation pretty effectively by putting distance between yourself and the radioactive dust outside: either take refuge in a shelter with thick walls, or move deep into the central spaces of a large building (far from the exterior surface).

So why isn't the Dept. of Homeland Security telling people in major metropolitan areas to prepare fallout shelters, and take other defensive measures? UC Berkeley public policy prof. Steve Maurer makes a good point on the course wiki discussion for a recent lecture:

It turns out that if you do something minimal like dig a hole in the backyard and put a door on top of it, that cuts down the radioactivity pretty dramatically. That's just physics, there's not much doubt it's true. But the last time the government tried to point this out in a big way was during the Reagan Administration. The problem with this pitch -- they called it "with enough shovels" -- was two-fold. First "everyone knows" that we will all die in a nuclear war, so everyone translated "with enough shovels" as evidence that Reagan "must be senile." Second, people like to avoid thinking about nuclear war. Saying "the government should do something" does that, saying "we'll all die" does that, but saying "you are the first line of defense" asks people to think which makes them anxious. So what you end up with is physically sensible advice that people would desperately want to know in a nuclear war but will create a huge political backlash if you bring it up in advance.

Now, during the Cold War, the most credible nuclear threat was global thermonuclear war, i.e. massive numbers of fusion bombs dropped on every major population center in America. In that context, I think that "we will all die in a nuclear war" was actually not much of an exaggeration. However, in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, people generally believe that the most credible nuclear threat is a fission bomb (considerably less potent than a fusion bomb), stolen or manufactured by terrorist groups, and detonated in one city. In this context, American society would largely survive intact, but there would be many people in the attacked metropolitan area who have a good chance of either dying or surviving, depending on how they act. Some of those people will be downwind, in the path of the fallout plume; it's unlikely that we'll have enough road and transit capacity to quickly evacuate them all; and having plans to place people in fallout shelters would be a really good idea.

And fallout shelters are just one defensive measure among many. Biological attacks are even more subject to mitigation than nuclear attacks --- the behavior of carriers and potential victims can make all the difference in the propagation of an infection.

Why don't you and I already know about these countermeasures? Why don't we already know what to do in the event of a mass-casualty terrorist attack? Clearly, if America's political leadership were serious about defending America against terrorism, then undertaking a public education campaign would be part of their strategy, regardless of the political difficulty. Just as clearly, our leaders aren't doing this. Instead, we've gotten inscrutable color-coded "terror alerts" and vague exhortations to spy on our neighbors.

Of course, one can just add this to the long list of counterterrorism opportunities missed in the past four years. When you get down to it, our political leaders either haven't thought very seriously about counterterrorism policy, or else their thinking on the subject has been profoundly misguided, or both.

At this point, it would be incredibly easy, and appropriate, to segue into a broader rant against the ruling political party. But, I don't really have time to get into all that tonight, so for now I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

* Incidentally, of these four weapon categories ("CBRN"), the experts who've lectured in this course think that only biological and nuclear attacks ("B" and "N") have serious potential to be "mass casualty" events. The reasons are somewhat complicated, but in a nutshell:

  • It's hard for a terrorist to deliver chemical weapons in a way that causes hundreds or thousands of fatalities, as opposed to a few dozen.
  • The radiological attacks that terrorists are likely to be capable of executing don't generate piles of dead bodies. Rather, they increase the victims' lifetime probability of getting cancer by a few percent. This might have considerable psychological effect, but it's not a mass casualty event.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

This is your blog on Pharyngula + Kottke

(Warning: Navel-gazing metablogging ahead. Skip if you value your time.)

This is your blog on Pharyngula + Kottke:

[stats chart, 29 Oct 2005]

For comparison, as previously noted, this is your blog on Pharyngula + Atrios:

[stats chart, 24 April 2004]

Examining the content of the two posts in question, I conclude that being colorfully obnoxious is the easiest way to get burst traffic.

Truthfully, I'm rather ambivalent about both the attention, and the reason for it. As I've written many times here, this blog's a way for me to vent my thoughts and to let a few friends know what I'm thinking about, and it works pretty well. More attention would effect a Heisenbergian perturbation that I'm not sure I want. Plus, I resolved a while back to strive for less petulance and more generosity of spirit here. I guess I have a little too much spleen to live up to that resolution all the time; I don't beat myself up about this, but it's a bit chastening to have spotlights (even the modest, fleeting spotlights of blogs) shining on the exact moments I fall off the wagon.

Anyway, I'm not sure what the point of all this was. Metablog mode off.

p.s. As for why I write things even though I know they may be obnoxious, consult Oliver Wendell Holmes's satirical Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:

All uttered thought, my friend, the Professor, says, is of the nature of an excretion. Its materials have been taken in, and have acted upon the system, and been reacted on by it; it has circulated and done its office in one mind before it is given out for the benefit of others. It may be milk or venom to other minds; but, in either case, it is something which the producer has had the use of and can part with. A man instinctively tries to get rid of his thought in conversation or in print so soon as it is matured; but it is hard to get at it as it lies imbedded, a mere potentiality, the germ of a germ, in his intellect.

Metablog mode off. (For real this time.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Violence, religion, and double standards

Some of the replies to my previous post have predictably remarked on the casual violence therein. Truthfully, I am a little uncomfortable with it --- but only a little, since I see it as an illustrative thought experiment, not an incitement to actual violent action. I don't actually advocate using a baseball bat on Intelligent Design advocates, any more than Schrödinger advocated giving radiation poisoning to cats.

Nevertheless, I do take the point that the seductiveness of violent rhetoric is a dangerous thing to fall into. Therefore, I will apologize for my previous post if Intelligent Design advocates agree to disavow the text containing the following passages:

Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first born of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never or will ever be again.
Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them: "Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam's advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, "Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.
The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

Any Christian who doesn't disavow the above has no grounds for criticizing the violence in my previous post. These passages aren't from some random blog; they're from the central text of a religion. The crazy thing is that, unlike my completely hypothetical thought experiment, Christians seriously believe that God did (or will do) these things, and that he's righteous in doing so (everything God does is axiomatically righteous).

By my estimate, I have a huge amount of headroom here. Unless I start wishing that Intelligent Design advocates choke for a thousand years on the putrid rot of their own entrails while watching their children being raped by goats, I'm still way undershooting the cruelty that's glorified by the Bible.

But this is just the same old story: there's a double standard for secular and religious folk. When a secularist, even in jest, even in a moment of frustration, invokes hypothetical slapstick violence to illustrate a point, it's evidence that we're evil. Yet when the central holy text of a religion advocates deadly serious, brutal violence on a massive scale, that's somehow OK. Similarly, evolution has mountains of evidence behind it, but should be dismissed because there are still some open questions. Yet Intelligent Design, which completely lacks evidence --- or even anything resembling a testable hypothesis for which evidence could be adduced --- should be taken seriously. What can one call this, but intellectual dishonesty on a massive scale?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The only debate on Intelligent Design that is worthy of its subject

Moderator: We're here today to debate the hot new topic, evolution versus Intelligent Des---

(Scientist pulls out baseball bat.)

Moderator: Hey, what are you doing?

(Scientist breaks Intelligent Design advocate's kneecap.)


Scientist: Perhaps it only appears that I broke your kneecap. Certainly, all the evidence points to the hypothesis I broke your kneecap. For example, your kneecap is broken; it appears to be a fresh wound; and I am holding a baseball bat, which is spattered with your blood. However, a mere preponderance of evidence doesn't mean anything. Perhaps your kneecap was designed that way. Certainly, there are some features of the current situation that are inexplicable according to the "naturalistic" explanation you have just advanced, such as the exact contours of the excruciating pain that you are experiencing right now.

Intelligent Design advocate: AAAAH! THE PAIN!

Scientist: Frankly, I personally find it completely implausible that the random actions of a scientist such as myself could cause pain of this particular kind. I have no precise explanation for why I find this hypothesis implausible --- it just is. Your knee must have been designed that way!

Intelligent Design advocate: YOU BASTARD! YOU KNOW YOU DID IT!

Scientist: I surely do not. How can we know anything for certain? Frankly, I think we should expose people to all points of view. Furthermore, you should really re-examine whether your hypothesis is scientific at all: the breaking of your kneecap happened in the past, so we can't rewind and run it over again, like a laboratory experiment. Even if we could, it wouldn't prove that I broke your kneecap the previous time. Plus, let's not even get into the fact that the entire universe might have just popped into existence right before I said this sentence, with all the evidence of my alleged kneecap-breaking already pre-formed.

Intelligent Design advocate: That's a load of bullshit sophistry! Get me a doctor and a lawyer, not necessarily in that order, and we'll see how that plays in court!

Scientist (turning to audience): And so we see, ladies and gentlemen, when push comes to shove, advocates of Intelligent Design do not actually believe any of the arguments that they profess to believe. When it comes to matters that hit home, they prefer evidence, the scientific method, testable hypotheses, and naturalistic explanations. In fact, they strongly privilege naturalistic explanations over supernatural hocus-pocus or metaphysical wankery. It is only within the reality-distortion field of their ideological crusade that they give credence to the flimsy, ridiculous arguments which we so commonly see on display. I must confess, it kind of felt good, for once, to be the one spouting free-form bullshit; it's so terribly easy and relaxing, compared to marshaling rigorous arguments backed up by empirical evidence. But I fear that if I were to continue, then it would be habit-forming, and bad for my soul. Therefore, I bid you adieu.

UPDATE (22 Oct.): If you're a creationist or IDiot [0], and you're suddenly possessed by the urge to comment on this post, please don't bother. I know what you're going to say. When I was an undergrad, I read for a while, and I have seen every single creationist argument under the sun. I spent many an hour watching people knowledgeable about evolution debating creationists: patiently debunking the same tired arguments over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, responding in good faith to arguments that were clearly disingenuous, dumbing down their writing style to a second-grade level so that creationists could understand (and even then creationists wouldn't understand), and even copying and pasting from FAQs because creationists were too lazy to open up URLs in their web browser. All to no avail.

So, you may think you're going to blow me away with your amazing show of rhetoric, but believe me, I have seen it before, and you're wrong. The thing that you're about to write is not only wrong, but transparently, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong, so wrong that it makes me wince inwardly with shame at the fact that you're a member of the same human race that I am. What you're about to write is evidence that you haven't bothered to read the FAQs, or comprehended a single book on evolutionary biology that's not written by one of your crackpot creationist pseudo-intellectuals. So don't bother writing what you're going to write. Just go away.

[0] Really, creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are the same thing, just like a clown and a clown carrying an umbrella are really the same thing.

UPDATE' (22 Oct.): Two further clarifying points, since this page unexpectedly got linked rather widely (more...).

First, I stand by the position that the above post is the only debate on Intelligent Design that's worthy of its subject. Now, in a democratic society one must, in the public sphere, sometimes engage in good-faith debate with people or ideas that do not deserve it --- with ignorant or dishonest people, with bad ideas --- and indeed, there are legions of people with backgrounds in evolution who are doing exactly that. Call me an asshole if you want, but don't you dare claim that my post is somehow representative of evolution advocates. For literally decades, evolution advocates have responded to the abuse and astonishing mendacity of creationists/IDiots with patience, careful explanations, and copious fact-checking.

Nevertheless, I'm not one of those people. I'm never going to debate Intelligent Design seriously in this forum. This is a personal weblog, the Internet equivalent of my front yard, and under normal circumstances it's only read by myself and a handful of my friends. If I'm having a barbecue in my front yard with some friends, and we make derisive noises about Intelligent Design, then Intelligent Design advocates who overhear and venture into my yard can expect to be viciously mocked. They should not expect to be taken seriously, any more than anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists or flat-Earthers can expect to be taken seriously, in my yard. If someone believes in Intelligent Design, I believe (s)he's either a nutball, or simultaneously ignorant and too lazy to take elementary steps to remedy their ignorance. Were I writing for an Op-Ed page or teaching in a classroom, I could muster all kinds of reasoned argument against ID, but I'm not, and I won't.

Second, there seems to be a distressingly common misperception among non-ID advocates that ID's somehow valid in its own (non-scientific) sphere of debate. But that, too, is a load of crap. ID is not a generic theological or philosophical argument for the possibility of a designer. ID is a specific intellectual/political movement that explicitly seeks to establish scientific grounds for rejecting the possibility of evolution without a designer. If ID were simply a theological or philosophical argument, there would be no way to introduce it to school science curricula. But that's one of the ID movement's stated primary objectives. People get confused by this, because ID's methods are so fundamentally unscientific, but always remember that ID calls itself science.

Let me repeat that: ID calls itself science. ID calls itself science. ID calls itself science. And therefore, ID must be judged by the criteria of science, not philosophy or theology.

And as science, ID is absolutely the pits. It is a fundamentally non-scientific argument that calls itself scientific (note my use of the the restrictive subordinating conjuction, "that", instead of "which"). Therefore, it's a contradiction in terms to say that ID is "valid" when considered nonscientifically.

UPDATE'' (23 Oct.): Perhaps I should have foregone all the above and simply linked to Samuel Johnson's refutation of Bishop Berkely (via MonkeyFilter).

UPDATE''' (23 Oct.): IDiots, unsurprisingly, seem to lack basic reading comprehension skills. What part of "Just go away" do you not understand? If I read one more comment claiming there's no evidence for evolution, then I'm just going to delete it, period. No, I'm not going to point you to evidence. If you're too lazy to type the words "evidence evolution" into Google and hit Enter before you post such an outrageous claim, then I don't believe I have any obligation to respect your desire to defecate into my comment box.

UPDATE'''' (24 Oct.): Well, it had to happen. Godwin's Law strikes again. Unlike Usenet, however, blog technology permits threads to be closed for comment, and I've done that here. Go post on your own blog, kiddies.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Google Print shakedown

Donna Wentworth at Copyfight points to a pretty good article by Tim Wu at Slate on the "exposure culture" versus the 'control culture", and how it bears on Google Print.

I think Wu's reasonably astute about the principles. However, I also think that it's a mistake to think that opponents of Google Print are really motivated by principles of any kind. The Authors Guild and others do not really want Google Print to omit their books. If they did, then they could just take advantage of Google's offer to opt out, but they're not doing that --- they're trying to get Google to leave everyone's books alone. Why is that?

Well, what goes through an author or publisher's head when confronted with Google Print? Unless (s)he's a complete idiot, it must be something like:

  1. Holy cow, you didn't ask my permission! Get your grubby mitts off my work!
  2. Oh, you'll let me opt out? Fine: "Get your grubby mitts---"
  3. ...wait a second. If I opt out, it just means that other books will get exposure, and mine won't! I'll be at a competitive disadvantage!

This is why the publishers don't want to opt out of Google Print. Each individual publisher knows that unless everyone opts out, the ones who do will be at a disadvantage. And publishers can see at a glance that something like Google Print would increase the total market for books, so they don't even really want everyone to opt out.

Their real goals are twofold:

  • They want a cut of Google's profits. They want to get paid not only on the "back end" (where customers buy their books) but on the "front end" (where customers search for their books).
  • They want control of the sales channel. They especially want to control whether (and how) competing products get presented alongside theirs in search results. As a bonus, they'd love to completely eliminate competition from all those pesky, obscure, out-of-print books, which are only available used and hence net publishers no profits anyway. Coincidentally, these books are the hardest ones to get copyright clearances for, and therefore the ones most likely to be unavailable if Google's required to get explicit permission for each book.

That's all it's about: greed, plain and simple. The principles of copyright are only a fig leaf over publishers' tumescent desire for a piece of the search business.

In the end, this isn't about whether Google Print will continue to exist, because it (or something like it) will. It's only a question of which Google Print our society chooses for itself. If the Authors Guild and their ilk prevail, then the result will be an impoverished Google Print, one with far fewer books (and far fewer older books), and one where publishers hold veto power over the functionality and design of the service. If Google prevails, then the result will be an organic, ever-growing wealth of services, offered by Google and by others, competing with one another to help our society achieve the second and third of S. R. Ranganathan's famous laws of library science: every book its reader, and every reader their book.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Academia, meritocracy, and some semi-lame analogies

(I should really be working, but it's late at night, I'm tired, and I've got a mental itch. So I'm going to scratch it, and then try to load my brain with some final tasks to work on when I finally fall sleep.)

Political scientist and blogger extraordinaire Daniel Drezner was just denied tenure at the University of Chicago, in spite of a C.V. that, from my viewpoint as a layperson elsewhere in academia, seems pretty impressive for a standard six-year tenure clock.

Of course, at truly top-tier institutions, a strong C.V. is no guarantor of tenure. (By top-tier, I mean, roughly, a top-ten ranked department in a dynamic field.) To an outsider, this may seem like evidence that academia is somehow unfair or corrupt. Indeed, several comments on Drezner's post construe his tenure denial as evidence for a sweeping indictment of academic hiring practices.

In my opinion, this reveals a basic misunderstanding of the top tier of U.S. academia. This isn't an ordinary career track, where "everybody who's adequate" has a good chance at a job. Rather, it's a high-powered, competitive, elite profession, with a surplus of talented people competing for a small, relatively fixed pool of highly desirable spots.

In fact, the profession it most closely resembles is major league sports. To be a major-league pitcher, you have to be more than a merely excellent baseball player. You have to be one of the best players in America. This means you possess a combination of talent, focus, drive, and personal resilience which enables you to consistently perform, day in and day out, through personal and professional crises, at a level that outclasses all but a couple hundred of your peers nationwide.

How hard is this? Well, everybody's known some run-of-the-mill smart people in their lives: that kid you knew in high school who got A's without trying, that co-worker who's always got something clever to say, that wonderfully articulate blogger whom you enjoy reading, etc. Drawing on this commonplace experience, people outside academia conclude that top-tier professors must be roughly like the smart, bookish people they've known, only more so. This is like thinking that Barry Bonds is like the star of your high school baseball team, only more so. The truth is that there's a quantum difference.

In all humility, I submit that unless one has spent a few years inside an academic research community --- not merely taking courses at a university, but actually observing professors conduct their long-term research programs --- one doesn't truly know what it takes to become a tenured professor at a top-tier department. You cannot know, any more than you can truly understand what it takes to hit a major league fastball until you've seen it up close, from the batter's box, as it whizzes by faster than you can blink, so fast that you can barely believe it was there at all. This sounds incredibly elitist, but it's true.

Of course, in addition to possessing talent and drive, the candidate must be lucky, in a number of ways. For one thing, there's the lottery of life itself. The filtering mechanisms of American society kick in early, and operate mercilessly through the first few decades of your life. If you don't demonstrate some promise in high school, it's unlikely that you'll go to a halfway-decent college. If you don't show exceptional promise at a halfway-decent-or-better college, you probably won't go to a good graduate school. If you don't go to a good grad school (and/or postdoc, depending on the field), and do impressive research there, you definitely won't get a top-tier professorship. These filters are brutally selective, although you will notice from my phrasing that the earlier stages are more forgiving than the later ones.

However, this is hardly an indictment of academia in particular. Somewhere in America, there's a teenager who's throwing a baseball at a cardboard rectangle, and who could be the next Roger Clemens, but who never will. He'll never have the opportunity: he won't get the right coaching, he won't get scouted, or he'll simply be passed over for somebody who develops earlier and hence looks more promising when the scouts visit. This doesn't mean that baseball is especially non-meritocratic. It just reflects the general truth that it's inherently hard and expensive for society to establish a perfect meritocracy, which would entail maximizing the personal development of every single individual. So, we make do with a "good enough" meritocracy. We give most people (at least, middle-class people) a decent but imperfect chance, and develop "enough" talented people to fill the available jobs.

In fact, I personally believe that academia's much closer to a meritocracy than most other institutions in America. Your parents' connections and your personal wealth make exactly zero difference in your grad school app, at your dissertation defense, or during tenure review. Can you say that of success in business, politics, art, or literature? In our society, only professional sports and the military strike me as contexts where objective achievement drives long-term professional advancement to a similar degree.

Now, this isn't to say that random politics and backbiting can't cause some significant fraction of hiring decisions to go awry. However, in aggregate and in the long run, those with truly impressive research ability --- those who produce influential refereed publications --- will find secure positions somewhere. Academic departments, like professional sports teams, have strong incentives to hire people who can produce.

So, returning to Drezner's case: the question's not whether he's a brilliant thinker or a solid researcher. The questions, for a place like U. of Chicago poli-sci, would be much starker --- I'd guess something like the following:

  • If you listed, in order, the world's five most important active researchers in his academic subspecialty, would Drezner be on the list? What number?
  • Is that academic subspecialty one of the most important in our field today, or at least important enough that we want to spend a twenty-year tenure slot on it?

Hard to say, and certainly not something laypeople can judge. U. of Chicago's department didn't think the answers justified tenure. However, if Drezner's work is substantial, then I'd bet he still has a good shot at a tenure-track offer somewhere respectable. If not a top-ten department, then perhaps a top-thirty department; or, at an absolute minimum, someplace he'd have the resources to do solid work.

The situation's roughly comparable to the Yankees' choosing not to renew the contract of some outfielder who's promising and productive, but not (yet) All-Star quality. Why would they do that? There are many possible reasons --- some having to do with the player, some having to do with the particular needs of the team --- but that player will probably get signed by someone else. And if he doesn't, then it's probably because the few available slots are all taken by other players who look more promising. Sorry, tough cookies, but you didn't make the cut. Most people don't. Life is harsh.

p.s. Further random observations that I couldn't integrate smoothly into the above post:

  • On a personal note, just so you know where I'm coming from, I am a Ph.D. candidate at an elite institution in my field, and I'm 100% sure that I am not going to become faculty at a major research university. I've discovered that I'm not cut out for that career. I'm not bitter about it, since my current ambitions lie in other directions. But I'm not going to dismiss academia's standards as bollocks, because I've seen up close what it takes, and it's frankly astonishing. The tenured professors in my department definitely possess qualities that I lack. Among the fellow students I've known, those who have garnered tenure-track positions at even top-thirty departments are also extraordinary people, and also have qualities that I lack. And, if I may permit myself a moment of ego, I think I'm not a dumb guy, at least when measured against the general population.
  • I'm not implying that elite academic success correlates with intelligence alone. Nor do I deny that plenty of people are as brilliant as the smartest professor, but won't or can't become academics. It takes a whole suite of qualities to be a successful researcher, and intelligence is only one of them. Then, too, choosing a career in academia requires a perverse and rare set of personal motivations. Furthermore, experts in any given field can obviously have huge blind spots about things outside their field (and even inside their field), so I'm also not implying that we should view elite professors as an infallible, sacred intellectual priesthood. What I'm saying is that dismissing academia's system for professional advancement as corrupt, anti-meritocratic, irrelevant, etc. simply doesn't pass muster.
  • Incidentally, all of the above explains why I have little patience for conservatives who cry "liberal bias" because they know of some allegedly brilliant people who didn't get tenure-track jobs at top universities. I've seen this sort of complaint pop up periodically on conservative blogs and such. Beyond the obvious fact that anecdotes don't demonstrate anything statistically meaningful, being merely brilliant by the standards of laypeople doesn't mean jack in academia. Even mediocre Ph.D. candidates are probably "brilliant" by that standard. The only relevant question is: are you brilliant by the cruelly exacting standards of your academic discipline? Is your publication record better than all but a handful of the other candidates in your field, nationwide, of the same year? If so, maybe you have cause to complain. Otherwise, once again, tough cookies.
  • The employment picture obviously gets radically different outside elite research institutions. I'd guess that in some fields, there's so much surplus talent that some terrific candidates still can't get elite jobs, and even [Random Obscure State University] will attract terrific people. In other fields, the surplus talent is smaller (or siphoned off by industry), and [ROSU] will get... well, the leftovers. In those cases, even candidates who don't possess all the marvelous qualities I describe can probably get a tenured job somewhere.

    To relate this slightly to the point above, my suspicion is that if conservative intellectuals really valued educational careers, then they'd likewise have no trouble getting some kind of tenured position somewhere. (Blog cognoscenti can probably think of, say, a prominent conservative blogger who fits this description.) But that's not what most conservative critics of academia are talking about. David Horowitz doesn't bother to profile the faculty at [ROSU]; he profiles the Ivies, for reasons too obvious to bother elaborating here.

  • If I had a deep-down blood-and-bones hatred of the English language, I might have contracted the phrase "blog cognoscenti" in the previous paragraph to... no, I just can't write it. Gaaagh.