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?