Sunday, December 31, 2006

Propaganda was meant to be something we do well.

The botched execution of Saddam goes from bad to worse. The Al Zarquawi style snuff video with the hooded executioners was bad enough. A waiter should dress at least as well as his clientele, the same goes for executioners. Shouting vulgar abuse makes the condemned look less like a criminal and more like a victim. Saddam's grave has already become a monument for the insurgents.

The choice of crime (the judicial murder of 147 men and boy suspected of sympathizing with Prime Minister Maliki's party), the decision to carry out the execution on a day the Sunni observe a major holiday, the choice of the holiday (the day on which Muslims celebrate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Issac) were all intentional insults made by the Shia-Kurd dominated government against the Sunnis who will hold the US occupiers responsible regardless of the implausible denials comming from Washington.

How could the situation have been handled better? Simple, put Saddam on trial by an international tribunal. Bring charges that reflect the extent of Saddams crimes: the use of chemical weapons, the unprovoked attacks on Iran and Kewait. The trial of Milosevic left no doubt as to either his guilt or the fairness of the proceedings. By the time of his death Milosevic was a pathetic figure with few remaining supporters willing to continue the fight. The same is not true of Saddam and the blame for this is entirely due to the Bush administration.

Update: Apparently the abuse was hailing the Moktada al Sadr we are currently attempting to crush.

War Bloggers

Mainstream media commentary on the blog phenomenon tends to follow a common pattern. After a few breathless paragraphs about the power of the individual the reader is told that much of what appears in the blogosphere is dangerous opinionated nonsense.

What the reader is not told of course is that much of what is published in the mainstream media is dangerous opinionated nonsense. The left and right both complain about conservative or liberal bias but the real bias of the press is to constantly repeat the comfortable prejudices of the Washington beltway, prejudices that bear little resemblance to either reality or the real political concerns of the country.

The mainstream media in the US knows how to package celebrities and trivia. Predictable mediocrity delivers ratings more reliably than taking a risk. That's why the networks show an hour of Letterman and Leno every single night of the week despite the fact that neither manages to be funny for more than ten minutes a night. Both frequently go an entire night without being funny at all. Comedy depends on freshness and suprise, nobody can be funny for an hour five nights a week every week. The shows they host are both carbon copies of the tired formula Bob Hope established in the 1930s when he took his vaudeville act to the radio.

Political reporting and analysis follows the same model. This is why it does not matter how many times or how badly a pundit might be wrong. As Paul Krugman recently observed, if they are a familiar face with predictable opinions they will still get preference over any number of pundits whose predictions were accurate.

The blogosphere is sometimes held up as an example of the antidote to this situation but if you look more closely the blogsphere has pathologies of its own and not just those the mainstream media projects onto it.

In the first place we have to ask why the blogosphere happened when it did. The Web has been a mass media for over a decade. People have used the Web to write online political diaries for a decade. I had a politics site on the Web in 1992.

What has changed here is not the technology, it is the politics. The defining event for the blogosphere in the US was the invasion of Iraq. Until that point liberals opposed to the war could at least pretend that their opinions were fairly represented in the mainstream media. The refusal of the mainstream media to broadcast any views that were even skeptical of the war aims or its chance of success made this impossible. Liberals quickly abandoned the mainstream media in favor of outlets that were willing to report news that did not conform to the beltway consensus: Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the blogosphere.

The UK blogosphere is nowhere near as influential as the US blogosphere despite a party system that is in many ways more conducive. The UK media did not fail in the same way or the same extent as the US media did.

The liberal blogosphere is essentially defined by opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The right wing blogosphere is defined by its opposition to the liberal blogosphere and a Stalinesque repetition of the Whitehouse line, the only deviation from which being the Orwellian view that Napoleon's only failing is his willingness to compromise with his opponents when he should stick fast to his principles.

The outcome of this situation is likely to be profoundly different for the two principal parties. Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga may have fail led in his attempt to unseat Joe Lieberman but any Democrat who aspires to an office they do not already hold needs his support. Barak Obama may be the darling of the mainstream media but his chance of winning the Democratic Presidential nomination is zero as long as Kos is pointing out that two years as a senator is hardly an impressive record of public service. Kos and the netroots are not only the new kingmakers of the Democratic party they are its future. By the 2016 elections expect blogging to be considered an essential qualification for becoming a Democratic candidate.

The same is definitely not true of the conservative bloggers, few of whom even attempt to establish any position independent of the party line. Their role is to endorse, not influence decisions. They are no more kingmakers or future candidates in the party than Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. The warbloggers emerged from a clique that was convinced that the principle failing of the mainstream media was its unfair reporting of Israel.

This situation might have changed if the conservative blogs had begun to act more like the liberal blogs in the wake of the 2006 midterm defeat. But the Iraq war remains the central issue of US politics and all of the conservative big blogs make clear that they will severely punish any Republican who dares make any suggestion that might threaten the security of Israel as they view it.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republican party has never been considered a 'safe' supporter of Israel. The current Neo-con clique is markedly different in this respect from the first Bush administration when James Baker made his famous observation "F*** the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway". The conservative bloggers are mostly supporters of the Likud approach to Israeli politics who are intent on making sure that the Republican party does not deviate from this position in the future. An examination of the political blogs in the run up to the 2006 midterms is instructive: while the liberal blogs were focused on fundraising, campaigning and organizing the conservative blogs were more concerned by the latest events in Israel.

As a result the warbloggers do not create or facilitate an internal party debate as the liberal bloggers do, their aim is to suppress it and they are likely to continue to do so long after the need for a debate is painfully obvious. Over the past decade the Republican party has campaigned on an anti-gay hate plank. They are entirely capable of campaigning on an anti-Semitic plank if they see advantage in doing so. If they are not going to blame themselves for the Iraq fiasco they have few other choices. Things are likely to become very unpleasant.

Learning from mistakes

One of Jim Collin's key points in Good to Great is the need to learn from mistakes. The Iraq war is demonstrating the wisdom of this advice while providing a long list of mistakes to learn from.

Fiasco lists many of the mistakes that were made and are being made. Chief amongst them the failure to learn from history. Before the invasion I pointed out on a radio call in program that 50,000 civilians had died during the British occupation of Iraq and that an invasion was likely to lead to at least as many dead. So far even the grossly under-reported administration estimate is higher. Independent estimates are consistently above 400,000 and as high as 650,000 if deaths resulting from the damage done to the sanitation infrastructure are included.

The picture painted in Fiasco is of a bunch of ideological zealots convinced of the justness of their cause and the absolute rightness of their political prejudices carelessly ripping up the established order in Iraq but being entirely unable to replace it. This group of alleged conservatives do not appear to have recognized the inconsistency of their core belief that government is bad while establishing what amounts to a command economy.

The Green Zone follies are most familiar to anyone who has read biographies of Stalin or Mao. Both murdered millions but they killed tens of millions through incompetent economic management. Substitute rubber plants and steel mills for hospitals and schools and the rhetoric is depressingly familiar.

A command economy can work but only for limited purposes and for a limited time. The British economy was successfully put on a command basis during World War II. The war could not have been won under the free market but after five years the entire industrial infrastructure was run into the ground.

What seems to be missing in the conservative ideological view is the acceptance that the policies that are most beneficial to a modern industrial economy are not necessarily most beneficial to one attempting to recover from a dictatorship. The economies of Eastern Europe that mamaged the transition from communism most successfully were the ones that ignored the fashionable advice in favor of an immediate transition to a free market and instead took a moderate, pragmatic course.

The vingnettes are telling: a person is put in charge of managing the Iraqi stock market who does not speak Arabic and has no experience in finance. The Iraqis use whiteboards and a manual accounting system to track trades. This is 'obviously' not acceptable to the US administrator so an attempt is made to computerize the system. Management of a major computer project being yet another area where the US appointed expert has no expertise. What Ricks does not mention is that until recently the London and New York Markets both operated in essentially the same way.

What Ricks unfortunately does not provide is a solution to the mess. This is not so much a flaw in the book as a reflection of the lack of options which are in any case dwindling.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Carvewright $1900 for computer controlled carving

The cost of CNC machines is something I have been keeping an eye on. Until recently the cheapest machine that was not a kit cost $10K and was designed for factory use. But all that really provided was a router on an X-Y plotter.

The Carvewright shows what is possible with production engineering. The costly X-Y bed is replaced by what is in effect the guts of a benchtop planer. Sears even sell the machine alongside their planing machines.

With volume production I don't see why a machine like this should not be possible for $1000 or even less.

All of which is likely to have a profound impact on design trends. Since the 1930s design has been dominated by flat surfaces. Plywood and chipboard are the materials of choice for the manufacturers. Extraneous detail has been eliminated.

With cheap CNC machines the cost of adding relief detail is likely to drop to $10 per square foot or less. How about a relief frieze underneath the cornice mouldings? Include pictures of members of the family, change them acording to the season.

Perhaps this is what happens to all those print your photos online operations when people stop feeling the need to mimic 35mm prints.

The immutable law of scripting languages

Why is it that everyone who designs a scripting language appears to believe that it is necessary to eliminate type checking?

Type checking and array bounds checking are two of the most powerful tools in the programmer's arsenal. Using them makes it easier, not harder to write code that works.

At the current time roughly 70% of all coding is done using three languages that are essentially identical in terms of syntax: JavaScript, Java and C#. They are almost but not quite the same and the 'not quite' part leads to endless problems.

Python has many of the features I would want in a programming language (especially indent delimited structures) but it tends to get overlooked as a result of the functional programming features.

All a programming language is is a set of high level abstractions that allow someone to get to grips with a low level machine code. Why can't we get rid of the idea that the coder of an application gets to choose the scripting language that people will use to program in it? Why can't I use python (or for that matter C#) to code extensions for Mozilla with the same ease as the hideous JavaScript?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Google patent search

Forbes reports that Google has a new patent search engine.

Last time I go to the USPTO site, Google do it right and they don't use a whacked page descrption language so they can still charge you for printable copies.

Try it here

e = 2.71828183

The dotCrime Manifesto is the fourth highest ranked site on Google for the numeric value of PI to 8 decimal places.

Only makes sense to go for the value of e as well.

Just as well I didn't round it off to Web 22/7.

Cell phone spam: 413-499-6605

So far they have called me twice on my cell phone line.

Their physical location is 703 West Housatonic Street, Pittsfield, MA. Here is a satelite image of their HQ.

Reports show that they are using a robodialer that disconnects as soon as someone picks up. This is in breach of FCC requirement to always give the name of the caller. Calling cell phone numbers is another breach. Violating the do not call list a third.

As the phishing gangs start using VOIP phishing we need to have law enforcement teams in polace that can react rapidly to shut down their operations. Taking out robodialers breaching the do-not-call and other regulations would be an excellent means of getting some target practice before the main event begins.

These calls seem to be some sort of 'free' vacation scam. But from here on out every junk calling operation should be treated as if it was a hardcore bank fraud scheme.

Pet peve of the day - robodialers

So Dish Network was meant to upgrade the PVR on Monday. They didn't.

At 4:30 they call to say that they won't make it, they reschedule for Wednesday. Again they are a no-show. This time no call.

Its not as if I need them to run a cable from the dish hookup to the TV. What I do need them for is to provide the multiplexer that allows four tuners to hook up to the three satelite LNBs.

So anyway I call up Dish to ask when they plan to make it here. They have one of those auto-attendant things.

I loathe these automated systems because the only reason I would ever use the telephone rather than the Web is because I have a problem that requires talking to a person.

Worst of all is the way that they require you to type in your account number at the keypad then when you actually get to a represenative they ask you for the number again.

The first time I got through to Dish I am asked what my telephone number is. Since I have seven different telephone numbers I pause for a couple of seconds while I try to remember the middle of the area code. The representative hangs up.

So next time I dial in I am pretty pissed and make no attempt to hide the fact. And so the cost of running these operations goes up because the representatives spend all their day talking to people that the automated systems have made angry.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Holocaust Denier Conference

You have to distinguish between holocaust denial and holocaust doubters. I don't think that Irving and co have the slightest doubt that the holocaust is a historical fact. Claiming the opposite is a tactic, not a belief. Irving only started the holocaust denier schtick after the media reaction to Hitler's war where he disputed the extent of Hitler's personal involvement. His original theory that the holocaust was performed without Hitler's knowledge by subordinates trying to please is not intrinsically anti-semitic, just utterly wrong. His later move to full fledged holocaust denial was clearly motivated by anti-semitism (see earlier).

The conference in Iran is not a sincere attempt to discover the truth, it is a political event staged for the purpose of demonstrating that Ahmadinejad is just possibly nuts enough to attack Israel if provoked.

Ahmadinejad has good reason to expect that the US might try to invade. The Axis of evil speech was tantamount to a declaration of war. Iran would be much harder to defeat but Bush might make the attempt anyway

The real message of the conference was 'attack me and I will attack Israel'. Ahmadinejad has the means to do that and to close the Straits of Hormuz and most of the gulf refineries and ports. Unlike the US or Israeli forces there will be absolutely no doubt as to whether Iran is intentionally targetting civilians, there will not even be the pretence of concealment.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Use of pretexting to access phone records now indisputably illegal

There was very little doubt that pretexting was illegal before the bill passed but the doubt was sufficiently great for people to think it worth a try.

The bill pre-empts state laws which may be tougher. I am not sure whether or not this is a good thing. In general it is not a good idea to have different laws governing communication policy in different parts of the country. On the other hand the emergence of privacy law in the US has tended to start with the states.

The lesson for perpetrators should be that if you build a business based on a ridiculous interpretation of a law that is completely contrary to the original intention you should not expect to stay in business very long. But I doubt that is the lesson they will draw.

EGold Raided

Reports have been circulating on the criminal bulletin boards for some time stating that EGold has been blocking various accounts.

A story in Wired suggests that the reports are true. After a raid on the company offices EGold has dropped the libertarian anarchy 'you can't touch us' pose and is busy co-operating with law enforcement.

EGold is incorporated in Nevis but operates out of offices in Florida. The company has been charged with operating an unlicensed money-transmitting service. According to the article the company is disputing the charge on the technical grounds that they do not accept cash.

People who set up such businesses need to think about how they will be used by criminals. A business founded on a technicality is not going to last very long if it becomes a conduit for organized crime.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Booting from flash memory

A lot of people have been thinking extensively about trustworthy computing (we already have trusted computers the task is to make them trustworthy). Lots of effort going into signing the BIOS, bootstrap loader and so on.

How about this for an idea: put the core of the O/S image and critical drivers onto a flash drive that can be write protected. These can be bought for $25 or so for a card with more than enough memory.

The limited number of write cycles that flash supports would not be an issue since the media would only be changed infrequently.

The ability to pull the flash drive out of the machine would have other advantages, it would be possible to configure the flash drive offline. This would allow a sysop to configure a machine without having to physically touch it.

Application programs would be run from signed distribution files for Virtual Machines running on the base platform.


An MP3 player integrated into sunglasses.

A really cool idea only spoily by the lack of removable media. I will wait for the micro-SD version.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Things that don't exist but should

MP3 players are now small enough to fit into a pair of earphones. Why has no company produced a pair of lightweight noise cancelling earphones with a built in MP3 player that takes an SD Card?

Another similar non existent product thats overdue is the MP3 player built into a compact cassette form factor. Many MP3 players come with a 'car kit' with a dummy cassette that you stick into the dash which then drives the magnetic heads on the cassette player with the signal from the headphone socket.

The MP3 player is now much smaller than the cassette. In the ideal system the player would pick up power from a dynamo connected to the motor drive and would also be a satelite radio.

Speaking of which, why is it so hard to find an aftermarket car radio with built in XM Radio support and slots for MP3 media? CDs are now an obsolete technology The changers are bulky and don't hold much music. One would think that it would be easy to buy an MP3 player that was plug compatible with the existing compact disk changer and would allow a decent quantity of music (8GB or so) to be stored.

Last Xmas I bought a device that was an MP3 player that just plugged into the cigarette lighter socket and broadcast by FM radio. It was a nice, simple design. Pity it was made so cheaply and baddly that it broke after less than an hour of use. The design was good the execution hopeless. But I have not yet seen one like it from a name brand.

The point here is that we are moving from the stage in the market where the mere ability to do something matters much less than execution. Products need to be properly engineered as systems and not just as components that the user is expected to connect together and cope.

Forget bluetooth, its a crutch that encourages engineers to still think in the looser mode of components. Think about the system.