June 30, 2006

Reach out, reach out and bug someone...

The anecdotal "Law of Unintended Consequences" generally refers to, but is not limited to, negative unintended results and is rarely used in conjunction with positive ones. That may be more a result of folks pretending that positive results were planned all along, or merely that when faced with negative results we're much more likely to shift attention from our own lack of foresight to a higher power, be it Murphy's Law or God. For the purposes of today's discussion, I posit that the capital-I Internet was one such unintended positive result for both AT&T and the U.S. Government.

The Internet as you know is a direct yet unintended result of the government's breakup of AT&T in 1984.

With the assistance of several universities and a partnership with AT&T (who owned the telecommunications infrastructure) the protocols and procedures that form the basis of the modern Internet were constructed in the late 1960's, under the sponsorship of the Department of Defense. This first packet-switched network was named ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) and the first link between two computers occurred in October of 1969, when a brief message was sent between operators in UCLA and Stanford University.

By 1981 there were a whopping 213 sites, with a new site being added every month or so. Universities were coming online, and both the D.O.D and the universities were taking full advantage of AT&T's monopoly of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure to make it happen quickly and consistently. It was especially helpful for the D.O.D. that they merely had to deal with one company to manage the security implications of the government's electronic communications.

Yet it was that very monopoly that spurred the Department of Justice to file anti-trust lawsuits against the Bell monolith. In 1974 the D.O.J filed its third anti-trust suit (AT&T was by necessity a monopoly for most of its existence and had negotiated its status with the D.O.J. in 1956) which was settled in 1982, and took effect January 1st, 1984. In the settlement of that suit, Ma Bell traded its control of the many regional Bell Companies in exchange for the ability to enter the computer markets that is was coveting but had been legally barred from entering.

*YAWN* you say to me. "Big whoop. Where's the unintended consequence of all this?" Well, once the mother-telephone company divested to become seven independent Baby Bells, the ARPANet ceased to be a particularly valuable project for the D.O.D. It was too difficult to maintain the security of the network once it was spread across 7 autonomous telephone networks, so much so that the military decided to let it go. They spun off their military operations into a newer, second-generation network called MILNET, and ceded their stake in the ARPANet to the public interest. The universities that were its primary users became the de-facto owners of the fledgling global sensation and the government got itself out of all this internetting business, leaving it to the rest of us.

We've had a lovely time enjoying our Internet all these years, of course. Yet all that freedom is bound to get people fidgety. Now that there's big money to be made and lost due to the heretofore neutral Internet, both the government and the telecommunications companies, and especially the content-providers such as the Recording Industry of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, figure it's time to step in and ensure people are watching the requisite number of advertisements and not being too intemperate with their digital rights. (Check out boingboing.net for a terrific ongoing exploration of the suppression of technology and freedom being attempted for your own good.)

What You Need To Know:
After 22 whole years of not being a monopoly, AT&T's back!

"But Chief," you ask, "if it was a monopoly in 1984, and it's re-absorbed half of what it was forced to spin off, and now also includes huge stakes in cellphones and cable systems, why isn't it just as much of a monopoly today? Why isn't the government blocking these acquisitions!" Well, I can only guess there may have been some kind of arrangement. The government agreed to leave well enough alone in exchange for something. But whatever could a telecommunications monopoly have to offer the government that would be worthwhile?

This collusion of our government with the gatekeepers of the Internet is very dangerous to the exciting Internet we've all come to love. Technology is being retarded to ensure you cannot have for free what they want you to pay for. You're forced to watch more and more advertisements and protections for big media's old business model are being written into communications laws by cooperative politicians. Worst of all, with more of our lives being lived online, the lack of integrity of the service providers we choose has become more and more significant.

22 years ago neither the government nor AT&T was terribly concerned about relinquishing control of the Internet. Now, with a war on terror to conduct the government is all over any opportunity to collect information on, well, practically everyone. The re-aggregation of a significant portion of the Internet's infrastructure back under the control of a single very cooperative organization is an ominous turn of events on its own, when combined with a government that expects to get a lil' something-something in return for its patronage it becomes downright disturbing.

June 29, 2006

Little Victories

What you need to know:
Our base at Guantanamo hasn't caused the kind of public furor that I would suspect it might, especially from the left. Thankfully, today the Supreme Court took a stand against the creeping power of the executive branch by deeming the military tribunals held there unconstitutional. It's being touted as a blow to the President, but so far it's nothing but an official slap on the wrist. Our President, more than any other in history, has evaded or flatly defied laws that are intended to curb his nearly-dictatorial powers, so there's very little reason to celebrate what so far is nothing more than a chastisement.

The ruling does not demand the release of prisoners held at Guantanamo but gives the administration an opportunity to come up with another way of trying those held. - BBC News

It's mildly good news none the less. It shows us that the Supreme Court has not yet completely rolled over for the White House. Through lost integrity and ideological bias, we can count on our Supreme Court to defend the constitution less and less with each new Bush appointment - yet today they barked back, even if just a little bit.

June 26, 2006

About to get worse...

What you need to know: Over the weekend a Palestinian militant group raided an Israeli Defense Force outpost on the Gaza border near Egypt. It was a complicated raid accomplished via a freshly-dug 300 yard underground tunnel, which allowed the Palestinians to surprise the four-person IDF team, killing two soldiers, wounding one, and kidnapping 19 year old Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

It was that last part where the Palestinians' otherwise well-executed raid became a HUGE mistake. Mourning the death of a soldier killed in battle is one thing, reacting to the torture and murder of a 19 year old will be quite another. If I had to name one of the few things that will make otherwise stoic Jews completely lose their shit it's this very circumstance: combining the willful and malicious treatment of one of their children with virulent anti-semitism.

"This is not a matter of negotiations, this is not a matter of bargaining," Olmert said in a speech to a Jewish Agency gathering in Jerusalem.

Even Hamas recognizes the danger of provoking Israel beyond the "proportional response" which has been the status quo for several years. They are calling upon whomever is holding Cpl. Shalit to treat him well.

The U.S. is continuing to play its traditional role by expecting Israel to use restraint, which I suspect Israel will do as long as Cpl. Shalit remains alive and in one-piece. But should anything unfortunate happen to him, and especially if that unfortunate thing should be televised on Al-Jazeera, then I think you'll see a very rare display of Jews killing for revenge. And I think you'll see the end of Hamas as a political party in Palestine.

Outside the Kerem Shalom gate that separates Israel from Gaza, the army was busy positioning tanks, ground troops and artillery, waiting for the green light from political leaders to proceed -- Al Jazeera

Better and better...

Is there anything better than the spectacle of the world's second richest man turning over the vast preponderance of his fortune to the world's richest man -- a man whom just last week announced that he planned to devote the rest of his life, and much of his own staggering wealth, toward the overall improvement of the world? Yes I know that was an unwieldy sentence... deal with it.

The resources at the disposal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation prior to Buffet's gift were in the range of 30 Billion dollars. Buffet's gift, essentially a matching contribution due to the stipulation that the money may not go into merely increasing the foundation's endowment, is also in the range of being worth 30 Billion dollars. When all the math is done, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be dispersing between 2 - 3 Billion dollars a year to the causes they find most significant.

Most recently popularized by Spiderman, the idea that "with great power comes great responsibility" has its roots in the 19th century concept of noblesse oblige. Strictly translated from the French as "nobility obligates," noblesse oblige derives from the philanthropic belief that those on whom fortune has bestowed riches and power should use their influence to improve the lot of those less-fortunate.

In a stark and disappointing comparison of the wealthy and the powerful in America this month, on one hand we have the US government which has committed the vast and mighty resources of our great nation to the tremendously divisive issues of flag burning, gay marriage, and the estate tax while on the other hand we have the two richest men in America exemplifying all that is best and greatest about Americans by returning the concept of noblesse oblige to the top of the national dialogue.

Warren Buffet has some great things to say about being rich if you've got a few minutes to read...

June 24, 2006

Crap Movie of the week

While the MPAA is desperately trying to curtail our ability to entertain ourselves, they expect us to shell out 10+ bucks to see crap like The Breakup. If you haven't yet seen this movie, please don't. If you have, you should immediately proceed to your nearest DVD player and cleanse your pallet with something much more worthwhile.

I just wonder why anyone felt we needed to see this movie? Two extremely dislikeable characters behaving abominably, which results in both of them being unhappy. Breaking up is likely the best thing in the world for both of them, and you're left feeling like you wasted your time watching it happen. The few bits of humor that we enjoy are limited to Vince Vaughan being Vince Vaughan, and a few jokes about gay people who like to sing.

While I agree that the best comedy often comes from pain, the pain is supposed to be inflicted on the characters, not the audience.

June 23, 2006

Frogs in a pot

A modern popular parable states that frogs thrown into a pot of boiling water will jump out, while frogs sitting in water that is slowly brought to a boil will just sit there until they are boiled.

While there are certain flaws in this parable (such as a frog thrown into boiling water will likely die and a frog sitting in uncomfortably hot water will certainly jump out unless you've tied him up nicely) it is used to illustrate the principle of Gradualism, which states that profound change is more often the result of steady, incremental steps rather than sudden great leaps.

Steady, incremental steps... nothing but steady, incremental steps... that lead to a profound and dramatic change.

June 22, 2006

How to meet a doggie

I'm a fellow for whom regret over past actions or inactions is a principally defining characteristic, so it's very heartening to know that through sheer luck and some small planning on my parent's part, I ended up with a terrific beastie, the best one in fact.

What causes me to wax so complimentary regarding Zeke's better qualities today, you ask? "Say Chief, why should I care about your dog?" you query. For the very simple reason that there are two things that are everywhere people co-habitate: dogs and children. Knowing how to mix the two properly is something you need to know.

There have been three points in Zeke's nearly 13 years when the laws of nature would have squarely stood behind his decision to bite the crap out of a small child, yet he refrained from indulging himself. I say natural laws of the world, because of course the laws of our great nation don't consider a 100 pound dog ever justified in biting a child, which is for the best overall I'm sure. But in nature, in the day to day experience of life, things aren't always so neat and clear cut.

There was the time he was fast asleep when a fast moving 5-year old tripped and did a faceplant into his gut. Most creatures when awoken from deep slumber by a sucker-punch to the breadbasket would snap first and ask questions later, but Zeke demonstrated tremendous self-control by stopping himself from the very justified impulse-chew he reflexively began.

Another time, one bright summer day Zeke and I were wiling away the hours in San Francisco when a small child of no more than 4 years old snuck up behind us and punched Zeke right in his asshole. Not near his ass, not in his flank... he walloped my dog smack in his pooperhole. Needless to say, this was startling to my otherwise stoic beastie, who responded by spinning around, jaws open, fully prepared to exact holy, wholly-justified vengeance on the uninvited intruder to his dignity. Once again Zeke's reflexes and even greater impulse control, upon recognizing that it was neither dog nor man but small child who had so accosted him, saved this ass-abusing toddler from a death-dealing chomp. Instead Zeke directed his anger at me, giving me the type of withering look which I interpreted to be somewhat akin to Mercutio bitching out Romeo for getting stabbed under his arm.

And just last night on our walk as we passed a house with two young children playing in the front yard, both Zeke and I were surprised by the unsupervised little girl who had left her yard to run up behind us and "pet" Zeke. Petting has several definitions, depending on one's age, but in no stage of development is it characterized by smacking a dog on his tailbone. Hard. Zeke, much slower with age and arthritis, nevertheless once again demonstrated his total good-dogginess by restricting himself to a simple dirty look at the child rather than taking her head off.

I chastised the little one somewhat roundly, which caused the mother to appear, wondering what I was doing with her daughter. I then chastised the absent-mother, and proceeded to explain several vital instructions to both of them regarding strange dogs, and how to instruct children on their interactions with dogs.

What you need to know
While death by dog bite is very rare, there's a heck of a lot of non-fatal dog bites each year, around 4.7 million according to the Centers for Disease Control. The most frequent victims are between ages 5 and 9, and almost all the bites were inflicted by a known assailant -- the family dog or that of a neighbor. 4.7 million a year seems like a surprisingly high number, but not nearly so much when you consider there are almost 70 million pet dogs in the US.

I wish these statistics could convey the circumstances of the bite; while there's no doubt that a number of dogs are unstable or just plain mean, as a dog owner and someone with more than the average knowledge of the species, my experience tells me that the dog's bite is commonly either a last resort defense, a panic response to an intrusive, unsupervised child, or a simple accident.

Here are what I consider the five most important guidelines for meeting dogs that you may want to teach your children:

1. Never, ever, sneak-up on a dog. Always announce your presence, as a startled dog may bite out of surprise.

2. Always check with the owner of the dog first. Some may know that their dog doesn't like children, strangers, or anyone (I have no idea who's dog is like that) or others may be in a hurry and have no interest in spending time with you. ** Special note for Service dogs: seeing-eye dogs are often "working" when you come across them on the street. Never let your child interact with a service dog doing its job without clear permission from the person it is assisting. Please don't be surprised to hear the person refuse your request. Don't take it personal; they're blind and in the middle of the street and you're just someone distracting the dog from keeping them out of traffic...

3. Always introduce yourself to the dog by letting the dog sniff your hand if it wishes. Offering your hand, palm-side down, to the dog slowly will help to keep a dog calm while they meet a stranger or a child, something that may be stressful to them.

4. Don't immediately try to pet the top of a dog's head. A strange child moving their hand above the dog's head will likely cause the dog to duck and squirm away, wondering what's about to be dropped on it.

And for parents...

5. Never leave your child alone with a dog, even one you know well. If you're sitting there saying, "ok, but MY dog would never, ever..." I'm sure that at least 2 million of the 4.7 million dogs who bite a child each year are dogs whom their owners swore would never, ever...

There are of course other suggestions, but the golden rule is to ensure you're always dealing with a supervised child and a supervised dog.

June 21, 2006

The Latest in Glass-House Technology

Is it really the best strategy for Republicans to position themselves as the defenders of the sanctity of marriage? I can't imagine this could possibly work for them, unless they find themselves several less-libidinous old white men to represent them.

A terrific article from Washington Monthly on the hypocrisy of the right-wing:

Lurking just over the horizon are liabilities for three Republicans who have topped several national, independent polls for the GOP's favorite 2008 nominee: Sen. John McCain (affair, divorce), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (affair, divorce, affair, divorce), and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (divorce, affair, nasty divorce). Together, they form the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.

Click here for the full story.

June 15, 2006

I still hate Windows ME...

As an old-school Macintosh user from back in the day, an ingrained distrust and hatred of Bill Gates and Microsoft is woven into the very fabric of my being. Though he had become more tolerable in recent years, especially after his high profile and very timely
assistance to Apple back in 1997 I believe I speak for the hard-core Mac evangelists of the world when I say that it will be very difficult to continue hating this charitable bastard now. The inspiration of the world's richest man retiring from the empire he built to devote the rest of his productive years and a significant portion of his wealth to helping others both inspires, and also fills me with hope that one day Apple may actually steal some market share back from those bastards...

June 13, 2006

Fafblog says it best

Our military is attempting to spin the suicide of three detainees at Guantanamo as an act of war against the United States.

I have nothing to say about that which hasn't already been said much, much better over at Fafblog.

June 08, 2006

Pistachios = Love

Of course they're chock full of tasty goodness, but you may notice that I *always* have pistachios at my house available for public consumption. A recent visitor noted that particular propensity of mine, and queried me as to the origin of this nut-oriented quirk.

In that charming way I have of having a deep meaningful reason behind the simplest of choices (and conversely, no depth whatsoever supporting my most meaningful ones) I present to you my thinking on the subject of pistachios -- they are responsible for for human civilization as we know it. Or near enough as makes no difference.

Let me take you way back. I'm talking back - like, oh, 11,600 years or so to the end of the last great cold snap. Nomadic humans have spread throughout the world, coaxing a substinence existence out of a stingy land that had only recently defrosted. What their lives lacked in reliability and dependability they made up for in portability, as their entire tribe could pick up and relocate like a herd of gray-haired retirees in brand new Airstreams thumbing their noses at ole' man winter.

And this worked well, because in an unpredictable, pre-industrialized world we couldn't count on technology and infrastructure to defend us against the vagaries of nature like we can today. But it didn't allow for much growth, and other than some cultural and artistic development, we were pretty much just maintaining for quite some time. Until the pistachio came into our lives.

After the end of the last ice age forests spread rapidly, and in the warm, dry climate of the near and middle east the pistachio tree flourished. I'm not talking one, I'm talking millions. How many nuts are on a single tree, how many trees in an acre of pistachio trees, and how many acres to cover Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan? It's raining pistachios baby! And not those gross red-dyed ones, but healthy, happy, beige ones bursting with nutty goodness.

Picture the scene - a group of a few families, a small tribe of 30 - 60 people set up a seasonal encampment in a new, lush, warm and dry valley.
The men wake up bright and early to go rustle up some grub, spending a tremendous amount of energy to stalk and capture prey, dress the meat, and return it to the campsite. The women-folks spend their time tending to the camp, and gathering what food they can close-by. Acorns are popular and oak trees are plentiful, but the amount of effort necessary for one woman to grind, leech, and pulp enough acorns to feed merely herself, not to mention a family, is prohibitive. And when you're done you've got acorn mush. Big whoop.

Meanwhile, the easily collected, easily processed, easily transported pistachio was a practically inexhaustible supply of low-cost (in terms of effort vs. reward) high-fat, high-calorie food. This allowed for our intrepid nomads to settle down for a bit in the same place, much longer than they otherwise would have been able to.

And when settlements are inhabited for longer periods of time then suddenly other possibilities emerge: the occasional cultivation of wild grasses becomes agriculture and the sporadic hunting of animals evolves into the domestication of animals. A permanent address also allows for
the storage and bartering of surpluses on a somewhat regular schedule, which increases cooperation and communication between far-flung tribes, which increases populations. But most importantly, when everyone isn't worried about where their next meal is coming from, when a single person can readily provide enough food for several, then the most important societal development becomes possible - the division of labor.

Would humanity have thrived without pistachios, certainly. But wherever the pistachio grew in abundance, it gave the people who made use of it a powerful head-start. The Fertile Crescent emerges from the rest of the pack as the place to be, pre-historically, because its Neolithic settlements had what China, the Indus river valley, and Meso-America lacked.

I celebrate the pistachio because of what it made possible for our ancestors. I honor the pistachio, even those defiant little fuckers that don't want to open up, because they were there for us when we needed them.

So, when engaging in the act of hospitality -- one of humanity's oldest tribal rituals -- I choose to include one of humanity's most significant tribal foodstuffs, the noble pistachio.