Thursday, March 30, 2006

Foxy News

News broadcasters always seem to focus on Sex & Violence as sure fire ratings draws.

Sometimes, when it's a slow news day, they figure out how to combine them.

The Daily Show has it too easy.

(Thanks to Crooks and Liars for providing this clip - pick it up a the 40 second mark...)

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Long Ear of the Lawless

Cynical as I tend to be, I'm astonished that the checks on executive power seem to be failing so badly.

I've been trying to keep up with the specifics of the warrantless wire tapping authorized by the current administration. The information has been trickling out slowly, despite repeated requests from congress to the DOJ to answer specific questions about the program.

The latest set of responses (characterized in this AP newswire story) would seem to indicate a number of new troubling concerns.

Among these:

  • No court warrant is required to tap any conversation between a person in the U.S. and a person outside the U.S.

  • Tapped conversations can include those between attorney's and clients.

  • Materials from these tapped conversations can be used in U.S. criminal prosecutions.

  • The administration can solely determine when the FISA court should be notified, and when it doesn't have to be.

  • The administration can cite no prior presidential precedent for the authorization of such a wide ranging program of electronic surveillance.

And finally, the real kicker...

    - That electronic surveillance of parties solely within the U.S. (not a foreign communication), if merely suspected of being in any way associated with terrorism, is within the sole discretion of the administration (and may - read has - already been done).
The department also avoided questions on whether the administration believes it is legal to wiretap purely domestic calls without a warrant, when al-Qaida activity is suspected. The department wouldn't say specifically that it hasn't been done.
For those who care to look, a number of blogger's have already posted a number of video clips of President Bush making false statements regarding this program. These statements have gone from "we get court orders for wiretaps", to "anyone who discloses this program is aiding and abetting our enemies" (which, though not said, is also the specific language used to define treason).

I'm not a fan of impeachment. Though I wasn't a Clinton fan, I thought using the impeachment proceedings against a standing president for lying about sex with an intern was a gross misuse of the congressional check on executive power. (Although I now look back on those days fondly - if a president lying about his sex life was the peak of our problems, life was pretty good in the 90's...).

But if the power of impeachment, which is to use congressional authority to question the chief executive (not necessarily to remove him), then why isn't it being used in a case where the executive branch has stated, as clearly as they're ever going to, that they can make and execute laws without the oversight of either congress or the courts?

Has fear of our own government penetrated even into the congressional ranks? Or is the majority of the U.S. content with this slide toward facism, and their representatives are merely reflecting the will of the people?

Sometimes I feel like such an alien on this planet.

(Update: Good discussion here on current legal state of the debate, as well as how jumbled the media reporting is on the topic)

Gravity Sucks

It may be trite, and it may be a bumper sticker, but it's true.

Gravity Sucks.

Near as I can tell, no one has a handle on how gravity works.

The Standard Model of particle physics posits a graviton (as well as a Higgs Boson that give matter the properties of mass). However, neither has ever been observed or measured. And recent analyses of how a Standard Model graviton must be created, it's frequency, and its rare interaction with matter indicate that none ever will be observed.

From the article (since it is subscriber only):
The gravitational force between a proton and an electron in a hydrogen atom is about 1040 times weaker than the electromagnetic force between them. This weakness reflects the extreme rarity with which gravitons interact with particles of matter, and for graviton hunters this spells trouble. "It is this incredibly weak interaction that makes directly detecting a single graviton phenomenally difficult," Rothman says...a detector placed as far from the sun as Earth is now would detect about 1000 gravitons. Placing the detector the same distance from a super-dense white dwarf or neutron star would collect up to a billion gravitons. That's one every decade or so.
It is this "rare interaction with matter" that really bothers me. Observation indicates that gravity affects all mass, constantly - not just an atom here or there every decade or so. So any "carrier" of gravity like a graviton must have high interaction with matter, or there must be a lot of them. I'm not a physicist, but I wish someone could explain this seemingly glaring discrepency to me.

General relativity tries to explain gravity as a warping of space-time due to the presence of mass. While it has proven very useful as an accurate way of describing what appears to be taking place, it doesn't explain why this curvature of space-time should happen, and what actually causes the property of mass also isn't explained. It is inconsistent with the similarly successful descriptive equations used in quantum mechanics. Nor have we detected the gravity waves that this theory predicts. So while this seems to have reasonable descriptive power, it lacks explanatory power.

Other recent articles are more intriguing. The most interesting I've read recently regard the Heim Theory. Consistent with Einstein's theory of General Relativity, (in fact, the tensors include those of Einstein's space-time, plus some others that have more ambiguous physical meaning) this theory appears to have great explanatory power, allowing for the derivation of mass estimates for known particles, as well as describing how both gravitation and gravito-photonic forces work.

There are some current experiments going on that may move us toward the Heim Theory. One at ESA (which was actually slash-dotted the last time I tried to access it, since someone posted a blurb on this experiment on /.), and another here which describes an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for an experiment to explore Heim-Dröscher space (based on Heim Theory). Both of these deal with using rotating strong magnetic fields, which Heim Theory says should induce a gravito-photonic force that can "reduce gravity".

A true understanding of gravity would have enormous implications to all walks of life. Not only would it finally break the deadlock on the development of a TOE (which in turn would unlock many other technology possibilities), it could have immediate effect on modes of transportation here on (and off) earth.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Millionaires Suck

There are some really bad people in the world. And we reward them.

I was reading today that an Edvard Munch retrospective was coming to the U.S., and became sad as I remembered one of my favorite paintings.

Edvard Munch's "Skrik" (aka "The Scream", or "The Cry") was stolen in 2004. Do you really think the thief kept it? Put it up in his double-wide to admire over a cold Schlitz?

No - he fenced it, and the fence in turn had a buyer - a very rich one. A Private Collector.

When Baghdad's Iraq museum was looted of its treasures, most of the important cultural relics from some of mankind's earliest know civilizations were never recovered.

There is a large underground of antiquities dealers in the world who deal in stolen artifacts and art works. These are stolen from archeological sites and museums, and moved to these dealers as middle men. The buyers - millionaires.

This is theft, and the victim is human kind. We deprived of the knowledge and experiences these pieces can bring. (We are also deprived of associated tax dollars - and any attempts to do anything about it are squelched).

We can't fight millionaires. Millionaires can afford lawyers and years of litigation (we can't). Millionaires can afford to elect government officials sympathetic to their requests (we can't).

Millionaires get to be millionaires because we give them our money. After a certain tipping point, they no longer need us - the millions continue to make more millions. And an oligarchy forms.

We live in an oligarchy - not just in the U.S., but worldwide.

How to fight back?

(Okay, I admit, I saw "V for Vendetta" this week and my revolutionary fervor is up... :-)

My favorite line:
People shouldn't be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. - V

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

No Joy In Toy Land

Recent 5th Circuit court rulings ensure that it remains illegal in Mississippi for one adult to sell a "sexual device" to another adult.

Selling a gun in Mississippi is okay. Selling a dildo is not. (link)

(Hmmm. What about a gun that is shaped like a dildo? The general shape is about right.... Naw, better forget about it - given the high incidence of accidental discharge - of weapons, I mean - this might end in tragedy...)

Texas also has a ban on sex toys, although they're readily available. You can't buy a dildo, but you can buy an "anatomically correct condom education model" or a "novelty toy not explicitly used for sex" - for now, anyway. When it comes to sex, drugs, and rock & roll, you can bet someone in your town is selling what you want.

(Although they might get busted, like this Baptist Mom did in 2004. What's whacky is that she wasn't busted for selling vibrators, per se. She was busted for explaining how to get maximal pleasure in using one.)

There are countries that are even more psychopathic about sex that we are, but not many. And those tend to promote suicide bombers (I wonder if there's a connection?)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Drunk Dialing the High Tech Way

I've discovered (as I imagine most of you have as well) that there is a modern incarnation of the classic "drunk dialing".

Texting (or emailing) while drinking.

The ready availability of services on cell phones such as SMS texting and email have provided a new outlet for late night drunken rambling that would have been better left with the stale beer and cigarette butts on the bar floor.

The old style of drunk dialing is still readily available, of course. Calling (typically late at night) the old girlfriend who just dumped you, the new girl you just met over beers earlier that night, the (now ex-) boss who has been sucking the life force out of you, the (now ex-) friend who you believe slighted you in a way that becomes enormously magnified by blood alcohol content...sure, that'll never go away, particularly since you don't even have to scrounge for change to make the call. (Tangent - Will the next generation even know what a pay phone is?)

But texting is soooo much worse than calling.

Why? Because at least with the voice call, you can categorically deny the next day that you said anything close to what you're being accused of. ("No way I said that - you must have been completely stoned yourself if that's what you think you heard...and really, what I was trying to say was [spin, spin, spin]...")

But with the permanent record of text/email, you can run, but you can't hide. Your only clear choices to avoid inevitable exposure and public humiliation as the text is copied to all your friends, her friends, her friends friends, and major media outlets, are
  • moving out of town, or
  • hurling yourself off the roof of Speakeasy1.
(I suppose you could try throwing yourself under a downtown pedi-cab, but death is very uncertain and the tire marks don't scrub out of your clothes).

We need a new cultural reference for this to separate it from the lesser evil of drunk dialing. Inebriated Email? Tipsy Texting? Smashed SMS?

Your suggestions are welcome. And my advice to you is...don't. Just don't.

1For the non-Austinites in the audience, Speakeasy is a bar with a great open sky roof at the top of a million step staircase. ie, it's high enough to cause serious head trauma so that even if you don't die from the fall, you can claim to be brain damaged enough to act really puzzled anytime someone tries to bring up the incriminating text...

Friday, March 10, 2006

Compassionate Conversatism

It's not just Cindy Sheehan.

Apparently a number of mothers of dead soldiers have developed an antipathy for W.

Like this mom.

Very sad. Doubly so, when the man who effectively killed your son appears not to care.

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. - Jean de la Bruyère

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Google This, Sucka

What is the obligation of a public company?

(For the corporately impaired, a public company is one which sells partial ownership to outside shareholders, usually in the form of stock shares).

Is it:
a) To make lots of money
b) To make customers happy
c) To keep Wall Street Analysts fully informed of their plans and projections
d) To keep shareholders fully informed of their plans and projections
e) To deliver information required by law, and to equally inform the public at large (including shareholders, analysts, and potential shareholders) what information they plan to make public, then deliver on that promise.
f) All of the above.

The answer isn't (f).

Contrary to the opinion of investors, Wall Street, and reporters, the correct answer is (e).

A recent article in the London Times reports that Wall Street analysts are saying that it is time Google "step into line with the majority of US listed companies and begin publishing earnings guidance," theoretically in the interest of reducing share price volatility.

Google, as clearly published in their original SEC filing to go public, has always stated that they would not provide the usual earnings guidance to analysts that is routinely provided by other public companies. In the "normal" course of affairs, company CEO and CFOs routinely hold analyst calls and meetings prior to publishing SEC quarterly results where they provide "guidance" as to where they think their earnings will come out at the end of each quarter. These analysts then make a living by passing this information along to their clients, who pay them for this information.

Google decided that they would make any public information truly public, available to everyone at the same time, and let shareholders and potential buyers do their own homework, make their own assessments, as to whether or not to buy or sell shares at a certain price. (Theoretically, all public companies must make "public" information available to anyone who asks, but there is a long time complex relationship with bankers/analysts that create information intermediary niches that have been profitable for Wall Street - and many CEOs).

Google actually makes quite a bit of information available, from the classic analyst presentations and SEC filings, to a number of Google Blogs saying what's going on inside GOOG.

But what Google doesn't do (and what pisses off Wall Street) is share "special" information with analysts regarding precisely where their earnings will fall on a quarterly basis.

I'm sure the senior team at Google has their reasons. Having worked for both private and public companies (and private companies that went public), I can categorically say that the quarterly pressure of Wall Street drives dramatically different decision making regarding strategy, timing, and internal investment for a company. Adding to this is the typically compensation structure for top executives which is heavily weighted toward strong growth in stock price. When there is no counter pressure to Wall Street, you get Enron.

Google is trying hard not to be another Enron.

Unless you work on Wall Street, this falls into the "Good" category (vs. the "Evil" category, which is captured in the oft quoted Google motto "Don't Be Evil.")

So...back to the quiz that opened this post.

a) There are times where it makes more sense for long term viability to invest in new technologies, infrastructure, and acquistions, rather than take more to the bottom line. This is good for a company, but most public companies have a very difficult time doing this without getting punished by Wall Street (because it affects a quarter).

b) This is certainly a good idea, but isn't necessarily an obligation of a public company. Witness all the public companies you know that piss you off.

c) Most companies like to keep Wall Street on the inside track - this does help to a degree with promoting new share offerings, getting more exposure, and has other benefits. But is absolutely is not an obligation, and a strong case can be made that this is much akin to the politician/lobbyist relationship - a double edged sword that can cut off your head (either one) if not careful.

d) Keeping the public fully informed of plans and projections also means keeping your competitors fully informed of same. Not always a great idea.

e) Say what you're going to do, then do it. To do anything else makes a company unpredictable, and this is the sin of a public company. You don't have to say *everything* (see (d)), but you do need to provide enough information for potential shareholders to decide if they want to buy into your gig. It's up to the buyer to decide if they like what they hear or not.

Message to shareholders - if you don't like it, don't buy.

Message to Wall Street - Google This, Suckas

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

We Are What We Eat

Just as our bodies are formed by the kinds of food we consume, so our thoughts are formed by the information we consume.

I find it deeply disturbing that a certain form of censorship has been established to "protect" our uniformed personnel in Iraq. As published originally here, the military has established controls on web site access which filter out sites that the censors find undesirable. In the follow-up here, it appears that there is a pattern to this censorship which tends toward the elimination of dissenting voices and opinions.

Pithy quotes that come to mind...
"The most effective means of preventing tyranny is to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts." --Thomas Jefferson
And an even better one, for this instance...
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." - C. S. LEWIS
And finally...
"I have a bad feeling about this..." - Every Major Character in the Star Wars series - and we all know how well that ended up...

Monday, March 06, 2006

We Teach Backwards

What is the point of our K-12 school system? One would think it was to teach students the skills and material necessary to tackle professional fields of study. But in actuality, it appears it is more used as a large sieve to filter out those who naturally learn well from those who don't, and break them into their lifelong paths of socio-economic class.

Take testing, for example. Tests come after the material is presented by the teacher. Worse yet, they are graded. A poor grade basically says "Sorry, you just didn't get it, student number 123 - and it's too late to do anything about it. Let's move on now..." It seems that this method of testing is measuring more the success of the teacher's teaching technique than it does the student.

If the goal of the system was for each student to learn a certain level of skills and material in a certain grade, then tests could be used to identify that material (and those students) that require additional time and assistance to learn.

But that's not how tests are used.

How about turning this around? Why not give a test, then use incorrect answers to lay out a study plan (ideally tailored to each student, but this could work in a mass setting as well). Break up the work into sections, then provide the instructional materials - and additional short tests - and iterate until the student "gets it". Then move on.

In fact, regular testing in and of itself appears to be a better learning technique that merely listening to a teacher or just reading material. Read an interesting little blurb about a study that showed that students who are tested frequently on material retain the information much better and longer than students who just study the material over and over.

I've discussed this "test first, ask questions later" approach with a couple of teachers, and it appears that this actually is a technique that is used a little bit, but not much. And the main objection seems to be that it wouldn't matter what the tests told them about each student, because they didn't have time to tailor instruction for each student individually.

Enter computers. You know what computers are really good at? Keeping track of mundane information. Organizing information. Repeating tasks without complaint.

You know what teachers are good at? (Or should be). Interacting with students, answering their questions, helping them understand a word, a concept, a technique necessary to advance in their understanding of the material.

So here's the proposal. Identify the material we want the kids to learn. (Done) Develop tests that evaluate whether the kids have learned this material. (Done). Put these tests on computers, and allow for self-paced administration of the testing. (This exists).

Give a comprehensive test at the beginning of the term. Have the computer spit out the list of items, by student, that they need to learn more about. Make the instructional materials available (instructions and worksheets - which are just little tests, if you think about it), have the student do the self-paced (but teacher prompted) "studying", retest, regenerate the list. The teacher is *always* there, but to interact and answer questions from the individual students. If a student is stuck, the computer could flag for the teacher's attention, and the teacher could tutor the student through the difficulty.

At the end of the term, we have a set of students who have learned the material and who (due to the testing technique) will retain it better and longer. Students who can move on to more material in the next term, and probably handle more material at a faster pace due to the fact that their building on a solid base of "getting it." (I've noticed that a large part of each years curriculum is to repeat the prior year's curriculum, because the students don't retain it after the summer break.)

Does anyone know if this is being tried anywhere?