Friday, 28 December 2007

Better Gatekeepers?

In Professor’s little helper in the 20 December 2007 issue of Nature, Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir raise the question of whether “cognitive-enhancing” drugs like the methylphenidate I depend on (see previous) should be more readily available. Although they argue the positive side, they are still coming from the perspective that, well, of course any access to such drugs will be under the supervision of healthcare professionals. I don’t think we need “kindler gentler” gatekeepers.

If I Were King, adults would be able to choose their own advisors, do their own research, and make their own decisions.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

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Saturday, 22 December 2007

More Guns in the Air

‘Tis the season for travel. I’m not going to be flying, and I don’t want to. (If you hire me to speak at your convention, real cash money plus travel expense, I’ll fly. Otherwise? Fuhgeddaboudit.) I don’t fly much, but when I do I’m appalled at the process of getting on a plane to go somewhere. Twenty years ago we showed up a half hour in advance and hardly noticed there was security. The last time I took a trip I had to take my shoes off three times in two airports. I seriously doubt that this is making me even slightly safer. (The current term for this, coined by security maven Bruce Schneier, is “Security Theater”.)

What is making us safer in the air is the knowledge that hijacking is no longer safe. Until 2001, the overwhelming majority of passengers made it safely home, although they may have had a couple of uncomfortable days in Cuba or Algeria before the plane was returned to its owner. After 9/11, now that we know there are more dangerous possibilities, passengers aren’t going to be docile and put up with a takeover. I know how we could make it even less likely.

In most states, law-abiding citizens who can demonstrate a certain measure of responsibility can get a Concealed Carry Permit, allowing them to carry a sidearm under their clothing. This is a group of people who statistically commit no crime at all. It includes a large number of retired military personnel as well as retired and off-duty law enforcement personnel. I want them armed and sitting next to me on my next flight.

I suspect everyone has seen a movie in which a bullet fired on an airplane goes through the fuselage or through a window and the side of the plane blows out. Well, it doesn’t really work that way. Planes are pressurized, but there would have to be tens of thousands of times more air inside the cabin than there actually is to cause the destruction they show in the movies. There are also bullets available that will cause even less damage.

So here’s my plan: If anyone presents himself (or herself, it would be better if this weren’t limited to middle-aged men with really short hair) at the boarding counter with his sidearm and permit, the airline would provide appropriate low-penetration cartridges as needed and issue an extra 5,000 frequent flyer miles. Given a few months to get the program off the ground, as it were, any hijacker would have to expect that two to ten passengers, maybe more, on every flight would be armed and prepared to promptly stop any action that would threaten the plane or the passengers.

This doesn’t address the risks of sabotage, of course, but those risks don’t come from the passengers as a rule, but through baggage or maintenance. We could eliminate this absurd requirement that we show up at the airport two or three hours in advance. We could eliminate thousands of pointless guards. Flying would be easier, faster, and cheaper. If I Were King, the program would start tomorrow, although God alone knows what would become of the thousands of lackwits currently wearing TSA badges in our nation’s airports.

Friday, 21 December 2007

All Tied Down

Given the wireless mobile world we live in, it was a little anachronistic, but I had my first tethered shoot two nights ago and I think I like it. Last night I did a few more pieces and I’m liking it even more.

I’ve never been much into laptops, they’ve always seemed underwhelming in the extreme. When you’re used to multiple mirrored drives, two 19-inch monitors, and a couple of gigs of RAM, the average laptop is sort of like the average dancing bear: It’s impressive that the bear dances, but you don’t focus on how well he dances. The same goes for the laptop: Yes, you can wander around with it easily, but it just doesn’t do what a real computer does. However, I had a couple of offsite shoots this past year and having a laptop to run LightRoom and unload images from the CompactFlash cards was a real help.

Well, it turns out that my camera has a FireWire port on it. A year after I bought it, it finally filtered into my stubborn brain that I could get a FireWire card for the laptop and give it a try. I’d had a tethered camera once before, but could never get it to work. The workflow was intriguing anyway.

My normal digital workflow is just like my argentic workflow, only moreso. Shooting sheet film is a whole different game, but in 35mm I get good shots by burning through a whole lot of film. Bracket like crazy. If in doubt, refocus and shoot all the brackets again. Was it lined up perfectly? If in doubt, get out the tape and measure everything, then shoot all the brackets again. A roll of Astia costs me $5.00 at Adorama, the chemistry and slide mounts each add about a buck, so one exposed frame costs about twenty cents out of pocket. Therefore, if in doubt, shoot it again. With digital, it’s even cheaper.

Shooting tethered is different. To start with, although the camera had sprouted a couple of new cables, I didn’t bother to connect the remote shutter release. (In addition to the FireWire cable, I figured I might as well use the AC power adapter and not worry about the battery.) A lot of it was just like any other shoot. The old reliable Bogen/Manfrotto 3021 tripod with 3047 head held the camera. The MicroNikkor 60mm/f2.8 was mounted. I had the Vivitar 285HV setup to bounce off a grey card, both for a little front light to pick up highlights and to trigger the strobes. But once I had the shot framed, I stepped back to the laptop and clicked on Take Picture. Too light? Okay, step back to the camera and close the lens a notch or two and try it again. Still getting a nasty reflection off that shiny part? Slap on a polarizer, open up a stop, and shoot it again. If there’s anything less than ideal, fix it and shoot again. When you get to the point where you can’t see anything else to change, and only then, hit the Save button. Then move the tripod in for a closeup or two. Those are probably perfect, given that the exposure is all set by then, but you don’t hit the Save button until you’re satisfied.

Sorry, no images from the shoot yet, I haven’t run a network cable down to the studio and my laptop only has one PC-CARD slot, so I can’t run FireWire and WiFi at the same time. But with over 20 pieces to shoot this week, I’m discovering that being tied down is not necessarily a disadvantage.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Like a House A’Fire

Larkin roused me from sleep a few minutes ago, demanding that I get up because the “house across the way” was on fire. She had already called 911. In a daze, I went to an east window and didn’t see anything, then went to another room and looked to the north. I flung open the window and just stared. Less than a hundred yards away, eating at a fir tree, was an incredible tower of blackly orange flame against the night, with the occasional explosion.

We’ve been here only three months and don’t know who lives there. Lived there, certainly noone lives there now. We joined a few neighbors in less than complete dress on the cold and misty street. By the time any of us were out there, it was beyond anything that any of us could do, we’d have to wait for the firetrucks. But I don’t have much hope that much of anything was saved, when I first saw it there was clearly no way to save the building, and not much chance of saving anyone or anything left inside.

One of the neighbors said it was a shop or a barn, and that the house next door was on fire too. The angry tower of flame I first saw, and the taste of the smoke that filled the street outside, suggested oil and tires, but I have no real idea. I just know that there was nothing a regular homeowner could have done. No garden hose was going to slow this down. Incredible power was at work as we huddled on the edge of the activity, unable to see or change what was happening, stunned. Awful, staring through the darkness into the gates of hell.

Maybe a quarter hour later, the flames are gone, the billows rising from the site are the white of steam. The night is lit by halogen floods and the flashing red lights from the firetrucks that ring the block. Those who know what to do in the face of such conflagration are mopping things up.

If I Were King, I would have been just as powerless.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Experimenting? Hardly!

Dr Jacques Stassart runs a fertility clinic at Woodbury, Minnesota. According to Pregnancy from frozen egg is first in state in Saturday’s Star Tribune, one of his patients is now pregnant as a result of the in vitro fertilization of a previously frozen egg. I’m not sure this is a really hot idea. The unnamed patient is now 48, so by the time the kid starts learning to drive, Mom will be 65! The generation gap is bad enough when the parents are 25 years older than the kids, here we’re dealing with a generation gulf, possibly a generation abyss. Assuming she carries to term and delivers, I don’t envy her the parenting experience.

Fertilizing frozen eggs is a recent development, and apparently controversial. You can’t just take mammalian ova and shove them in with the ice cream, crystals form in the cell fluid and destroy the cell walls. By replacing some of the water with sugar or glycerol solutions and freezing either very slowly or very rapidly, lab technicians have been able to avoid that problem, and now have a 20-25% success rate – about half the rate for fertilizing fresh eggs.

In this case, the couple secured donated eggs, but when the eggs were ready it was discovered that the husband’s sperm had been mistakenly destroyed so the clinic froze the eggs until the husband was back in town and could, you know, come up with some more. Seems like a pretty sensible response to the problem.

Apparently not. The story laments that IVF clinics “operate largely without federal oversight”, although all of the procedures they use are governed by standard medical regulations and the doctors can always be sued for malpractice if it occurs. On top of that, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends that the procedure be used only for cancer patients and research. (Many cancer treatments lead to sterility, or at least reduced fertility, so a young woman diagnosed with cancer could have several ova removed and frozen immediately to protect her future ability to give birth.) Dr Marc Fritz of the ASRM is quoted: “What it boils down to is a clinical investigation of an experimental procedure in patients at their expense. That is what the society feels is not appropriate.”

First, I’m not convinced that federal government oversight has helped the rest of the medical system, and it’s obvious to me that it has made it more expensive, so the lack of federal involvement doesn’t concern me in the slightest. Second, Dr Fritz is on the fritz logically here, there is no “experimental procedure in patients” going on at all. The only experimental aspect is freezing and thawing the eggs, and that happens in the lab, not in the patient. If the eggs are thawed and fertilized successfully, the procedure to transfer the resultant embryo or embryos to the mother’s uterus is exactly the same as in regular IVF.

I may not think that having a kid when you’re nearly fifty is a good idea, but I don’t have to. If there are couples out there that want it, with the scratch to pay for it all, it’s none of my flipping business. It’s fascinating, and I’m glad I can learn the technical details online, but who has it done and why is up to the prospective parents and the doctors they choose. I hope Dr Stassart makes a lot of families happy, and I hope he makes a ton of money doing it. If I Were King, the national government would leave them alone, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine would be, uh, encouraged to get to work on solving problems, not meddling in the business of my subjects.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Ask.com Takes a Stand for Privacy

Everything you do online gets logged. Every mail you send, every website you visit, every download, and every search. Nobody much cares most of the time, but the data is there. And by “most of the time” we’re talking about way beyond 99.999% of the time. Why do we keep logs? So we can figure out how well we’re doing, and figure out what happened when something goes wrong.

But the devil is in the details, and not everyone that logs is doing it for the betterment of mankind, or even to improve their service to mankind. More worrisome than that is when statist thugs get their hands on the data. There is at least one journalist in prison in China because Yahoo divulged information from their logs. Last year AOL released bulk search logs to researchers and several reporters quickly took a look and were able to track specific searches to specific searchers. The year before, the witlings in the Bush Justice Department demanded bulk data from AOL, Google, MSN, and Yahoo in hopes of justifying the need for their ineffective Child Online Protection Act, then under constitutional challenge by the ACLU. (AOL, MSN, and Yahoo all admitted turning over some data, allegedly purged of user identification of any kind, Google balked.) If you were searching for Viagra, or the history of nuclear explosives, would you want this known?

Plucky Ask.com, once known as Ask Jeeves, hoping to grow their fourth-place position in the search industry, is betting that you might not. As of today, there is a new item at the upper right corner of the ask.com search window, the text “AskEraser”. Click on it and you can turn the new feature on, which means your search will be deleted as soon as you finish it.

I’m so used to Google (my first choice since I switched from AltaVista years ago, and the choice of about 60% of all searchers) that I doubt I’ll switch. Google and Microsoft purge their search logs after 18 months, Yahoo after 13, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they all purged them after three.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll give Ask.com a spin. I don’t have anything to hide in my searches, but I’m not sure I’d want to have to explain them to anyone either. If I Were King, you can bet there are plenty of folks who would like to know what I was thinking, AskEraser might be a better solution than drawing and quartering those who got too nosy.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Net Neutrality

Over the last few years, the subject of “net neutrality” has waxed and waned in the media. Exactly what the phrase means seems to change at times.

Things came into focus when AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre, Jr said, “For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes for free is nuts!” in a Business Week interview in November of 2005. Gosh, Ed, what’s the matter? Did you think Google was connecting to the internet for free? In the same interview he said, “They don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires. They don’t have anything. They use my lines for free — and that’s bull.” Well Ed, what you said is bull. Google has fiber, they have wires, and it’s really unlikely that they don’t pay their bills. They don’t use your wires or your fiber, your paying clients use your wires and your fiber, and if they choose to use those connections to search the web with Google or Yahoo, so what? If you wanted to create the best search engine on earth back at the turn of the century, I never heard of it, and I certainly never heard that anyone stopped you.

So the telcos don’t like the fact that Google is making more money (or at least has a larger market cap) than they do. Poor babies!

Apparently they wish to come up with a system where they can double-dip when one of their clients, who is already paying the full price for their connection, chooses to connect to a really popular site. I guess I should be glad I don’t run any really popular sites!

But it doesn’t stop with just wanting to find a way to collect from certain big destinations online. They also want to control what flavor of bits you send back and forth, specifically which ports you use. In this context, “they” means the public-facing bandwidth providers, which includes notably-vocal bully AT&T but also other telcos and the cable companies.

When ISPs started blocking port 25, I actually agreed with them once I figured out how to deal with it. That’s the unsecured SMTP port, and leaving it open is an invitation to spam. The way to work around it is to, when possible, use an SMTP server on that network, as most users can easily do when at home, and to use a secured SMTP server on another port when traveling. Unfettered access to port 25 is part of the spam problem, and there are better solutions. For good and sufficient technical reasons, many operators are blocking port 25.

However, many ISPs are now blocking VOIP ports. There’s nothing dangerous or insecure about VOIP, and no benefit to the public in blocking it. No, here it’s simply a matter of the ISP selling you bandwidth, then telling you if you want to use VOIP you have to sign up and pay again to use their VOIP system, because they’re going to stop you from using any other. If I’m paying Comcast for a certain level of bandwidth, and I decide to start using VOIP to cut down on my phone bill, I fully intend to choose from all available VOIP providers to handle those calls. (Note: I don’t use VOIP, but my mother does.) If Comcast’s charges are higher than Vonage, I just might choose to use Vonage, and it’s none of Comcast’s business. Remember, in this hypothetical situation I’m already paying Comcast to carry my bits back and forth to the internet, there’s no reason for me to pay more because those bits represent phone calls and not dirty pictures.

Watch for the same thing to happen with video downloads. When a telco or cable provider offers a video download service, more power to them, as long as they don’t build that business by blocking their paying customers from choosing any other video download service.

So Here’s what I think needs to be done, two rules that should control this market:

1. Anyone selling internet access is selling capacity between their customer and the internet “cloud”. They should be able to sell this in any quantity at any price that is agreeable to both provider and customer. Slow, medium, fast, or headspinning. But they must understand that they only have one customer. Demanding cash from Google or Yahoo for bandwidth their clients have already paid for is extortion.

2. It’s none of their business what lawful use their clients use that capacity for. There are good technical reasons to block port 25, as mentioned, and port 22 is rarely used and carries some risks as well, so block those as long as that is clearly disclosed up front. But they must never block their clients’ access for marketing reasons or to block competitors.

If I Were King, I’d like to think we wouldn’t even need to write that down, it’s common sense. The ISP that serves me now (the greatest ISP I know of, actually) doesn’t need me to tell them how to do their job, they get it right to start with. But there are some greedy cretins in the game that apparently need the obvious explained and legislated.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

What Were They Thinking? (Fresno division)

Schisms are nothing new in Christian history. In fact, as part of what is known as the western catholic tradition, I’m divided in many ways from the eastern church. On the western side would be the Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, on the eastern side are the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. Among the western churches, although there are significant differences in organization and governance, there’s not much more than a nickel’s worth of theological difference between the branches, even those of us who are called Protestant. I have absolutely no issues with anything in the three creeds (Athanasian, Nicene, Apostles) that the western church holds to. I’ve been baptized, I cross myself when I pray, I worship and accept the Eucharist regularly.

Delegates of the San Joaquin diocese met at Fresno this weekend and, by a vote of 173 to 22 (with 6 abstentions), chose to disassociate themselves from the Episcopal Church. The bishop, John-David Schofield, and the majority of churches in his diocese, have some rather bizarre theological affectations. This is the only diocese in the Episcopal Church that doesn’t ordain women as priests, for example. Their big issue, which galvanized them to secede from the national church, is the ordination of gay priests.

I guess they’re embarrassed that the Episcopal Church is lead by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a woman. I guess they’re upset that V. Gene Robinson, the bishop of New Hampshire, is homosexual. I guess they’re being childish.

If this really bothers them, they should be embarrassed to worship a god who sent his only son to die for the sins of all who believe, including women and gays. They should be embarrassed that this god sends his spirit into the world and calls all those women and faggots!

Here’s the crux of the matter: We, meaning the western church, do not believe that we can come to believe in Jesus Christ by our own intellectual prowess. We believe that those of us who have faith in the trinity do so because we were called by the Holy Spirit. We further believe that men and women do not choose the ordained ministry as part of normal career selection, that men and women are called to ministry by the same Spirit. When a parish needs a new pastor, a Call Committee is established. In the Lutheran and Anglican tradition, bishops are chosen by election, but we have faith that the selection is guided by the Spirit.

God called Peter, the fisherman who couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth, the man we see as the first bishop of the Christian church, the man the Roman church sees as the first Pontiff. God called Matthew, the despised tax collector, to be an apostle. Some of what they did may have turned his stomach, but God called the Borgia popes, and later called Martin Luther. And seeing their faith and their willingness to serve his people, he calls women and homosexuals and expects his church, all branches of his church, to succor them and equip them for that service.

Bishop Schofield believes the important part is completely different. There is a section of the Old Testament book of Leviticus (chapters 17-26) known as the Holiness Code. It’s quite a collection of prohibitions, some of which don’t make a whole lot of sense, most of which the Christian church regards with amusement. For example, followers of the Holiness Code can’t eat lobster or shellfish, can’t eat cheeseburgers, and men can’t “lie with” men. This is the part of the Torah that made the Pharisees so proud of themselves, they never contravened any of the 600+ rules in there. I don’t know why all those rules were recorded, and I don’t know why they ended up as part of Torah, and thus part of the Old Testament. It’s not important. It’s part of the heritage of Judaism, which is part of the heritage of Christianity, but it isn’t binding on you and me today. I have no intention to “lie with a man as with a woman”, but you separate me from McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese at your peril, and a bowl of steamed clams sounds really good right now.

That’s the part of scripture that Bishop Schofield holds to be central, apparently. Well, John-David, you are wrong. The Gospel is the part of scripture that’s central, and furthering the work of Jesus Christ in the world around us is what’s central to our lives today. Driving wedges that divide the church, or that divide believers from the church, is anathema.

Just like the church survived the Borgia popes, the church will survive this latest fracas. The national church, which apparently owns all the buildings in the diocese, will doubtless take care of the paperwork so that new priests can be called to serve these troubled parishes. The real diocese, that is the body of parishes in that area, will elect a new bishop. The gospel will be proclaimed, souls will be saved, and John-David Schofield will, if he’s very lucky, be a footnote in history a hundred years from now.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

If it’s Green, it must be Great?

That’s how the press normally plays it, but to my surprise the New York Times ran a story this week headlined Efforts to Harvest Ocean’s Energy Open New Debate Front that suggests all may not be well on the green-energy front. It seems that fishermen aren’t wild about running into huge buoys that draw energy from the tides and waves.

Until now, all the press coverage of extracting energy from the tides has seemed to be instant approval. There are no greenhouse gases, no radioactive waste, no smoke in the air; the perfect answer to our energy needs. They almost say, “We love this coastline, where incredible power thrusts waves and tides against the rocks day in and day out. We love the sound of it, the shapes it has carved, the fact that the resurgence of that water keeps everything pristine. But if you want to come along with huge commercial ventures to extract some of that energy that made the coast the way it is today, and diffuse some part of the rest, well, why not? If you’re going to label it green or ecological, of course we’re in favor of it!”

Or rather, they just say they’re in favor of it, with no thought to the concept that the energy in the sea is part of what makes the coast what it is. I’m not sure that they’re wrong, but it sounds about as intelligent as the Russian engineers who built the Aswan Dam without any understanding of how important all that silt in the river was to the communities down stream, or just how rapidly their reservoir would shrink when they stopped the silt from washing to the Med.

The real killer in the debate is almost certain to be the impact on views. Here on Whidbey, the mussel rafts in Penn Cove have led to anger from homeowners who paid tens of thousands of dollars for their unspoiled views. On the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington, most of the waterfront is public property so we won’t see quite the same fight, you can still expect a stink.

So far, I haven’t seen word one about what the impact of this sort of thing is actually going to be, particularly when scaled up to a meaningful level. And if they don’t scale it up to a meaningful level, what’s the point?

If I Were King, I’d just tell them to figure it out in Finland or Korea first, mess with our Pacific coast only after we actually know what we’re doing.