31 December, 2004

Summat amusing (White House Paranoia remix)

I was poking around on Bruce Schneier's website, which eventually led me (through a convoluted chain) to the White House website's robots.txt file. For the unlettered, robots.txt is a file served by most web sites that contains instructions to automatic web-crawlers on what files within the site they should and should not index. Spiders (web-crawlers) are generally used by search-engines (e.g. Google) and web archives (e.g. archive.org's Wayback Machine) to trawl the internet and keep track of what's what. Spiders are of course free to disregard the instructions in robots.txt, but they're often useful for both parties and almost all spiders will conform to the suggestions as a courtesy to the site. A good number of sites also use robots.txt to keep files from being cached (e.g. by Google).

Case in point, the White House, which has apparently gone to the trouble of excluding every page on the site that might contain text transcripts or might mention Iraq by postfixing 'iraq' or 'text' to every damn page on their site, whether or not the indicated page actually exists. This precludes the slightest possibility of anyone caching anything that even mentions Iraq, to prevent embarassing incidents of your words coming back to bite you on the ass*. This produces some pretty comical results, viz. Barney the Dog's site:
Disallow:	/barney/iraq
Et tu, Barney?

* Yes, Thomas Friedman gets brownie points for this awesome bitch-slap maneuver, but he's still a weenie.

29 December, 2004


I got hit by a car this morning on my way to Central Square. The roads are somewhat narrower as a result of snow and slush, but I was still pretty much riding along the right side (on my bike of course), when a lady in a blue Cadillac pulled past me, apparently indifferent to how much space she gave me. She knocked me on my left side and ... stopped five feet later at the red light.

I, of course, responded like a boob with a stream of profanity, the bird, and an angry knock on her window. She shrugged and drove on when the light changed.

The scoop from my brother, who is now, in his words, "1/6 of a lawyer":
(10:16:26) slap the GAP: hmmm...that's iffy
(10:16:28) slap the GAP: but probably negligence
(10:16:45) BuckyFull: does it matter that i wasn't injured?
(10:17:17) BuckyFull: and that it was a car?
(10:18:06) slap the GAP: well...for negligence claims you have to show an injury
(10:19:08) BuckyFull: so in other words, i would have been better off just smashing her rear window with my u-lock
(10:19:15) slap the GAP: no
(10:19:35) slap the GAP: cause then you're liable for property damage
(10:20:02) slap the GAP: in other words
(10:20:07) slap the GAP: she's liable that she hit you
(10:20:09) slap the GAP: but without an injury
(10:20:18) slap the GAP: there's nothin saying
(10:23:58) BuckyFull: damnit
(10:25:28) slap the GAP: yeah

28 December, 2004

Rock and Root

I spent the past week in California (the Valley), visiting my sister (which is best not commented on since she reads this thing). It's an interesting state, that one. It sprawls geographically, especially for someone coming from the cramped northeast. The sky is three times as big, though somewhat spoiled by the permanent haze that coats the area. And a lot of that extra space is occupied by nature. I've often lamented the fact that urban dwellers can go their whole lives without experiencing physical splendor. It was refreshing to be in a place where it is fairly unavoidable.

I visited a few redwood forests. Muir Woods just outside of San Francisco, and Big Basin Redwood Park two hours or so south. The latter has a cross-section of a redwood trunk on display, with its concentric rings annotated according to historical events of the corresponding year. Birth of the tree was in the sixth century, the same year that Justinian became ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Another tree (still living) was two thousand years old.

The sheer physical size of these trees is amazing. They're hundreds of feet tall; the manner in which you have to crane your neck back to peer up at the tops is reminiscent of being in some New York urban canyon staring up at a glass skyscraper. Some of them are sixty feet around, bigger than my living room. They have such an imposing gravity, a presence of weight and age, that the sight of one's hollowed-out corpse is almost relieving.

It's hard not to think of these trees in spiritual terms. I was skipping along a trail in Muir Woods when I happened to glance to my left and found myself staring down into a Druid temple. A circle of redwoods carved out a cathedral-like space in the hollow between the two legs of a mountain. Or, rather, the other way around: the towering walls defined by those massive redwood trunks, the deafening peacefulness of the pine-carpeted forest, the unearthly quality of the late afternoon sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves - these were clearly the images the Gothic cathedral was meant to evoke, with its stained glass windows and flying buttresses. But this cathedral breathes.

A little later we came across the remains of a tree, formerly the oldest and grandest in those woods. Its massive bole stood higher than a human head now that it was laid horizontal. Its length, measured out on the ground, was even more impressive, like the body of the serpent Anant that encircles the universe. "This is the corpse of a dead god," I remarked to my brother.

The only appropriate metaphor I could summon was the elves. These were immortal beings, after all. They would live forever if disease or fire did not kill them. Many of them bore those scars, charred black bark or hollowed interior, where fire had struck but not finished them. Others grew in weird witching circles, where the original trunk had been hollowed out and killed, but new shoots of the same plant had grown up into a multiplicity of trunks surrounding the corpse of the first.

There's a different kind of god I encountered a few days later, when I visited some old friends in Fremont and went climbing on Mission Peak, the mountain which stands behind that town. California mountains are somewhat odd; they are all denuded, naked except for a coarse, sunburnt grass, so that all their slopes and folds are visible, like the priapic, bulging muscles of a gigantic wrestler. In summer it's worse: the sun turns them golden brown, so that it is impossible to look at them without thinking of Atlas's hunched shoulders holding the weight of the sky.

When you climb a mountain, it's difficult not to think of it as a presence, as if the considerable physical space it occupies also reflects its mass in another, spiritual space. And this sense does not vanish when you reach the pinnacle. There is no sense of conquest, no sense that you have defeated the mountain. On the contrary, the enormity of the bulk beneath you reminds you of your insignificance to that presence. It bears your weight without notice, in the dimension of space and in the dimension of time. This thing has been here, stoic, unmoving, for thousands, for millions of years.

Does that presence actually exist? Or do I manufacture it in my mind? Or does it matter at all? The fact that I feel that presence, that it connects me to that land, to that tree, to the ocean - does it matter where it comes from?

Wailing and gnashing of teeth - for white people

I was sitting in O'Hare airport watching CNN on Monday, waiting for my flight back to Boston. They were reporting on the earthquake that struck Indonesia and engulfed Sri Lanka and many other countries with tidal waves. Last I saw the Sri Lankan death toll was something like 10,500, and has probably gone up. CNN was reporting on the deaths of "11 Britons". And on the fate of tourists. Asia is a tourist destination, after all. People don't actually live there, do they?

Someday I will meet the evil fucking bastard who decides on how these stories should be reported, and I will drive a steel spike through his skull. Not that I am bitter.

25 December, 2004

fuel sources

Yesterday, my house traded a whole bunch of firewood to a local family in exchange for astrological work (I won't be the benificiary). The family, spanning three generations with the youngest eight months old, had decided that home heating oil was too expensive and were now going to burn wood to heat their (urban) residence. Back-of-the-envelope calculations of mine suggest that heating their residence during winter to an average temperature would cost roughly the same per month as somebody commuting from the suburbs to work downtown five days a week in their Hummer. I still cheer when I see the prices over $2 at the Shell station across the street, but, man, it's not the Hummers that are going to be hit worst.

17 December, 2004

Why Missile Defense is, and always will be, bunk

A few years ago I had the good fortune to attend a small lecture by Ted Postol, a professor in the MIT security studies program who has made something of a name for himself by trashing the Pentagon's claims about defensive missile systems. During the Gulf War he became notorious for demonstrating that the Patriot missile defense system that the U.S. deployed in Israel to stop Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles did not, in fact, have any successful intercepts. Postol blamed this on several factors, including the poor design of the Patriot and also the fact that Scuds frequently broke up while descending, making them difficult to hit. He reviewed video of many "successful" intercepts and showed that they were in fact, all of them, misses.*

More recently he has been one of the most prominent doubters of the proposed anti-ballistic missile shield (ABM). The basic technology of the ABM relies on an "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle" (EKV), or "interceptor". The reason why this technology is doomed to failure is simple and can easily be explained to your friends in a few sentences at a party: A ballistic missile is under thrust while it is in the atmosphere. While it is in the vaccuum of space, it is in free fall - a ballistic projectile (see any elementary physics text). The EKV works by identifying the path of the missile (through various technologies) and ramming into the warhead, detonating it in space. However, anyone who expects to run their missile through a defense system would be well-advised to attempt to foil this system, which can be done by dispersing decoys once you're in ballistic free-fall. The simplest possibility is balloons - metallic reflective spheres. You disperse a few dozen of these around your warhead, and now your EKV must select the correct target out of dozens of these, using some sort of image analysis technology.

Postol claims that it's easy to fool most of these by doing things like painting a stripe on your warhead or other simple visual tricks, and that even if the decoys are obviously different from the warhead the technology is unreliable. (Consider what a 5% failure rate implies.) But all of this is moot, since in the end, you can simply wrap your warhead in a balloon, making it literally impossible to pick it out.

Thus you should be properly outraged when next you read a news story discussing this technology that "fairly" but uncritically quotes both sides of the story, like the New York Times did this morning:

But a spokesman for Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, a strong advocate of the program, said "one bum test" would not alter support for it.

Indeed, despite a series of delays in testing this year, Congress has embraced the deployment of a rudimentary system, which is favored by those who want to field even a limited system sooner rather than later.

Advocates say that fielding even a few interceptors of modest abilities, and improving them later, would help defend against potential threats that themselves are only just emerging, especially from North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

This is a scientific problem, and there is a reason ABM technology is derided by 99.9% of the physics community. A sensible debate should include explaining these simple facts to the public, which is, after all, bankrolling this assinine project.

* Not sure about "all of them", actually - one might have actually stopped its target.

10 December, 2004

Only Jesus could be this funny

I mean no disrespect to non-insane Christians, but if you want a few hearty chuckles, check out Ask the Real Jesus, a Q/A site written by the Lord Himself. Check out His Answer to the question "Is Jesus alone in heaven?" It's funny cuz they're serious.

09 December, 2004


I watched Control Room last night, a documentary about al-Jazeera. In an odd moment, a reporter interviewed what he considered an "activist" and his producer considered an "analyst" and they had a disagreement over the merits of the interview. The activist/analyst was none other than Jeffrey Steinberg, a leading Larouchie. I guess this is how the Larouchies insinuate themselves into respected positions abroad.

This city has so many members of the "LaRouche Youth Movement" that it's sad and scary. I like talking to them, though. I started an e-mail conversation with one, and it was fascinating to me how defensively he kept insisting that he makes decisions and judgments for himself, when I never said he didn't. Another one of them sadly sulked at an anti-war demonstration: "I haven't opened anyone's mind today..."

07 December, 2004

My triumphant return

If anyone cares to know why I was gone (an unlikely story), I profer the following excuses:

  • I was dead at the time.
  • I was really busy with work, completing a project relating to conservation scoring.
  • I've been reading a bunch of other blogs, including the lukewarm liberal alternative hippopotamus, the astute Dave Neiwert, the something Tiny Revolution, and my hands-down favorite, Oil War, which I like so much I linked to it. I've also been occassionally reading Michael Berube's blog, which my roommate is fond of, but I find his extraordinary wit and sharp, ironic humor all the more galling because of the stupid things he says with it.
  • I have been thinking a lot about the election and the responses to it. "Which I will write about shortly, as soon as I get it all figured out," I have been telling myself for weeks.

However, some of you will note that all of this did not prevent me from ranting on peace-discuss. So really, I have no excuse at all.

Obesity rant #4 of ...

I seem to have skipped #4 somewhere along the way. Therefore, because this seems like it's less an obesity rant and more a science/science reporting rant, we'll let it slip into the #4 slot, no harm, no foul.

Anyway, some study came out in PLoS Medicine recently that poor sleeping habits result in overproduction of the hormone ghrelin and underproduction of the hormone leptin. Both of these basically result in apetite stimulation.

The headline in U.S. News & World Report is "Go to bed!".


The last thing this increasingly sedentary nation needs to be told is to sleep more. Sleep REGULARLY, because it is good for you, and poor sleep habits can mess up your body in hundreds of not-so-subtle ways (in fact, I bet college kids could get away with a lot more drinking and drug-use if they managed to maintain disciplined sleeping habits throughout).

Needless to say, the study does not, in fact, imply that not sleeping makes you fat. It is quite circumspect and notes this is only correlative. The study is hardly robust enough to draw any conclusions about causality. But this ends up in footnotes somewhere. Meanwhile, the many studies that explore the far more obvious link between, say, sugar and obesity get short shrift. I wonder why?

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