Saturday, June 30, 2007


"But synthetic biology is a technique with potentially far-reaching consequences like environmental effects and misappropriation by terrorists."
"Scientists Transplant Genome of Bacteria" The New York Times. 29 June, 2007.
As the children I used to work with were inordinately fond of saying: "duh-hickey."

Here's a thought experiment. Remove the words "synthetic biology" from the above sentence and substitute "the storage of electricity in batteries," or "cellular telephony," or even "the use of fire." Is there really a significant technological advance that render that statement nonsensical?

Must we be reminded, every time a new technology is developed, that if we're careless with it, we could have a multi-year, multibillion dollar mess on our hands? Or that in the hands of the wrong people, it could be used to do harm? Do we really still have ANY expectation that someday someone will develop some whiz-bang technology that will be ONLY capable of helping people? All inovation involves a level of risk. While I can't claim to personally be the most imaginative person in the world, I'm pretty sure that given some research (or just the right people to ask questions of), I can come up with a way to make just about anything that Humanity has ever devised into a tool of death, destruction and/or environmental degradation unrivaled in your neighborhood. (Hey, it's best to start small, right?)

Perhaps even more annoying about statements such as the one that leads of this posting is that it also operates on another level, perhaps more honest that its literal reading - that of the fear of Science Run Amok. While there will be people who honestly worry about the environmental effects of synthetic biology, and a collection of paranoids whose job it will be to keep frothing religiofascists (and maybe even evangelopatriots) from using the technology to give us all a lethal case of the Sun Flu, you can bet that both of those causes will be co-opted by the next generation of Luddites - people who's main objection to technology is what it has always been - "Change is scary!"

So far, no technology has ever managed to completely de-legitimize segments of the population, rendering their marginalization or extermination morally necessary or correct. And with our modern ability to make the world smaller with global communications, interactions and relationships, the idea that anything will becomes even less and less likely (assuming one even holds that such an advance is possible). But bear in mind that the dissemination of information via a worldwide network of computers is a technique with potentially far-reaching consequences like environmental effects and misappropriation by terrorists. Just in case no one told you.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mum's the Word, Then

Want to know a secret? Thoughts of fear and powerlessness among the people who died in Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks attracted them "to being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"I think I'll sell a gazillion books" The Seattle Times
The buzz surrounding "The Secret" has lead to a few articles about the book. Not the least of which being this entertaining piece in Slate, in which Emily Yoffe dreams up a spiffy new kitchen floor. But the latest scuttlebutt around the book is centered the implication that if you think positive thoughts properly, bad things don't happen to you. Critics are lining up to give Rhonda Byrne, the author, a hard time about her blaming the victims of disasters for their misfortunes.

Perhaps more sensible is criticism of her for imagining a world in which positive and negative thinking combines with the Butterfly Effect to have absurdly far reaching consequences. If the dead and maimed from the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Gulf hurricanes thought too much about fear and powerlessness, what about their parents, spouses, children and other loved ones? If Daniel Pearl was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan for negative thoughts, was Mariane Pearl attracted to him because she wasn't a positive enough thinker to marry someone more positive? If you have a hard time believing that each of the 15 children killed in America's Kids Day Care Center was so overwhelmingly pessimistic that the Universe answered their unspoken pleas by sending them to day care on a day when a truck bomb was apparently destined to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, do you then decide that the parents needed to be more positive, and the Universe, like Timothy McVeigh, simply regarded them as "collateral damage," when it gave the adults what they were unconsciously thinking? In December of 2005, Southwest Airlines Flight 1248 slid from a snow-covered runway at Chicago's Midway Airport, and killed a six-year-old boy, the only fatality of the incident. Who knew that a child so young could have been so fatalistic?

This is, as my father would put it, "a get-rich-quick scheme that will not work." But it's beautiful in the fact that it's non-falsifiable. If it doesn't work for you, clearly you didn't do it right. Since there's no objective way of measuring one's facility at thinking happy and positive thoughts, there's no way of objectively measuring how well it works. And what about two people who's happy thoughts are at cross-purposes? Do they have positive-thinking duels to see who hits the Powerball, and who dies in a fiery highway crash?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shoulda Known

Cameron Diaz has landed herself in some hot water for wearing a messenger bag that she purchased in China while in Peru. It turns out that there was a Maoist insurgency in Peru in the 1980's and 1990's, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. As per the script, she has issued the expected apology.

"I don't think she should have used that bag where the followers of that ideology did so much damage."
Pablo Rojas, described as a "prominent local human rights activist."
This is where political correctness goes off the deep end. Who on Earth would have expected Cameron Diaz to be tuned in enough to the history of Peru to realize that a random piece of Chinese communist kitsch would be seen as expressing support for an insurgency that ended more than a decade ago? Most Americans who even remember the Shining Path are unlikely to be able to tell you much of anything about them, let alone their particular brand of Communism. While I think that putting Ms. Diaz in the role of victim is overstating it, she does seem to have become a useful conduit for attention. I'm pretty sure that thousands of tourists every year visit Peru and say, do, or have something that could remind people of the Shining Path. But since celebrities will generate international headlines, they're much better targets for hurt feelings.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


What sparks people to violence? All around the world people threaten others with violence as a means of expressing dislike, controlling behavior, self-aggrandizement, the list goes on.

The BBC reports that an Israeli was arrested for plotting a bombing. Not against Hamas or Hezbullah, but against the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade.

Just Say No

President Bush enacted only the third veto of his administration, against the same sort of legislation that he used his first veto against, broadening public funding of stem cell research.

Perhaps the reason why we have seen so few vetoes out of the President is that he's found an effective way around congressional actions that he doesn't approve of, through the widespread (and somewhat under the radar) use of signing statements. But it seems that signing statements are used by the President mainly to signal that he doesn't plan to enforce laws that he considers in violation of his prerogatives as President. Of course, unlike a veto, a signing statement doesn't give Congress another crack at things, through an attempt to override, and by not directly challenging the law directly, there's no avenue for the courts to become involved, and possibly disagree with the President's interpretation of the Constitution.

Let it Rain

Slate Magazine's David Plotz, in Friday's Faith-Based column, refers to the new "Evan Almighty" movie an "[...] appalling effort to pnader to religious moviegoers." Well, if the reaction of the Associated Baptist Press is any indication, Hollywood got this one spot on.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rudy In Seattle

Given the fact that the Washington State primary, which has been an on-again, off-again affair for a while now, is unlikely to be particularly important in the grand scheme of things, and is months away in any event, I haven't really been paying a whole lot of attention to the thirty-seven thousand different presidential campaigns that seem to be going on right now. But I did happen to read about the fact that Rudolf Giuliani came to Seattle for a fundraiser late last week. As a candidate, he laid out his positions on certain hot-button issues, seeking to define himself.

I found his position on illegal immigration to be entertaining, if remarkably un-pragmatic. Effectively seal the borders of the entire United States? Good luck with that. This sounds like something that's designed to play well in Peoria, but there's no way on Earth that it will ever really happen. Of course, all of the candidates are making unrealistic statements at this stage of the game. Well see how long it takes reality to intrude. Personally, I'm betting that it won't be allowed to show it's face until after the swearing-in.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


"'If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, his act is justified,' [Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz ul-Haq] said, according to Reuters news agency.

The minister later clarified his statement, saying extremists could use it to justify attacks."

Rushdie diplomatic row escalates. BBC News.
You think? Every so often you've really got to wonder what people are thinking when they make public statements. I was always under the impression that politicians, no matter what the position or country, were supposed to be well, politic, in making speaking to the media. Here in the United States, politicians can be so circumspect that they can pontificate for an hour and a half without offending anyone, saying anything that they can be held accountable for, or even imparting any information at all. On the flip side of that coin Minister ul-Haq's statement strikes me as being neither shrewd nor tactful, but instead aimed at telling the British, "Well, now that you've knighted Salman Rushdie, it's your own fault when good Moslems start blowing themselves up in your streets."

As is often the way of such things, the minister's comments mainly drew fire from the West. There wasn't much in the way of high-profile condemnation from the Moslem world. Which might be surprising, in the face of the perception that Moslems are infamously touchy about implications that Islam is violent. Remember the reaction to the Pope's comments of some months ago? Although I suspect that more than a few moderates are shaking their heads in disbelief.

Given the common Western misconception that Islam is effectively a mono culture, with no real difference between one group and any other group, this sort of thing merely adds to the distrust. Allowing the Western press to be dominated by stories that depict Moslems, their religious leaders, and their governments as sanctioning violence doesn't do them any good. But I suppose that without a Moslem Office of Media Affairs in Mecca or somewhere, it's up to us to remember that we only see a small slice of a larger community in our media.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Despite what anyone says, there are a lot of nice things about living in the modern United States. People can be as disappointed (or as angry) about the gap between our promise and our reality all they want, but at the end of the day, the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is one of the sweetest deals around. Let's face it, how many people are risking life and limb to go south into Mexico these days?

One of the great things about the U.S. of today is that if you're roughly in the middle class or better, life's pretty good. Hell, even when life SUCKS, life's good. Don't believe me? Given a 747 and about thirty minutes in sub-Saharan Africa, I'd have an entire planeload of people who'd kill you to take your place - on the WORST day of your life - without a second thought. (Actually, I'd be impressed if they bothered to give it ANY thought.) Compared to the vast majority of the world's population, most of us live like kings. My mother was relating to me the trials and tribulations that go with being post-menopausal, and I was attempting to put a positive spin on the whole thing, so I said to her: "Well, look at it this way - in Uganda, you'd have died of old age already." Put ten "average Americans" in a room and I'll bet you that at least three of them would have died already were it not for medical care that we now consider routine - but is beyond the wildest dreams of many of the world's poor. Even if you aren't middle class, you're doing better than people in many other parts of the world. I was listening to the radio one day, and a commentator made an interesting observation - in the United States, the poverty level is defined by income. In most of the rest of the world, it's defined by calories. If I understood him correctly, in India, the idea of an obese poor person is an oxymoron. The idea that you can be poor, and have absolutely no skills that directly contribute to your day-to-day survival (that is to say that you can't raise your own food, create your own clothing, or make your own shelter), and yet never have a legitimate worry about where your next meal is coming from would boggle the minds of many people in the developing world.

I was speaking with an east African nun that my Grandmother has become acquainted with, and realized that education-wise, we're also pretty high on the hog. My father has a handful of (half) siblings that are young enough to be my own children. They're mostly still in middle- and high-school, mainly because they're all a couple of years behind their peers. But overall, they're still better educated than this nun I was speaking to, easily explaining technical and scientific concepts that are going right over her head. And these are children that are destined to have "Would you like fries with that?" figure prominently in their future career paths, when compared to other American children.

(Granted, if we start talking about skilled trades or other sorts of day-to-day survival work, these children are completely unprepared when compared to the nun. But in terms of being able to find a place in the growing global economy, they're years ahead of her, even though when compared to children from other industrialized nations, they aren't even in the running.)

Most people wouldn't argue the point that we have problems in this country when it comes to race relations. The treatment of the Native Americans, the former institution of slavery, current attitudes in some quarters towards the current wave of Hispanic immigration (and we won't even talk about opinions about Middle Easterners) - we're not exactly winning the "Happy Happy Brotherhood" award anytime soon. But when was the last time in American history that ravening mobs killed a few thousand people of one ethnic group or another, while the police and government stood by and watched, or were helpless to intervene? The violent episodes of the Civil Rights Movement, while in some cases shockingly brutal, pale in comparison to the Rwandan Genocide of the mid 1990's. Bloodshed on that scale in the United States would have resulted in the deaths of approximately 30 million people (a very rough estimate), over 100 times the death toll from murder for the same period.

Could we be doing much better, given the technology and resources that we have access to? Yep. Is it a crying shame that we aren't? Maybe. Do we look the other way when something we consider an injustice happens to work in our favor? Usually. Could we maintain one of the highest standards of living on Earth without consuming resources like they're going out of style? More than likely. Is the fact that our economy just about requires that half the planet be poor going to catch up with us? Eventually. Are we going to screw around and blow it all one of these days, and then stand around stupidly asking, "What happened?" Smart money says, "Yes." But until then, I've got better things to do than to complain about it.

Perhaps I don't have the right value structure. A number of people have told me so. Perhaps someone's idea of a divinity will weigh me against a feather when I die and decide that since I haven't done enough to advance the human (or perhaps just the American) condition, that I'm going to be consigned to be supernatural kindling for all eternity. (Or maybe they'll just be mad that I didn't do it all in their name.) Right now, I'm too busy trying to NOT enjoy the good life when I SHOULD be scheming and plotting (and, okay, working) to get myself into the BETTER life (not to mention make sure that I can do something else that's only a pipe dream for most - care for my parents when they're too old to do it for themselves - by paying someone else to cook, clean and do the heavy lifting).

But be that as it may, I understand that the United States isn't perfect. After all, even in a land where, by some estimates, two thirds of us are at least somewhat fat and 15% of food prepared goes to waste, there ARE people who will go to bed hungry tonight. Businesses go begging for trained workers overseas because they begrudge the expense it takes to (re)train unemployed Americans, who in turn sniff at the idea of taking difficult and/or low-wage jobs that illegal Latin-American immigrants are literally risking their lives to get. People picket abortion clinics, decrying the practice as murder - then mumble excuses and justifications when confronted with the killings of doctors and nurses. Property owners put money into driving the homeless out of abandoned buildings that aren't being used for anything else, in no small part because a squatter that falls down a flight of stairs can easily find a lawyer who'll help him sue the landlord. Citizens scream blue murder at the merest hint of a tax hike, or that their tax dollars are anything less then spent with 100% efficiency, then elect politicians who actively campaign on their ability to bring home pork barrel projects to their districts, seeming to think that they are entitled to be kept by the rest of the nation. And it goes on from there. But since Perfect only exists in fairy tales and Walgreen's commercials, I'm okay with that.

I don't need to think that the United States is perfect, or even working towards perfection. I'm even okay with the idea that there are better places on this planet to live, and better ways of doing things. I'm doing pretty well for myself, given the fact that in real life, I've basically stumbled through life, and have only recently discovered the miracle that is planning ahead. I've had the benefits of engaged parents and competent teachers, and (barely) enough sense to use that to my advantage. And I've learned that I'm not special. I'm better off than some, but not as gifted as others, and advantaged in some respects and deficient in some things. Neither genius nor idiot, wise man nor fool. And being average, the United States is a more than satisfactory place in which to live. Are the opportunities limitless? No. I suspect that there are barriers that I'll never be able to cross. But considering the fact that I haven't even reached them yet, I've got work to do before they become an issue. So I guess I'd better quit farting around, and get back to it.

Pack Your Moneybags

The good people behind the Global Rich List want to be the travel agents for your next guilt trip.

It's an elegantly simple concept - they ask you how much money you make in a year, and then place you on a little continuum that shows your relative place on the global money train. The overall idea is for people in the Western world to understand how well off they are in comparison to the world's desperately poor, and hopefully to "help redress the balance," by making a donation to a worthy cause. GRL themselves seem to be partial to CARE International, which they link to from their website.

But, as with a lot of things that have been deliberately simplified, this particular concept has been perhaps over-simplified. For instance. The rankings don't do anything to take into account the relative cost of living from one place to another - the value of a set market basket from one place to another that economists use when determining the relative values of currency - for instance, a United States Dollar, spent in the People's Republic of China, buys considerably more than that same Dollar would here in the United States. So while there are a number of people throughout the world that are forced to subsist on $1.00 a day, it's a pretty safe bet that one would have to spend significant more than that to match their standard of living here in the United States.

By the same token, however, they rely on that same disparity to generate donations, by pointing out how much good can be done in foreign countries for only a small amount of money. For instance, they state that $8.00 will by 15 organic apples in the industrialized West, but 25 productive fruit trees in Honduras.

Another tidbit is that their methodology of creating the rankings doesn't allow for the numbers to match up. They are using a pretty smooth curve to plot the relative levels of income of the world's population, and that curve doesn't even begin to match up with the numbers that people commonly cite when they speak of such things. For instance, it's commonly said that there are 1.3 billion (out of an estimated world population of about 6 billion people) living at $1.00 a day or less. But the curve places that number much lower, plotting that only 600 million people have a $1.10 or less in income every day.

It doesn't take much to realize that Americans are remarkably adept at seeing themselves as impoverished, even while they live lifestyles that are the envy of most if the developing world. And I suspect that we'd better off, if we had a better idea of how we stacked up against people other than the residents of the neighborhood McMansion (or real mansion, for that matter). The Global Rich List is a start, but I suspect that it's going to take something a little more concrete, and a little more accurate.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Keeping Up Appearances

It's working its way into the news that the "American Center for Voting Rights" a conservative group ostensibly aimed at reducing the rate of vote fraud in the United States has suddenly closed up shop. I first encountered the story on Slate, and it came up on NPR last week.

Interestingly, in one regard, it doesn't really matter if one side is seeking to rig elections through stuffing the ballot box, or casting votes for dead people, or if the other side is trying to make it hard for the other side's supporters to vote by erecting hurdles. Both of these lead to the same result - it's not REALLY a democracy (or a republic, depending on your point of view and semantic preference), but it LOOKS like one.

And in the end, that's what a lot of this is really all about - it removes choice from the populace, and puts it in the hands of a select subset of them, but it still looks like everyone is involved and participating (or, at least, not participating because they chose not to). And it's a pattern that you see all over the world - there are all sorts of contested elections, in which one side or the other claims that the result is invalid. Take Mexico. While their last presidential election seems to have finally faded from international headlines, it was pretty contentious for quite some time.

But I find the whole situation interesting because it speaks to importance that is placed on the appearance of fair and open elections. Regimes insist up and down that everything has been done on the up-and-up, even when evidence of rampant fraud and other dirty tricks are practically visible from Lunar orbit. And even when it's a pretty safe bet that little to nothing is going to be done about it.

Back on Jump Street

After undercover police officers made some high-profile busts of youths and adults selling drugs and guns in and around high schools in Federal Way, Washington, the Seattle Times did a follow-up article on a similar undercover operation in Redmond. I would be unsurprised to learn that part of the reason was to remind people that drugs aren't only present in schools where the "lower classes" send their children, but also in more upscale places, as well.

Anyway, the article pointed out that the rare practice of placing undercover police officers in schools to pose as students has its critics. Among them, the ACLU.

"It's scary. You have non-students, non-teachers sneaking around talking to kids," said Jennifer Shaw, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state. "Our kids should be sent to school to learn. To bring somebody in to do undercover investigation is frightening."
While I agree with the ACLU's stated goal of a free and open society through the preservation and protection of civil liberties, there is no escaping the fact that they have a political agenda, and sometimes they come across as being critical for the sake of being critical. On the other hand, this IS a sound bite. It's the sort of thing that they'd play during a radio or television interveiw, without any of the external context that you'd need to really be able to evaluate what was being said. I have to admit, however, that I have a hard time imagining a context in which this particular criticism makes any real sense.

The idea that undercover officers trying to root out people selling drugs and guns in school is somehow a cause for alarm seems an overreaction. The opening sentence of the quote seems calculated to draw a parallel between undercover police officers and child molesters, implying that the reason for secrecy is that what's going on is somehow improper. News Flash: people who are doing things that they understand are illegal don't usually do so out in the open, if they're concerned with being caught. Hence, undercover operations. And while deception can lead to some scary or awkward circumstances, simply not being who you present yourself as is not illegal on its face. The fact that an officer of the law is undercover does not, in and of itself, violate anyone's rights. Yes, our society is based on trust, and that trust is predicated on a certain amount of truthfulness, but if it demands absolute honesty in all dealings, we're in serious trouble.

And yes, the point behind sending children to school is for them to learn things. But I fail to see how the occasional undercover operation can be said to seriously compromise a school's ability to teach. While the point can be made that the schools have no business being an arm of law enforcement, that's a very different thing than cooperating with law enforcement. Now, if schools were taking it upon themselves to decide guilt or innocence, even after a jury has already had its say, then I think that its appropriate to be critical, on the grounds that the educational and legal systems are separate for a reason. But even in this case, criticism of the police would be misplaced.

It's a sad truth that simply wearing a badge doesn't make you into one of the Good Guys. But while Power Corrupts, Responsibility can keep that Corruption in check. And without some evidence of irresponsibility, the assumption of corruption may be premature.

Virtual Lawbreakers

While many people think of Cybercrime as mainly dealing with Phishing, Denial of Service attacks, Identity Theft and similar activities, it seems that Rape, Mugging and Child Molestation can all be carried out from the comfort of your own home, and target people thousands of miles away.

This is the part where I'm supposed to ask "What will they think of next?" But I REALLY don't want to know.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

You Might Get Hurt!

One of the interesting turns that parenting has taken over the past generation is the level to which parental protectiveness has risen. One of the things that seems to be driving this is the idea that children being injured is a sign of lax or unloving parents. This, in turn has lead to a series of minor frenzies, as (over?) zealous parents try to sanitize the planet of anything that may be harmful to their children.

For instance, because of the rise in the number of children who are allergic to nuts (and legumes) of one sort or another, peanut butter in grade schools is practically a hanging offense. And now Heely's, that bizarre childhood craze of fat-soled shoes with little wheels in them, is coming under the microscope.

Not to say that parents shouldn't take precautions, when their children are concerned. But sometimes, when we look back on the strings of (by modern standards) near-fatal disasters that made up our own childhoods (third-graders and a fascination with military hardware can be an, ahem, volatile mixture), you have to wonder if children today aren't missing out on some of the fun that everyone tells us is so important.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wal-Mart, Analyzed

IMHO, for many its critics (whether or not they are customers), Wal-Mart represents the final demise of, in effect, everything that was good about business, and the things that linked businesses and the public. It is the triumph of the bottom line and the "almighty dollar" over community relationships, public welfare and an equitable relationship between owners and employees.

But perhaps the reason why Wal-Mart is so threatening is that we, as the overall buying public, are direct partners in the company's actions. When people buy stock in Wal-Mart, to critics they are proclaiming that vast, impersonal enterprises that have money to share are preferable to smaller, community-oriented businesses that can't generate the same margins. When Wal-Mart drives the local mom and pop stores out of business, it's because Mom and Pop's customers decided that they valued 10% off on dish soap more than they valued the community connection that Mom and Pop's store represented. For many people, Wal-Mart's success is predicated on the fact that we feel both inaffluent and unable to turn to others in case of emergency, and thus have to sacrifice these other things that we claim are important, in order to hoard as much money as we can.

Therefore, Wal-Mart comes to represent a sense of poverty and isolation on both an individual and community level. And who wants that specter looming over them?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Deus vult?

"There are a lot of folks doing God's work right here stateside that are invaluable to the people overseas," said Col. Daniel Baggio, an Army spokesman. "The spirit of the Army is really that folks want to do their part ... in any way they can. ... They go where they're told to go."

An explanation of the fact that somewhat over a third of the Army has never been deployed to Iraq.
While Colonel Baggio’s statement makes a lot of sense (after all, there are any number of things that the Army needs people to do that have no place in a combat zone, and haven’t been outsourced), I was under the distinct impression that the Army answered to the President of the United States as its Commander in Chief, and did HIS work. Given the fact that the United States is an overwhelmingly Christian nation, the Colonel isn’t really out of line, in context. But the idea that troops deployed to the Middle East are doing “God’s work” in country can easily be derived from his statement, and I think that it feeds the perception on “the Arab street,” as we tend to call it, that the “War on Terror” is little more than a thin whitewashing of a Tenth Crusade (or a Twelfth, depending on how you number those from antiquity). And while a case could be made that the label of “Crusade” (with a capital “C”) is inappropriate because the President of the United States is not any sort of Prelate or Cleric, it pays to remember that of the original Crusades, the Popes were only involved up to the Sixth.