Friday, March 31, 2006

Virginia School to teach Information Literacy for Parents and Kids

Recently there has been a lot of reporting on threats to minors from online predators and children not being circumspect on putting contact information on popular forums like Myspace. Virginia has passed a law required public schools to develop information literacy programs for students. Some schools are going farther and developing non-threatening forums where parents can also learn more about the information age.

I think this is a good thing and should be encouraged.
The [new Virginia]law directs the state Department of Education to issue guidelines to schools for integrating Internet safety into their regular instruction. Fralin said many children encounter dangers with computers at home, not school, but since some parents are tech-phobic, schools need to step in....

Teachers and principals agree part of their job is to educate parents so they develop a better sense of what their children are doing online. Bull Run Middle School in Prince William County holds daytime coffees and evening seminars during school dances for parents to talk about the problem of cyber-bullying. That's when children tease each other or pose as one another in instant messages or chat rooms, sometimes spreading vicious gossip or rumors. |Washington Post|

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Safety Tip: Wear a Helmet but distrust your gov't

Products Liability Profs Blog has a post on the new helmet guide |PDF|developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Is it just me or has the CSPC become a shill for the helmet producers? Only wear helmets for the designated activity?

Is there really that great a difference between a motorcycle helmet and a snowmobile helmet?

Is there that much difference between a bicycle helmet and a skateboarding helmet? I think the vents in the helmets are the biggest difference and that bicycle helmets are one-crash devices.

Personally, I've found that a motorcyle helmet works really well when bicycling in a cold state like Minnesota. The little handout doesn't address at all the issue of going way above the protection guidelines for a sport.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Palestinians react to Israeli Elections

I'm sure you suspected that the Palestanians wouldn't be happy with Kadima's victory. The early results confirm this.

[T]he winning Kadima party presents them with a special problem. Its leader, Ehud Olmert, wants to abandon Jewish settlements in the centre of the occupied West Bank. But Israel would consolidate its hold on the main settlement blocs ....Palestinians would be confined to areas in the middle of the territory... [and] stripped of some of their best land and water resources.

They would not have the capital they want, and they would have no control over their borders and their routes to the outside world. They argue that they would never be able to create a viable state out of the land that Mr Olmert would leave them.

A leading independent Palestinian political figure, Mustafa Barghouti, has said of the plan: "It would mean a continuation of occupation and a continuation of conflict - and that would be as bad for the Israelis as for us." |BBC|

In related news, Hamas swore in a new cabinet and it appears that both sides' positions are hardening.

One Hamas MP, Hamed Bitawi, said: "The Quran is our constitution, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is our highest aspiration." His comments stood in contrast to a more conciliatory speech by [Palestinian Prime Minister Designate] Haniya on Monday in which he stressed the new government's push for peace and dialogue....Israel seized on Haniya's change of tone, saying it reflected the new government's "extremist" policies.

Mark Regev, the [Israeli] foreign ministry spokesman, said: "I hope the sort of remarks we heard today help to dissolve any possible illusion that might exist as to the true character of this new Palestinian leadership." |Al Jazeera|

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Kadima wins Israeli Election

I don't have a good enough handle on Israeli politics to provide any analysis of the impact of the victories by the new Kadima party and the gains made by the conservativeIsrael Beitenu, but it appears that this signals Israel's intent to disengage from the Palestinians.

Israel is such a divisive issue. Such a small piece of land for there to be so much bloodshed. I have several Jewish friends who are Zionists and I also have friends who support the Palestinians.

I wish they could all live in peace, but that's not going to happen anytime soon. So it appears that Israel will try the walled city concept on a larger scale.
The election was widely regarded as a referendum on Mr Olmert's commitment, backed by Labour and the left, to unilaterally withdraw from large parts of the West Bank, to remove tens of thousands of Jewish settlers while retaining the main settlement blocks, and to carve out a border using the West Bank barrier. Likud, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, and other parties on the right argued that pulling out of Palestinian territory would be a victory for terrorism.

In his victory speech, Mr Olmert said he would press ahead with his plan to separate from the Palestinians.

"In the near future we will bring about the shaping of the final borders of the state, guaranteeing a Jewish democratic state," he said.

The acting prime minister said he wanted to negotiate frontiers with the Palestinians only on condition they recognise Israel and end violence.

"We are prepared to renounce parts of the land of Israel so precious to us, in order to bring about the conditions for you [the Palestinians] to bring about your own dreams and to live side by side with us in peace and tranquillity. The time has come for the Palestinians to adapt their dreams to recognise the reality of Israel," he said. "If they do not do this, Israel will take its fate into its own hands. We shall act without agreement with the Palestinians. We shall not wait for ever." |Guardian|

I've always admired the Israelis for their military prowess, they are surely about the closest thing to a modern day Sparta that you will find.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Madness of King George

This Administration is intent on dismantling the system of checks and balances and makes no bones about it.

Glenn Greenwald lays it out:
We really do have an Administration which believes it has the power to break all laws relating, however broadly, to defending the country. It has said this repeatedly in numerous contexts and acted on those beliefs by breaking the law -- repeatedly and deliberately.....

Put another way, the Administration has seized the power of Congress to make the laws, they have seized the power of the judiciary to interpret the laws, and they execute them as well. They have consolidated within themselves all of the powers of the government, particularly with regard to national security. This situation is, of course, exactly what Madison warned about in Federalist 47; it really is the very opposite of everything our Government is intended to be...|GG|

This amplifies a point Orrin Kerr has made that Bush’s definition of inherent executive authority entails that the executive's power is inherent in the sense that Congress cannot extinguish it.

This cabal recognizes no limits on their power, they will acknowledge no ethical, legal, or financial boundaries. I call that treason.

Prophet of the Apocalypse

Joshua Hergesheimer pronounces Bush a prophet. His logic is hard to argue with.

Visionary, moron, or something in between – everyone has their favourite label [for George W. Bush]. One label that you do not hear very often, however, is prophet.

I believe that George Bush is a prophet. But not just any old prophet. A special kind – one whose actions bring about the very things he claims will happen, albeit without any recognition of his role in causing them to occur. He is, therefore, a self-fulfilling prophet....

[G]iven George’s track record on Iraq – which turned out in the end to be a terrorist hotbed – and Guantanamo – where people are now very suspicious of American justice – excuse me if I start to believe him.

George is truly a self-fulfilling prophet. If the US continues its campaign of bombing with impunity, abrogating human rights and threatening to attack anyone, anywhere, any time, then the war on terror will be very long indeed. God help us. |Al-Jazeera|

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Mud Season in Minnesota

Now that the snow is melting, we are entering that delicate period between Winter and Spring in Minnesota that is not-so-affectionately referred to as mud season.

Nothing like a good mud bath. At least that's what the dog thinks...

As I was taking her to the shower for a bath today the dog went spread-eagle on the floor, forcing me to drag her to the bath. I don't think I've ever seen a dog go so flat before.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Independent Kurdistan

Chopy by Kurdo.

The past several weeks Bill Maher has been asking his guests if we need to bring Saddam back. Mahr suggests that the only way to keep Iraq under control might be to have an authoritarian leader who can quell the tribal society and its warring factions...if not Saddam, then someone like Saddam.

Bill Maher is a bright and funny guy, so I don't see why he doesn't ask the next logical question: does it make sense to try to hold Iraq together as a single nation merely because of how the borders were drawn after World War One?

Cenk Ugyur has written a post titled There is No Iraq which discusses this very issue.

Of course, letting the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds each go their separate ways would be a big step and could cause more turmoil in the region. The Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and Iran have been trying for years to form an independent Kurdistan and have been ruthlessly repressed by all three countries.

But isn't that just the sort of oppression that the Bushies currently claim we invaded Iraq to prevent?

Ardalan Hardi's post Why Should we Split Iraq? suggests that the Turks might be willing to compromise on the Kurdish issue because their violent repression of the Kurds has been complicating their bid to enter the European Union.

Of course, racism is probably as big an obstacle for the Turks, and much of Turkey's fresh water supply lies within greater I'm not saying that these obstacles are insignificant.

But since the current strategy seems to be ramping up into a civil war, maybe we should consider the option of letting the different nations of Iraq become separate nation-states?

I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Jon Thompson puts it well.
Obviously we [the U.S.] are unwilling to impose such a brutal regime on Iraq, so the next best solution is dividing the country along sectarian lines.

This solution is not without its problems, but it may be the most likely to work. The United States’ relationship with Turkey will be severely damaged if the United States recognizes Kurdistan as an independent nation. Sunni Iraq will be left impoverished without any oil revenue, and will likely become a failed state much like Palestine. The Arab Sunni leaders in Iraq are all very weak, and it’s unlikely that any of them could keep terrorists out. Shiite Iraq would most likely align closely with Iran. Despite all this, the alternatives - full-blown civil war, or a Shiite sectarian government imposing its will on the other groups - are even less appetizing.

The war in Iraq will possibly go down in history as the single greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. The Vietnam War may have been more destructive in terms of lives lost and money spent, but our defeat in Vietnam did not have many long-term effects. I wish the same could be said of Iraq. |Jon Thompson|

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vainglorious imperialism

The Daily Show had an interview with Michael Mandelbaum the other day.

Mandelbaum's new book, The Case for Goliath, is reviewed by Martin Walker for the NY Times (reg'n req'd).
[The global society made possible by US hegemonic control] has been a remarkable and seductive economic success. Having built the tripartite trading structure of the modern world (North America, Western Europe and Japan) to enrich its citizens and allies and sustain the cold war, the generous Americans have expanded it to include the Asian tigers and Eastern Europeans. Now 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.1 billion Indians are clambering up the food chain to prosperity. They deal in dollars, raise money in the New York and London financial markets, generate big trade surpluses with the United States and then send their brighter and most ambitious children to American graduate and business schools, where they are exposed to the creeping osmosis of the Western value system. This is a magnificently benign loop, and will continue to be so once those American-trained graduates figure out how the biosphere is going to handle tens of millions of Asians living the American lifestyle, with their own cars and air conditioning and fast food. |NYT|
I like how Walker points out the many blessings of our global economy while not ignoring the looming environmental disaster before us.

It's too bad that Bush is such a poor hegemon.
If President Bush were to run for re-election in 2008 it is not difficult to imagine the kind of devastating indictment that might be made of his foreign policy, not least because the terms of such an indictment were brilliantly anticipated more than a century ago...[by] William Ewart Gladstone, the only true genius among 19th century British politicians...

Gladstone eviscerated [Benjamin Disraeli's] foreign policy as a disastrous mixture of vainglorious imperialism, cynical Realpolitik and fiscal improvidence. His speech...reads amazingly well today.

Gladstone...regarded freedom as the foundation of a correct foreign policy. "The foreign policy of England," he declared, "should always be inspired by the love of freedom. There should be a sympathy with freedom, a desire to give it scope, founded not upon visionary ideas, but upon the long experience of many generations within the shores of this happy isle…" That is precisely what a Democratic challenger to President Bush would want to begin by saying: We share your aspiration to spread freedom.

But Gladstone's other five principles can be read today as an ideal first draft of the case against the practice of this administration's foreign policy.

Gladstone's first principle of foreign policy was, paradoxically but rightly, "good government at home" - to be precise, fiscal stability. By that measure, Bush's second term has been an almost unqualified failure. To cut taxes and run deficits in 2001, in the aftermath of a stock market crash, made sense. But to allow the federal government to continue to run deficits even as recovery has strengthened has left the United States dangerously dependent on foreign capital for its economic stability. A net external debt equivalent in magnitude to more than 20 per cent of gross domestic product is no laughing matter...|Niall Ferguson in Telegraph|(emphasis added)
Thanks to the Brothers Judd for the link.

In some ways I'm proud of Bush. He has grown up so much during his time in office. Bush has finally figured out that the environment is vital, that war is dangerous and that torture is bad for his image.

The cloak of night

Optics Planet has an overview of how night vision systems work and what the difference is between the different generations of night vision goggles.

I've always been curious about this and now I know.

Kansas gives shoot to kill orders at nuclear plant

My friend Martini sent me this article reporting that Kansas has passed a law allowing nuclear power plant security guards to use lethal force.

Being the nerd I am, I went to the Kansas legislature site and found that 2006 House Bill 2703 |PDF|is the Nuclear Generating Facility Security Guard Act. It reads in relevant part:

[A]n armed nuclear security guard is justified in using physical force up to and including deadly physical force against another person at a nuclear generating facility or structure or fenced yard of a nuclear generating facility if the armed nuclear security guard reasonably believes that such force is necessary to:

(1) Prevent the commission of manslaughter ..., murder in the first degree ..., murder in the second degree ..., aggravated assault ..., kidnapping ..., aggravated kidnapping ..., aggravated burglary ..., arson ..., aggravated arson ..., aggravated robbery ...; or

(2) defend oneself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

[3] Notwithstanding any other provision of this act, an armed nuclear security guard is justified in threatening to use physical or deadly physical force if and to the extent a reasonable armed nuclear security guard believes it necessary to protect oneself or others against another person’s potential use of physical force or deadly physical force.

[4] No armed nuclear security guard, employer of an armed nuclear security guard or owner of a nuclear generating facility shall be subject to civil liability for conduct of an armed nuclear security guard which is justified pursuant to this act....|PDF|
This may certainly have a chilling effect on political protests at nuclear plants. But the risk of a chilling effect has to be balanced against the need for reasonable protection of nuclear facilities.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Shotgun Taser Round

The Taser company has developed a wireless taser round that can be fired from a shotgun and used for crowd control, according to this C|NET article.

According to this news article, 148 people have died in 7 years after being tasered. Tasers aren't necessarily non-lethal, they are more appropriately termed less-than-lethal. Being shocked surely can have a negative effect on people who have heart conditions and are overdosing on drugs. But if the alternative is being shot 22 times by the police....I'll take the taser option every time.

Monday, March 20, 2006

RFID virus threat overblown?

RFID Update questions the news value of the coverage last week of a virus threat to RFID systems. But we all know the media thrives on FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at all the attention this story received.

RFID Update concludes:
[T]he scenarios presented by the [RFID virus] researchers were widely considered so contrived as to be unfeasible. A key premise of the researchers' assertions is that the bits and bytes stored on RFID tags would be interpreted by readers as executable instructions. The reality is that tag contents are never interpreted as executable code; they are interpreted only as simple raw data, like numbers. For an RFID system to interpret tag data otherwise would require a poor, insecure design that breaks the most basic and obvious rules of system engineering.

Which raises another point. The potential vulnerability is in the system design; there is nothing inherent to RFID tag technology that makes it vulnerable. As Julie England, Texas Instruments' general manager of RFID, said, "This is the kind of issue the software industry has seen for years." She continued, "Pointing out that poorly written backend software could weaken the RFID application as a whole ... is stating the obvious." As this recommended explanation by Ben Giddings, an engineer at RFID reader manufacturer ThingMagic reads, "RFID tags, just like barcodes, are just data. Nothing more than data. If you intentionally design a system to be vulnerable to certain data, then intentionally expose the system to that data, then yup, you'll have a problem." |RFID Update|(emphasis added)

I'm certainly concerned about whether the RFID data is encrypted for sensitive applications like passports...and viruses could be a concern. Whoever thought a cell phone could catch a virus, after all? But this article raises several good points.

Wal-Mart to put the Squeeze on Banks

Wal-Mart is making noises about entering the banking business and it has banks upset.

They've never complained before about Wal-Mart's predatory pricing tactics.

Wal-Mart customer's average incomes are below the national average...Some analysts estimate that more than one-fifth of Wal-Mart's customers have no bank accounts, which would be about twice the national rate, according to the Federal Reserve. "Wal-Mart National Bank" could bring these customers into the banking fold, offering them affordable bank accounts, credit cards and mortgage loans.

"It could turn out to be a good thing for consumers," said consumer advocate Linda Sherry, editorial director for Consumer Action, "especially the unbanked or those who are suspicious of banks."

It's a pretty big market and one that Wal-Mart has already started to tap. The retailer began offering money orders three years ago and has since added payroll check-cashing and money-transfer services. Today, the company's 3,066 stores and supercenters process about a million financial transactions a week.|MSN Money|
It will be interesting to see how this plays's hard to have too much sympathy for bankers.

The Wall Street Journal has additional coverage, if you have a subscription.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Freedom of Religion vs. Secularism around the World

The Canadian Supreme Court recently ruled that daggers (called kirpans) are symbols of religious faith for Sikhs and that Candian schools must make reasonable accommodations and allow Sikhs to carry the daggers in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6. |Court Opinion|Lexis|Westlaw|

In a California case with similar facts, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that a school district had to make reasonable accommodations for Sikh student's religious beliefs including the wearing of a kirpan or dagger. The court was unimpressed by the school district's bald assertion that its total ban of weapons on school grounds was entitled to judicial deference. The school district failed to present any evidence of why less restrictive methods would not be effective.
[O]ther school districts with a Khalsa Sikh population had managed to accommodate kirpans without sacrificing student safety. For example, the record included the policies of two California school districts, which allowed kirpans so long as the blades were dulled, no more than 2 1/2 inches, and securely riveted to their sheaths. The natural question was why the same compromise would not work here. The school district gave us no answer. |Cheema v. Thompson, 67 F.3d 883, note 4 (9th Cir. 1995)|Findlaw|Lexis|Westlaw|
Recently there has been a spate of litigation across the globe forcing societies to balance freedom of religion and secularism.

"The [Canadian Multani ruling] was welcomed by civil liberties groups in Canada as an important victory for freedom of religion. They say it may have an influence on other disputes, including controversies in a number of Quebec schools over whether Muslim girls should be able to wear the hijab, the traditional head-covering."|Guardian|

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Turkey can ban Muslim headscarfs in the University, upholding similar bans in France and Germany. The BBC's covers headscarf rulings throughout Europe.

On a related note, France has recently declared that Sikhs must remove their turbans for driver's license photos.

Stuart Jeffries explains the French hostility to religious symbols this way:
In any case, the ban on religious symbols in French schools is only part of a broader policy of laicité (secularism), which stems from a French revolutionary tradition. It is not in God that the French trust, the feminist thinker Hélène Cixous explains, but in human rights and in the power and responsibility of ordinary men and women to make a good society without reference to gods or kings. The aim has been to create a secular public space where individuals renounce part of what she calls their "personal particularity", while the right to religious expression is guaranteed in their private lives. A flourishing multicultural society, the French insist, needs spaces where different races and religions can meet as equals. |Guardian|

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Internet Adoption Plateaus in US

BusinessWeek has an article discussing predictions that Internet adoption is slowing and is only expected to reach 67% of the US population by 2009.

The article doesn't assume that people who don't like the Internet are Luddites or stupid. Some people who have used the Internet before simply find it a waste of time and money.

Indeed, it goes to pains to point out how our lives can be impoverished by an uncritical acceptance of technology.

For [some], the Internet is an example of what author Neil Postman called "the surrender of culture to technology." From Silicon Valley engineers to teenage geeks, tech enthusiasts see only what the Net can do, not what it might undo.

But James J. Mitchell, a retired banking executive from suburban Chicago, believes the Web dismantles face-to-face communication. He's part of the 18% of households that, according to the Parks survey, have a computer but aren't interested in "anything" on the Internet.

Though Mitchell oversaw his company's tech strategy a few years ago, he never used e-mail at work. Instead he watched people become enslaved to it. Mitchell says most messages were trivial and undermined the more intimate forms of communication he favors -- in person or on the phone. "If you want to talk to me, you should do it personally," he says. "I don't need to sit and read every idle thought you rattle off."|BusinessWeek|

The End of the World as We Know It?

Mark Anderson's interview with biologist Tim Flannery is great, if you want to make all of your other problems seem inconsequential.

When we say the world will be worse off [because of ongoing climate change]...Let's take species diversity [for instance], which is one of the greatest stabilizing influences on our planet. A diverse ecosystem is a stable ecosystem. There is not a single computer prediction that is suggesting anything less than monumental species loss. Some projections are up to 60 percent (of all species alive today will be extinct or committed to extinction) by the end of this century.

That is massively destabilizing. Projections for the collapse of the Amazon basin are, again, massive. To back all that up, just go to the real world again. Look at the fossil record. See what happens when we get rapid climate change. It's a simple test.

What we see is initial devastation with great species loss, and then a slow recovery over millions of years. In 5 million years' time, our new warm Earth might be fabulous. And there might be a whole new suite of species that have evolved and adapted to that new warm Earth.

But we're talking about us and our children living through a period of unprecedented upheaval. And there's no way that can be a good thing.

There won't be winners and losers in this; there will just be losers.
|Wired|(emphasis added)

Dr. Flannery suggests that we need to put our entire society on a war footing against climate change if we are to survive and adds that a carbon tax is a minimalist way to impose some of the external costs of global warming into the cost-benefit analysis of using renewables versus fossil fuels.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Snowy day in March

The sky opened up this morning and dumped close to ten inches of snow on Saint Paul. This photo is from my front porch this morning. I did get the day off of work as they decided to close the college.

Lots of snow shoveling and some hot toddies...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Why Data Mining Doesn't Catch Terrorists

Bruce Schneier explains why data mining won't catch terrorists in Wired Magazine.

I've written elsewhere about the impact of data-mining by law enforcement on privacy, as well as reporting on the fact that the Pentagon has continued the controversial Total Information Awareness program despite Congress' attempts to kill it.

I think Mr. Schneier's analysis is spot on, which means that the only rational basis for these programs is to spy on citizens.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Flickr Mashups


Webmonkey has an article on the ten best Flickr mashups, including Spell with Flickr, "a small program that lets you type in whatever you want, then goes to flickr and grabs pictures for each an every letter! It also allows you to change the images that you see, so you can find better images for your word or phrase!"

Friday, March 10, 2006

Sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it

I Blame the Patriarchy has a charming post about the misogyny motivating the abortion ban in South Dakota.

The South Dakota abortion ban is yet another chapter in the Republican assault on basic human rights. In this case the right to basic medical care and personal autonomy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Regional conflagration possible warns US Ambassador to Iraq

[US ambassador to Baghdad] Zalmay Khalilzad broke with the Bush administration's generally upbeat orthodoxy to present a stark profile of a volatile situation in danger of sliding into chaos....Mr Khalilzad suggested the situation was so dangerous that without a substantial US presence, a civil war could suck in other Arab countries on the side of the Sunnis and Iran on the side of the Shias, creating conditions for a regional conflict and disrupting global oil supplies. "That would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play," he said.|Guardian|
There is obviously a conflict within this administration regarding how many troops to keep troops in Iraq. Elsewhere I've discussed the fact that the US Military is stretched periously thin by simultaneous open-ended commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan on top of its regular commitments around the globe, although I admit it's a pretty rambling post. For a more succinct summary of the challenges facing the US military today see the Human Stain's post, the Broken Army.

Against this backdrop, the Bush administration is surely between a rock and a hard place. "With his remarks, Mr Khalilzad may have been lobbying Washington to keep as many American soldiers there as possible. The Bush administration is anxious to reduce the US military presence for political and military reasons." |Guardian|

What a mess. I realize that chanting I told you so! at the Bushies doesn't move us towards a solution to the international crisis that a civil war in Iraq will cause, but the fact that the current debacle was entirely foreseeable and the Bushies launched headlong into this moronic war despite much advice (and law) to the contrary, just makes me boil over with fury at the incompetence of this administration.

My positing solutions to the crisis is pointless, since I'm not elected to represent this country and futile because the dummies running the executive branch wouldn't recognize a good idea if they heard it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Truck to Rail Conversion

The Ergosphere has a post evaluating the costs of replacing interstate shipments by tractor-trailer rigs with interstate shipments by rail.

According to Engineer Poet, shipping items by truck costs ten times as much as shipping items by rail and we the costs of converting from trucks to rails would pay for itself in 14 years.

Of course, these funds come from two different sources. The government would have to pay the costs of the conversion to rails while shipping companies, retailers and ultimately consumers currently pay for the status quo shipping costs.

The consumer is also the taxpayer, but convicing Americans of the wisdom of Engineer Poet's plan would be no small feat.

Still, the energy independence aspects alone merit a review of Engineer Poet's proposal.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Virtue is a matter of habit

Aristotle believed that virtue and vice were functions of habit. If you habituate a child to do the right thing, after a while it becomes habit and the child does the right thing reflexively.

I think Aristotle's views make an interesting contrast with a recent post at Terra Nova on cultivation theory.

Essentially, cultivation theory says that immersing yourself in representations of reality affects your view of reality.

This seems reasonable for children who have trouble telling the difference between cartoons and commercials. And there are plenty of cases of juveniles injuring themselves when trying to replicate one of the stunts performed on Jackass.

If cultivation theory is correct, can we cultivate virtue as well vice?
The idea behind cultivation is that if you see a lot of something and it's fairly consistent, it's easy to remember. TV has always been awful for this research because it has a lot of variety. I think that in comparison, a gamer's [Massive Multiplayer Online Game or MMO] diet is probably a lot more consistent: one thing, played a lot, over a long time.

So what exactly did I find? I had people playing an MMO (Asheron's Call 2, we hardly knew ya) for one month. At the same time I had a group not playing an MMO. I asked both groups about the likelihood of violence in the real world along four dimensions: assault with a weapon, murder, rape, robbery. As it turns out, only one of those occurs in AC2, and that's assault with a weapon. I think it's no stretch to claim that weapons are a central focus in that and many MMOs. So what's wild is that after the study ended, the people who played AC2 thought that getting assaulted with a weapon in real life was much more likely than those who didn't play.

Think about that. Playing the MMO actually changed the players' perceptions of reality.

Now I know what your reaction is right now. It's Wait a minute, wait a minute, let's not have any more of this crazy effects nonsense and let's not hear about why games are bad anymore. Only I think that's wrong on both points. The study is pretty solid. Control group, strong statistics, the works. No other possible explanations for the findings.

Now as for the good vs. bad, here's where I think it gets interesting. Let's say you are with me and you buy the findings....consider that the thing that generated cultivation could be good or bad.

What if a game generated trust? Do we want people to become more trusting from playing MMOs? The answer depends on whether they were overly or under-trusting beforehand. I think. And of course the kinds of cultivation could vary quite a bit from title to title....

Perhaps virtual cultivation could improve human relations. Lai (2003) has shown how American MMRPGs stress racial diversity. Could spending time in diverse worlds improve real-world perceptions of other racial groups or lead to ethnic tolerance? Or could it foster stereotypes (Nakamura, 2001)?

["]Can time spent in a prosocial environment featuring sharing, altruism, and generosity improve our perceptions of others offline? Many games make a point of rewarding virtuous behavior, although a handful, like the Grand Theft Auto series, glorify antisocial behavior."|Terra Nova|

While interesting, I think the study is probably flawed b/c of self-selection by gamers. I used to play a lot of Grand Theft Auto, but I was (mildly) paranoid and really into guns long before I picked up the game. That's why I enjoy the game...

Friday Fun: Bicycling Developments

Winter seems to be receding here in Minnesota so I took the opportunity to dust one of my bikes off and cycle into work today. It feels good to get that deep thigh burn from biking uphill. The deep lung burn, on the other hand, is pretty sucky... But you have to take the good with the bad.

John Hill sent me a link to a proposed raised bike path in Toronto called Velo-City. Velo-City will be "a high speed, all season, pollution free, ultra-quite transit system that makes people healthier. Using an infrastructure of elevated cycle tracks, velo-city creates a network across the City."

Treehugger has some coverage as well as an interesting discussion by Treehugger's readers covering topics of the project's aesthetic appeal, the (un)desirability of separate bike lanes, and bike tourism.

Fear of cars seems a major impediment to most people taking up biking in sunny LA. Here in Minnesota, the prospect of freezing air in the face is enough to deter all but the most hardened of bikers. So I see real value in a project like Velo-City.

In other biking news, Wired's Gear Factor covers the Bike Tree, a novel way to store your bike. While this is interesting, it seems like an incredibly expensive solution to a fairly mundane problem. And if they caught on, I think these things would inevitably displace real trees.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Phone spam

While doing some research on Internet privacy concerns, I ran across the following factoid which indicates that sending spam to cell phones and PDA's is arguably not a crime. Not that the spammers care, they have no respect for the law or common decency. But their high priced attorneys are likely to uncover this little fact.

And unfortunately, it will literally take an act of Congress to fix this loophole.

Which is yet another reason why the US needs an executive agency charged with safeguarding privacy and Internet security, IMHO. That way, they could regulate privacy through administrative regulations and work more closely with privacy commissioners abroad.

This will allow government to respond to developing threats more quickly and more effective, since Internet governance is a global issue and cooperation on cybercrime and emerging threats is essential.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox and share the factoid with you now...
Not satisfied with traditional computer-based targets, hackers have devised methods to infiltrate other digital apparatuses. This presents a challenge to law enforcement because the definition of "computer" under state and federal hacking laws is often too narrow to include emergent devices. For example, with regard to the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act's (CFAA) definition of the term "computer"...excludes, however, "a portable hand held calculator or other similar device."

To further complicate matters, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (CAN-SPAM Act) relies on the CFAA's definition of "protected computer,"...therefore, the act of spamming new digital devices that are not "high speed data processing devices performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions" may be legal under the current statutory framework.

Source: Kevin P. Cronin and Ronald N. Weikers, New Technologies Subject to Cyberattacks (Section 2:14.50), Data Security and Privacy Law: Combatting Cyberthreats 28 (Supplement Fall 2005).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

When Metadata goes Bad

Tech Republic has an article on removing metadata from Microsoft Office products with useful links, but Microsoft has made available a free tool for this purpose as well called RHD for Remove Hidden Data.

Be sure to read the caveats, though, before using these programs.