Last, ever, journal entry
This is my last ever journal entry.
HeironymousCoward is signing off.
The news today that criminal gangs have been spotted selling botnets, the day after the FCC considers spyware to be a valid model for software producers...
In case there is any doubt at all, let me summarize the near furture of the Internet in two words: Robber. Barons.
The installed base of computers and their hooks into modern society represents an incredible resource. You can look at crime from many angles, but the one that I prefer is the biological/ecological metaphor of the parasite. For every "normal" species, there are 3-4 parasite species. The evolution of life has been largely driven by the need to fight off opportunistic parasites.
The Internet, representing the infrastructure on which the modern information economy is hosted, has almost no defenses against parasites. Large swathes of it are monocultures, and the number of successful invasions of this monoculture is on an upward curve that shows no sign of slowing its rate of increase.
Historians know that the present is never framed in terms of arguments of the past. The future is never framed in terms of arguments of the present.
We look today at the Internet as a vast market opportunity, and debate how companies like Microsoft can be allowed to exploit this market without harming it. We argue about the relative merits of alternatives. We predict their growth and discuss strategies.
It's all irrelevant. Tomorrow's Internet will be concerned with only one thing: fighting the war against the invasion of the body snatchers, the infinite armies of parasites that infest every single susceptible computer.
Let me make this concrete. You want to use the Internet? Start by paying a small fee to your local security service provider. And hope he does his job. If his protection does not keep you safe from the others, your network access and data will vanish randomly. The good news is that someone, somewhere will be back with your data, for a price.
It will take only a generation for common criminal behaviour to turn into formalized protection, and from there into a form of taxation on all commerce.
We could sit back and watch this happen, except that during this process, governments will not sit still. Huge task forces will be assembled to protect the national interests and fight the criminal gangs. Wish it was that easy. For every success, ten new gangs will spring up, more vicious, more creative. The anti cybercrime task forces will spend huge amounts of money on the fight, will lobby for extra powers, will use increasing force and aggression.
Caught between the increasingly organized and motivated criminal gangs, and the symetrically developing cybercrime task forces, will be the citizenry of the world, as usual. We will watch as our liberties are infringed from both sides. We will complain but no-one will listen. And we will pay, one way or another.
By the time the war is over, after 20-30 years or so, there will be little difference between the forces of law-and-order and those of the underworld. The rule will be: if you want to do business, you pay. If you can't pay, go and work for someone else.
That is what I predict will happen.
Now, there is a simple and obvious way to prevent this. I'll let you figure out what that way is, and why it's not going to be.
Personally, I'm retiring to start a microbrewery.
Hasta la vista, friends.
Thought of the Day
Actions speak louder than words. But words survive when actions are dust.
Wait for it... (or dont!)
Price of download single (3-4 minutes high quality music): $0.99.
Price of downloaded ringtone (30 seconds radio quality): $4.00.
Why? Because phone manufacturers don't allow mobile phones to play MP3 ringtones. Why not? Because they also profit from the ringtone business (Nokia sells ringtones and logos in Europe).
The music industry already makes more from ringtones than singles...
Hence I present you with the next greatest concept in consumer-from-business theft... RINGTONE PIRACY!! Yes, 12-year olds will be hauled before the judge for illegally swapping ringtones. Modchips that allow mobile phones to play "illegal" MP3 songs (But, yer 'onor, I own the CD!) will be banned in all civilized nations.
Just wait for the Slashdot headline "Ringtone pirates sentenced to 12 months".
Or don't. You read it first here.
Some wars of the future...
1. Microsoft vs. Free Software
Microsoft using patents to try to send free software developers to jail. Use and distribution of "unlicensed" source code becomes a felony. Software producers gain the right to inspect systems for unlicensed software. Outcome 1: free software becomes a historical curiosity, something that "might have become something" but could not survive in the face of a serious onslaught from vested interests. Outcome 2: vested interests realize that they have more to gain by allowing free software developers to do the hard work, and the patent issue becomes a historical footnote.
2. The Fanatics
Silently, a small group of fanatics is building a global network of hundreds of millions of computers. These computers run their software, do their bidding, but are doing so unknown to their nominal owners. The fanatics have tested a series of techniques, starting with large scale proof-of-concept DDoS attacks on popular web sites in 2001. They concentrate now on expanding their domain of control, only stopping now and then to launch 5000, 10000 computers against the small amateur web sites that try to fight them. Via worms, viruses, and spyware, they have a simple mission: control more than 50% of the Windows Internet, and then sell this capacity to the highest bidder. Want to bring down your business rival? That can be done. Want to incapacitate a foreign country? It can be done. Want to spy on your citizens? Possible, and easy. The fanatics have been infiltrated by the agents of state authority but the sheer power of the network they are building seduces and corrupts so that these infiltrators are themselves now among the most fanatical. One might say that there is a war going on between the fanatics and the general public. But the real war is between the original fanatics, and splinter groups, who find the agenda too slow, too pedantic. "Strike now", they cry, "show the world our power!" The young radical fanatics have started to piggy-back the original network with their own infectious software. Another splinter group has already sold its services to a wealthy sponsor, who plans to launch what can only be described as a terrorist agenda, bringing down large parts of the Internet simply to draw attention to his political cause. The original fanatics are aware of the competition and adapt their software daily, finding ways to detect and kill parasites that don't belong to them. This is war between three, perhaps even more groups, for control of the Internet at a level that few people even realizes exists.
Last week saw some stimulating debate on Slashdot, especially concerning Microsoft. Inspiration strikes me to jot some random analysis apropos to Microsoft, open source, Linux, security, et al.
1. Microsoft and Sun
$2bn for Sun? Perhaps it's pocket change to Steve Ballmer, but it's a lot of money. And for what? No-one gets rich by spending freely. What can Microsoft expect to get for its cash? What would you pay Sun $2bn for? Cringely believes it's a settlement designed to ward off anti-monopoly charges from the EU et al. But $2bn buys a lot of lobbyists. Hmmm, here is what I think Microsoft wants for its money.
First, to kill Java. Why? Because MS is obsessed by platforms (think of the scores of platforms MS has produced and pushed over the years), and it feels that Java provides a platform for the competition. Every Java programmer, every Java application represents a plus for the opposition. The opposition is, of course, IBM, and Microsoft want Java dead, and all development pushed to .NET.
Sun's decision last month to not release Java under an open source license makes sense for reasons other than "we need to keep control". Perhaps it was "we are almost bankrupt, and we're going to sell our first-born child in a desperate attempt to get some cash."
$2bn is probably a good deal for Sun, but it's a sell-out that will cost the industry much more, if it succeeds. It's a deal that will bring Microsoft much more than $2bn. If it succeeds.
So, can Sun squash Java? IBM has been working very hard over the last 5 years or so to develop its own Java platforms, faster and more stable than those from Sun. But as far as I know, it does this with permission from Sun.
So, some predictions coming up: Sun will announce that it is slowing, and finally cancelling further development of Java and proposing a migration to .NET. Furor will ensue. IBM may try to buy Sun or Java. More likely, it will announce that it is legally protected to use Java for the next decade or so, and it will announce its own new platform and migration strategy. Free software advocates will say "we told you so!" and they will be right. The GPL, after all, was designed to combat exactly this kind of threat.
What else might Microsoft be after? I suspect they regret very much that OpenOffice.org escaped into the wild. They could have bought Star Office for petty change, and killed it off. Instead Sun bought it, cleaned it up, invested in it, and released it as OpenOffice.org. The final cost to Microsoft will be enormous, as OOo represents one of the only serious contenders to MSOffice: it is a solid, complete, stable, and portable office package that provides an easy migration for many people from Windows to Linux, and must represent a nightmare to Microsoft strategists.
Microsoft may appear arrogant but I'm certain that they are perfectionists, obsessed with detail, control freaks on a massive scale, and the escape of OpenOffice must have traumatised them. I'm just speculating, but I suspect that there have been many meetings and memos along the line of "how to avoid another OpenOffice". $2bn is not a lot when seen as insurance to protect MS Office.
The cat is out of the bag, but OpenOffice still enjoys significant support from Sun. If Microsoft can't remove the OOo installations from PCs around the world, it can at least try to cut the air supply.
Second prediction: Sun will announce that it is slowing development of StarOffice and stopping all support for OOo, for financial reasons. Again, furor in the industry, with hordes of free software people saying "see, thank god/RMS for the GPL", and they will be right, once again. Only the paranoid survive, and Richard Stallman is one of the best.
Can MS kill OpenOffice? No, they cannot. OOo is a powerful weapon again Microsoft, and there are many people with the means and the motive to use it. Either Novell or IBM will announce that they will host the OOo project and provide support. I suspect it will be Novell, but with backing from IBM.
Third prediction: Sun will, within no more than two years from now, either file for Chapter 11 protection, or be bought by Microsoft or IBM. They are a zombie company and are now surviving by selling their own living organs.
2. Moving Walls
Microsoft is in a trap of its own making. The trap is this: it has dominated the market by bringing Internet computing to the unwashed masses. These unwashed masses are now being eaten alive by viruses, spywares, trojans, worms, porn, spam. The industry response has been to blame the users for not applying patches, for surfing bad sites, for clicking the wrong buttons, for file sharing, and so on. Blaming the users is stupid, and useless. Most Windows users are unable to protect their systems. A new XP system is infected within minutes of connecting to the Net. Even a savy user has a hard time downloading the necessary patches.
Like Indiana Jones stuck in the corridor of death, the trap has more than one moving wall. Computing has become a commodity infrastructure, thanks to the technology curve that has brought software development costs down to almost zero. I've discussed this before, called it "Heironymous' Law": all technology follows a curve that tends to zero. Someone once answered sarcastically: "yes, this is why a Jumbo costs more than a small country", which actually proves the point. Even that most complex of machines, the airliner, costs a fraction of what it used to, 20 or 50 years ago.
Microsoft sells two basic products: Windows and Office. All the rest is fluff. It has tried hard to penetrate the enterprise market, but it's not managed to get into large companies except on the desktop. Microsoft's server products are somewhat of a joke, and it keeps them in place only by tying them closely to its desktop products, not by intrinsic value. I.e. businesses use Exchange not because it's cheap and fast, but because it is necessary if they want Outlook to work well.
Basically, Microsoft makes money by extorting it from its captive clients. All very well, one may say, this is the market in action.
But this is where I disagree. Extortion works only when there is no competition, and this is the kicker: computing has become a commodity, and there is lots of competition. It's not very well organized, it's not as coherent and agressive as Microsoft's offering, but it works well, is cheap, and is above all, safe.
There are several ways that the Windows monopoly will crash, but crash it will. There is no way to de-commoditize the market and there are no solutions to Windows' increasing insecurity.
The first way: a mass ephiphany that there is a better way, lead by the media pleading for more secure computing based on better infrastructure. Chance of happening? 5%, no better.
The second way: governmental intervention, following a mass breakdown of IT due to a worm. Chances of happening within 2 years: 50%, I guess. Computing is so vital to national interests that there will be simple regulation of the OS platform: if it is not secure, it will be made illegal.
The third way: market forces. Every firm that has allowed itself to be captured by Microsoft will find itself failing to compete with firms that use the cheaper, better, safer commodity computing. Firm A uses Exchange, IIS, Windows XP and spends 10% of its budget on IT. Firm B uses sendmail, Apache, Linux and spends 2% of its budget on IT. Guess which firm makes more profits and invests more in product research and finally dominates the market?
Microsoft are trying very hard to sell the idea that Windows is cheaper than Linux, but this is really besides the point. Firms that are stupid enough to believe the argument will fail. Natural selection will eliminate the vulnerable and promote the resistant.
Chances of market forces crashing the Windows monopoly? 100% within 10 years.
3. Time for some terminology
I propose a new term, "Commodity Computing" to replace "open source" as a marketing term for cheap, reliable, safe IT. Commodity Computing is easily defined: it is open source, it is portable, it conforms to independent industry standards.
All governments should be legislating to promote the use of Commodity Computing. Countries that do this will (like Firm B) find themselves at a competitive advantage over countries that do not.
My final prediction: the last country on earth to embrace Commodity Computing will be the US. $50bn of lobbyists buys a lot of time.
Thought for today
Genes produce proteins that construct the body.
It's a simple statement, yet incredibly deep. We know that it's true because we can observe the process, yet we have almost no understanding of how the process actually works.
I propose to try to build a machine that will give us this understanding.
The machine is a simulator, written in software. It is a simulator that executes a particular program, running it from start to finish and allowing us to see the results at any stage.
The program is a genome written using the language of DNA. What the machine does is to take a genome, and execute it.
Let's start with some of the simplest lifeforms we know about, and try to "grow" them in the simulator. We have mapped the DNA of many simple creatures. We know what the DNA is supposed to grow into. So we have a control that lets us ensure the machine works.
It's a hideously ambitious project. Simulating the chemical processes that happen in a single cell is complex enough to be beyond the reach of today's technology. We can simulate a virus and some other simple forms of life. But a cell is much, much more. Simulating an organism that has trillions of cells is so complex that it boggles the mind.
And yet, technology will eventually let us do this. The question will not be one of power and capacity. It will be, firstly, whether it's possible at all, and secondly what such a machine could be used for.
The first question is a bit subtle. Take a closer look at life and you see that DNA is not like a CD-ROM, an isolated piece of software that you can run at will. DNA lives in a sea of life, and all life is interconnected in many ways. Our reproduction and growth depends on the DNA of other organisms: bacteria, mainly. It depends on many other mechanisms based on RNA. Life depends on the unbroken chain stretching back to the very first ancestral molecules.
I suspect that no modern genome can be executed without bootstrapping of some kind. A set of chromosomes is not sufficiently complete: it requires the bootstrapping provided by the cell. Perhaps the very first lifeforms, consisting of RNA, could be simulated with no cheating. But modern DNA needs proteins and modern proteins need DNA.
It's quite possible that there is no way to jump into the middle of this running program. Certainly it should be feasible to "snapshot" a lifeform, and then continue to play that snapshot. But I suspect that it is impossible to snapshot a realistically complex organism. I'd go fifty-fifty on this.
As for the second question, assuming we can build the machine, what could we do with it? Imagine being able to take a hair from your head, scan it into a computer, and watch as you grow from a single cell into a fully-formed person. You watch yourself approach your own age, complete with fashionable tattoes and piercings. You watch yourself grow old, wrinkled, and finally the clock stops and says "DIES OF CARDIAC ARREST AT AGE 62.3". Possibly a little more information than you wanted to know.
If and when we can build the machine, we will be able to create life, literally. It is a small step from scanning DNA to constructing it. A DNA printer could take a genome and encode it into a cell capable of growth and reproduction.
Imagine being able to create lifeforms. Take a little chicken DNA, splice it with penguin DNA, and you get a bird that swims _and_ tastes real good.
Unlimited freedom to manipulate genes sounds like a nightmare scenario for most people. But like all technology it would be largely self-balancing. For every terrorist constructing the ultimate virus, there would be someone building better immune systems.
I predict three things.
First, that such a machine will be built and it will work. Given the scale of the project, I guess it will be at least 50 years from now.
Public attitudes towards such manipulations will soften as we come to see life as a sea of genes, rather than a hierarchy of organisms. Religious fundamentalists may try to ban such science, but the machine will be built, and used.
Secondly, the technology will follow the standard technology curve for immaterial products: it will become cheaper and cheaper until within two generations, it will be accessible to school children.
So the timespan is a century or so.
Thirdly, this technology will change life as we know it. Today's so-called "genetic engineering" will pale in comparison to what our great-great grand children will do with such tools. They will construct new lifeforms, for pleasure and business. They will change themselves and their environment beyond all recognition. Finally they will take control of the economy of competition and collaboration between genes that is the basis for life itself.
We are what we are - good and bad, heaven and hell - because our genes make us so. Just how a DNA sequence producing proteins can turn a single cell into a homicidal maniac or a gifted writer is a mystery to us. But it will be basic science to our descendants. What they do with that is anyone's guess.
My little daughter is growing up and doing wonderfully, seven months now. Words fail me, she's so cute. Here, let me show you a picture. I have one in my wallet. OK, it's a little out of date: taken when she was two months old.
What I need is a digital photo that fits into my wallet. Just a handful of these, credit-card sized, and I can keep my friends and colleagues rightly bored with baby stories.
So here comes more damn prior art number 8.
It's a credit card that is printed on one side with digital paper. For sake of argument we'll fast-forward to 2010 when digital paper really is cheap and available. The card has a small chip on the back side, like today's smart cards. The front side shows a picture in full glorious color. A reflective layer behind the pigments uses ambient light to illuminate the pixels.
The other half of the kit is a small digital camera, the throw-away kind. It clips over the card, making contact with the chip connectors, and takes one photo. The digital paper shifts to show the new image. The small burst of power required comes from the battery in the camera. Since the image is barely processed at all, the little CPU built into the card can do all the work.
For those who want to carry a photo album in their wallet, a data card does the trick. This is flat, the same size as a credit card, and slightly fatter, to hold a battery and the usual processor/memory combo. Clip it to a viewcard and you have a slide show. Add the camera and you have a complete package. The camera, which holds a larger rechargeable battery, will itself charge the datacard.
Cost of the view cards: US$2.50. Cost of the camera: US$7.50. Cost of the data card: US$7.50.
Roll on 2010! My daughter will be seven and just learning how to write her first programs.
Fixing it - Genegroups
People, it seems, spend an extraordinary amount of effort and energy in conflict. Now, in evolutionary terms, a certain amount of conflict is inevitable and desirable, but the wholescale violent conflict between groups that dominates the news is clearly wasteful.
The origins of the battles between Serbs and Kosovars, between Jews and Palestinians, between Shias and Sunnis, between Georgians and Ajarians, and between every aggrieved minority and its neighbours, seems obvious. Competition for power and resources, protection of family and extended family, the twisting of natural human responses into abstract conflicts that serve a small minority at the top, and that cost the rest an arm and a leg.
The "ethnic" conflicts that dominate the news are, IMHO, 99% driven by a few individuals in each case, who polarise and encite populations into mutual hatreds so that they can build power bases and do the protection money racket that men with sticks love to do.
It works because people identify themselves with family and kin, in an ever increasing circle that includes anyone who speaks the same language, follows the same customs, and belongs to the same identifiable group.
But these groups are virtual, existing more in the mind of their members than in their real constitution. Often religion and language are the strongest binding attributes: factors that can be learned and adopted well into adult life. Genetic closeness is certainly the core of the family and extended family structures, but it is almost irrelevant when talking about larger groups.
It's been measured that the average genetic differences within a single well-defined "ethnic" group are about ten times more significant than the average differences between two such groups. In other words, the genes that affect our appearance are trivial compared to the genes that affect the rest of our human variability. Genes for the way our minds and bodies are constructed have a standard distribution throughout our species, thanks to two main mechanisms. First, valuable genes are conserved and maintained over long periods of time (the gene for dark hair is shared by humans, cows, and other animals, but may be absent from light-haired people); secondly, rare genes spread rapidly, so that no population is really isolated unless they are physically cut-off from the rest of the world.
It's quite likely, and this is the basis of my idea, that you will be much closer, genetically, to random strangers scattered throughout the globe, than to anyone further away than second or third cousin.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a story (I think it's "Breakfast of Champions", but most of my books are in cases somewhere in a depot right now) in which everyone was assigned a surname attaching them to a surrogate family. A dozen or so of such families cut through social and cultural layers, giving people another level for competition and collaboration. Vonnegut had a great idea, but I reckon it can be made even more practical by basing this on genetics.
Extended interest groups based on genetic similarity that transcends superficial "ethnic" markers is not such a far-fetched idea. I suspect that we feel real affinity for people, from any background, who think and react like ourselves: atheletes, business people, teachers, artists, musicians, travellers, aesthetes, preachers, facists... the attraction of like to like is strong.
So I suggest that by encouraging and formalizing this into "genegroups" we can give people a strong tool with which to fight the authoritarian "us and them" discourse that sends communities into spirals of violent conflict. "Yes, we are here, and they are there, but I'm an alpha-thirteen, and if you excuse me, I have an alpha-thirteen meeting with some of 'them' in five minutes..."
Possibly the alpha-thirteen genegroup will plot to take over the world, and the gamma-two's will initiate a terrible revenge. But at that point close family interests ("but my sister's a gamma-three, and that's almost a gamma-two!") will step in to prevent extremism.
Ideally, genetic tagging should be universal at birth. I'm not sure whether our genegroups should be tattooed onto our foreheads or not, being able to lie about one's genegroup might be fun, and a life saver when the delta-fours (with a marked tendency to psychotic violence) break out of the asylum.
One last comment. Genes do not define us unconditionally, and I'm not proposing that all criminals can be identified at birth (although if you are a delta-four, please be warned, I have a large and violent dog, also a delta-four). Much behaviour is driven by local economics.
However: feeling close to someone because they share real and tangible parts of your makeup seems a better basis for creating communities than feeling close to someone because they have learnt your language and share your religious delusions.
Thought of the Day
Everyone shares the common human spirit, but some more than others.
Things that need names (2)
What's the opposite of a euphemism? A way of saying something so crudely, with so much emphasis and descriptive innuendo that its impact is felt overpoweringly. Where a euphemism is a gentle caress, the anti-euphimism is a kick in the groin. "Did you feel that?"
As far as I can tell, there is no antonym for "euphemism". So, let's have your suggestions, and examples.
Some euphemisms and anti-euphemisms from my own sector, software:
- application issue / royal fuck-up
- scheduled upgrade / panic patch
- server resource issue / meltdown
- security issue / virus infestation
- inappropriate content / pr0n
And my suggestion is "truthemism".
Libyan Influence in Africa, Cont.
Apparently I'm not the only one to see the hand of the Mad Colonel behind the wars in West Africa.
The BBC is reporting on accusations made against Libya by the chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone war crimes court.
I'll leave you to ruminate on the morality of someone who invests in war in order to create client states.
Thought of the day
Past wars were fought by kings and emperors against each other in order to aquire power and wealth. Today's wars are fought by the rich against the poor in order to maintain the status quo.
Libyan influence in Africa, or "Hands Off"
"Long sleeve, short sleeve?" was the question they asked you in Sierra Leone. One answer meant they cut your hands off above the wrist. The other meant above the elbows.
The use of terror against civilians as a weapon of political control seems to be the core of modern African wars. In some cases it's the government, in other cases some obscure rebel group. In almost all cases the world looks, sighs, and turns away.
A typical scene from northern Uganda: burning village, bodies lying twisted in the smoking ruins of houses, one or two small children who had hidden in the bush coming back to find their parents, aunts, uncles slaughtered, their brothers and sisters abducted or raped, their lives smashed in a conflict that has no agenda, no overt purpose, no tribal basis, no "natural" source of support...
Behind many of the most intractable civil conflicts and brutal leaders in Africa moves the hand - and money - of Gaddafi, the man who turned his own country into a personal fief and the OAU into the platform for a pan-African empire.
The leaders that Gaddafi supports include some of the most monstrous figures of current times. Men who organize child armies into vehicles of terror. Men who use genocide to clear regions of their peoples so that mineral extraction can proceed unhindered. Men who use war as a business tool, who turn blood and violence into profit margins. Men who are willing to see entire countries turned to dust if it means they can add another zero to their bank accounts.
Gaddafi has refined the art of turning quiet people into murderous armies. He has seen that young boys make the best tools: kill their families, rape their sisters, force them to murder their own uncles, and they will become compliant soldiers who will suffer any indignity without complaining, obey any order without questioning.
He found that a small investment in pure brutality is amply repaid when you apply it the right way. Then he built training camps to teach these skills to his disciples.
This is not just a man content, like the run of the mill absolute dictator, to oppress his own people by violence and terror. No, this is a man who has decided to export his vision of social engineering through blood onto an entire continent.
Here is a small and probably incomplete list of the countries where Libya has sponsored violence against a civilian population in the name of extracting mineral rights, political support, or other concessions: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Congo.
And these are the documented cases. There are others, like the LRA in Uganda, where the links are indirect, via Sudan in this case.
We are used to thinking of Africa as a violent, nasty, dangerous place filled with starving people who are as happy to attack each other with pangas as they are to plant crops.
Having lived for much of my life in Africa, I can testify that this is untrue. Africans like any peoples yearn for peace and stability, but circumstance conspires to throw up dictator after dictator, war after war, disaster after disaster. And too often the hand of external "allies" is evident. War creates chaos, and in chaos much can be stolen.
Africa is like a city that is forever being invaded by rioters so that the inhabitants can be looted and raped.
And one of the biggest organizers of this looting and rape, the man who was inspired by Leopold King of the Belgians, is Gaddafi, who pours oil money into criminal political ventures across the continent.
The USA forced Libya into pariah status after the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 in which 270 wealthy western citizens were killed.
But, hey, he's apologised for Lockerbie and promised not to seek nuclear arms. That makes him OK in the eyes of the west, a "courageous" man in the words of UK's Jack Straw. "US companies should prepare to do business with Libya," said Bush. Indeed.
This morning I heard about Libyan-style training camps in Zimbabwe. And indeed, some research shows Gaddafi supporting Robert Mugabe, and eleven-year old girls being kept as sexual slaves in "job training camps" that are producing hundreds of thousands of brainwashed youths to play a part in Zimbabwe's undeclared civil war.
I wonder, when the stories of arms being chopped off start to come out of Zimbabwe, will the world's press make more comments about another horrific civil war in Africa, or will an honest reporter somewhere start to draw the link between the Mad Colonel and the wars for profit that ravage this beautiful and proud continent?
Gaddafi in Africa
Don't Lift Sanctions Against Libya
Mugabe's Secret Torture Camps
Qadhafi Unleashes His African Ambitions
The Green Bombers
Uganda, Sudan, and Child Soldiers
The LRA in Action
Gaddafi Seeks Army
Libyan Training Camps
The WTF Theory Of Mind
After much consideration (see BTFTD 1), I have decided that the entire modern debate about genes vs. nurture can be brought down to a single, simple, brutal point.
The extremist point of view in the nurture camp says that all behaviour can be modified by social control. We are in control of our behaviour both collectively and individually. "Bad" behaviour is due to poor moral decisions. "Good" behaviour, due to good moral decisions. We can improve ourselves, create a homo superior, eliminate poverty, theft, racism, and possibly even middle management.
The extremist genetic point of view says that all behaviour has genetic origins that we do not control. We are the products of a long and complex evolutionary past that has shaped us into delicate instruments of reproductive success. Everything we do and are is a function of the quest to breed and replicate. Period.
The debate is intense and huge. The very existence of a moral society hangs (or appears to hang) in the balance. If the evolutionary psychologists win with their logic and science, we risk the end of individual responsibility, the collapse of law and order, the end of the world.
After much thought on this, I've decided that in fact the discussion hinges on the role of the conscious mind in conducting our lives. A curious but little discussed fact is that we tend to act before we think. Pick up a coffee and your conscious mind "decides" around half a second after your hand starts moving. Step off the curb, and you are moving almost fully on autopilot. Drink too much and have unprotected sex with a stranger, and your conscious mind has been bound and gagged and only escapes the next day to say "what the fuck happened there?"
It's what I call the "What The Fuck?" theory of mind.
The entire "environment" argument is based on the easy assumption that the conscious mind drives the rest. It is the Freudian model of the mind: the subconscious occasionally rebelling, but generally dominated by an intellectual and clear-headed conscious identity. Moral right and wrong are not only possible but essential poles within which we can orient our decisions.
The WTF theory of mind places the conscious mind in the role of a spin doctor working for a PR department. The spin doctor gets news of what's going on, then puts on a great charade and play trying to justify and explain it. "I picked up the coffee because I decided to!" "I slept with that... shudder... person because I felt weak." Occasionally the spin doctor gets totally confused and can just utter a "WTF?" before changing the topic as fast as possible.
If the WTF theory is true, it demolishes the moral compass as we know it. Decisions we make are based on intellectual reasoning only when they are intellectual decisions. Everything that is visceral - whether to buy or delay, whether to drive or ride, whether to say yes or no, whether to cheat or lie or pass... these are decided subconsciously, well out of reach of any conscious "moral" influence, and only after it is too late to turn back does the PR department get the news and a chance to explain to the world, and to itself, what is going on.
The WTF theory explains drug use: these are tools used by the Management to disable and cripple the PR department when it gets too arrogant. The WTF theory explains why people still have unprotected sex with strangers: reproduction is worth the risk. It explains why so many people are so confused about their lives: because they have been told that they are in control when they are in fact not.
As a friend observed, the WTF theory is intensely liberating. If we are not, after all, consciously responsible for our acts, we can spend less time asking unanswerable questions, and more time enjoying ourselves. Perhaps a moral compass still exists, since antisocial acts are rapidly punished by other people in ways that have nothing to do with our own views of right and wrong. And at the least, we can stop thinking that salvation is a matter of appropriate effort.
Achieving happiness is perhaps a simple matter of relaxing and accepting that our bodies and minds are generally damn good at what they do, they occasionally mess up, and we can't do a damn thing to change any of that. We are not management, just public relations. And the worst thing a PR department can do is believe its own publicity.
(c) 2004 HeironymousCoward Publicity Department
Frequently Answered Articles (FAArt)
I've decided that about 80% of Slashdot articles can be answered with just a few standard comments and although trying to get a perfect 24/24* is fun, it's not going to get me any more money, sex, or vacation.
Therefore in the interests of saving time and effort that can better be spent on discovering new ways of flossing the cat, I present the first International Slashdot FAArt.
Article: "So and so has a new anti-spam solution"
Answer: so long as there are viruses and trojans there will be zombied PCs that can send spam. The only way to eliminate spam is to eliminate all security loopholes in the OS. Feasibility: 0%, approximately.
Article: "Such and such has released a new product XYZ".
Answer: Boring. Who cares? This is not news, it'd be news if for six months nothing new was released. "End of Technology? Have we reached the top of the curve?"
Article: "More job losses as XYZ corp outsources its complaints department".
Answer: Read up on basic economics. Moving work to where it's done cheaper is always better for all concerned. Every IT job lost in the US creates several new jobs in non-IT sectors in the US thanks to cheaper technology. Besides, job churn in the US simply dwarfs any job migrations.
Answer: (a) the physical CD is long redundant. Audio DVDs? Sure. (b) the firms making the most money from iTunes, as from the rest of Net commerce, are the credit card companies. (c) Apple has the legit digital music sewn up.
Answer: Microsoft, despite having more money than they seem to know what to do with, is tied to a dead business model. Read up on technology curves, and the estimable Heironymous' Law. It does not matter how powerful you are, you cannot force the world to buy your products when working equivalents are free and freely available. Tick tock.
I'll leave it here for now. Feel free to add your suggestions to the Slashdot FAArt.
(*)24/24 is the mystical state in which your last 24 comments have all rated 5. When this happens, your Slashdot account turns into a mysterious spaceship and transports you to Venus. My high score is 14. Note to self: stop taking the blue pills.
Things that need names
Today, the thing that needs a name is what happens when two women (or men that think like women, let's get the PC crap over with immediately) get together to exchange data.
A naive observer might imagine that women simply like talking. This is confusing the means with the goals.
When two women talk, they don't just discuss random subjects. They exchange information, in a structured and organized fashion. The exchange is highly personalised, and follows rules of economics: information has value and is exchanged on that basis. I'll tell you about such-and-such if you tell me about so-and-so.
I've remarked that there are many women who form long-lasting networks with other women, almost always based on who knows what, about whom. (Men, in contrast, form networks based on who can do what, for whom). There are many women who never do this, they tend to prefer the company of men and feel isolated in the company of other women. Similarly there are men who hate team sports and discussion of car engines. It takes all kinds.
Back to the two women talking. After observing this in many cases, and over years, I've come to the conclusion that the closest parallel is the synchronization of two devices, say my Palm with my Nokia. It's a peer-to-peer process - never three or more. It starts with protocol negotiation. Then the data transmissions start, and can last for hours, even days. Finally there is confirmation and error checking, followed by a signing-off and plan for future updates.
So, the term I coin is: "bluetoothing".
Observe your female relations and colleagues, and you will see that they inevitably pair off in spare moments of the day to bluetooth.
Note finally that the presence of a male disrupts two bluetoothing females. It's fun - try it sometime.
Bizarre thought for the day
Consider this: antibiotics reduce your resistance to alcohol.
Somewhere in your gut there are bacteria that help you digest booze. These bacteria are probably part of your genetic heritage, passed from mother to child like most of our symbiotic bugs, over... thousands of generations. These bugs aren't just having a great time by drinking your booze. They are actively protecting you by digesting the alcohol before it can damage your body too much.
WTF? This is bizarre.
Well, maybe not so bizarre. I figure that a good 80% of adult humans regularly consume alcohol. Maybe more. And often in large quantities. Have these bugs evolved in the last 50 years, since industrialisation made drink cheap enough to be a staple? Nah. These bugs are old.
So, here's my guess. Humans have been boozing themselves sane for millions of years. Our culture is juicily dependent on alcohol, and it's driven some of our greatest inventions, much like porn drives technology. The first grains... for brewing stronger beers. Fire: for distillation. The wheel: to carry barrels of neolithic booze up the hill. Music: to create atmosphere. Money: to sell beer for. Sex: what booze makes easier. Our species has operated in a semi-sober/semi-drunken state since we climbed down from the trees, and possibly even before (ripe fruit can be rich in ethanol). This would explain much of history, including WW1, The Hindenburgh, and West Virginia.
It all makes so much sense that I have to have another drink.
Link of the day
"All reality is based on a solid kernel of fiction."
- HeironymousCoward, 2004
Instant review of Xandros/2.0
Or, what they got right.
I'll make it brief - it's 6.45 here in Brussels and I really want to go into town to get an Orval at the Metekko.
First, Xandros installs sweetly. Rapid, efficient, etc. When I first tried Lindows I was impressed that it could format and install the hard disk in under 7 minutes. Xandros does this trick too.
Caveat: there are some boxes that Xandros does not work on. You might want to try Knoppix on your box first (not quite the same hardware detection layer, but close).
Second, the Xandros user interface is perfect. I mean this literally: there is not one thing I could do to improve it. It's KDE with a clean set of applications, well organized, with no junk and no flashing lights.
Third, the Xandros File Manager is by itself worth the $40. It automatically mounts every partition and device in sight. It handles USB sticks, CDs, network drives, everything. It includes CD burning that my mother could use. This is proprietary software, written from scratch by Xandros, and it is 100% quality. This is the biggest visible difference between Xandros and other Linux distros: on a fresh Xandros install you can click on almost every interesting file, and something useful happens. packages install, zip files open, documents launch, images view, etc. It Just Works.
Fourth, Xandros is Debian. apt-get works. You can install the many Debian packages, or build from source (which is safest if it's not a Xandros-prepared package), and I've customized my system nicely.
Fiftly, Xandros (the Delux edition) has Windows support that actually works well. Crossover Office is built in, so clicking a Windows executable runs it (if Crossover/Wine supports it) transparently. I use this to run MSIE.
Overall I'd say that Xandros is somewhat conservative but impeccably finished. It is the BMW of Linux distributions: you can take this anywhere and give it to anyone, and they will never wonder 'what the heck?' In my company I've pushed a number of people to use Xandros in place of Windows, and it's always been a smooth ride.
There are some things missing. A built-in firewall would be useful. More applications. Gnome as an alternative to KDE. But this is a product with a good future: already the differences between Xandros/1.0 and 2.0 show a determined and focussed attitude to delivering the goods.
I give it 9/10 (the missing point is for the missing applications I had to get myself from the Net: k3b, kate, etc.), and I expect Xandros/3.0 to be 10/10.
Plague, prophet, patches, and publicity
Last year I predicted that the End was Nigh for the naive Internet based on trust and hope. The weak spot is the Windows DNA, the monoculture that exposes the majority of Internet users to a seething mass of hostile parasitic software programs.
This was my original analysis.
Now, MyDoom seems to be doing what I predicted. OK, chance are that this attack will fail. A bunch of new tools will be developed to root out and kills the worms that sneak in while the virus has opened the doors. A section of the Internet will be marked "infected" and eventually cordoned off.
It's a sign of our total lack of an answer that we blame the users.
"Don't open attachments!" sounds great advice. But it's like "Don't click the wrong button!" What attachments? What the fuck is an attachment? Everything is windows, popups, how can we tell what's hostile, what's normal, what's friendly, what's deadly?
I'm getting emails now with attachments sent as zip files. Inside the zip file is a binary disguised as an html file, a large number of spaces hiding the '.exe' extension. A WinZip exploit...
There is no end to this, no way to educate users to "work correctly". Blaming the user is a standard technique for misdirecting blame, but it's no help in this case.
In my company the difference between the remaining few Windows PCs and the Xandros workstations is striking. On the one hand we have systems infested with spyware, trojans, worms, and occasional viruses. Regular Windows patches, virus scans, elimination of 'easy' email tools like Outlook, spyware cleaners,... all necessary to keep the machines working. On the other hand we have perfectly functional Linux boxes that do what we need and have no issues. None. Zero.
One of my team, using a Windows PC at home, has lost her collection of photos and music at least twice now. Each time she takes her PC back to the shop, where they reinstall XP. (I do not do tech support for Windows boxes. Nope.) This time I will install her Xandros.
I'm impressed how hard-core Windows users can maintain the illusion of survivability, and I'm curious to see how long this lasts for.
Such illusions have a nasty tendency to collapse all at once. It takes only one prominent person, institution, or company to declare that it is replacing all its Windows workstations with Linux. Not because of cost or performance, but because of security. Security. That one word spoken often enough will send millions of people scrabbling for something, anything, to save them from the hell that the Internet has become for them.
I believe that this - more than any banal comparison of price and features, more than any marketing or advocacy, more than any critical mass or industry support - will be the reason that Windows gets wiped off the desktop ("flushed", I call it). I also believe that we are not far from this time. This year, or early next year. Two more serious attacks like MyDoom and the bubble will burst.
Of all the Linux distros I've tried, Xandros is by far and away the best. Definitely a worthy contender for "desktop Linux for 2005". But I suspect that RedHat and SuSE will be more successful, simply because they have been around longer.
Microsoft must be aware of this issue and apart from patches and publicity, they are surely working to find a longer-term solution. But to be honest, I can't think of one that would work except to deprecate the Windows DNA and port their applications and platforms to Linux or *BSD. For their sake and the sake of their clients, I hope this project is well-advanced. The alternative is going to be ghastly.