Sour Grapes
Of course we're Fair and Balanced!


In-depth reporting

Late this morning, as I was eating my fried eggs and toast, I turned on CNN. The story being covered at the moment was General Ricardo Sanchez criticism yesterday of the Bush Administration's handling of the War on Iraq.

After reporting on what he said, a segment came titled "Who is Sanchez?"

"Ah, good," I thought, "it will be nice to get to know a little bit more about this guy."

This segment made three points. While Gen. Sanchez commanded forces in Iraq, from June 2004 to June 2004,

  1. Saddam Hussein was captured.
  2. Saddam Husseins sons were killed.
  3. The Abu Ghraib scandal unfolded.

Oh, great! I'm so glad I stay tuned. I now know so much more about General Sanchez.

Is this what in-depth reporting has come to?


Mexican restaurants

I'm a big fan of Mexican food. Unfortunately there aren't a wealth of Mexican restaurants around here. One I've been going to regularly for years is El Azteca, a very fine BYO place in Northeast Philadelphia. Another that's closer but a much smaller (and cheaper) operation is La Morena in nearby Hatboro, also BYO. I've also eaten at Coyote Crossing in Conshohocken and though the food is very good, it's a bit out of the way for me.

Recently Las Maracas opened up even nearer by in Southampton. Last night I ate there for the first time. The food was quite good (I ordered chicken enchiladas with a mole sauce). I was telling my waiter—who, it turned out, was the brother of the owner—about these other two good Mexican restaurants I knew about and learned that his sister the owner had sold La Morena in order to open up Las Maracas. I'll have to go back to La Morena and see if the quality remains good. When I spoke his sister later, she told me she hopes this is the beginning of a chain of Mexican restaurants.

BTW, they have a big banner across their window trumpeting "Complimentary Margaritas" and I was indeed offered one, but after leaving with a take-out version of the menu, noticed that it's a BYO kind of place too, so I'm not sure what kind of Margaritas those would be.

Michele Tafoya's secret assignment

In case you don't recognize the name, she is a sideline commentator for Monday Night Football. Did you know that before each game, she gets a challenge to include a specified word or phrase into her telecast? And if she succeeds, $100 goes to charity. So far in her career she's raised about $2,000 this way. Read all about it here. Pretty cool! Just don't let it get in the way of reporting on the game, Michele (actually, I understand she's determined to do just this, i.e. not let it get in the way). [I learned about this from a sidebar in a recent issue Sports Illustrated.]

Fact-free advertising

There are many examples of this kind of advertising around, but the ones that are currently bugging me are from Temple University. You can find several examples of what I'm talking about on the special website they set up for this marketing campaign. I'd like to quote the one I've been hearing on the Temple radio station, WRTI, but I can't find it, so instead I've transcribed one for radio that I found on the website:

There are certain people who don't believe in the easy way out. For them, that's a cop-out.

They don't believe in cutting corners; "turning" is what corners are for.

They know that what you drive isn't as important as where you're going.

They see the road less travelled as the road with less traffic.

They realize that the only time something will come to them is if they call for a pizza. That you can't appreciate sweet if you don't taste sour once in a while.

They simply can't use the word can't.

They don't just walk the walk, they run it.

They believe that inside of them they have the capacity to make anything happen. Because inspiration, ambition and determination fit them to a "T".

They come from many places, and also from one: Temple University.

What a bunch of malarkey! If any college or university had come anywhere close to figuring out how to ensure that any set of positive characteristics—let alone these particular ones—could be used to describe their graduates, we'd all know about. Not that we'd all want to attend that school. Thinking about it now in this way reminds me of Hitler Youth, a Communist Youth League, the People's Temple, or the Moonies, where indeed the effort is to convince everybody to believe in a common set of values. Is this what a university education is all about? Ironically, I believe that Temple does a very good job of not providing the kind of education that this marketing campaign claims they do.


The coming fate newly available broadcast spectrum

Much of the debate that goes on over what the FCC should or should not be doing leaves me confused and ambivalent. I hate not having an opinion, preferably a strong one, and especially on such an important set of topics. So when I read something on one of these debates that I makes a strong case, I'm happy.

I was very happy indeed to read Scott Bradner's article, FCC ignores the lesson of Wi-Fi's history, in the 13 Aug 2007 issue of Network World1. Mr Bradner is Harvard University's technology security officer. That's good too; I tend to trust academics. He writes about the FCC's proposed rules for splitting up of broadcast spectrum that will become available after end of analog television on 17 Feb 20092:

The FCC has decided on a public-private partnership to run the public safety part of the spectrum. The other option was a government-run, national public safety network. I'm not sure the path the FCC wants to take will change the overall result. Considering the unblemished history of such projects, I fully expect any useful network will be decades off—if it ever shows up—and will produce vast windfalls for a few selected vendors at the taxpayers expense.

The FCC's decision about the public safety network was quite predictable and, sadly, so were its decisions about the rest of the spectrum.

Anyone who has been paying attention at all knows that the most dynamic explosion in the uses of wireless has come in the unlicensed, small chunks of spectrum where such technologies as Wi-Fi prosper. It would seem obvious that if the FCC's goal in deciding what to do with the to-be-released spectrum was—as the FCC press release states—"serving the public interest and the American people," at least part of the spectrum would have been added to these unlicensed bands. Communications companies, however, do not spend billions of dollars (the FCC's minimum bid for a part of the spectrum is $4.6 billion) to open up spectrum for everyone to use, for free. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted in his statement accompanying the news release that the FCC had to produce "a fair return on this asset for the American people." In focusing on the auction return, the FCC ignores the proven value - far more than $4.6B - that more unlicensed spectrum would have returned to the U.S. economy.

Well I haven't paid a lot of attention, but I know that what he says about what's happened in unlicensed spectrum is true. And, wow! does his anti-government slant ever appeal to the libertarian in me! And boy! does the infinitesimal likelihood of anyone but the big spenders (i.e. communications companies) benefiting in any significant way ever appeal to the cynic and the pessimist in me!

Well, now I've got at least one strong opinion on this set of issues.

1Interestingly enough, you'll never learn who the author is by reading the article on Network World's web site.

2Oh yeah! Did you know your non-digital television will become obsolete in 16 months? This is the date when non-digital broadcasts will cease, by Act of Congress. I have a feeling a lot of people are in for a rude surprise. Even if, unlike me, you do have a digital set, you probably have at least one analog set you still use.

White hat phishing expeditions

Phishing for the Good Guys [found in the 13 Aug 2007 issue of Network World] is an interesting article about Markus Jakobsson, a cybersecurity researcher and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, who

spends much of his time perpetrating online attacks on unsuspecting Web surfers—without actually harming them, of course—to see what types of ruses people will fall for and to predict potential new techniques phishers might pursue....

The typical procedure is to tell them about the research after they've unknowingly participated, which Jakobsson admits has led to some angry responses.

Among his conclusions are that many people:

  • seem to have have no qualms about accepting a self-signed certificate

  • who won't click on a link contained in an e-mail will willingly copy and paste that same link into their browers

  • will respond to fraudulent e-mails that correctly identify the first four digits of their social security numbers (which are not random, but identify the issuer of the number)

  • if they are male, are likely to click on a link sent by a female, more so than one sent by a male

  • who appear to be politically on the extreme left or extreme right are likely to click on links sent to them, more so than those who are more moderate politically

Like others mentioned in the story, I have my doubts about the ethics of going about this the way Jakobsson is. But I also would probably be happy to volunteer to be one of his guinea pigs. But that would spoil the results, wouldn't it?


Windows to Linux—e-mail

I took a major step in my plan to avoid ever having, for any personal reason, to install Windows Vista: I switched my primary active e-mail client from Thunderbird on Windows XP to Evolution under Gnome on Ubuntu Linux. It actually went quite easily. The way I saw it there were three things I wanted to accomplish before making the switch:

  1. Get dynamic signature generation working

  2. Make sure I had a way to deal with SPAM working

  3. Switch each of my accounts, pseudo-accounts and news & blog subscriptions over

The first was the hardest. Years ago I started collected quotations that appealed to me. Shortly thereafter I wrote a Perl script to modify a quotation at the end of a standard signature file. Then I wrote a bash script (using Cygwin) to do this every 60 seconds on Windows. Then I modified the bash script to recognize which of my several computers I was on, specify the location of the quotation and signature files on that system and run the Perl script, again every 60 seconds. It's actually quite a bit simpler with Evolution than on Windows (with whatever e-mail client I've had). I've documented what I had to do in a thread at the Ubuntu forums.

The second was the easiest. Evolutions came with 31 plugins. For some reason, both the Bogofilter junk and Spamassassin junk plugins were enabled. At first I thought all I had to do was turn off one. I gave the filters some time to start learning. After I'd marked several hundred SPAM messages, it didn't seem like any were being filtered directly to my Junk folder. Then I read another thread on the Ubuntu forums about how to enable both of them. I followed the instructions but then realized the instructions were for an earlier Ubuntu release and that most of what I had done had somehow been disabled behind my back. Around this same time, I noticed that SPAM was beginning to be filtered to my Junk folder automatically, so I let it be. It's still learning, but the amount of SPAM I have to handle manually is down to something reasonable.

The third step was quite easy too, though I had identified 13 accounts/pseudo-accounts/subscriptions to deal with. (By pseudo-accounts, I mean accounts without their own e-mail servers—particularly without SMTP servers—that I use to generate messages for different purposes; e.g., one for my business, one for personal use, one for a volunteer organization I work for, one for an anonymous blog I write, a no-spam one to which any message replies will be sent to bit limbo, etc.) It only took me a few minutes for each one of these.

For now, I've got a bunch of saved e-mail on my Windows system that I haven't gotten onto my Ubuntu system. I know it's possible, but my hope is to delete all but the really essential stuff before I copy those messages over. I've also got a bunch of contacts that I do want to copy, and I'll deal with that sooner.

By the way, I've been regularly browsing the Web from both systems for quite a while. I found a nifty Firefox add-on called Foxmarks Bookmarks Synchronizer that keeps bookmarks on the two systems synchronized almost seamlessly. Once or twice I've had to manually choose between different sets of bookmarks in a folder because I had changed them on both computers within a short amount of time. But it was easy to figure out the right answer and it's totally lovely to have the same set of bookmarks on both systems. Now if I could only synchronize them with "foreign" computers, like those at my clients', even if it meant going to my own personal Foxmarks page and clicking on links from there.

Note: I originally drafted this post on 2 Sep 2007 ~20:30. Today I've added a bunch of links and added some newer information about my experience battling SPAM. I've since made some additional progress on the Windows-to-Linux conversion, which I hope to post about soon.

Look out!

I'm reading e-mail via Outlook at a client's system. A message I want to respond to has some content that's been blocked: "To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of some pictures in this message." No problem. When I click on Reply, I get the following message in a dialog box:

To complete this action, Outlook must download content from a server other than your e-mail server. This could verify to the sender that your e-mail address is valid and increase the amount of junk e-mail you receive in the future.

I can check a box labeled, "Please do not show me this dialog again," but other than that, the only two choices are OK and Cancel. OK means, "Go ahead; download the blocked content and let me reply." Cancel means, "I changed my mind, I don't want to reply." Where's the choice that says, "Don't download the blocked content, but let me reply to the content that isn't blocked"?

Not only isn't there one, there's simply no way to reply without downloading the blocked content. Here's what Microsoft's Support website says on the subject:

If you have the Don’t download pictures or other content automatically in HTML e-mail option turned on, and you want to forward, reply to, or edit an e-mail message that contains blocked external content, you must download the full body contents of the e-mail message.... If you click OK to the warning message, and subsequently download the previously blocked content, Outlook 2003 does not provide any method to block or re-protect the message as it was originally presented.

Note the word must. What Microsoft is saying here is, "It's potentially harmful, so we'll block it for you, but if you want to do anything with the non-harmful parts, you must load the potentially harmful parts first." Phooey!


Bin Laden videotape?

Tonight's so-called "breaking news" is that an Islamist website may soon post a videotaped message from Osama bin Laden to mark the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Can you tell I'm not impressed? Why does so much news involved things that "may" happen or are "going" to happen?

But it got me thinking: If Bin Laden is so vehemently anti-Western and such a good Muslim, why would he commemorate such an event based on the Western and Christian Gregorian calendar? Why not commemorate it on the anniversary based on the Islamic calendar? The attacks occurred on Tuesday 23 Jumaada al-THaany 1422 A.H. according to the Islamic calendar. The 6th anniversary by the Islamic calendar would have been several weeks ago (Sunday 8 July by the Gregorian calendar). What's up with that, Osama?


Another view on Larry Craig

From Sam Frantz, who's on an e-mail list I'm on:

You caught me being a homo but I don't want people to know I'm a homo so I'll plead guilty to a charge that doesn't indicate I'm a homo, but whoops everybody will know I'm a homo anyway, dang, I shouldn't have pleaded guilty, oh shit, I guess I'll announce my resignation, but wait, maybe it doesn't matter if everybody thinks I'm a homo, they can't fire me for that, so why give up the Republican vote? OK, I'm not resigning! And I'm NOT a homo either! As proof, look at my record, and see how much I hate homos! So there.


A hero for the 21st Century

I'm thinking of Abdul Sattar Edhi. He came to my attention when I read this article about Pakistan in the September 2007 issue National Geographic.

[I]t is a measure of the country's underlying goodness, and a sign of hope, that 60 years after independence the most revered figure in Pakistan is not a mullah or a sports hero, but a 79-year-old man who routinely washes dried blood off dead bodies and fishes his clothes from a donation barrel.

Abdul Sattar Edhi began serving his fellow citizens a few years after the founding of Pakistan, when he opened a free clinic in Karachi. Later he bought a dented Hillman station wagon, its blue paint peeling, and turned it into Pakistan's first private ambulance. He shuttled poor people to medical care and collected the bodies of the city's homeless from the gutters, washed them, and gave them a proper burial. "I felt it was my duty as a human being," he says, recalling the revulsion he learned to overcome. "It was obvious the government wasn't going to do it."

Decades later, that hasn't changed. While the military accounts for a quarter of the national budget, less than 3 percent is spent on education, health, and public welfare. And so Edhi still tends to Pakistan's dirty work, body by body. His one-man charity is now an acclaimed international foundation. His single, beat-up old station wagon has grown into a fleet of 1,380 little white ambulances positioned across Pakistan, tended by thousands of volunteers. They are usually first to arrive on the scene of any tragedy. In May 2002, when police found the remains of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Karachi, it was Edhi who gently collected the body parts, all ten, and took Daniel Pearl to the morgue.

I'm not the only one who thinks Mr Edhi a hero. And I'm not alone in thinking he should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.


Senator Larry Craig

OK, I try not to come to conclusions about people before I know all the facts (perhaps I should say "as many as possibly can be known" since no one can know all the facts). If you've ever been involved in an event that was covered by the media, you know how difficult it is to know much that's accurate from them (not to be overly critical—to a large degree it's inherent in the nature of things). So I start by looking at a source document: the police report filed by Sgt. Karsnia, the arresting officer. Here are some excerpts:

I entered the men's restroom and proceeded to an unoccupied stall....

At 1213 hours I could see an older white male with grey hair standing outside my stall.... The male was later identified by Idaho driver's license as Larry Edwin Craig . I could see Craig look through the crack in the door from his position. Craig would look down at his hands, "fidget" with his fingers, and then look through the crack into my stall again. Craig would repeat this cycle for about two minutes....

At 1215 hours, the male in the stall to the left of me... exited... Craig entered the stall and placed his roller bag against the front of the stall door.... From my seated position, I could observe the shoes and ankles of Craig... At 1216 hours, Craig tapped his right foot. Craig tapped his toes several times and moved his foot closer to my foot. I moved my foot up and down slowly.... The presence of others did not seem to deter Craig as he moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area.

At 1217 hours, I saw Craig swipe his hand under the stall divider for a few seconds.... I was only able to see the tips of his fingers.... Craig swiped his hand again for a few seconds... to where I could see more of his fingers. Craig then swiped his hand a third time... I could see Craig... had a gold ring on his ring finger as his hand was on my side of the stall divider.

At about 1219 hours, I held my Police Identification in my right hand down by the floor so that Craig could see it. With my left hand near the floor I pointed towards the exit. Craig responded, "No!" I again pointed towards the exit. Craig exited the stall... without flushing the toilet. Without causing a disturbance, I discretely motioned Craig to exit the restroom. I noticed that not all the stalls were occupied....

At this point, according to Sgt. Karsnia, they go to the Police Operations Center although Craig is reluctant and even resistant (nothing indicates that he resisted arrest).

I asked him for his driver's license.... Craig handed me a busines card that identified himself as a United State Senator as he stated, "What do you think about that?" I responded by setting his business card down on the table and again asking him for his driver's license.

Craig provided me his driver's license. In a recorded post-Miranda interview, Craig stated the following:

  • ...

  • He was standing outside of the stalls for 1-2 minutes waiting for the stall

  • He has a wide stance when going to the bathroom and that his foot may have touched mine

  • He reached down with his right hand to pick up a piece of paper that was on the floor

  • He is unable to his gold wedding ring off of his left ring finger

It should be noted that there was not a piece of paper on the bathroom floor, nor did Craig pick up a piece of paper. During the interview, Craig either disagreed with me or "didn't recall" the events as they happened.

I've omitted what seem to me to be less important details—in the interest of brevity—and a statement of Sgt. Karsina's experience as to behavior commonly exhibited by persons engaged in "lewd conduct"—not to say that this not relevant, but I myself would probably have remained totally clueless about any such behavior for the rest of my life, but for this story (so I can easily believe there are many people who were, till now, similarly clueless, including Sen. Craig).

There are additional documents available at the link above. The only other one I want to excerpt is the Petition to Enter Plea of Guilty—Misdemeanor:

I, Larry Edwin Craig, am the defendant in the above action [State of Minnestor vs Larry Edwin Craig].... I state to the court that:

  1. ....

  2. I understand the charges made against me in this case, which are: Disorderly Conduct... and Interference with Privacy... I am pleading guilty to the offense of Disorderly Conduct as a Misdemenor.

  3. I am pleading guilty to the charge... as alleged because on June 11, 2007,... in the restroom... in Lindbergh Terminal, I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment of others, which conduct was physical (versus verbal) in nature.

  4. I understand that the court will not accept a plea of guilty from anyone who claims to be innocent.
  5. I now make no claim that I am innocent of the charge to which I am entering a plea of guilty.

  6. ....

  7. I am not represented by an attorney.

  8. ....

  9. I understand that I have the following constitutional rights which I knowingly voluntarily and intelligently give up (waive) by entering this plea of guilty:...

  10. Understanding the above I am entering my plea of guilty freely and voluntarily and without any promises except as noted in number 11 below.

  11. I am entering my plea of guilty based on the following plea agreement with the Prosecutor:... sentence is 10 days of jail time and a fine of $1000.00; 10 days of jail and $500.00 of the fine are stayed for one year on the conditions that Larry Edwin Craig does not commit any same or similar offenses, Larry Edwin pays the unstayed fine of $500.00...

Is this behavior and the behavior reported all over the news media, such as not informing anyone in his life about these events, consistent with the denials that Sen. Craig is making? It's hard to believe. I understand him wanting to make it go away quickly and quietly. Easily. But putting myself in his shoes, if it had happened the way he describes, I have a hard time imagining myself accepting this plea agreement without even talking to an attorney (who, by the way, is ethically bound to confidentiality) or anyone else.


Rioters in business suits

Protesting lawyer in the act of throwing a brick or stone at policeI came across a picture of lawyers in Lahore protesting the firing of Pakistan's chief justice by Gen Musharraf. It looked more like a riot than a protest to me, though I suppose riots are a subset of protests. What struck me was that the participants were wearing business suits. I don't think I've ever seen such a thing. Not particularly newsworthy almost six months later, but interesting. The picture to the left is related to a 12 March 2007 article on the BBC website. Clicking on the image will take you to the BBC story in pictures.


Lying about Gonzales's resignation

There will comment a-plenty on this resignation. But I found something that won't get much attention but interests me. It's in today's New York Times story, (at the end of course):

There had been rumblings over the weekend that Mr. Gonzales’s departure was imminent, although the White House sought to quell the rumors....

A senior administration official said today that Mr. Gonzales, who was in Washington, had called the president in Crawford, Tex., on Friday to offer his resignation. The president rebuffed the offer, but said the two should talk face to face on Sunday.

Mr. Gonzales and his wife flew to Texas, and over lunch on Sunday the president accepted the resignation with regret, the official said.

On Saturday night Mr. Gonzales was contacted by his press spokesman to ask how the department should respond to inquiries from reporters about rumors of his resignation, and he told the spokesman to deny the reports.

White House spokesmen also insisted on Sunday that they did not believe that Mr. Gonzales was planning to resign. Aides to senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said over the weekend that they had received no suggestion from the administration that Mr. Gonzales intended to resign.

As late as Sunday afternoon, Mr. Gonzales himself was denying through his spokesman that he was quitting. The spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said Sunday that he telephoned the attorney general about the reports of his imminent resignation “and he said it wasn’t true — so I don’t know what more I can say.”

In other words, during the 1½ days between Mr Gonzales submitting his resignation and Mr Bush accepting it, it seems that reporters who asked if the rumor was true was lied to or at the very least intentionlly misled. Not necessarily by the various spokespersons, but certainly by everyone who was giving them information. Mr Gonzales himself for one. And if not Mr Bush for another, he does an appallingly poor job of managing his staff.

Is it any wonder nobody trusts government or the media these days?

Billion light-year void in the universe

It appears to be 6-10 billion light-years distant and is described is this paper, which has reportedly been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. If I've made the right assumptions and done the calculations right, this void is about twice as big as the biggest known void. From today's Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The void is not a hole in space like a black hole, but rather a vast region of the universe that appears to be mostly devoid of normal matter and even dark matter. The void is still thought to contain dark energy, though, and is clearly traversable by light. The void's existence is being postulated following scientific curiosity about how unusually cold spots came to appear on WMAP's map of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. One possibility was that this CMB region was not actually very cold but light from the spot somehow became less cosmologically redshifted than normal along the way. Other voids in the universe are known to exist, but this void appears to have an unusually large gravitational effect, and so might possibly be the largest in our entire visible universe.

Total lunar eclipseA total lunar eclipse shown in a time lapse image captured in 2003 over North Carolina, USA

This eclipse (there's a minor error on the page that means you'll have to scroll up a little to see everything) will occur in less than 24 hours. Some aspect this event will be visible pretty much everywhere except most of Antarctica, Alaska, Hawaii, New South Wales and Queensland. Totality will be visible only from the Arctic, Africa, Europe, Greenland and Western Asia. Maximum eclipse will occur at 10:37:22 UT (6:37 AM here on the East Cost of the U.S.). Totality begins 0:45:00 earlier and ends 0:45:02 later, while the Moon enters Earth's umbra 1:46:06 earlier and leaves 1:46:08 later.

I wonder, "Why the 2-second difference? And the even bigger difference between times when the Moon enters and leaves Earth's penumbra? Also, why won't the Moon be full until 2 minutes after maximum totality?"

If you miss it, or the weather is bad, don't worry; the next one is in less than six months.


Somebody to Love

According to a story published on Thursday by the BBC...
Queen star Brian May has gained his doctorate in Astronomy—36 years after starting his thesis. The rock guitarist... abandoned his studies to pursue a career in music...

The performer's thesis is entitled Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, and he has been in the Canary Islands to carry out some astronomical observations.

Count me a fan of many Queen songs. One I like is Somebody to Love. To celebrate Dr May's new status, have a listen to this fantastic cover (.mp3) by Jim Boggia (pronounced BOH-zha). It's the first of several podcasts he's put up.

I'm giving away my cover of Queen's 'Somebody to Love' that I recorded to honor WXPN's Helen Leicht on her 30th year in radio.

If you live in Philadelphia and listen to WXPN (88.5 FM) like I do, or if you listen to their webcast, you are probably familiar with it. As Mr Boggia says, "you have seemingly not been able to escape from [hearing it]." He has an interesting post about the production of this unreleased number on his blog. Apparently he performed all 48 tracks by himself.

If I were one of those people who add music that automatically starts playing to their blogs or websites, this is probably the song I'd put up. But those sites annoy me terribly. So I won't impose my musical taste on you.


Hole punch clouds

Holes in cloud decks are formed when supercooled water droplets in shallow cloud layers freeze (initiated by the falling ice crystals) and release their heat of fusion, which warms the air and evaporates the surrounding cloud. The fibrous, icy wisps falling from the clouds are called fall-streaks (seen here at left in the shape of a butterfly)
It's a day for weather I guess. I saw a picture of a cloud formation in September's issues of National Geographic. I've neither seen nor heard of this kind of formation before. Aussie School House has a whole collection of pictures of 'em. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has an explanation, but National Geographic says, no one knows for sure how these are created, except that it's certainly not by the action of alien spaceships. "UFO hunters be warned—there is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for the massive holes that mysteriously form in cloud layers as if, well, a giant spaceship had blasted through. Scientists just haven't nailed it down yet."

I substituted the National Geographic's actual words for my paraphrase.

PoP (Probability of Precipitation)

Speaking of the weather, I've invested a fair amount of time over the years trying to understand exactly what this means. Based largely on my own sense of who and what are reliable, I've concluded that this definition from the National Weather Service is a good one, despite the obvious bit of awkwardness:
12-hour Probability of Precipitation (PoP12)

Is the likelihood, expressed as a percent, of a measurable precipitation event (1/100th of an inch) at a grid point during the indicated valid period.
It would read so much better if it ended "during the indicated 12 hours." There's a much longer but useful explanation consistent with the definiton at this University of Texas page (attributed to the NWS but unavailable anywhere else, at least that Google knows about anyway).

Weather Forecast Accuracy

Who gives the best weather forecasts? ForecastAdvisor offers a free service that compares Accuweather, MyForecast, the National Weather Service (whose forecasts the Weather Underground repackages), the Weather Channel and others (Intellicast in SE PA). According to them, the Weather Channel was most accurate last month, being ¼% more accurate than Intellicast (and 1½% more accurate last year). Other services trail by 2% or more.


Customer service lives

G.E. USB 2.0 hub (4-port) 97878 Rev. 3A while ago I bought a General Electric USB 2.0 4-port hub. For the last couple of months my webcam and printer have only been working intermittently. I finally figured out the problem is with this hub, through which I was connecting both to my computer. My first clue was that the hub overheated almost to the point of being too hot to handle, literally.

I spent a while trying to locate a way to contact G.E. about this problem over the Internet. When I finally found a web page that seemed suitable, I got numerous errors saying I had filled in the form with French characters, which, for some mysterious reason, was unacceptable. It also wasn't true. I finally got around that problem by eliminating all non-alphanumeric characters from what I was entering (i.e. no periods, commas, dashes, etc.). Then I started getting 404 (page not found) errors.

Next I attempted to contact the webmaster via a similar fill-in form. It worked! Several days later I got a response, telling me to call a toll-free number. I did and got someone who was obviously overseas. He kept giving me information then retracting it. Finally he said, "Oh, you have to call a different toll-free number for that part" and gave me the number. Which he then retracted. And gave me yet another. Without much hope of success I dialed it and got a recorded message saying they were closed.

Today I called again. None of the automated options seemed to fit my case, so I hit '0' to speak with an operator. She said, "Oh, you want the service department" and transferred me. Skeptical, when the service rep picked up (which was immediately), I started to explain apologetically exactly how I had come to be calling. She interrupted pleasantly and said, "What part number?" I gave her the part number and the next thing I knew she was taking my shipping address so she could mail me a new hub. No hassle! No more being put on hold! No more retractions!

Now all I have to do is wait for my replacement hub to show up. If I have problems, she told me to call her back. I would too, if I had bothered to note her name. What a surprisingly pleasant experience it was once I reached this company that I had never heard of. Who is it? Jasco Products, apparently a great company to do business with.


Whose September report on Iraq?

Here are a couple of questions and answers from a White House press briefing on 1 Aug 2007 [full transcript]:
Q I'm asking how he [General Petraeus] can give an objective assessment of his own work.

MR. SNOW: Well, I think the first thing you ought to do is take a look again at the report that was filed to Congress, the interim reported July 15th—no sugarcoating there. You take a look—and they try to use real metrics on it. General Petraeus is a serious guy who sees his mission not as a political mission, but, in fact, as somebody who reports facts.

Now, let us keep in mind that the full burden of this report does not fall on his shoulders. A lot of the key judgments, especially about politics, will fall on Ambassador Crocker. So this is—although I know a lot of people talk about "the Petraeus report," in fact, you have a report that is a joint report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And so we trust him....

Q ...To what extent was the Vice President pre-writing the Petraeus report or setting expectations when he said he thinks it's going to show progress?

MR. SNOW: No, I don't think he's pre-writing it. Look, again, the one thing—if you talk to military guys, the last thing they want to do is get themselves embroiled in politics. What they try to do is to play it straight and to do it straight. And obviously the Vice President has his impressions based on what he's seen, but we're going to have to wait to see what General Petraeus has to report [emphasis added].

Now, according to a report on NPR, "the White House has indicated that it will write the report which Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver to Congress..."

Needless to say, the difference between these two possibilities is huge.


Electronic voting machines decertified in CA

I must have missed this item in the news.

After two months of unprecedented analysis of California’s voting systems and related security procedures, Secretary of State Debra Bowen today announced some of those systems can continue operating in 2008 in California while others are too flawed to be widely used.

Each of the systems that went through the top-to-bottom review has been legally decertified, and then each of them has been recertified with the addition of a number of conditions.

Ouch! There is a page of links to many more resources concerning this on the Secretary of State's website. Matt Blaze, one of the member of the review team, posted a blog entry describing events leading up to this decertification/recertification, as well as his personal observations. He concludes

I wish I could be more optimistic about their chances for success. Without radical changes to the software and architecture, it's not clear that a practical strategy that provides acceptable security even exists. There's just not a lot to work with.

I don't envy the officials who need to run elections next year.

I fear for the deserved lack of public confidence that seems to be creeping into the electoral process in the U.Ṡ. We had problems in 2000 (did you know that "[a]lmost two million ballots were disqualified in the 2000 election because [electronic voting machines] registered multiple votes or none when run through vote-counting machines"?), in 2004 (more "lost votes, [votes] subtracted... instead of adding them, and doubled votes"), and now this?

America the fearful

I took the title of this post from an interesting short essay on Capitol Hill Blue [found via their ]. It opens

"All we have to fear, is fear itself" enjoined President Roosevelt in the face of truly fearsome circumstances. Ever since politicians have worked hard at building a deep reservoir of fear upon which they can prey to gain even more power. But Americans are not wusses, we have shown admirable bravery in the face of extreme danger, so why is this tactic so successful in politics?

I didn't get the political kind of answer to this question that I was hoping for, but perhaps the answer given is the only one that will really be effective in the long run, namely, for each of us to look at and deal with the fear within ourselves. That's certainly consistent with my overall view of reality.

Dark matter imaged?

Here's something I never thought I'd see: an image that shows dark matter in and around a cloud of hot gas (normal matter). Of course, it's from the good folks at the Astronomy Picture of the Day and, no, it's not a real image, only a simulated image, inferred from the way light from more distant galaxies is gravitationally distorted. Still, I'm amazed that anyone could come up with any kind of image that might bear a close relation to reality (whatever that it is). Click on the picture to go to the source and read a fuller explanation.

 Cluster Crash Illuminates Dark Matter Conundrum


When will they ever learn?

Earlier this month Congress enacted legislation, requested by the administration, that supposedly brought the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) up to date. But according to a New York Times article, now that Congress and everyone else has had time to study what the legislation actually says, "Democratic Congressional officials and other experts" say that this law "could allow the Bush administration to conduct spy operations that go well beyond wiretapping to include—without court approval—certain types of physical searches on American soil and the collection of Americans' business records."

The Times article continues, "Administration officials acknowledged that they had heard such concerns... [b]ut they said the Democrats were simply raising theoretical questions based on a harsh interpretation of the legislation." In fact the White House says, "This Act Is A Temporary, Narrowly Focused Statute To Deal With The Most Immediate Needs Of The Intelligence Community To Protect The Country" [bold and capitals from original]. Are You Surprised That I'm Extremely Skeptical?

Given government's history of abuse of powers—and I don't mean merely by the Bush administration, or by administrations of the U.S. government, but by governments everywhere, throughout history—we the people ought to be afraid, very afraid, of just how harshly government officials will interpret this law when they see a need for it.

What will it take for Congress to learn to start reading and understanding legislation they pass before voting for it, rather than waiting till after it's already signed into law?

By the way, Senators Casey and Specter from my home state voted for this legislation. Representative Schwartz from my district voted against it. I'll remember.


News photos from 2005

A friend e-mailed me a slideshow of 2005 news photos from MSNBC. Some were quite spectacular. I Googled for and found the original and larger slideshow on the MSNBC website. For your viewing pleasure, here are thumbnails to what I thought, in order, were the fifteen best (I'm sure if I went through them again, I'd pick a few different ones and put them in different order). Click on the thumbnail to see a larger (16-103K) version.

The body of a child lies half-buried at a school on the outskirts of Balakot, Pakistan, on Oct 14Young victim of the Pakistan quakeAn angry Jewish boy looks out from a synagogue as Israeli police and soldiers storm the Neve Dekalim settlement in the Gaza Strip Aug 18
Gaza settler's defiance
France's Bruno Saby drives his Volkswagen Touareg along the edge of Dakar's Lake Rose during the last of stages of the 27th Dakar Rally Jan 16
Last stage of the Dakar rally
Buddhist monks chat at Pongour Falls in Dalat, Vietnam, on Oct 9. The 100-feet falls, also known as Paradise or the Seven-Layer Falls, draw pilgrims and tourists from far and wide.
Monks chant in Dalat, Vietnam
The body of an inmate lies at a local morgue after a prison battle between rival gangs in Escuintla, Guatemala, on Aug 16
Guatemala gang violence
A red barn along McClain Flats Road near Aspen, Colo, is surrounded by snow Nov 14 after a overnight storm
Red and white and brrr all over
Ox-eyed daisies are refracted through raindrops on the petals of a daisy in Mountain Iron, Minn, on June 14
Floral refraction
A visitor jumps from one pillar to another on part of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany, on May 16Berlin Holocaust memorial opensA blind puppy named Guido frolics through his first snow Nov 26 in Vail Village, Colo, in the first of a series of snowstorms to pass through the area
A new dog, old trick
An Iranian woman walks through the snow during a cold winter night at Azadi (Freedom) Square west of Tehran on Feb 7
Wintry walk
NASA science officer John Phillips took this shot of the moon above the eye of Hurricane Emily from the International Space Station on July 17 as the storm churned in the Caribbean Sea east of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
Mooning over Emily
Yachts race on Lake Balaton in central Hungary on Sept 13 during the 2005 Practical Flying Dutchman World Championship
Smooth sailing
A giant wave crashes over the sea wall at Kalk Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, Aug 27. The wave washed the two people off the wall. Both were rescued. Storms drove the waves that day to height of about 30 feet.
Crushing crest
A Russian air force demonstration team paints patterns in the sky with its MiG-29 fighters July 30 during an air show in Monino, Russia, about 40 kilometers from Moscow. The show commemorated the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II.
Blast for the past
A person walks down a neighborhood street in torrential rain in Lake Charles, La, on Sept 24
The reign of Rita

All images © their respective owners

Double spaceship flybys

From Space Weather News for 18 August 2007:

Space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station on Monday, August 20th. If that happens as planned, sky watchers across North America may be able to witness something rare and beautiful: a double-spaceship transit across the night sky. US cities favored for flybys on Aug. 20th or 21st include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York and Phoenix. The space station and shuttle will appear as separate, bright points of light moving in tandem. Flyby times depend on where you live. Subscribers to Spaceweather PHONE will receive phone and email alerts when the pair are about to appear. Flyby timetables are also availabe from Heavens Above.

...The International Space Station is under construction, and with each new addition the sprawling complex becomes easier to see from the ground. To the naked eye, the space station now resembles a super-bright star gliding slowly across the sky....

The ISS by itself is quite a sight, and unmistakable. If skies are clear, do have a look.

19 Aug 2007 12:36 Eastern time UPDATE:

Due to the threat posed by Hurricane Dean, NASA has moved Endeavour's undocking up by one day to today. Unfortunately, forecasts call for several days of cloudy weather here in Southeast PA, so I'll probably miss it.

The Jose Padilla conviction

Jose Padilla became something of a poster child for the Bush administration's abuse of civil rights in fighting terrorism. Now that he's been convicted&mdashnot of the original charge of plotting to set off a dirty bomb, but on the charge of conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country—some will be tempted to see in it justification for the means the administration used. But it is not.

The New York Times, in an editorial yesterday, got it exactly right:

[I]t would be a mistake to see it as a vindication for the Bush administration's serial abuse of the American legal system in the name of fighting terrorism.

On the way to this verdict, the government repeatedly trampled on the Constitution, and its prosecution of Mr. Padilla was so cynical and inept that the crime he was convicted of—conspiracy to commit terrorism overseas—bears no relation to the ambitious plot to wreak mass destruction inside the United States, which the Justice Department first loudly proclaimed. Even with the guilty verdict, this conviction remains a shining example of how not to prosecute terrorism cases.

The crimes committed against due process of law by the U.S. government are of far more concern to me as a citizen than that committed by Jose Padilla.


The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq

Anthony H. Cordesman

I hear a lot of really good interviews on the Charley Rose show on PBS. Particularly concerning Iraq. Last night, Dr. Anthony Cordesman was Charlie's guest and opined extremely well, I thought. I highly recommend watching the segment (by the way, he sounds uncannily like former President Gerald Ford).

Among the exchanges between them is the following:

CR: What is our moral responsibility in this circumstance? Because so many people, Iraqis and others, have depended on the United States?

AC: Again, I think Colin Powell made the point before we went to war about the idea that if we break it,...

CR: We own it.

AC: ... we own it. Well, we broke it.

CR: And now we own it.

AC: We own it, and we also are talking, again... We took a country with a dictatorship and because we focused only on one narrow idealogical goal—elections: our concept of trying to transform the government—the end result was to create an unworkable political system, to have no clear plans for dealing with the economy, for not addressing in time, or effectiveness, the differences that tore this country apart. And anyone listening to you can calculate the percentages: 2 million exiles, 2 million displaced, 8 million impoverished, unemployment at at least 30%. Getting rid of a dictator is an achievement. Destroying the core of a country is a massive moral and ethical failure.

[Several seconds of silence]

CR: And we've done both.

AC: The good news is Saddam is gone; the bad news is 27 million people.

Dr. Cordesman has just returned from Iraq and published a trip report titled The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq, which further outlines his case.

Everyone sees Iraq differently. As one leading US official in Iraq put it, "the current situation is like playing three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you."...

From my perspective, the US now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq's future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence....

[T]here is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks....


The power of sensory illusion

From one of my favorite websites of all times, one I has visited almost daily for something like 10 years, the Astronomy Picture of the Day, this the one for 17 July 2007:

A powerful visual illusion showing a checkerboard pattern with a light square in shadow that's the same color as a unshadowed black square, though the eye refuses to believe it

Are square A and B the same color? They are. Are too. To verify this, click on the above image to see them connected. The above illusion, called the same color illusion, illustrates that purely human observations in science may be ambiguous or inaccurate. Even such a seemingly direct perception as relative color.

Leaving Iraq

Now that it's becoming overwhelmingly obvious that we'll be starting to get out of Iraq before Bush's 2nd term ends,I'm glad to see that even the Democrats are becoming wary about the consequences, according to the New York Times:

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, would keep troops in the country to intervene in an Iraqi genocide and be prepared for military action if violence spills into other countries. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would leave residual forces to fight terrorism and to stabilize the Kurdish region in the north. And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois would leave a military presence of as-yet unspecified size in Iraq to provide security for American personnel, fight terrorism and train Iraqis....

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico stands apart, having suggested that he would even leave some military equipment behind to expedite the troop withdrawal. In a forum at a gathering of bloggers last week, he declared: "I have a one-point plan to get out of Iraq: Get out! Get out!"

On the other side of the spectrum is Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who has proposed setting up separate regions for the three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq until a stable central government is established before removing most American troops.

Still, many Democrats are increasingly taking the position, in televised debates and in sessions with voters across the country, that ending a war can be as complicated as starting one.

I've opposed both wars on Iraq from the start, but I've also consistently opposed a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq War II for the reasons these politicians are beginning to cite. Too bad about Bill Richardson's position; I think he's an otherwise very good candidate.

Bloodied Iraqi child

Despite the fact that this war was a bad idea from the very beginning, despite the fact that there was completely inadequate planning for how it would end, the United States still bears responsibility for instigating the whole horrid sequence of events that leaves us in the impossibly difficult situation in which we find ourselves today. There's a lot of blood on our hands, and it's imperative that we minimize the amount of blood still to come, including that shed by any government that replaces the one we toppled.


Let your mobile carrier subsidize any phone you want

I saw this scheme in Dave Farber's IP List; he got it from Brad Templeton's blog, and Brad got it from Al Chang. The following just the essence of it; see Brad's blog entry for more details and related suggestions.

Go out and buy the phone you want, unlocked (or locked to the carrier you plan to use) from whatever source you like, including cell dealers, Amazon, Dell or eBay.

Next go to your carrier's web site and find the *most* subsidized phone they sell which works with the plan you intend to use. Find the most subsidized phone by looking at the subsidy price, and comparing it to the typical "completed auction" price on eBay for a no-contract (locked or unlocked) phone....

[S]ign up for new service, buying that subsidized phone. When you get the phone, pull out the SIM card and put it in the phone you actually wanted. So long as the plan you got is compatible with your phone of true desire, all should be happy. And now you have a no-SIM (locked) expensive phone you got with a subsidy.

Sell that phone on eBay or Craigslist.... [Y]ou will sell the phone for a bit below its *real* price. But you only paid the subsidized price, so you pocket the difference. In effect, it has reduced your price on the phone you wanted. If the phone you wanted is cheap, you may get more of a subsidy than it actually cost you.

Nifty, eh? Aren't free markets great?

Senate hearings on Surgeon General nominee

As usual, I could hardly put it better than Robert L. Park did, in the 13 July issue of his What's New:


The leading spokesperson on matters of public health in the U.S. Government, the Surgeon General is nominated by the President, and gets to wear a really neat white uniform. It is the SG's duty to educate the public about health issues. To make sure the SG gets it right, everything the SG says or writes is vetted by a White House political appointee whose job is to ensure that the President is mentioned three times on every page, and issues the President has already decided are not mentioned at all, such as stem cells, Plan B and global warming. It all came out this week as the Senate began hearings on the nomination of James W. Holsinger to the post. Richard Carmona, who served as SG from 2002 to 2006 under Bush, testified Tuesday that if science doesn't support the White House agenda, it's suppressed. Holsinger testified yesterday that he would not give in to politics.

Whither Internet radio?

I have listened to a fair amount of Internet radio over the years. When I have a computer on and am connected to the Interenet, it's very convenient, reception is never a problem and the sound quality is always high. Most importantly, the variety of formats available over the Internet far exceeds that of over-the-air broadcasting.

In the Fall of 2005, I noticed a problem. My favorite radio station was counting down the top 885 albums of all time, both over-the-air and on the Internet. They played two tracks from each album numbered 885 - 501, three from each of 500 - 26 and the entire album for each of the top 25. I was listening as much as I could at work, over headphones. But due to certain provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, WXPN was not permitted to broadcast more than three songs from any one album—or was it from any one artist—over a certain period of time (one hour I think). So for each of the top 25 albums, I got to hear only three tracks. They played some other filler over the Internet for the rest of the time.

Then on June 26, WXPN joined thousands of other US-based webcasters in a "Day of Silence" to protest a retroactive royalty rate increase imposed by the Copyright Royalty Board that goes into effect tomorrow.

Two days ago, a Federal appeals court denied a petition from many of these Internet ratio stations to delay the rate increase, saying it could kill the medium. For an idea of how significant this increase is, consider this: "the six biggest Internet radio stations—Pandora, Yahoo, Live365, RealNetworks Inc., AOL and MTV Online—will pay 47 percent of their anticipated 2006 combined revenue of $37.5 million in performance royalties" (from Reuters UK, "U.S. court denies Webcasters' stay petition" Thu Jul 12, 2007 2:15 PM BST144).

I tried, but failed, to find the actual ruling by the Court. If you want to know more, there's some interesting discussion on this topic over at Slashdot. There's also SaveNetRadio, a coalition artists, labels, listeners, and webcasters that "believes strongly in compensating artists," but thinks that "[t]he recent ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board to increase webcasters' royalty rates between 300 and 1200 percent over the next 5 years jeopardizes the industry and threatens to homogenize Internet radio."

[Thanks to Michael Geist's Internet Law News from 13 July.]

I left off one of the most important points I wanted to make in my original post: that there's no reason to believe the future of Internet radio isn't bright—it just won't happen here in the US.

Furthermore, it now appears that there is still some hope of averting disaster here. According to Eliot Van Buskirk, writing in Wired:

SoundExchange, a group responsible for collecting music broadcasting royalties, on Friday confirmed it has proposed new terms for internet radio that could lower fees for some webcasters.

While limited in scope, Thursday's proposal offers a partial reprieve for smaller sites facing the axe Sunday when a payment scheme approved by the Copyright Royalty Board, or CRB, is set to take effect....

Under the new proposal, which must be implemented by the CRB, SoundExchange would cap the $500 monthly per-channel minimum fee at $50,000 per year for webcasters. In exchange, webcasters would be required to provide more detailed data on the music that they play and make an effort to stop unauthorized copying....

In addition to the minimum caps proposal, Webcasters were given assurances that negotiations would continue to work out breathing room for small and non-commercial broadcasters.

[Thanks this time to a posting on Dave Farber's IP list.]


Calling all amateur (and wannabe) astronomers

According to the BBC:

A new project known as Galaxy Zoo is calling on members of the public to log on to its website and help classify one million galaxies.

Go to the Galaxy Zoo website to sign up and take a short tutorial. If you pass—no matter how many tries it takes you—you can contribute to this largest-ever census of galaxies in the universe [thanks to today's Morning Show on WXPN].


Telephone privacy risk

Think the contents of your phone calls are secure? Not only are they susceptible to authorized (or unauthorized?) tapping by government officials, but the same software that makes these taps possible can be used by unscrupulous hackers, as demonstrated in an article titled The Athens Affair in the July 2007 issue of the IEEE's Spectrum

[Via Dave Farber's IP list]

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