Friday, August 25, 2006


Science by committee. Ugh. The very nerve of it. Astrophysicists, quibbling over matters of definition like biologists!

Not that biologists do science by committee. No, that particular joy is reserved for matters of great importance, like: Which useless balls of rock get to be called planets?

So now Pluto's a "dwarf planet." Whatever that means. Along with Ceres, Xena, and a few other things I can't remember. Anything round is a dwarf planet, particularly. To be a proper planet, it's also got to clear it's own neighborhood, whatever that means, and be orbiting a star. (And only a star.) Check it out.

What I like particularly in this is this gem, from a Mr. Mike Brown:
"The analogy that I always like to use is the word "continent". You know, the word "continent" has no scientific definition ... they're just cultural definitions, and I think the geologists are wise to leave that one alone and not try to redefine things so that the word "continent" has a big, strict definition."
Great, great. Except that, guess what, they aren't discovering new continents!

We need some sort of a definition of planet, so we can keep the riff-raff out of the club, and so we know what to call the various extra-solar objects we might find in future examinations of the stars. Honestly, I don't think Pluto should have ever gotten into the club in the first place. It's strange, got a funky orbit, and although it seems to be a relatively interesting and important object, being one of the larger things in that part of the Kuiper Belt, it doesn't really muster up the way the other eight do.

But that's beside the point. There's just not a whole lot of use to having a big conference, like that's going to decide anything. This'll get worked out the same way everything in science gets worked out: arguing. Possibly with some name calling, and public vilification. (The world of science is nasty place.) Not with committees.

On the other hand, this will get the astrologists all frazzled, so it can't be that bad.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Cyborgs: The Future Is Now!

Seeing as I've been sans computer for about a week now, I figure this is a good time to bring this up.

See, it's my belief that cyborgs are already here.

If you're in high school or college, you definitely know what I'm talking about. If you're past that glorious stage of your life, you almost definitely know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the person who never goes anywhere without their mp3 player, or their cell phone, or their lap top. Who complains every damn time they're asked to put the device away. Who can't live without whatever electronic device helps them get through their day.

And, yeah, the whiz-bang fancy kind of cyborg is around too. There are people who can move cursors on screens because they're directly hooked in to their machines. But you don't have to look that far to find cyborgs. We're already pretty dependent on our computers, the internet, and all that related electronic paraphernalia. And maybe I'm being paranoid, maybe I haven't thought about it enough, maybe I'm a Luddite reactionary, but that doesn't seem like such a great idea.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's . . . a piece of rock!

Brickbat is a wicked awesome word. How can you not love a word that means both "criticism" and "a piece of rock used for hitting people"? All it needs now is a verb form. But that's the beauty of English, right?

I brickbat thee, cretin!

Silly Reasons for a Serious Suggestion

Revolutionaries should play Dungeons and Dragons.

Any roleplaying game will do, really. Or just any game that fulfills a couple of requirements, but roleplaying games come to mind as a good example, mostly because I'm familiar with them. Which is why I mention D&D, too. The personal familiarity. (I happen to play a lot of D&D.)

Why do I say revolutionaries (and that means You!) should play D&D?

It's fun. Even revolutionaries can't be all deadly serious all the time. And we spend enough time gathered around tables covered in maps, discussing things with people normal society thinks are delusional, that roleplaying isn't a huge stretch as a mode of entertainment.

It's tinkerable. There's a set of rules, but you can add or subtract whatever you want, change whatever you want. That's another reason I mention D&D, is that it's particularly good for that. It's got plenty of obvious things to fiddle with, a lot of examples changes to look at and mess with, and a large amateur designer base to get feedback from. And making changes to a large, complicated set of rules is what revolutionaries are all about.

Tinkering with it is actually surprisingly good practice for tinkering with "real" systems, like government. It trains you to think about consequences. This article, and also this one, on "proud nails" in the game are good examples, and are what got me thinking along this track. When you're fiddling with big, complicated, rules based systems, you can't just be thinking about the single rule. You've also got to think about the context, and practicality, and what it's actually going to encourage people to do. The bit about "identifying bears, but only small ones" is a pretty good example of how even well intentioned and well functioning rules can go horribly wrong.

Not that rules are a particularly good way to organize society. But the basic principle applies even if you're using more modern concepts. Like "mission statements."

As a completely irrelevant closing point, it's also good training for dealing with social ostracization. Or, since that's not a real word, being laughed at. As Gandhi says, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." But you don't get to the last to if you run away because people laughing at you hurt your feelings.

But then, revolutionaries don't really need practice being laughed at. It's practically on the "Official Revolutionary Checklist." (Been laughed at? Check. Vowed to destroy them all? Check. Invented/stole a really snazzy doctrine that will make them all wish they hadn't mocked me, so they could be part of my inner circle and use awesome words like "proletariat" in public? Indeed, check.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Windows Security Is A Watermelon?

This explains everything.
"If you think of basic security flaws as low-hanging fruit, then we've taken away all of the watermelons lying on the ground," Andrew Cushman, director of security engineering at Microsoft, explained to

The problem with Windows is that it has too many watermelons lying on the ground! And making metaphors surreally incomprehensible is a good thing!

Check the whole article: Vista Gets Hacked. For the most part, it's pretty good. Except for, y'know, the bit about the fruit.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Literary Metaphor and Killer B-Movie Plot

Fences. Fences are horrible. Terrible. Very Bad. No Good.


Whenever people start talking "fence," things go wrong. Maginot line, basically a really big, well built, fortified fence. Nothing good came of it. Israel's "security fence." I'm not totally up to date on how that's doing, but it has mad a lot of people mad, and Israel's still not exactly what one generally calls "secure." Except in the Orwellian sense. The fence on the America-Mexico border. That proposal's still lurking around on the Hill -- it'll never really die -- but it hasn't done it's proposers and proponents prospects a whole world of good. The Berlin Wall. No caption necessary. Oh, and then there's China's fence, the Great Wall. That worked out all right, at least in the large scale, but how many people died building it?

What I'm really talking about, though, are not these kinds of big, geopolitical scale fences. What I'm really talking about are little fences. Suburban scale fences. Backyard fences.

As an example of what I'm talking about: I've lived in my present abode for nigh on five years now. I know the name of one of my neighbors, because he has a dog who's friends with my dog. One. Name. And that's out of all the neighbors I have: next door, across the street, down the street, up the street, the other side of the backyard fence. All of them. Some of them I see every day, but I don't know their names.

Of course, this probably says more about me than anything else. But fences are a handy metaphor. There's a feeling of isolation, here in the depths of suburbia. Even though there are people all around me, I don't know any of them. We all have our individual houses, our individuals yards, and individual families. Serving sized.

It's there on a larger scale, too. Just look at all the effort countries put into fences, borders, boundaries. I listed some of the bigger ones earlier, but plenty of countries have some kind of physical boundary at their border, even it's just a chain link fence for a couple of miles.

We don't need that. There's enough division, enough isolation, inherent in the human condition without cutting ourselves apart with even more artificial distinctions.

Besides, what if they really are evil? In the very literal, ambulatory sense? It's possible. I can see it now: quaint little countryside, marred by monstrous marauding lines of picket and steel, with great horrible fangs, chewing up everything in their path. So quick, before it's too late! Get rid of your fences! Tear down those walls! Before they destroy us all!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Revolution: Look It Up!

Revolution. There are four dictionary definitions of the word. (Three entries, but four seperate definitons shared between them.) Two refer to physical events, two to metaphorical or political ones. My meaning is related to the two metaphorical definitions, but it falls somewhere in between them. Neither really covers exactly what I mean.

It makes mention of "overthrow of one government and its replacement by another." This catches part of my meaning, because my particular definition of revolution is concerned with governments. However, it is not concerned exclusively with governments. Further, the idea of government -- for simplicity, defined as "a group of people who make decisions for a larger group of people" -- is simplistic and outdated. I'm interested in the overthrow of governments, but the replacement of said governments with other governments is beside the point.

"A sudden or momentous change in a situation" also encompasses part of my definition, but not all of it. There's nothing in my definition of revolution of how long it takes. It could take a day, a year, an entire generation. Longer. It's still a revolution, if it completes the basic requirement.

A revolution has happened when things started one way and ended in a completely different way.

It's broad, somewhat clumsy, and lacks a certain linguistic panache. But it works, because it catches both the military and civilian, governmental and societal, and it ignores things were a new group of people took over but nothing really changed. So when I talk about revolution, that's what I mean.

Cuba, Castro, and Exploding Clams

Cuba. Suddenly that's in the news, because Fidel Castro's sick, had to go to the hospital, and has temporarily handed power over to his brother, Raul. Also, because nothing has happened. (Almost too bad he didn't die: Castro is dead! Long live Castro!)

This has sparked a flurry of Cuba-related news in the papers, and a flurry of Cuba-related searching on my computer. Google news is a wonderful thing. What I've learned so far:

  • His assassination has been attempted 638 times, at least once with brightly colored exploding mollusks. (This is what the CIA does with it's time?)
  • Castro and related officials refer to his government as a "revolution." As in "the revolution will continue to move forward."
  • Cuban exiles are an interesting bunch. Most of the early ones were fairly well off, and left when Castro took their stuff and gave it to the state and "the people." More recent Cuban emigrants are poorer, and left because Cuba's economy isn't that great, and would probably collapse if Venezuela & Co. didn't provide aid.
  • The U.S. embargo is mostly about money. Not human rights. Not democracy. These are issues, but they're ancillary to the basic reason, which is that the Cuban government took away rich people's stuff.
  • On a related note, the embargo has helped Castro and hurt Cuba's people. It keeps Cubans poor, keeps Americans, American money, and American ideas out of Cuba, and encourages the idea of Cuba vs. The World that cements Castro's position as the center of a national personality cult.
  • Castro isn't evil. Cuba's life expectancy is equal (or nearly so) to that of the United States, it's health care system is sane, (Preventative medicine? You don't say!) and the man actually seems pretty popular. Of course, that could very well be because he imprisons or executes dissidents, and the country has an abysmal human rights record.
So what does this all mean? Couple of things. One, that revolutionaries, even ones with good intentions, have to watch it. As far as I can tell, ol' Fidel down there had great intentions. Still does, even. But that hasn't stopped him from committing atrocities, imprisoning people who shouldn't have been, and executing political opponents in the name of "the cause." And it doesn't excuse those actions.

The other isn't so much a cautionary morality play as it is a concrete piece of advice. Watch out for the U.S. A major part of the current American ideology is: Stuff is good. Stuff makes people happy. Taking people's stuff = Bad. And trying to put together a country, an economic system, based on the idea that stuff doesn't make people happy? That they're better off without it? Better make sure that all your other credentials are picture perfect, or you're going to get 638 assassination attempts and a cold shoulder. (Although, in hindsight, throwing it in with the Soviets really wasn't the greatest ideas. Which is another lesson: don't tie your fate to that of a huge, morally questionable, somewhat ideologically aligned juggernaut.)

Oh, and watch out for brightly colored mollusks.