July 2005

Fri Jul 01 00:17:14 PDT 2005

Book Recommendation

As I was leaving California, my ex gave me a copy of The Forging of a Rebel, an autobiographical trilogy by Arturo Barea, who participated in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side.

It was on sale for only $5 new at a local bookstore, and judging by the final work in the trilogy, would have a very good deal at several times that price. I’ve been wanting to read more about that era of Spanish history for some time, and by all accounts Barea appears to be one of those rare authors who’s capable of frankly discussing all aspects of a situation, including those that are personally inconvenient for his own ideology and beliefs.

Fri Jul 01 09:24:43 PDT 2005

One More Reason Why I Am Not a Liberal

I think this may become an ongoing series.

Anyhow, the other day a fellow member of the Laughing Horse Books collective stopped by the store, obviously suffering badly from allergy symptoms. His suffering was amplified by news that one of the few medications that works for him — pseudoephedrine — is about to be banned. That’s after one of the few other things that worked, Ma Huang herb (Ephedra), was banned a few years ago.

One substance was banned because irresponsible individuals and organizations are making methamphetamine out of it, the other was banned because irresponsible individuals and organizations were marketing preparations with dangerously high doses of it to the general public. Both substances also have a long (in one case thousands of years) history of safe use by responsible individuals.

In both cases, the innocent and responsible are to suffer for the excesses of the guilty and irresponsible. In both cases, it’s liberals who’ve been squarely behind the efforts to ban the substances in question.

Fuck you very much, do-gooders.

Fri Jul 01 11:11:09 PDT 2005

One More Reason… Part II

Just which block of Supreme Court Justices were squarely behind the incredibly stupid and dangerous decision that it’s OK for the government to forcibly transfer property so well-connected capitalists can profit? Which one was split, and had one of its number write an incredibly well-reasoned dissent that reads, in part:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.
One guess.

Fri Jul 01 22:26:53 PDT 2005

A Riddle

What do the following job titles have in common?

Answer: they’re all at best euphemisms and at worst lies. They’re what creative HR departments have decided to call systems administration positions in ads that have caught my attention over the past week or so.

You’d almost get the impression that it’s a job like “sanitation engineer” which folks don’t like to do and thus has a high-falutin’ name coined for it to cover up the bad image. (faked gasp) Say it ain’t so.

Fri Jul 01 22:54:36 PDT 2005

On Second Thought, I Shouldn’t Complain So Much

At least the euphemistic job title was evident enough when the job description was read in those listings. Last year, I applied for a programming position with TriMet.

Or so I thought. While it was advertised as a programming job, and the text of the ad described a programming job, imagine my surprise when the skills test for it consisted almost completely of sysadmin skills questions. Which, it turns out, is exactly what the job being offered was: sysadmin.

Uh, thanks guys.

Sat Jul 02 16:34:10 PDT 2005

New Fridge!

1949 Philco Refrigerator, Door Open    1949 Philco Refrigerator, Door Closed
1949 Philco Refrigerator. Click to enlarge.

Well, new to me at least. Moreover, the mechanics appear to be in working order. And best of all, it’s mine for the taking because it’s cluttering up someone’s basement.

I’ve been looking for a refrigerator of this vintage to keep my circa 1950 Magic Chef gas range company for years. Just the other day I was glaring at the 1970s monstrosity of a frost-free energy pig and lamenting how maybe I should have sprang for a period fridge back when I was having this condo de-modernized and could have afforded spending the big bucks at a vintage appliances place.

The one worry is that I did start the compressor wrong — I assumed because the lubricant is sealed in it was ready to run and just plugged it in and told the friend whose basement is in to let me know if it’s still working and cold inside this evening. Turns out there’s a special procedure you’re supposed to follow to let the lubricants circulate before letting it run a long time. It had been going several hours when I called him and told him to pull the plug.

So we’ll see. Whether or not it ends up in my kitchen depends on it passing a few more basic inspection steps, plus the fossilized old rubber gaskets definitely need replacing.

If it all works out, it sure will be nice to have a quiet, energy-efficient refrigerator that’s compatible with the rest of my kitchen’s décor.

Sun Jul 03 01:27:17 PDT 2005

Python email Module Considered Harmful

If you want to see an example of poor design, look no further. How does this module suck? Let me count the ways:


Sun Jul 03 12:05:18 PDT 2005

Hate Mail, Here You Come

After thinking about doing so for a long time, I’ve finally added the ability to comment on entries here. It’s pretty basic (would have been fancier, but the time I wasted bending Python’s email package to my will took away from time available to write a nicer interface).

All it does is send me e-mail, which is all I want it to do. In particular, I have no intention of adding any comment functionality that directly adds content here. Even if I could do so under this current configuration (which I can’t), I still wouldn’t want to — it’s simply too attractive to spammers and other net.lowlifes.

Sun Jul 03 15:24:13 PDT 2005

Two Years and Counting: Still Quarreling about Parking

The latest issue of the Northwest Examiner contains yet another op-ed piece on the big parking quarrel still brewing in the neighborhood. When I last gave an update, the City Council had just approved a simply horrible proposal to build more parking garages. That’s since been tied up in court by the local neighborhood association.

But what never ceases to amaze me is how much both sides in the debate buy into the same fallacies. For example, it’s taken as a given that there isn’t enough parking in Northwest Portland. Right then and there it biases the situation into a discussion on what, if anything, to do about the parking “shortage.” Anyone opposing the creation of more parking spaces is opposing fixing a problem.

Nobody seems to ask how a “parking shortage” or “parking problem” is to be defined. Yes, it’s considerably harder to find parking within a 50-foot radius of a given spot in Northwest Portland than it is in, say, Beaverton or Gresham. So what? It’s considerably harder to find a good non-chain coffeehouse in Beaverton or Gresham than it is in Northwest Portland. Do we see the city councils of Beaverton and Gresham proposing to allow homes to be demolished and coffeehouses to be constructed in residential areas at taxpayer expense in response? Of course not! The folks in Beaverton understand that just because they have less of something than Portland does doesn’t mean they have to change in response — it just means that the characteristics of their city are different from Portland’s characteristics.

Since when did it become an unquestionable truth that the sole legitimate basis by which to judge any aspect of a neighborhood is how closely it approaches suburban norms?

I’ll close with a summary of the hidden premises in the debate as most people (on all sides) are addressing it.

Before you think I’m being unreasonably harsh with the anti-garage side by claiming they, too, buy into these premises, ask yourself this: why is nearly nobody in that camp questioning the basic parameters of how the debate is framed? If they really thought it was a big problem that, say, the need for upscale businesses the rich can drive to is being taken as more important than neighborhood businesses all can walk to, where’s the outrage? Where’s the cries of “bullshit!” instead of the focusing on minutiae and arguing over how the so-called “parking problem” is to be properly addressed?

Sun Jul 03 21:53:59 PDT 2005

Some Software Gets Better

As recently as a few months ago, a fraction of the employers who posted jobs to craigslist refused to include e-mail addresses to respond to and instead directed you to a web page for submitting an application. Inevitably, the resulting set of forms was complicated, convoluted, and painful to deal with.

The proportion of employers who send you to their web site hasn’t changed appreciably, but what has changed is the nature of the web pages. All the ones I ran into today basically asked for some contact information and had places to cut and paste a cover letter and résumé. The more civilized of them had you do the cut-and-paste first and parsed out most of the contact info from them, so I almost didn’t have to do any messing with that form at all.

Tue Jul 05 22:41:08 PDT 2005

How Long Until It Catches Their Interest?

While buying this today it struck me that I’m lucky to be in one of the few states where the do-gooders haven’t made it impossible for normal citizens to do so. Which, of course, begs the question in the subject of this entry.

And no, vodka is not an acceptable substitute. For openers, it’s nowhere near as concentrated, thus nowhere near as aggressive a solvent for polar molecules. Which can be important when you’re making tinctures or extracts.

Wed Jul 06 08:32:39 PDT 2005

Monday’s Celebrations

Well, Cinnamon my little apologist for American neo-fascism1, on Monday I celebrated the concept of starting a revolution against the world’s premier imperialist superpower, a nation led (coincidentally enough) by an arrogant ruler who calls himself “George.” Woopsy. That decision made use of the wrong subset of history’s facts, therefore I guess I’m guilty of “wasting” history (which you seem to think can only be properly used if it’s for the purpose of making a people love their ruling class).

1Okay, that sounds a little harsh if you just read this column. So read her others. None of their excesses, even the ones where the parallels between Mussolini’s ideals and not traditional conservative ones are clear, get criticized. Only defended.

Wed Jul 06 09:32:54 PDT 2005

Mystery Solved

So this is why I didn’t see any fireworks from the rooftop of the river district apartment building I was standing on. It should have offered a pretty good view… if the display wasn’t at the south end of town around a bend in the river and behind lots of skyscrapers, that is.

Wed Jul 06 15:41:10 PDT 2005

On Again… Off Again… On Again… Off Again… On Again!

That's what my prospects of getting up to the Earth First! Rendezvous in the nearby Cascades has been this week. A ride appeared, a ride disappeared, a ride appeared, complications appeared, complications disappeared, more complications appeared (then disappeared). But as of now it does appear that I'll be heading up to the mountains tomorrow morning.

I'm planning on using the opportunity to share my botanical knowledge. Hopefully I'll have a chance to do that. The latest schedule mentions an “advanced botany” class on Friday, which looks like a promising opportunity.

Wed Jul 06 21:00:18 PDT 2005

Not the Oregonian’s Proudest Moment

Mostly Defunct Oregonlive.COM Home Page
Oregonlive.com has been showing this for the past 24 hours.
(PDF file, click to download.)

And I’m very, very glad I’m not their sysadmin. Must be a pretty nasty problem for it to still be keeping them down after all this time.

Wed Jul 06 21:45:15 PDT 2005

Stomping out Bullshit

This is cool. A bunch of different contributors jumped in to call “bullshit” on the (unsubstantiated, faith-based) premise behind this Indymedia article. There’s so many real problems in the world that need fixing that the least thing we need is to have activists running around wasting their time on pretend problems.

And with that, I’m off the net probably until Sunday or maybe even Monday, hopefully accomplishing things in the real, face-to-face world instead of just sitting on my butt in front of a computer.

Thu Jul 07 07:50:06 PDT 2005

Sound Somewhat Familiar?

Just replace those American city names with the name of oh, maybe a certain capital city of an island nation off the coast of northern Europe or something.

Then came Subway Day. Public-transit systems in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were all struck at 8:15 A.M. eastern time, on a Monday in April. Unlike the previous year’s attacks, these strikes did not appear to involve suicides. The bombs were apparently hidden on trains while they sat in rail yards, or were placed in newspaper racks and ticket machines.…
— Richard A. Clarke, “Ten Years Later”, The Atlantic Monthly, January 2005.

Full article here.

Sun Jul 10 10:25:07 PDT 2005

Back from a Charmed Trip

Lilium washingtonianum
Mt. Hood Lily (Lilium washingtonianum). Click to enlarge.

Charmed because a number of things unexpectedly went right, such as:

Other highlights include:

Sun Jul 10 19:24:29 PDT 2005

What He Said
We know what took place. A group of people, with no regard for law, order or our way of life, came to our city and trashed it. With scant regard for human life or political consequences, employing violence as their sole instrument of persuasion, they slaughtered innocent people indiscriminately. They left us feeling unified in our pain and resolute in our convictions, effectively creating a community where one previously did not exist. With the killers probably still at large there is no civil liberty so vital that some would not surrender it in pursuit of them and no punishment too harsh that some might not sanction if we found them.

The trouble is there is nothing in the last paragraph that could not just as easily be said from Falluja as it could from London. The two should not be equated — with over 1,000 people killed or injured, half its housing wrecked and almost every school and mosque damaged or flattened, what Falluja went through at the hands of the US military, with British support, was more deadly. But they can and should be compared. We do not have a monopoly on pain, suffering, rage or resilience. Our blood is no redder, our backbones are no stiffer, nor our tear ducts more productive than the people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those whose imagination could not stretch to empathise with the misery we have caused in the Gulf now have something closer to home to identify with. “Collateral damage” always has a human face: its relatives grieve; its communities have memory and demand action.

Full article here.

Sun Jul 10 23:47:34 PDT 2005

More Bizarre “Logic” from Capitalists

Apropos this, just what fraction of the PGE territory’s geographic area do Enron’s board members own, and what fraction of its electrical sales do they consume? Don’t know exactly but I’d be very surprised if it weren’t either zero or a figure so small one would have to use exponential notation to represent it.

Mon Jul 11 10:56:22 PDT 2005

Gross Servility to the Powerful, How to Stop It, and Why It Won’t Stop Anytime Soon

Once again, those who sit in the seats of power have demonstrated how their chief characteristic is gross servility to the wealthy and powerful.

Back when the PUD petitions and elections were happening, many of the same folks who support this ill-conceived bill were spreading all sorts of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about People’s Utility Districts. That, despite how PUD’s are a time-tested model for public ownership and control of electric utilities that have a seventy-year record of success.

Now some of those very same people are enthusiastically behind an ownership model that’s never been used, anywhere, for an electric utility. A model that was hastily conceived and which has obvious flaws in it. A model they want to rush into implementing for the largest electric utility in the state.

It all makes the utter meaninglessness of anything that’s said in opposition to public ownership of PGE so apparent. It’s all lies; the real reason (it gets in the way of monopoly profits) is always left unstated.

It’s instructive to note that the provisions in the Oregon Constitution for PUD’s came about in the 1930’s, a time when capitalism was undergoing an increasing crisis of legitimacy in the public mind, a time when growing numbers of people were joining a revolutionary organization (in this case, primarily the Communist Party).

Yes, there were people nicely asking for change and working within the system for reforms within it (such as allowing PUD’s). And yes, the stated reason for passing the reforms was the efforts of such folks. But there have always such efforts; the Nice Liberals have always been with us. The difference is that in the absence of strong, radical, revolutionary movements, the Nice Liberals get ignored.

The net effect is that (whether liberals are personally aware of it or not) liberal reformism ends up being used by the system as a tool to preserve the rule of the elite: when the masses get uppity, reforms are tossed their way until enough of them conclude that the system has some merits worth saving after all and radical fervor dies down. Once that happens, the Nice Liberals will once more be ignored, their reforms undermined, and power increasingly placed in the hands of the elite once more.

Returning to the subject of PGE, the upshot of all this is that given there is no such strong upwelling of radical sentiment these days, it does not bode well for the outcome of the battle over PGE’s future.

Mon Jul 11 17:19:13 PDT 2005

Drawdown? Yeah, Right

If there’s any truth in this, it would be best expressed by changing the headline to “U.S. May Concede Defeat in Iraq in 2006.” Because that’s what any troop “drawdown” really would be.

There’s obviously been little progress in putting down the resistance, given how they can’t even secure the road from downtown Baghdad to the airport, fer chrissakes. And I’d rate the chance of the resistance seeing the government the U.S. leaves installed in Iraq as anything but an illegitimate puppet regime as slim to none.

Which means any drawdown will result in less experienced Iraqi troops (who more than likely have at least some resistance infiltrators in their ranks) facing a continuing or escalated resistance movement. End result is it will prove approximately as healthy for the continued existence of the puppet regime in Iraq as “Vietnamization” was for the continued existence of a previous puppet regime.

Tue Jul 12 09:26:39 PDT 2005

The Spark of Revolution Is within All of Us

Case in point is how the very Middle American suburbs of Beaverton and Milwaukie have become hotbeds of opposition to Wal-Mart.

You could probably ask many of the folks who are against the new Wal-Mart stores to justify their opposition in light of how the institution of property rights gives Wal-Mart the right, under the law, to build stores on land it owns or leases, and they’d be unable to explain their opposition. Ditto for how the concept of free markets says that they should be allowed to build their store, how the only legitimate way to oppose it is to refrain from buying things there, and that it’s anti-market to deprive folks the choice of buying things from Wal-Mart. You could probably press the issue in propaganda arguments and get them to change their minds about it.

Yet somehow, there’s also this deep-seated feeling that for reasons never consciously articulated, it’s just wrong to have an anonymous, undemocratic, out-of-town organization making decisions that affect their community in such a gross way. And people have this reservoir of inner skepticism despite being indoctrinated by pro-capitalist propaganda for their whole lives.

That there’s no real larger understanding to back up the inner skepticism makes it all the more amazing, given that it persists despite having been indoctrinated on a conscious level into an ideology diametrically opposed to it. The system has done its level best to turn folks into nothing more than obedient little cogs in the machine, and failed.

And that’s why, despite it all, I still have some optimism and hope for building a better world.

Tue Jul 12 14:02:01 PDT 2005

Thought So

Cue the voice of Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle: “Well, surprise, surprise, surprise!”

Turns out that Masaru Emoto’s water-crystal “scientific experiment” wasn’t double-blind and apparently contained no systematic procedure for selecting which crystals to photograph after all. Go here and scroll down to the “water crystals” section.

In a related anecdote, a friend of mine does proofreading for a living, and happened to get the contract for the English translation of one of Emoto’s books. He was struck by the sloppy and imprecise use of terms and incomplete description of the experiment. Assuming it was caused by poor translation, he tried to contact either Emoto or his translator for clarification.

The response was a huffy dismissal of his objections, a reaction entirely consistent with that of a charlatan who’s run into a skeptic that’s not letting himself get snowed. And entirely inconsistent with that of a genuine scientist who would actively desire to describe his experiments as precisely as possible.

Tue Jul 12 14:28:32 PDT 2005

Yet More on Emoto

It gets yet more precious.

The Wikipedia article on him reports that the James Randi Educational Foundation that he’s been offered the sum of $1 million (a serious offer, as the JREF has pledges to back the reward if anyone ever qualifies for it) if he can demonstrate his claims in a double-blind experiment. Emoto’s expressed no interest in taking them up on their offer.

What’s the matter, new-ager boy? Don’t want a nice big pile of free money?

Tue Jul 12 21:37:30 PDT 2005

Fuck Wyden

Yet another reason why I am not a Democrat.

Thu Jul 14 21:47:56 PDT 2005

Biodiesel and Ethanol: Hydrocarbon Laundering

Organized crime opens up phony businesses for the purpose of laundering money earned in illicit activities by furnishing an apparently legitimate business to credit the earnings to. A completely legal but otherwise very similar (and almost never acknowledged) process underlies many forms of “alternative” energy.

The only reason there’s so much cheap grain to turn into ethanol is that US farms are astonishingly productive — but productive in terms of grain output only.

They’re actually net consumers of energy: more calories of effort are consumed in the farming than calories of food (or motor vehicle fuel) result. No traditional agricultural society could get away with such a situation, but we’re no traditional agricultural society: the bulk of the energy expended on the typical US farm comes not from human and animal muscle power but from fossil fuels.

And it’s not just the diesel going into the tractors and combines I’m talking about. Petrochemicals are also used in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides.

The net result is that far from representing any new source of energy, grain-based ethanol represents nothing more than laundered petroleum. And inefficiently laundered petroleum at that: because the laundering process produces less energy than it consumes, you’re better off tanking up on plain old gasoline.

Yes, there are pollution-control benefits to adding ethanol to gasoline as an oxygenating agent. A case for burning some ethanol can be made on those grounds. But not on grounds of reducing petroleum dependency. It’s also true that there are alternatives to intensively-farmed grain as feedstocks for ethanol production. Alas, they don’t seem to be in common use in this country.

Biodiesel may well be in a similar situation. The catch is the amount of waste vegetable oil that ends up simply being discarded instead of being re-used as a raw material for soaps, lotions, lubricants, and other products (and lots of it is used as such). Waste oil that’s diverted from an incinerator to a diesel engine is waste oil that’s being used to reduce petroleum dependency. Anything else is robbing an industry somewhere of a needed raw material, one it might well be replacing with petroleum-based ones.

And it is in an exactly similar situation in the EU, where a biodiesel initiative focuses on using virgin vegetable oil as a biodiesel feedstock.

Thu Jul 14 22:47:44 PDT 2005

Or Maybe Not

I’ll note that other studies dispute the net energy loss claim.

Though if pressed to believe one over the other, I tend to side with the energy loss side. It’s mainly a result of learning long ago in an anthropology class that the agricultural activities of advanced technological societies typically had negative energy balances. Though I suppose my anthro. professor could have been wrong.

Fri Jul 15 12:20:25 PDT 2005

This Week’s Required Reading

Go on over to commondreams.org and take a look at this article. For bonus points, follow up by reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles it’s reviewing.

I’ll excerpt some noteworthy conclusions of the article:

Professor John McCarthy (pioneer in Artificial Intelligence research and the inventor of the LISP programming language), has a famous quote about arithmetic and nonsense. Some years ago, I turned that quote into a principle of my own: “he who refuses to acknowledge the existence of class is doomed to talk nonsense.”

Class in America is like the elephant in the living room that everyone refuses to talk about. It is, after all, the key characteristic of any hierarchical society (and bourgeois society is hierarchical). That last statement borders on the tautological: hierarchical societies just wouldn’t be hierarchical if there weren’t different classes.

And that’s why the vast majority of political analyses aren’t even worth the paper they’re written on.

Whether or not the article unleashes a wider acknowledgment of class amongst the nation’s elite (as the Commondreams piece hopes) remains to be seen. Such pieces have made it into the Establishment media before; the Seattle Times ran a very good series on class in America ten or fifteen years ago. It had no lasting effect and touched off no greater trend.

Absent some major new developments, that’s the most likely outcome of the recent set of articles. Ruling classes throughout written history have always been chiefly motivated by one thing and one thing only: maximizing their power. With very rare exceptions,* all actions of all ruling classes can be explained in terms of this chief motive. What are on the face concessions of power for humanitarian reasons have only happened in the face of growing revolutionary movements whose goal is to unseat the rulers. Such concessions were were granted for the purpose of defusing revolutionary sentiments; once such sentiments pass, they are undermined, evaded, or withdrawn. Their raison d’état is the preservation of the existing class hierarchy, and nothing more.

Currently, the only folks talking about revolution are more a subculture than a movement, a relatively small group of individuals, largely in a few coastal cities that are activist ghettos. Until that changes, expect the stranglehold class has on humanity to do nothing but get more oppressive with each passing year.

The floggings will continue until the slaves get restless and uppity.

*In fact, I can’t offhand think of any; I’ve mainly put those weasel words into that statement because experience has taught me that sweeping, ironclad, no-exceptions principles inevitably do actually have a few exceptions here and there.

Fri Jul 15 17:48:51 PDT 2005

Simply Beautiful

Thanks to last week’s terrorist attacks in London, much of the coverage of the G8 summit a few hundred miles to the north never made it into the media.

So I never heard about this. It doesn’t appear to be simply a case of activists tooting their own horns, either, as a mainstream source concurs that there was significant disruption on the rural highways.

I’ve been increasingly skeptical about “summit-hopping protests” in the years since Seattle, 1999. Seattle’s protests were a success chiefly because the cops didn’t believe all the statements about “shutting it down” were literal; they thought it merely a metaphor.

Seattle taught the Establishment that such words are to be taken as a literal statement of intent. As a result, policing strategies have been adjusted in response, most notably at Miami. One of the key principles of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is that of surprising your enemy, i.e. not doing exactly what he expects. Failure to change our strategies in response is therefore a recipe for defeat.

I don’t care how democratic the wealthy member states of the G8 are. Even if one assumes that grants them legitimacy within their own borders, they represent but a minority of the world’s population. They have no right to dictate to the entire planet as if they constitute all of it. Their summits represent the will of a gang of global feudalists.

Such attempts at global domination deserve all the resistance and disruption they get. So it’s very encouraging to read that some wonderful young people managed successfully create quite a bit of actual disruption, instead of simply engaging in ritualized street theater. And I don’t mind in the least having to eat a few of the words of skepticism I’ve spoken about such in the past few years.

Interestingly, there was no shortage of the ritialized urban street battles, either, with the result that it either deliberately or serendipitously distracted enough cops from the rural highways that it was possible to blockade them.

Sat Jul 16 15:48:32 PDT 2005

Programmed Obsolescence

If there’s any doubt how detached capitalist markets are from any sort of external reality, this should clear things up.

Basically the only logic upon which such idiocy can be defended is “the market says so.” Clearly the horrid waste of resources implied in throwing out a broken four-year-old washing machine instead of fixing it shows there’s no environmental logic going on here.

There’s not much labor logic, either. The old, repairable appliances were chiefly manufactured in unionized factories that had health and safety rules to comply with. Today’s cheap junk is manufactured by sweatshop workers earning a pittance in comparison. And the repair jobs, which (as a result of them involving variety and sometimes stimulating mental challenges instead of mindless repetitive assembly work) were the best careers in the industry, are vanishing altogether. Some improvement.

On the subject of the assembly jobs, it’s telling that China’s police state was an unspeakable evil that we had to engage in tireless struggle with when the secret police arrested those suspected of being capitalists, but became a key trading partner when they switched to arresting those suspected of being union organizers. But I digress.

And as for the container ships that transport those washing machines across the Pacific, the giant engines that turn their giant screw propellers don’t run on the captain’s good looks. A big part of why it’s more economical to ship appliances from halfway around the world rather then from nearby factories has to do with artificially-low oil prices maintained by decades of state-sponsored and taxpayer-financed intervention in the Middle East. As well as letting those who burn oil get away with paying nothing to compensate for the environmental costs it imposes on others.

So what we have here is an outcome light years away from a bunch of free individuals excercizing their wills. It’s more a result of police states oppressing workers, the current generation imposing a legacy of waste and despoilment on the future, and petro-imperialists subjugating entire nations of people. As is usually the case when real-world capitalist markets — as opposed to free-market fairy tales — are being discussed.

Mon Jul 18 09:54:35 PDT 2005

Low-Level Stuff Matters

In a past job, I encountered some Java code that used floating point to store financial data.

For the non-geeks reading this, this is a tempting decision but a very bad idea, as the only currency values floating-point can represent accurately are those in multiples of 25 cents. Use floating point for currency values and eventually you’ll end up with irritating little problems of things not balancing because they’re a cent off. That’s why the ancient, oft-disparaged, business-oriented programming language COBOL avoids floating point in most cases.

I approached some of the developers and told them it was a bad idea. They naturally wanted to know why, so I started with an explanation of how processors represented floating-point values. And was interrupted &mdash “that’s a hardware issue, and we don’t have to worry about it because Java is a portable language and insulates the programmer from hardware specifics.”

Well, no, it doesn’t. Not completely. The only way a programmer can be completely insulated from hardware is not to run the program at all. Those floating-point operations most definitely are being performed by hardware, and all the deficiencies common to every binary floating-point number come into play.

This whole principle of never ignoring the low-level stuff came into play this morning when I was doing some coding in PHP and realized that whether or not I’d be coding a horrible memory leak depended on the internals of the PHP interpreter’s memory management. If I had merrily assumed that since PHP handles memory allocation for me therefore I don’t need to worry about it, I’d have a real mess in the making.

Mon Jul 18 11:02:38 PDT 2005

Antiterrorism Incompetence

How incompetent are US and UK antiterrorism efforts? Let’s just compare them to how a police detective would investigate a burglary.

One of the first things that detective would do is look through the burgled house and try to find how the burglar entered. Suppose it is discovered he got in by jimmying a flimsy lock on the rear door. Most any detective would then inform the homeowner this, and probably go a little further by recommending some more secure types of locks that can be installed.

Suppose the homeowner’s reaction at such a suggestion was to berate the detective and chase him from the house because in explaining how the burglar got in and offering a suggestion on how to prevent future burglaries he’s somehow justifying the crime! That’s such an absurd suggestion that the whole scenario boggles the mind — it’s obvious that explaining to a crime a victim how he might avoid becoming a repeat victim is a far thing from excusing a crime.

Yet that’s exactly what British foreign secretary Jack Straw has done in response to the recent Chatham House report.

Now suppose further that the victim was an organized crime boss, the burglary involved his maid being murdered, and the chief suspect in the crime was the rival syndicate in town. Would it not be natural to conclude that, while the crime was an immoral act that killed an innocent person, it was only to be expected?

Wed Jul 20 10:04:41 PDT 2005

For When You Have One Hell of a Cold

This may be the answer.

In all seriousness, though, it’s only been fairly recently that this particular bit of Biblical trivia has been common knowledge, As recently as 1950, the only significance of 666 in the minds of all but a few Biblical scholars was that it was the number between 665 and 667. Given that it’s an easy-to-remember number, it’s not surprising that it would get chosen as a trademark or model number for all sorts of things (not to mention a US highway number).

It’s somewhat more surprising that there’d be something still marketed as such, but there you have it.

Wed Jul 20 10:17:41 PDT 2005

No, It’s Not Too Expensive

Gasoline prices in the USA, that is. At least not if all sorts of very real and very grave environmental threats (ones that are much more serious than terrorism) are to be taken seriously.

Wed Jul 20 21:07:32 PDT 2005

The Best Take Yet on John Roberts

Is right here.

Thu Jul 21 19:16:46 PDT 2005

Something’s Fishy Here

That’s my take on the latest bombings in London. It’s obvious they’re not the work of trained terrorists with many connections given how all four of the bombs were duds which failed to properly detonate.

I’d guess that previous to the recent bombings, the most did was talk about doing acts of terrorism. Which, in all likelihood, they probably did. That they obviously had very strong feelings about the state of the world is evidenced by how they were prepared to die for their beliefs.

It looks to me like it was a group of friends or acquaintances that saw the original bombings, knew where to steal some explosives (a gravel pit, perhaps), and decided to stage a copycat crime.

Fri Jul 22 12:37:11 PDT 2005

Opened at Last

Key safe, door shut Key safe, door open
Usable at last. Click to enlarge.

Ever since I moved into this place in 2001, I’ve been wondering what the combination to the key safe outside my door is, and been meaning to figure it out someday.

Despite their reputation, such key safes (and the related pushbutton cipher locks) are low-security devices. Reason is that there’s a surprisingly small number of valid combinations, as a result of the order of the button presses not mattering (e.g. if the combination is 1234, then 1432, 4321, 1324, 2341, and so on will also open the lock). Also, it matters not how many times a button is pushed, so 1, 11, 111 and so on are all effectively the same combination.

In the space of an hour or two it’s possible to work through all the possibilities. I never tried that until today

And I got lucky. After trying all the possible two-digit combinations, and all possible four-digit combinations that involved making the corners of a rectangle, I started on the three-digit ones: 123, 124, 125 — bingo! It was almost anticlimactic, the door coming off into my hand that early.

That said, I’ve not had much of a need for the thing, either. So the main effect of this accomplishment might end up being that I can get at the mounting screws and remove it.

Tue Jul 26 12:55:49 PDT 2005

How Appropriate

Given what many programmers do inwardly at the thought of dealing with Microsoft operating systems, isn’t it singularly appropriate that the abbreviation for one of their systems is WinCE?

Tue Jul 26 21:10:56 PDT 2005

Oh Joy

Yet another characteristic of modern empires in decline: patching up ancient, unsafe, technologically obsolete jalopies of spacecraft and sending astronauts into orbit inside them simply for the sake of national pride and vanity.*

The USSR and then Russia did it big time — and now the USA. NASA even announced they’d send the thing into orbit even though they had no idea why the gauge that scrubbed the last launch attempt didn’t work (and that they’d launch even if it was still acting up). And when it launched it did so in a hail of spare parts shaking themselves loose.

Go team.

*Which seems to be a special case of a general necessity for any empire — giving the masses something impressive to identify with while the ruling class screws them in the name of its own greater glory. Babylon had its hanging gardens, Egypt its pyramids, Napoleon’s France its Parisian boulevards and monuments, the US and the USSR have (or had) manned space programs.

Well, for the sake of those aboard, I sure hope they’re spare.

Wed Jul 27 07:23:30 PDT 2005

The Head-in-the-Sand Crowd

This is revealing but hardly a new trend. After all, the anti-environment crowd persists in ignoring ever-growing evidence in favor of anthropogenic global warming, so why should a few fish matter?

Ya gotta love the rhetoric that simply counting the fish shows bias against dams. Apparently, anything other than unshakable blind faith in a belief constitutes “bias” on Planet Larry Craig.

Wed Jul 27 09:05:13 PDT 2005

A PHP Annoyance

Static declarations are broken. In C, you can do something like:

int gunk(int i)
      static int junk = 21 * 2;
      static int glunk = MANIFEST_CONSTANT;
      return (i + junk) * glunk;
But in PHP, the equivalent:
function gunk($i)
      static $junk = 21 * 2;
      static $glunk = constant(’MANIFEST_CONSTANT’);
      return ($i + $junk) * $glunk;
Fails miserably with a syntax error, because “expressions” are disallowed in static declarations.

Which is truly weird because in most languages both 42 and 21 * 2 are considered expressions. So it’s really a bizarre not-all-constant-expressions-are-considered-equal rule we’re faced with here. Blecch.

And it’s not just because I’m attempting to set $glunk to the return value of a function call that the declaration fails. Even if I were to replace that line with:

      global $MANIFEST_CONSTANT;
      static $glunk = $MANIFEST_CONSTANT;
It still goes down in flames. There is no escape. Double blecch.

All of which makes things really fun in class declarations when defining final static variables. Essentially robs them of much of their utility, thereby forcing the use of constructs that make code less maintainable.

It’s an especially annoying shortcoming given how the much older language C is smart enough to detect that an arithmetic expression evaluates to a constant value (and what that value is) and simply does the right thing.

Thu Jul 28 19:24:25 PDT 2005

The Logical Outcome of Empire is Mass Murder

This is positively creepy.

It’s also (a) a positively common train of thought in Middle America, and (b) only to be expected given the circumstances in which such sentiments arise. Apropos (b) provoking outrage for political incorrectness, I’ll insert my standard reminder that there’s a very big difference between explaining a motive and justifying something. That said, on with the explanation of why it’s only to be expected.

Liberalism (in the standard Adam Smith / John Locke / Thomas Jefferson) sense came up with some very good concepts like liberty, freedom, and respect for other’s rights. The problem is that the bourgeois capitalist states that claimed to be founded on such principles were first-class hypocrites: while paying loud lip service to those ideals, they violated them wholesale in the name of abetting the rise of the capitalist class.

I’m not just talking about denying the vote to all but white male property owners here (though that’s certainly a major violation), either. Or about the standard response to labor organizing being martial law and firing on strikers with live ammunition (ditto). No, all those injustices pale to what the “civilized,” “enlightened” West imposed on the the world via imperialism, such as the fifteen to twenty million killed in the Congo basin by French and Belgian colonialists in pursuit of rubber. Or the relatively “small” (but much more well-known) million or two dead Irish as the result of a famine whose root causes were directly traceable to British imperialism.

Other empires and belief systems have practiced mass murder and mass enslavement. No, strike that — all empires have practiced mass murder and mass enslavement. So in that sense bourgeois liberalism isn’t any sort of an exceptional evil; it’s just more of the same. What is different is the stated goals of bourgeois liberalism, and how much they diverge from its practices.

If an overtly despotic state sets off on establishing an empire, well no problemo when it comes to explaining it — the official ideology flatly says all are to be enslaved in the service to the empire’s ruling elite, and that’s just what we’re doing. Anyone who disagrees is free to shut up and obey — and there’s soldiers and cops aplenty to ensure they’ll do just that.

Not so simple when the principles you say you base your state on run completely counter to all that. You’ve got to lie, you’ve got to concoct rhetoric about “helping” the “backward” natives, you’ve got to come up with rationalizations why you’re doing some horrid injustice because certain exceptional circumstances force your hand. Or, best of all (and very conveniently if it’s happening half a world away), you’ve got to ignore it and send accounts of it down the memory hole.

Remember, the robbery and murder is making your privileged classes get more privileges, so it’s got to go on. But your citizens (at least some of them) could get in the way if they learnt about it and got a bad case of cognitive dissonance. So keep on whistling a cheery tune and sweeping it under the rug.

So when, say, Patrice Lumumba gives what is by all measures a thoughtful, reasoned, and considerate synopsis of the struggles of his nation, for most people in the First World, there’s simply no context. There’s just this mystifying, inexplicable, sudden hatred for the West that came seemingly out of nowhere. Those people must be mad! Something drastic has to be done to stop them.

And so the ground is laid for the next round of atrocities, only this time they’re done more overtly. That which was a partial and limited improvement returns to the barbarity from which it descended.

The only way out begins with the realization that there never has been and never will be a “good empire” &mdash ever.

Fri Jul 29 19:08:15 PDT 2005

How Much Does Micro$oft Word Suck? Let Me Count the Ways

Up until this evening, I’ve avoided installing Microsoft Office on my computer. At first, this was because it’s so damned expensive — and most of this price goes to bloating the product with gazillions of features I’ll never need. Features which actually end up subtracting value from the product as they slow it down.

But today I ran into yet another job listing that requested a résumé in Word format. Normally, I just send a PDF file with an explanation I don’t have Word, but I managed to score a copy for free recently and this latest request wanted both résumé and cover letter in the same Word document. So I figured I’d install the damn thing so I could comply with their silly little request.

The first thing that I noticed after the installer finished is that it cluttered up the Dock with icons for Office programs. Well, fuck you very much. No, your product isn’t so gosh-darned important as to earn a piece of scarce Dock real estate. Easily enough remedied by throwing the unwanted crap in the Trash, but why couldn’t it have asked? No other installer I’ve run just pollutes the Dock without asking. Leave it to Microsoft to decide their products are so important that of course they always merit such a spot.

After cleaning up the Dock, I attempt to launch Word. The system promptly hangs so hard that I have to give it old the three-fingered salute (i.e. Command-Option-PowerSwitch). Charming.

Upon rebooting, I notice that the installer thoughtfully left a pair of cruft files in the root directory of my hard disk. Again, they were easily enough thrown away, but it’s indicative of general sloppiness that they were left around in that spot in the first place.

Anyhow, I finally get Word running and attempt to import an .RTF file. It refuses to let me because it’s actually an .RTFD file (RTF with attachments), which is a really a directory and not a file. I’m not sure how much a deficiency this is, because .RTFD documents might be an Apple innovation and not a Micro$oft one for all I know (the document was created by TextEdit).

The next problem, however, is inexcusable. I rename the file so that the text portion is accessible as an .RTF document. And find out that the damned thing refuses to recognize this — it’s “cached” the directory and still sees the old file! Nothing I try undoes this braindamage — I have to quit Word and start it again before I can insert the document.

Seeing how much of a pain that all was, I’m very much inclined to keep on sending .PDF files generated by groff and ghostscript. It’s an open question as to whether it’s worth the trouble to accommodate the wishes of the losers who insist on Word documents.

Fri Jul 29 19:42:59 PDT 2005

Why Am I Not Surprised?
Most Overpriced Places 2005
3. Portland, Ore.
Portland comes in on the northern end of the list once again. Like Seattle, it took some hard knocks during the dot-com bust. “Oregon’s economy has not yet recovered from the recession of 2001,” according to the state’s official fact book, the Oregon Blue Book. At the end of 2004, the state’s unemployment rate was lingering around 7% (it was 5% nationally in June). The quality of life is good, but real estate comes at a price. From the end of 2003 to the end of 2004, the median home-cost price increased by nearly $20,000 to $201,500, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Full article here.

And be warned — it’s one of the more rebarbative Flash-based web pages I’ve run across. Unless you keep hitting the “stop” link, it’ll gratuitously go the next page in the series before you’ve finished reading the current one. And it’ll reset to using this misfeature on each subsequent page you visit.

Sat Jul 30 19:05:45 PDT 2005

American Gestapo
Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him.

The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, at around 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said, his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days.

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

Full story here.

Sun Jul 31 09:56:31 PDT 2005

Good Luck, You’ll Need It

Seems as if Vancouver, WA is getting upset at perpetually playing second fiddle to the larger and much more famous city across the Columbia. They have a uphill battle to wage.

First, there’s the “second-city syndrome.” How many people know of the landmarks and attractions of Newark, NJ? Tacoma, WA? Camden, NJ? Oakland, CA? How many tourists visiting New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, or San Francisco ever even think of making the short trip to visit these sister cities (let alone actually make the trip)? What’s the popular conception of all these cities?

No, it’s not fair. I’ve lived in one of those places (Oakland) and found my neighborhood to be a very nice place indeed, situated as it was on the shores of a beautiful urban lake and bird sanctuary. Sure, Oakland has more than its share of urban problems, but it’s hardly as if the entire city is an ultra-dangerous decaying ghetto. (And even those ghettos aren’t as dangerous as the popular imagination says they are. Not to mention that it’s not as if San Francisco doesn’t have ghetto neighborhoods of its own.)

But just try convincing folks of that. If anything about a “second city” enters the popular imagination, chances are it’s negative. In that light, maybe Vancouver should be glad that hardly anyone out of the area has heard of the place.

Vancouver’s problem is compounded by how its success is mostly recent and achieved by hitching its wagon to the star of being a less expensive place to live. It did that by allowing development to take place on the cheap — lots of urban sprawl with much less land use regulation (and less funding of cultural and social infrastructure) than its sister across the river. Vancouver has nothing to compare to Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, Paramount Theatre, or Lake Merritt. It’s a small historic core surrounded by miles and miles of undistinguished sprawl.

Undistinguished, built-on-the-cheap sprawl is something you can find on the outskirts of any large American city. If I’m flying in from, say, Los Angeles to visit Portland, what’s the interest in seeing that? I can see plenty of it for a lot less trouble and cost just by taking a short trip to Orange County or the San Fernando Valley.

And finally, something that’s not Vancouver’s fault at all: its name. When practically anyone hears “Vancouver” quite naturally they think of a city on the West Coast of Canada. Never mind that it’s really Vancouver, BC that’s “the other Vancouver” — Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River a good seventy years or so before anyone got interested in settling near where the Fraser River empties into the Straits of Georgia. After the 49th parallel boundary was extended to the Pacific and the British ceased to share the Oregon Country with the Americans, they decided to re-use the name for a settlement on their side of the line. But no matter — Vancouver, BC quickly grew into a major port and became by far the larger and more famous of the two.

Portland, ME probably suffers a similar problem as a result of my very own city of residence eclipsing it in fame and importance. But at least the eastern Portland is a historic city of its own right and the largest urban area in its state.

So Vancouver, WA is faced with the triple whammy of being a second city, without any urban attractions, and with an eclipsed name. As I opened this: good luck, they’ll need it.

Sun Jul 31 11:34:55 PDT 2005

Yet More Non-Violent Attempts to Resist Israeli Oppression Get Ignored

How much mention of this have you seen in the mainstream media?

As I’ve said before, given that suicide bombing works in certain key ways that other means don’t, it shouldn’t be any big surprise that the tactic gets employed. People struggling for something tend to use tactics that work, not tactics that pander to the wishes of their oppressors.

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Last updated: Tue Sep 13 16:14:09 PDT 2011