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Archive for July, 2005

A modest proposal for sentencing Bernard Ebbers

July 14, 2005 10 comments

AP reports a little happy news as former WorldCom boss Bernard Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  Ebbers wept as the sentence was handed down.  He won’t be eligible for parole.  A decision is yet to be made if he can stay out of prison during his inevitable appeal.

One of his Ebbers’ victims was present at the sentencing and said; “The man is 63.  He’s going to die in jail.  How much sterner could you get?”

I have a modest proposal:  Ebbers should share the fate of many of his victims. 

He should be stripped of all personal wealth so he can’t leave any inheritance to his children.  Instead of living in prison and receiving free state medical care for his heart condition, he should have to keep working long after it is physically comfortable for him.  Able to get only low-wage jobs, he should have to choose between health insurance and rent, or a car repair and a car payment.

He should be supervised by the court to prevent any of his wealthy friends from helping him. As his health deteriorates he can put on a humiliating smock and hat every day, and stand on aching legs as he greets customers at some superstore, or prepares hamburgers for thousands of hungry customers who neither know or care who he is. 

Every friday, he can check the schedule on the wall in the breakroom to see when he has to show up for work the following week.  When his health finally gives out, he will be faced with a narrow range of absolutely awful choices.

Cruel?  Sadistic?  Hey, if it was good enough for his victims…

Next up: a review of the other movie I saw last weekend, Enron – the smartest guys in the room.

Categories: business

Hot diggity, UTI is back!

July 13, 2005 3 comments

Brent and Darksyde are back!  Drop in on those two wild ‘n crazy guys at Unscrewing The Inscrutable ‘n give ‘em a shout!

We recently lost all our domains and a good deal of our content due to an unbelievable foul-up by a previous hosting company. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? To underscore that cliche, it is my great pleasure to present your new Unscrewing the Inscrutable now powered by open-source Drupal and featuring your humble operators, Brent Raz and DarkSyde!

Where they say, “…and a good deal of our content…” it’s hard to imagine the loss that represents.  We’re talkin’ industrial-grade irrationality stomping here, of a depth and strength you won’t usually find lying around free.  They were gone for over two weeks, which is a friggin’ geological epoch in web-years. I am so glad to have their voices back in the fray.

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Rain, sweet rain

July 12, 2005 Comments off


Hurricane Dennis sent us a day of lovely, cool, sweet rain – around an inch so far.  But it looks like it might be too late to save the drought – damaged corn.  Apparently the plants missed their pollination cycle – no pollen, no corn.  Roots and leaves are also damaged so root rot is now a possibility. 

But the rain is very enjoyable, all the same.

Categories: Geeky, Weather

Movie trailer review: “Stealth”

July 11, 2005 5 comments

While waiting to see the new Star Bores movie, I was subjected to a half-hour of previews and advertisements.  It was annoying at the time, but I felt better about it at the end because they turned out to be more entertaining than the movie I had paid to see.

One of these previews was for a movie called Stealth.  It’s about a group of elite Navy pilots in a top-secret stealth-fighter program.  The cast includes arrogant young men who make everything into a sexual reference, an extremely well-upholstered young lady pilot, a grizzled older mentor, some bureaucrats and other throwaway characters.  We are treated to considerable footage – and this is just a movie trailer, mind you – of the young woman wearing almost nothing at all.

Actual Stealth dialog: “I’m willing to bow down to the superiority of women in several areas, but from time to time, I believe they should bow down to me.”

They’re doing great until a new character is introduced: a shiny ball of technology intended to replace the human pilots.  It will fly missions with them and learn their skills – then poof!  No more human fighter pilots.  Freedom will be defended without risking valuable human pilots.  Cool, eh?  And so original.

(Gee, Star Trek did that one back in 1968, and I bet they stole it from someone else.)

In fact the Pentagon is doing a lot of research on robotic fighter planes, which can perform in a much larger operational “envelope” than planes which must preserve a fragile human pilot.  But they will be controlled remotely by humans.  The science of Artificial Intelligence is nowhere near ready to build an automous robotic anything yet… but I digress.

Anyway the experimental plane is hit by lightning and (you saw this coming, didn’t you?) suddenly becomes self-aware.  When delicate electronics are hit by millions of volts with tree-shattering amperage, it always improves them.  Remember Short Circuit?  Of course, that was a comedy.

Actual Stealth dialog: “That lightning strike rewired it somehow!  It’s become self-aware!!!

Then the human pilots have to pit their inferior skills against the soulless nuclear-armed electronic monster and stop it before it starts World War Three.

Writers of good science fiction learn to keep the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” to a minimum so when they get to the implausible part, they can skip over the gap with minimum loss.  Unfortunately the writers of this script missed class that day.  You wouldn’t need to fly a futuristic stealth-fighter through these plot holes: you could sail the whole aircraft carrier right on through:

  • Lightning does not improve delicate electronics

  • …nor are any fundamental limitations of artificial intelligence likely to be solved by sheer amperage
  • The self-aware computer just woke up.  Why would it begin by exterminating humanity?
  • Planes need fuel and maintenance
  • Top-echelon military women might be attractive in a hard-bodied, tough sort of way, but I’ve never seen any that looked like supermodels
  • Undisciplined youth may not be the Pentagon’s first choice for their most crucial weapons program
  • Cameras (even sophisticated artificial-intelligence-connected ones) do not emit light through their primary optics

This movie is a perfect target for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment, but I fear for the legacy of any society in which it actually makes a profit.  They’d probably all wind up teaching their kids “Intelligent Design” in school and watching prime-time TV on cable.  Oh, wait…

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Tender side of Darth Vader

July 10, 2005 1 comment

I saw two movies this weekend; one was “Revenge of the Sith,”  where Anneken Skywalker turns into Darth Vader.

The first three SW movies, which I am told were actually numbers four, five, and six in the series, were a lot of fun.  In fact, that’s what their original ads said; “Never before in the history of movie-making has so much money been spent, such effort been made… just for fun!”  They were not serious movies, so you could forgive their faults.  They were fun, as promised.

Then came two new Star Wars movies – “prequels” – that, uh, how shall I say this politely?  Sucked.  They were just horribly bad, and had sparse redeeming humour to make up for it.

You know the drill on this movie: “The other two new ones really sucked, but you might llike this one!” 

I’m here to say, “Or not!”  It’s tedious, even more cliched than the others (if that’s possible) and almost completely humorless.  By the end, you hardly care who kills who… you just want it to be over.

For this crime, I sentence George Lucas: you can’t use any special effects ever again until you have produced one interesting and entertaining movie without them.

I’ll write later about the other movie I saw this weekend.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Beauty may be only skin deep, but stupidity…

July 9, 2005 4 comments

I don’t know what to make of this:

School officials in Victoria, Australia, say it’s too hard for students to calculate equations using the constant 9.8 meters/second/second—the acceleration of gravity at Earth’s surface—so it’s changing the Year 12 physics exam for the Victorian Certificate of Education to use a rounded-off figure of 10 m/s/s.

Close enough? No: “The difference could cause a parachutist or bungie jumper to plummet into the ground, or the launching of a rocket to fail,” say people who actually understand physics.

After hearing the criticism the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority announced that it would not penalize students who used the correct figure. (Melbourne Herald Sun, Australia)
 
…No penalty for wrong answers, no penalty for the right ones—modern education in a nutshell.

Yes, I know 9.8 m/s2 is not the precise figure, either… but I’m still choking on the idea that students are learning that constants can be rounded off to whole numbers.  What’s next – both e and pi rounded to “3”?

Well, at least the Victoria Museum got it right.

(via James Randi)

Categories: Education

An interesting take on the bombing

July 7, 2005 1 comment

I was wondering if the experience British citizens have had with the IRA would influence how they react to the awful bombings there.  Here’s a post over on Gran’s On Bran that suggests to me that they might.

We’ve been through it before but when you get the bombs going off one after the other you just fear that it will never stop.

I remember a book of WWII photos that included a London milk deliveryman, stepping over rubble in a shattered urban landscape with smoke still rising from broken buildings, four bottles of milk in a wire carrier.  He had a grin on his face that seemed to be saying; “Damned if the bloody Nozzis will keep the little blighters from getting their milk with porridge!”  Admirable.

Categories: News

Nope, I can’t do it.  I just can’t be serious today

July 7, 2005 Comments off

What could I say about the bombs going off in London?, except sympathy to our allies and friends in Britain.  Or I could write something else really serious, like a suggestion for supreme court justice, based on just one news story.  But although there’s plenty of serious stuff going on today, I’m just too tired.  I need a laugh.

And here it is: the iPod “Flea”; world’s smallest MP3 player (click the picture).

Ironically the video does not come in QuickTime version, only in “Real Player” (Just say NO!) and Windoze Media.

Categories: News

Flag Desecration

July 4, 2005 7 comments


It must have been, oh, twenty years ago give-or-take, when I became aware that some gas stations began to use huge American flags as signs.  It seemed terribly cynical to me at the time to say; “I display this giant flag because of my love of country” and then to make it the recognizable logo of your gas station chain.

In time, other gas station chains began to follow suit and now a truly enormous American flag usually means; “Fill up here.”

Maybe I’m the one who is cynical – how do I know the sentiment wasn’t genuine?  I’m not sure why, but it seems like a clue to me that the flag shown here looks about three times the size (= nine times the area) of the one in front of the large corporate office building next door.  Is the gas station nine times as patriotic as the corporation next door?

I can’t help thinking about gas-station flags when I read about Congress passing yet another flag-burning law, this one a proposed constitutional amendment that would actually modify the first amendment.

Some people say flag-burning isn’t “speech.”  It clearly conveys an idea, though.  The first amendment also applies to paintings, written materials, sculpture, and other kinds of expression. In this country we fight bad ideas with good ideas, not with censorship. 

But every few years, reliable as clockwork, one side of the congressional aisle erupts in a frenzy of patriotism and tries to ban flag-burning.  Usually it’s when one of their own is in some kind of trouble.

Something doesn’t pass the sniff-test, here.  The person burning the flag at least respects the flag’s importance and power as a symbol, which is more than you can say for the gas station chain using it to draw attention to themselves and evade zoning laws.

Like the size of gas-station flags, flag-burning laws make me suspicious because they address no internally consistent need.  I have never personally seen anyone burn an American flag.  It happens a handful of times a year in our country of 280 million people.  Although it offends nearly everyone (with the help of the news media that makes it seem more common than it really is) it harms no one.

That’s right; it harms no one.  No incipient terrorist says; “That’s it!  I wasn’t going to kill Americans but now that I’ve seen a picture of an American burning a flag, I’m going!”  No soldier says; “I just don’t care anymore – what’s the point?  Did you hear about that guy who burned a flag?”  About the only harm, if you could call it harm, is that the person striking the match looks like an idiot. And (as occasionally happens) they need bandages.  It’s the political equivalent of a Jackass stunt.

In fact, most American flags burned for political reasons are burned in other countries (the one above is in El Salvador).  Correcting the climate where those flag-burnings happen is a pretty complex undertaking. 

One side of the aisle can reliably embarrass and discredit the other by saying; “Why won’t you defend the flag?  Don’t you love America?”  Then the other side is in the defensive position of saying; “I am too a patriot!  The exchange often gets rather ugly.

Oh, I almost forgot; aren’t Congress and the president supposed to be doing something about now?  Do we have a balanced budget?  An energy solution?  Are corporate crooks in jail?  Are our borders secure? Have we caught Osama yet?

In a way, Congress is using the flag to draw attention to themselves – just like the gas station.  And that is, in essence, flag desecration.

Notes:

 

Categories: Politics

Dry

July 3, 2005 4 comments

From a distance the fields look green, but up close the leaves on the corn plants are turning brown and beginning to die.  Another few days and the difference will be visible from a distance.  Looking at the grass, there is almost no surface soil moisture, and that dryness will extend to the bottom of the corn’s relatively shallow root-system soon.

As recently as last week, farmers hereabouts were saying; “If it started raining now and kept it up for two weeks, the corn could recover.”  Back then the corn plants were half their expected height but at least the leaves were all green.  People’s lawns were green mixed with brown, too, which suggested some soil moisture.

I remember the floods of 1993, as we drove out to the West coast.  Driving through Iowa the highway was a thin strip of dry land across a surreal ocean dotted by farmhouses.

Droughts are awful but silent.  There’s no cleanup in the sense of removing muck from flooded buildings.  In fact, the weather has been unusually pleasant for us humans.  But my mother used to say; “any weather fit to grow corn is not fit for human habitation.”

Currently there is no rain in the extended forecast.


Update, 04 July: it has been raining steadily for two hours – first time in weeks.  Whether it will be enough to do any good at this stage, I don’t know.  The ground is so dry much of the water just runs off.  The radar looks like we’ll have about another hour of it before it stops. 

Update, 06 July: that rain only added up to a half-inch.  Someone told me they read in the paper that we’re 8 inches short for the year and that the corn roots are badly drought-damaged.  It doesn’t look good.

Categories: Geeky, Weather