Archive for January, 2005

Why we need a Peace Department

January 31, 2005 2 comments

In an article entitled, “The best defence, New Scientist author Chris Langley reports that worldwide, military spending is expected to be $1 trillion for 2004. 

No, I’m not one of those peaceniks who thinks we should all join hands and plant daisies together, but it’s the R&D that particularly has my interest.  The US alone is spending around $63bn a year just thinking up new ways to blow stuff up.

Sometimes, stuff needs to be blown up, and by cracky, we’re the best at it.  Nobody blows stuff up better than we do.  (I’m including all kinds of other nasty things we know how to do under the “blowing stuff up” umbrella.)

We might actually be safer, and more secure, if we’d spend some – not all, I said I’m not a hippie peacenik, but some – of that money figuring out how to fix stuff.  Innovative ways to sneak education into third-world countries.  Effective treatments for malaria to stabilize countries where too many people are dying of it to run a good economy. 

An infrastructure for peace studies and action, wholly owned and controlled by US.  (Thanks, U.N., we’ll let you know if we need you.  Go trade some oil-for-food somewhere.)

How about an assessment of the destabilizing effects of our massive arms sales.  After all, no one sells more arms to the third world than we do.  Even the Chinese take a back seat to our sales figures.

In the past, foreign aid has mostly wound up in the pockets of dictators while their brainwashed people only hated us more.  So we’ll have to be smarter in the future.  The performance requirements of Gates’ Foundation philanthropies are a good model.

How much would it cost to be running several humanitarian “Manhatten Projects?”  A “Peace Department.”  Would it kill us to try?  Feel free to hit the “comments” link if you think it would…

Categories: Issues, News

The Weblog Question

January 31, 2005 1 comment

Writer John Foley raised some questions every blogger should be thinking about, in his Information Week article, The Weblog Question.  In very brief summation:

  • Depending on your employment contract, your employer may own copyright to any blog served on a company server, or

  • in come cases anything at all you write while an employee may belong to your employer
  • Or your employer may have an extremely broad definition of what constitutes “sensitive material”
  • Noncompete or nondisclosure rules may affect your blog
  • Many HR departments are just clueless or only beginning to grapple with employee-blog issues
  • RSS feeds may compromise your copyright ownership
  • The good news is that some companies are actually finding it to their advantage to have employees blogging

If you’re thinking, “I’m not really concerned about copyright issues on my blog” you may not have tested the temperature of the hot water you can land in for blogging about work…

It certainly has me thinking.  If your employer claims copyright to any of your work, they can certainly exert control over it.  For starters, that means you should serve your own blog – don’t use your employer’s server. 

I keep a mental tab of anecdotes of people who have ugly encounters between their blogs and their jobs.  Of these, Dooce is the most famous: her blog’s name is synonymous with “being fired for blogging.”  But if you read the entries in question (in her archives) it isn’t hard to understand why she was shown the door.  Never, even as a “joke,” trash any of your co-workers.

In my case, this is easy – you’d just have to know some of the people I work with to understand how fantastic they are.  I worked in private industry for 25 years before coming to The Universitytm and I can attest that the popular stereotype of the indifferent public servant is a myth. 

More problematic are the milder cases:

An employee of a Canadian parks bureau was fired for posting a picture of some litter along a roadway.  A Microsoft employee was fired for posting a picture of some Apple computers on a Microsoft loading dock.  And one stewardess was fired for writing about her work, even though she didn’t say anything negative and didn’t mention the name of her employer.

I never mention The Universitytm by name but it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.  So please, don’t.  It doesn’t matter what university.  If you ask me privately, should you attend here, or send your kids here, or support my school, my answer is an unqualified “yes,” to all three questions.

The Universitytm, is a truly great place to work and a fine institution.  But there’s plenty to think about here that would be of interest in the broader sphere of design and administration. 

I could follow the Peoria Pundit‘s rule, which is: “Never blog about work.  Ever.”  But to pretend one-third of my life just doesn’t exist wouldn’t be very constructive either for me or for my employer.  Some companies (as discussed in the Information Week article) have found a great advantage to having employees who blog.  It often results in unexpectedly productive collaborations and innovation.

My solution (when I write about work) is to be as positive as humanly possible and to keep it global.  Not to make it about The Universitytm, or about any individuals, but about things that would be of interest to anyone, anywhere people live and work. 

And also, to hope that “academic freedom” is more than a slogan.  Because it certainly is, to me. 

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

I wondered when it would come to this

January 29, 2005 3 comments

We use robots to explore space, disarm bombs, and inspect pipelines.  Why not use them to kill people?  It’s hardly a new idea.  While anything of the sophistication of a Terminatortm is a long ways off, why not have the soldier control a robot from a half-mile away, out-of-danger where can make cool-headed decisions? 

BBC reports that the Pentagon is actually, really doing just that, this spring,  in Iraq.  The robots have night vision, they can go over barbed wire, and they can shoot far more accurately than most human soldiers.

In some ways this is a natural fit.  We have a huge population of video-game conditioned youth who will require little additional training to carry out remote-killing operations.  In effect the robot becomes a weapon used by the soldier. 

This really is new territory.  Can you imagine the psychological effect on an insurgent when confronting a killer robot?  It’s got to just scare the living beheezus out of them.

What are the rules of engagement for a robot, even if controlled by a human soldier?  What would “self-defense” mean?  Would an enemy fighter who feigns surrender and then stands up and blows the robot away with an RPG be guilty of violating the Geneva convention?  Seems there’s as much work here for experts in international law as for technologists.

“Unlike its human counterparts, the armed robot does not require food, clothing, training, motivation or a pension.  When not needed in war, it can be mothballed in a warehouse.” – BBC

“That’s all it does.  It doesn’t get tired, it will never stop until you are dead!”
-Kyle Reese, fictional future-soldier in the war against the Terminators

Next up: remote-controlled robot prison guards.  And gradually improving autonomy for lethal robots.  Asimov’s three laws of robotics?  Never heard of ‘em…

Categories: News

Worthless Saturday

January 29, 2005 1 comment

I overdid it a bit this week and found myself exhausted on Friday.  I have to be careful about exhaustion.  One description of fibromyalgia I’ve heard is “you look your age but you feel 90.”  You work hard to control chronic fatigue and reduce pain, but it’s easy for it to get out of hand.  So I spent a good part of today in bed and now I’m feeling only very tired.

Last night I did pop in a tape to record the CBS series, “Numb3rs,” a schmaltzy buddy-cop show about a brilliant but tortured mathematician and his action-hero cop brother.  The hook is that the math-guy can predict the future (essentially) with important-sounding algorithms.  So he knows what bad guys are going to do before they do.

I just watched it tonight and it’s great – I mean, if you like crappy cop shows, this one is in a class by itself:

Scene – a glass-walled conference room in a busy cop-office with dramatic lighting and lots of complicated mathematical symbols written in white grease-pencil on the glass…

(tortured-genius brother) “There’s one thing we’re not taking into account here – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  Heisenberg said you can’t observe anything without changing it.  Like the smallest electron – you can’t truly measure it without bumping into it in some way and changing it.”

(action-cop brother) “Woah, woah, wait a minute.  You know I got, like, a “c” in physics, so could you just simplify this for me and tell me how it relates to our case?”

(tortured-genius brother) “They know we’ve observed them.  Like a light particle, we’ve interacted with them.  They know we’re trying to outthink them.  They’ll change their pattern.”

I may not have gotten every word right, but you get the idea.  It was pretty hilarious stuff.  I give it three episodes before the network puts it out of its misery.  But then, I predicted the same fate for “CSI” and it has spawned a raft of equally crappy spinoffs.

Other than that, I didn’t do a darn thing today.  There was something I wanted to write about but it slipped my mind so I’m going to bed.

Categories: Personal

The lap of luxury

January 27, 2005 3 comments

I once saw a photograph in National Geographic which showed a small plane crashing into a pickup truck as people nearby ran for their lives.  I think it was a Cessina and it hit the truck in the windshield at a steep angle – glass flying everywhere.  The camera caught it with a high shutter speed in mid-crumple.

The photographer, on assignment for the magazine, said “This is one of those one-in-a-lifetime shots that teaches you to carry a camera with you everywhere you go.”

Today I helped (a little) at an event in Peoria, IL.  My role was to set up a network with a server and workstations so the registration data and printing could all be handled in a timely fashion, then hang around waiting for something to go wrong. 

Not much went wrong and the University people working the event were fantastic.  I felt kind of silly and pitched in where I could, stuffing folders and going for food in the evening. 

The day started early and ended late.  Because of some mix-up at the hotel, I wound up in a suite – I think at the same price of a regular room.  Hand-finished walnut furniture, an elegant living room… is that an RJ-45 jack I see on the wall?  It is!  Plug in an ethernet cable, boot up, and YES!  WE HAVE CONNECTION!

Ahh, luxury.  Email, blogging, news, all the comforts of home.  Well, it could use a couple of cats, but almost everything anyway.  Seems a shame to say it but that network jack got my attention more than the old-world plush.

This is an antique hotel with sculptured cornices and carved door frames… according to the blurb in the elevator, it was bought by some hotel chain in the ‘80’s and “modernized” into unrecognizability.  But then someone else bought it and restored it to its original historic character.  It looks great.

I’d love to show you pictures but I forgot my darned camera!  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  That’s why I mentioned the National Geographic picture. 

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Will it play in Peoria?

January 25, 2005 Comments off

On Wednesday through Friday, our department will be involved in some shindig at the civic center in Peoria – registering kids for a large events in a very time-intensive way.  I’m there to provide tech support.  For this purpose I cobbled together a server with four workstations, two printers (we can’t be down for printer problems), and backup capabilities… all portable.

No telling when my next post will be.  Possibly Saturday.  And it may be complete gibberish.  I mean, even more than usual! ;-)

Categories: Personal

Bill O’Reilly’s funny joke

January 25, 2005 Comments off

Occasionally a number of random things line up, like tonight at the gym where eight TV’s all had nothing interesting on at once.  One of these things was Bill Oreilly’s Self-Aggrandizement Hour.  But it did have its moments:  Like when Bill was interrupting his guest who was talking about the Academy Awards.  O’Reilly said:

“…Well sure, they like Johnny Depp!  He smokes marijuana!”

More blather ensued, then a commercial break.  Then O’Reilly comes back on and – looking very annoyed – looks right at the camera and in a voice-for-explaining-things-to-a-5-year-old, says:

“You know, that crack about Johnny Depp smoking marijuana … was… a… JOKE, alright?  A joke.  I was just kidding about that, you know?  Some people, just have no sense of humor.”

Well, I have to admit he certainly succeeded in making me laugh.  I’m not sure Johnny Depp would find it quite as amusing, though.

Categories: Humor

Way better than Coke

January 23, 2005 Comments off

We get this Sangria-flavored soda from our friendly Mexican-food store. 

The brand is “Sangria Senorial” and it is a product of Mexico.  It is a spicy soda flavored like sangria wine, but has no alcohol.  You may not be able to find it in your local mini-mart or vending machine, but it is definitely worth the search.  Try pre-chilling the glass in the freezer.

I like it with tacos, which are a favorite in our house.  MrsDOF makes up the spicy meat and beans, and I fry the corn tortilla shells on a griddle, plus cheddar cheese, fresh salsa, lettuce, and sour cream.  Mmmmmmm!

Another treat I like from that store is their ice-cream bars – real pieces of fruit in them – but it’s January and colder’n the dickens out there.  So ice cream bars will have to wait for warmer weather.

Categories: Food, Reviews

This is wrong

January 23, 2005 9 comments

I was a kid when we landed on the moon.  There are no words for the inspiration I felt watching video of our presence on another world.  It really did seem as if anything was possible – so much so that it has become part of our language.  “If they can send a man to the moon…”

Arthur C. Clarke said recently: “One thing I wouldn’t have predicted about the 20’th century was that we’d go to the moon… and then stop.”

But manned space missions aren’t a lot of bang for the buck scientifically speaking.  At this time, robots are a giant bargain – they go out into the cold depths of space, send back mountains of useful data, and they never take coffee breaks.  If one of them is destroyed, no one gets all weepy.  Except…

One robot has returned more than anyone ever expected: the Hubble Space Telescope.  The payoff in hard science has been far out of proportion to what it cost.  With a repair mission, it is in a position to keep handing down the bounty for another decade.  But the Bush administration has pulled the plug.  Nasa is being instructed to concentrate on safely destroying the premier scientific instrument of our time.

A house source says: “It’s going to really upset the Hubble crowd, and that includes some members of Congress.” 

The “Hubble crowd?”  Yes, Virginia, there are people who just don’t get it.  They don’t know the value of hard basic science, and they don’t know a bargain when they see it.  They’d rather please the crowd with multi-billion-dollar stunts that return little of scientific value.  They’re the opposite of the “Hubble crowd.” 

A replacement is planned for the Hubble, but it will not have the Hubble’s wide-spectrum versatility.  And the Hubble is already up there, doing a great job.

I don’t want to think that the president of the United States can’t grasp scientific issues.  But I don’t know what else to think.

(Thanks to UTI for the link)

Categories: News, Science & Technology

Snowy with patches of irony

January 22, 2005 6 comments

Got up this morning to blowing snow.  MrsDOF and I eat breakfast out on Saturday mornings so had to clear off the car.  This is a couple minutes work and no big deal.  Spent more time telling the Mrs. not to worry about it.

Breakfast was great and driving on snow-covered streets is entertaining as always. 

Got home, read blogs, including John Hoke (a New Yorker) who said:

We went to the store to pickup/drop off dry cleaning earlier and the typical crush of worriers that the sky will open up and leave them stranded in their homes were fighting over every last frozen dinner, bottle of milk/water or other sundry that they really didn’t need. I blame a lot of this on the talking-head-idiot weather reporters who in order to get more ratings have been hyping the hell out of every possible storm. Bleh!

Went to the gym and saw breathless headline on Fox news:  “New York braces for killer storm!”  Just about fell off stairmaster laughing.

Driving home, got milk at the grocery.  As I left, the poor guy who has to watch people checkout their own groceries with the talking-machine scanners, deadpanned:
“…And so another joyous shopping experience comes to an end.”

Left Kroger’s with a stupid grin on my face. 

Drove past Weaver’s Rent-All.  Sign said, “Life is short.  Make fun of it.”

Got MrsDOF’s blog semi-functional.  Go take a look:

Set up an FTP account on my family webspace for her to upload pictures.  This will be a bit of a learning curve for her but I promised her that after she’s done it a few times, it’ll be like loading the dishwasher – just routine.  So all you lucky dogs will be able to read her “Dear Ones” letters!  Up until now that’s been a select group of email recipients.

All in all, a pretty fun day.  Hope John & family survived the “Killer Storm!”

Categories: Personal