Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Silicon hubris

My God, there is a worm in your Apple!—
A random computer thought. Those of us smug bastards who use Macs and turn down our noses at the masses who have had Windows foisted on them (usually by corporate IT people—it’s not your fault), just received notice of a new security update for our operating system, Mac OS-X, which brought to mind a little tremble. It is not clear we will be able to stay smug forever.

The security upgrade is one of about a half dozen this year, which means that Apple is not taking anything for granted. Good on them. That Macs are more stable and secure than Windows machines is a given. OS-X, particularly it’s new incarnation, Tiger, is widely recognized as the best operating system going, and there has yet to be a successful virus, worm or spyware program written for it. I don’t have anti-virus software on my computer. I don’t need it.

But that might change.

Two reasons account for the Mac’s security advantage, and both may not be permanent. One, and the most obvious, is that if you are going to write malicious software you would want to do the maximum amount of damage, so you pick on the operating system found on 95 % of the world’s computers, not the system with about 3%. You pick on Microsoft, which almost seems to be a willing target. Second, Windows is what you would expect from a monopoly source, fat and sloppy, and comes complete with backdoors and gaps that virus writers can find faster than Microsoft. OS-X has far fewer of them. OS-X is based on UNIX, which is a far more secure base than Windows, and Apple’s variant, completely rewritten when Apple abandoned its original operating system, is elegant, sleek and tight. It is much, much harder to write a virus that attacks Tiger. Spyware and viruses can slip into Windows through various openings; OS-X will not load one without your express permission. Just say no. Viruses that do get loaded, usually in mail, are simply ignored by Tiger and spyware just takes up space. You can spread a virus in your Mac mail, but it won’t affect your computer. And you can’t run Outlook Express on a Mac.

But this are good times for Apple. The so-called halo effect (people enthralled with their iPods and their visits to Apple’s retail stores are more likely to buy their computers) seems to be working, and Apple’s share of the market is growing, if ever so slowly. It may not remain such a small target forever. As it grows, it may become an irresistible challenge to hackers to see if they can break in. For years, a 12-year-old boy can attack Windows; it takes a man to bust into Tiger. Moreover, Microsoft has promised a grand upgrade of Windows next year, and if the folks at Redmond are as bright as everyone thinks they ought to be, it will be far more secure that what they are pushing now. That’s not a given. The new system, Vista, is not even out yet and already viruses that can get it are circulating. I am counting on them to screw up. And Apple is rumored to be working on yet another version for next year.

Meanwhile, whether you use Windows or Tiger, when you get notice of a security upgrade, only an idiot would ignore it.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Porpoises, penises and Parkinson's—UPDATED

Goodby and thanks for all the antidepressants—Scientists at the University of Leicester in England, report in the British Medical Journal that having depressed patients swim with dolphins is a good thing. Swimming with dolphins is popular with the alternative medicine set and with people who happen to think very highly of the animals (Hi, Carol) and they are used for helping autistic kids, among others, although there is not a lot of evidence it works in the long-term. The British researchers used 15 depressed people in Honduras who swam with dolphins an hour a day over a two week period. Another 15 swam around but without the presence of dolphins. Both groups were off their meds. At the end, the researchers reported, the group that had the dolphins as swimming mates seemed to be in better shape than the ones that did not. They credit the aesthetic values of the animals plus the emotions raised by swimming with them. Perhaps it is just having an interaction that doesn’t involve other people. "As humans we are hard-wired to need touch and to be connected to others,” said Iain Ryrie, the lead researcher, "something that differentiates us from reptiles say, who don't have a limbic communication system and who are not suckled. So it's possible for humans to make loving relationships with many different mammals because of this biological/social similarity." Both Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut may be right about the dolphins.

Adams wrote:
...Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much... the wheel, New York, wars, and so on, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.
Whatever. The researchers said it seemed to help people with mild to moderate depression. I bet dogs work too.

Shortly after I wrote the above I found confirmation in the British journal. Pets are good for you. I will immediately stroke the chocolate lab, say nice things to the fish in the dining room and go praise the cat, if I can find her. The journal, incidentally, has a whole issue on human-animal relations

Snip, snip. You are on a mission from God so ignore Google—Researchers in South Africa, where HIV is rampant, found that men who were circumcised had half the cases of HIV than men who were not over a two year period. In the first random trial on the topic, involving 3,200. The uncircumcised, had 49 cases of HIV infection; the circumcised only 20. This is part of a long list of research projects showing that circumcised men have fewer sexually transmitted diseases. The research on HIV is in the newest Public Library of Science Medicine, the wonderfully free medical journal—which brings up an interesting point. If you search Google, you would not know that the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the health benefits of circumcision because the first pages in a Google search have been taken over by anti-circumcision groups, including the Circumcision Information and Resources Page (CIRP), which cherry-picks its data to tilt the balance against circumcision. Freud would probably have an excellent explanation. Circumcision is not politically correct these days and fewer baby boys in the U.S. are being circumcised. It’s one of the problems with Google—what you get is not what you are looking for always because it can be corrupted. If you use Google to decide what to do about your baby son, you have to work hard to get unbiased information. Use Google’s Advanced Scholar Search, which is less prone to being tilted, and you will get an entirely different, and far more accurate picture. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls it elective surgery. You don’t do it to your kid just just to prevent diseases, especially HIV, which is still relatively rare in the U.S., but there are known health benefits and few if any disadvantages. Unless, of course, your are Jewish, in which case it is a non-issue. We’ve been doing it before HIV and probably before most STD evolved.

Lousy living through chemistry— One theory of the origin of Parkinson’s disease is that it has an environmental antecedent. A good piece in the Los Angeles Times gives that theory considerable support. Parkinson’s may be the result of exposure to agricultural and industrial chemicals. The scientists involved don’t actually use the word “cause.” They fudge, mostly because you can’t prove cause and effect with statistics. “Scientists are "definitely there, beyond a doubt, in showing that environmental toxicants have to be involved" in some cases of Parkinson's disease, said Freya Kamel, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who has documented a high rate of neurological problems in farmers who use pesticides. "It's not one nasty thing that is causing this disease. I think it's exposure to a combination of many environmental chemicals over a lifetime. We just don't know what those chemicals are yet, but we certainly have our suspicions." Think pesticides. The chemicals destroy the neurons that produce dopamine, a messenger that controls human motion. Of all the major diseases, Parkinson’s is the one most closely linked to environmental trauma. It is an exceedingly unpleasant way to live and die.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stomp that bug and brag a little

I'm an engineer. I don't make mistakesWe listed some of the highlights in the history of the Internet and I thought you’d like to learn about the worst of computer programming: history’s worst software bugs. They were accumulated by the estimable Simson Garfinkle for Wired. Some of them are pretty technical and will amuse only programmers, but some of them were not. A few were even lethal.

The most current, though surely not the worst, struck my favorite car, the Toyota Prius. Sometimes the newer models of the hybrid simply stopped. The warning lights flashed and the gas engine quit on the highway. Annoying to be sure. It was a software bug on this most computerized of all cars, affecting the main ICU. It’s since been fixed.

Some of Simson’s others include;
  • Mariner 1 space probe, which had to be destroyed after launch in 1962, when the rocket went wildly off course. It seems that a formula written with a pencil on paper was not transcribed into the main computers program correctly, causing the main computer to miscalculate the rocket’s trajectory.
  • Soviet gas pipe line blew up in 1982 because the CIA slipped a bug into a Canadian computer system sold to the Soviet Union for its trans-Siberian pipe line. This bug was deliberate, as part of the economic Cold War. It caused the greatest non-nuclear man-caused explosion in history. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
  • AT&T’s long distance service crashed in 1990 when the software in its switches went crazy and crashed 113 of its neighbors. Long distance service for 60,000 people went down for nine hours.
  • The National Cancer Institute in Panama kills eight patients in 2000 when software from an American firm sent double the proper dose of radiation to patients. The software actually didn’t have a bug, it had an undisclosed feature that triggered the accident when the doctor in charge played with a machine’s configuration. He was indicted for murder.
  • An Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus in 1979, when the pilots trusted its autopilot. This one was added to Simson’s list by a reader. The flight was a sight-seeing tour of Antarctica. It turned out that someone who changed the coordinates in the computer the morning before the flight. Two hundred fifty-seven died.
By the way, know why they are called “bugs”? In 1945, researchers at Harvard, using one of the first electronic computers, Mark II [I’ve always wondered who Mark was. The name is very popular with engineers] noticed some calculations were off. They traced the error to a moth that flew into a relay, the world’s first computer bug.

I hate to brag. I’m known for my modesty. Everyone talks about it—NPR this morning did a fine story on the website that tells you how to circumvent the voice response system companies use to protect themselves from their customers. The site, run by Paul English here , lists how to by-pass all the button pressing and get a live human, even if he or she is in New Delhi. Gentle readers here knew about it because I posted it here. And readers of David Pogue's blog at the New York Times could have had it a day earlier. English reports more than one million hits. I take full credit. Ok, maybe not.

An aside. I propose that the three worst inventions of the last few decades, since we are doing lists, are Astroturf, shrink wrapping and IVRs. If you want to know what an IVR is, press one. If you want it in Spanish, press 2. If you haven't figured it out yet, press 3. (Interactive voice response systems)

Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm gonna drink a cup of coffee, pray and drive down the shore—for health reasons of course

One double decaf mocha frappuccino with soy milk and to hell with it—Possibly no consumable beverage or food is the cause of more confusion in medicine than coffee.It is either very bad for you or not bad at all. If you have to drink coffee drink it decaffeinated. Or maybe not. Turns out, maybe not is ahead at the moment. A study at the American Heart Association’s Scientfic Sessions indicates that decaffeinated coffee—a substance I drink reluctantly—is bad for you. According to the Coffee and Lioprotein Metabolism (CALM) study, the hairless stuff can increase the harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood and that’s not good for your heart. Not to mention that it does no good starting the engines in the morning. Coffee with caffeine has no such effect. Atlanta researchers studied 187 people and randomized their Java doses. One group drank 3-6 cups of regular coffee; another drank 3-6 cups of decaf, and the third group staggered through their mornings unaided by any beverage. The decaf cohort had a rise in ApoB and LDL while the others did not. ApoB is the protein attached to LDL and is a good predictor of heart disease. Keep in mind that within a year someone will come up with a study showing exactly opposite results, but for the time being, we can be smug Meanwhile, might I recommend Peets Sulawesi-Kalosi blend.

Go ahead. Get Sprinsteen and Lucy the Elephant pissed—Those of us who are concerned with global warming have some things to keep from total despair. If the seas do rise and flood the coast, we get to watch Miami sink. We figure New York and Boston can take care of themselves, and LA, Seattle and San Francisco have lots of hills. But a new study out of Princeton puts a chill in my bones. Rising sea levels in the next hundred years would shrink New Jersey by 3%, taking most of the Shore with it. The coastal counties include about 60% of the state’s 8.6 million people but more important when you go “down the shore,” the Jersey slang for going to the beach, you will end up in New Brunswick or someplace. Asbury Park, Long Beach Island, Bradley Beach. Harvey Cedars. Shipbottom. Margate and it's giant wooden elephant. Gone. All of them Now that’s serious. What will Springsteen sing about? What will parents tell their children about their summers down the shore?

Praying over your crossword puzzle is good for your healthMany researchers think that one way to stave off the onslaught of Alzheimer’s comes under the heading of use it or loose it. If you put your brain to sleep watching television or golfing, you are more susceptible to senile dementia and other forms of serious senior moments. Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Case Western Reserve have found that gardening, reading, writing and praying can delay Alzheimer’s. The study was done with 600 Israeli Arabs and found that incurable dementia was delayed by certain leisure mental activities. Genetic factors, of course, also played a role as did inadequate physical activity and smoking. Inbreeding showed up the genetic components. OK, I made that up about golf. Surely you must have something better to do with your time. Do don’t marry your cousin, be active, garden, pray, and don’t smoke. I forget the rest. [Registration required for Jerusalem Post]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Go to bed, take two aspirins and pray, cause there isn't any flu vaccine

When Johns Hopkins can’t get flu vaccine you know we’re in trouble—There is a major shortage of flu vaccine and no one is reporting it. I’m not talking about the bird flu, which may or may not ever get here. I’m talking about the normal flu shot, the one most of us get around this time of the year to lower the chances of getting the flu this winter. There ain’t none around.

Even Johns Hopkins Medicine, which ought to have enough clout to get anything it wants, can only get enough to vaccinate clinical staff. Scheduled vaccination sessions for regular employees and families were cancelled and my doctor at Hopkins said he was told they would not be getting any for patients.

Maxim Health Systems, one of the largest, cancelled its clinics because it too can’t find vaccine. Kaiser Permanente, even larger, also cancelled its shots, hoping to save some for those most vulnerable, which should include the very mature, like me. Same reason.

Why is there a shortage? Larry Altman in the Times said there are production and distribution problems and that even the mother of Julie Gerbinding, director of the Centers for Disease Control can’t get any. There is less vaccine out now than there was last year, where there was a well-publicized shortage. Click the headline for the story. Some 71.5 million doses have been distributed, Altman wrote. Maybe so, but where are they? Part of the problem may be that the publicity about bird flu stirred up enough people to send them to a needle and that emptied the supply. There is no clue when the supply will meet demand.

According to Google, Altman’s story in the Times is the only one reporting a shortage this year. I have no idea why.

The only good news is that the flu season is off to a slow start this year so it is possible there will be enough vaccine by the time the bug starts really circulating.

[Photo: Baltimore Sun]

Do one brave thing today, then run like hell

Thanks, Carol.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Screwing your neighbor and the Netscape fish

Some good will come out of this technology, I promise you—The Internet isn’t new. We take it for granted even though I can make a case it is the greatest invention since the printing press. Absolute garbage that has found a home here, along with the seriously ill people who produce it, but mostly it is a wonder. I have no idea how I did my work before the internet.

Someone—there is no identification on the blog—has produced his or her list of the 100 greatest moments in Internet history. Go see for yourself but my favorites include:

  • Pathfinder, Time Inc.’s first attempt at strutting it’s stuff on the internet had two problems. One, it was badly designed. Two, well, on the day of the O.J. verdict, they kind of fucked up.
  • Before corporate America discovered the internet, nerds did. For instance in 1994, while playing around with domain names, Wired reporter Josh Quittner registered When the fast food chain decided it needed a presence on the web, they were too late. Some others who had taken corporate names early sold them for a fortune; Quittner gave it to MacDonald’s for a promise to fund a T-1 line in perpetuity at a high school in the Bronx.
  • Bloggers discover that a guy asking President Bush a meatball question at a White House news conference isn’t a reporter, is not giving his real name, and has posted on a naked homo-erotic website.
  • One of the first internet games was Psycho Bondage Bunnies, in which a robot in a corset fought bunnies wielding cattle prods. Very bad bunnies.Then there’s also Quake
Australian Bernadette Taylor was one of the first to use a webcam. She fought censorship (happily posing naked) and launched a one-woman war on Microsoft. Then one day, she announced she had breast cancer and started an online diary. She went offline in 2001 and presumably died of her cancer. No one seems to know. That's her to the left.

  • A young woman in Washington kept a blog on her sex life. She was getting laid by six different guys and she was an intern for a Republican Senator. Ana Marie Cox found it and published all over Wonkette, her political gossip blog, and ran down the identity of the woman (who indeed worked for an Ohio senator) making herself and her blog famous. The intern made it to Playboy.
  • In 1997, someone in Hollywood hired two guys to produce a cartoon as a video Christmas present. He paid them $2,000. The cartoon spread from one end of Hollywood to another. It took six hours to download “The Spirit of Christmas” (53 megabytes) and you got some foul-talking kids and a kung fu match between Santa Claus and Jesus. Then it went on television (censored a bit) and became “South Park.” I bet you didn’t know that.
  • Jennifer Ringley was another pioneer of the webcam, keeping her camera on for eight years and becoming an old friend to her audience. Then she slept with her neighbor’s fiance—on camera—and pulled the plug on JenniCam. They are still together. That's her picture up top, taken a few days before she went offline.
  • Oh yes, the Netscape fish. When Netscape ruled the world, before Microsoft made it road kill, they had a salt water fish tank in the lobby of their Mountain View headquarters. They set up a webcam and if you knew the URL you could watch the fish. That’s all. I did it for hours. They are still there.

And finally, there is the website Jesus of the Week. It speaks for itself.

You hate me! You really hate me!

The center will hold. It will just take a while—I stay out of raw politics here (God knows there are enough pollical blogs around) but I do have an interest in and some training in polling. I’m not an expert but I’m happy to refer you to someone who clearly is. Your best bet for understanding political polls remains Mark Blumenthal’s wonderful blog, Mystery Pollster, and his posting this week is particularly fascinating. If you’ve been watching our Peerless Leader’s polling numbers tank and wonder how real it is, go look. Prof. Charles Franklin (not further identified by Blumenthal) has taken all but the latest Gallup Poll results and produced a graphic showing the decline in Bush’s approval rating. I’ve reproduced it here:

That’s pretty impressive. The slide is not ambiguous. The newest Gallup, done for USA Today and CNN, had him at 37, right in the line.

What is most fascinating in Blumenthal’s analysis is that the bleeding has come from independents, meaning that all Bush has left supporting him is his wingnut base. Everyone else who voted for him, probably because of 9/11 and terrorism, has abandoned him. The center is holding.

Blumenthal’s other point, crucial for making science of this science—if science it be—is to always ask the question “compared to what.” The chart above is a good start.

We have three more years of this.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'm shocked. Shocked that there is political interference at the FDA

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. And bureaucrats with a political agenda—The General Accounting Office has reported that the Food & Drug Administration decided to block over-the-counter sale of Plan B, the “morning-after pill,” before the study of its safety and efficacy was complete. I know you find that hard to believe but here is the text.

Then-FDA Director Mark B. McClellan told the FDA staff the request to sell the pill without a prescription would be rejected and he then signed what is called a “not approvable letter.” Other top supervisors had to co-sign after the administrators below them refused. The GAO report called McClellan’s actions “novel,” not the way the FDA usually handles these issues. The explanation, of course, is that McClellan was one of the political hacks put in place by the Bush administration because he was a favorite of the anti-abortion crowd. This, of course, makes no logical sense. If you are against abortions (a thoroughly reasonable decision if allowances are made for the life and safety of the mother) you would be in favor of Plan B because it makes abortions less frequent. The pill itself is a contraceptive and does not cause an abortion.

FDA officials, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs and the Directors of the Offices of Drug Evaluation III and V, told us that they were told by high-level management that the Plan B OTC switch application would be denied months before staff had completed their reviews of the application. The Director and Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs told us that they were told by the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Operations and the Acting Director of CDER, after the Plan B public meeting in December 2003, that the decision on the Plan B application would be not-approvable. They informed us that they were also told that the direction for this decision came from the Office of the Commissioner. … Both office reviews were not completed until April 2004.

The application by Barr Laboratories, the manufacturer of Plan B, was opposed by 49 members of Congress and many social conservative groups and the FDA surrendered, with politics trumping science again. The excuse given was that the safety of Plan B in teenagers had not been established. In fact, it has. The manufacturer has now asked that it be sold to women over the age of 17, and the FDA is sitting on that as well.

In response, the FDA disagreed with the conclusions and criticized the study for not paying sufficient attention to its input. But Susan F. Wood, former assistant FDA commissioner for women’s health, who quit over this deal, said the GAO report was exactly correct and the reason she left. The GAO study did not go into White House involvement in the decision.

Friday, November 11, 2005

It's too damned hot here in heaven. I want to go to hell

Hell will freeze over before heaven does—The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed. Our authority is Isaiah 30:26, "Moreover, the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days." Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun, and in addition 7 x 7 (49) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or 50 times in all.

The light we receive from the Moon is one 1/10,000 of the light we receive from the Sun, so we can ignore that.

The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat received by radiation, i.e., Heaven loses 50 times as much heat as the Earth by radiation. Using the Stefan-Botzmann law for radiation, (H/E)^4 = 50, where E is the absolute temperature of the earth (-300ºK), gives H as 798ºK (525ºC).

The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed. However, Revelation 21:8 says "But the fearful, and unbelieving ... shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone." A lake of molten brimstone [sulphur] means that its temperature must be at or below its boiling point, 444.6ºC.

We have, then, that Heaven, at 525ºC is hotter than Hell at 445ºC.

[From the blog Jesus' General]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Second Take: You know you're in trouble when you piss off Microsoft—UPDATE

I am very stupid and I’m in a panic and I really need to borrow your computer—Now Sony is in real trouble. Microsoft is unhappy with them.

It is axiomatic by now that the stupidest people in business have gone to work for the recording industry. These are the numskulls who sue 11-year-olds for piracy, distribute music decreasing numbers of people want to listen to and wrap their products in packaging that can kindly be described as consumer infuriating. They then wonder why 11-year-olds feel justified in pirating their ripping them off. It also is true that the largest company in the greatest decline in the world (not counting General Motors) is Sony, once the great innovator and now virtually clueless. So what happens when the dim bulbs in the music division of Sony decide to fight piracy?

You get a piece of software hidden in a music CD that sneaks unannounced onto your computer, alters the Windows operating system in ways that makes it more vulnerable than Windows is already, and hides from view. If you manage to find it and erase it, it interfere with your ever playing CDs again on your computer. I’m not making this up. It’s part of their Digital Rights Management system (DRM) system. It’s in the fine print on the obtuse license agreement that no one in their right minds reads.

The discovery was made by a Windows programmer named Mark Russinovich who was tinkering with his PC when he noticed that there was a program hidden in the operating system he didn’t put there. He managed to trace to a music CD, a SonyBMG Van Zant album he’d purchased at Amazon. When he first put the disk in his computer, the program loaded unannounced. Worse, he discovered it was a kind of program called a “rootkit,” a cloaking device that can be used by bad guys to hide viruses. Essentially, it had unlocked the back door to Windows, which needs no help in keeping doors wide open. Only a programmer could find it. Click here and follow his tale.

He posted his finding on his website. To Sony’s amazement, people actually objected to them sneaking software into their operating systems. The manufacturer of the rootkit, First 4 Internet of England, said it had been working closely with antivirus companies to make sure the program was safe and posed no threat. The purpose was to make it difficult to hack the protection program on the disk, and there have been no reports of any harm actually being done, they said.

Not true. A Dutch firm said it had discovered the first virus (a Trojan Horse, actually) to ride in on the Sony system. A hacker mass mailed a Stinx-E virus to British email addresses. If you click on the attachment, your firewall collapses. Symantec found a trojan horse that rode in on the program. Sony’s response was that no one knew it was there until Russinovich opened his mouth and nobody cared.

Well, they did. Under an absolutely furious barrage of bad publicity and a classic case of how not to handle a p.r. crisis, Sony has since announced a decloaking patch that will uninstall the program but makes it very difficult—a major pain in the ass, actually. Not only that, it made the announcment of the uninstall to the press, not its customers, and hid the support on its webpage. See for yourself.

Apparently a lot of people did care. Sony was sued. There is the possibility of criminal charges. And finally, they announced last week they would withdraw the security feature and were decided unapologetic about it all. That doesn't mean you can get rid of it easily if it's on your computer. Fortunately, the folks at Microsoft, who get a little sensitive when people diddle with Windows, announced it was going to supply a deenstall program that will get rid of it for you. You can get yours by clicking here.

Virus writers and others trying to screw up your computer use rootkits because they burrow deep inside Windows and are hard to find. Having the rootkit on your computer does not mean your computer has been compromised, only that the threat is there, another opening to get inside, as the Dutch company found.

As usual, Macs are immune, as are Linux computers. Both use UNIX as an underpinning for their operating systems. There was one report of a Mac sucking up the rootkit from a CD, but it turns out, as with all applications, MAC OS-X demands affirmation, a remarkably simply safety procedure no one at Microsoft has thought of yet. It asks you if you really want to install the program and it won't install unless you agree. That's why there is no Mac spyware. If you say no, it doesn't install, and you can find it and remove it from your disk. It's called ""

For a list of Sony CDs containing the rootkit, click here.

And finally, the folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually went into the license agreement that comes with the CDs, written, no doubt, by lawyers smoking bad pot. A few of the best:
  • If your house gets burgled you have to delete all the music from your laptop if the thieves steal the CD.
  • If you move out of the country, you have to delete the music.
  • If you file for bankruptcy, you have to delete the music.
  • And best of all: Sony has the right to enter your computer through the back door its program open without notice any time.

UPDATE—And just when Sony thought it was over, another programmer discovered that if you do deinstall the Sony program you open Windows to another major security problem. As if Microsoft needed any help. Don't use it.

And finally, Sony announced on Wednesday it was recalling all the CDs, all 20 million of them.

Take a letter, kid, right to left

You go practice that alphabet on the stone right there and don't start a fireEvery time you dig a hole in Israel or the adjacent areas, you stand good chance of digging up something interesting. On July 15, the last day of digging in the site called Tel Zayit, archeologists from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins uncovered the oldest known writing of a full alphabet, what is called, lovingly, an abecedary, of early Hebrew. What makes the finding so remarkable is that the archeologists claim have been able to date it precisely, late 10th century BCE, and to trace it to the kingdom of Israel founded by Solomon and David.

All it is are the 22 letters of the alphabet, slightly out of order from the modern Hebrew alphabet, but the find is interesting for several reasons. The abecedary was probably written by a scribe practicing his letters, which meant formal writing and probably a bureaucracy, and was inscribed on a limestone boulder embedded in a wall, probably as a good-luck charm. The charm didn’t appear to work: a fire soon destroyed the place.

The writing also shows that the ancient Israelites were literate 3,000 ago, according to Pittsburgh’s Ron E. Tappy. Biblical Hebrew is thought to derive from Phoenician and the inscription appears to many scholars to reflect that transition. The letters are clearly on their way to being the aleph, bet, gimmel of Hebrew, written from right to left. All western alphabets eventually derived from the same source.

The Zeitah Excavations at Tel Zayit are halfway between the Israeli city of Ashkelon and the West Bank city of Hebron, south of Tel Aviv. The ancient town was apparently part of a border settlement protecting the southern approaches to the capital at Jerusalem. The site reflects the Caananite culture, the foundation of the kingdom of Israel and may have been written about the time of David and his son, Solomon, who took over in 1037 BCE or shortly thereafter. Following Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel and Judah. The Tel Zayit find would have placed it in Judah.

The formal presentation of the find will be next week in Philadelphia. And, as with all archeological finds in the area, there also will be controversy. Not everyone is convinced it is what Tappy says it is, with the dating, as usual, the source of most of the contention. And people who want to believe in what's in the Bible (in this case, Kings 1) will claim it as proof and those who don't won't.

But wait. There is more. Would you believe a reference to Goliath? Israeli archeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, an ancient Philistine city and the biblical city of Gath, have found a small ceramic shard with the earliest Phoenician inscription ever found. It was written in “proto-Canaanite” letters and contains two non-Semitic names, one of which, is etymologically related to the name Goliath, and Gath was supposed to be the home of the giant slain by the young David. The archeologists from Bar-Ilan University don’t claim the Goliath on the shard is the Goliath of the Bible as it apparently was a common name. The shard is dated about 50 years after little David hurled his stone. Nice story anyhow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

When a Panda sticks his thumb in your face—UPDATED

Pay no attention to the religion behind the curtain—
While the Kansas Board of Education was making asses of themselves, the voters in “red neck" Pennsylvania did themselves proud. They threw the scoundrels out. All eight members of the Dover, PA school board, whose efforts to insert “intelligent design” into the local schools, were routed in yesterday’s election. Even the people who won were surprised at the victory. The word “repudiation” is hard to avoid.

"I think voters were tired of the trial, they were tired of intelligent design, they were tired of everything that this school board brought about," said Bernadette Reinking, who was among the winners. Election results here.

The poster child for the ID people who tried last month to convince a federal judge religion had nothing to do with the debate, Alan Bonsell, came in last. Another said he was going to contest the vote because in one voting district he got no votes at all. Nada. Zip. Zero.

In October 2004, the board voted to require ninth grade biology students to hear a short statement pointing out gaps in Darwin’s theory, asserting that ID was a valid alternative to evolution and to go out and read the bible of the ID, Of Pandas and People. The board was taken to court by parents and the trial ended last week. The judge is expected to rule after the first of the year

What happens to the court case? Well, it’s still on. The vote doesn’t change anything. For an excellent description of ID vs. the two flavors of creatonism (you didn’t know it came in two flavors?), click here for the usually wonderful Panda’s Thumb.

UPDATE: For a good look at the mood of Dover after the election, go here. The good folks of Dover are embarrassed and glad to be rid of the know-nothings.

Meanwhile, in Kansas (I promise, no Kansas jokes), the school board there is going ahead with its ID curriculum despite the usual warnings it would turn Kansas into a laughing stock of the civilized world. They are going to have some trouble getting organized since at least two major science organizations have refused to allow them to use copyrighted material. The vote was 6-4. That makes Kansas the fifth state to adopt standards challenging evolution, Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Ohio is the furthest out. Maybe we should tell Ohio jokes instead.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

That was the American Century, this is something else-Part II

Just think, Albert, your theory could someday lead to Geraldo Rivera
—According to a group of technology researchers and scientists called the Marconi Society, the U.S. is falling behind the other countries in innovation. Partly, it is the reduction in funding by the federal government and industry; partly it is that other countries are getting much better. And the crunch seems to be centered on basic research.

Basic research is problematic politically. Even my mother, who knew zip about science, knew that intuitively. One day, she visited us in California and my wife, the cetacean biologist, gave her a private tour of her lab and a special demonstration with her dolphins. Carol studied echolocation, how dolphins use their sonar not only to locate themselves in their world, but to communicate with each other. At the end of the session, my mother was suitably impressed and then asked the question most basic scientists dread most: “Why do we want to know this?” Or, in other words, what’s it good for.

The answer, of course, is we don’t know yet. When Einstein produced his theory of electromagnetism, he couldn’t possibly have thought of a practical application and didn’t care. (In his case, one answer is television). Carol had no idea if what she found would be of use in the practical world and it hasn't. Not the point, she would say. And answers like that don’t sit well with politicians, who are far more interested in spending millions of dollars on bridges no one needs.

The reason for the lapse in innovation is precisely that problem. Basic research is a long-term investment with no guarantee anything useful will come of it—and in most cases, a pretty good chance that nothing will—except knowledge. Isaac Asimov once wrote that all knowledge is intrinsically good . He wasn’t in Congress or a funding agency.

The Marconi Society lamented all this, particularly in information technology.

"I think we are in trouble," said Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles and creator of the basic principle of packet switching. "Years ago, people took a long-range view to research. There was high-risk research with the potential for big payoffs. That's no longer the case."

Part of the problem is that in most of the 20th century, basic research was done in industrial labs, the most famous the late and lamented Bell Labs in New Jersey, where, among other things, the transistor was invented, a result of basic research begun 20 years earlier. Think of Xerox Parc and IBM’s Watson Labs. The results of their work were licensed cheaply to other firms. Those labs are now a ghost of their former selves, and in the case of Bell Labs, virtually non-existent. While some companies will join with academia for some research, it isn’t the same and it is not as productive.The federal government did a great deal, mostly with DARPA (the Internet for one), but they have cut back too. Deadlines have been shortened. Even DARPA no longer thinks long range.

One clear culprit, besides Congress, is Wall Street, which demands instant gratification and pressures companies not to invest in long-term projects. Defense and anti-terrorism are siphoning off billions.

Who’s doing the innovating now? Stay tuned. To be continued. For a good review of the Marconi session, see CNet.

Monday, November 07, 2005

If you believe in "intelligent design" you can't get the flu

I’m going to bed now as I have a fatal case of inconsistency—No one wants bird flu to turn into a pandemic but if it does, I kind of hope it strikes first at the creationism and “intelligent design” folks—not lethally mind you, just enough to put them in bed for a few days so when their heads clear they might wonder. You see, the pandemic, whether it comes or not, is living proof of evolution. In fact, influenza viruses are superb examples of how evolution works in quick time.

The virus, as it stands now (H5N1) is now infecting birds and a few humans. It is not very infectious. What everyone fears is that the virus will evolve into a pathogen that is more easily transmittable to humans and one with increased virulence, although the present iteration kills 50% of its victims. Notice the word “evolve.” Even President Bush, who has publicly supported "intelligent design" in schools, used that verb. If it evolves, he said, it could kill 2 million. Hmmm. This is not true only of viruses. Bacteria often mutate (evolve) into bugs resistent to antibiotics. Those bugs most resistent have a greater chance of survival than those that do not and they reproduce and eventually we are stuck with a generation totally resistent. Think of malaria parasites, which have evolved in two ways. Some evolved to be resistant to drugs like quinine once used to prevent the disease, and others have evolved to resist drugs used to treat the disease. And of course, in some places, they evolved both ways, making malaria almost impossible to prevent or cure. Kind of hard to explain in a world without evolution, what?

Actually, we cope with this every year with influenza. The flu vaccine we use is based on the best guesses of what the virus will evolve into when it strikes. The typical flu vaccine has three strains, the three mostly likely to spread. Sometimes, the experts guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong. But what they are worrying about is evolution, how the virus will evolve. Every year we get new strains.

If “intelligent design” is real, this shouldn’t be happening (unless the intelligent designer wants birds, animals and people to get the flu) and worrying about bird flu and spending money to prepare for a pandemic is a waste of time and funds.

You might want to know there is some controversy about whether the bird flu thing is a real threat, with a small minority of scientists and journalists claiming the threat is vastly overblown. I don't know. They are not making this argument because of the evolutionary aspects of it, but are arguing epidemiology. Go here for a visit to that little brouhaha and meet a new and extremely useful blog called Effect Measure, written by public health experts. Worth bookmarking, especially if the birds hit the fan.

Friday, November 04, 2005

When I grow, I'm going to be a scientist—and get really dirty

I’ve spent 8 years working on this damned Ph.D., and I’m supposed to go into a jungle and collect monkey piss?—Most people have a wonderful idea of what it is like to be a scientist. You get to wear a white lab coat, sit around all day and pour things into test tubes. Or you go off to exotic places and take notes about native mating rituals. Well, some do that. Others have a different life than the one advertized in graduate school recruiting pamphlets. [One of my favorite students quit being a scientist after earning her Ph.D. because she spent most of her time decapitating rats.) Popular Science magaine, a magazine often ignored by serious science writers for no particularly good reason (it’s "popular?”] collected what it calls the 10 worst jobs in science. It’s hard to argue with the choices.

[My wife, a cetacean biologist, had two dolphins in her lab. She regularly had to slice and dice herrings, putting vitamins and medicines in some of them, so the cute darlings could get their meds. She smelled of herring constantly. People would move away from her in supermarket lines. I apparently liked it.]

Drum roll:

10. Orangutan pee collector. Harvard anthropologist Cheryl Knott has been doing that for 11 years in Indonesia so she and her colleagues can measure fertility and hormones in these endangered animals. And yes, she’s been peed on.

9. NASA ballerina. Her name is unknown but she was hired to dance with a robot outfitted with special electronic skin, designed to let robots know when humans touch it so they can move out of the way. See for yourself. It's quite lovely.

8. Measuring permafrost in Manitoba. It doesn’t sound too bad but it means slogging through melting peat bogs, avoiding bears and fighting entire clouds made up of mosquitoes. Most of the work is actually done by Earthwatch volunteers, who volunteered for the duty and as a result, Peter Kershaw of the University of Alberta has measuring stations across considerable Arctic terrain measuring how the permafrost is melting.

7. Semen washer in a fertility lab. You sit in the lab waiting for a guy, surrounded by Playboys and Penthouses and porno films jerk off into a test tube. When he is done, you do a motility count under a microscope and then "wash" or separate out the plasma from the motile cells for storage. I bet they have stories.

6. Volcanologist. No argument. Easily the most dangerous job in science. It makes herpetologists look like pussies.

5. Nuclear weapons scientist. You have to deal with the extraordinary security, which means no one outside the profession knows if you have published anything, you have to cope with Los Alamos and it’s incompetent management, and with FBI agents. Remember Wen Ho Lee? Throw in lab accidents and you are not having a good time.

4. Extremophile excavator. Extremophile means an organism that lives in extreme condition, such as very hot, very smelly, very poisonous conditions. Like in the muck at Mono Lake in California, which one scientist explains this way: "Take some of the most dramatic shoreline you can imagine: seabirds, gigantic mountains and volcanoes—truly dramatic. Now imagine that you are on this beach tightly surrounded by 100 overweight and extremely flatulent people." We got the picture, dude.

3. Kansas science teacher. No explanation required.

2. Manure inspector. The University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety is knee-deep in poop, which, besides smelling like hell, contains all kinds of bacteria including campylobacter, salmonella and E. Coli. Chicken poop stings the eyes. Pig shit smells the worse. Researcher say they can’t get rid of the smell. Hi honey, I’m home. Honey?

And now, the number 1 worst job in science. Let me guess. President Bush’s science advisor.

Nope. Human lab rat. For $15 an hour the pesticide business will pump vile shit into your eyes to see if they get red and watery or go blind. That includes choloropircin, the basis for tear gas. They did it at UC San Diego in an industry-sponsored experiment.

I still think science advisor still tops them all.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I was going to roll over and have a cigarette but they won't be invented for another 65 million years

Look, foreplay is one thing but sooner or later you have to get on with it—We have all had embarrassing moments or even worse, fear of embarrassing moments (mine is having my plane crash while I am sitting on the toilet in the lavatory), but almost nothing can compare to what happened to some slime molds 65 million years ago. The mold, better known as the fungus myxomycetes, reproduces sexually if oddly by fusing. One clump of mold climbs on another clump of mold and they do it. then they roll over and go to sleep. Not. Once the cells fuse, long threadlike appendages known as flagella are lost. If you find myxomycetes fused with the flagella missing you have caught them flagrante delicto. That’s exactly what some scientists at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany in Lucknow, India, have found—mold doing it. As reported in the Indian Journal Current Science (not yet posted on the web), you need to look through a microscope to see it, but they found fossils 65 million years old that were fused and minus the flagella. “The sexual organs being delicate and the time of conjugation short lived, it is indeed rare to get this stage in the fossil state,” according to Ranjeet Kar of the institute. What happened to interrupt the sex is not known but they have been stuck in this position for 65 million years. According to the scientists, it is the first time the sex act has been discovered in a fossil state, which is a straight line I will not go near, but you are welcome to.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Getting high in Denver, right with whales, wrong with bureaucrats and singing mice—UPDATED

We’ll just hang around here and wait. Hmmm. Hmm. Still hanging around. Still waiting—The two-month comment period to make Plan B, the "morning after" pill available without a prescription has expired and absolutely nothing has happened. You are shocked to hear this, no doubt. Apparently, the FDA, whose upper level is controlled by the reactionary right—or is afraid of them—is wading through 10,000 comments sent during the period, and according to a spokesperson for the agency, what they will do will depends on what’s in the comments. Actually, many of those comments were stimulated by the activities of two liberal women senators, Patty Murray of Washington and Hillary Clinton of New York. Since almost all the medical experts at FDA agree—and one of its leading adminstrators has quit in support of the experts—what the hell are they waiting for? This is the third review of Plan B. So girls, if you get pregnant (maybe, God help you, raped) and can’t get a prescription, have an abortion and send the bill (and maybe the fetus) to James Dodson at Focus on the Family. His phone is 800-223-6459.

[There is no way I can resist this: if you Google just "Dodson" the first URL on the Goggle List is a psychologist named Betty Dodson who specializes in teenage masturbation. I couldn’t possibly make this up.]

Getting right with the whales—The National Marine Fisheries Service says it is setting up special protection to the endangered right whales in Alaska. A 36,750 sq. mile area near salmon-rich Bristol Bay, will be designated a critical habitat for the Pacific rights. The area would be protected from human activities that would harm the critters. This is serious—there may be fewer than 100 Pacific rights left in the world; they are the most endangerd of the large whales. Some have been seen in the area in southwestern Alaska. Now we get to the politics. Are you surprised that the fisheries under the Bush administration would do such a noble thing? Don’t be. They are under court order. It seems a federal judge ruled that the administratiion had illegally delayed action to save the whales and fisheries had to get off its ass. Whalers almost wiped the whales out early in the 20th century. They are fat and slow and easy targets.

So set ‘em up, Joe. I’ve got a little mouse I want you to know—Disney was right. Mice can sing. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, have discovered that when male mice scent the pheremones of female mice, they sing. Songs. Really. The high squeeking sounds they usually make when lust overcomes them turn out to be far more complex than thought. They are not random and have patterns to them. Part of the problem is that the squeeking is at too high a frequency for humans to hear, but when recordings of the sounds were reduced into the range of human hearing they do indeed sound like bird songs. Porpoises and whales, of course, sing songs, as do birds but we know little about them. No one knows where the songs come from and whether the mice can learn new songs. Are there rodent composers? Every mouse, apparently, gets to make up his own song and presumably scores if his score attracts a babe. Perphaps there is even hip hop.

UPDATE—If you'd like to here the rodent melodies for yourself, click here. Reader Larry Maxcy recommends you play it to your cat.

Denver goes eponymous—Residents of the Mile High City think it’s okay. To be high, that is. In a vote, 54 percent of voters supported a measure legalizing small amounts of marijuana. Forty-six percent said no. The measure legalized an ounce of pot for people over the age of 18. State officials, in a snit, said state law will control and state law forbitds marijuana. Several college towns and Seattle have passed similar measures. All this comes after a study at the University of Colorado, showing that smoking pot is not a cancer risk. It has the same bad things in it tobacco (which is legal, of course) has, but the THC in marijuana seems to mitigate that. Good stuff, that THC. Meanwhile, my old home town, Santa Cruz, CA, has organized a city department to dispense medical marijuana while the locals and the feds fight it out.