Saturday, May 19, 2007

They race horses, don't they?

There's a guy peeing in my azaleas--Before catching up on the news of the world--it's going to hell in a hand basket--I might describe to the gentle readers the circumstances under which this is being written. We live in Baltimore, a block and a half away from Pimlico race track, and today, the third Saturday in May, is Preakness day, the running of the second of the Triple Crown horse races. I don't much care about horse racing, although one of the joys of living here is occasionally getting to see these most graceful animals practice in the mornings. I don't know a thing about horses and wish I knew more, but these thoroughbreds are spectacularly beautiful.

Anyway, for most of the year, the fact anything is happening at Pimlico is irrelevant to life even a block and a half away. But on this day, it takes over the place. You should know we are in the Mt. Washington section in north Baltimore, one of the remaining great neighborhoods in this old somewhat benighted city. It is a neighborhood of old homes (ours is more than 100 years old), old trees, children and some of the lushest vegetation you are likely to come across in the temperate zone. Maryland is where southern foliage meets northern foliage and we get the best of both--gorgeous springs and awesome autumns, and the place is seriously green. I mean green. The city also is known for its azaleas and although they usually all come out together and are gone by now, they are staggered this year because of the weird weather, and so many of the bushes are still in bloom.

Into this lovely place one day comes 100,000 people, some of whom are coming to see the race, many of whom are coming because it is an EVENT, and most of whom because the infield is home to one of the best parties in America. By 8 o'clock in the morning, the cars start parking on the streets (many of my neighbors convert their lawns to parking lots for $25-50 a shot and make hundreds today) and African-American kids from nearby collect every stray supermarket shopping cart and for $5 will tote your beer coolers to the racetrack. Some kids, my daughter and her friends included, set up lemonade and candy stands to service the visitors, and the church down the street has a huge barbecue going. The relative quiet is shattered by low-flying planes toting advertising banners and at least once a Preakness, an Air Force stealth bomber will blast the sky overhead in a publicity stunt.

It also is the largest single collection of drunks (many of them beautiful women) I've ever seen and when the race is over, they all pour out of the track and try to find their cars, pee in the bushes and, happily, buy lemonade and refuse the change. The place, of course, is a wreck by nightfall, but surprisingly, Baltimore City moves in and by Tuesday you would never know anything odd took place. There rarely is trouble and we've not had anything broken or stolen.

We can go up the street and watch the race through a fence, but for the Preakness itself, odd as it sounds, we watch it on television. We can see it better.

I'm on my front porch, my favorite place in the world, watching the people go by, admiring my fuchsias, and writing. It is sunny and quite lovely.

And now for the world...

I'm here captain. I just went into the bushes to pee in this guy's azaleas--As we reported here earlier, the ashes of James Doohan, Scotty in "Star Trek," were blasted into space in April and the capsul containing old Scotty returned to earth somewhere in New Mexico--"somewhere" because no one could find them. Everyone on the S.S. Enterprise can now relax: They found the capsul, and that containing the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper. They will be given to their families with a plaque.

Oh God, not Barbra Steisand!--One of my favorite "South Parks" is when the town is attacked by the giant ego of Barbra Streisand, a weapon of mass destruction if ever I heard of one. The kids save the place. I bring this up because a gentle reader pointed out something I didn't know. Earlier this month I posted an item about what happened when posted the encryption code used by anti-pirate software to protect DVDs. They got threatened by lawyers. They pulled the item only to find that their readers were in revolt over the censorship and told the lawyers to shove it The code popped up in hundreds of thousands of sites and even wound up on a t-shirt.

My gentle reader pointed out this is called the Streisand Effect.

In 2003, an environmental activist Kenneth Adelman posted a series of aerial photos of Streisand's Malibu beach house on his web (see above). She sued him for $50 million, which of course, he didn't have. The purpose of the law suit was to get him to remove the house picture, censorship by law suit. Until news of the suit, no one paid much attention to his site; after he was sued, more than a million went to look. The suit was thrown out and the pictures distributed all over the world, having, obviously, the opposite effect Streisand's lawyers intended.

The old rules no longer apply. Says one crisis manager, now you actually have to go and talk like a decent human to a site owner. That doesn't always work, of course, but launching lawyers on them has the opposite effect--the Streisand effect.

Why is that person sticking their fingers up my ass? Oh, she's looking for vitamins-I have mentioned here before that I believe the three things medical science knows the least about are sex, nutrition and lower back pain. Now let's talk nutrition--and how the press covers it.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute reported last week that men who take multivitamins are more likely to die from prostate cancer than those who do not. As reported in the NCI Journal, the government scientists tracked 300,000 men, about a third of whom took multivitamins, 5 percent took lots of vitamins. Within five years, 10,241 had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, 1,476 of them had advanced cancer and 179 died of it. Heavy user of multivitamins were almost twice as likely to die as those who didn't take any. (The scientists reported that there was no evidence the pills increased your chances of getting cancer of the prostate, only that if you got it, you were more likely to die of it.)

Here we go again. I do not know if multivitamins are good for you or bad for you. I do take them. But I do know that for years we have been hearing about how vitamins prevent diseases including cancer and now there appears to be a reversal. Suddenly vitamin E, which has been touted as being able to prevent cancers and heart disease, is now responsible for causing them; antioxidants like vitamin C which have been reported to do all kinds of good things are found not to do a thing at all, and now we get the evils of multivitamins.

Stick around for a couple of years and we'll get the reverse again. They truly don't know what they are talking about and misuse statistical correlations. My favorite example is the time some researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that college students who smoke marijuana heavily were more likely to wind up in student health with psychosis than those who do not. They studied 12 students. The point is that if they tested to see how many of those 12 were breast-fed as infants, or were born on streets with maple trees, or read comic books, they might have found the same correlation. At least this study had a larger sample.

Not a single journalist I know of listed all the studies that show the alleged benefits of vitamins, studies this one contradicts. Even the veteran Judy Foreman wrote she was throwing out some of the vitamins because of the new studies. She should know better.

The motto of this blog used to be: "Everything causes cancer in mice. Everything cures cancer in mice." Keep that in mind too.

I am happy to report that the lady with her fingers up my ass (actually, a urologist at Johns Hopkins) found my prostate to be smooth and sturdy and enlarged if somewhat under-utilized. I have found another thing that won't kill me this year. I keep popping vitamins.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"I can't do that, Jim. Someone stole my trailer hitch."

The perfect woman has reflective lips—Here's one you won't see around much, but what are friends for. A study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that people who have oral sex with more than five others in their lives have a greater chance of getting throat cancer. They also have a better chance of getting a date, but that's another story. In research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (and I'm delighted to know that goes on in this city), the suspect is the human papilloma virus (HPV), which also pops up in other orifices when used for pleasure. The suspicion makes sense because it is already established that HPV helps trigger oropharyngeal squamous-carcinoma, an extremely unpleasant form of cancer. The Hopkins folks used 200 patients with that cancer and 100 controls in the hospital-based study. They tested blood and saliva samples and measured the samples against lifestyle variables, including sex habits. Must have been a helluva questionnaire. Those who had oral sex with six or more other people were 3.4 times as likely to have the throat cancer. That's not all they found:
  • Those who had 26 or more vaginal-sex partners during their lifetime had a wonderful time but also had 3.1 times more likely to have the throat cancer.
  • Those who had a really uproariously life had even more likelihood of the disease as the threat increased with the acts.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer was most linked to HPV type 16. Cigarettes and booze did not see to alter the result.
That gal of legend who could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch probably ought to be more careful. Dang.
[Thank you, Charles]

The rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down; it's not my department, ask Wernher von BraunPoor Scotty. It isn't that the anti-matter warp field failed again and he had just one hour to save the ship and crew. The rocket worked beautifully. It's just that no one knows where it came down.

The rocket carrying the ashes of James Doohan, Scotty in the original Star Trek is lost. It was shot to the edge of space along with the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper on April 29. The capsule crashed down somewhere in New Mexico. Unfortunately, no one can find it. It's lost in mountainous terrain, hard to reach, according to a spokeswoman for Space Services Inc., which ran the "memorial spaceflight." And the weather is crappy. Eighteen other people's remains, besides Doohan and Cooper are on the capsule. The company charges $495, so even you can afford a trip to space and to get lost in the woods.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Heroes, we got heroes. Lawyers, we got lawyers--UPDATED YET AGAIN.

I keep hammering the damned thing and it pops up out of another hole--One of the cardinal rules in life is that you hire lawyers to give advice not make decisions. Have another example.

Bloggers and blog readers love a site called Digg. If you like a posting (say, this one for the sake of argument) you send it to Digg (see the little icon to the right, hint, hint?). Digg readers then can go to it and if they like it, vote for it. The larger the vote, the higher the posting appears on the home page and the more readers you get. Hint. hint. It's pretty powerful stuff. A posting making the top five on any given day can simply crush a server.

Recently someone posted the cryptographic key to unlocking HD-DVD formats, making it possible to pirate them. Pirating regular DVDs is old hat to those inclined to do these things, but the high definition ones were a challenge until someone posted the 16-digit hexadecimal number and it found its way to Digg. Administrators immediately deleted it, saying that the "owners of the intellectual property" believe the posting infringed on their property rights. [Editor's note: your obedient servant owns hundreds of copyrights, at least two of them valuable, and ought to be sympathetic but isn't]. The trigger was probably a lawyer letter from the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Authority which owns the system, and lawyers being lawyers, law suits were threatened. Bad move.

Digg readers revolted. The story, with the code, has now popped up in hundreds of places and is reproducing like a germ. The code even made it to Wikipedia for a few hours before they got a lawyer letter. Someone designed a screen saver with the number on it and posted that. You can now buy a t-shirt with the number on it. There's a song on YouTube containing the code. Digg's readers were in full rebellion.

Then an odd thing happened. Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, realizing that the credibility of his site was deeply endangered told the lawyers to shove it. He wrote on his blog:

...We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code. But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you've made it clear. You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying
My man, I bow. He went further, of course. He posted the code on his blog posting. Guess which Digg entry has the most hits on the site?

Having the code is of limited use to pirates because it requires considerable technical skills to to actually use it, but the points remain as does one question. The question is: can you copyright a number? Does that number have intellectual value? I don't think so. And the points: One, trying to censor the internet is difficult if not impossible. You may have a short term victory (see China) but in the end you lose. Two, you hire lawyers.... well, you know.

Oh, the number is the headline on Rose's posting, again, here. According to Slashdot, the code has been revoked.

I'm worried that there seems to be less concern about the size of my penis and my ability to buy quality fake drugs in the Ukraine-- Most of the concern lately is about the state of my mortgage. This is all reflected in the spam that has made it through multiple spam filters at .Mac, Yahoo and gmail. Obviously, the answer is lawyers

A large group of anti-spam fighters, called Project Honey Pot (no kidding), has filed a law suit against the firms that harvest names from the internet and sell them to spammers. Not the spammers themselves, but the suppliers of addresses. The suit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA (lots of suits are filed there because it is a notoriously conservative jurisdiction), seeks to identify the harvesters and collect more than $1 billion in damages for violation of the CAN-SPAM Act and the Virginia Computer Crimes Act. Project Honey Pot represents 20,000 anti-spam activists in more than 100 countries and Unspam Technologies, a Utah firm, filed the suit. The problem, of course, is that many if not most spammers and suppliers are offshore, working in such distinguished places as Belorussia, Russia, and Serbia, where they are immune from U.S. civil law suits. Mostly, the plaintiffs hope the suit will squeeze out useful information that will help the fight against the spam plague or at least give them pause. See, lawyers can be useful.

My penis is as it always was, just older; I don't need to get cheap drugs because I have good insurance and my mortgage was actually refinanced last night with a bank that doesn't send spam.

I realize Apple is a religion but we can at least lighten up until the end of the world--Harry McCracken is not a name you've ever heard of but he gets elevated to the Pantheon of Journalism Heroes too. He quit this week. McCracken was editor-in-chief of PC World magazine. He quit because the new CEO of the magazine killed a satirical article he was preparing on Steve Jobs and Apple, called "Ten Things We Hate About Apple," still in draft form [Number one: "no sense of humor?"]. According to Kim Zetter in the Wired blog, Colin Crawford told McCracken not to bother with finishing the piece and McCracken told him politely to shove it. Actually, he just quit--I made up the "shove it" stuff. Crawford also told the staff at PC World that their reviews were too critical of vendors, especially those who advertise in the magazine. Crawford was CEO of MacWorld, owned by the same company, IDG, and apparently used to take telephone calls from Steve Jobs if Jobs saw something in the magazine he didn't like.

Oddly, my subscription to MacWorld just expired and I got a renewal notice in the mail. Hmmm.....

UPDATE: PC World did the right thing, and posted the stories on its website, here. And this week, it turns out McCracken came back to PC World and Crawford went back to management. All is well.