2007-01-25

T Sends Me The Best Stuff

My co-worker T sends me the best links. Two from the past few days:
  • Andy Griffith vs. Patriot Act

  • Boing Boing's anti-EULA


  • They both put a big smile on my face. Thanks, T!

    --YY

    2007-01-23

    Mowing The Astroturf

    This is a story of how I was almost suckered in by an astroturf campaign put on by a multi-billion dollar corporation. I almost wrote my Senator and almost helped "spread the word". I'm going to spread a very different word, but my main point here is ALWAYS DO YOUR RESEARCH - I'm definitely glad I did, in this case.

    It all started with this video (called Nutricide), that I found via StumbleUpon. In it, a certain Rima E. Laibow, M.D. discusses the "threat" of Codex. She takes her time getting around to what Codex actually is (a set of internation regulations sponsored by the World Health Organization and the UN), since that would probably bore most of her audience to death (instead of her goal, which is to scare them to death).

    To save you the forty minutes of bulls--t, I will sum up for you:

    • Codex was started by a Nazi.

    • Codex is being pushed by Big Pharma and Big Chemical.

    • Codex will kill 3 billion people.

    • Codex will kill you and your family.

    • Codex is about to be ratified by the US Government.

    Wow. Scary stuff. Time to call your Congressperson and stop this madness! Right?

    Well... This is why you do research. Since I was definitely concerned, I headed over to the site behind this video: Health Freedom USA.

    Strike One: Never trust a grassroots group with "Freedom" in the name. It almost always means "freedom from regulations", and it's almost always funded by an industry trade group that is lobbying against some law that will put restrictions on it.

    Strike Two: The site has a store on the front page ("Buy the purest wellness products available and support health freedom!"). And they're selling the exact products that would be regulated by Codex! What a coincidence!

    Foul Tip: The site is run by the "Natural Solutions Foundation", which really really sounds like a trade group name. Not quite enough, though, so I delved further and found:

    Strike Three: After some Googling, I found an even crazier group ranting about how the "Natural Solutions Foundation" is a "controlled opposition group" run by Big Pharma. According to these new guys, the goal is to get the public to act in an inefficient manner, fighting the wrong fights and spending their energies in the wrong place. That way, Codex gets passed because the concerned public is not reaching the people who are actually making the decisions. Or something.

    Maybe "strikes" are the wrong metaphor, because there's:

    Strike Four: The obsession with DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994). You can read it here. Here's the key line in the bill: "[T]he Federal Government should not take any actions to impose unreasonable regulatory barriers limiting or slowing the flow of safe products and accurate information to consumers." It's an industry-friendly bill - much friendlier than Codex. Health Freedom USA says that "we must unite to protect DSHEA, our best legal defense against Codex". I'll bet.

    DSHEA wasn't so great for consumers, however, when supplement manufacturers were allowed to sell Ephedra, a diet pill that turned out to cause heart attacks. Oops.

    At this point I headed over to SourceWatch to see what was really behind all this, and lo and behold, they have a page on "Health Freedom". The pharmaceutical industry is in fact in favor of heavier regulation of the supplement business, since, after all, it's a competitor, and you can't patent Vitamin C or garlic. The supplement industry, is no slouch, of course. According to DSHEA, the supplement industry was $4 billion in 1994 - presumably MUCH bigger now. Definitely enough scratch to build some astroturf. In fact, Nature's Way brags about being the "[f]irst to spend more than a million dollars on legislative efforts to protect health freedoms". Gee, thanks.

    So what this is really all about is one huge mega trade group duking it out with another huge mega trade group, and trying to sucker the public into getting involved politically. So you end up with fear-mongering tripe that tries to scare the public into action that's really about lining someone else's pockets.

    I pretty much lost interest at this point (as I imagine you might have as well). But I found this extremely instructive in terms of making sure you always investigate claims such as these. There are a lot of naive people who probably don't realize that they're being played by a billion dollar trade association (especially ones that decry the dangers of other trade associations). In any case, below are some links that you may find informative. And with that, my tale of deceit and naivety comes to an end.

  • Natural Products Association (the official trade group that is actually trying to get Codex modified to be more DSHEA-like!)

  • Official Codex Page

  • FDA Codex Information center
  • 2007-01-20

    Ruby on Rails 1.2 Released

    The latest and greatest version of Ruby on Rails is finally out - read all about it! It's a pretty hefty release, with lots of really cool stuff added.

    --YY

    2007-01-16

    Tagging Biology

    (Disclaimer: I don't remember if I've seen what I'm writing about elsewhere, although there's a strong chance I have, so I apologize if others have said the same thing before, and I'm failing to acknowledge that.)

    A few months back I wrote about Clay Shirky's article Ontology is Overrated. His main point is that sometimes it's just not appropriate to try and organize information in a hierarchical category structure (i.e. an ontology).

    Perhaps biology is one of those categories. Species classification is one of the most famous and well-known ontologies in existence. We all learn about it in school. At the top you have your Kingdoms, then Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families, Genii, and finally Species.

    To the best of my knowledge, biology today has moved away from thinking about this sort of thing, and has focused far more on goings-on at the cellular level. However, organizing and keeping track of the different species, is still critically important, since our understanding of genetics is inextricably tied to study of the end-product (the phenotype - i.e. the animal/plant/whatever).

    The problem with this classification of species is everything Shirky mentions in his article: the classification system is artificial, and sometimes species don't fit nicely into the elaborate tree humanity has constructed. He gives the example of deciding whether "Books" belong under "Art" or "Entertainment" - an artificial question. Books are books - they don't intrinsically fit under either category. One book may be art, and another may be entertainment, and another may be a bit of both, and yet another may be neither (a textbook, for example). I don't have any specific biological examples, unfortunately, but it is certainly reasonable to expect that once you get down to the nitty-gritty details, and are classifying based on subtleties in bone structure, you're going to run into problems of species belonging to more than one (or no) spots in the classification tree.

    In my opinion, a tagging approach would be much more effective way to organize the different species. The same properties that are used to determine where a species "fits" in the classification tree would be used as tags. For example, some tags might be "warm-blooded", "invertebrate", "eukaryotic", and "egg-laying". A scientist analyzing a recently discovered species would simply list all the various attributes she notices and associate them with the species. A species database might then list all the various species with similar tags. Knowledge of those species may be applied to the new ones. This sort of system would highlight, immediately, what species have in common with each other, and what they don't. The task of figuring out where the new species belongs in some convoluted system doesn't appear here. The scientist merely documents attributes in a systematic fashion, which is something she's doing anyway.

    Of course, all this is going on anyway - in the scientist's head. The scientist obviously knows to compare a newly discovered bacterium with other bacteria (as opposed to a reptile). And she also knows to compare the new bacterium with bacteria that share many attributes with the new one, and not to compare it with ones that have less in common. But, under a classification system, the scientist is forced to figure out where in the species tree the new bacterium belongs (which may be a cause for some debate), and compare the new bacterium with its determined "relatives". Why bother with that first step? Just enter what you know about the bacterium as a list of tags, and the software will spit back matches. The most tedious and pointless step in the process has been removed, and real work can proceed.

    You may be concerned that, we are losing something by disposing of the highly familiar species tree. We're not*. The various relationships between the species will be preserved in the tags (one way to look at the tree now is to say that the more tags two species have in common, the closer together they are on the tree). And that's really all you need. The tree doesn't add anything else except constraints and constructs like "relatives". With today's technology, the tree is an inferior way of storing information about the species.

    Last but not least, there is the issue of tag management. The number of nuances and subtleties that exist as differences between species is staggering. Listing all the differences between a housecat and a tiger is quite a job, and those species are very close, relatively. The complete list of tags in the system might become unwieldy (one downside to tagging is its sensitivity to error - "warm-blooded" and "warm blooded" may be seen as different). So that would be one obstacle. But with "auto-complete" and similar technologies, it shouldn't be a big one.

    --YY

    * Well, to be fair, terms like "mammals" and "reptiles" come from names of branches of the tree. We can simply replace each definition with a set of tags (i.e. "An animal is a reptile if it has all of the following tags: 'lays eggs', 'cold-blooded', etc").

    p.s. If there are any biology people reading this, I'm curious if I'm being completely off the mark or blindingly obvious and obtuse.

    2007-01-15

    Children Of Men: Dreams and Nightmares

    Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I'd like to talk about it indirectly, by discussing Children of Men, a brilliant movie which depicts the nightmare that could happen if humanity continutes to move in the exact opposite direction of the one prescribed by Dr. King. The (fantastically reviewed) film is one of the most intense and powerful I've seen in a long time. It's dark, painful, and important.

    It takes place in the year 2027. All females on the planet are infertile, and the youngest person on earth (18 years old) is a celebrity. The British government has gone fascist, and immigrants are illegal - if caught, they are put in cages and deported to a refugee camp (that has strong echoes of both Iraq and Guantanamo Bay). All this sets the backdrop for an epic story that is, above all else, about humanity and dignity. The movie shows us, in a devastating manner, how precious what we have now is, and how easy it is to lose. Hatred, fear, and greed fill the vacuum of a world that has forgotten love, tolerance and acceptance.

    The most painful part of the movie is that it doesn't seem so far-fetched. A little more violence here, a little more hatred there, and a little less liberty everywhere, and we're not so far off from the bleak life shown in the film. Dr. King's teachings are just as relevant today as they were during his life, and Children of Men reminds us why.

    --YY

    2007-01-12

    High On Hypnosis

    Mind Hacks reports on an interesting study about "an extended nondrug MDMA-like experience evoked through posthypnotic suggestion". It seems like you have to have taken the drug (i.e. had the experience) first - it may then be possible to fool the brain into reliving that experience, as it were:
    Twelve participants received posthypnotic instructions to re-experience an MDMA-like state posthypnotically, similar to one in their prior experience, for one hour. Three separate self report measures and qualitative self reports showed that the posthypnotic condition effectively mimicked an MDMA-like experience, lasting an hour at a stable level.
    I have to say, this sounds promising. I just wish I knew what that promise is...

    --YY

    p.s. One reason I love Mind Hacks: headlines like "Beautiful 19th century papier mache brain".

    2007-01-10

    Enabling Chinese Censorship

    Someone pointed me to TopCoder recently, a programming competition website, which requires registration to view past contests (which is really all I wanted to do). As I went through their laborious registration process, something in their despicable terms and conditions caught my eye (emphasis mine):

    Provisions Applicable to Chinese Citizens and Expatriates Residing in China

    TopCoder hereby incorporates into these Terms of Use and Privacy Policy the provisions of China's Decision on Safeguarding the Security of the Internet (the "Decision").

    ...

    According to Section 2 of the Decision, "to protect national security and social stability, the person or organization perpetrating any of the following acts in violation of the criminal law shall be penalized according to the criminal code:

    1. Disseminating rumor or slander on the Internet, or publishing or diffusing maleficent information to instigate subversion of the state power or socialist system, advocate abruption of the country or harm unity of the country;
    ...
    3. Instigating inter-ethnic enmity or prejudice, or disrupting ethnic unity on the Internet; and
    4. Establishing or organizing heresies on the Internet and impeding the implementation of laws and regulations of the state.

    Section 3 of the Decision also stipulates that "to safeguard the order of the socialist market economy and social stability, the person or organization perpetrating any of the following acts in violation of the criminal law shall be penalized according to the criminal code:

    ...

    Section 4 of the Decision stipulates that "to protect the legal rights of personal safety and property of individuals, legal persons and other organizations, the person or organization perpetrating any of the following acts in violation of the criminal law shall be penalized according to the criminal code:

    1. Insulting others or drawing up slanders against others on the Internet;
    ...

    Wow. First off, to state the obvious, I'm glad I don't live in China. The Chinese government sucks (Waaaaaah - they're going to censor me).

    Second, and more disturbing, is how this Connecticut-based company is kowtowing to Chinese oppression. They've basically stated that they're going to do the Chinese government's work in censoring anyone Chinese who criticizes their government. I know what some of you (and probably the wimps at TopCoder) are thinking: "If TopCoder doesn't play along with Chinese rules, they may get blocked in China, and the Chinese people as a whole will suffer as a result." This is completely ass-backwards thinking.

    One of the reasons the USSR fell was that it became unwieldy, inflexible, and dogmatic. Its centralized structure couldn't keep up with America's relatively dynamic society, and it fell behind (and apart). China presumably took those lessons to heart, so the Chinese government came up with something very clever. Keep up contacts with American businesses, as long as they don't say anything about its repressive policies. The corporations win because they get access to a bigger market, and the Chinese government wins because they win the flexibility without giving up control. Of course, the losers are the Chinese people, who remain stuck under a repressive regime, and any other victims of Chinese policy.

    If American corporations like TopCoder (and Google) had any morals (or guts) whatsoever, they would tell China that if they want to be part of the global game, they have to open up and free up. If American corporations refused to work with China as long as they remained Communist and repressive, then China would eventually be forced to evolve into a more egalitarian and open society, or risk suffering the Soviet Union's fate. But avaricious businesses saw dollar signs in their eyes, and decided that they couldn't care less what the repercussions were beyond the bottom line (a sadly common theme).

    So take a good look at the TopCoder Terms and Conditions. They are committed to enforcing laws that "safeguard the order of the socialist market economy". They should be ashamed.

    --YY

    p.s. I'm sure I'll find dozens of other examples of this sort of crap out there. I know Yahoo has a history of collusion with the Commies. But honestly, I'm afraid to look...

    p.p.s. I didn't even get around to the part about "disrupting ethnic unity". What's that all about?

    2007-01-09

    Kindle Me Elmo

    On (an apparently Lore Sjöberg-less) Table of Malcontents: a video of some guys burning a Tickle Me Elmo doll to death. It's really really freaky - as the ToM people say, "[i]t's like the last thirty seconds of a Chuckie movie."

    *shudder*

    --YY

    2007-01-07

    How To Make A Website Without Really Trying

    There seems to be a mildly disturbing new trend in Web 2.0 land these days. There seems to be a lot of websites out there that are simply a collection of links, plus advertising. At the risk of turning this post into one of those meta-sites, here are a few that I noticed:
  • Top 100 Links for Web Designers (Inserit Blog). This one is there to draw traffic to their product, so there's no advertising on this page.

  • The Movie Box - this site seems to be mostly links to trailers on other sites. There's a "headlines" section that appears to be empty.

  • Patchbox - Creative Links (may not be NSFW). This one is actually cute, and doesn't seem to have an ulterior motive, but it still ends up being just another list of links, albeit a very pretty and well designed one.

  • Top 100 game sites: http://www.top100gamesites.com/ I'm not putting in a hot link because it's a really egregious example of what I'm talking about. Popups and all sorts of nasty advertising await you, and for what? So you can access yet another aggregator.


  • Finally (all I have patience to look for), in super-meta fashion, there's Top Site Lists:
    Topsites are an amazing way to generate mass free web site traffic and build community awareness. Website ranking sites are some of the highest trafficked websites on the internet. Topsites will help you tap into this market by letting you run your own top site. Watch as webmasters link to you and your website traffic builds - all for free.
    Of course, Top Site List will put a half page of Google advertising in front of your list (designed to make it unclear where the lists actually start). And the list members seem to get under a click a day, especially after a certain amount of scrolling. But hey, it's free!

    --YY

    2007-01-05

    Good Stuff From Yitz

    My good friend Yitz has been downright prolific recently, writing from his own unique perspective merging science and Jewish mysticism.

    Some representative and thought-provoking posts in the past few days:

  • lanterns in gravity wells

  • tomorrow was born yesterday

  • redefine crowdsourcing


  • The only catch is that many of his posts require knowledge of Jewish mystical terminology, but the first two posts I linked to here should be pretty comprehensible to everyone.

    --YY

    p.s. Yitz's former professor (who I found through Yitz's blog) has an interesting post called Unintelligent Operators, how certain economic assumptions break down when the consumers (us) act unintelligently.

    2007-01-04

    Wanna Be A Freelance Writer? Not Anymore...

    Prompted by an open letter post by TAN, Gawker has started an ongoing section about freelance writers not getting paid by major publications. Many of them will withhold, say, a $50 payment for months, until the author starts screaming and making threats. Nasty stuff, and quite an eye-opener. I'll think twice before purchasing some of these second-rate publications...

    --YY

    2007-01-03

    Scary Gmail Security Problem

    I'm reading about CSRF on Ajaxian and it's pretty disturbing. This vulnerability lets a potential hacker grab your entire address book if you make the mistake of visiting their site while still logged into your Gmail account.

    The idea is that because you're logged into Gmail, all the malicious user has to do is access Gmail's (publically available) Javascript library, which, upon confirming that you're logged in, loads up all your contacts. Unfortunately, the website will then also have access to your contacts, and Google knows what else.

    Anyway, even if Google fixed this problem already (I have no idea), it's yet another thing I have to worry about as a web developer :-P

    --YY

    2007-01-01

    The Perpetual Baby

    Wired's Table of Malcontents writes about a 13 year old that looks and acts like a 6 to 12 month old baby. It's a medical mystery, but clearly something that triggers the baby's development isn't happening. Amazing.

    --YY