Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 4

My local library called today to tell me that my inter-library loan request for "The Little Red Book" was in. I picked it up and reviewed it briefly. Mao was certainly a nutter. He thought that Marx's ideas on a natural progression toward communism should be rushed and that force was the way to do it. I wonder whether he actually believed in Marx or whether it was all political expedience. I suppose we'll never know for certain. We do know that Marx was wrong - he underestimated the power of greed.

Any student of Communist China should certainly read about Mao's yes-men and their hiding of the truth from Mao during the great famine after Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward. I recommend Hungry Ghosts for those interested.

I plan to further my quest to determine whether the inter-library loan system is monitored by the FBI. I've decided to request Hitler's Mein Kampf, Sayyid Qutb's Milestones and the US Army's Improvised Munitions Handbook. If they are watching, that will have to get their attention. Those requests will have to wait until after a quick holiday visit to my parents, though. I couldn't do it today because I left my list at home and couldn't recall how to spell "Qutb" :)

In other news, Slashdot rejected my Ask Slashdot submission asking which books might be on an FBI watch list. No surprise there. I'm probably starting to sound like a nutter myself unless it turns out that they are watching.

See also: Story About "Little Red Book" was a Hoax, Part 3

Most scientists are bottle washers and button sorters.

So said the ever-quotable Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love. I recalled it while spending most of today tediously creating graphics for an upcoming paper entitled "Evolution of Software Collaboration Graphs and their Properties". Sigh.

Why Does H-P Software Suck? Part 2

I wasted about five hours yesterday trying to install a new HP Officejet 7310xi printer/fax/scanner. Our old one gave up the ghost for no reason I can determine other than planned obsolescence. The 'xi' designation seems to denote that it was sold through Costco.

The hardware seems to be pretty good. Two-page printing works, the color is great, the ink jet cartridges have improved. The software sucks. Really.

The first problem I noticed was that the desktop software (drivers, UI and various third-party bundles) simply wouldn't install on Mac OS X (10.4.3). This is almost not surprising, given the huge amount of software that HP insists on installing (thousands of files supporting many applications not needed to print, fax and scan). After trying everything I could think of, I downloaded a different version of the installer from HP's support Web site. That worked, and reduced the total installable files for a minimal installation from 6,530 to 488 due to the removal of the third-party bundles. I continued to notice poor quality control, such as GUI buttons which didn't always paint, memory corruption and evidence of ten-year-old Mac Classic code.

I wondered what some of the third-party code did, so I clicked the information button for 'readiris' during the installation. The help kindly informed me that 'This installs the readiris package'. Help for all other options were similarly undescriptive. You can just picture the programmer shoving that into a string in order to move on to more important work. Due to a lack of testing and project management, it never became anyone else's problem and was shipped.

The final straw was the fax setup. The fax does not release the phone line after a successful transfer. It doesn't mater whether the printer has an extension handset plugged in or whether it is sharing a POTS line via a splitter. After faxing, the only way to recover the phone line is to unplug it and then plug it back in.

There is also evidence that the firmware hasn't been significantly updated for this model. The 7300 series has an LCD screen, which shows pretty but generally gratuitous graphics. An error on the fax, however, will still result in a paper error page being printed, as in previous versions.

In all, it is clear that HP has followed their US brethern in outsourcing their software to overseas teams who do not coordinate with each other. There was no evidence of significant integration testing. There was plenty of evidence of junior engineers making a series of minor changes without understanding the system-wide ramifications. They have clearly not invested in creating new software or even in hardening what they have. My wife, a former HP software engineer, notes that all the good managers left before or during the last mergers. It shows.

See also: Part 1

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Story About "Little Red Book" was a Hoax

Bruce Schneier announced that the story about Mao's "Little Red Book" and FBI agents was a hoax. SouthCoastToday, the original publisher, published the correction. Thanks to Andrew for the link.

I, and apparently a number of librarians out there, are still quite curious whether the inter-library loan system is being monitored. I intend to push the limits by ordering every book I can find on the suspected watch list to see what happens.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 3

Why is it that requesting (not even reading) a book on the watch list will get you a visit from the FBI, but the Improvised Munitions Handbook (US Army Training Manual 31-210) is widely available for download? You can get a nicely printed copy of it from the same people that print it for the Pentagon for US$12.

Does anyone else find this a bit surreal?

NB: Story About "Little Red Book" was a Hoax.

See also: Part 2.

Victory in Pennsylvania over "Intelligent Design"

A U.S. district judge ruled today that a Pennsylvania school system cannot teach "Intelligent Design" in a biology class, calling it a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state.

Although I try to be tolerant of other people's ideas, I am particularly pleased that this watered-down religious dogma is not going to be taught as science, at least there and at least for now. I have previously posted on a refutation of "irreducible complexity", a foundation of the "Intelligent Design" argument.

Thanks to Brian for pointing me to Garry Trudeau's take on the decision.

Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 2

I've ordered the full copy of Mao's "The Little Red Book" from the inter-library loan system. I have also posted an Ask Slashdot question on which other books might be on the watch list. Hopefully, the Slashdot editors will approve it.

I've decided to request as many books on the watch list as I can find.

See also: Part 1, Part 3.

Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 1

A friend pointed me to a The Standard-Times report today about a student at U.Mass Dartmouth who requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's "The Little Red Book" for a research paper. The student was visited by agents of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and never got access to the book. (NB: Story About "Little Red Book" was a Hoax)

The shocking thing about this is not that the Patriot Act is being abused. We all knew that would happen. The shocking thing is that the student wishes to remain nameless because he "fears repercussions", according to the report. Similarly, the student's professor is considering canceling plans for a class on terrorism because "because it might put his students at risk".

Should we stand idly by while strong-arm tactics are applied to our civil liberties, or should we defend our right to read the dangerous, inciteful, often mistaken but certainly educational books of our enemies? Sun Tsu and Clauswitz agreed on the first principle of war, "know your enemy". Sun Tzu, for example, said "The more you read and learn, the less your adversary will know." How can we know them if we can't read what they have written?

Commenting on the possible relationship between "The Little Red Book" and the War on Terror is nearly beneath me. Why is this book on a watch list at all? Under which general principles is this book a danger to our society? Its contents are even well known and widely quoted.

I have decided to take a stand. Immediately after this posting, I am headed to my local library (conveniently located in Ashburn, VA, close to the Washington, DC headquarters of the FBI) to request a copy of "The Little Red Book". I will be careful to request the version directly translated from the Chinese via inter-library loan and published in Beijing. Naturally, I will post the results here.

See also Part 2.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Thomas Jefferson and Tokugawa Ieyasu

Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence from Britain, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603-1868, were very different people. Jefferson espoused Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty and Tokugawa was a ruthless military dictator. Their works set their respective countries on very different paths that would last centuries. Yet surprisingly, the personal codes for living used by the two men were remarkably similar.

Jefferson's Ten Rules are available from Monticello or, for a more academic link, see Cornell University Library.

Tokugawa's Creed is here in Japanese, but the creed itself is translated into English.

True to Jefferson's protestant Christian cultural package, most of his rules are negative directions, whereas Tokugawa's Asian philosophies come out in his positive directions for the "proper" way of living.

Both men went to great lengths to calm their minds to avoid acting from anger. Jefferson: "Take things always by the smooth handle.", "When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred." Tokugawa: "Patience is the foundation of security and long life; consider anger as an enemy."

Both recognized what is today sometimes called " material trap", although I suspect Jefferson came to it pretty late in life. Jefferson: "Never spend money before you have earned it.", "Never buy what you don't want because it is cheap.", "We seldom repent of having eaten too little." Tokugawa: "If you regard discomfort as a normal condition, you are not likely to be troubled by want.", "The insufficient is better than the superfluous." (which is more literally translated as, "Realize your limitations. It is the biggest dew drop that first falls from the leaf.")

Both preferred to be their own men. Jefferson: "Never trouble another for what you can do yourself." Tokugawa: "Blame yourself, do not blame others."

Neither believed their own press and fought against the temptation to do so. Jefferson: "Pride costs more than hunger, thirst and cold." Tokugawa: "When ambition rises in your mind, consider the days of your adversity." Note that Tokugawa was held as a captive for much of his childhood and here he councils patience, as he does elsewhere.

Naturally, there are some differences. Jefferson's "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today." seems to conflict with Tokugawa's "Man's life is like making a long journey with a heavy burden. One must not hurry." Still, I suspect that those rules refer to different concepts. I doubt Tokugawa was lazy, he just knew how and when to wait. Jefferson may have had a similar concept in mind when he penned "How much pain the evils cost us that never happened.", his consideration that one should avoid excessive worry.

There does not seem to be a direct comparison to Jefferson's "Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly." Tokugawa may have recognized the fact, but probably didn't think it important given his austere manner of daily living.

One has no way of knowing Jefferson's feelings regarding Tokugawa's "He who only knows victory and does not know defeat will fare badly.", but, given Jefferson's support of the American Revolution, he was clearly willing to put his privileged position at risk.

In all, I find the number of similarities to greatly outweigh the differences. That these two men should share so much in common makes me re-evaluate the boundary between Adolph Bastian's "elementary ideas", which we all share, and "folk ideas" (culture).

Memes and Simple Survival

I recently ran across Stanford's provacative John McCarthy and his ideas on Ideology and Sustainability. I really must remember to introduce him to evolutionary meme theories and see what happens.

A Simple and Effective Wiki in Ruby

I was looking for a simple but effective wiki to run on Mac OS X for my home network. After a bit of looking, I found SOKS. It was trivial to set up and use.

SOKS is written in Ruby and released under an Open Source license.

To install SOKS, one simply grab it via gems, the ruby package manager, run the setup script and start using it:

$ sudo gem install Soks
$ /usr/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/Soks-1.0.3/bin/soks-create-wiki.rb

The soks-create-wiki.rb script will ask you where you want to install the wiki itself. Anywhere will do. The directory you use will be referred to as '...' for the rest of this post.

Use a Web browser to go to http://localhost:8000, which shows you instructions for use and customization. At a minimum, you will want to modify the stylesheet located at .../attachment/stylesheet.css (since the default reds are ugly) and .../attachment/logo.jpg (the site logo). To name the wiki and expose it via a public URL, you will need to modify a couple of lines at the top of .../start.rb, but this is well documented.

I only had one problem with the setup: Some (not all) of the URLs in the sidebar continued to point to localhost, even after I changed the system base URL to a proper machine name. The solution was to edit the sidebar to remove just one of the links and then again to put it back in. Whatever cache was stale happily updated.

Mac OS X uses launchd to launch applications on boot and when directed by the launchctl command line utility. To get the wiki launching automatically, I created a file called /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/soks.plist with the following content:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">

Once that file is in place, the wiki may be started:

$ sudo launchctl load /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/soks.plist
$ sudo launchctl start soks

I used the Mac's Network System Preferences to open port 8000 in the firewall so other machines on my network could access the service.

NB: Unfortunately, I wouldn't use SOKS on a public machine yet. Ruby 1.8.3 seems to have a broken YAML which prohibits SOKS from running and Ruby 1.8.2 (which I'm using) has a known security flaw. I'm sure the Ruby guys will square that away shortly.

Bernadette and I are using SOKS to work collaboratively on a new book. More details on that coming shortly.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Terry Pratchett on Venture Capital

I just finished Terry Pratchett's Going Postal (hey, it is the holidays!). It is another in the incredibly punny, and subtley in-your-face Discworld series. In it is this beautiful passage on venture capital, as spoken by Ankh-Morpork's despot Lord Vetinari (page 74 of the American paperback):

"Let us consider a situation in which some keen and highly inventive men devise a remarkable system of communication", he said. "What they have is a kind of passionate ingenuity, in large amounts. What they don't have is money. They are not used to money. So they meet some... people, who introduce them to other people, friendly people, who for, oh, a forty-percent stake in the enterprise give them the much-needed cash and, very important, much fatherly advice and an introduction to a really good firm of accountants. And so they proceed, and soon money is coming in and money is going out, but somehow, they learn, they're not quite as financially stable as they think, and really do need more money. Well, this is all fine, because it's clear to all that the basic enterprise is goinig to be a money tree one day, and does it matter if they sign over another fifteen percent? It's just money. It's not important in the way that shutter mechanisms are, is it? And then they find out that yes, it is. It is everything. Suddenly, the world's turned upside down, suddenly those nice people aren't so friendly anymore, suddenly it turns out that those bits of paper they signed in a hurry - were advised to sign by people who smiled all the time - mean that they don't actually own anything at all, not patents, not property, nothing. Not even the contents of their own heads, indeed. Even any ideas they have now don't belong to them, apparently. And somehow they're still in trouble about money. Well, some run and some hide and some try to fight, which is foolish in the extreme, because it turns out that everything is legal, it really is. Some accept low-level jobs in the enterprise, because one has to live and in any case the enterprise evens owns their dreams at night. And yet actual illegality, it would appear, has not taken place. Business is business."

The passage is quoted under the right granted by HarperCollins Publishers for brief quotations in reviews. Italics in the original.

Highly recommended! Buy a copy today.

Great Mexican Restaurant in Herndon, VA

If you ever want to find a superb Mexican restaurant (and who doesn't?) and are near Herndon, Virginia, check out Teocalli Tamale at 336 Elden St, Herndon, VA, 20170, +1 703 904 9336. They are fantastic!

Mike, the owner, started Teocali Tamale in Colorado and brought the slow-roasted tradition to Virginia. The restaurant itself is a small hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall, but classic Blues play inside and the food is just wonderful. Give 'em a try! I plan to hold all my lunch meetings there for the forseeable future.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Explaining the Debate on Iraq

The debate on the war in Iraq is simple to explain. Why do our professional warriors insist that the war can be won? Because it is their job to believe they can win. They want to win. They demand to win. They would insist on victory even if (especially if) they were fighting an unbeatable enemy on the streets of Washington, D.C. Any war strategy based on asking the military whether they think they can win is doomed to failure.

That is yet another reason why an enlightened country should actively avoid war, and yet fight any it is forced into to the death. Unfortunately, we were not forced into this war; we sought it and are now paying the price, much as we paid the price for the ridiculously aggressive Spanish-American War or the ill-conceived Vietnam War.

How many times must we be told that causing and then fighting a serious insurgency is a bad idea? History tells us that, as do the current insurgencies around the world. Not one of them is being truly won. At best, they fall into an uncomfortable pseudo peace, for a while.

Better to lead in a way that others will follow, as Congressman Ron Paul said in 2002 - and complained that he was being attacked as a terrorist sympathizer for following the foreign policy ideals of America's founding fathers. We lead the world when we are better than our enemies, not when we engage in torture, plant propaganda in the foreign press and otherwise act as ignorant and ill-behaved as they are.

To make matters right, we must lead morally. Only then will the world follow.

I believe that America is acting in inappropriate ways for the simple reason that we all want to, sometimes. It is a normal emotional response in our leaders to lash out at what we do not understand and to do so with force. The only thing that prevents that overreaction is the calming action of the balance of governmental powers. The only way to save America from itself is to restore the limitations once imposed on the executive branch by policy. A new check on the Administration's ability to wield military power, unreliant on policy, is needed.