Fun with DNA

Why suffer with boring DNA?If you're bored with life and ready for a change, help may be closer than you think. It seems a team of scientists have performed the world's first genome transplant, which means that one of these days you, too, will be able to shapeshift in the privacy of your own home. One minute you're some guy named Bob, and the next, you're a quasihuman creature terrorizing the neighborhood, because that's just what synthetic lifeforms do.

Scientists have converted an organism into an entirely different species by performing the world's first genome transplant, a breakthrough that paves the way for the creation of synthetic forms of life.

Of course, the means to accomplish this sort of magical transformation isn't yet available in stores, but you can still mess around with your DNA while you're waiting. A professor of molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University recently discovered that sodium benzoate—a chemical used in an astonishing variety of edible products—is capable of deactivating one's DNA.

He told The Independent on Sunday: "These chemicals have the ability to cause severe damage to DNA in the mitochondria to the point that they totally inactivate it: they knock it out altogether.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to jumpstart my weekend right now, and have some fun with my own DNA. All I really have to do is eat and drink, and the chemicals do the rest. What could be easier?


How Do We Learn to Plagiarize?

Don't quote me, but I think everything might be plagiarized.How do we learn to plagiarize? I don't mean the deliberate, word-for-word theft of others' writing so much; I'm thinking about the involuntary regurgitation of catchy words and phrases harvested during the course of everyday life. Yeah, I know. That isn't really plagiarism; it's just the unavoidable result of absorption. It's normal. Get over it.

Sooner or later you slam into the unavoidable conclusion: there are only so many useful words to work with, and only so many ways to hook them up. Some of those ways seem more creative, more original than others. But are they, really? I mean, hasn't it all been done before?

I think so, and it eats at me as much as ever. Originality is important; creativity is the thing. About three weeks ago, the idea of dancing in the shadow of the wind seemed to have come from a brief phrase uttered by someone—on the phone, as I recall—who was in the process of moving her plants out of harm's way due to an approaching storm. She was, as she half-jokingly put it, moving her plants into the shadow of the wind.

As it turns out, there was a reason she used that particular phrase on that particular day, and it had everything to do with the title of a book that had imbedded itself in her mind the night before, probably during the course of a PBS program she saw on TV. That's all it took, really. From there, the catchy phrase jumped into my brain, and thence to my fingers, where—with the addition of the dancing word—it morphed into the title of a blog post. Scary.

Not that the idea was completely original in the first place, of course. There are gobs of references to the concept of wind shadows, and it isn't like you can copyright an idea anyway. That's what patents are for. But still, it bothers me that the phrase should have come on the heels of a book title, and perhaps more to the point, that I was so unaware of the connection. Ignorance, they say, is bliss, and it ain't bad for swiping catchy phrases, either.


Online, Offline, and Out of Line

Like the Net? You may be out of line.

A graph related to very brief article on the BusinessWeek site illuminates the sorts of things American people are doing online these days, and more to the point, the relative age groups of those people. These online users are divided into six categories: Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, and Inactives. For example, Creators are defined as those who "publish Web pages, write blogs, or upload videos to sites like YouTube," while at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Inactives "are online but don't yet participate in any form of social media."

In terms of age, the bulk of the activity comes from the younger people—notably the 18 to 21 group—while increasing age also seems to result in a decrease in activity, or at least the sorts of activities represented in this particular set of data. The exception is in the Collectors category—those engaged in gathering information—where age seems to make little difference.

Meanwhile, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 American adults found—in addition to record levels of anger at the federal government, of course—a significant disparity in perception between those who prefer the Net, and those who like mainstream media for their news and information needs.

The survey also found that people who regularly use the Internet but who do not regularly use so-called "mainstream" media are significantly more likely to believe in 9/11 conspiracies. People who regularly read daily newspapers or listen to radio newscasts were especially unlikely to believe in the conspiracies.

Interesting, no? Discuss.



Hungry?Just under a month ago I bumped into the news of our plastic-infested oceans, and the Los Angeles Times article I quoted from had already been around a while. A more recent article—June 14, to be specific—from the Monterey County Weekly is even more troubling, because it not only expands on some of the material contained in the Times article, but adds current information that indicates a far worse situation than might have been imagined before.

According to the article, recent research finds that a whopping 90% of all floating marine debris is made of plastic. News from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation—and from other quarters as well—is disturbing, to say the least.

Algalita researchers have found that the amount of micro plastics in the Central North Pacific has tripled in the last decade. Their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific concluded that off the coast of Japan it has shot up by a factor of 10 every two to three years.

Near the beginning of the article is a reminder that you don't have to live near an ocean to be affected by this disaster. One effect in particular has nothing to do with geography, and everything to do with diet, especially if you happen to enjoy seafood.

Shrimp, jellyfish and small fish eat the particle-sized plastic debris that look a lot like plankton, and which, in some places, are three times more abundant than the real thing.

Let them eat plastic, indeed. It would be nice to think that, at some point in the future, this problem will be resolved. Unfortunately, this, too, may be nothing but wishful thinking. As the article points out, "most of it is so small and so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to filter out."

And now scientists are discovering the implications of one troubling attribute of petroleum-based plastic, known since its invention, but ignored under the assumption that technology would eventually resolve it: Every plastic product that has ever been manufactured still exists.

Mmmmmm . . . plastic. Let's eat!



With apologies to A. A. Milne For every positive trait embodied by Winnie, his brother exhibited exactly the opposite characteristic. Where Winnie was humble, Vinnie was swollen with a boundless arrogance. Where Winnie went out of his way to help his neighbor, Vinnie sowed mischief, and missed no opportunity to torment anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. Winnie loved honey, but his brother ate ants. And while Winnie was in bed by 9:00, even on weekends, Vinnie slept all day and spent his nights carousing with a gang of feral baboons. By any reasonable estimation, Winnie was a fairly decent guy, but Vinnie was a fiasco.

So it was a surprise to no one when Vinnie disappeared from the face of the earth. Some said he had come out on the short end of an argument with a baboon, although one of the old-timers swore he'd seen Vinnie climbing the railway bridge the night before he went missing. The donkey thought Vinnie had been abducted by aliens, but no one ever listened to the donkey. The only one who really seemed to miss Vinnie was his brother, because despite their glaring differences, they were still family. And so it was Winnie who went out in search of the village misfit, because stuffing is almost always thicker than water.

Winnie hadn't been gone a week when his brother reappeared. Vinnie didn't seem to understand the questions he was asked when the sheriff picked him up on the outskirts of town, nor the stares of the villagers as he sat in the back seat of the patrol car. The sheriff, in turn, couldn't make sense of the gibberish issuing from Vinnie's mouth, and the odor emanating from the bear was familiar, yet oddly out of place. The inside of the patrol car smelled a lot like Thanksgiving dinner—stuffing in particular—but the sheriff chalked it up to wishful thinking, and the fact he had missed lunch that day.

The donkey became even more convinced that Vinnie had been abducted, and said so. The aliens, he insisted, had removed the bear's insides and substituted stuffing of a different sort, which was their idea of a joke. He opined, too, that the fluff between Vinnie's ears had been replaced with cranberries, which accounted for his odd speech. But no one listened to him, because he was just a donkey.

As for Winnie, he was never seen again, at least not in the little town he left shortly after his brother's disappearance. There were rumors, of course. One was that Winnie promptly forgot about his brother and found his way to Broadway instead, where he became a famous stage actor amid an equally notable cast of personified animals. It was also rumored that he had become the author of many books about similarly humanlike animals, but no one took it seriously. As everyone knows, bears aren't very good at writing.


Digital Disbelief

Skepticism is good, to a point.Digitally manipulated photos are everywhere, and the type of software used to do the manipulating is now in the hands of so many that a certain level of skepticism regarding the authenticity of some photos is to be expected. But after browsing a collection of shadows-created-from-junk photos, then reading the comments left by others, I can't shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it's all gone a bit too far.

In this case, the cynicism that springs from constant exposure to ultra-realistic—but fake—images results in immediate disbelief on the part of quite a few visitors to the site. Others insist the images are authentic, based on their own experiences with this type of art. It doesn't seem to matter, either, that the first sculpture in the series, Lunch With A Helmet On, was created in 1987, well before software like Photoshop was routinely used to fool the eye. In 1987, it took 848 welded forks, knives and spoons to do it.


Rolling Thunder

Fun with stormsAround here, the sound of thunder has been stored away in short-term memory. We've phased into one of those extended periods of hot, dry weather that always seems to come on the heels of our springtime rainy season, so the sky is silent. A different kind of sound is stored in long-term memory. It's the sound of thunder, too, but not the echoing kettledrum we get at the lower elevations. This one sounds like a rifle in a tool shed, which can be frightening, especially to a four-year-old.

We weren't living at timberline, exactly, but even a few thousand feet below that level, thunder is jarringly sudden, and acute. It probably doesn't help that there's virtually no delay between lightning and the explosion that follows, but that comes with the territory when you're living with your head in the clouds. At the time, this was little consolation to my young daughter, who had suddenly and inexplicably become fearful of thunder, even though it was a familiar sound after four years of life. But as is so often the case during those formative years, what's tolerable one day isn't necessarily so the next, and all the explanations—or sympathy, or hot chocolate—in the world don't amount to a hill of beans. Sometimes the fear remains anyway.

As it happened, this particular problem had an easy solution. Really, it was an accidental solution, but that doesn't matter so much. What matters is that the thunder lost its teeth, and became funny; after all, it's much harder to be frightened when you're laughing. In this case, the solution amounted to nothing more than sitting on the floor with my young daughter in my lap, and with every crack of thunder we rolled backward while I made the "aaaaaiiiiiiiii!!!" sound.

The first time we rolled back up into our starting position, my four-year-old seemed a bit shaken, and not entirely unafraid. The second time, there was a little smile on her face. By the third, she was laughing. After that, we didn't have to do it anymore because the fear was gone, but we did it anyway. When the next thunderstorm came, we did it again.


Chess and Tiddlywinks

Real winks don't wear crownsWatching two people duke it out on a chessboard can be instructive, and thought-provoking. The sidewalk match I was observing last night wasn't generating much in the way of dialogue, which I suppose is one of the hallmarks of the game. But that changed when a passerby stopped to watch, and mentioned an overlooked opportunity on the part of one of the players. An en passant capture, he suggested, would have improved the player's situation. The player responded that life is a lot like Chess, then retracted the remark in favor of the stronger, more direct statement that life is, in fact, a game of Chess.

I have a different idea. I think life has more in common with Tiddlywinks, because those little blue, green, red and yellow winks have to fly through the air, and so may be affected by unanticipated events—sneezes, for example—that can dramatically alter the outcome of the game. Another aspect of the game that mirrors real life is the act of squopping, or covering the opponent's wink so as to make it unusable. This has many analogues in the everyday world; clothing and dark sunglasses are two examples.

The language of Tiddlywinks more closely resembles actual, real-life language as well. An example from the Lexicon of Tiddlywinks proves the point.

I can't pot my nurdled wink, so I'll piddle you free and you can boondock a red. But if Sunshine gromps the double, I'll lunch a blue next time.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Tiddlywinks is the strategic equivalent of Chess. But strategy can only take you so far, because sooner or later, someone is going to sneeze.


Hastening the Second Coming

What time is it, really?One of the more interesting discussions I had over the weekend was with a guy—I'll call him Robert—who happens to believe that global warming is a good thingThis is because the eventual result is the end of life as we know it. While that may sound flippant, be advised that Robert is utterly serious about his point of view, and in fact doesn't consider it a viewpoint at all. To him, it's simply the truth.

Robert believes in overpopulation; it's just that he doesn't see it as a negative. To him, it's the tangible result of God's biblical edict to be fruitful and multiply, which didn't specify a duration or otherwise put a time limit on that multiplication. As Robert pointed out, the eventual and obvious result is Earth's inability to sustain life, but that isn't a problem so much as a blessing. A self-described evangelical Christian, Robert believes the end of life as we know it is simply that: it's the end of the known but the beginning of the unknown, and the latter is infinitely preferable.

According to Robert, he's but one among millions who share this belief, and look forward to the end of physical human life on this planet. Other things must happen first, he says, but in the meantime every human body hastens the process, particularly when they're occupying large SUVs. He was smiling when he added the part about the SUVs, but I don't think he was kidding.



This might be a zombie.Ever have one of those days where people you never expected to see again begin popping up one after another? I've read enough stories with that sort of plot to know it isn't necessarily a good thing. Some of those people may actually be zombies; they might only resemble someone from the past. This is a particular problem with people you haven't seen since childhood, because even non-zombies aren't always recognizable. People change, and sometimes they change a lot.

To illustrate, a guy I saw last night seemed awfully familiar, but I knew the sense of déjà vu I was experiencing might not be the real thing. So I approached the situation with caution, remembering those stories and all the bad things that can happen when carelessness is allowed to take over. Initially, I feigned indifference. I commented on the weather, wondering if it might rain. I put my fingers in my mouth, and generally pretended to have no particular interest one way or the other. All the while, I watched for the telltale signs of zombiness.

Then, at exactly the right moment, I launched my attack. I asked him for the time, because if there's one thing zombies don't know, it's the correct time. He pretended not to understand the question, so I repeated it. Same result. Removing my fingers from my mouth, I began naming the inner planets, because zombies can never remember if Venus is next to Mercury, or if it's Mars. This also didn't trigger the desired response, so I was pretty sure I had a zombie on my hands. But when he began backing slowly toward the door all remaining doubt evaporated, because walking backward is how zombies recharge their batteries.

Earlier that evening, I had been standing in line at the local coffee shop when a woman I hadn't seen in years approached from the side, which is a known zombie tactic. Zombies never approach from the front, because that would give you time to think. She said "hay," which is a Zombish codeword that means "I need more straw." Zombies and scarecrows have a lot in common, because both rely on straw to pad out their clothing so you won't notice their shrunken limbs. I decided to draw her out, so I began humming an old Pink Floyd tune, which is an excellent way to determine zombiness. Zombies will never join you in a chorus of The Wall, because they can't relate to Pink Floyd's angst. She raised her eyebrows in a mock expression of puzzlement but didn't seem to know the words to the song, so I paid for my coffee and began to walk away. I could hear her repeating the codeword as I left the coffee shop, but it's best to ignore zombies when they're doing that because sometimes they want more straw than you can give them, and then they become hostile when you say you're all out.

I'm not 100% sure if the guy dressed as a policeman was a zombie, but I didn't want to spend yet another morning sitting in the back of his car, so I just played along. Some of the questions he asked were suspicious, because he was already looking at my driver's license, which clearly indicates my preferences when the time comes to donate various parts of my body. If my feet were really made of lead it would say so on my license, and that way the recipient wouldn't be surprised if his new feet didn't operate as expected. A zombie wouldn't make that connection. But sometimes it's best to avoid overantagonizing a zombie, because you never know when you might meet again, or under what circumstances. When it comes to zombies, sometimes silence is the better part of valor.


The Conduit Alters Its Contents

CDA section 230 againI finally got the chance to look at the recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, which of course involves my little buddy, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Instead of the usual applause, it seems this time there's some concern over the lack of CDA protection granted the defendant,, LLC, which operates a roommate-finder Web site.

As you've already noticed from commentary elsewhere, this case—at least in the context of section 230—turns on the extent of involvement by the operators of the site. To quote Judge Kozinski, "a provider of an interactive computer service does not lose its CDA immunity if it merely exercises some control over the posting of information provided by others, such as enforcement of rules as to appropriate content or minor editing." "Nor," he adds, "does it generally lose its immunity if it simply facilitates expression of information by individuals." Therefore, "Roommate is immune so long as it merely publishes information provided by its members."

As you can see from the following quotes taken from the court's opinion, the site's involvement—or that of its human operators—wasn't really the problem. Changing the wording doesn't necessarily change its meaning.

When users select the option "I will not live with children," Roommate publishes this response as "no children please." The Councils argue that this alteration makes Roommate a content provider and therefore not immune under the CDA for publishing this statement. However, minor editing that does not affect meaning is protected under the CDA as the "usual prerogative of publishers."

Because "no children please" is materially the same as "I will not live with children," Roommate does not lose its CDA immunity because of the change in wording.

On the other hand, the Councils allege that Roommate takes members' blank selection in the children field and publishes it as "no children please." We could not find support for this proposition in the record, but if Councils' allegation is true, then Roommate significantly alters the meaning of the information provided by its members and is not entitled to CDA immunity for posting the resulting content.

Apparently, the problems began when input from the site's members was manipulated by questionnaires, and the output channeled to other users. Those categorizing, channeling and limiting actions created an additional layer of information.

Roommate is "responsible" for these questionnaires because it "creat[ed] or develop[ed]" the forms and answer choices. As a result, Roommate is a content provider of these questionnaires and does not qualify for CDA immunity for their publication.

. . . Roommate does more than merely publish information it solicits from its members. Roommate also channels the information based on members' answers to various questions, as well as the answers of other members.

While Roommate provides a useful service, its search mechanism and email notifications mean that it is neither a passive pass-through of information provided by others nor merely a facilitator of expression by individuals. By categorizing, channeling and limiting the distribution of users' profiles, Roommate provides an additional layer of information that it is "responsible" at least "in part" for creating or developing.

On the other hand, the additional comments section of the site was considered separately, and found to meet the requirements for CDA immunity . . .

We conclude that Roommate's involvement is insufficient to make it a content provider of these comments. Roommate's open-ended question suggests no particular information that is to be provided by members; Roommate certainly does not prompt, encourage or solicit any of the inflammatory information provided by some of its members. Nor does Roommate use the information in the "Additional Comments" section to limit or channel access to listings. Roommate is therefore not "responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of" its users' answers to the open-ended "Additional Comments" form, and is immune from liability for publishing these responses.

. . . although Judge Reinhardt disagreed:

Roommate cannot receive § 230(c) immunity for publishing information in the Additional Comments," if it is "responsible . . . in part, for the . . . creation or development of information."

In any event, it's yet another interesting test case for section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. I'm sure there will be more.


Will I Dream?

In a daze for nightsIf your car's gas tank had a hole halfway up the side, and every time you filled the tank 50% of its contents were lost on the road somewhere, would you mind? Or say you walk into your favorite coffee joint and discover they've put holes in all their cups that allow only half the usual amount of coffee, although the price remains the same. I'm not sure which would be worse, but personally, I'd be less than thrilled with either prospect.

According to the Techworld article I just read, that's pretty much the situation when it comes to computers. The average desktop PC, it seems, wastes nearly half the power coming from the wall outlet. In an effort to deal with this amazing state of affairs, Google and Intel have set up the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tons per year, saving in excess of $5.5 billion in energy costs in the process.

With your help, we can reduce global CO2 emissions from the operation of computers by 54 million tons a year by 2010. That's like taking 11 million cars off the road each year.

In the meantime, an interesting sidenote—from the General FAQ at the CSCI site—points to a simple measure that's within everyone's reach, starting now.

In addition, there is a significant opportunity to reduce overall energy consumption by putting systems into a lower power-consuming state when they are inactive for long periods of time. Even though most of today's desktop PCs are capable of automatically transitioning to a sleep or hibernate state when inactive, about 90% of systems have this functionality disabled.

Sweet dreams, little computer.


They Say It's Your Birthday

Have another slice of e-cake, little blog.So happy birthday to ya, little omegablog. I can't believe you're a year old already. Seems like only yesterday you were just a gleam in your daddy's eye, and now . . . well, now you're a gleam in your daddy's other eye. He must be mighty proud. But wait. Here he comes now, so let's just ask him, shall we?

Virtual Interviewer: "Hello. We were just talking about you. Your blog is a year old today. How do you feel?"

Jeff: "I'm happy about it. I wasn't planning to write every day, or every weekday anyhow. I'm glad it worked out as well as it did. Proof of concept, you might say."

Virtual Interviewer: "That's perfectly understandable. The proof is in the pudding. But tell me, how did this whole thing come to be? What possessed you, and why?"

Jeff: "What possessed me? Well, I needed writing samples. People were always asking me for samples of my writing, because when you say you've written stuff, they always ask you what sort of stuff you've written, and then they laugh when you say you can't remember. They call you a liar, and say you're insane, and then they get up and walk out. So I needed samples. No, I'm just kidding about that last part. I did need writing samples, though. I'm not so sure about the pudding . . . "

VI: "That's very funny. So you thought a blog would be a good way to do that?"

Jeff: "Yes. Well, no. Not exactly. My first blog was just supposed to be a place for old poems. Stuff I'd written in my early twenties and had never done anything with, you know?"

VI: "So you figured you might as well collect them in a blog, for posterior?"

Jeff: "You mean posterity? You said posterior, but I don't think that's what you really meant."

VI: "I'm quite serious about that, actually. I read them, and I just wanted to cram them up your . . . "

Jeff: "Alright, I get the picture. Wow. They weren't that bad."

VI: "So continuing on, you put a bunch of old poems in a blog somewhere, and then what? I mean, I don't see a lot of poetry in the Omegaword blog."

Jeff: "Right. I decided to start another blog. The one you're reading now."

VI: "What do you mean? I'm not reading anything. I'm asking you questions, and you're answering them. Why do you say I'm reading?"

Jeff: "I wasn't referring to you."

VI: "Who then? There's no one else here!"

Jeff: "Well, there's a whole 'nother level of awareness out there. It's a bit hard to explain to someone who's really nothing but the product of my own . . . "

VI: "Right. I had an uncle like that. Woo. Wooooo . . . "

Jeff: "Whatever. So when I started this blog, I figured it would be about grammar, mostly. Things to avoid, tips on writing, examples of common errors. Stuff like that. But it wasn't much fun, and besides, there are plenty of language technicians out there already. So I decided to just write about whatever happened to pop into my head at the time."

VI: "Evidently. And you thought this would make you famous?"

Jeff: "I didn't say that. I just needed writing samples, and besides, it's good to write every day. Practice, and all that. I figured I'd just do it for a little while, and then I could give people the blog address if they wanted it. I certainly never thought I'd be famous."

VI: "I see. But I imagine the temptation is there, isn't it? To tell everyone how famous you are, I mean."

Jeff: "What?"

VI: "Never mind. So there you were, just writing about whatever happened to float through the vapors of your mind. And now here we are, a whole year later. That's a long time to sit around pretending to be a writer, isn't it?"

Jeff: "That's really . . . you know, I'm not sure this is going particularly well. I was just walking by, and you grabbed me and started asking questions. I don't even know you. The thing is, words don't just magically appear on the screen. There's more to it than just sitting around."

VI: "I see. Perhaps we should move on. You pride yourself on being a journalist, and yet you have absolutely no credentials in that regard. How do you sleep at night?"

Jeff: "Now wait just a minute. I've never called myself a journalist, so there's no way I could be feeling any pride about it. In fact, I've always said exactly the opposite. I said I don't want to be a journalist, more than once I think. Where do you get this stuff, anyway?"

VI: "That's for you to know, and me to find out."

Jeff: "What? That doesn't even make sense!"

VI: "Mmmmm. Continuing on, I'm sure everyone would like to know who's paying you to write this stuff. Are you willing to name your handlers?"

Jeff: "Handlers? No one is paying me! I like to write. I like words. I try to treat it as if someone were paying me to do it. I sweat the details, sure. That's just me. But no one pays me, and no one tells me what to write, or how to write it."

VI: "Uh huh. Would you say you're anal, then? Always trying to fix little things that aren't broken?"

Jeff: "What is wrong with you?"

VI: "I know you are, but what am I?"

Jeff: "This is crazy."

VI: "I see. By the way, who writes those so-called news blurbs over there on the right? They don't seem very relevant sometimes."

Jeff: "Oh for . . . I don't control those! I just pick the search phrase, but it all comes from Google. That's why they're called news blurbs. Get it?"

VI: "Tell me about your mother."

Jeff: "Yeah, I saw Blade Runner, too. Ha ha."

VI: "You seem hostile."

Jeff: "Great. Now I'm hostile. Can we just get on with it? I have things to do."

VI: "Oh, of course you do. Your widdow bwog. Does him have to go and wite in his pwecious widdow bwog?"

Jeff: "What the . . . this is ridiculous!"

VI: "Yes, your majesty."

Jeff: "That's it."

VI: "Where are you going?"

Jeff: "You're an idiot."

VI: "Come back! We weren't done!"

Jeff: "No, we're done."

VI: "Wait!"

Jeff: "Moron!"

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! That certainly went well. But no worries; I have the feeling he'll be back. He needs us, and besides, what else is he going to do? Be an astronaut? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha . . .


Small Inconvenient Truths

What a messMr. Gore has his inconvenient truths, and I have mine. Not that they have much in common; his are exceedingly large, while mine are small, like snail whiskers. During the course of the past twelve months, it's become painfully obvious that I am not, and have never been, a journalist. Were I to attempt such a thing, I fear the result would have more in common with gonzo journalism. This should frighten you, too. Still, there's a certain allure—the magnetism of words, probably—to the profession that causes me to return, periodically, to the subject in spite of myself. Dangerous, I know, and yet I must.

I'm reasonably certain that Dan Gillmor's article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week was aimed more at professional journalists than the general public, but some of it could be applied to virtually anyone who uses the Web as a publishing medium, journalistic or not. From my hungry vantage point, his statements concerning derision of all manner of citizen media that don't meet traditional criteria are certainly food for thought.

Deriding "basement bloggers" and citizen media creators of all kinds, with no recognition of the enormous variety in the genre, betrays insufficient knowledge, if not willful blindness. No, most blogging and other citizen media aren't journalism. So what? Neither is most writing on paper, most photography, most video or most anything else.

The attempt to marginalize, if not eliminate, the creative products of imagination that sometimes graze the borders of journalism seems misguided at best. If the object is nothing more than traditionalism, we may as well just get it over with and require registration for everyone who wishes to use the Internet for anything beyond mere entertainment. Those lacking the proper credentials ought to be prevented from participating, because we all know what happens when boundaries are ignored, or worse, when they're deliberately pushed beyond their traditional moorings.

You get a bunch of unruly kids who can't keep their crayons within the lines, that's what. Some might call that a mess, but experimental pursuits are often messy, especially at first. So what?


Dancing in the Shadow of the Wind

Dances with windsIf the wind had a shadow, what would it look like? Nothing like the shadows when photons are interrupted, or those left on radiographs by x-rays that can't quite get through. I can't see x-rays, but I know where they've been. I can't see the wind, but I know when I'm standing in its shadow.

I think sometimes the wind's shadow looks like pine needles. When I stand in the swaying shadows of the trees in the forest, I'm standing in the shadow of the wind, too. The wind changes the shadows of the pine needles; it makes them dance on the forest floor. In return, the pine needles change the wind. In the forest, the wind makes the sound of a train when it's moving through the pines. As it leaves the forest and turns toward the city, the train's passengers are scented shadows of pine trees dancing in the wind.

When it arrives in the city, I think the wind's shadow looks like concrete and steel. The wind never tries to change hard shadows, so they don't know how to dance. The tall buildings ignore the wind. In the city, the wind makes no sound until it's time to turn again toward the forest, and then the wind leaps.


Rock, Paper, No Scissors

A thoughtful giftMother's Day has come and gone, but I have a few tips that may be useful for next year. For one thing, I heard some complaints about the difficulty of selecting a thoughtful Mother's Day gift, but I don't think it has to be that way. When I replace the batteries in an electronic device, I don't throw away the used batteries; I save them in a small box for occasions just like this. That way, I feel I'm contributing to the recycling effort, and mom gets a thoughtful, useful gift for Mother's Day in the process.

I also heard a few complaints—from the single guys, mostly—about the difficulties involved in wrapping that thoughtful gift, but here again, a little ingenuity goes a long way. For a couple bucks I got some tissue wrapping-paper and a funny card, which later made mom cry when she realized how thoughtful I had been. I didn't have any scissors, so I just wrapped the whole multilayered sheet of tissue paper around my small box of AA batteries a few times, and taped it up. I also didn't have any scotch tape, but strapping tape works just as well.

A proper, thoughtful wrapping job requires a bow, or at least ribbon. So I went outside and found some grass clippings, which I taped to the top of the package. For additional visual interest—and some additional heft, because a heavy gift always suggests quality and thoughtfulness—I used small rocks to anchor the grass clippings.

When mom saw my gift, she was so overcome with emotion that she covered her face with her hands and ran into the bathroom. This was gratifying, because although it certainly wasn't the first time someone has reacted this way to one of my gifts, it meant I had successfully communicated the thoughtfulness and taste that are so important to mothers, especially on Mother's Day.


A Locked Door

WEP is neither equivalent nor private. Discuss.Sometimes, where the information is found is more important than the content. It isn't difficult to find examples of legal problems resulting from the use of wireless networks; the most recent publicized event resulted in felony charges for a Michigan man who used a coffee shop's unsecured Wi-Fi access point from his car. Not that it's a new problem, but increased public awareness resulting from news items such as this means some people are beginning to wonder just how much trouble their wireless routers might invite, should the wrong people gain access.

Really, it's exactly the access issue that's so problematic. A significant number of wireless routers—particularly those purchased for home use—are pressed into service with their default settings, or are otherwise operated with little or no concern for who might be able to use them. Sometimes this is deliberate; there's a share the bandwidth school of thought that doesn't mind if others make use of that wireless Internet connection. In other cases, it's less a matter of deliberate intent than a lack of knowledge that allows others to use—and perhaps exploit—the signals radiating from homes and businesses across the land.

Where the intent seems to be to provide open, public access, any legal problems that might arise are likely to affect everyone in the loop, although the owner of the wireless router will be much easier to locate than the unknown guy with the laptop who downloaded the child pornography while parked half a block away, and who is somewhere far, far away by the time the FBI arrives to investigate the crime. On the other hand, if it seems there was no intent to provide access—if the system was, in effect, broken into—the owner of that wireless router is in a far different situation, notably one that lacks the apparent intent to grant the world unfettered access.

At this point, you may be rolling your eyes at the insinuation of FBI involvement in such matters, but this is where the original idea of where information is found comes into play. In this case, the information in question appeared not only on a page on a law-related site, but in the context of Internet law. A link on this page delivers the reader to an FBI press release, which is where things begin to get a bit chilly. Dramatic emphasis is mine.

You might not even know if these hackers have gained access to your connection. They may be a couple houses over or on the next street. But if they're doing something illegal with your Internet connection, it's going to come back to you.

If you read the entire press release, you know it has to do with locking up your wireless system, and in particular the weaknesses of the ridiculous Wired Equivalent Privacy scheme, or WEP. This, of course, isn't news to anyone who's bothered to examine how WEP is implemented; that isn't—or at least shouldn't be—the most important point of the press release. A quick look at one of Cisco's white papers on wireless security will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about WEP, among other things.

WEP encryption is done by performing an exclusive OR (XOR) function on the plain-text with the key stream to produce the cipher-text.

While using an XOR function for anything much beyond traffic signals might be humorous in itself, the sad fact is that WEP was already shown to be an unusually weak security measure nearly six years ago, and so was never really taken seriously in the first place.

In August 2001, cryptanalysts Fluhrer, Mantin, and Shamir determined that a WEP key could be derived by passively collecting particular frames from a wireless LAN.

So, the point of this whole thing isn't simply an admonition to beef up the security on your wireless system, although that's obviously an excellent idea in any case. I think the more important point is that locking your front door won't really keep someone out, but it does indicate your intent. In other words, selecting the WEP option for your wireless router shouldn't be mistaken for an actual security measure, but it may help insulate you from legal trouble should someone decide to use your wireless Internet connection for less than honorable purposes.



Monday isn't so badSome people hate Monday, but I think Sunday is the most despicable day. All the other days of the week have some kind of positive quality about them, but Sunday is just wrong. Let me count the ways.

On Sunday, you know the end is near. No matter how many hours might be left in the day, deep down you know the weekend is over. Sure, you can pretend it's a sunny day and go out and do stuff like there's no tomorrow, but there is a tomorrow, and it's nipping at your heels like a Chihuahua. Sunday and Autumn have a lot in common, because both are at the end of something else.

A lot of places are closed on Sunday. A lot of places are open, too, but it doesn't matter because they aren't the sorts of places you'd want to be on a Sunday. They're crowded, and all the people are either staggering around or shoving others out of the way. The places that are closed aren't very crowded, but their entryways are so clogged up with tumbleweeds that you couldn't get in even if you wanted to.

Sunday evening is when all the people who've been somewhere else for the weekend have to come back. Everyone comes back at the same time, and they don't like it when you try to merge onto the highway they're using. A lot of them have sunburns, so they're in a hurry to get home before their skin starts peeling off. Those who have boat payments are the most dangerous, because on Sunday evening boat payments are much higher than they were on Friday.

Compared to Sunday, Monday is a good day. It may be routine—mundane, even—but at least it's honest. Monday can be brutal, but it's an honest brutality; it isn't full of false promises, or fake brutality. That's more than I can say for Sunday.


Separate Vacations

This honeymoon is overThe small piece of my attention that was listening to the radio while driving yesterday knew that the guy being interviewed on one of the NPR programs was an upper-tier NASA honcho, and that the subject was climate change, but the rest of my attention was occupied with staying alive in rush-hour traffic, so only some of the words were really getting through. But that changed rather abruptly when the interviewee made a statement to the effect that our existing climate isn't necessarily the best climate, and to suggest otherwise is arrogant. Maybe the guy in the car next to me was listening to the same program and blew an artery when he heard those words, because I was suddenly forced to take evasive action as his car began fishtailing across four lanes of traffic before eventually coming to a stop on the shoulder.

This morning, I thought I'd see if I could find more information on this odd event. I thought perhaps I'd misunderstood, that the guy wasn't really from NASA, or that, maybe, it had all been some kind of elaborate joke. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. As it turns out, the guy was, in fact, NASA administrator Michael Griffin, and yeah, he had uttered those words, and no, he wasn't trying to be funny. By the time I got around to my search, it was plain that Griffin's remarks had already generated a firestorm of controversy, outrage, and of course the obligatory damage-control efforts. To put it mildly, the words hadn't exactly gone unnoticed.

On NPR's site, I found excerpts from the interview I heard on the radio, which leave little doubt about what was said, and what wasn't.

. . . I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

It's a novel idea, really, and one that's sure to be the subject of ferocious debate, and ridicule, for some time. I have to admit a certain admiration—a fondness, even—for NASA over the years, and I'm not ready to file for divorce just yet. But it may be time for separate vacations.