Monday, May 31, 2004

Fox Drops 'Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay'

What is going on? Could it be that the network that brought us such classics as "America's Scariest Police Chases" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" has suddenly discovered limits beyond which it isn't ready to go?

LOS ANGELES, May 28 -- Fox television said Thursday it has canceled plans to air a two-hour special titled "Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay," in which two straight men compete for $50,000 by trying to pass themselves off as homosexuals.

A network spokeswoman said the reality show, which had been slated to air June 7, was pulled off the schedule "for creative reasons" after Fox executives previewed the program.

[............]

According to GLAAD Media Director Stephen Macias, who viewed a copy of the special, the contestants referred to their experience as "their worst nightmare" and complained of being "trapped in gay hell."

One contestant resorted to telling his former wrestling teammate that he liked the sport because he enjoyed "close contact with sweaty boys." He later had to fork-feed dinner to a blind date, get the man to spank him and fool him into securing a second date, Macias said.

GLAAD first questioned the show's premise as potentially offensive after seeing promotional materials stating that the two contestants would immerse themselves in "the gay lifestyle" and later be judged by a "jury of their queers" -- a panel of gay men who would decide who was the most convincing.

What a shame Mike Darnell and the boys didn't have the gumption to put this on air; what fun it would have been to see guys competing to see who could be the nelliest! After all, to be "gay" means to be flamingly swishy, right?

On a serious note, this show strikes me as being about as stupid as putting on a contest in which the goal is to see who's "blackest", an opportunity to revel in the propagation of stereotypes, nothing more than a thinly disguised coon show.

Speaking of coon shows, anyone planning on catching Soul Plane?

Absolutely Damning!

A video of Palestinians using UN ambulances to ferry armed combatants! I can already hear the usual suspects dismissing this as Israeli propaganda ...

A Bad Omen in India

It's looking like the new Congress-led coalition won't be quite the engine for positive change that many had hoped it would be, despite being headed by Manhoman Singh.

India's new government has scrapped key elements of its predecessor's privatisation programme.
The communist-backed coalition, led by the Congress party, said in a policy statement that it would not sell off profitable state-run firms.
Privatisations of loss-making firms would be decided "case-by-case".
Last week, Indian share prices posted a near-record slump amid fears that the new coalition would reverse the BJP government's economic reforms.
The prospect of slower progress on reform has also spooked foreign investors, who have sold some $800m worth of Indian shares so far this month.
Privatising some of India's profitable state enterprises in the energy and heavy engineering industries formed a central plank of the BJP government's economic agenda.

[............]

Economists said the new coalition's economic blueprint could put India's already overstretched public finances under added pressure.
"How will the increased spending on education be funded?" said Kishlaya Pathak, economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
"This is crucial because our fiscal situation is a matter of concern."
India's central government deficit stands at about 5% of gross domestic product, prompting warnings that the country must do more to balance its books.
There are fears that without the proceeds of further privatisations, or deep public spending cuts, the budget black hole could widen sharply.
At moments like these I feel my cynicism about the dubious benefits of granting illiterates the vote most keenly; the BJP was thrown out of office for supposedly neglecting the poor while enabling a small class to grow rich, but if the communists succeed in obstructing further reforms, all Indians will stagnate together ... I guess it really is true that misery loves company.

Mbeki and His Friends

Now that the elections are safely behind him, Thabo Mbeki's finally gotten round to granting sanctuary to a most disreputable friend:

Ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has arrived in South Africa, ending a two-and-a-half-month exile in Jamaica.

He said South Africa would be his "temporary home" until he can return to his country, Haiti.

The BBC's Victoria Phenethi in South Africa says that Mr Aristide was given a red-carpet treatment by President Thabo Mbeki and other officials.

South African opposition parties had urged the authorities to deny entry to the former Haitian president.
Mbeki's solicitous attitude towards "leaders" of such dubious qualities as Aristide continues to trouble me; still, I suppose South Africa taking Aristide in beats having him stick around in the West Indies to make trouble.

Never Were Truer Words Written

The following words from a post by Jason Soon are the gospel truth, as far as I'm concerned:

And for all those people who claim that Christianity is so much nicer than Islam, Id' say, along with Bertrand Russell that that's thanks solely to the contributions of various rationalists and sceptics through the ages who have basically had more of a chance of diluting the faith of believers in Western society rather than because of something intrinsic to Islam or Christianity. And their ability and potential to do so was mostly thanks to political organisations that evolved in the West after feudalism. Yes folks, the horrible truth is that Christianity seems so much nicer than Islam because folks professing to be Christians don't take it as seriously anymore as folks who profess to be Muslim take their religion. (emphasis added)
I know that this is likely to strike a lot of people as offensive, but it is no more than the unvarnished truth. No religion that makes exclusive* claims of the sort advanced by the three monotheistic faiths best known in the West could possibly be reconciled to peace and progress in the long run. To be sure, there are individuals who've been able to draw from their religious beliefs a deep respect for the autonomy and well-being of others, but such people have always been very much in the minority in every age. For the most part, religious zeal has translated into hatred and bloodshed, and the West is a much better place for its decline in belief. If only all the world's believers were like the typical wishy-washy Church of England adherent!

*All three of Christianity, Islam and Judaism subscribe to the "Jealous God" axiom; furthermore, while the blood-soaked history of Christianity and Islam are known well enough, the books of the Torah suggest that Judaism had its fair share of bloody excesses when its adherents were in the position to enforce their will. The entire Tanakh is replete with smitings and slayings of men, women, children and even beasts, merely for the "crime" of believing in gods other than the one of Israel, while Exodus, Numbers and Judges make for some very ugly reading if one goes beyond a merely tribal mindset; by what right can a people entirely annihilate another, just because their deity has supposedly promised the others' land to them?

Defendants of Judaism will step in here and say that the historical evidence doesn't support the genocidal claims laid out in the books of the Torah, and indeed, this is true; all the archaeologial evidence we have indicates that the manifold tales of religious bloodshed detailed in it are more likely latter-day fictions invented to bestow a glorious past on a people whose emergence occurred in a rather more organic and mundane fashion.

That said, the mere fact that such brutal actions are listed in the Torah as having occurred with the full blessing of a supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful God (who freely chose to create the idol-worshippers He later would order to be murdered by His Hebrew followers, with full knowledge beforehand of the terrible fate he had in store for them) shows that the same genocidal impulses later displayed by Christians and Muslims towards those who refused to acknowledge their "obvious" claims to exclusive religious wisdom were by no means foreign to Judaism, at least as the religion was reformulated after the return of Ezra and Nehemiah from the Babylonian exile. To the contrary, Christianity and Islam are intolerant because they are the offspring of an intolerant religion, and the great tragedy of the modern world is that they both happened to combine that intolerance with a belief in a universalist** mission.

**In fact, it isn't even true that Judaism has entirely renounced the universalist outlook that was increasingly apparent in the Greco-Roman era, at least until the success of Christianity put an end to Jewish proselytization. It is one of the traditional articles of faith of Judaism that the moshiach ("messiah") must someday return, and one of his accomplishments will be to turn all of humanity to the truth of Judaism. The main point of difference here between Judaism and the other two monotheistic religions is that it does not encourage proselytization to bring about this enlightenment of the rest of mankind, a difference which, as I've already indicated, was born of Christian and Islamic supremacy and exclusivity, rather than being innate to Judaism from the start; at one point, perhaps 1 in 10 of all Roman subjects were Jewish, and the majority of these individuals were either converts or descendants of recent converts.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

The Wages of Prudishness

It was only a matter of time before the prudish internet policies instituted by the executives of most big companies caught out one of their own:

A leading banker and director of the Post Office was forced to resign yesterday from his £1 million-a-year job after admitting that he had accessed pornographic websites from his office.

Mike Soden, 57, the chief executive of the Bank of Ireland, was forced to quit after a regular internal check last week found he had breached the bank's policy on internet use. The businessman, who is married without children, issued a personal statement yesterday admitting that he had visited inappropriate sites of an "adult nature".

He said: "I have taken this decision for personal reasons. This arises from access by me on my PC to internet sites that contain content that infringed the group's policy on these matters. The content accessed was not illegal, but did contain links to material of an adult nature. I now understand and accept that in doing this I breached the policies of the Bank of Ireland." Mr Soden, who earned €1.6 million (more than £1 million) for running Ireland's second biggest bank, is the first well-known businessman to be forced to resign after being caught accessing porn sites.

While companies have become tougher on staff caught surfing for sex, so far only mid-ranking employees have had to quit. Investment banks, in particular, have cracked down, with a number of traders being sacked. Mr Soden joined the Post Office Ltd's board only two weeks ago as part of a joint venture deal between the Bank of Ireland and the Post Office to provide financial services in the postal network.

[............]

Of Britain's 10 million regular internet users, more than a third log on to porn sites. It is estimated that up to 70 per cent of internet porn traffic occurs during the nine-to-five working day.

Among the employees to have been dismissed for such misdemeanours were three Rolls-Royce workers sacked last month for downloading porn.

In December, BT admitted that it had sacked 200 workers over the previous 18 months for viewing internet porn, and in September 2000, Orange, the mobile phone company, dismissed more than 30 staff in Hertford and call centres in the North-East for the same reason.

In January 2001, Jerry Miles, the deputy mayor of Harrow, was sacked from his job as a librarian after a clampdown on internet misuse at the Marcus Garvey Library in Tottenham.

In March 2002, Paul Finch, an engineer at the Palace of Westminster was forced to resign after security staff discovered that he had been accessing websites for "swingers".
What a waste - if this guy was any good as an executive he won't be easy to replace, and now a long, difficult and costly search for a replacement will have to be carried out just because he viewed a sex site or two? Perhaps this incident will be the one to nudge company policies in a saner direction; if companies have no problems with their employees using their online access to visit sites of personal interest only, I see no good reason for singling out adult websites as particularly worthy of condemnation.

TypeKey and the Dangers of Re-Inventing the Wheel

A few more thoughts on TypeKey have just occurred to me; those who are interested in such matters are welcome to read them here on my Tech Notes blog, where I'll have the freedom to indulge my taste for technological arcana to my heart's content without worrying about boring everyone else to death.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Calling All Conspiracy Theorists!

PZ Myers is not amused by a pitch from MoveOn heralding The Day After Tomorrow as a showpiece for the dangers of global warming.

Dear gog, it's based on a book written by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. A spazzy New Age conspiracy theorist/talk radio host, and a deranged author who believes he was abducted by aliens. There isn't a scrap of serious science anywhere in this monstrosity, and I sure as hell don't want my party using this gonzo nonsense to inspire policy decisions.
This mirrors the argument I've often made in the past about shoddy "arguments" being marshalled on behalf of causes one believes in; the support of the likes of Art Bell is for serious scientific advocates of global warming policy changes what the vocal backing of Randites and Rockwellites is for libertarians - an excellent way to fall into discredit by association.

A Proof of the Twin-Prime Conjecture?

A Slashdot post pointed me to this purported proof by Vanderbilt University's Richard Arenstorf of the Twin-Prime Conjecture, which states that there are infinitely many primes of the form P, P+2, e.g, 5 and 7, 11 and 13, 17 and 19, or 29 and 31. This supposed proof, if correct, would be one of the most exciting results in number theory in quite some time.

I'm not and never have been an analytic number theorist, and I can't say that I've ever heard of Mr. Arenstorf before today, so I'm in no position to assess the likelihood that his proof isn't just stuff and nonsense, at least not without getting a chance to actually read it through. Going from the comments of some of the Slashdot readers, this guy got his PhD 48 years ago, and hit his productive prime in the 1960s; prior to this, his most recent published paper was in 1993. This hardly makes one feel confident in the correctness of his work, as mathematics is notorious for being a young man's game, the likes of Paul Erdos aside. As another commenter noted, I'd feel far more confident that this guy's hit the mark if the likes of Peter Sarnak, Andrew Granville, Andrew Odlyzko or Preda Mihailescu were to give his paper a preliminary thumbs up - that would still be no guarantee that Arenstorf was correct, of course, but it would lessen the odds of his being wrong considerably.

One thing I noticed in the abstract of the paper was that Arenstorf claimed that his proof depended only on methods from classical analytic number theory, and a quick scan through suggests that this is indeed the case, as it seems to lean most heavily on the theory of generating functions. This leads me to harbor some hope that I really will be able to read through the whole thing if I have the requisite patience - now all(!) I have to do is find the necessary free time!

Friday, May 28, 2004

So Much for the Age of Reason

It's articles like this one that make me sceptical whenever I hear someone say we are in a new, glorious age of heightened rationality, as opposed to the dark old superstitioous days of yore. That may be true for a small fraction of the population, but for the rest, it absolutely is not.

Drawing from a long list of "alternative" medical therapies as diverse as the Atkins diet, acupuncture, homeopathy and prayer, federal health researchers reported Thursday that nearly two out of three Americans were using unconventional approaches to mend their bodies or maintain their health.

When prayer is dropped from the list, the federally funded survey found that 36 percent of Americans over the age of 18 used so-called complementary and alternative medicine.

[............]

A snapshot of American health care choices in 2002, the survey concluded that 8 percent of the nation's adults visited chiropractors; 5 percent practiced yoga for health; 1.1 percent had acupuncture; and 1.7 percent employed homeopathy.

The wildly popular Atkins diet, one of several listed as therapies in the survey, was tried by only 1.7 percent of those surveyed -- but the study was conducted in 2002, just as the national craze for high-protein, low- carbohydrate foods was igniting.

[............]

Skeptics of alternative medicine nevertheless questioned the scientific value of the survey. "I can't imagine why someone would invest so much money for something that has no significance whatsoever,'' said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist who runs the Web site Quackwatch

A frequent critic of the NIH alternative medicine program, Barrett said it made no sense to include activities such as prayer under the rubric of alternative medicine. "Praying for one's own health is not an alternative medicine,'' he said. "Everyone who prays, prays for their own health."

Therapies such as massage, which are labeled as alternative medicine, are often used by mainstream medical practices, Barrett noted. Hypnosis and "progressive relaxation," also on the survey list, are techniques used by conventional psychotherapists.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with the esteemed Dr. Barrett on this one: prayer most definitely is "alternative" medicine, if by "alternative" one means any curative method without a solid scientific rationale to it. As for hypnosis and progressive relaxation being validated by their practice by psychotherapists, in my eyes at least, that very fact is enough to damn them outright as pseudoscientific claptrap. The talking cures peddled by psychotherapists at hundreds of dollars an hour give no greater benefits than any that might be recieved from any other technique that relies on the placebo mechanism; in fact, if I were forced to recommend one of the two, I'd go for prayer before psychotherapy - at least it costs nothing more than a little of one's own time.

On a final note, I've got to say that the exploding popularity of the Atkins Diet says something about the appetite* of lots of people for shortcuts to success. The reality of dieting is really quite simple - one has to consume less energy than one expends in activity over a sustained period of time, and no particular dietary mix will do anything whatsoever to negate this simple equation. As far as I can make out, the whole "ketosis" mumbo-jumbo peddled as an explanation for the wonder-working powers of the Atkins diet is so much rubbish, as the truth is that lots of human societies have subsisted primarily on animal protein for long periods, to no ill effects, and certainly not to the detriment of their body weight. The Neandertals almost certainly lived on little other than meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but they too would have gotten grotesquely fat if all they did with their days was sit in offices, followed by evenings spent watching sitcoms on the Laz-E-Boy.

If people really want to lose weight, the choice they face is a simple one - eat less and/or be more physically active. No miracle diet will help one get over the fact that one loves eating too much to abjure stuffing oneself, or that the mere thought of even moderate physical exertion makes one ill. Food faddism is just one more example of magical thinking in operation.

*Pun intended

Spam as a Barometer of Linguistic Influence

Just a quick thought: what does it say about the commercial importance of English that something like 90% of all spam sent and received everywhere in the world is in that language? Why have I never yet once recieved a single spam message in any other language?

I have a hypothesis to offer, which is that spammers, being both extremely avaricious and operating outside the boundaries of the law, feel no need to meet any obligations to "linguistic diversity" or any of the other non-pecuniary considerations which most legitimate business operations have to bother with. As far as spammers are concerned, English is the language that offers by far the most reach to the customers most worth having, and speakers of other languages are simply not valuable enough a market to bother targeting* their efforts towards. In a sense, one might call spam the ultimate wealth-weighted index of linguistic reach.

*Of course, spam is by definition the very opposite of targeted advertising, but one would still think that greedy spammers would like to reach as many gullible people as possible, and the gullible are a lot less likely to be polyglots than your netwise sorts. What is more, virtually every single one of the c. 100 million German-speakers there are in the world lives in a wealthy country, while several hundred million English-speaking recipients of spam are relatively indigent Third Worlders. Were I a spammer, Japan, Germany, Austria and Switzerland would be my top targets on demograpic grounds alone.

OpenGPG Commenting for WordPress

It seems as if someone by the name of Christoph Rummel has already gotten down to work on adding support for PGP-signed comments to WordPress. All to the good, I say - for one thing, this shows that there's more interest in the notion of identity-verification via public-key cryptosystems than one might have feared. For another, it potentially saves me a lot of effort; having never been the sort to reinvent the wheel if I can help it, I'd much rather build on Mr. Rummel's work than start from scratch.

One very important piece of functionality that I would like to add to this plugin is automatic fetching of public keys, and their subsequent use in verifying signed comments. Ideally, comment verification should be done server-side, with the option left to the reader to carry out client-side verification of the raw data as well; anything less than this, and the likelihood is that most people won't bother. Still, it would be petty to cavil too much at such an early date, and Christoph Rummel's plugin does at least deal with the aesthetic factor that's given so much cause for opposition to PGP-signing on the part of some.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

An Interesting Factoid about Pius XII

When the Allies were planning for the liberation of Rome from German occupation, Pope Pius XII is said to have specifically requested that black soldiers not be used in the campaign, for fear that they would engage in mass rapes of Italian women. If this story is accurate, it certainly says a lot about the Catholic Church's current efforts to have him canonized - none of it good.

Ultranationalism and the Irish Stance in World War 2

Here's an interesting BBC article on a period in Irish history which I suspect most would rather forget, given what we now know. Still, it is heartening to learn that many young Irishmen weren't so consumed with dislike for their former colonial rulers that they were willing to abide by a stance of neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

Sixty years on from the anxious summer months of 1944 it is a time for remembering in all the nations that were shaped and scarred by World War II.

There is one European country though where the full picture of what happened during the war is being discovered for the first time.

Neutral Ireland saw no reason to fight against Hitler's Germany alongside Britain in 1939; it was after all only 18 years since the country had bloodily secured a partial independence from London after centuries of British rule.

At the time it seemed a reasonable decision, and at the political level neutrality was scrupulously observed.

When the first, still barely believable reports of what had happened in the Nazi concentration camps emerged they were strictly censored.

And the Irish leader Eamon de Valera even paid his respects to the German representative in Dublin when news of Hitler's death emerged.

Irishmen who had volunteered for Britain's armies were given a tough time when they were home on leave, and were cold-shouldered after the fighting by a de Valera-led government that didn't see why they should qualify for state welfare payments when they came home from fighting for a foreign power.

[............]

Yvonne McEwen, a historian with a special interest in Irish affairs, has now come up with a detailed estimate of the numbers of Irishmen from both sides of the border who fought for Britain.

Based on the War Office calculation that 22 men served for every one who died, she estimates that 99,997 Irishmen volunteered, with the number divided almost evenly between the North and the South.

Fascinating stuff which still has a certain political resonance. After all it suggests that while the government of Ireland may have been neutral, many of its people were not. And it also demonstrates that the supposedly non-combatant Irish Free State contributed as many soldiers as Northern Ireland, a region of the UK whose unionist population prides itself on its loyalty.

I've known about Eamon de Valera's paying his last respects to "Chancellor Hitler" for quite some time now, but I still can't help feeling nonplussed that anyone should have been so consumed with hatred for Britain that he should have been willing to go that far; fear of German aggression can't explain it, as Germany had obviously lost the war long before then, and the cessation of fighting in Europe was clearly going to occur in a matter of days. No, de Valera's message of condolence to Admiral Dönitz was clearly a matter of sticking a finger in the eye of the hated British enemy.**

It's compensatory hypernationalism of the sort epitomized by the American-born de Valera* (and by Napoleon, and by Verwoerd, and by Stalin, and even by a certain Austrian ...) that makes me less than agitated by the decision of Sonia Ghandi to decline the premiership in the face of BJP opposition. Whether they are driven by an ambition to prove their loyalty to their newly-adopted countries, or merely by the same intense identification that drove them to adopt new nationalities, foreign-born leaders tend to have a marked tendency to go overboard with the chauvinism. What a striking thing it is to consider that some 100,00 native-born Irishmen, who were unlike de Valera in lacking the easy option of a return to some foreign domicile, were willing to risk their very lives in opposition to a cause they rightly recognized as being far more evil than even the British Empire ever was at its very worst.

For the record, I don't believe that Eamon de Valera was an anti-semite, or any more of a racist than the average white person in the Western world was in those days, and I certainly don't think that Irish neutrality was entirely a matter of cocking a snook at the British. Nonetheless, it seems to me at least that this was one moment in history in which the Irish government allowed (well founded) historical animosities to get the better of its moral judgement. If this shameful story is redeemed, it is by those Irish volunteers who came forward in the face of official government indifference, only to be met with indifference on their return from the fighting.

*It's also worth noting that the only reason de Valera wasn't hanged after the Easter Rising of 1916 was because of his American citizenship, while Roger Casement, a far nobler character who did far more to make the world a better place, went to the gallows all the same.

**Further corrobaration of this view can be found in de Valera's contrasting reaction to Churchill's death; not only did he refuse to attend the funeral on being sounded out by the British government, but he also sent a low-level official to stand in for the Irish government in his place. As a calculated insult one could hardly have done better.

Freedom Dying Quietly in Hong Kong

It's amazing how little attention the commentariat has given to the Chinese Communist Party's successful ongoing efforts to eviscerate the guarantees it promised to uphold under the terms of the 1997 handover. As hard as it might be for a lot of parochial individuals to understand, there are other things of great moment happening in the world other than in Iraq.

A veteran Hong Kong politician has told legislators he quit his radio talk show because of warnings he would be in danger unless he toned down his anti-Beijing views.

Allen Lee, who is also a member of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, said he quit after a number of people pressured him to keep quiet.

Four hundred academics have taken out an advertisement in a leading daily newspaper in Hong Kong expressing disquiet over the resignation of Mr Lee and two other high-profile talk show hosts.

Radio talk shows are a relatively new phenomena in Hong Kong but they have rapidly become an institution. Some estimates suggest as many as one in six people here listen to them in the morning. Ordinary people have the chance to air their views. Politicians find themselves challenged rigorously by the listeners and the programmes' presenters. But recently three talk show hosts have resigned, complaining of threats and intimidation. This hearing by Hong Kong lawmakers was an attempt to find out what is going on. Two of the hosts refused to attend, saying they feared for their safety.

But a third, Allan Lee, told the inquiry a retired Chinese official and other friends from the mainland had tried to persuade him to tone down his comments. He refused and decided to quit, after one Chinese official remarked "your wife is very nice and your daughter is very pretty". (emphases added)

I think Mr. Lee interpreted the message precisely as it was meant to be interpreted by the thugocracy which runs China. It is no exaggeration to say that China's government is probably one of the top five most repressive entities on the planet, and almost certainly number one if we go purely by sheer numbers of victims. Some may think that what goes on in Hong Kong is of little importance except to the unfortunate residents of that territory themselves, but the geostrategic significance of CCP intolerance of dissent and demands for accountability are far graver than a naive reading of events might suggest. For one thing, it makes it ever more likely that the people of Taiwan will eventually push for formal independence, and with that, dramatically increases the likelihood of a Sino-American war.

Israel's Arab Citizens

Jonathan Edelstein has a choice selection of links from a series of Haaretz articles about the state of the Israeli Arab population, covering everything from their employment status to their relations with the larger Arab world. Excellent stuff, unmissable for anyone who wants to go beyond the typical media cliches.

Kano Will Vaccinate Against Polio

What else can I say other than "It's about bloody time!" This irresponsible cretin has already cost many children in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa their futures, all to score a few cheap political points against an impotent president.

BUJA, Nigeria, May 26 - Ibrahim Shekarau, the Kano state governor whose eight-month moratorium on polio vaccinations has been blamed for the spread of polio widely across Africa, said in an interview on Tuesday that he was ready to resume immunizations.

The suspension was prompted by claims, led by Muslim clerics and political leaders, that the polio vaccine contained a hormone that could lead to infertility. The World Health Organization has said tests show no scientific basis for such a charge.

[............]

The 2003 Demographic and Health Survey, released Monday in the capital, Abuja, shows that only 13 percent of Nigerian children receive all basic vaccinations, the lowest rate of any African country studied.

Under pressure from both inside and outside Kano, a volatile, largely Muslim northern state, Mr. Shekarau has been meeting all week with political and religious leaders to assure them that the state has found a safe source of vaccine.

No announcement has yet been made on when and how polio immunizations would start.

But in an interview in Kano on Tuesday, Mr. Shekarau said a team of health experts and religious scholars sent to visit a vaccine manufacturer in Indonesia had returned home satisfied. The next step, he said, would be to report the team's findings to the central government and join the next nationwide immunization campaign.

"We've now discovered a source of safe vaccine," he said in his office. "We will soon be on course."

The vaccine produced by the Indonesian company has long been part of Nigeria's vaccine supply. Mr. Shekarau said other producers might also prove trustworthy. "We've now discovered that the product in Indonesia is quite safe," he said. "It's very likely we may discover the one in France, in Belgium, in Italy are equally safe." (emphasis added)

Well what do you know? The miraculous Indonesian vaccine Shekarau's willing to place his trust in has been part of Nigeria's vaccine supply all along! This only goes to show how deeply cynical the entire campaign's been from the start - he doesn't want to lose face by admitting that there never was anything wrong with the vaccines to begin with, so he's going to use the "we'll trust the Muslim-supplied stuff" gambit to avoid embarassment.

Obasanjo's failure to do anything about this man, who has not only instigated a catastrophic delay in polio eradication, but has also overseen wild anti-Christian pogroms in his state within the last two weeks alone, is all the more shameful in that he was so quick to initiate a constitutionally dubious sacking of Plateau State's governor for his supposed failings in containing violence. Religiously-motivated mayhem has been running unchecked in Kano, Bauchi and elsewhere in the predominantly Muslim parts of Nigeria for some three years now without Obasanjo ever finding the cojones to say or do anything meaningful about it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

What Happens When the "Good Guys" Leave Office?

Frank McGahon comments on a phenomenon in current Irish politics that is illustrative of a mode of thinking I've long found strange, especially coming from left-wingers - the notion that any powers appropriated by a government for itself will only end up being used by the "good guys", i.e, by members of one's own side. It never seems to occur to such people that the "good guys" might ever lose office, and that the powers they are so eager to see taken up by the government might end up being used to thwart the very causes in service of which they were taken up to start with.

"Do onto others as you would have them to you" is probably the wisest and most useful principle derived from Christianity. It is incumbent on those who propose any action to ensure that it would still be considered fair if applied to them. Daniel Dennett describes the response to such a sanction as "Thanks, I needed that". Anyone who is happy to grant powers to the sitting government ought to be happy for the retention of those powers by the opposition. In Ireland, those who relish Michael McDowell's increasingly authoritarian bent should remember that any power extended to his office may be wielded by a successor who may not have the benefit of a classic liberal background, such as (God forbid!) Martin Ferriss.

We've seen this sort of thing on both sides of the politicial fence - for instance, with Thatcher's emasculation of local government in the United Kingdom, or with Tony Blair's ongoing efforts to remove even the feeble constraints on prime ministerial power that still remain. In the case of the United States, I admit to struggling to contain my mirth whenever I hear liberals moaning about the supposed abuses of federal power being carried out George W. Bush; "what are you complaining about", I'm tempted to say, "isn't government interference in education precisely what you wanted? Why are you then surprised to see just that occurring?" Those who legislate on the principle that the reins of government will always be in the hands of those they consider to be wise are setting themselves up for disaster, much in the same manner as those who forego all insurance in the certainty that they were born under a lucky star.

False Positives and the War on Terrorism

This MSNBC article is an object lesson in the importance of understanding elementary statistics when dealing with rare events. Seeing as terrorists are an extremely rare phenomenon (in Western populations at least), cases of mistaken identity like this one ar bound to be the rule rather than the exception, particularly if the authorities decide to err on the side of caution against attacks instead of abiding by normal standards of evidence. Even with a 99.5 percent accuracy rate, most people who will end up getting arrested for suspected anti-terrorist activities will turn out never to have been guilty of anything.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Offering a rare public apology, the FBI admitted mistakenly linking an American lawyer’s fingerprint to one found near the scene of a terrorist bombing in Spain, a blunder that led to his imprisonment for two weeks.

The apology Monday came hours after a judge dismissed the case against Brandon Mayfield, who had been held as a material witness in the Madrid bombings case, which killed 191 people and injured about 2,000 others.

Mayfield, a 37-year-old convert to Islam, sharply criticized the government, calling his time behind bars “humiliating” and “embarrassing” and saying he was targeted because of his faith.

“This whole process has been a harrowing ordeal. It shouldn’t happen to anybody,” said Mayfield. “I believe I was singled out and discriminated against, I feel, as a Muslim.”

[............]

Court documents released Monday suggested that the mistaken arrest first sprang from an error by the FBI’s supercomputer for matching fingerprints and then was compounded by the FBI’s own analysts.

[............]

Mayfield, a former Army lieutenant, was released last week. But he was not altogether cleared of suspicion; the government said he remained a material witness and put restrictions on his movements.

I think that final quoted paragraph says it all, really: being accused of "terrorism", like accusations of "rape" and certain other crimes thought particularly heinous, is one of those things that tend to stick in the minds of authority figures and the public at large, whatever the courts may decide to the contrary. Most people seem completely unable to shake the assumption that where there's smoke, there has to be fire - one obviously would never have come to the attention of the authorities if one weren't guilty of something, right? I'd highly recommend reading what Bruce Schneier has to say about the issue of false positives in this issue of his Crypto-Gram newsletter:

Last month the U.S. Justice Department administratively discharged the FBI of its statutory duty to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. This database is enormous. It contains over 39 million criminal records. It contains information on wanted persons, missing persons, and gang members, as well as information about stolen cars, boats, and other information. Over 80,000 law enforcement agencies have access to this database. On average, there are 2.8 million transactions processed each day.

The Privacy Act of 1974 requires the FBI to make reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the records in this database. Last month, the Justice Department exempted the system from the law's accuracy requirements.

This isn't just bad social practice, it's bad security. A database with more errors is much less useful than a database with fewer errors, and an error-filled security database is much more likely to target innocents than it is to let the guilty go free.

To see this, let's walk through an example. Assume a simple database -- name and a single code indicating "innocent" or "guilty." When a policeman encounters someone, he looks that person up in the database, and then arrests him if the database says "guilty."

Example 1: Assume the database is 100% accurate. If that is the case, there won't be any false arrests because of bad data. It works perfectly.

Example 2: Assume a 0.0001% error rate: one error in a million. (An error is defined as a person having an "innocent" code when he is guilty, or a "guilty" code when he is innocent.) Furthermore, assume that one in 10,000 people are guilty. In this case, for every 100 guilty people the database correctly identifies it will mistakenly identify one innocent person as guilty (because of an error). And the number of guilty people erroneously listed as innocent is tiny: one in a million.

Example 3: Assume a 1% error rate -- one in a hundred -- and the same one in 10,000 ratio of guilty people. The results are very different. For every 100 guilty people the database correctly identifies, it will mistakenly identify 10,000 innocent people as guilty. The number of guilty people erroneously listed as innocent is larger, but still very small: one in 100.

The differences between examples 2 and 3 are striking. In example 2, one person is erroneously arrested for every 100 people correctly arrested. In example 3, one person is correctly arrested for every 100 people erroneously arrested. The increase in error rate makes the database all but useless as a system for figuring out how to arrest. And this is despite the fact that, in both cases, almost no guilty people get away because of a database error.

The reason for this phenomenon is that the number of guilty people is a very small percentage of the population. If one in ten people were guilty, then a 0.0001% error rate would mistakenly arrest one innocent for every 100,000 guilty, and a 1% error rate would arrest approximately one innocent for every guilty. And if the number of guilty people is even less than one in ten thousand, then the problem of arresting innocents magnifies even more as the database has more errors.

[............]

This kind of thing is already happening. There are 13 million people on the FBI's terrorist watch list. That's ridiculous, it's simply inconceivable that a number of people equal to 4.5% of the population of the United States are terrorists. There are far more innocents on that list than there are guilty people not on that list. And these innocents are regularly harassed by police trying to do their job. And in any case, any watch list with 13 million people is basically useless. How many resources can anyone afford to spend watching about one-twentieth of the population, anyway?

When even staunch right-wingers like Bob Barr are willing to join hands with the ACLU to protest the PATRIOT Act and other measures that bypass the traditional safeguards against shoddy law enforcement, one would be foolhardy to dismiss it all as so much whining by malcontents who fail to appreciate the true magnitude of the threat. In reality, it is the champions of such measures who lack a sense of proportion.

A Sign of Spammer Desperation

How else can one interpret an email message titled "canberra mockernut arnold carpenter ecclesiastic steepen impromptu soc vermin joan simplectic", and with the following in the body?

<p><font style="font-size:1px">runyon o'neill planetesimal harshen podium
exploratory .<br>
burgundy declassify crop caiman cameo zoroastrian fail! impelling
dell electrolysis chemisorption glint?<br>
<br>
assignation integrate hellebore airtight bug corduroy hardboard burglar
those crosslink bush invertebrate storyboard.</font></p>
This is sort of thing is clearly motivated by the hope of poisoning Bayesian spam filters, but it only goes to show that most spammers are a lot less mathematically talented than they imagine themselves to be. The corpus of words used by people in their email communications will vary from one individual to the next, and as such no attempt at filter-poisoning can ever be effective in the long run against a well-written Bayesian filter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Darfur in Light of the Rwandan Genocide

Brian has an informative essay up on his site about the ongoing bloodletting in Darfur, and all the meaningless handwringing to be seen in today's press about Western inaction over Rwanda. I think he gets it exactly right when he says

People in western countries generally aren't that interested in what's going on in non-western countries. Sure, there are a few exceptions. The British and French tend to be moderately interested in the doings in their former African colonies because a) they maintain considerably economic ties in many of them and b) there are many African immigrants in those countries. Western Europeans tend to be disproportionately interested in the Israeli Occupied Territories. But generally speaking, most westerners care little about non-western countries, except in a tangential way. Ask them if 'x' crisis is bad and they will say "Yes, it's awful." It usually doesn't translate into anything more than that.
There are quite a few noticeable exceptions, particularly, it seems, in the blogging world, but where the general populace is concerned, this really is the simple truth. A single child is killed in the Occupied Territories and the Western media blazes with publicity for weeks on end; 1 million people in Northern Africa have their homes scorched and are driven on death-marches, and few do more than shrug and say "how terrible."

Monday, May 24, 2004

Why I PGP-Sign All My Comments

Ever since I've begun PGP-signing the comments I make on blogs other than my own, I've been receiving all sorts of negative responses from people who don't appreciate why I bother, and resent the aesthetic impression made by PGP signatures at the bottom of my comments. This post by Jay Allen ought to dispel for any doubters why I find it worthwhile to go to the trouble.

My Own Private Idiot

Over the last few days, I've been posting a great deal of helpful information both here on my site and elsewhere around the web. For a while, I was going through the Trackbacks on the Six Apart website looking for any places where I might be able to clear up confusion. Someone however, didn't seem to like what I was saying.

This person started following me around and leaving comments after mine, accusing me of attacking people on their own sites and lying on Six Apart's behalf for financial reward. Eventually, he brought it here to my blog. After going back and forth, I had had enough and lost it in Grand Jay Allen style. Of course, I should have recognized a troll for what it was, but I didn't.

Although the lying accusation was ridiculous, I wondered about the attacking part. Things have been rather stressful at times and I admit that when I get stressed or have to repeat the same thing over and over again, I can be short with people. So, I endeavored to look back over all of the places I had commented in order to apologize to anyone who I had attacked.

I didn't find one. However, what I did find was a treasure trove of comments by my troll, sometimes under different pseudonyms, quite often attacking, always vituperative and ill-mannered.

So I called him on it and banned him from commenting on my site.

The Misanthropic Doppelganger

But of course, a troll who can't engage simply gets enraged. In this case, he began posting hateful and wrong-headed comments under my name throughout the blogosphere. Most of his comments are extreme and not even close to what I espouse. He has hit many blogs and as I write this, he is still wasting his time and mine.

Normally, I would not feed the trolls, but in this case, I needed to tell people that if they see my name in their comments with rude, aggresive or hateful comments, it is most certainly not me.

"Idiot" is precisely the term to apply to individuals like the one Jay Allen mentions, and it's because the online world seems to be chock full of idiots that I now insist on signing all my comments unless the site owners have the time to waste checking that the IP address matches my usual one everytime they recieve a post under my name; it's a concession on my part to the aesthetic concerns of those who object most strongly, but even looking up IP addresses isn't perfect, as there's no guarantee that my IP address won't change (as indeed it regularly does), or even that the IP address matching any large collection of posts under my name is actually mine to begin with.

I can certainly appreciate to some extent why a lot of people get annoyed at the sight of PGP signatures at the end of comments, but any sympathy I feel in that direction is more than outweighed by my concern for my own good reputation, which I refuse to allow any malignant little cretin on the web to sully under a false guise. It is also true that not everyone will bother to verify a PGP signature anyway, and to be honest, I expect that very few people will actually take the time to do so; nevertheless, the mere fact that a message comes with one makes it easy enough to determine whether or not some comment was actually posted by me, should a reason come up for anyone to care. An additional benefit of PGP-signed comments is that a blog owner can't alter the message in the slightest without breaking the signature, so one can't get words put into one's mouth without being able to disown them.

To be honest, none of these issues with comment verification would exist were it not for the total lack of concern on the part of blog software writers for issues of identity verification, a failing shared with most software developers in other domains, I hasten to add. Had Movable Type and TypePad come with provision for PGP-signing built-in (as suggested here, for example), the aesthetic impact of signing wouldn't be an issue, and as an added benefit, comment verification would automatically be handled server-side. Instead we're presented with a "solution" that is anything but one, although it has the benefit of giving MT-users a nice warm glow inside that "something is being done!" about identity impersonation and assorted shenanigans.

One benefit of working with a GPL-based system like WordPress is that anyone with the requisite skills can always add in support for a desired feature and distribute a version with the necessary modifications, even if the new code is rejected by the maintainers of the original code. PGP-signed commenting support is definitely one feature I intend on working on for WordPress, once I've learnt my way around the current codebase.

Spam and Stupid German Regulations

This Slashdot article is a case-study in the law of unintended consequences.

"As reported on German news site Heise, the system administrators of the Technical University of Braunschweig have temporarily given up the fight against spam [NB - Article is in German]. Because of the legal obligation to deliver all mail and of the delay time exceeding critical 5 days(!), they decided to switch off all filter mechanisms. Before, the 20 servers dedicated to processing e-mail alone had been breaking down under a load of 100000 unprocessed mail messages, ca. 98% of which had been spam or viruses. ... A similar e-mail jam occurred recently at the IT central of the German Federal Government.

This is the sort of idiocy that comes of legislators leaping to regulate everything under the sun, without any thought in mind that technological change or some unforeseen development might ever render their policies obsolete. In point of fact, the German legislation in place is such a stinker that even the delivery of viruses is a legal obligation! I bet no Bundestag representative ever imagined the dandy new legislation he or she was voting for would some day serve as such a boon to online criminals around the world.

What's most pathetic about this development is that all it would take to get rid of most of the spam Braunschweig TU is receiving would be the combination of a subscription to a real-time blacklist like SPEWS and a server-side filter like SpamAssassin or SpamBayes. Instead cash-strapped German educational institutions are forced to bear unnecessary costs in terms of additional bandwidth and storage requirements, and the endless headaches of dealing with preventable virus outbreaks. Well, I guess German IT support staff are smiling, at least, as it means they'll never be short of emergencies to firefight.

No Takers, Uh?

It seems as if my attempt to satiate the appetites of my very, very clever readers with two additional questions has proven successful - too successful, perhaps, as nobody's bothered to submit an attempted solution! What's going on here? Can't anybody even get off to a start with either one?

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Senate Democrats Stall Extension of African Growth and Opportunity Act

The Democratic Party's Senate representatives show how much they care about the welfare of all those poor Africans, not like those mean, racist Republican thugs all those who are sensitive to Third World suffering ought rightfully to despise ...

Amid concern that key provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act will expire later this year unless Congress votes an extension, supporters have issued a plea for public pressure on Congress.

U.S. government estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of current and prospective jobs in some of Africa's poorest countries are at stake. Advocates of the extension say the next few days are critical to extending the legislation in time to prevent erosion of major gains it has fostered.

The legislation, popularly known as Agoa, which has been a centerpiece of U.S. Africa policy under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, enjoys strong bipartisan backing in Congress. But most Senate Democrats have stayed clear of endorsing this year's proposed extension of the law, which now is in serious jeopardy.

"The U.S. national interest is served by a self-sufficient Africa that is prosperous, peaceful, healthy and democratic," says an appeal from a broad coalition of corporations, religious organizations, nongovernmental groups, lobbyists and trade associations formed to press Congress to renew key provisions of the Act that otherwise expire in four months.

"Agoa must be extended" is the message that should be sent by phone, letter and email to members of both Houses of the U.S. Congress, according to the coalition, which is co-chaired by Jack Kemp, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee, Coca Cola's Carl Ware, and Rosa Whitaker, who served as assistant trade representative for Africa under both Clinton and Bush and now heads the Washington, DC-based Whitaker Group.

Enhanced revisions of the legislation, known as the Agoa Acceleration Bill, or Agoa3, were introduced in both Houses last year. The bill won unanimous approval by the House Ways and Means Committee on May 5 and is expected to win passage by the full House in early June. Senate action on the message has been snarled by procedural disputes unrelated to the bill itself.

The new bill extends overall application of the law from 2008 to 2015, which supporters say is key to encouraging foreign investment in Africa's manufacturing sector. More immediately, the bill continues duty-free access to the United States for apparel made in Africa from fabrics of another country until September 2007. This provision for "third country fabric" imports ends September 30.

[............]

"I'm calling on my fellow Democrats to stand up on this issue," Whitaker said this week in an interview. "Not one job has gone from North Carolina to Lesotho, or any other place in Africa." Agoa should be seen as a "humanitarian initiative" and not principally a trade measure, said Whitaker, who played a key role in passage and implementation of the legislation, first as an aide to Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) and then as the first assistant trade representative for Africa in the White House.

"Where are the Democrats at this critical moment?" she asked, citing specifically Hillary Rodham Clinton, from New York. "Her husband signed Agoa" when it was adopted nearly four years ago. "She should be with us now," Whitaker said.

The only Democrat cosponsoring the current bill, introduced by Richard Lugar (Indiana), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut), who ran for vice president on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000 and unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination in 2004. The other cosponsors, all Republicans, include Michael DeWine (Ohio), Peter Fitzgerald (Illinois), Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), John McCain (Arizona) and Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania). Another Democrat, Max Baucus (Montana), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is on record as a supporter, though not cosponsor of Lugar's Agoa3 bill.

In an effort to boost prospects for Agoa's passage, supporters led by Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, hosted a reception on Capitol Hill Tuesday with Bono, lead singer of the U2 band, who has become a prominent campaigner for debt relief and the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa.

"Trade is the most important thing to our friends in Africa," Bono said, addressing a large Senate hearing room filled with Congressional staff, lobbyists, African diplomats and Agoa supporters. American leadership on Agoa and HIV/Aids "sends a message to the world" at a time when the United States needs support from other countries, the Irish rock star said. Lugar said passage of his Agoa bill is "critical to further bolster the progress Africa already has made."

Ed Royce, Republican from California who chairs the House Africa Subcommittee, said it is important to act because "Agoa has lifted people with export-led growth and has promoted reform." Agoa-related trade and investment has created some 200,000 jobs in Africa and spurred more than $340 million in investments, according to U.S. government figures.

[............]

Congressional inaction on an extension "could have serious impact - losses of jobs, the closing of factories," Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa Florizelle Lister told the House Africa subcommittee on May 11. In one of Africa's smallest nations, Swaziland, with a population of just over one million, whose economy has been hard hit by HIV/Aids, the 28,000 jobs and the livelihood of some 100,000 people would be negatively affected by expiration of Agoa's key provisions this year, Prime Minister A. T. Dlamini told AllAfrica in an interview earlier this month. "This is very important for alleviating poverty in Swaziland," he said.

Like other African leaders who have visited the United States in recent weeks to champion Agoa, the prime minister noted that manufacturers need stable supply lines and investors want dependable environments. Planning for end-of-the-year holiday sales is already underway, and unless retailers are assured of extension of the third-country fabric provision, they may quickly shift apparel production from Africa to Asia. (emphases added)

It's inaction over issues like this one that make me immune to attempts by Democrats to sell themselves as somehow morally superior to Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but when push comes to shove, they're always missing in action. It's a sure bet that not a single one of the lefties who made such a big hue and cry over Bush's shameful pandering to protectionist interests will raise their voices in concern about this particular issue - if they're even aware that it's an issue to begin with. At best, I expect they'll try to justify Democratic inaction as being in service of "a greater cause"; anything is justifiable if it serves to remove the evil Bushitler™ from service, even the return of 200,000 Africans into the throes of joblessness, and the foreclosure of any prospect of better things for millions more.

Authenticity in Judaism

As anyone who's been reading this blog for some time ought to know, I'm not in the least bit religious. I don't believe in heaven and hell, spirits and gods, and all the other sorts of meta-physical phenomena that seem to be taken as givens by most of the other people in this world. Nevertheless, that I am irreligious doesn't mean that I don't take religion seriously - given its tremendous importance to a lot of other people, I feel a duty on my part to understand the various religious systems that are most historically and culturally important, and to obtain a better appreciation of them both as means of social organization and as bodies of philosophical thought that various individuals have tried to fashion into consistent systems, some with greater success than others.

It is with these ideas in mind that I devote so much of my time to studying the various monotheistic religions, though I am not in the least bit religious myself; but if one is intent on understanding Christianity and Islam, one cannot hope to get far without coming to grips with another religious tradition of which both are offshoots (or heresies, as some might prefer), namely Judaism. Though its adherents are few in number in comparison to the other two religions - and largely because of the competitive antagonism of Christianity and Islam - it's influence on the world at large has been far out of proportion to the number of individuals who have subscribed to it, greater even than Christianity and Islam individually, in so far as both would never have come into being without Judaism as their precursor.

Getting to the main point of this post, one thing that I have noticed in the course of my learning about Judaism has been an unthinking and subconscious bias on my part that I think is shared even by most believers in Judaism itself (and certainly by Israel's legal and political system), which is that while Reform and Conservative Jews may be Jews on a purely ethnic level, in a religious sense, they are somehow less "authentically" Jewish than their Orthodox and Hasidic counterparts, who are the true carriers of a Judaism "unsullied" by compromises with the modern world. It is with this bias in mind that I happened to find the article above by Rabbi Simon Maslin so interesting, as for the first time I found in it a thoughtful articulation of a contrasting viewpoint from the one implicit in the commonplace view of Orthodoxy as being somehow more intrinsically "Jewish" than Conservativism or the Reform school.

As the Rabbi points out, modern Orthodox Judaism is itself a direct descendant of a reformist stream of Judaism, the Pharisaic school that reformulated the religion around the study of the Torah and the synagogue, even as Sadduccee and Maccabean traditionalists continued to insist on the primacy of the sacrifical rites centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. Furthermore, some of the very greatest scholars esteemed by the Orthodox themselves were hardly the unworldly figures many of their admirers aspire to be in our day - men like Maimonides and Judah HaLevi were not merely narrow pedagogues of Talmudic learning, but also individuals who were deeply interested in the contemporary world about them, in its peoples, its literature, its history, its arts and its sciences. Even the Hasidic insistence on such supposedly "Jewish" dress as the black caftan and the round fur hat, and on long sideburns and side-curls, are not in the least rooted in ancient Jewish practice, but relatively modern accretions that have since hardened into symbols of "authenticity" and an imagined antiquity of tradition.

With all of this in mind, the Reform and Conservative schools of Judaism, when looked at objectively, are no less deserving of the mantle of "authenticity" than the Orthodox variety - and in fact, even the very label "Orthodox" slants the playing field from the very start, as if something is "orthodox", it is almost by definition the "right" or "proper" way of doing things. Modern day Orthodox Judaism is in many ways no more "orthodox" than the other two main varieties, and all of these offshoots of the Pharisaic tradition could in their turn be viewed with some justification by the Karaites (who acknowledge only the Tanakh, and reject the Mishna and the Talmud) as so much modernist straying from the path of "true" Judaism to which they alone continue to adhere. It should be clear that my point in mentioning the Karaites is not to alight on yet some other group as being the sole, authoritative bearers of the Jewish religious tradition, but simply to illustrate how the pointless game of religious one-upmanship in the name of "authenticity" can be carried on ad infinitum.

Of course, much that I have said here about "authenticity" and traditionalism also applies to the Christian and Islamic religious traditions, when rephrased in slightly different language - for instance, despite the Vatican's insistence on its primacy as a bearer of the Christian religious tradition, the same claim can be made, with an equal weight of antiquity behind it, by the Eastern Orthodox Church as well, while Protestants are substantially correct in condemning icon-worship and the institution of sainthood as wayward developments away from the path established by the early church. All of these branches of Christianity can in turn be condemned as polytheistic heresies by those who continue to reject a divine trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - and on and on it goes ad nauseum.

I suppose if there's anything to be taken from all this, it is always to resist the temptation to believe that some strain of a religious tradition is more "authentic" simply because it has a more ancient look and feel to it, or claims to have a stricter interpretation of what the religion requires of its believers. If one absolutely must decide upon some single branch of a religion as being authoritative, one might as well go with the branch that has the most members, and in the case of American Judaism at least, that would not be the Orthodox variety (nor would it be Southern Fundamentalism in the Christian case).

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Self-Appointed Voices

Samizdata's Perry de Havilland has an amusing piece up about the adventures of he and a couple of other Samizdatistas in Geneva, where they crashed the 57th WHO assembly. A detail mentioned in the piece that I found particularly telling was the following:

Crasher Niger Innes asks why, given that the panel was representing itself as the voice of the poor in Africa, there were no Africans on the panel? Ouch.
As a certain law professor likes to say, indeed. There's something outrageously presumptious of people, most of whom have never so much as stepped foot on African soil, deigning to speak on behalf of the rights of people whose desires they've never bothered to have articulated to them. To hear anti-globalizers go on about the harm done to Africans by capitalism and westernization, one would never know that in a recent worldwide poll, the most favorable attitudes towards these two bogeymen were to be found in ... Africa.

Friday, May 21, 2004

How a Math Nerd became a Pornstar

The things you'll find on the web! Did you know, for instance, that Asia Carrera, of adult film fame (or, depending on your value system, infamy) was a onetime USA Math Olympiad contestant? And that she played Carnegie Hall while she was still in her early teens (performing Bach's 13th Invention), and later went to Rutgers as a National Merit Scholar? At least, so it says in her website's biography section (just in case you're wondering, I did not get there while looking for pr0n - a page that links to it is number one on the actual search I did run - not that there's anything wrong with surfing for pr0n on one's own free time ...).

I know that resume inflation is par for the course on the internet, but reading Carrera's account* of how she got to where she is today, I don't see anything that sticks out as implausible. Certainly, the pushy parents she talks about were characteristic of more than one American student of Asian extraction I knew during my college days. One could say that Ms. Carrera's life just goes to show that the Asian cultural emphasis on academic success cuts both ways, as it is possible to push children too hard to study subjects for which they have no natural affinity, even if they're able to grind out good results nonetheless. That said though, on balance I still think the Asian-American attitude preferable to that of many other American subcultures, in which academic success is either seen as irrelevant, a cunning plot by TheMan™ to keep one down, or else entirely a matter of genetic luck, and nothing one has any ability to exert personal control over.

*I've got to say, though, that for someone who's supposedly so smart, the low-contrast choice of light green text on a white background isn't exactly the best demonstration of the veracity of such a claim. As it turns out, the mistake was on my part - the background is supposed to be black.

More Mathematics Puzzles

Since it looks like quite a few of my readers are a lot sharper than the average Joe, I feel liberated to step up the difficulty slightly this time round. Here are three questions that are easy enough to state so that anyone can understand what they're about, but tough to take a bit of effort to solve.

  1. The product N of three positive integers is 6 times their sum, and one of the integers is the sum of the other two. Find the sum of all possible values of N.
  2. Let N be the greatest integer multiple of 8, no two of whose digits are the same. What is the remainder when N is divided by 1000?
  3. Define a good word as a sequence of letters that consists only of the letters A, B and C - not all of these letters need appear in a given sequence - and in which A is never immediately followed by B, B is never immediately followed by C, and C is never immediately followed by A. How many seven-letter good words are there?
Well then, are you tough enough to handle my little challenge? Think you've got what it takes? I promise not to reveal the answers within the next 48 hours, to give everyone interested time enough to put up a decent effort.

ADDENDUM: To quell the appetites of those who feel the problems above were not in the least challenging, here are two more for your consumption. If these ones strike you as being as easy as the previous ones, I'll be extremely impressed!
  1. Find, as a function of n, the sum of the digits of
    9 x 99 x 9999 x ... x (102n-1),

    where each factor has twice as many digits as the previous one.
  2. A computer screen shows a 98 x 98 chessboard, colored in the usual way. One can select with a mouse any rectangle with sides on the lines of the chessboard and click the mouse button: as a result, the colors in the selected rectangle switch (black becomes white, white becomes black). Find, with proof, the minimum number of mouse clicks needed to make the chessboard all one color.

Octopus Ink

One of my favorite turns of phrase that I've often been surprised to find raising puzzlement in others has been to describe some obfuscatory or distractive action or other as so much "octopus ink"; as it turns out, PZ Myers has a post up on this very phenomenon at this moment, describing vistigial ink sacs in blue-ringed octopuses in the context of evolutionary theory. From here on out I'll just send anyone who's puzzled by my use of the phrase to this Pharyngula entry - hopefully they'll not only gain an appreciation for a metaphor I think particularly appropriate for describing the evasive techniques of many a public figure, but they'll also learn one or two interesting things about the natural world while they're at it.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Incestuous Navel-Gazing as a Business Strategy

Personally, I can't stand Gawker,Wonkette or any of the other gossip and buzz-driven sites operated by Nick Denton, and this article linked to by Brad DeLong illustrates why.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm one of those people who still believes in the virtues of technological innovation as a driver of economic progress, and guys like Denton represent for me the sorts of smooth-talking free-riders who did so much to discredit this engine of growth during the great IT bubble of the late 1990s. Denton's success with his stable of blogs indicates that there's clearly a market out there for media properties that cater to the New York and Washington DC elite's penchant for self-referential navel-gazing, but I'm doubtful that this is the sort of stuff of which an entire media empire can be built. Vacuous celebrity-worshippers around the world will shell out $3 for a copy of Hello! or OK! to read about the latest exploits of Gwyneth, Madonna or some other entertainment press darling, but beyond the small circle of megastars of worldwide interest, things get too fractionated for any small stable of writers to cover in the insider style that has worked so well for Denton thus far; for instance, most Americans have probably never heard of Amanda Holden, Ulrika Jonsson or any of the other TV celebrities that are the stuff of daily fodder in the British press, while the average German celebrity could probably spend a month walking the streets of London without ever being recognized by a single stranger.

To be honest, there's something about celebrity chitchat that really gets on my nerves, especially when it's of the self-referential sort so beloved of Manhattanites and DC talking heads (let's be honest here - outside of a small coterie, who really gives a sh*t what Tina Brown's up to?); as such, I wouldn't be in the least aggrieved if I were to learn that the Denton empire had gone belly-up someday. In the meantime, I can at least take solace in the fact that the man's failure to appreciate that good writers aren't quite as repleacable and interchangeable as he imagines, in combination with the virtually non-existent barriers to entry in the niche he's currently attempting to monopolize, ensure that any profits he currently enjoys are likely to be extremely shortlived.

Blah Blah Ginger Blah Blah

The much maligned Jon Katz of former Slashdot infamy is back, this time with an article in Slate, in which he argues that there is no such thing as a perfect dog:

The peddling of Perfect Dogs amounts to a multibillion dollar business in the United States. You'll never see images of ugly dogs vomiting in the living room or terrorizing the letter carrier on dog food commercials. Those dogs—the ones we want—are always adorable. Their happy owners are not holding pooper scoopers.

Because people have such ill-informed and unrealistic expectations, dogs often suffer when their true hungry, messy, and alien natures are revealed. They get yelled at, irritated by studded chains and zapped by electronic collars, tethered to trees, hidden away in basements and back yards, or dumped at shelters and euthanized.

[............]

Some romantics see the match between a human and dog as kismet; If they're "right" for one another, or destined to be together, they'll fall in love at first sight. But most puppies are cute. And few humans like to accept the idea that the affectionate puppy is as drawn by the food he smells on your hands as by some mysterious ethereal connection. (emphasis added)
I'm inclined to agree with Katz, and my agreement with him is why, despite my own fondness for dogs, I can't see myself ever actually getting one of my own. Dogs are basically poop factories with appealing demeanors, and the prospect of spending 10 years or more scooping up some animal's fecal matter doesn't in the least agree with my constitution.

Then there is also the matter of fertility to consider - dogs can be incredibly prolific, given the rapidity with which they reach sexual maturity (within a year of birth), the large size of the average litter, and the fact that female dogs come into heat twice a year, while males are fertile all year round. In light of the sheer number of animals that end up being abandoned or mistreated all over the world, it is incumbent on most dog owners to get their animals "fixed" rather than allow them to bring yet more unwanted puppies into the world. Still, there's something about the notion of adopting an animal with the aim in mind of spaying or neutering it that makes me flinch.

The final point mentioned by Jon Katz, and one that I think especially worth keeping in mind, is that most of us who are fond of domesticated animals tend to project unto them mental qualities they almost certainly don't have. I won't go as far as the Cartesians would, to say that dogs are merely stimulus-response machines, with no real emotions beyond those they project to us in their search for rewards, but I think that this picture of how things work is probably a lot closer to the truth than the sentimental worldview that tends to be prevalent amongst dog-owners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these animals have evolved to game us into looking after them, and when you're doting on Lassie and mouthing baby words to her about her being such a good doggie, all she's probably really hearing is "snack coming, snack coming, snack coming!"

If one wants a truly reciprocal emotional relationship, one's best off looking for it with another human being. It's a lot more work for most people, it's true, and it's also a fact that dissimulation for the sake of pecuniary or other rewards is hardly unknown amongst our own species; nevertheless, it is genuine often enough that we as a species are still here - how many of us do not love our parents or children, despite the flaws they have? No dog is going to grieve for its owner after his or her passing, even if it shows some frustration that the doggie treats no longer fortuitously appear at the usual hour.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Hell and the Cartel of Good Intentions

Those who aren't looking to pick up a copy of William Easterly's book could do worse than take a look at this Foreign Policy article of his on the foreign aid bureaucracy, which gives a much more critical take on the realities of foreign aid disbursal than one might get reading only the New York Times and assorted advocacy pieces. I think articles like this one ought to be recommended reading for those who tend to mistake the mere fact of having (or, often, simply claiming to have) good intentions for the far too infrequently realized goal of seeing those intentions come to fruition.

One thing that Easterly's article above doesn't get around to mentioning, but which I think important to mention, is that as hard as it may be for a lot of people to believe, it is possible to kill with kindness, even when none of the cynical shenanigans outlined by Easterly come into play. An example of what I'm talking about can be seen in many a historical food aid program. Given a situation in which millions are starving in, say, south-eastern Africa, it is only natural, and thoroughly commendable, that one should seek to help these unfortunate people. Fired up by a genuine and admirable concern for others, activists organize fund-raising efforts, accumulate thousands of tonnes of grain, and ship them off to the starving poor half a world away. The aid is disbursed by yet other selfless souls on the ground in the afflicted region, the immediate problem of mass starvation is solved, and everyone can feel good about what's been achieved. Problem solved, one might think, but one would be wrong, for the end result is that famine returns yet again once the foreigners' attention has waned, and it does so with even greater force than before they arrived!

What rationale could be given for such a development, one might wonder? Is it a matter of fecklessness on the part of the recipients of food aid, or has a curse been laid upon them by some angry deity, which any efforts by men to overcome must ultimately prove futile? No, all that has happened is that the free food aid was so plentiful, and was disbursed for so long, that it completely priced the local farmers out of the market. Fields ceased to be cultivated, farmers drifted off to other occupations or became aid recipients themselves, and all the while no one noticed what was happening behind the photegenic, beaming faces of well-nourished youngsters to be seen in the aid project reports. Once another disaster struck somewhere else in the world, as they always do, and the foreign dole was withdrawn, the destruction of local agriculture that had taken place was suddenly revealed, and - voila! - hunger and desolation returned with a vengeance.

It's tempting for people reading this to imagine that I'm only outlining a hypothetical scenario here, but the truth is far more depressing: just such a chain of events has played itself out not once but several times across the globe. It happened in Somalia in 1992, it happened in India in the 1970s and 1980s, it happened in Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976, and it is still going on in Bangladesh as we speak, with the country's more privileged classes enjoying access to free food (which was given with the intention that it would be destined for the truly indigent) even as native Bangladeshi farmers are deprived of a market for their crops: in a commodity market, how can anyone hope to compete with "free?"

Even as a self-admitted libertarian, I'm not going to claim that all foreign aid is either useless or harmful, as that is clearly not the case, particularly when government participation is excluded to the maximum possible extent on either side; people in rich countries have every right to voluntarily donate their own money and time to helping those who live in poorer nations, while the best and often only way to ensure that foreign aid does any good for those it is ostensibly intended for is to ensure that the assorted political "big men", bureaucratic functionaries and other government parasites looking for baksheesh/cadeaus/dash/mordida have as little say as possible in the means, location and timing of aid dispersal. No, it is a fact that voluntary private party-to-private party foreign aid, if clearly thought through, can do a tremendous amount of good, but the for this to be true, the emphasis must be on the if clearly thought through. In particular, more foreign aid is not always better, at least not for those targeted to benefit from it; for empire-building staffers in aid organizations, the benefits of ever larger sums to play with are not at all in doubt.

Liberals are wont to criticize more tight-fisted types for being "heartless" and "insensitive" to the sufferings of others, but given the way in which most aid is currently being used, it is clear, to me at least, that the greater sin in our day is an excess of "sensitivity" and "compassion", which prevents well-meaning people from holding the distributors of their largesse more to account, and actually demanding a more hard-headed, longer-term accounting of results before agreeing to give more. Any organization that continues returning cap-in-hand, year after year, decade after decade, seeking ever larger sums in aid of the same cause, deserves to be cut off for having failed in the more important mission of attempting to fix the root problem, rather than rewarded for perennial failure with an ever larger budget and an ever higher media profile.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's a link to the actual policy paper on which the Easterly Article that appeared in Foreign Policy was based. Reading through the paper ought to prove an eye-opening experience: contrary to what some might claim, it simply isn't at all "contrary to voluminously documented fact" that "WB projects have a poor record of achieving their project goals." Easterly is a long-time World Bank employee, and as such he's in as good a position as anyone to know the truth about the World Bank's success rate, yet here he is presenting us with detailed evidence, from the World Bank's very own records, that, all spin aside, the successes of that organization have been rare indeed.

It would be nice if alleviating suffering in the developing world were simply a matter of dumping ever larger sums of money into the laps of those who rule them, as that is easy enough to do, provided the necessary political will exists. Unfortunately things aren't that easy - as far as anyone who's looked hard at all the cross-country data can make out, there aren't any cash substitutes for stable government, a functioning judiciary, an honest and tightly-circumscribed bureaucracy, and economic policies that reward entrepreneurial success rather than punish it. All of these things are what make the difference between wealth and poverty, but they're a hell of a lot harder to get right than simply doling out cash.

A Master Salesman of Ideas Which Look Sensible but Aren't

Daniel Davies (aka Dsquared) has a remarkable gift for wrapping terrible ideas up in fetching garb, and it is hard to find a more striking example of this gift on display than in this Crooked Timber post rubbishing World Bank President James Wolfensohn's push for "rights-based lending", i.e, rewarding good government instead of corruption and ineptitude in the lending process.

“Rights Based Lending” is what used to be called “Politicisation of the Aid Process”, but with the cuddly face of a modern humanitiarian intervention. The idea is superficially plausible; that the World Bank should only lend to countries with a good human rights record (or in its stronger form, only to actual democracies). It’s an idea which has a certain amount of support, usually from dissidents in middle-income countries and it appears to be gaining some traction on the soft left in the developed world.

As the title above implies, it’s an idea which looks sensible but isn’t. “Don’t lend to tyrants” is a good slogan, but that fact is that tyrants are the government of a very large proportion of the poorest people in the world. If anyone is seriously advocating rights-based lending, then they have to look through this list and tell us with hand on heart that they think the world would be a better place without some or all of these projects.

In a masterful use of the appeal to emotion, Davies then proceeds to give a laundry list of projects with titles guaranteed to tug at the humanitarian heartstrings of his readers. Nowhere in his writeup do we see any questioning of the notion that just because a project claims as its goal "tuberculosis control in China" or "earthquake-proof houses for the poor" in Algeria, it necessarily means that the money will get used for any such purpose, or that even if it is, the unforeseen negative side-effects of the project won't end up outweighing any good done by it. For Dsquared, one can simply take it for granted that any money lent with good intentions will be used honorably and to good effect. What makes this all the more unfathomable is that he's more than willing to acknowledge that there are severe difficulties in trying to ensure that aid money is responsibly used once disbursed:

The reason that Wolfensohn’s suggestion of a rights-based approach to lending has been opposed by “countries as diverse as the UK and Chile” every time he has mentioned it in the past is that it is a bad idea. In principle, one might be able to design an approach which carried some element of rewards for reforms without making people suffer (although the IMF would be the more obvious vehicle for this, as it makes policy loans to governments rather than project loans). But such an approach would require very careful design of a specific proposal, coupled with the very best possible political will in the world to make it work as a force for human rights rather than an instrument of the foreign policy of the largest World Bank board members. Such a proposal and such political goodwill is entirely lacking at present.

Are we then to proceed on the assumption that such World Bank lending as does presently occur does so without any regard for "the foreign policy of the largest World Bank board members?" This is clearly an absurdly false claim, and we already are living in a state of sin. It is a pipe dream to expect nations with leaders accountable to electorates to lend billions at sub-market rates to other countries, without expecting anything on behalf of their voters in return. Attacking performance-based lending on the basis of a spurious "politicization" is nothing more than a red herring.

The reality of the World Bank's lending, as attested well enough by William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth, is that not only has World Bank lending been underwhelming in its effects on the performance of its recipients, but that the perverse terms under which the World Bank has lent money to poor countries have served to encourage the very unaccountability and tyranny that Davies gives a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders to as simply being one of the givens of life. Nothing is more fungible than raw cash, and when World Bank loans are given to dictators and kleptocrats, they simply free up other funds for looting and for building up the Eternal Leader's state apparatus of terror. Indeed, implicit in Davies' own argument is the idea that rotten Third World governments cannot be counted upon to look after "tuberculosis control", "slum upgrading" and "polio eradication" on their own initiative and without the carrot of aid to prod them into doing so; if Davies believed otherwise, he wouldn't be opposed to rights-based lending. But then the question arises - if you lend General Akasombo $200 million for literacy projects and fail to penalize him for spending it all on marble palaces and whores flown in from Paris, why do you expect that he'll do any better when he comes around asking for the next tranche of $200 million?

William Easterly has done a far more thorough job in his book of outlining the various ways in which institutional lending by the likes of the World Bank have rewarded failure than I could ever do in the space of a single blog entry. I'll make do with saying that the interests of rulers and the ruled aren't always necessarily aligned, and that this is particularly the case when the rulers are tyrants and cliques of thieving oligarchs, and to expect such elites to use foreign loans and aid to pursue policies like mass education and commercial prosperity that might serve to weaken their hold on power is a sign of either extreme stupidity or optimism of a religious quality. If foreign loans were as effective in alleviating suffering as Daniel Davies makes them out to be, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria ought to be veritable paradises by now, but nothing of the sort is true. On the contrary, when we look at the histories of these countries, we see that what foreign loans have made possible is the imposition of even more suffering on those who were intended to benefit from them. Foreign loans financed hare-brained economic and social schemes that would have collapsed far earlier, and with much less ruinous consequences, without the borrowed cash to keep them propped up, and when the "visionaries" who launched these crazy schemes were gone from office, it was their impoverished, illiterate masses who had to bear the burden of servicing all those debts that had been accumulated buying Mercedes Benzes and apartments in London's Knightsbridge and Kensington suburbs.

If Daniel Davies had devoted his talents to pleading for the abolition of all subsidized foreign lending, not only would he proffered a far more effective solution to the problem of "politicization" about which he claims to be so concerned, but he also would be advocating on behalf of a policy proposal that stands a chance of doing far more real good for the suffering poor than the status quo, which despite its beneficial effect in salving the consciences of rich Westerners, actually serves to help keep millions of people in misery, in so far as it gives us a situation where perpetual spendthrifts and paupers like Tanzania get far more aid over the decades than more responsible ones like Taiwan. In a commercial situation, a bank manager who gave bigger and more generous loans to the customers who were known defaulters would soon be out of a job, but we are somehow supposed to believe that the normal rules of incentivization are magically suspended once we turn to government-to-government lending. I say abolish the World Bank and be done with it.

New York Times - A New Way to Combat Online Piracy

The method outlined in this article is guaranteed to fail, and the countermeasures required would be trivial to implement. In fact, I believe that most file-sharing systems have already implemented the solution I have in mind - file hashing.

DOWNLOADING music, movies or software illegally might become less appealing if every third song or film scene was suddenly interrupted by white noise or worse, announcements urging "next time, pay for what you take!"

This "gotcha" technique - circulating flawed or reproving digital copies of songs on the Internet - has been tried in some form by a few pop stars hoping to thwart online music piracy. Two weeks ago, a University of Tulsa professor and a former graduate student of his won a patent for software that analyzes and monitors illegal music swapping on file-sharing networks, and then systematically inserts decoy files into the mix.

Prof. John Hale and Gavin Manes invented a system with decoys that appear real but contain either poor-quality recordings, buzzing or advertisements. The friendliest decoy might hold samples of songs for sale, while the most irritating could cause extremely long download times.

The inventors intend them to frustrate people who infringe copyrights when they take artistic content free from peer-to-peer networks, like the music Web site Kazaa. No longer will they get free-and-clear copies of individual songs or CD's. Instead, they will get corrupted songs filled with random noise and interruptions.

I'm surprised that a computer science professor and a PhD in the subject should be pushing such a worthless scheme; how is their method going to deal with the fact that MD5 and SHA-1 hashes of files are integrated into the file-sharing mechanisms that are most popular? The odds of obtaining a collision (i.e., getting two files to hash to the same value) are only 1 in 264 with MD5, and 1 in 280 with SHA-1, and the alteration of a single bit in a file would be enough to ensure that its hash value would be very different from an unaltered file. Consequently, all it would take to get around this antipiracy measure would be some means of disseminating information as to which hash values are those of reliable files, and which ones aren't; the thing is that there are a multitude of ways in which such things can (and already are) being done, whether through email, through online warez sites, or through IRC channels. The patent of Dr. Hale and Dr. Manes is of essentially zero value - though I wouldn't mind them making a few bucks off the ignorance, greed and fear of the big record companies.

POSTSCRIPT: After a little investigation, I've learnt that Kazaa, which is by far the most popular file-sharing system, only bothers to hash the first 300KB or so of any file, making it trivial to corrupt files that are longer than this without anyone catching on. As a result of the Kazaa programmers' boneheadedness, this antipiracy patent isn't quite as worthless as I thought it would be. Nevertheless, any utility it has will only be fleeting, and the more effective the technique turns out to be, the shorter the period in which it will enjoy success: all the more recent file-sharing networks, like eDonkey and Shareaza, carry out full file hashes, and frustration with Kazaa will only drive its users into the arms of these newer alternatives.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Something else just occurred to me - in this age of broadband connections, what is to stop determined Kazaa users from initiating 5 or 10 simultaneous downloads of different versions of the same file at once? What with the typical music file being between 3-5 MB in length, this wouldn't take very long, and as long as even 1 of the lot was the correct item, the goal would be accomplished, and the rest could then safely be deleted. I think the music companies will find that the technique outlined in this patent will prove a lot more expensive to successfully implement than they might have imagined.