Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Thoughts on the State of the Union Address

Just a few thoughts on President Bush's State of the Union address:

I was pleased to hear the argument against isolationism, both in terms of the war on terror and in economic terms. It's sad that it took over two years for the president to be able to clearly explain the rationale for the war in Iraq, which I think he did quite well in an Oval Office speech a back in December.

The calls for civility and bipartisanship rang hollow to me. After the last five years in office, the president and the Republican party in general have consistently sidelined the Democrats. Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff went to certainly unethical and in all likelihood illegal lengths to consolidate power. And Karl Rove, the political genius who wins at all cost, is still the top political advisor. So why the sudden effort at bipartisan comity? I can't help but think it's some kind of Rovian trick. I don't trust Rove and I don't trust that many people in the GOP leadership. If it were John McCain or Orrin Hatch or even Newt Gingrich, I would be more inclined to believe it.

My guess is that Rove is trying to drive home to the public that the Democrats don't want to participate in governing by feigning bipartisan spirit while ramming legislation down the Democrats throats. When the Democrats object and refuse to go along with the charade, then they're the ones acting partisan. The CBS commentators bought right in to this, saying how Bush had extended an olive branch and it was up to the Democrats to decide whether to take it.

I still think the best thing the Democrats could do is to pick some issues of their own, NOT the ones the President is focusing on, and make clearly thought out, detailed and very moderate proposals. Be the first to initiate the discussion. Try to win the center and win over moderate Republican politicians and voters. Most likely the proposals will fail, but at least they can build up a record over time of producing sound, moderate ideas that get sunk by the extreme conservatives in the Republican party. Such a strategy could help in the next few rounds of elections. At least it should certainly beat just being the party of "NO!". (See my comment on Cohen's blog for more on this topic.)

I was surprised that the President said we are "addicted to oil." That's not a statement one would have expected from a Republican president just a short time ago, when people like Vice President Cheney were saying that conservation is a virtue. Now, I don't know how much teeth the president's proposal will have, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Whoever can come up with a good proposal for home-grown energy source, through better solar and wind technology as well as biomass as the president suggested, could come up with a winner. Farmers would be delighted if demand for crops skyrocketed because they became a fuel source. And we could tell the Middle East to screw off. We'd be helping address global warming. There's nothing to lose.

I didn't buy any of the budget cuts or tax cut talk. He said people didn't expect temporary tax cuts to end. Um, isn't that why they're called temporary? And I think we have to get the deficit under control. Balancing the budget and paying down the debt was one of Bill Clinton's greatest achievements and one that should have been celebrated and continued by the Republicans who used to talk about fiscal responsibility.

I think I agree with the president on the guest worker program. As much as we want to delude ourselves, our economy depends on illegal immigrants who build and maintain a huge number of our buildings and facilities. We can't and shouldn't seal off the border, but instead we should make it easy and legal for people to contribute to the economy.

It was striking how little the president said about God or faith. He only used the word "God" twice, saying "God-given dignity" and "God bless America". Faith-based groups were mentioned just once, in reference to helping reduce AIDS in the African-American community. Only brief mention was made to gay marriage in reference to judicial activism. Abortion was only mentioned by reporting it to be happening less than it did thirty years ago, with abstinence education being listed as a contributing reason. But other than that, the hard-core Christian bloc of the GOP got nothing. I can't say I'm surprised, though. I've believed since before the last election that the Republican Party has been using Christian conservatives for their votes and money, but have had no intention to actually given them any substantial policy programs in return. Can you name one piece of major legislation or executive action that has been a goal of the Christian Right? Other than pushing out sex education with abstinence education, I can't think of anything. Remember the big push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage?

Overall, good speech, especially by Bush standards. I'm skeptical about how much effort will actually be put into a lot of the policy initiatives and I don't trust his words about bipartisanship but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. You never know what you'll get out of a president who doesn't have to run for office again, especially when he doesn't have an heir apparent.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas, Legitimacy, and Democratic Peace Theory

The big news today was that Hamas has won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislative elections. Given that Hamas is a terrorist organization with its own militia, it has been interesting to see the world's response to their victory. We've placed so much value in free democratic elections that you have to wonder what happens "when the bad guys win". Many Bush-haters probably expected the president to try to quash the election, but in his news conference today, he expressed his unease that the Palestinians elected terrorists, but he also spoke highly of the fact that the Palestinians were able to hold a free and fair election.

As much havoc as Hamas has wreaked, I actually think that there is some benefit to come out of their election. First of all, it removes much of the corrupt old Fatah politicians who have never really accomplished anything. But more importantly, it places the people who actually have power in power. Hamas is widely admired among the Palestinians and they have been a force to be reckoned with. But since they were outside the government, they never had to be responsible for their actions. Before, if their forces attacked, it was an act of terrorism. Now, they are the government, and an attack is an act of war.

Stratfor's Morning Intelligence Report (sorry, it's subscription, can't link to it) alluded to this, saying that
it was in Hamas' interest to remain neck-and-neck with Fatah in the election: Its members realize that they need Fatah to remain the lead player in the PNA's dealings with the global community. With Hamas now in the lead, its heightened political legitimacy puts its ability to resist disarming at risk.
In the past, the Palestinian Authority could always claim that it could not control other militant groups when they attacked. Whether or not this was actually true is irrelevant; the point was that they had deniability. Now that the main militant group is in legitimate power, they can no longer use this excuse. The election has served to clarify the will of the Palestinian people, which may make the situation more straightforward. It might be easier to negotiate with a Hamas-led government because they have the power and the control of most of the militants. And if Hamas should choose confrontation, Israel should have no guilt fighting back because the freely elected Palestinian government is reflecting the will of the people.

All of this makes you think twice about democratic peace theory (the definition of which seems to be under dispute on Wikipedia). Basically, the hypothesis is that democracies don't fight each other. The reason is not clear, but they just haven't done so in history. I would venture to guess that it's because all the democracies have been either from the same political culture and are either separated by large distances (think USA, Australia, and now India) or grouped together while facing a larger enemy (think Europe in the Cold War). But when two peoples are starkly opposed to each other, a democratically elected government will reflect that hostility towards the other. There seems to be the assumption that wars are only because of conflicts between the elites. That often does happen, but it's not the only cause. Large demographic and societal clashes can lead entire peoples into conflict with each other.

So if democratic peace theory is not always true, what is one to do? Not much, just realize while that spreading democracy is generally a good thing, it will not always produce friendly governments. However, whether friendly or hostile, at least a democratically elected government can reasonably be expected to represent its people's will and thus is the legitimate party with which to negotiate or fight.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Time to break some kneecaps next time I'm in NYC

After a fun weekend with the guys in NYC celebrating Thomas's birthday, I walked down from Cohen's apartment on 25th Street to find my car looking like this:

Some asshole crunched the side of my car as it was parked on the street. Damaged both doors on the driver's side as well as the fender. The jerk didn't even have the courtesy to leave a note. Haven't had it appraised yet, but it's definitely blowing through the deductable. Goddamn New Yorkers.

The "CSI" Effect

Goe sent me this link today about the effect CBS's CSI is having on jurors. The article says that the show has influenced how jurors view evidence in court cases. In particular, they are demanding definitive forensic evidence, despite the fact that most cases don't have that luxury. This came on the heels of our conversation last night about the effect 24 has on people, convincing them that terrorist plots are always twenty-four hour ticking bombs where the terrorists' identities are always known and they use each other's names on the phone. My claim was that stories like 24 are what people use to justify torture (see my earlier post on this topic).

But when you think about it, haven't stories, whether on television, radio, books, or just poems passed down orally always done this? When people don't have first hand experience with something, they rely on what they hear in stories. Nothing unusual about that, there's no way anyone could have first hand knowledge of everything. It's just important to recognize that stories are just that, and are not always accurate representations of reality. Doesn't make them any less entertaining or relevant. I'm sure there are lots of examples through the ages. The first that came to mind was the story of the fall of Satan as told in John Milton's Paradise Lost. How many people actually believe his accounts of Heaven and Hell are spiritual truths, when in fact it's just a story?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

New Books

Just finished a few books and getting started on a fresh batch. The newly completed ones are:

The Sea by John Banville
Disenchanted Night by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

The Sea was interesting, kinda depressing, but the narrator's description of the loss of his wife was fascinating, especially to someone who's lost a loved one. Disenchanted Night was really cool, describing the social history of artificial light as it went from candles to gas lights to electric light during the nineteenth century.

This round:

One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Tony will be pleased with this one)
Mathematics and the Physical World by Morris Kline

Blogger Spellchecker Sucks

When spell checking the GPS camera post, the spell checker didn't recognize the word "Google" "blog" or even "webpage". Are they using a dictionary from the 19th century? Shouldn't a website that hosts blogs be able to recognize their own name?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

GPS Digital Cameras

I was listening to the podcast of an episode of On Point in which they were talking about the "geospatial web" where information is tagged and distributed by information. There's been a lot talked and written about this topic, especially with all the great Google Maps mashups, Google Earth, and the competing Microsoft and Yahoo products.

I was talking to Raudel the other day, and he was thinking about improving his motorcyle road trip webpage by putting together an online photo album that geo-referenced images on Google Maps. He has to backfill the coordinates with his GPS track, though, because like most cameras, his doesn't have built in GPS. Wouldn't it be cool if they did? After all, cell phones have GPS, why not cameras? So far, the only one I can find is the Ricoh Caplio Pro G3 but even its GPS is an external card that plugs in. There are a lot of posts on blogs out there saying this same thing, so my guess is that it's just a matter of time, as development cycles do take a little time.

There are a couple drawbacks to GPS, in particular it will not always work inside buildings. But as long as it is continuously in contact with the GPS, even when it's "off", it could always just use its last known position.

What would be really cool is if the camera could also know which direction it was pointed. GPS can't tell you that, but if you could shrink a magnetometer enough to fit in a camera, you could get your magnetic heading. Unfortunately, the only ones I can find are at minimum 0.75" by 1.5". Perhaps an opportunity for MEMS manufacturers? But you also have to deal with magnetic interference, which in a compact device like a camera could be difficult.

Or, an alternative would be some variation on a direction finder. In the aviation world, there are old navigation devices called Automatic Direction Finders, or ADF. These point towards a non-directional beacon and give you your bearing to the station. In flight, they're not as useful as a VOR because of crosswinds. I've never used one before, and it's hard to find planes that have them anymore. But, using the principle of the ADF, you might be able to determine your heading.

If you tune in to just one station, you know your relative bearing to that station, i.e. it's 30 degrees to the left of straight ahead. If you know its position and your own position from GPS, then you can calculate the true bearing. Say, the station 270 degree (due West) of us. If the station is 30 degrees to the left of straight ahead, then we must be pointing at 300 degrees. Or, if you tune to two stations, you can skip the GPS and triangulate your position. Now, using aviation NDBs on the ground isn't really an option, but you could certainly use TV broadcast towers, cell phone towers, WiFi hotspots, or anything else that broadcasts from a fixed position. In fact, some cell phones triangulate position from nearby towers. Just add in relative bearing, and you've got yourself a heading.

Now, the next trick is to figure out the vertical angle. Perhaps a miniature accelerometer? Hard to think that would work for a device that would get moved and tossed about as much as a camera, but of course you usually try to hold the camera steady when taking a picture. It might just work...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Learning the Piano

As part of my effort to expand my number of skills (already including bow hunting skills and computer hacking skills), I'm taking up the piano. I actually started a couple years ago in college, when I took 21M.051 and Devjit was teaching me some, but I never had the time to devote to it. But now that I'm a lame, single, working man, I have all the time in the world! To get started, I ordered a keyboard, the Casio PX-100 with CS-55 stand (shown left). It's got 88 weighted keys and a pretty simple set of features, which is all that I need. Should arrive soon. :)

My ultimate goal, many years or decades down the road, is to be able to play (or at least sight read) all of Chopin's nocturnes, Schubert's Impromptu in G Flat Major (which Kevin plays these days), and Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 in C Minor "Pathetique". It will probably take a long time to get to that point, but it will be fun. Oh, and if anyone knows of any good piano teachers in the Boston/Cambridge area, please let me know.

On the theme of music, Raudel pointed me to a really cool website, called The Sheet Music Archive, where they have a large collection of public domain sheet music available for download. Unfortunately you can only download 2 pieces per day, but they are selling their entire collection on CD-ROM for $20. I might have to order that, even though it's all probably out of my league at this point.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Glorifying Sophistication

I think I read some article over the holidays referring to a "sophisticated device", probably related to the military, but I can't remember. It got me thinking, though, about how we tend to glorify sophistication in the things we engineer. Why do we equate "sophisticated" with "better", especially in harsh applications like warfare or safety critical applications like medicine or aviation?

It seems to me that in an environment where reliability, maintainability, and ease of use are paramount, "sophisticated" is bad. I would tend to prefer "dirt simple" as a positive adjective. Perhaps the obsession with sophisticated fanciness is what leads to bloated, expensive aircraft like the F-22. Contrast that with the A-10, one of the cheapest but most powerful and reliable warplanes ever made. Perhaps the best example, though, is the infamous AK-47 rifle, one of the most simple, reliable, easy to maintain, and thus ubiquitous weapons on the planet.

Of course, there are plenty of counter-examples where sophistication has its merits. Computer chips are the first thing to come to mind. But integrated circuits can also be seen to have simplified computing because they are cheap to mass produce, have no moving parts, and are easy to replace. Another example might be GPS, which uses Einstein's theory of relativity. However, GPS is also a system that has overall reduced the complexity to the user, by reducing the complexity of navigation, removing the need for ground-based systems, and proving more reliable than any other system.

Perhaps the metrics that we should use when evaluating the "goodness" of some technology, especially in critical applications, is "net simplicity". This metric would accumulate the simplicity or complexity of the entire life-cycle of technology, from manufacture, use, repair, replacement, and disposal. A new technology should have a net lower complexity than its predecessor, but the individual complexity distribution may shift. Take AM and FM radio as an example. FM is more complicated to understand and produce than AM, but when equipment mass produced, it is just as simple to build and maintain, and actually uses less power than AM. Or, in the case of software than analyzes some data, it may use more difficult or complicated algorithms in the back end, but to the end user it makes the data easier to understand. A good spreadsheet that takes a large table of data and plots it into an easy to interpret graph is a pretty basic example.

So, the conclusion from this rant is that sophistication is not a bad thing, but it should not be an end goal in and of itself. Instead, the goal should be net simplicity. The sooner we realize that, the better we can engineer things that will actually work reliably in the field instead of being finicky lab toys or expensive wastes of money.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Google Talk rocks the casbah

Just used Google Talk's telephone feature for the first time. Absolutely amazing. Crystal clear audio, no feedback, extremely high quality sound. I'm very impressed. Unfortunately, everyone I know uses AIM, so more people need to add it to their instant messanger clients. However soon Google Talk will be able to communicate with AIM as part of a deal recently signed between Google and AOL. Not sure what the time frame on that is, but I'm looking forward to it.