On the Soapbox

Lessons from Suez

Monday, July 31, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis. Marking this anniversary, the July 29th issue of The Economist ran a special feature on this subject, giving its readers a historical refresher while highlighting the parallels that can be drawn. It's an excellent article that I think everyone should read.

In a nutshell, for those who do not wish to read the article, when Egypt's Nasser seized and nationalized the Suez Canal, the British and French viewed the act as threatening and unacceptable. They decided to use military force to retake the canal (there was even hope for a regime change to rid themselves of the troublesome Nasser, who they had compared to Hitler and Mussolini). To avoid international criticism, they accepted Israel's under-the-table offer to invade the Sinai (Israel was looking for a chance to retaliate against Egypt's involvement in Gaza), which would give the British and French an excuse to send in troops to secure stabilize the region and to keep the peace. Israel invaded, the British and French feigned surprise, issued an ultimatum demanding a cease-fire, and then joined the fray. The United States, under the Republican president Eisenhower, demanded that the British and French stop their offensive, and with the threat of withholding reconstruction funds, they succeeded in forcing the British and French to a ceasefire. They then proceeded to call an emergency session of the UN (therefore bypassing the British and French vetoes) and established a UN peacekeeping force to secure the area.

In my opinion, what was most striking about all this is the degree to which things have reversed themselves over the course of these fifty years. Saddam, in many ways, tried to follow in the footsteps of Nasser, and, like Nasser, his critics compared him to Hitler and wished for regime change. Except that in 2003, instead of the French wishing for an invasion and regime change, it was the United States, and instead of the United States opposing military action, it was the French. In 1956, the United States masterfully used the UN to resolve the problem, and in 2003, the United States more or less brushed aside and dismissed the UN. In 1956, it was the French and British who sided with Israel and it was the United States who opposed the Israeli invasion; of course, in 2006, the opposite is true. And while the United States were allergic to imperialistic notions in 1956, it is often accused of such today.

So what had changed? Perhaps it was the fifty years of superpower status? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and as a nation, it may be that the United States had forgotten the sorts of principles that it once cherished. Have those who support the American troop presence in the Middle East forgotten how violently allergic colonial Americans were to British troops in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War? Or perhaps the shift over the past fifty years was the result of the Cold War, where we took on a quasi-imperialistic agenda in order to thwart the spread of Communism (opposing the spread of Soviet Communism was good, but we may have allowed our principles to be compromised in our zeal). Or perhaps it is the resurgence in American politics of the more bellicose and fundamentalist South over the past fifty years (with its virtual takeover of the GOP) after having been marginalized after the Civil War. Or perhaps nothing really has changed, and the Iraqi invasion of 2003 and the opposition to an Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire in the past two weeks are simply the result of a misguided (and clueless) leader who has obviously not learned much from history.

This entry was edited on 2006/07/31 at 20:15:37 GMT -0400.

Label Politics

Friday, July 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Last weekend, I heard a wonderful interview on the radio where a professor of political science was discussing the results of his research.

It would appear that in the United States, "conservative" is a more popular and desirable label than "liberal". This has been true for "as far back as [is] capable of tracing with the data." So we live in a country where people aspire to conservatism and values commonly associated with conservatism. This is not surprising, but what was really fascinating is what happened when the researchers asked their subjects what positions they hold on a range of issues. For people who identify themselves as "liberal", 3% of them held issue/policy positions that were mostly conservative. However, for people who identify themselves as "conservative", nearly a quarter of them held mostly liberal policy positions. This would suggest that, because the conservative label is more desirable and is what more people associate with "American values", people will label themselves as "conservative" without any clue as to what this actually translates to in policy. Whereas people who are liberal are going against the grain in terms of labeling and thus have would be more likely to have actually thought out their positions before labeling themselves as such.

The interviewee then goes deeper with his analysis. The other side of this issue is how the Republicans have been exploiting this tendency to associate "American values" with "conservative". They have tried--successfully--to claim certain values as their own and to associate such values, such as "patriotism" and "hard work" with "conservative". This creates a false dichotomy as it is certainly not the case that all Republicans are patriots and that all Democrats are not (if anything, flaunting the Constitution Bush-style is quite unpatriotic) and it is certainly not the case that conservatives are all hard workers while liberals are not (think of Bush and his long, lazy vacations and of the rich who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth). This is also why the Republicans tend to focus on broad strokes and labels in their rhetoric. They talk about "freedom", "patriotism", and "family values" because they have been able to associate these labels with themselves and with "conservatism", and as such, they are able to avoid substance and rely on such sweeping and lofty labels to prop up their positions. This may explain why the Democrats often talk wonkishly about policy while the Republicans often fire back with broad-stroked attacks involving "too liberal", "patriotism", or "hard-working Americans".

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that can be solved easily. Average Americans are not very bright and have little understanding of government and politics. The problem is as much Republicans distorting politics as it is Joe Sixpack--who is more concerned about voting for trash shows like American Idol than voting for government--having no idea what is going on, and thus allowing a quarter of "conservatives" to confuse themselves. And of course, the group that really gets screwed by this are the libertarians; how many Joe Sixpacks will label themselves as "libertarian" (how many even know what the word means?). It is times like this that I question of wisdom of allowing the masses vote for President; I know this is blasphemous, but the Electoral College, in its original form, might not have been that bad of an idea after all...

And speaking of Electoral College, I'm going to finish this post off by going off-topic and pointing out this article, which proposes a fix for the Electoral College. Instead of the electors from each state informally agreeing to toss in their vote for whoever won the state, they'll just agree to toss in their vote to whoever won the national popular vote. And thus, through an informal agreement not too unlike the existing agreement, we can essentially eliminate the Electoral College without revising the Constitution or doing anything Draconian. Not only will this eliminate anomalies such as where Gore loses the election that he won, but it will also give Massachusetts Republicans and Kansas Democrats a voice that they haven't had. I think it's a marvelous idea; if the President is going to be elected by popular vote, then we might as well do it right by implementing a system like this!

This entry was edited on 2006/07/28 at 14:43:39 GMT -0400.

The Electric Car

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics

There is a new documentary movie this summer titled Who Killed the Electric Car? Although I have not seen it, I did see the trailer for it, and I have been reading about it in the news media (e.g., at CNN). It's a big conspiracy theory movie, and I'm not sure I'm sold on their claims. Of course, I should reserve full judgment until after seeing the actual film, but here are some of my preliminary concerns:

1) As we have witnessed in recent weeks, our power infrastructure is severely strained. In California, the problem is generation capacity. And throughout the country, but especially in the east, the problem is transmission capacity. Forget about the hassles and logistics of adding new power plants; just upgrading the existing $1-trillion electrical transmission infrastructure with millions of miles of wiring to handle the enormous extra load that electrical cars would generate would not be trivial in either time or money.

2) Batteries are imperfect devices. How efficient are these batteries that are used, and how long will they last?

3) While Americans have not exactly been the greenest people on this planet, there are other wealthy industrialized nations that are much more environmentally conscious. Why hasn't there much in the way of electrical car development in Europe or Japan?

4) While electrical cars may be more efficient and environment-friendly (yes, there is pollution associated with electrical generation, but it will be concentrated and easier to deal with) than gasoline cars, the real standard that should be used is whether or not they are that much better in terms of efficiency and practicality than the other green alternatives, like hybrids or hydrogen fuel cells. Hybrids are nice in that they achieve a large efficiency gain without any infrastructure requirements.

5) Did they really kill the EV1 because of some evil conspiracy, or was it killed out of purely economic concerns, such as the worry that not enough people would buy it to justify manufacturing and support costs?

In the end, I still think that the best solution is massive gasoline taxes to address the issue of the unpriced petrol externality. I think we may finally be getting to the point where Americans are finally starting to let go of the absurd notion that cheap gasoline is some sort of basic human right, which would make European-style gas taxes possible. And once that's in place, the market will take care of the rest. In the meantime, this is an interesting--albeit a bit off-topic--article from the July issue of the Scientific American.

Emperor Jobs Strikes Again

Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Keywords: Technology

It is often popular to describe Bill Gates and Microsoft as evil and to cast Gates in the image of a Borg leader or Microsoft in the image of the Evil Empire. Yet, in the process of poking fun at Darth Gates, people often forget the cloaked figure quietly looming in the background--Steve Jobs.

As I have detailed in an older post, Jobs and Apple are far from angelic, and by many measures are much worse than Microsoft. They exert tight controls over their software and hardware, they overprice their products, they are litigation-happy (just ask the person who wrote a book about Jobs titled iCon; do you see Bush suing the scores of liberal authors who write books about him?), they are deceptive (unfair benchmarking, and have you seen those recent deceptive anti-PC ads about the hassles of PC drivers?), and they try to leverage anti-competitive market power whenever possible (e.g., iPod interoperability).

More recently, however, they have been leading Intel around on a leash. Dell has been a loyal Intel-only customer for as long as they have existed. Apple, on the other hand, was waging anti-Intel marketing campaigns just a few year ago. Dell sells huge volumes of Intel chips and places Intel's beloved "Intel Inside" stickers on its products. Apple sells relatively low volumes of Intel chips and refuses to place "Intel Inside" stickers on any of their products. Apple even launched an controversial ad early this year--without Intel's approval--describing PCs with Intel chips as boring little boxes that angered Intel's PC partners. So how has Intel rewarded Apple for their troublesome behavior? By allowing Apple to be the first to launch Intel's Yonah (Core Duo) chips early this year. That was over half a year ago. Intel will officially launch its new Conroe (Core 2 Duo) chips later this week. These chips have been shipping to various computer manufacturers and retail outlets for some time now, so they should have these chips in stock and ready come the launch date on July 27. However, it has recently been revealed that Intel has forbidden them to sell any of the chips with the exception of the ultra-high-end $1000 versions until August 7. This is in stark contrast with Intel's plan earlier this month, which was for a general availability launch on July 23. How odd, you might say, for Intel to put off general shipment of its most anticipated chip ever for nearly two weeks even though everything should be in place. Well, August 7 is also the date of Steve Jobs' keynote at Apple's developer conference, WWDC, where he is widely expected to announce the new Mac Pro computers with Intel's new Conroe (or Woodcrest) chips. Of course, this may very well be nothing more than just a coincidence. But given history, it seems unlikely. So in order to give Jobs the honor of being the first to launch Conroe-based computers and in order to help that megalomaniac inflate his already overblown ego, Intel has ordered all of its loyal retail partners to hold off on selling the new chips until the Apple launch.

I should note that not all the fault falls on Apple. Intel's CEO needs to grow a backbone; anyone who saw a video of the Core Duo launch early this year would be struck at how timidly Intel's CEO acted next to Jobs when presenting the new Intel chips to Jobs like an obedient fetching puppy. Intel should recognize that Apple is one of their smallest customers and that it is not wise to snub its larger customers (who are also more cooperative--though that may just be the problem) in order to favor Apple. Perhaps Intel should learn from IBM (the previous chipmaker to be caught in an abusive relationship with Apple)...

In the end, most people do not see Apple as evil, simply because, unlike Microsoft, Apple has not been successful and strong enough to exert its power. But as Apple grows in popularity and market share, people will see begin to see why Microsoft's triumph over Apple may have been a godsend. ;)

Edit: This is a good "what-if" read...

This entry was edited on 2006/08/23 at 00:15:16 GMT -0400.

What does Israel seek to gain?

Saturday, July 22, 2006
Keywords: Politics

The coverage of the latest Middle East conflict has been plastered with cheesy sensationalism, like the bolded all-caps CNN.com headline of "Bombs and Tears" that persisted for a few days and the focus on the great nail-biting escape of Westerners from Lebanon. But there doesn't seem to be much said about what Israel hopes to accomplish...

Are they trying to disarm Hezbollah and Hamas? Their official line and their sending of ground forces would suggest this. But recall that Israel had occupied southern Lebanon for many years (it is even the reason why Hezbollah was founded) and during those years, they have failed to destroy Hezbollah. Do they seriously expect that re-occupying that area would allow them to accomplish what they have been unable to do in the past? Likewise, do they think that ground forces in Gaza would stop Hamas, considering that Hamas prospered through the Israeli occupation of Gaza?

Are they trying to get local governments to disarm these groups? The Lebanese government is, at best, weak, following the end of the Syrian occupation and the end of the long Lebanese civil war. They are in no shape to do anything about Hezbollah. Israel seems to acknowledge this, however, as they have made it clear that they do not expect the Lebanese government to be of much help in disarming Hezbollah. As for Hamas, when Arafat was in power, he was unable to control Hamas and their militias. Israel had tried many of the same tactics: sending in troops, punishing the government, etc., but the end result has always been the same: the Palestinian government remains impotent in dealing with the militias, and Israel is unable to stem the violence. Now that the Palestinian authority has a relatively weaker and more divided leadership and government, they are in an even worse position to deal with these mostly independent militiamen; it has been reported in the news that even Hamas itself is divided and that not all of its elements heed the words of its political leadership.

Are they trying to drum up international support and get pressure placed against Hezbollah and Hamas? The international community had long ago called for the disarmament of Hezbollah (complete with a UN Resolution and what little good that did) and there was already pressure on Hamas to moderate. If anything, the recent conflict is turning international opinion against them. The leaders of the Arab world have condemned Hezbollah, but these are mere words, and the people still overwhelmingly support Hezbollah.

Are they trying to send a message that they will not stand by and let themselves be attacked? If so, when has such a gesture ever deterred an irrational people who are willing to die for their cause?

In the end, the thing that bothers me about all this is the bleakness of the outlook, as I'm not sure that what they are doing will bring them any bit closer to neutralizing Hezbollah, and at the same time, it is destabilizing a fledging moderate democracy (a rarity in the Middle East), and we all know what destabilized Middle Eastern governments will produce... Did they learn anything from their 1982 invasion of Lebanon?

This entry was edited on 2006/07/22 at 23:03:43 GMT -0400.

Microsoft's Contribution to Spam

Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Keywords: Technology

While investigating the comment spam problem, I did a random sample of IP addresses and found that every one of those from my sample is under the jurisdiction of APNIC (i.e., they are physically located in the Asia-Pacific region). My first thought was, "okay, so all the spam is coming from Asia; that's no big surprise." In a region where the rule of law is weak at best and where shady businesses such as counterfeiting is the norm, this was no surprise. But what intrigued me was that the variety of addresses. The same spammer would have access to dozens of varied IP addresses across different blocks. This shouldn't be surprising. In this day and age, spammers have become more sophisticated; they no longer use their own machines to do their dirty work. They will infect other machines and use these "zombie botnets" to send spam. Not only does this increase their available bandwidth and capacity, it also makes shutting them down much more difficult as it defeats the tactic used a few years ago of blocking select IP addresses.

The question is thus no longer so much a question of why Asians are spammers (after all, how many Asians have even heard of Texas Hold 'Em--the subject of a recent burst of spam?) but a question of why so many Asian machines are compromised and under the yoke of a spammer (who may not necessarily be Asian). Which brings us to Microsoft. In Asia, estimates place the number of pirated Windows installations somewhere around 90% of the installed base; it is virtually impossible to buy a computer with a legitimate copy of Windows in China (I know from experience). This is not surprising given the relatively high price of Windows and given Microsoft's weak token efforts to stop piracy there (they are more focused on richer countries; they know that people in poorer countries can't afford Windows and Gates has admitted that piracy is effective in protecting Windows' market share against free operating systems like Linux in such price-sensitive markets). Although Microsoft unofficially and quietly condones piracy in places such as Asia and Russia, their official condemnation of such activity means that the copies of Windows in that region are relatively insecure. Updates such as SP2 won't install, and thanks to their pushing things like WGA through automatic updates, it is common practice for Automatic Updates to be turned off. The result is a massive population of unpatched, insecure systems in Asia. Coupled with the relatively impotent ISPs and network-level security, this leads to an army of compromised machines used by criminals to send spam and launch DDOS attacks.

In the meantime, I've finished hacking up new anti-spam measures for this blog; let's hope they hold...

Smarter Spammers

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Keywords: kBlog, Technology

Sigh.

Blog spam used to be only a minor nuisance. From the very beginning, there were attempts at comment spam, as indicated by my server logs. Fortunately, incompetent spamming software coupled with a bit of security by obscurity (since I'm like the only person using the kBlog blogging platform) shielded me. Of course, that didn't hold for long, since not all spamming bots are so incompetently written...

But even then, it was easy to deal with, since all I needed to do was filter by technical heuristics, such as the use of HTTP/1.0 (commonly used by bots/scripts, but not by real browsers), whether redirects are properly followed, and whether auxiliary files like CSS and images are accessed (as real browser would do, but not most bots). Well, at least, these filtering heuristics used to work.

These bots are now smart enough to emulate real browsers in every way, from the use of HTTP/1.1 to the downloading of images and CSS files. Also, in the past few days, I've been hammered by comment spammers (they used to come by only occassionally). The spam would come in bursts, and during these bursts, the rate of attempts could be as high as one per second. This leaves me in the undesirable position of being forced to address comment spamming through content filtering. And we all know what a hornet's nest that is...

The irony of it all...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Keywords: Politics

It seems that while everyone is focusing on Bush's use of "shit", most people are overlooking the true gaffe: See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over. This misuse of language is probably much more revealing of Bush's nature than his mild cursing. :) It is also amusing to see the media act like the stereotypical child who utters, "Oooh, you used a bad word! I'm telling!"