On the Soapbox

Those Who Cannot Remember...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Donald Rumsfeld said today that those who oppose the Bush Administration's war in Iraq "seem not to have learned history's lessons." He specifically referred to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930's, comparing our resistance against the war in Iraq to Chamberlain's policy towards Hitler. With Rumsfeld echoing Santayana's famous "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," the apropos retort would be, "Those who misinterpret and misapply the lessons of the past are condemned to make even worse blunders."

Rumsfeld's analogy of the anti-war sentiment to British appeasement is flawed in that, before the destabilizing invasion, Iraq was not a source of terrorism. A failure to pursue al-Qaeda would be appeasement, not a failure to pursue Saddam. It should be noted that many in the CIA believe that Rumsfeld's early preoccupation with Iraq in 2001 resulted in insufficient resources and troops for Afghanistan and the subsequent failure to capture top al-Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora. In a way, this obsession with Iraq instead of the real targets has resulted in us giving our modern-day "Hitler" quite a helping hand.

So what is the correct analogy, if there is one? Our war in Iraq has effectively amounted to something that would have been analogous to us going to war with the Soviet Union in the 1930's: Hitler would have been delighted at the prospect of the Allies exhausting their resources fighting an enemy that (at the time) posed no threat to the Allies and that was not closely aligned with Hitler. Not only has Iraq weakened us, Rumsfeld's foolhardy invasion of Iraq has created a breeding ground for new terrorists where none existed before. It is still not a perfect analogy (as perfectly analogous situations are really quite rare in history), but it is certainly a better one than what Rumsfeld is proposing. Methinks Rumsfeld would have done poorly with the SAT's analogies.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/29 at 23:48:48 GMT -0400.

Fun with Google Trends

Saturday, August 26, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Oh my, this is such a fun toy.

Perl vs. Python. Now you know which language rules supreme! Note that Python has an unfair advantage in that its trendline also includes people looking for snakes and Monty Python. Unfortunately, the direction of the trends is a bit worrisome. Here's to Parrot/Perl6!

Slashdot vs. Digg. This is unfortunate. Digg users are often ill-informed, immature, and very knee-jerk. Not that Slashdot's mob is much better, but at least the mob doesn't rule with such impunity at Slashdot.

Windows vs. Linux vs. FreeBSD vs. Mac. Ick. Especially how the Mac is creeping up...

iPod vs. Porn. iPods may have surpassed booze in popularity on college campuses according to a recent survey, but at least it hasn't surpassed porn... yet. Am I the only one who's worried about this unhealthy obsession that our society has with iPods?

Bush vs. Kerry. It's interesting to see the huge drop-off after elections.

Wordpress vs. LiveJournal. The trends are moving in the right direction... *ducks*

Wordpress vs. LiveJournal vs. Blog vs. MySpace. On the other hand, once you toss MySpace into the picture, you get a much more terrifying and sobering trend. This is disgusting. Look at how it even outstrips blogs in general.

Firebird vs. Firefox vs. Perl vs. Apache. Witness the name-change from Firebird to Firefox (the Phoenix->Firebird name change can't be mapped because it's out of the time frame and because Phoenix is also a major city name) and Firefox displacing the greatest success of open source, Apache (I think Apache's the only major open-source product to have well over a 50% share of its market, no?).

iPod vs. MySpace vs. Porn vs. Bush vs. Microsoft. And finally, the big show-down. *shudders* That MySpace trendline is really creepy.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/26 at 13:50:10 GMT -0400.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Someone directed my attention to these products listed at ThinkGeek; there are even "action shots". I think it's hilarious; I've never thought of HTTP response codes in that way before. But now that I look back at the list of HTTP response codes with my mind in a gutter mindset, there are actually quite a few of them that are open to devious readings, including:

202 Accepted
300 Multiple Choices (think about that one...)
400 Bad Request
401 Unauthorized
402 Payment Required
405 Method Not Allowed
406 Not Acceptable
414 Request-URI Too Long (see page 69 of the HTTP/1.1 specs)
416 Requested Range Not Satisfiable
417 Expectation Failed
502 Bad Gateway
503 Service Unavailable

Speaking of the kinky, this Wall Street Journal op-ed about the "fertility gap" is worth reading.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/23 at 18:26:44 GMT -0400.

I'm trying to figure this out...

Sunday, August 20, 2006
Keywords: none

There was a beautiful full-page color ad in the August 19 issue of The Economist that I received yesterday. "All great truths begin as blasphemies", it claims. And what blasphemy is this? "[A] technology that produces free, clean and constant energy." Riiiiight. This company, named Steorn, is now inviting scientists to test their technology, basically daring academia to prove them wrong. This is also starting to generate a buzz in the news.

So what the heck are they doing?! A full-page color ad in a publication like that is not cheap (only big corporations use full-page color ads in The Economist; most ads are black-and-white), so they must feel like that they could get something out of it. But what? They know that their challenge will fail, and there is no product to sell and profit from. It doesn't look like a scam because it doesn't appear that they are asking people for money, and even then, they'd have to make a lot off of this con to make up for the costs that they've incurred. A writer at the Houston Chronicle suggests that this may be a publicity stunt to show off this company's marketing and buzz-generating prowess. But this is a demonstration of how the public reacts to something so outrageous and not one of marketing brilliance; what, is this company going to make ads for various products that try to draw attention by claiming perpetual motion?

Or maybe they're just incredibly confused and stupid and actually believe what they're spewing out...

This entry was edited on 2006/08/20 at 17:04:42 GMT -0400.

Orrin Hatch on Stem Cells

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I never thought that I'd say this, but Orrin Hatch makes a pretty good argument towards the end of the first half of this video. The first half of this video is about stem cell research, and Mr. Hatch did a surprisingly good job (for a conservative Republican) of smacking down the anti-stem-cell guy. In any case, it's a video worth watching.

Too Much Security?

Saturday, August 12, 2006
Keywords: Politics

As reported by C|Net, the New York Times, and the BBC, the new flight restrictions in the UK extend beyond just a ban on liquids, but a ban on just about any sort of carry-on item, including cell phones, laptops, and even newspapers. The NYT article mentions people who were forced to discard cell phones and iPods because there was no time before the flight departure to check in those items. Thankfully, the US has so far been more sensible about this and has limited the restrictions to just liquids.

There are several problems with the UK's approach. First, not everything should be checked in. Sensitive electronic equipment and fragile objects are not things that should be checked in. This also includes valuables, which up to this point, airlines have recommended carrying on due to the risk of damage or loss of checked items. And in today's digital age where laptops can often carry sensitive information (like those government laptops with sensitive data that were lost, or in my case, where my laptop contains an archive of a decade of personal correspondence), there are things that people will simply not feel comfortable letting out of sight.

Second, there is a problem of diminishing returns to security. There are only so many resources that society can afford to spend on security, and because of diminishing returns, every extra resource spent in this whack-a-mole game of turning airplanes into flying prisons will yield fewer gains. There are countless better ways to spend those resources, from securing borders to developing programs to identify and address the social causes of militant religious extremism. One has to wonder just how much security is added by prohibiting books on a plane. (See this March column by security expert Bruce Schneider in Wired for more about the problem of diminishing returns in airport screening.)

Third, while the marginal benefits of this extra security is decreasing, the marginal cost is increasing, and not just in the form of the direct cost of implementing the extra security, but also in the cost of lost time (especially now that time spent on a long-haul flight is totally wasted as the UK bans things as mundane as reading material), lost convenience, and discarded, lost, or damaged items.

And finally--and most importantly--we seem to lose sight of the goal of terrorism. Their goal is not to blow up planes or to kill people; to think that is to mistake a means for an end. Their goal is to convince us to give in to their demands and desires, and blowing up planes is just one way to cause the fear and disruption necessary for their goals. They hope that we would grow so sick and tired of them that we would give in, much like how Israel grew so weary of Hezbollah's attacks that they withdrew from Lebanon back in 2000. Thus, their goal is to cause the most amount of fear and disruption, and not necessarily to blow up the most number of people (though that helps). With that in mind, we have to ask, are the actions that we are doing do "protect" ourselves helping to stem fear and disruption or helping to spread it? To be sure, there is a certain amount of security that is necessary to make their activities more difficult, and up to a certain point, more security is a good thing. But beyond that point, the marginal benefits are so low and the marginal costs are so high that the extra security actually helps their cause more than it hurts it. Perhaps a good analogy would be the human immune system. We must have an adequate immune system (which people with AIDS lack) in order to survive, but an overzealous immune system can sometimes be just as damaging (such as in the case of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, allergies, etc.). If a terrorist attack was the bite from an insect such as a mosquito, then a security overreaction would be the itchy bump that forms, and just as in the case of a mosquito bite, it is entirely possible that we could inflict upon ourselves more suffering than the terrorists could ever dream of inflicting by themselves. Looking at the way that the UK has reacted recently, one might even say that just by being caught, the terrorists were successful in their goal of terrorizing.

Up until the recent foiled attacks, I think that we have had a good balance of security. I am encouraged by the fact that the US has not resorted to the sort of Draconian measures adopted by the UK and that DHS Secretary Chertoff has promised to do away with the extra measures regarding liquids once the TSA has had a chance to find a better solution. I hope that this is all true and that we would soon return to the sort of balance that we had before. If not, then perhaps we should adopt a tiered security system where there are flights with this extra prison-camp security and flights with normal security. Then, people who believe that the benefit outweighs the cost (after all, this cost-benefit analysis is quite subjective, as it depends on how risk-adverse each person is, how much each person values convenience and personal freedom, how long the flight is, etc.) could ride on the "safer" flights and people who are willing to accept the consequences of increased risk could fly on reduced-security flights (and on routes without enough traffic to warrant separate flights, they could just default to extra security to be on the safe side). This would at least allow people to individually decide for themselves their cost-benefit equation instead of some whimsical government agency. I have a feeling that if people were given the option to choose, there would be a surprisingly large number of people who would choose less security. After all, even with terrorists, flying is still much safer than driving.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/12 at 19:12:55 GMT -0400.

Why we must stay in Iraq

Friday, August 4, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Imagine that you are at a theatre to see a play. As you enter, you find that you have lost your ticket. Would you pay $10 to buy another ticket, assuming that there is no assigned seating? Now imagine that you had not acquired a ticket in advance and that instead of losing the ticket, you have lost a $10 bill. Would you pay $10 for a ticket? In a well-known experiment conducted by Kahneman and Tversky, a majority (54%) of the people who were presented with the first scenario said that they would not buy a new ticket if their ticket was lost, but 88% of the people presented with the second scenario said that they would buy a ticket if only money was lost. In the first scenario, because the ticket had already been purchased, it is a "sunk cost". Therefore, losing the ticket is effectively identical to losing the $10 bill, yet there is a large discrepancy in how people would react. Economists call this phenomenon the failure to identify and ignore sunk costs, and it is one of ways in which people act irrationally. But what does any of this have to do with the title of this post?

Although there are many different arguments against the deployment of American troops in Iraq, one of the most prominent arguments is that this war was a mistake--that we were deceived and that we entered under false pretenses without a plan. This, I do not dispute--and have not disputed since 2003. In many ways, this war has been a disaster. We too quickly shifted our resources and focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, without having devoted enough energy and troops to stabilize Afghanistan--a mistake that is growing increasingly apparent as the Afghan government stumbles about while the Taliban is reclaiming power. We have significantly boosted the power of the Iranians by removing the most significant check against their power from the region, by helping establish a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, and by tying up our resources in such a way that Iran no longer sees our military as a significant threat. We have destabilized a country and turned it into a massive terrorist training camp, which reverses any gains that we made by neutralizing their Afghan infrastructure. And finally, we have soiled our image and reputation within the international community. Thus, in so many ways, this war was a grand mistake and an enormous disaster.

However, that the Iraq War has been a huge mistake should not inform our judgment about what needs to be done next. Yes, we should draw lessons from it so that we do not repeat such a mistake in the future, and we should strongly rebuke those who are responsible (especially since the Administration has yet to act honorably by admitting to this mistake), but when it comes to deciding what to do next, we must act rationally and thus treat this mistake as something akin to a sunk cost; we must ignore it. The main question that we should ask ourselves is whether or not withdrawal from Iraq would make the situation better; any argument for withdrawal that is based on the war being a mistake is irrational and is a failure to recognize the what-is-done-is-done nature of this war.

With that in mind, it is my belief that withdrawal would not make things better. It cannot undo the damage that has been done (that would require a time machine, not a troop withdrawal). If we consider the problems in Iraq right now--that it is destabilized, that civilians are being killed every day, that there has been an exodus of skilled and educated citizens, and that it is a training ground of terrorists--withdrawal will in all likelihood make these problems worse. Remember the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan? The mistake of entering the war has already been made, and leaving now would not change that, but it would magnify the effects of that initial mistake, and for that reason, I believe that we cannot withdraw until the "job is done", even if that requires (and I think it does) more troops.

Pinky and the Brain on DVD

Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Keywords: none

This is totally random, but I recently noticed that in list of top 10 DVD seller at Amazon this week was Pinky and the Brain (it was #5 yesterday). I never realized that there are so many people who enjoyed this show...

Intel's Botched Marketing

Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Keywords: Technology

In an ideal world, marketing serves to inform the consumer so that the consumer can make a well-informed decision. Of course, in the pursuit of sales, marketing these days rarely informs and often brainwashes, but there are still some cases, such as computer chip marketing, where there isn't as much of a disconnect between increasing sales and being genuinely informative, and in such situations, failure to inform could hurt sales...

For over a month now, Intel has been advertising in print media the new server/workstation processors that it launched in late June. These chips were based on the same new architecture (NGMA) behind the new Core 2 Duo chips launched last week, meaning that they deliver dramatically better performance while consuming less power (and thus generating less heat*). Intel, wishing to inform the public of these great chips, loudly proclaimed in its ads that these chips perform better while consuming less juice--a spectacular 80% gain in perforamance per watt, all of which are true claims that many people have now verified. So... what's the problem?

Intel introduced its "Xeon" brand for server/workstation processors back in 1998, in the days of Pentium II. While Intel's other brands have undergone name changes, such as the well-known Pentium to Pentium II to Pentium III to Pentium 4 progression, the very recent Core (Duo) to Core 2 (Duo) progression, and the progression of Itanium to Itanium 2 for high-end "big iron" servers, Xeon has remained Xeon. So through nearly a decade of architectural overhauls, instead of progressing the name from Xeon to Xeon II (the switch to Netburst) to Xeon III (the switch to dual-core) to Xeon IV (the switch the NGMA), the name of the new chip that Intel hopes will rescue it from its arch-rival's increasingly-popular Opteron is "Xeon". This means that Intel's ad proclaiming the wonders of these new chips had no way of identifying these chips except by calling them the "new Xeons".

All this poses several problems. First, in late May, Intel had released a "new" line of Xeons: the 5000 series (which referred to the product numbers, like 5030 or 5060). These chips were only a minor revision of its existing line, and offered only a modest reduction in power consumption while maintaining roughly the same performance. Just a month after the introduction of the 5000 series, Intel released the real new Xeons that are the topic of this discussion. These chips are not a minor revision of the existing product line; they were a complete redesign and offered enormous reductions in power consumption while dramatically boosting performance. For people not familiar with the world of Intel microarchitectures (and most are not), this is rather confusing, as there were two "new" product lines introduced within a month of each other, and only one of them was worth any attention.

Second, the new NGMA-based processors were given product numbers in the 5100's instead of something that would have more clearly identified it as a new product, like something in the 6000's, especially since the 5000's were just released a month ago--this idiotic product numbering falsely suggests that the 5000 series were the new chips and the 5100 series were just a minor revision of the 5000 series. To make matters worse, Intel's ads never even specified the range of product numbers that its new NGMA chips would occupy. It doesn't say "new Xeon 5100 series", it just said "new Xeons".

Third, the new 51xx Xeons has lower clock speeds (GHz) than the older 50xx Xeons. However, since the new 51xx Xeon can do about 50-100% more work per GHz than the old 50xx Xeons, a 51xx Xeon clocked at 2.0 GHz can easily outperform a 50xx Xeon clocked at 3.0 GHz. However, Intel, which has marketed chips based solely on GHz for many years, has yet to fully adapt its marketing to informing people that performance isn't measured in GHz, but rather in GHz times IPC (instructions per cycle), which dampens its marketing push for its new products (all of which have much higher IPCs). They've made attempts to break way from the old GHz way of measuring performance, but these attempts have been incoherent at best.

Now imagine that you are a graphics artist who does professional image editing, and thus, you need a powerful workstation. However, since you're an artist and not a computer scientist, you have no idea what all this fuss about new microarchitectures is about. You go to Dell to order a Dell Precision workstation featuring Xeon chips. In the configuration screen, you see a list of processors to choose from. They all bear the same Xeon brand name. Their model numbers are all similar (and how would you know that there is such a huge difference in that second digit of the model number?). And Dell configuration page doesn't offer any bit of explanation of what's going on. The only thing that really sticks out are their clock speeds. So what would you do? There is a 3.73 GHz processor and a 3.0 GHz processor at the same price, so of course, you pick the 3.73 GHz one, oblivious to the fact that this processor is actually slower and will run up your power bill faster. And based on a story that I've heard through a friend, something very similar to this really did happen recently.

Intel has spent years building up the Xeon brand name, so it's understandable that they wish to keep it. But why can't they update the name to reflect the changes in the processor? They do this with all their other product lines: last week, they released the new "Core 2 Duo" processors, even though the difference between "Core 2" and "Core" is very small compared with the differences between "new" Xeon and Xeon. And they don't seem to have qualms about doing numerical branding with their other business/server chip, the Itanium, which was recently updated to Itanium 2. Numerical name updates would allow them to differentiate their chips without abandoning the brand name. A "Xeon II" brand for these new chips would not only help eliminate the vast amounts of confusion surrounding the new Xeons (even I needed to consult Intel's specification charts to get everything straight at first), but it would highlight that these are indeed radically new chips, free of the performance and power problems that plagued the older generation, and it would help generate the sort of product awareness that Intel needs to retake the market share that its old power-guzzling* Xeons have been hemorrhaging for over a year. But alas, for whatever strange reason, Intel did not do this, and the product awareness that Intel had hoped to generate for its new Xeons has degenerated into confusion.

* In server environments, power consumption is extremely important as 24/7 operation means that electrical costs can often match or exceed the purchase cost of a server in just a few years. Lower power consumption also means that the chips generate less heat so that less money has to be spent to cool the server rooms.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/02 at 09:11:50 GMT -0400.