Archive for May, 2008

Hopeful News Item of the Day

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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain’s king has appointed a woman believed to be the Arab world’s first Jewish ambassador as the country’s envoy to Washington.

Lawmaker Houda Nonoo said she was proud to serve
her country “first of all as a Bahraini,” adding she was not chosen for the post because of her religion.

“It is a great honor to have been appointed as the first female ambassador to the United States of America and I am looking forward to meeting this new challenge,” Nonoo told The Associated Press by telephone.


from the AP

Bravo for Bahraini Houda NoNoo, but Alec Trebeck is calling – he wants to buy back a vowel.

Forcast for Jupiter – Cloudy and Windy

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Time-lapse sequence from the approach of Voyager I to Jupiter, showing the motion of atmospheric bands, and circulation of the great red spot. NASA image.Using data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and two telescopes on or near Earth, an international team of scientists has found that one of the solar system’s largest and newest storms – Jupiter’s Little Red Spot – has some of the highest wind speeds ever detected on any planet.


Jupiter’s “LRS” is an anticyclone, a storm whose winds circulate in the opposite direction to that of a cyclone – counterclockwise, in this case.

It is nearly the size of Earth and as red as the similar, but larger and more well known, Great Red Spot (GRS).

The dramatic evolution of the LRS began with the merger of three smaller white storms that had been observed since the 1930s. Two of these storms coalesced in 1998, and the combined pair merged with a third major Jovian storm in 2000. In late 2005 — for reasons still unknown — the combined storm turned red.

The LRS’ maximum winds speeds of about 384 miles per hour far exceed the 156 mile-per-hour threshold that would make it a Category 5 storm on Earth.

(The article, “Changing Characteristics of Jupiter’s Little Red Spot,” is available online at:

from Eureka Alert

These Genes are Killing Me

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When we consider such far-flung modern phenomena as professional sports, presidential politics and the popular press, we are constantly reminded that the central problem facing the human race at this stage of our march across the history of our planet is the conflict between our genetic inheritance and our current living situation.

Our genetic inheritance comprises not only our physical characteristics, but also our behavior patterns and emotional constitutions. Genetic changes take place on a vast time scale – thousands of generations are necessary to elongate a bone, adapt an organ or to hone a skill. The human genetic code, which each of us carries in every cell of our bodies and brains, has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, during almost all of which we were tribal savages, nomadic hunter-gatherers and short-lived, omnivorous predators.

Therefore we are all operating with instincts, reactions and skill sets designed for violent, merciless killers.

The past 5,000 years of civilized progress, all of our achievements and arts, are but a blip on the slow curve of evolution, and have yet to produce any measurable changes in our genetic code. We were built for more primitive and untamed times, in which our short desperate lives were constantly in danger, and we survived only by being the baddest beasts on the block.

Just as natural selection favors faster runners and bigger brains, over the millenia it also favored certain personality types and behavior patterns. In the savage world in which we evolved, qualities like aggressiveness, physical violence and blood lust were survival prerequisites. The most efficient killers, the most ruthless hunters, and the most paranoid plotters survived, and propagated these same qualities, until we truly became the baddest of the bad.

It is this terrible inheritance we must come to terms with if we are to continue to survive in the technologically transformed world of today. For today we cannot afford unbridled aggression, constant paranoia and physical violence. There are too many of us on the planet, and our weapons are too terrible, to allow these indulgences from our adolescence as a species to guide our coming of age.

If we continue to behave in the manner we were bred to behave, we are headed for certain extinction. Many of the most disturbing phenomena of modern living – alienation, mental illness, mass murder, soccer hooliganism and reality television (for example) – stem from the disconnect between what our brains and bodies evolved to deal with and the brave new reality we are forced to face every day.

Fortunately, humans are very good at developing coping mechanisms. We are nothing if not adaptable. Out of necessity we have developed mechanisms to channel and sublimate our aggressive, bestial instincts. Politics is warfare with words instead of weapons, but employs many of the same tactics – attack, defend, defeat, gang up on, infiltrate, stab in the back, etc. The whole world of sports, professional and recreational alike, developed as a way to practice martial skills, but over the centuries has evolved into a way to channel aggression and the drive for physical dominance into socially constructive, rather than destructive, channels. The popular press, mass media and the blogosphere have become a channel for all sorts of venting, exclusionary bonding, fear mongering, scapegoating and purging which was previously acted out with deadly violence within and between tribes, producing physical rather than emotional and metaphorical damage.

But while you can lead your tribe out of the jungle, you can’t clean the jungle out of some members of your tribe. Boys will be boys, and a considerable segment of the boys on our planet continue trying their best to kill each other. Far too many of our resources, and the mindsets of the far majority of those in power, are held hostage to ancient cycles of hunt and kill, massacre and revenge, defend through destruction.

Because we are mired in the bygone battles we were bred to fight, we are unable to win or even engage the urgent troubles of today. The ancient blood lust, romantic and deeply satisfying on a viscereal level, is like a cigarette habit acquired in adolescence – it feels good and looks cool, but it’s going to kill us for sure if we don’t quit soon.

Lilac Tuesday and Artificial Intelligence

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Every May, without fail, the Dowbrigade drifts into a fragrant nostalgic reverie when the lilacs come into bloom. We grew up in upstate New York, near Rochester’s Highland Park, which together with the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, claim to be the largest collections in the world, and in our neighborhood every house had at least a few bushes (Mom counted 19 at our house on East Boulevard). Peak lilac season comes later in Rochester; the last week of May or the first week of June. For fifteen days the normally dowdy aging urbe would be decked out in garlands and leis and smelling like Aphrodite in heat. I remember that each year at the height of lilac season the P’s would invite my elementary school teacher over for dinner. By that time the interminable upstate soggy spring had given way to better weather and we usually ate out on the porch, with lilac bushes pressing against the screens and a few sprigs of purple, or white, or vermilion in vases on the table.

New England’s best lilac collection is at the Arnold Arboretum, the Harvard University botanical collection in Jamaica Plain, which boasts over 450 bushes, including a magnificent variety of colors and forms, both single flowering and the rarer double flowering “French lilacs”. We had hoped to take Norma Yvonne last weekend, but the poor woman is currently working a full-time bank job and teaching 10 courses in the evenings and consequently basically rolls up into a ball when she finishes at 12:45 Saturday and tries to recuperate as much strength as possible before she has to start again on Monday morning.

Besides, how could I miss Bar Camp?

So, taking advantage of a break in our teaching schedule, we went out yesterday. After an hour or so of tramping around the Arboretum listening to Jimi Hendrix on our chi-pod, we wandered into the lilacs. We approached the collection, strewn on a sunny hillside, sort of like an art museum. We would approach each bush like the masterpiece it was, peering from various distances. By squinting, or letting our orbs slide slightly out of focus, we could make each flowery explosion of color into a Cezanne, or a Monet, or a Pissaro. Finally, we would stick our head into the fattest and most fecund bunch of blossoms and inhale deeply.

Our head was spinning by the time we plopped down next to a particularly pungent purple exemplar and opened the book we had brought with us, Marvin Minsky’s “The Emotion Machine”, which is modestly subtitled “Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind.”

We must say we are disappointed, so far (we are still on Chapter 2). His basic idea is that the human mind is very complicated and contains many specific abilities which he calls “resources” and active agents he calls “critics” which determine which resources will be brought to bear on each situation or problem.

Our first impression is that this ground was covered more comprehensively 40 years ago by John C. Lilly, who argued in Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (1967) that because we don’t have time to think out each step of our reactions in real-time situations, we rely on pre-established programs of how to behave, and that which of these programs snap into place when we are confronted with specific cues or triggers is controlled by metaprograms.

“Each mammilian brain functions as a computer, with properties, programs and metaprograms partly to be defined and partly to be determined by observation. The human computer contains at least 13 billion active elements….Among other know properties are self-programming and self-metaprogramming.” (Lilly ’67)

Lilly goes on to argue that humans can gain access to and actually reprogram these metaprograms through a variety of techniques including meditation and other rigorous mental disciplines, transcendent religious experiences and directed drug use, an approach which seems to offer more possibilities for actually improving our system software than Minsky’s.

In fact, we have spent the past 35 years, since we first read Lilly’s seminal paper as an undergrad, trying to implement its implications and modify our metaprograms. We can report mixed results: we no longer become a stuttering idiot in the presence of beautiful women, but we still break out in a cold sweat at the thought of an approaching dental appointment.

Still, perhaps we are jumping to conclusions. The remaining 7 chapters in the Minsky book may contain some new ideas or useful elaborations.

We didn’t bring any lilacs back to Norma or to brighten the apartment. Breaking branches off a living bush seems like a sacrilege today, although we know they will fade and die on the vine soon enough. It’s enough to know that they’ll be there still next May, filling the late spring air with the scent of seasons long past and far away.

OS Wars

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Live from Bar Camp Boston

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The Dowbrigade News is coming to you live this morning from BarCamp Boston, at Marignon High School in Cambridge. This is the third Bar Camp in as many years, and the success of the idea is seen in the increasing attendance, interest and sponsorship at each successive event. So what is Bar Camp?

Billed as the “unconference” it is a sort of on-the-fly mash-up of a technology conference, an almost tribal gathering of geeks, software developers, newtech entrepreneurs, code slingers, mad geniuses and electronic eccentrics who come together to bounce ideas off the walls and each other, demo prototypes and alpha versions of new ideas, discuss issues of interest to the community and socialize in that endearingly verklumft camaraderie of the socially challenged.

After brief introduction to the concept and modality of Bar Camp by Shimon Rura, some caustic comments from organizer Mike Walsh we gave 30 second intros by the crowd, which took awhile as there were well over a hundred geeks by this point, and featured areas of interest like, Drupal, Python, Ruby on Rails, heuristics, cloud computing and making money.

The intros are now over, and there is an amorphous hour during which the conference schedule is supposed to coalesce and congeal from the fecund soup of so many supposedly smart people milling around. There is a large wall in a lobby outside the cafeteria we are using for the plenary where concensus, popular and ad-hoc sessions are magic-markered into a blank conference schedule. This is known as the “schedule wall” and is the official program of the unconference. On a bulletin board opposite index cards are posted with ideas, requests for sessions, “Anybody interested in….?” queries and half-formed proposals waiting to develop into full-fledged session ideas.

Sounds extremely sketchy, no? But it has proven effective and successful at past Bar Camps, and so your trusty correspondent will now sign off to observe the creative process first-hand and inspect the resulting program to see if there is anything we could possibly understand.

More later…..

Fantastic Finish Coming Right Up

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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — The contest with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton not quite over and the one with Senator John McCain not quite under way, Senator Barack Obama is floating somewhere between the two major phases of his long campaign — a political limbo that brought him to this Republican hamlet on the
night of a West Virginia primary he was expected to lose.

from the New York Times

The Democratic Party’s love affair with Barak Obama has hit a rough patch. Familiarity has not exactly bred contempt, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the dew is off the rose and a lot of people don’t trust this guy as far as he can toss a bowling ball. Books will be written about the meteoric arc of the political career of Sen. Obama, but in the Big Book of Presidential History he is destined to be but a footnote.

We continue to maintain that the entire Obama candidacy, in fact his six-year ballistic rise from South Side obscurity, was a brilliantly devised plan by the Billary Brain Trust to create an extremely attractive but ultimately nonviable stalking horse to divert attention, support and funding from more (they thought) dangerous rivals.

For a variety of reasons this political science project went seriously out of control. For one, Barack proved elegant, graceful and silver-tongued to a degree almost forgotten in American politics, and completely novel to a majority of voters. Remember, 18-year-old first time voters in 1960 are 66 now. In addition, despite decades of spite and vitriol, the Clintons once again underestimated the depth of the visceral repugnance that Hillary inspires in a healthy segment of the population, including many in her own party. Finally, the millions of young Americans drawn into the political maelstrom for the first time during this election cycle are proving endearingly but frustratingly naive. They actually believe that the highfalutin rhetoric flowing from the B-man mean that he IS different from your average politician.

The sad truth is that Barack is one more in a long line of Democratic machine politicians, perhaps even more indebted to his corporate masters as a result of his seemingly miraculous ascendancy over pols with decades more experience and public servitude. The polished veneer starts to crack every time he has to play defense; the lofty phrases and sweet syntax evaporate and he becomes just another mealy-mouthed prevaricator trying to talk his way out of hot water.

Everybody but the Dowbrigade has already counted Hillary out, and that’s just the way she wants it. Contrary to popular belief, the protracted internecine warfare in the Democratic party is helping Hillary, the party and the American political system. How? Well, for Hillary, this kind of knock-down drag-out infighting is her bread and butter. She revels in the down and dirty of American politics, and in our opinion it’s about time the Dems got a candidate who knows how to land a good sucker punch in the clinch.

Whoever wins this thing is going to have to win it dirty, and in a no-holds-barred mud wrestling death match our money is on Hillary every time. Perhaps it is better for her that the Obama golem has run amok – after a rough blood sport matchup with Barack she will be even more ramped up than if she had emasculated him in a spring walk-over as originally planned. Kind of like the Red Sox beating the Yankees in the American League Championships and then blowing through the World Series.

Plus, the Democratic party benefits by the unceasing media spotlight focused on the race; McCain gets barely an obligatory mention on the evening news these days. Even when he does get some face time, he doesn’t know whom to attack. By keeping the situation up in the air as long as possible, the Dems present a moving target and confuse the enemy, like a football team that doesn’t know which opposing quarterback to prepare for.

Finally, the country benefits because, besides six months of gripping political drama, we are witnessing unprecedented engagement and activism by huge segments of the electorate who have been sitting on the sidelines for far too long, apathetic, disillusioned and convinced that nothing they do would have any effect on the way their country is run. Unfortunately, most of them are so starry eyed and gullible, not having had their eyes opened and their hearts ripped out by the likes of Teddy Kennedy, Thomas Eagleton, Gary Hart, Ross Perot, Michael Dukakis, Ralph Nader or Jerry Brown, that they are taking this newly repackaged Democratic shtick at face value.

Let’s hope these fools wake up before it’s too late. Let’s hope that Hillary’s feral nastiness and killer instinct discover a loose thread in the presumptive Emperor’s new clothes, because America needs a President who knows how to fight dirty. The world is indeed a Global Village these days, and its not a particularly nice neighborhood.

The bottom line is that Barack Obama is simply not ready for prime time. He has not been battle-tested, has not been in the line of fire, has not endured his trial by fire. He may one day face these trials and come out seasoned and secure, but leader of the free world is not the kind of gig you want someone working out the kinks in their act in.

Categorically renouncing a man he so recently referred to as his mentor and spiritual adviser indicates an individual in a major period of evolution and reorientation. As Groucho Marx famously said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

At least we know what Billary stands for…..