1999 Notebook

The future of intelligence

Intelligence isn't a survival trait, is it? Homo sapiens' intelligence has allowed it to spread across the planet, but it's throwing ecosystems off balance everywhere. Since it's always easier to destroy than create (or even prevent destruction), won't it become harder and harder to avoid destroying ourselves?

Nuclear war, pollution, deforestation, viral research, biological warfare, and of course overpopulation... all become easier and easier as time goes on. For some of these, we don't even have to intentionally do anything to make them worse. Try stuffing these djinns back in their bottles.


Feedback in action

One of the most dramatic examples of positive feedback is found in NASCAR races. When an accident occurs, a yellow flag comes out. Drivers must slow to a certain speed. They aren't allowed to pass each other, but they can close the distance between them and their competitors. By the time the wreck is cleaned up, all the cars are in one tight group. When the green flag is raised, the closely packed drivers accelerate as much as they can - creating the perfect setting for another accident. Accident leads to accident. This is positive feedback at its clearest.


J.G. Ballard on film

Two of J.G. Ballard's novels have been filmed: Empire of the Sun and Crash. Steven Spielberg directed Empire, and really missed the point. He turned it into a Hollywood film, with wonderful cinematography. Along the way he missed many of its important images and themes.

Crash, on the other hand, was filmed by David Cronenberg. He understands Ballard in a way that Spielberg never will. The imagery of Cronenberg's film is a direct externalization of the mood and setting of Ballard's works. If any more Ballard works are filmed, let's make sure Cronenberg directs them.


The most extreme sexual perversion is the desire to be asexual.


Natural appetite-enhancing drugs

Back in 1992 or '93, for the duration of about a week, my appetite went haywire. I was hungry all the time, even though I ate close to twice my normal diet. Then one day it stopped, and everything was back to normal.

What happened during that week? Was my metabolism changing from youth to adult? (I was about 26 at the time.) Did my endocrine system overhaul itself? Whatever was going on, I want it back. I want to know what that chemical cocktail dripping into my bloodstream was. It would be great for me to have that huge appetite all the time. I might even put on weight.


On not writing SF

I couldn't be a SF writer. It's too hard.

Here's the problem: I'd want the science to be plausible. That eliminates many common tools of SF writing, especially space travel and interstellar communication. No space warps. No faster than light travel, or instantaneous radio. No galactic empires. No parallel universes. No telepathy, of course. Just one solar system, with humans in it.

What does that leave? More than you might expect. Consider Greg Egan or John Varley's works. For the most part, they adhere to these restrictions, or circumvent them in unexpected ways. There's still a lot to explore... but this imaginary world still seems kind of small, somehow.

This thought has been expanded into a separate essay.


Does Humor Belong in Music?

Frank Zappa asked that famous question. My answer is "when did music not have humor?".

Okay, maybe Bach's music isn't a laugh riot, although the Crab Canon in his Musical Offering does make me smile. Mozart did perpetrate the famous musical joke. But to me, the all-time funniest moment in music is in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

That might be surprising. We don't normally think of Beethoven as someone who would jest. I'll even admit that I heard the passage in question many times without recognizing its amusing nature. Yet there it is, smack in the middle of the first movement. The first theme has been broken down into a slowing exchange of single notes between woodwinds and strings (measures 58-63). Suddenly the woodwinds grab the note, the brasses double them, and a new theme begins (measures 64 onward).

It might not sounds like much, but there's an image in my mind that goes with it. Imagine the two themes as two men on horseback lost in the wilderness. They're not sure about where to go, and pull their horses to a stop. A conversation ensues:

"So... which way do you want to go?"
"I don't know. How 'bout you?"
"Dunno." (points) "That way might be good."
"Could be." (points in other direction) "Or over there."
"Yup. Hmmm."

(a beat)

"Hey, why not over there?" (points in completely different direction)

(they gallop off)

When this image hit me one day out of the blue, I burst out laughing. The slowing down, the back and forth exchange, then the new theme galloping in - it's just perfect. From that day forward, I can't help smiling whenever I hear that music.


A question

Isn't the opposite of gravity levity?


A dream image

This isn't quite the House of the Dead that was in my dream last night, but it isn't too far off.

[House of the Dead]


Immersion moments

I'm fascinated by what I think of as immersion moments: those times when you've been so surrounded by something new that your thinking abruptly shifts to reflect what you're immersed in. The classic example is studying a new language. One day, instead of thinking "How do you say..." you think "¿Como se dice...?", and then do a double take when you realize it was your first thought in Spanish. It doesn't happen consciously; the immersion is so great that it affects non-conscious thinking.

It's happened twice to me in the past few years; the second time was just an hour ago.

  1. Back in Tennessee, in 1995, I was re-acquainting myself with object oriented programming. One morning I woke up, and lay in bed trying to get up. I wasn't fully alert, and thinking was still a bit fuzzy. I thought "I have to call my constructor.". Suddenly I was wide awake, realizing that I had just thought in C++. (English translation: "I have to get started.".)

  2. This morning, I had just created some trash. I looked at it and thought "I need to put this in the discard pile.". I think I've been playing too many card games recently.



2001-02-04. A friend has pointed out that in the first case, I should be calling my initializer, not my constructor. My constructor had been called about 29 years earlier.

2002-12-19. I've been using wikis so much lately that I find myself expecting wiki syntax to work in word processors and text editors. The first time that happened was definitely an immersion moment.

If infertility is a disease...

Let's assume that, as some people claim, infertility is a disease that should be covered by health insurance. Consider the following hypothetical scene in a doctor's office:

Doctor: What brings you in today?
Patient: Doc, I'm infertile. I want to be fertile.
Doctor: So you're interested in starting a family.
Patient: No.
Doctor: Excuse me?
Patient: I don't want children. I loathe children. I just want to be fertile.

This conversation might be absurd, but it makes a point. Doesn't this patient have just as much right to medical treatment as any other? If infertility is a disease, and its treatment is covered by insurance, then why should whether the patient wants children enter into the doctor's decision to treat him or her?

This is just an unusual way of making the point that those advocating for mandatory insurance coverage of infertility treatment don't really care about infertility per se. What they are interested in having children, which is a different thing.


Health delayed is health denied.


How to restore the economy of the U.S.A. in event of depression

A friend of mine got caught in a Catch-22 last week. He'd taken a business trip and gotten an "electronic ticket" for his airplane flight. He needed a receipt from the travel agency for his taxes. They gave him one, and charged him $10 for it.

What I want to know is this: isn't that $10 also deductible, since it was a business expense? If so, he'll need to get a receipt for it. And, if they charge him $10 for that receipt, he'll need to get a third receipt, which will need a receipt, et cetera.

Since all this is deductible, he could generate a huge amount of money flow without anyone producing anything. The GNP would go up with almost no work done! We could restore the economy in times of crisis this way. Isn't economics wonderful?


Constitutional Protection

One of the reasons the U.S.A. has a constitution is to protect its citizens from the tyranny of the majority. A pure democracy is a dangerous thing for its citizens; those in a minority can find themselves effectively non-citizens. The Constitution protects the rights of minorities.

Right now there are impassioned debates in this country about constitutional protection. On one hand, some want this protection extended to matters of gender and sexual orientation. On the other, some seek to restrict the right of people to express themselves (by burning the flag).

What seems to be missed in many of these discussions is the fact that the debate is occurring at all is an argument for protection. For some people, burning the flag is an incendiary act. As such, it's obviously an act of political expression, and one of the strongest that can be made. If a very strong act doesn't merit constitutional protection, why should lesser acts?

Likewise, there are some people who argue that gender and sexual orientation should not be given constitutional protection. In his rebuttal to Romer v. Evans, Supreme Court Justice Scalia argued that Coloradans should be allowed to create special legislative hurdles for those who seek equity in sexual orientation. He even stated that "the degree of hostility reflected by Amendment 2 is the smallest conceivable". Yet he completely missed the fact that a law targeted against one specific group is de facto evidence of discrimination against that group.

Both of these cases miss the forest for the trees. The more an expressive act causes controversy, the higher should be the bar to making it illegal. The more a group is discriminated against, the lower should be the bar to protecting them. Why does this seem to be such a hard concept for people to understand?


Kite as Metaphor

Every time invokes makes the hoary old metaphor of a kite as something longing to be free, chained to earth with a string, it indicates to me that they don't know anything about kite flying. If a kite doesn't have a line, it doesn't fly; it falls. The pull of the line keeps the kite properly oriented to the wind.

That could be an interesting taking off point for an essay: the necessity of some restriction for an endeavor's success.


Got a lite?

America... ya gotta love it. Where else could you find a product like Ensure Lite?

If you're not familiar with it, Ensure is a liquid dietary supplement that provides extra calories and nutrition. The standard formula is 250 calories per can, while Ensure Plus has 360. Now the same company offers Ensure Lite, which is only 200 calories. Fifty calories is not that much; a candy bar is about 250.

Actually, Ensure Lite might be made for people who don't need as much fat in their diet. So it might have a real benefit. But on first seeing it in a pharmacy, I couldn't help but wonder at the oxymorons our society embodies.

Wasn't it Julia Child who said the secret to low calorie desserts was to make the damn thing properly and eat less of it?


To Come Out or Not To Come Out

Not too long ago, on a mailing list, there was a discussion about coming out of the closet. The person who started it wasn't out, and neither was his partner. The author described themselves as being financially secure. In fact, they were more than secure, they were well off. But they worked in a field where open knowledge of their sexual orientation would work against them. Rather than fight that, they had decided not to come out until they had made enough money to sponsor ongoing charitable causes. Once they'd made enough to really make a difference in the world, they'd retire and come out.

This fills me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm all for personal sovereignty; people should be able to live their lives as they choose. The couple in question's wishes should be respected.

On the other hand, this really makes me sad, for a number of reasons. Here are a few:

  1. The first is my general dismay with people who stay in the closet. I didn't know a single out person until college. High school was a really lonely time. Imagine spending four years with people who are fundamentally different from you. I would have loved to have someone to talk to, someone who understood. I can even imagine what it would be like to have someone I know (like an older relative) come out after I had. That would really make me mad. How could you not have told me?

  2. I hope neither of these two folks dies before they've made it to their goal. That would be an ironic tragedy.

  3. Worst of all is the message they're sending out: you can come out when it's safe. Forget the struggle those who come after you will have to make because you didn't. Ignore the friends and colleagues who might also be gay, who might be struggling with the same oppressive institutions. Wait until you can buy your way out, until you're untouchable. Make up for it with money.

    In this case, I'd have to agree that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Their silence perpetuates the anti-gay attitudes of whatever field they work in.

These folks don't speak for everyone, and they certainly don't speak for me. Good luck to them; I hope they can really do some good in the world. I'm not sure that I really want to know them, though. Justice delayed is justice denied, they say; leadership delayed is suffering prolonged.


Genetics and Homosexuality

A recent post to the Bears Mailing List asked this question: if sexual orientation is determined by genes, and homosexual people don't have children, wouldn't homosexuality quickly be bred out of the human genome?

It's a good question. Aside from the two obvious assumptions on which it rests, though, there's another that might explain the apparently paradoxical situation. For the rest of this argument I assume that sexual orientation is determined by genes, though there is no evidence for this. The assumption is merely for the sake of argument.

The big unspoken assumption is that sexual orientation is either homo- or heterosexual. This is a simplification that distorts the question. The range of sexual orientation ranges from exclusively heterosexual to heterosexually inclined to bisexual to homosexually inclined to exclusively homosexual to nonsexual. Sexual orientation is better characterized by Kinsey's spectrum than by a simple homo/hetero switch.

If sexual orientation is indeed a spectrum, that means that the gene complex that determines it is more complex than a simple dominant/recessive gene. The behavior of multiple, interacting genes can exhibit counterintuitive behavior. Indeed, the genetics of even one gene can be surprising. A case in point is cystic fibrosis.

CF is a common disease caused by a mutation of one specific non sex linked gene. It's a classic recessive gene; two copies, one from each parent, are needed for a child to have the disease. Those who only have one copy of the gene are carriers, and do not show any symptoms. Until the latter half of this century, almost all people with CF died in childhood.

Given all this, why is the mutant CF gene so prevalent in the human genome? It affects one in every 3900 live Caucasian births. According to classical genetics, this gene should be on the decline throughout populations. Yet the most common type of mutant CF gene (which is found in about 70% of CF genes) is a relatively new mutation, about 53,000 years old[1]. How did this mutation, supposedly a defect, not only survive but spread throughout European populations in an evolutionarily short time?

A possible explanation was put forth in 1996. Researchers conjectured that carriers of the CF gene have increased resistance to dehydrating diseases such as cholera[2]. Having one mutant gene might confer a benefit, yet having two is lethal. This would explain why the disease has quickly spread throughout a large population, even though it was long thought to have no benefit to the general population.

Making an point-for-point analogy between the genetics of CF and sexual orientation is bound to fail. Yet I will be bold enough to put forth the idea that a gene complex that expresses itself as a spectrum of human sexuality might confer benefits to the species that a simple homo/hetero gene would not. I don't know what those benefits would be, but I never imagined that carrying the CF gene might confer a benefit either.

Genetics is a very tricky subject. There's a huge amount we don't know; the more I learn, the more I marvel that Gregor Mendel was able to discover the genetics of peas!


1. "The origin of the major cystic fibrosis mutation (delta F508) in European populations", N. Morral et al, Natural Genetics, 1994 Jun, 7:2, 169-75<

2. "Genetic and geographical variability in cystic fibrosis: evolutionary considerations", J. Bertranpetit and F. Calafell, Ciba Foundation Symposium, 1996, 197:, 97-118


A bit and a piece

I'm waiting to see this bumper sticker on a minivan:

My Guardian Angel
can beat up your guardian angel

Strange metaphor for love of the week: "I'm the grease you tremble to ignite".


Menace? What Menace?

I went to see The Phantom Menace with friends. To keep the experience fresh, I wrote down my thoughts about it not long after. It's a little late now, but here they are.

  • Spectacle! The movie had some beautiful graphics, especially the capitol of Naboo. That was the one image that really made me say "Wow".

  • Where's the wind? I guess the computer graphics wizards haven't quite gotten wind down yet. Aside from characters, animals, and machines, I didn't notice anything moving.

  • Jar Jar Binks annoyed me a little in the beginning, but he kind of grew on me a little. I'd read a Village Voice essay which claimed that people's annoyance with him was due to heterosexual insecurity. I don't quite buy that; he annoyed some homosexual people I know, too. The article did point out that while he was a buffoonish klutz, he did some heroic things like returning from exile and fighting in battle.

  • The music seemed to come at some odd times, and I never got a good sense for it. The closing triumphant song on Naboo sounded pretty close to the opening track of Philip Glass' Powaqqatsi.

  • Darth Maul came and went pretty quickly, didn't he? I wasn't expecting him to get sliced & diced. I guess he was just part of setting up the next two movies.

  • If I were Anakin's mother, I would have been both more sad (that my child was leaving) and angry (that I remained in slavery). She was way too restrained.

  • Is Anakin going to try to return to Tatooine to free his mother? Will he see her die, and his rage at this turn him to the dark side of the ForceTM?

  • If you've seen one planet-wide city, you've seen them all. Why wasn't it called Trantor? After all, Asimov was writing about it in the 1950s.

    And what's the deal with all the slow air traffic? Can't they get some better control? I'd hate to be stuck up there. It was a bit Futurama-ish. Funny that Matt Groening beat Lucas to the punch on that one.

  • Obi-wan, grow a spine. "I know it's not my place to question your judgment, master..."? Sheesh.

  • Flying into the big space ship, shooting a critical piece of machinery, then flying out while it explodes? Where have I seen that before? Can you say... episodes 4 and 6?

    You want to make the movie better? Have the trade federation ship not explode. Instead, all life support is lost. Instead of dying in a big boom, all the people on board freeze to death or run out of air. That would add a human and tragic note to a movie that is just a bit too light. Would you want to celebrate a victory knowing that thousands of beings are dead in orbit above? It makes the victory bittersweet.

    (A friend wondered why a huge spaceship would have a critical power source right next to a hangar. Good question!)

  • If it's such a big galaxy, why have we only seen six planets (Naboo, Tatooine, Hoth, a moon of Endor, Coruscant, and Dagobah)?

    Note, 1999-08-30. An astute reader pointed out that we've actually seen a few more planets (Yavin, Bespin, and a little bit of Alderaan). Mea culpa.

  • The queen's ship looks like a smoother, reflective SR-71 Blackbird, a forty-year-old US Air Force reconnaissance plane! Couldn't the model designers be more imaginative?

  • The one moment in the film where I felt some human feeling was when Padme was talking with Anakin in the queen's ship.

  • Light saber duels on platforms and catwalks? A hero hanging above an abyss? Where have I seen that before? (Oh, wait, I already asked that question.)

  • We'll sneak into the enemy stronghold and head for the main room while you create a diversion... Where have I... oh, wait, I... wait, I...

  • Not another hallway battle scene with people ducking behind pillars! Phantom Menace, The Matrix, and wasn't it done in Terminator 2 as well?

  • Gee, do you think Anakin possibly couldn't win the pod race?

  • I can see why some people look at the non-humans and see racist stereotypes. With an entire galaxy to create, why rely on old images? Even Jabba was better.

  • Anakin's a virgin birth, "The Chosen One"? Shades of Dune!

  • The pacing was off. I can't remember the exact shot, but I remember thinking "well, that served no purpose whatsoever".

  • The '70s return! Hanging in Anakin's bedroom by the door was one of the catcher/thrower things from that outdoor game where you threw a ball back and forth. The curved track on the catcher/thrower made the ball curve in flight.

  • Every time a familiar character showed up (C-3PO, R2D2, Yoda), I felt like we were obligated to applaud.

  • The ForceTM is caused by microorganisms present in all creatures? See Jack Chalker's Four Lords of the Diamond tetralogy, especially the first book, Lilith: A Snake in the Grass.

  • Gee, could the smiling politician who helps Naboo's queen possibly be... evil?

As we walked out of the theater, a friend kept repeating "I tried so hard"... to like it, that is. My reaction to the film was that the capitol city of Naboo looked nice, but a lot of it was too familiar.

Thinking over it later, I know why I'm so disappointed. It wasn't the effects, it was the story. Frankly, I don't care about Anakin as a child; what I'm interested in is his adolescence and maturation. His transformation from an innocent to the embodiment of evil is the obvious choice for this trilogy; why waste one movie proving that he's a good kid?

I was ten when the first Star Wars movie came out, and it blew me away. It perfectly suited my imagination at the time. It's twenty-two years later now, and I want entertainment that is addressed to adults. The Phantom Menace wasn't. It was as bad as the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi: blatant pandering to youth.

I know that I shouldn't have expected anything more, but I still had a little hope. After all, what would be a better gift for an audience that grew up on the series than a movie that actually appealed to their now mature taste?

The trilogy that I wanted to see still focused on Anakin, but cast him in a different light. Instead of starting with an upbeat beginning, I want lots of foreshadowing of the end of this trilogy. That ending is tragedy. I wanted lots of reminders throughout of what is to come (hence the suggestion about the trade federation ship).

Wait, you say. Who wants to watch an entire trilogy when you know the end is going to be depressing? A lot of people. A well-told tragedy can easily be more captivating than a piece of light-hearted fluff. (Consider Shakespeare.) I want to see what changed Anakin into Darth Vader; I want a thoughtful, compassionate tale of one man's turn to his darker side. It can be done, done well, and done with spectacle. It just doesn't seem that Lucas is the person to do it.

Instead we got a forgettable movie for children.



Last week the Kansas Board of (Mis)Education removed the requirement for Kansas schools to teach evolution. It doesn't forbid it -- they weren't that stupid -- but now it's up to local schools to decide. If a majority of people on a school board are fundamentalists, they can choose not to teach evolution.

Does this mean that what's taught in Kansas is decided by majority vote? What an awful system. I can just imagine how this will affect other subjects. English classes will drop all tenses but past, present, and future (since no one understands the others, like subjunctive). History books will omit any negative reference to Kansas' past. Social studies will teach that Kansans are naturally superior to all other people.

That might sound a little far-fetched, but is it really? Already a textbook publisher has announced a revised, dumbed-down textbook from which material has been deleted which might block sales in dumbed-down schools. So not only might students not be taught the material, they won't even be able to find it in their own textbooks!

In celebration of this bold, bone-headed step into the past, I dedicate this bumper sticker to the Kansas Board of Ignorance and to everyone with a fish-sticker:

[My fish can beat up your fish]

(Yes, this might be familiar, but it's worth repeating.)

One last thought: if the Kansas Board of Ignorance really thinks that the teaching of evolution is a matter for local schools to decide, then why should any other material be required by a state board? Shouldn't they just remove all state education requirements, then disband? That's the logical consequence of their position.


Duh Matrix

This is an excerpt from a letter to a friend. Warning! Spoilers ahead!

You've seen The Matrix? Good! Now I can rip it to shreds without giving away any plot secrets.

The effects were really good. The fight in the subway was particularly memorable. But the rest...?

Problem: people used as batteries.

Come on, basic thermodynamics shows this to be completely silly. We can't give off more energy than we take in.

Solution: keep the people in bondage, but make the reason plausible. Forget the energy people put out; instead, focus on the work they can do. Let's make the matrix not a product of the machines, but actually run on the brains of the people in pods. Each person not only lives in the matrix, but contributes to it and keeps it running. After all, why waste all that brainpower? Borg it up!

Problem: incomplete allusions.

I hate movies that start things and then forget about them. At the beginning of The Matrix, Neo meets a woman with a white rabbit tattoo. It's an obvious allusion to Alice in Wonderland. No problem there.

In a later scene, Morpheus offers Neo a choice. Red pill or blue pill, one for reality, one for illusion. As I watched I thought "One side makes you larger, the other smaller", but did any of the main characters note the similarity? No. Then again, with a main character played by Mr. Low Affect himself, I shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't make the connection.

Solution: throw in at least one more reference.

Problem: the big question this movie raised was answered in the simplest, most unimaginative way.

If someone had just revealed that the world you've lived in all your life is a dream, that reality can be perfectly imitated, wouldn't you then ask the obvious next question? If what I thought all my life was real is nothing but an illusion... why should I believe that this "true" reality isn't an illusion as well?

And this is the question Neo never thinks to ask. What a gullible, unquestioning idiot![1]

With that, The Matrix completely pulls its philosophical punch. It doesn't even bother to ask the question. Instead the world is simple: the matrix, and harsh reality. Boring and unimaginative answer! Points deducted!

That's why I liked David Cronenberg's eXistenZ better. The effects weren't half as spectacular, the characters weren't that involving, and the dialogue wasn't really great, but the movie kept me wondering "what is real?" even during the last scene. That existential uncertainty is fundamental to the film, and completely missing from The Matrix.

Solution: I'm not sure there is one. But I do have an idea that would have made the movie more interesting. Imagine this.

At the end of the movie, Neo discovers that not only that can he control the matrix, but its true nature. The matrix isn't the product of machines, created to control its human slaves. Rather, the matrix is a product of the sleeping people themselves. It is a false reality that is the consensus of everyone. The world of the matrix is what people want.

Neo realizes that if he's to liberate them, sheer control is not going to be useful (short of destroying the matrix itself). Instead, he must persuade the sleepers that they will do better by abandoning their self-constructed world.

Thematically, this would make the The Matrix much more adult. In the original movie, Neo transforms from a child to an adolescent. Starting as a powerless cog, he finds abilities in himself that allow him to forge his own destiny. Rather than being at the mercy of powerful forces, he has learned to control and manipulate them.[2] The movie ends with him in complete control of the matrix, literally flying with his new-found power. It is the ultimate adolescent power trip.

This new idea -- the matrix being a human product -- would force him to take the next step forward by realizing that he is but one person among many. Force isn't the way to make progress; persuasion of and consideration for others is more important. Instead of being the powerful champion of the powerless downtrodden, Neo would be forced to treat other people as adults. In the process, he too would become an adult. Now that he's independent, he would have to discover ways to deal with society.

You could probably make this as a sequel. Maybe they should call this movie Reality.[3]


1. Now I know why they got Keanu Reeves for the part.

2. Kind of like the ForceTM, eh?

3. Someone's already used eXistenZ... go figure.


A Dog's Wife

Humans, for all their physical differences, are a pretty similar lot. With some exceptions, most people are within a certain height range, women have less body hair than men, there aren't that many different hair colors, et cetera. We're just not that different, compared to another species like dogs.

And just look at dogs! There are hundreds of breeds, with physical characteristics that vary widely. Some breeds weigh less than ten pounds, some more than ten times that amount. Could you imagine meeting a person who is three times as tall and weighs ten times more than you? Dogs do it every day.

What is it like to be a dog? Think about the simple sphere of reproduction. Does each dog find its own breed the most attractive? Do chihuahuas want to breed with chihuahuas, greyhounds with greyhounds?

All breeds are descended from one wolflike ur-breed. Could it be that dogs find the ur-breed the most attractive? This would make for a lot of unhappy dogs.

Or does any of this matter at all? Probably not. If it has the right pheromones, that's good enough for dogs.


Mandatory Drug Testing -- for the Correct People

On 1999-10-04, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a group of teachers and other school workers in Knox County, Tennessee. They objected to their county's mandatory drug testing. The 6th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the drug testing was justified since teachers play a "unique role" in students' lives. Their decision not to hear an appeal indicates the Supreme Court agrees with this ruling.

Let's take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. If mandatory drug testing of teachers is justifiable because they play a significant role in the lives of children, then shouldn't we also require drug testing of parents? After all, parents are the ultimate authority in a child's life. They must be held to the highest standard. Test them for drugs! Ignore how good they are as parents, or whether there's any actual evidence of drug use. Force them to give blood and urine samples today. It's the least we can do for America's youth.

I'd like to extend the same reasoning to politicians, whose decisions also have a great effect on children, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that states cannot force candidates to undergo drug testing. When it comes to teachers, a violation of "innocent until proven guilty" and the Fourth Amendment is okay, but not for politicians. Shows you just how much we respect teachers, doesn't it?

Source: Knox County Education Association vs. Knox County Board of Education, 98-1799.


There Oughta be a Law

The current issue of National Geographic has a 2 page photospread on a family with not one, not two, but three children with cystic fibrosis. According to the text, after having the first child with CF, the parents had more "trusting in faith" that succeeding children wouldn't have the disease.

This is criminally stupid. There should be a law allowing the second and third children with CF to sue their parents for negligence and abuse.

It's understandable that parents might have a child with CF. The disease, though common, isn't well known. Genetic screening for prospective parents is far from common. But once these parents had one child with CF, they knew that every other fetus they created had a 25% chance of having CF, and a 50% chance of being a carrier. Having a child under those odds is sick. Would you have a child if you knew that when it was born you would have to hold a gun to its head and play a round of russian roulette?

If I had parents this stupid, I would be doing my damnedest to sue them for every single penny they could ever make.


Actions Speak Louder

A teenager who survived a school shooting last year just died. His death wasn't due to the injury he sustained in the shooting. No, he was accidentally shot by his brother while they were deer hunting.

The irony of this sad story is that when asked after the school shooting how he would make society safer, he replied "I'd make it harder for kids to get guns.". He didn't seem to understand that it isn't just the guns held by insane people that kill people; every gun can kill.

Source: "Survivor of Thurston High shootings dies in hunting accident", Jeff Barnard, Associated Press, 1999-10-06.


Are computers confusing?

I've recently been reading a lot about design: Alan Cooper, Donald Norman, and Christopher Alexander. The more I read, the more apparent it becomes that personal computers have fundamental design problems. They're too complex. Rather than doing one thing well, software tries to do everything and rarely succeeds.

Consider this question. How many text editors do you have on your PC? On mine, I can count not one or two but five programs devoted solely to editing text, and at least four more programs that have built-in editors of their own. That's nine different text editors, each with their own menus, commands, toolbars, and behavior. Why? Do I really need nine different ways to edit text?

I don't think so. I need at most two: one to write highly formatted text for printer or graphic output, and another for fixed-space, unformatted text that isn't printed (e.g., email). Yet here is what I have on my system:

  • edit - the DOS editor.
  • Notepad - the default Windows plain text editor. I never use it, but leave it around anyway.
  • Wordpad - a small Windows editor for formatted text. I only use it to quickly view Word documents.
  • TextPad - an editor for unformatted text. My primary HTML & programming editor.
  • Word Pro - Lotus' full-featured text editor. My primary editor for formatted text.
  • Eudora Pro - an email program with its own editor.
  • Illustrator - has a primitive editor.
  • Photoshop - has an even more primitive editor.
  • Painter - yet another primitive editor.

Why can't I just designate one or two editors, then let the programs that need to edit text use them? Why should I be forced to learn multiple sets of commands? Even more, why are programs like Eudora trying to do something that other programs do better? Why can't it borrow the power of a dedicated editor? Why must it re-invent the wheel? Good grief, Unix has had this feature since before GUI-based operating systems even existed.

Not only do I have to contend with different editors, some have their own spell checkers. Since none is aware of the others, I have to add new words multiple times. This is ridiculous.

Hardware is no better. Why should I have to worry about where files are located, and how much space is left on my storage devices? I want a computer that doesn't bother me with these details. When it runs low on storage, it should notify me and tell me how much longer I will be able to work at the current rate. I should be able to go to the store, buy more storage, plug it in, and continue working. I shouldn't have to worry about moving data, drive letters, or backing up data. It should be completely transparent.

Is that really so much to ask?


Last updated 17 August 2003
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons

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