Sunday, February 26, 2006

Canada lives up to Olympic expectations

The Olympics are over (except for folks in the U.S., where NBC time-shifted the closing ceremonies to put them in prime time, even though they could have easily run them this afternoon). According to the CBC web site, Canada is prominent in the closing ceremonies because the next winter games are in Vancouver in 2010.

Before the games, the Canadian Olympic Committee stunned Canadians by predicting 25 medals and a top three finish. This would have been far better than any previous finish.

Canada fell a little short of that goal: they came in third with 24 medals. This shattered the previous Canadian record of 17 medals at the Salt Lake City games in 2002. They were very close to making the prediction as 13 Canadian athletes finished fourth and eight finished fifth. Of the fourth place finishers:
  • Short-track speed skater Eric Bedard missed out on a bronze by 4-1,000ths of a second in the men's 500 metre.
  • Skier Kelly VanderBeek finished 3-100ths behind the bronze medalist in the women's super-G.
  • Francois Bourque missed the podium by 76-100ths in the men's giant slalom.
  • Pierre Lueders lost out on a medal by 9-100ths of a second in four-man bobsleigh.
  • Canada's men's hockey team didn't even get into a medal game.
(The above was stolen, with some editing, from the excellent CBC Olympics website. It far surpassed the horridly laid out official Torino web site, where it took forever to find an event schedule or event results.)

ABC News called Canada an Olympic powerhouse. Yes, Canada. Canada has never been big on spending money to push Olympic athletics. There was always a thought that government money could be better spent elsewhere. This attitude started to change in recent years after several embarrassing finishes. The 2002 winter games were a high point for Canada (until this year) but the 2004 summer games wasn't that wonderful. In 2005, the Canadian government announced a 5 year, C$110 million program called "Capture the Podium" to make Canada competitive in international sporting events.

The program's aggressive goal was almost reached. Canada, of all countries, came in third in the medal count. This is an auspicious result prior leading into the 2010 games.

Speaking of which, the mayor of Vancouver is making Olympic history. In the closing ceremonies, the Olympic flag is always passed to the mayor of the next host city, who waves it eight times. This was a bit of a challenge for Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, who broke his neck at age 19 and is a quadriplegic. His motorized wheelchair was modified to hold the flag, but it was a secret how he was going to wave the flag (the secret is out now for most of the world, but I'm steadfastly ignoring news reports until I get to see the ceremonies).

I noticed that CNN is running short segments on CNN Headline News asking "what went wrong" with the Team America. Perhaps "what went wrong" is that other nations are catching up to American sports supremacy. Maybe the playing field is simply leveling. If this is the case — and I believe it is — this is a good thing for everyone, including Americans. Nothing drives people forward like competition. Nothing makes sports more enjoyable to watch than close finishes.

Farewell, Night Stalker

I just saw on that Darren McGavin died.

McGavin was one of my favourite actors growing up. He starred in Kokchak: The Night Stalker in the 70s. In The Night Stalker he played Carl Kolchak, a pulp-style reporter for the Independent News Service in Chicago. His specialty was investigating supernatural events that were discounted by his editor. There were two pilot movies, one involving vampires. Kolchak fought witches, werewolves, ghosts, and in one memorable episode a Hindu monster that took on the form of someone you most trusted.

The Night Stalker was the forerunner of the X-Files, and inspired games like Delta Green. McGavin even guest starred on a couple of X-Files episodes. If there had been no Carl Kolchak there probably wouldn't have been a Fox Mulder.

McGavin was in a number of movies, including The Natural with Robert Redford, where he played a villain.

Coincidentally, he passed away a day after Don Knotts, whom he starred with in the movie No Deposit, No Return. Because of The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts' passing will get more headlines. This is unfortunate and unfair.

I was saddened when I learned of McGavin's death. He was 83 years old and died of natural causes.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why I hate Olympic figure skating

I now officially hate Olympic figure skating. Here's why:
  1. There's too much of it. Men's, women's, pairs, ice dancing, all with short and long programs (and a free skate, I think, though I never figured out what that was exactly...), and each program takes all night to resolve. Oh, and they also cover the practices, for heaven's sake.
  2. The winner's program after the actual medal events are all over. It's not a competition, it's an audition for Ice Capades! Why is this shown as part of a sport event???
  3. When you include the warm up sessions, the time for the skater to go on the ice, the time they spend taking bows, and the time they spend waiting for the results, it has a play-to-wasted-time ratio worse than professional football (where 60 minutes of game can take 3 hours).
  4. In the wake of "Skategate" (when the Canadian pairs were robbed by a French judge, who was on the take and gave the gold to the Russians; the fix was so blatant that they eventually gave the Canadians a co-gold), they've changed the scoring. The best part: they hide who votes for whom, so bribery isn't feasible. Unfortunately, they goofed the point allocations. If a skater tries for a big spin (like a quad) and land on their arse, they get a minimum score. The way they did it, that minimum for landing on your butt in a quad is worth more than doing a perfect double. This is why so many skaters at this Olympics ended up with ice rash, and why Sasha Cohen could fall twice in the long program and still get silver.
  5. In spite of #4, there's still a lot of subjective scoring in skating.
  6. Emanuel Sandhu. He won the Canadian title several times, and won a couple of important tournaments, but he's never done better than 7th at the Worlds, and his short program at this Olympics sucked.
  7. Elvis Stojko. Or, rather, the lack of Elvis Stojko. He brought athleticism and — dare I say it — masculinity to the sport, but never won an Olympic gold. His silver in 1998 was exceptional given that he was fighting a groin injury and the flu. The old fuddy-duddy judges would give him poor marks for artistry, mainly because he skated like an athletic male adult and not like a prebuscent hermaphrodite. Sandhu was his heir apparent in Canada, but hasn't lived up to it.
  8. Dick Button. Never has a man been given a more apt first name. He came across as snarky, rude and critical... of everyone except the American skaters. The only time he was conciliatory (or, for that matter, quiet!) was when an American skater was on the screen. From his comments, you can tell his impression of skating hasn't changed since the days he was skating, in the late 40s and the 50s. The best moment was when he made some snarky comment about the choice of music for one pairs team. A female commentator pointed out that they were skating to an instrumental version of Led Zepplin's "Kashmir". She asked if they were his favourite band. He never answered, leaving all the NBC commentators quiet for almost the rest of the performance.
  9. Chintzy music. An orchestral version of Led Zeppelin not withstanding, why do skaters continue to skate to music that was old fashioned during thePleistocene epoch? Isn't there anything from the last decade or two worth skating to?
  10. Sequines and make-up. I'm sorry, it's not a sport if it involves sequines and/or a requirement to wear make-up. It's not just skating that has this problem, it's also... uh... synchronized swimming (and ballroom dancing, if that becomes an Olympic sport).
Part of this comes from being peeved at NBC's Olympics coverage. They ran the men's curling championship earlier in the day, when I was at work (and our TV set up with digital cable makes taping a program a pain). Instead of running at least some of the curling championship (Canada won gold!) they ran the entire champion's fluff skate program. I know that figure skating is the most popular event at the games and NBC is only selling ad time. It's understandable, even if in Canada curling is sometimes shown in prime time. It just bothers me that this non-competition took up time that should have been used for actual sporting events. That and the fact that earlier today they ran a skating re-cap, as if the roughly 10,000 hours of skating this week wasn't enough!

We didn't spend much time watching the Olympics today. We did catch a really cool competition, the men's short-track speed skating relay event. It was an exciting finish. Canada win silver after they narrowly lost the gold to South Korea. The U.S. just barely fought off the Italians for bronze. NBC's coverage was spotty. They kept cutting to tight shots of the competitors, and hovered on the U.S.'s fight against Italy. That meant that we didn't see Canada lose the lead to Korea on the second last lap.

Bob Costas gave a short lecture at the end of the broadcast tonight aimed at skier Bode Miller. He castigated Miller for not working hard enough and for not taking the Olympics seriously enough. Not surprising, since the network built Miller up as a big anti-hero. They'd get a great story if Miller did well or crashed big time. Instead, he was merely mediocre (in that definition of mediocre that only applies to the Olympics, where a top 10 finish only counts if the athlete wins a medal). The story didn't go according to script.

It didn't go according to script with Sasha Cohen, either, which is why some in the media consider this winter Olympics a disappointment for the U.S. Costas put this in perspective when he pointed out the U.S. is within a couple of medals of their all time best winter Olympics, at Salt Lake City four years ago.

On the other side of the 48th parallel, this has been an excellent Olympics for Canada. Canada is currently third in the medal count, behind Germany and the U.S. and just ahead of Austria. This in spite of the men's hockey team not even making it to the medal round. This is the result of Canada pushing for better winter Olympics results with the next winter games taking place in Vancouver in 2010.

Friday, February 24, 2006

"Compassionate" Conservative

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from my friend Jason. It is for the Lifetime channel's petition for a bill that would stop insurance companies requiring drive-through mastectomies. (Basically, insurance companies are forcing women home the same day as their mastectomy as a cost-cutting measure. There are bills before the Senate and the House that would require insurance companies to pay for 48 hour hospital stays, minimum.) The petition is here:

So, I forwarded the e-mail to the folks at work. Bear in mind we only have, like, 25 employees. I didn't think anything about it.

I received one e-mail when I got to work the next day. It was from someone who shall remain nameless. This person pointed out that covering a wide range of medical procedures is a "large" part of the cost of health insurance.

Okay, so he was showing the flip side of health care, which is universal: there's always going to be a tug-of-war between cost and coverage. If he had left it there it would have been okay. A little tactless, but relevant.

However, he happened to add a comment that went over the top. He said that he had a couple of drive-through procedures and that he "lived to tell about it".

I was, to say the least, stunned. I wondered if he had simultaneous treatments for testicular cancer and stomach bypass surgery, for that's the only thing I could think of that would equal the pain (physical and psychological) of a mastectomy, let alone a double mastectomy. Taken with the earlier comment about the cost, the subtext was obvious: that all drive-through procedures are the same, and that there's nothing wrong with them, especially if they mean lower health care costs.

(Of course this person is also against socialized health insurance, even though it would offer similar coverage at lower cost. I've noticed that the average American has poorer coverage than a Canadian due to out of pocket expenses, and yet Canada spends a lower percentage of its GDP on health care than the U.S.; last time I checked it was 8% for Canada versus 12% in the U.S.).

I received an e-mail from a female employee soon after, thanking me for the e-mail. She was very tactful, saying that perhaps you have to go through cancer with a loved one in order to understand. (My Dad died of cancer, as did Alana's Mom.) Another female employee talked to me about it in person. She was far less tactful. Livid, I think, is the best description.

One thing I've noticed by a lot of conservatives is that they are pretty hard-hearted. This is in spite of strong religious convictions. From what I remember of the Bible, there was a strong "it is better to give than to receive" ethic throughout the New Testament. Yet the political conversations in the office often deal with who is deserving of what, and why they were paying too much in taxes. At lunch a couple of days ago one person suggested that native Americans should be thankful for their tax-free status and the money the bring in through casinos. They looked at me as though I was speaking Chinese when I said, "I guess they're still not happy about that 'near genocide' thing."

There's very little "live and let live", either. Of course opposition to gay marriage is the primary example of this, but there's a lot of other stuff, too. There's a small sex toy shop in town that can't advertise — even discreetly — on local TV without threats from the District Attorney's office. You can't even have a sex toy party in Louisiana with mixed sexes, as someone thinks this is the next best thing to an orgy. None of this stuff would hold up to a constitutional challenge, but that doesn't stop conservatives from trying to legislate what happens in the privacy of someone's home. (When a "liberal" starts talking about gun control, they're quick to trot out the 2nd Amendment; I just wish they were so quick to protect the 1st Amendment.)

It's not the first time I've heard the words, "I consider myself a good Christian, but...", usually just before they say something racist. You know, that "but" pretty much negates the rest of the sentence.

Perhaps the writer of the e-mail that prompted this rant just replied without thinking about how others might see it. Or perhaps he doesn't have any real understanding of the issue, and I truly hope that he never does (for there is only one way to truly understand cancer).

I'll leave other possible reasons for the e-mail to your imagination.

I wrote three different replies, but didn't post any of them. In the end, I decided to let his words speak for themselves. I'm still not sure that was the right move, morally, but it was probably the right move professionally.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Marty Meehan and the Wikipedia controversy

Marty Meehan is the representative for Massachusett's fifth congressional district. As a Democrat he proves that stupidity in Washington is truly bi-partisan. He recently came to the attention of national newspapers not by with his voting record but with the cleansing of his bio entry on Wikipedia.

What is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is an encyclopedia in a wiki format. Okay, what's a wiki?

A wiki is a web site designed for collaborative writing. It was invented by Ward Cunningham, who released the WikiWikiWeb in 1995. Wiki comes from the Hawaiian word "wiki", which means "fast", "quick", or "to hasten". Wikis are most often used in collaborative writing projects. Basically it's just a piece of software that allows you to post some information to the web, allow other people to edit it, and allow you to track the edits. They are quite popular with writing groups and roleplaying gamers. The full history can be found at

On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was launched. It came out of Nupedia, an online encyclopedia written by experts where the information was open content (free to use by anyone). Wikipedia follows the wiki model: anyone can add to it, and anyone can edit it.

The problem with professionally written encyclopedias is that they are at the mercy of the encyclopedia's editorial team, and it is slow to add new content. Oh, and they are usually protective of their content.

Wikipedia doesn't have these problems. Anyone can write an article. If you are an expert in Tibetan basketweaving, you can write an article on it. You don't have to prove to anyone why your article is worthy of entry in an encyclopedia. Articles can be posted quickly. Hurricane Katrina articles were created while the hurricane was still raging. You don't have to wait for a specific release cycle. By it's nature, the articles are open content: you can post links to it, or copy it and use it for your own purposes.

The biggest issue is, of course, the strength of a wiki: anyone can edit it! When you open up the encyclopedia to Tibetan basketweaving experts, you run the risk that the basketweaving expert will edit an article on astrophysics. Or, someone with a grudge against someone with a Wikipedia biographical entry could write that he was a satanic baby eater.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia itself:
Wikipedia is regularly cited in the mass media and academia, sometimes critically, and sometimes to praise it for its free distribution, constant editing, and diverse coverage, not to mention its multilingual dimensions. It is often cited not as a subject but as a source on other subjects. Editors are encouraged to uphold a policy of "neutral point of view" under which notable perspectives are summarized without an attempt to determine an objective truth. Wikipedia's status as a reference work has been controversial since its open nature allows vandalism, inaccuracy, inconsistency, uneven quality, and unsubstantiated opinions. It has also been criticized for systemic bias, preference of consensus or popularity to credentials, and a perceived lack of accountability and authority when compared with traditional encyclopedias. But the scope and detail of its articles, as well as its constant updates, have made it a useful reference source for millions.

The whole article is found here:

At the end of 2005, journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. found that his biography had been vandalized. In May of 2005, someone edited his biography, suggesting that Seigenthaler was involved in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. It was months before the bogus information was discovered by Seigenthaler. His outrage provoked Wikipedia critics.

Seigenthaler was right to be upset, and the ease with which someone could make such remarks is a flaw with the system. He has a point. His biography is an obscure topic, which is likely why the error wasn't found. On the other hand, it was pointed out that he could have edited the article himself, but chose not to in order to point it out to the media. He spoke out against Wikipedia, but his comments gave the site additional exposure. Some changes have been made to address this problem, but the site is still susceptible to vandals.

(Interestingly, a study by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia has an error rate about the same as the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

For the full article on the controversy, click here:

This brings us to Marty Meehan. On July 18, 2005 someone on his staff edited his Wikipedia biography. There were a couple of things that Meehan didn't like stressed:
  • Meehan said he would run for no more than four consecutive congressional terms when he ran for office in 1992. He was re-elected every two years since, including in 2004. 2004, of course, marks his fifth term. He says he reneged on his promise because to stick with it would be a disservice to his constituents.
  • Meehan is an advocate of campaign finance reform. He sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (called the "Shays-Meehan Bill" in the House and the "McCain-Feingold Bill" in the Senate). Meehan, though, seems to be part of the problem. His organization has almost $5 million on hand. He raised over $3 million for his 2004 campaign but only spent about $460,000. His opponent collected and spent less than $31,000. On average, incumbents raise just over $1 million while challengers raise less than $200,000.
Someone in his office didn't like these comments mentioned in Meehan's bio, so they changed it. The change was noted and Matt Vogel, his chief of staff, admitted on January 27, 2006 that he authorized Meehan's biography to be replaced with a staff-written biography.

Not only is Meehan a hypocrite, that fact is now more widely disseminated now than if his staff hadn't even heard of Wikipedia.

Some folks have pointed to the Meehan case as more proof of the flaws in Wikipedia. Others have pointed out that the system worked in this case. Meehan's tampering was noted and posted. Now there is a section in his biography about the controversy.

I, personally, love Wikipedia. It's fast and convenient, and often has more depth in its articles than similar online sites. With any piece of research, you have to look at the footnotes. I read a lot of history books. I don't have time to research the footnotes; I'm lucky if I have time to find a review of the book. With Wikipedia, many article footnotes are links to sites, making it easier to check the veracity. If an article is biased, it is often labeled as such. Every article has a section where people can leave comments. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia, Wikipedia is meant to be interactive and a "living document".

As long as Wikipedia can make it through its growing pains, and can get past the current "credibility gap", it has an excellent chance of supplanting old school research sources. That's scary to some, but I think it's a positive thing. It's about time people started thinking critically about things they read. It's about time people stopped being spoon fed their information.

Friday, February 17, 2006

I'm stuck on the Winter Olympics

One of the reasons I haven't been blogging this week (other than doing the Delta Green write-ups) is because I've been watching the Winter Olympics. This is the second set of winter games I've seen since moving to the South, and this time I can see a lot more of the events because we have cable! Last time around I had to ask my mother to tape the women's hockey final.

Each Olympics one event catches my attention more than others. In the 1976 summer games in Montreal it was gymnastics. In particular, it was women's gymnastics! (Hey, I was almost 14 at the time!) In the 1996 summer games it was men's short track cycling. I followed downhill skiing pretty closely in the 1988 winter games. I was obsessed with bobsled during the 1992 winter games. I first got interested in curling in the 1994 games. In the 1998 games my attention was short track skating. In the 2002 games it was hockey. This year, I've been getting the biggest kick out of watching snowboarding.

My favourite event, so far, is snowboardcross, a snowboarding event that looks an awful lot like motocross. Some people have complained about the X-games events and how they are gimmicks intent on bringing in a younger demographic. Sure, whatever. They are also fun to watch, and just as athletic as any other winter sport (and are far less controversial than skating; besides if you can have solo synchronized swimming as a summer event, why not snowboard cross).

As in the 2002 winter games and the 2004 summer games I find NBC's coverage leaves a lot to be desired. They do a reasonable job of compressing a number of diverse events into a short time frame. I will give them that. Unfortunately, they do it in a stupid manner. Every American in an event gets time in front of the camera. It doesn't matter if they are ranked first or twenty-first. This means that someone has to be left out, and that someone is usually a top 10 competitor from another country. To capture people's imagination, the NBC producers figure they have to tell stories. This means that they have to place important competitors in some sort of context. If they focus on a foreign competitor it means that competitor did well in the event.

An good example of this was women's moguls earlier this week. NBC gave air time to all three American competitors, even though the best U.S. woman finished 10th. Meanwhile, half way through the event they started talking about a Canadian skier. The Canadian was last (at least last during the broadcast; you can never tell if it was edited or not, as they don't show the whole event). The Canadian won. I knew the Canadian medaled only because there was no other reason for NBC to put any emphasis on her.

What bothers me about this isn't the coverage of Americans. It's an American network, after all. What bothers me is that the viewing audience doesn't get to see the best in the events. They get to see all the Americans, the people who medal, usually a fourth place finisher, and any foreigners who round out the event in the time available. If Americans do very well, that means we get to see more competitors. If Americans don't do particularly well, some better performances are missed while the show focuses on inferior Americans.

The one area where this isn't the case is figure skating. Since it's the big draw during the winter games, NBC would prefer that it was all skating and nothing but skating!

I was spoiled by Canada's Olympic coverage. The games were always broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which was a crown corporation. That means that while it's an independent company, it was owned by the Canadian government. It doesn't have to be as commercially successful as a private company. The CBC would run events live, even if that meant they were broadcast in the middle of the night. They know there are Canadians who will get up in the middle of the night to watch their favourite sport live. The CBC would hit the high points of the games during prime time. They would focus on the best competitors, though, not just the Canadians.

There are a number of reasons for this:
  • Canada is a cold climate nation. Winter sports are popular.
  • Canada is ethnically diverse, where immigrants aren't pushed to assimilate. As such, there is always a lot of interest in how other countries fared at the games.
  • Canadians do reasonably well at the winter games, but Canada is usually mediocre in the summer games. Canada doesn't push sports the way the U.S. does. There's a joke that Canada would have more medals than any other country if you got, say, a Tin medal for 4th place. In 1998 it was a national disgrace that the Canadian men's hockey team came in 4th. Canada is the only country not to win a gold medal while hosting the summer games.
I see that Canada is actually ahead of the U.S. in medal count right now! That's quite amazing. (As of today, the U.S. has 6 gold, 3 silver and a bronze, while Canada has 2 gold, 4 silver and 5 bronze.) There's a big push for Canada to do well this year because Vancouver hosts the winter Olympics in 2010. NBC must be looking forward to that. They can run the events live (more or less), and there will be plenty of Americans visiting the games.

We're playing Delta Green this weekend, as long as the freezing rain holds off long enough for Jason and Jimmy to visit. I won't have time to blog because of that. Tonight I hope to watch the women's snowboardcross. Next week, it's the curling finals! What can I say, I like sports that involve strategy!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

New Delta Green writeups

I posted not one but two Delta Green write-ups on HyperBear! Due to a host of timing difficulties, our roleplaying group hasn't played Delta Green since November. That gave me ample time to procrastinate. Now, however, the write-ups are complete (for Delta Green, anyway). You can find them on the Modern Day Delta Green write-ups page. The games were session 3 and session 4 of the Dawn of a New Age scenario.

Our next game is scheduled for February 18, 2006. Now that I have those writeups done, at least, I can settle down and do some more blogging!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Proof Firefox is better than IE

I really should write some more meaningful posts, but I'm in the middle of scenario write-ups, a new Delta Green scenario, and I've stayed up too late the last few nights. Instead, here's some stuff I took from Slashdot.

I use the Mozilla Firefox web browser almost exclusively. I have Internet Explorer on my computer, of course, and I also have Opera installed in order to test my web site. My main browser, though, is Firefox. Firefox is faster to load and operate than IE, and has tab browsing (you can open web pages in tabs instead of whole new windows). Best of all, it has a lot of open source extensions that let you do neat stuff and customize your browser.

Mozilla Firefox grabbed some attention last year in the media as a viable replacement for IE, but lost some ground when some serious security holes were discovered. Forget the fact that IE has bigger holes, Firefox was supposed to be better than IE. Recently, Slashdot ran an article stating that the Mozilla team were faster at fixing bugs than the Internet Explorer team. According to the article, the Mozilla team patches critical flaws in about three weeks. Microsoft, on the other hand, took on average 130+ days to fix critical flaws.

Now another study, this one mentioned on Yahoo (which I found via Slashdot), says that people will have a safer experience surfing the web with Firefox than with IE. IE can be as much as 21 times as likely to infect your computer with spyware as Firefox.

The author of the study set up two configurations to automatically surf the web. One configuration was that of a "newbie" who blindly answers "yes" when a web site asks if it can load something potentially malicious. The other configuration was set to give strong security. 1.6% of domains infected the PC running IE with the newbie configuration. 0.6% of domains planted spyware in what is called a "drive-by download attack" (that is, it installed spyware even though the user clicked "no" when asked for installation permission). Doesn't sound like much, but there are an awful lot of web sites out there. By comparison, Firefox allowed the computer to be infected 0.09% of the time in the newbie configuration, and did not let it happen in the secure configuration.

A lot of sites are doing weird things to get around pop-up blocking., a roleplaying site, now adds links to peoples messages without their permission. A number of sites (such as my favourites and bring up new browser windows with ads in them when you click on a control on the page. Firefox has a wonderful extension called Adblock which kills all of these ads. It's more than just a pop-up blocker; it can kill ads at the source.

The only pain with using Firefox is that some awful people (including someone at my work!) code their web sites so that they only work properly with IE. This is for a couple of reasons. Firefox adheres more closely to the web browser standard than IE, but a lot of lazy web designers have coded for Microsoft's broken standard. Microsoft supports special controls (ActiveX controls) that are outside the web browser standard. Now Firefox comes to the rescue. The Mozilla team can't make people write proper web sites, and they don't want to break the standard and do the rotten things that Microsoft does. So, there's now an extension for Firefox that lets you select a web site and open it in IE. It's not opening a new browser, it's actually running the web site in Internet Explorer from within Firefox!

This extension has saved my sanity at work, but I notice (surprise, surprise) that the horribly designed State of Louisiana employees web site — which only works correctly in IE, and half the time not even then — only sort of works with this extension.

You can find Mozilla Firefox at The extensions are found here:

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bush "did not mean it literally"

In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush said the following:
Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.
Last Thursday, Bush's Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that the president did not mean it literally. Bodman said, "This was purely an example."

Bodman explained that the use of technology will reduce the need for oil by 75% of what is currently being imported from the Middle East. So, take the amount of oil being imported today from the Middle East and take 75% of that. That's how much — according to Bodman — that the U.S.'s oil requirements will be reduced. Even though it sounds like Bush said he'd reduce oil imports from the Middle East by 75% (that would be the part where he says, "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025"), Bodman claims that isn't the case. The U.S. will still need Middle East oil in 2025 because the Middle East produces oil and oil is bought on the open market, thus it's hard to stop the flow of oil into the U.S. from one specific source.

Okay, that makes a certain amount of sense (though, uh, wouldn't it be possible to simply limit the number of ships coming into the U.S. from Middle East ports?). Why didn't the President just say it like that?

According to Bodman, the President wanted to dramatize the issue in a way that "every American sitting out there listening to the speech understands."

That sounds like he didn't think the American people would understand it if he just said, "We hope to reduce oil imports by 45% by 2025." (The 45% figure is 75% of 60%.)

But even that isn't what the president said. He said he'd replace (not necessarily reduce) Middle East oil imports by 75%. Since the U.S. imports slightly over 20% of its oil from the Middle East (14.5% from Saudia Arabia, 4% from Iraq, and 1.7% from Kuwait), he could have more clearly said, "We will reduce our need for oil by 15% by 2025," as 75% of 20% is 15%.

Instead, he thought it would be clearer if he said it so that folks implied he's reduce oil from the Middle East by 75%, knowing that most Americans are not sure how much oil is imported from the Middle East.

I first heard about this on The Colbert Report. The liberal-biased media haven't picked up on it; it's letting folks find out from fake news outlets. Well, that's not entirely true, the Kansas City Star has an article on it:

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Some computer stuff

The Stones are on at half time at the Super Bowl, so I thought I'd spend the time doing a blog entry. (I just noticed something. My Friday post, which I had problems posting, isn't listed in the entries I can edit. That's weird. A bug at, no doubt.)

I checked the Risks archive and found some interesting computer risk stuff. There's also some neat stuff at Slashdot.

  • Matt Cutts' blog had a post explaining that BMW's German web site was delisted (i.e. pulled) from Google. The original post explains the problem but keeps the German car manufacturer's name out of it. The most recent post states that BMW was delisted and camera manufacturer Ricoh may not be far behind. Apparently BMW has a page with a lot of keywords. The keywords trick search engines into thinking there is a lot of content on the page, thus raising its profile in search listings. If a user clicks on the search engine link, they are taken to this page which immediately takes them to another page via javascript. Google is clamping down on such things, which breaks their rule of "don't show the search engine one thing and the user another". BMW can request to be relisted after they fix the offending pages.

  • Apparently you can buy the call log of anyone with a cell phone. The FBI paid $160 to get the records of an agent's cell phone. The Chicago Sun paid $110 to buy the records of a month's worth of calls for one of their reporters. So, anyone can find out whom you called if they want to fork over the money. And anyone could buy the phone records of, say, a police officer known to deal with snitches or undercover cops.

  • The Sensenbrenner/Conyers analog hole bill will make it illegal to sell products that allow you to copy analog signals (i.e. 8mm or VHS video, or record albums) to digital (DVDs, MPEGs, WAVs, or MP3s). The bill will require companies to comply with a couple of copy protection schemes. One of the Risk contributors found that to get the specs for VEIL, one of the schemes, he would have to pay $10,000, sign a non-disclosure statement, and he would be unable to tell anyone. This is a piece of technology that could be part of legislation. It makes you wonder if the people crafting the law are under the same constrictions. It also makes you wonder what time bombs could be hidden within the technology.

  • Remember that Southwest aircraft that overran the runway in Chicago on December 8, 2005 and killed a young boy? The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) announced that the thrust-reversers on the plane were 18 seconds late to engage. This is what caused the aircraft to go off the runway. However, this kind of problem could be avoided in the future. The pilots punched in the conditions of the runway into a computer, which guided them onto the ground. The computations included the thrust-reversers coming on at the correct time. The NTSB is suggesting that thrust-reversers should not be part of the equation, so if they fail the aircraft still has a reasonable chance of stopping. By the way, if the thrust-reversers had worked correctly, the plane would have stopped 30 yards shy of the end of the runway, which is less than 1% the length of the 4,000 yard runway.

  • Just like the rest of us, Prince, Snoop Dogg, Bon Jovi, and U2 need to call tech support from time to time. For example, Bono needed help with an Xbox problem during a recent tour in Canada. According to Slashdot, Joshua Kapellen, of Best Buy's Geek Squad, has been on the road with U2 since 2004. He fixed the problem and a few minutes later was playing Xbox games with Bono. How do you get this kind of gig???

  • Don't expect compact cameras to get many more megapixels than 7 or 8. This is all that's needed to get half decent detail in 13 by 19, according to Canon. The megapixel battle, they predict, is over. As a point of contrast, an IS0 100 large format camera (the kind used by many professionals) has over 10,000 megapixels...


Back to the Super Bowl. I was hoping Seattle would win, only because I tend to favour the underdog and Seattle hasn't received much in the way of respect this week. While they were the dominant team in the first half they were pretty sloppy. Now they just scored a touchdown, and they are only behind 14 to 10.

That's the game, but it's only half the spectacle. The other half are the commercials. I've found them to be slightly better than last year, but still a little disappointing. So far the best commercial was the FedEx caveman ad. The Diet Pepsi music ad was cute, but the Diet Pepsi Jackie Chan ad fell flat. Many of the ads seem to be sequels to commercials we've seen for months (like the monkey spots, though it was fun to see the woman who works for a company of jackasses). The Hummer Godzilla ad was cute, but that's the main problem with them: they're mostly just "cute". Oh, well, there's always next year...

(Edit: Seattle lost. I could have predicted it, because every time I choose a team that I have no real emotional connection to, they lose. I could probably make money on this if someone could bet on the team I don't pick without my knowledge.)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

I noticed that CNN finally mentioned the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, now that it's escalated. I heard about it for the first time on Monday via, of all things, The Miniatures Page, a web site for miniature games. They mentioned that Cougar's Corner, a Danish web site dealing with miniatures games, was hacked by Muslim hackers. The only reason this site was targeted was, apparently, because it was Danish.

On September 30, 2005, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed a dozen cartoons featuring the Muslim prophet Muhammad. They commissioned and published the cartoons as a statement about freedom of speech and self-censorship. KÃ¥re Bluitgen is a Danish writer who had great difficulty finding artists to illustrate his children's book on Muhammad. The artists feared violent reprisals by Muslim extremists if they depicted the prophet. The cartoons were the newspaper's response.

The Muslim community, in general, was incensed by the cartoons. Many — including non-Muslims — considered the comics provocative and offensive. Muslims around the world considered it blasphemy.

According to various Hadith (the traditions related to the sayings and doings of Muhammad), the depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy, as it's a form of idolatry. Muslims are to worship god, not Muhammad. The proscription against idolatry makes a certain amount of sense, especially given the extreme level idolatry in the Catholic church in the first millennium, and how Christians often seem to worship Christ over God. The depiction of Muhammad is not entirely proscribed, though. Some schools of Muslim thought feel the depiction of humans at all is wrong, while others compromise by showing Muhammad with his face cloaked in a hood. There are others, still, who think his depiction is okay if it is respectful.

There's no denying that the cartoons were not respectful. One cartoon shows him with a bomb in his turban. Another has a number of figures, including what could be Christ and Buddha, joining Muhammad in a police line up. However, the cartoons brought up an interesting discussion about artists censoring themselves due to the fear of reprisals. Can there be freedom of speech under such circumstances? It was perhaps heavy handed, but it was an important message.

Muslims in Denmark and abroad were furious. On October 19, representatives of 10 Muslim nations asked to speak with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss this alleged "hate speech". Rasmussen declined. He said that he could not interfere with his people's right to free speech, though he said that blasphemy and discrimination could be fought in the courts. The Muslim nations were not content with this response.

The Arab League condemned Denmark in December. On January 10 of this year a Christian newspaper in Norway published the cartoons. Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their Danish ambassadors. Pakistan urged Denmark to penalize the cartoonists. Bahrain demanded action by other Arab leaders. Danish products were destroyed and banned throughout the Middle East. There were protests in Pakistan and mass demonstrations in Iraq. The European Union's Gaza offices were invaded by 15 masked gunmen, who demanded an apology from Denmark and Norway but left without further incident 30 minutes later.

The Danish prime minister apologized to Muslims but also said there was little they could do due to freedom of speech laws.

In the last couple of days papers in Germany, France, Belgium, and Iceland published the cartoons. Gunmen returned to the EU offices in Gaza and declared it closed. The British Islamist group Al Ghurabaa publish an article on their website titled, "Kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammad". Official Muslim government responses called for legal punishments against the cartoonists and restrictions on freedom of speech. A number of Danish web sites have been hacked by Muslim hackers, regardless of political content (or lack thereof).

The Western response is, of course, something different. The United States and Great Britain denounced the publishing of cartoons that could be considered offensive, while at the same time asserting an individual's right to free speech. The British foreign minister praised the restraint of British newspapers in not publishing the cartoons. The EU came out in support of Denmark, claiming that the ban on Danish goods was against world trade regulations. The UN's High Commission on Human Rights is investigating the cartoons to see if they are racist.

Western individuals have been less diplomatic. A number of groups (conservative, liberal, libertarian, white supremacist, pretty much the whole gamut of American politics) have come out in support of Denmark due to freedom of speech concerns. A number of American blogs have called for the purchase of Danish goods in support of freedom of speech.

The situation is escalating, not subsiding. It's entirely possible that a terrorist attack might result.

I haven't seen the cartoons, so I can't really comment on them. I'm all for freedom of speech, but I feel that there has to be some responsibility to it. You don't yell "Fire!" in a crowded room. I'm not a huge fan of cloaking hatred in "freedom of speech". At the same time, I'm most definitely not a fan of restricting speech. It's too easy for a government to declare speech off limits. A democracy only functions when (or, more accurately, because) politicians can't easily stifle criticism.

Muslims should have the right to decry what they think is offensive. That's part of freedom of speech, after all. Banning Danish products may be against trade rules, but you can't make people buy a country's products. I remember in the mid 90s when Spain was poaching in the Grand Banks during the Canadian cod ban. Canadians stopped purchasing Spanish products. That, in itself, is a form of free speech.

However, Muslim countries need to put their money where their mouths are. The cartoons may be blasphemy, but they are nowhere near as offensive as calls for the death of the cartoonists. Muslim nations need to prosecute anyone issuing death threats, particularly if they want to be taken serious when they are "offended".

I'm not holding my breath.

(Edit note: I created this post on Friday night. It was visible until I posted today's entry, after which it disappeared. I'm re-posting it, verbatim.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Robertson screw

The Ground Zero Games mailing list recently had a post from someone in Australia explaining how some young players didn't know how many inches there were in a foot, as Australia was metric. This resulted in me posting about Canada's use of the metric system except in the building trades. (Most carpenters and trades people refused to go metric when Canada went metric, and the building supply companies prefer to deal in imperial measure so as to be compatible with the U.S.) In the post I happened to mention one of the best Canadian inventions ever: the Robertson screw. This elicited enough interest by American members of the list that I thought I'd mention it in Designated Import.

The Robertson screw is a screw with a square slot in it, instead of the X shaped notch of a Phillips screw, or the straight slot of a "slot head" screw. It was invented by Peter Lymburner Robertson of Milton, Ontario in 1908 (patented in 1909). Here's a link to a picture of deck screws from the Robertson company's online catalogue:

The screw is superior to the slot head and the Phillips screw. The square slot is tapered inward slightly. The screwdriver head is also tapered. This provides a tight fight with the screwdriver head. This means that you can place the screw on the driver, hold the screwdriver horizontally, and drive the screw into a wall with one hand. The tight fit makes it far less likely to strip the head on a Robertson screw than a Phillips screw. (There is an American version of the Robertson without the taper. Since there may be slight variations in screwdriver and screw size, the screw has to be slightly over sized compared to the driver, which greatly increases the chance of stripping the screw.) Due to the tight fit, you can get specialty angled screwdrivers for the Robertson screw.

The slot differs in size based on the size of the screw (which is the case with Phillips and slot head screws, too). Robertson made choosing the right size of screwdriver easy by colour-coding the handles. No. 1 and 2 screws use a #00 screwdriver with an orange handle. No. 3 and 4 screws use a #0 screwdriver with a yellow handle. No. 5, 6 and 7 screws use a #1 screwdriver with a green handle. No. 8, 9 and 10 screws use a #2 screwdriver with a red handle. No. 12 and larger screws use a #3 screwdriver with a black handle.

The Robertson screw accounts for 85% of screws sold in Canada. I never willingly bought a screw other than a Robertson, it was just so obviously superior. The next time I'm in Canada I intend to buy a big supply of the screws for home use; I already have the screwdrivers. In the U.S. it only accounts for about 10% of screw sales.

So why, if it was so good, wasn't it more popular in the U.S.? It's been largely ignored in the States due to a poor business decision that was made for good reasons. Robertson licensed his screw to companies in Europe. A British company that licensed the screw deliberately allowed their company to collapse and then snatched up the license from the trustees at a bargain. Robertson spent years and a small fortune in court in order to get back the license. In the U.S. Henry Ford tried the screw and discovered it shaved two hours off the assembly time of his vehicles. He wanted to license the screw from Robertson so that he could make sure the screws were available and so he could control their manufacture. Due to his bad experience in Britain, Robertson refused. Later, the Phillips screw came along. Phillips did license his screw to Ford, and it became the standard screw in the U.S.

Today, Robertson, Inc. has a manufacturing facility in China, with increased use of the screw in that nation. It's possible that, one day, Robertson screws will become far more popular in the U.S. I hope it happens, because it is clearly superior to its competitors.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

President's ban would hamper valuable research

Last night was the State of the Union speech. All the major networks were covering it. I watched other stuff, including Invader Zim, instead. Oh, and I was plotting the downfall of a neighbour in a play-by-e-mail game of Diplomacy.

This morning I see that he's reached out to conservatives by, once again, calling for laws that would curtail genetic research. Some of his other science and technology initiatives are positive, like spending more money on alternative fuel sources. Of course the spending amount he's asking for is puny. Considering the profit made by oil companies, it's too bad he cut corporate taxes earlier in his administration, isn't it... Anyway, here's what he said about genetic research:
A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research -- human cloning in all its forms -- creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos.

Human life is a gift from our creator -- and that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale.
Gosh, that sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it? No "playing god". No "human-animal hybrids". Where's the harm in that?

Well, according to the Pharyngula blog (a science blog over at ScienceBlogs) it would make illegal research that is currently being done on Down syndrome. That blog puts it in more detail, but what it comes down to is this: scientists have been able to implant a human chromosome 21 into mice embryos, who in turn develop many of the same characteristics of Down syndrome. This gives scientists an animal test subject for which they can try to repair or prevent the genetic abnormality.

This line of research, one of the most promising for people suffering from this abnormality, would be made illegal of President Bush had his way.

It's obvious that Bush is pandering to the religious right with scary scenarios of human-animal hybrids, ala The Island of Dr. Moreau. In trying to wrest political capital, he will — if he gets his way — condemn countless people (all of them as yet unborn) to what will ultimately be needless suffering.

This is an issue near to me, as my family (on my Dad's side) suffers from Huntington's Disease.