Saturday, March 15, 2003

The More Things Change ...

Or perhaps, "Like father, like son?"

Wampum Blog tracks down the headlines from early March, 1991. Eerily similar to what we are seeing now. Bush. Saddam. Recession. Budget crunches. The Alaskan wildlife refuge. France.

Or maybe the newspapers are just repeating themselves. Cutbacks, ya know. Save on reporters' time by recycling crises (and headlines).

Friday, March 14, 2003

The Eldritch Quintuplets

There was a Mad Arab who said
That Cthulhu, though dreaming, is dead,
But some future night
When the stars become right,
He'll abandon his watery bed.

The Eldritch Quintuplets is the complete fictional works of HP Lovecraft, rewritten as limericks. I almost shudder to think what of Lovecraft's writing is nonfiction (his letters, probably. He basically starved to death while keeping up a huge correspondance. Very like a lot of bloggers ...) Of course, one of the assumptions in the 1970 nutcult classic Illuminatus! was that Lovecraft wrote only nonfiction ... Serious warning -- if you are offended by anything, it's in that book someplace.

I guess this one counts as both Harpo Marx and H. P. Lovecraft. "It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!"

Recipe de Jour

Fluffy Mackerel Pudding.

Let me get this straight:

  • Fluffy
  • Mackerel
  • Pudding

Oh Kaaaaay ... This is just one of a series of Weight Watchers recipes from the 1970s.

Unfortunately (remember, I'm a Lovecraft fan), the page author didn't see fit to include the actual recipe. Knowing Weight Watchers, it probably includes liver, too.

The classic in this genere is, of course, James Lilek's Gallery of Regrettable Food. Sadly, no recipes there, either.

Mutter. Fluffy. Mackerel. Pudding.

Mmmm, Barbecue!

Q: Why does PETA hate fur more than leather?
A: It's safer to harass elderly rich women than motorcycle gangs.

Now I know what I'm doing tomorrow. It's "Eat an Animal for PETA day!"

A number of years ago, before this whole Internet thing really got going, a guy I know registered the domain name "". PETA here stands for "People Eating Tasty Animals". He put up a page with links to resources for hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, fur, etc, etc. The response was, err, interesting. Turns out that a lot of PETA types are just as stupid and vicious as the critters they're protecting. PETA sued and the courts went with the money and loud voices to give the domain to PETA.

Once,I was talkikng with a woman who was doing medical research at the National Institutes of Health. She wouldn't say exactly what her research was, but it involved killing large numbers of rats. She told about a confrontation with an "animal rights" protester:

By killing those innocent animals, you are ruining your Karma. Maybe you'll be a rat in a medical experiment in a future life!
But the rats have to work out their own karma! Perhaps some of those rats have been trapped on the Wheel of Karma since their part in the Black Death. We're helping their spiritual progression!

In my opinion, PETA is a reasonably good idea gone horribly wrong. There have been organizations devoted to fighting "cruelty to animals" for over 150 years. Most of them are reasonably sensible. PETA makes the whole bunch look like idiots.

That Explains It!

Latest on the AOL/Time Warner mess. Makes as much sense as anything else.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Fairy Gold

Let's say you're sitting around one day, doing nothing in particular, and a leprechaun appears and gives you a pot of gold. Great! You're rich! Except that it isn't real gold, it's fairy gold. It will disappear at midnight.

What do you do? Well, the obvious answer is to trade your fairy gold (which looks exactly like real gold) for something that won't disappear at midnight. You can even tell people exactly what it is -- "This is fairy gold. At some point, it will disappear." It's a game of musical chairs -- everybody wins except the poor sucker who's holding it at midnight. Since you've told people this will happen, you can't really be blamed.

Virginia Postrel, in a piece called "Not Devious, Stupid", discusses the AOL/Time Warner merger, and points out that it doesn’t really make sense from a business standpoint. True. [Editorial comment -- duh!]

However, look at the "internet bubble". Everybody knew it couldn't last forever. Stock prices rose to levels that were, literally, insane. Many of the dotcoms had business plans that could never possibly make money. So here you are. You have a big block of wildly overvalued stock. You can't just sell it -- the SEC doesn't like it if the company dumps all of its stock. Anyway, selling it would, at best, depress the market and, at worst, break the magic spell. What do you do? Well, the obvious answer is to use it to buy "real" companies.

Time Warner was an obvious target for AOL. In particular, its entertainment division provided a "cash cow" that would be unaffected by any future Internet collapse. It was also considered to be undervalued. So AOL traded its "fairy gold" stock for Time Warner's "real" stock. Keep in mind that the "name of the game" in business isn't "profit". Any accountant can make any amount of "profit" appear and disappear almost at will. The thing that you really have to look at in a business is cash flow -- and Time Warner certainly has plenty of that.

The biggest problems with the AOL/Time Warner merger were size and corporate culture. Time Warner was a much older and more experienced company, as well as having many more employees than AOL. It was obvious that the "young guns" of AOL didn't stand a bureaucratic chance against the old hands at Time Warner. While AOL officially "owns" Time Warner, AOL/Time Warner is starting to look a whole bunch more like Time Warner than AOL.

I started working in this crazy field shortly before the first microprocessors came out. It's been a time of really exciting innovations. Through that entire time, the New Guys have been claiming that their new stuff made everything that came before totally obsolete. What they do, however, is simply demonstrate their ignorance. Our basic business models date from the Fourteenth Century, and they've gotten pretty sophisticated since then.

Lucky Crooks

Virginia Postrel said some interesting things about the "lucky fool" theory of the Internet bubble in a NYT article, and gives a followup pointer to a Business Week article here. Basically, the idea is that the people who start new businesses are wildly overoptimistic about their chances for success relativfe to the expected return. A few "lucky fools" (Bill Gates) make piles of money, while the vast majority of new businesses fail. Key point (from Virginia's Libertarian perspective) is that the risk doesn't justify the return. Libertarian theory assumes that businessmen are steely-eyed, totally accurate robots, completely dedicated to maximizing profit. From the Libertarian perspective, a large group of businessmen consistently misestimating probabilities requires Explanation.

My own experience with the dotcom bubble was that it isn't "lucky fools". It's "lucky crooks".

The Internet bubble reminded me all too much of the movie “The Producers”. The gimmick in the movie was that the producers sold a 20% interest in their play to about 20 different investors, and then produced a play that was guaranteed to fail. They could then pocket the money with no one the wiser. Of course, since this was a movie, it didn’t work that way.

Far too many internet startups worked like this:

  1. Venture capitalist gets together with some guys with an Idea and starts a company. The idea may be good, may be bad, may be ridiculous. VC doesn’t care. Question isn’t “will it work?”, but “will it sell?”
  2. VC gets a big chunk of money from various investors.
  3. VC takes half the money, puts it in his pocket as “fees”.
  4. VC puts his cronies into the new company as all the top brass, at huge salaries. If the VC is “helping” an established company, the old management are thrown out with a big pile of stock options.
  5. The new management spends money like water. Build buildings, hire programmers, go to trade shows, etc. Point is to make a splash. “Product” is irrelevant.
  6. The company goes public. The stock skyrockets, everybody cashes in. Gobs of money for everybody.

If the company never gets to step 6, hey, it’s venture capital. You never expect to bat 1000. Anybody complains about details, well, let’s just say that Arthur Anderson didn’t invent creative accounting. And the VC can afford lots of lawyers.

Point is, the VC makes his money at step 3. After that, it’s essentially irrelevant whether the company ever does anything at all. Now, note that from the standpoint of getting new ideas out into the business world, it doesn’t matter whether the company goes bust or not. Once the company gets into the public view, the ideas are out there. Any patents will get bought up by established companies, who may or may not do anything with them. (The current state of the patent system is a subject for another rant.) Even if the patents never get used, the fact that

  1. Something can be done
  2. It’s worth doing
is a great stimulus to other people to come up with other ways of doing the same thing. Napster is a prime example of this phenomenon. Napster itself is gone, and I suspect its technology is tied up by the record companies to the point that it will never see the light of day. However, we have Gnutella, Morpheus, KaZaA, Freenet, and others doing the same thing, better.

Anyway, I guess the idea is that people are pretty good at estimating the results of their actions -- but they will almost ceratinly use a different "evaluating funcion" than you expect. A venture capatalist can (could?) make gobs of money without ever seeing one of his companies succeed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Got 'im!

Finally! We've got him with the goods! Here are Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction!

Some Good News, For A Change

  • Remember Elizabeth Smart? She disappeared from her home in Salt Lake City about nine months ago. Naturally, everybody assumed the worst. She's been found and she's OK. Prediction -- this one's gonna get weird.
  • The Supreme Court blocked the execution of Delma Banks Jr. While I'm not unalterably opposed to the idea of the death penalty, this case had far too many of the characteristics that set off warning bells. Incompetent defense attorney, prosecutorial misconduct, unreliable witnesses, and, over all, a sense that procedure is more important than justice.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003


If you like English weather, you'll love English cooking.

-- Hagar the Horrible

So, the latest way to show patriotism is by the menu. No more french fries or french toast; it's "freedom fries" and "freedom toast".

Half hearted, half assed, half <body part>. If you're gonna do it, do it right. Remember who our friends are. So tomorrow's menu is:

  • Toad in the hole
  • Bangers and mash
  • Blood pudding
  • Kidney pie
  • Whitebait
  • Mushy peas
  • Spotted dick
  • Rhubarb crumble with custard
  • Special treat: Deep fried Mars® bars

Both Marmite and Vegemite will be available.

BTW, your vacation in Cannes has been rerouted. You're going to Manchester instead.

Recycled Humor

From 1963. Still good. Of course, the Soviet Union is no more (although I sometimes get the impression that the State Department and the Department of Defense are trying to put it back together). But there always has to be an Enemy. Can't have people just wandering around excercising those "freedoms" that folks talk about.

First it was Communists. Then the "Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse" (drug dealers, child pornographers, terrorists, and Unnamed Foreign Opponents). Now it's just Terrorists. Always, our enemies are using our "freedoms" against us, so we have to eliminate those "freedoms". Of course, we're just eliminating the "abuses", like disagreeing with the President.

There's an old saying that "Inoffensive speech doesn't need protecting."

Nightmare Scenario II

In Iraq, everybody knows Nightmare Scenario I. That's where our invasion gets bogged down on the way to Baghdad, the fight moves into the city, the Kurds and the Turks go after each other full scale, the poison gas comes out, and Saddam may or may not have escaped into Iraq's western desert. When the fight is officially over, everybody starts taking potshots at US troops while every Islamist nutcase in the world shows up and starts trying to build his own little Taliban. Iran starts doing "border adjustments.", North Korea builds toward a temper tantrum, China starts making noises about Taiwan, and India and Pakistan face off again.

This is the "obvious" nightmare. How likely this scanario (or any part of it) is is a matter for discussion, but it's in everybody's mind (except, possibly Georgie Bush's).

What could be worse?

How about this? We get ready to roll. We start up the major bombardment that our troops won't move without. And we get a radio message from Baghdad that Saddam is dead. His generals offer us his head (literally!). Aziz goes to the UN and says "all over" and asks for UN protection from a US invasion.

Now what?

Our whole rationale for this little expedition is that Saddam Hussein is Not A Nice Man. Everything is His Fault. Now he's gone, and so is our rationale for being there. Do we just go home?

And the Ba'athists are still in power (think Nazi with "Aryan" replaced by "Arab"). Weapons of Mass Destruction? Nope. Not us. Democracy? Not likely. Inspectors? Why?

We've accomplished essentially nothing. Saddam's successor, lacking Saddam's charm and abilities, will almost certainly be a worse thug than Saddam himself. Dictators make sure that anybody with real talent or leadership dies suddenly. Then they get to yell "Why am I surrounded by idiots?" a lot. We've burned an incredible amount of international goodwill. The French and Germans are going to remember a lot of the more unfortunate things that have been said about them. Do we really want them building their own high-tech armies, and maybe inviting the Russians in on the deal? We may have damaged the UN irreparably (hold the cheering from the John Birch Society), and turned it into the "alliance of everybody but the US". Rember the Law of Bar Fights -- you may be able to whip anybody, but you can't whip everybody. Domestically, we've seen 'way too many people yelling "treason". Georgie Bush's comment regarding Mexico's opposition to the UN war resolution "I don't expect for there to be significant retribution from the government" was especially unfortunate.

True, we have these results whatever happens. But if we get what we want out of the war, it won't all be for nothing. Worth it? Personally, I think that, at this point, there's no way we can ever get anything like a reasonable "return on investment" on this one.

Moral -- there's more than one way to lose a war.

Different Viewpoint ...

... Same answer.

Another use of the phrase "we're the fucking United States of America" as to why we don't use torture. If anybody's counting, I think this one has a few hours priority over the one I quoted here.

The folks over at Sgt. Stryker's Daily Briefing have a somewhat different point of view than the people I usually quote ...

Monday, March 10, 2003

Is This Supposed to be Funny?

"Save" dialogs from a future word processing program.

I think it is a joke.

For now.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

The Game of "What If?"

There's a standard rhetorical technique that I call "the game of 'what if?'". You use a series of "what if?" questions to put your opponent on the defensive, where he has to come up with sensible answers to a series of increasingly unlikely questions. This is an application of the old saying "A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer".

An example, from the idea of torturing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to get details of al Qaeda operations might be "What if al Qaeda had a nuke set to blow in an American city. Would you support torture then? What if it was your city?". If you say "no", then the questioner says "So you'd let millions of Americans die because you're a little squeamish. Just goes to show how shallow, stupid and evil people like you are! You'd deliberately let New York be wiped out to save one crummy Arab and your delicate conscience."

It's hard to counter. Saying (with Jim Henly of Unqualified Offerings) Because we're the fucking United States of America! walks right into this trap. The only way to counter this argument is to refuse to play:

  • There is no evidence whatever that al Qaeda has a nuclear weapon or has any prospect of getting one on the forseeable future.
  • There is no reason to believe that torturing KSM would get us any more information than is already in his notebooks, cellphones, and computer.
  • This isn't the first time we've gotten KSM. This time, we got him alive. Exactly how sure are we that it's really him? Fingerprints? DNA?

Torture, as I've said before, is great for getting "confessions" -- having your victim agree with what you already know -- and useless for real police work. Even the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, usually given as an example of a "successful" torture session, seems to have simply involved having him confirm information that had been found on his computer. Also note that it took several weeks to get even to this point -- in a "Dirty Harry" scenario, whatever was going to happen would have already happened by the time he "talked".

Anyway, the assumption is that "torture works". It doesn't. Real police work works. It's time consuming, difficult, and often dangerous. But it's the only way to get answers that we don't already know. Or, even worse, think we know.

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