Exploding Marmite!

The Register reports that the House of Lords debated the ban on carrying liquids onto planes, and thereby demonstrated that British politicians are as stupid and scaremongering as their US counterparts.

At times, the debate seemed to verge on the whimsical.
“We should not complain too loudly,” said the Baron. “I always celebrate the fact that there is effective security at airports… A friend of mine had two jars of Marmite confiscated, which I thought was a bit tough at the time, but these are the things that we have to put up with.”
The only possible reading of this is that, now that the Baron has been briefed in by security experts, he no longer considers the Marmite seizure unjustified. The implications of this are literally breathtaking.
Yes, that’s right: the government have warning of a fiendish terrorist plot to destroy airliners using EXPLODING MARMITE. (Aiee!)

Where’s Neddy Seagoon when you need him for the voice-over?


Leopard: the complete review

Or at any rate, the closest thing to a a complete review that you’re going to find outside a $20 book. We’re talking about Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard: the Ars Technica review, by John Siracusa:

These two views of Leopard, the interface and the internals, lead to two very different assessments. Somewhere in between lie the features themselves, judged not by the technology they’re based on or the interface provided for them, but by what they can actually do for the user.

In other words, it’s both comprehensive and balanced, covering everything from the apps and the UI to the developer frameworks and kernel features. ((Siracusa’s description of Dtrace verges on the orgasmic ecstatic.)) It’s a must-read for all Mac users as well as system software aficionados.


Flexcar merges with Zipcar

Flexcar and Zipcar have just announced that they’re merging. This is excellent news. It means that I’ll be able to rent vehicles as and when I need to in both Seattle and Boston (and San Francisco, come to that). Unfortunately I doubt that they’ll complete the integration of their systems by the time I next head east (in January). That would be a great Flexcar opportunity…



Andrew Sullivan has posted a review of “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency” by Charles Savage. It looks like an essential, if blood-pressure-raising, read.

One thing I’d forgotten, of course, is one central case in which torture did give us actionable intelligence:
“Al Qaeda continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction… I can trace the story of a sernior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story.”
The man who spoke those words was Colin Powell at the UN. The “operative”, we now know, was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libbi. He was waterboarded and given Bush-approved hypothermia treatment, i.e. frozen till he could take it no longer. It was only then that he told of al Qaeda’s links with Saddam’s WMDs. Guess what? Libbi subsequently retracted his confession. According to ABC News, the CIA subsequently found al-Libbi “had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.” So I now realize that part of the reason I believed the WMD case for war against Saddam was because the Bush administration had been secretly torturing suspects and got false confessions. The biggest intelligence failure in recent US history – the WMD case in Iraq – was partly created by the torture policy.

Of course this will not convince those who respond reflexively to the term “waterboard” by comparing it to student hazing, or argue that it can’t be torture if it was used in SERE training. ((Sully cites the Chief of Training at SERE, who wrote: “SERE staff were required undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception. I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people. It has been reported that both the Army and Navy SERE school’s interrogation manuals were used to form the interrogation techniques used by the US army and the CIA for its terror suspects. What was not mentioned in most articles was that SERE was designed to show how an evil totalitarian, enemy would use torture at the slightest whim. If this is the case, then waterboarding is unquestionably being used as torture technique.)) Such people are utterly beyond the reach of reason.


So much for the Spinning Dancer

A couple of weeks ago, I ((and most of the blogosphere)) linked to a cool optical illusion of a spinning dancer. At the time, I didn’t realize that people were interpreting this as a “left brain vs. right brain” thing, but apparently they were. Now ScienceLine has a nice piece by Jeremy Hsu called Does the “Right Brain vs. Left Brain” Spinning Dancer Test Work? in which he takes a crack at the pop-science notion of left vs. right brain:

If the test sounds flawed, that’s not just because one shouldn’t use spinning dancers to characterize their brain strengths. Rather, the test is coming up inaccurate because it provides a crude view of the “lateralization of brain function,” or the concept that each side of the human brain specializes in certain mental activities.


Congratulations Boston Red Sox

Boston seems to be dominating in American sports these days… pretty amazing. I’m hoisting a glass of bubbly in the general direction of the Sox. (Denver or Fenway… it’s all east from here.)


Upgrading to Leopard

I picked up a copy of the new Macintosh OS X, Leopard, and installed it last night on my PowerBook. It was rather more troublesome than I expected, and there are definitely a few rough edges. Here are the main points (including a strong warning).

  • Obviously I prepared for this by doing a full backup. I wanted the backup to be bootable, in case my HD became unusable, so I carved out a partition on an external FireWire drive that was exactly the same size as my (80GB) internal disk. I used the Disk Utility “Restore” function to make an exact copy of my internal disk. One consequence of this was that the backup partition got the same name as the internal disk, “Macintosh HD”. This is probably significant – I had two mounted partitions with the same name.
  • I started the upgrade by inserting the DVD and running the installer. What this does is to set the boot drive to the DVD, and then reboot. After rebooting, and accepting the license, the installation program asked me to pick the drive for the installation. It showed the partitions on my FireWire drive, but not my internal HD.
  • What was going on? I checked with Disk Utility (available through the installer), but it couldn’t see any mountable partitions on my HD. I tried to eject the DVD, but I couldn’t. I rebooted off the (bootable) partition on the FireWire drive, but I still couldn’t see/mount my internal HD. I was, however, able to eject the DVD.
  • Finally I decided to zap the PRAM in the PowerBook, by power-cycling and holding down Cmd-Opt-P-R. This allowed me to reboot the PowerBook from the internal HD. Check the disk… OK. Time to start over.
  • I unplugged all external devices from my PowerBook, rebooted, inserted the DVD, ran the installer, allowed it to reboot, accepted the license, and was asked to pick from… no disks at all. My internal HD was still invisible. I ran Disk Utility, checked the logs, brought up a terminal, poked around, closed the terminal… and then, quite suddenly, my “Macintosh HD” appeared in the list. I have no idea what was going on. Was it checking the file system? If so, why was there no feedback… and what hadn’t it done the same with my FireWire drives?
  • Relieved, I allowed the upgrade to run to completion. It took about 90 minutes.

So my advice: unplug all external devices before upgrading, and be prepared to wait for a while without feedback. (Others have reported similar issues on the Apple Support Forums.)
There have been a few other glitches. If you’re upgrading an existing Mail configuration, you should run Mail to allow it to update the mailstore, and then go through every preference option to make sure it’s configured correctly. Quite a few things have changed. I have been using the GPGMail plugin to manage gpg-encrypted email; the plugin no longer works, and Mail disables it.
I’m also having Wifi (Airport) problems. Every so often, I’ll see the icon grey out and I’ll lose the connection to my Airport Express; when I do, the system log contains messages of the form:

Oct 27 13:24:36 silk mDNSResponder[47]: Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (; network traffic reduction measures in effect
Oct 27 13:24:36 silk mDNSResponder[47]: Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (FE80:0000:0000:0000:0211:24FF:FEA3:0C42); network traffic reduction measures in effect
Oct 27 13:24:36 silk mDNSResponder[47]: Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (; network traffic reduction measures in effect
Oct 27 13:24:40 silk mDNSResponder[47]: Note: Frequent transitions for interface en1 (; network traffic reduction measures in effect

This is probably a symptom of an Airport driver which is cycling the interface up and down inappropriately. I’ve also had /usr/lib/airportd crash with a SIGSEGV; I’m going to file the bug with Apple in just a minute. ((There’s an active thread over in the Apple forums on this topic. Looks like a major issue for a lot of people.))
One other oddity: the DVD includes a folder for “Optional Installs”. This includes the developer tools (as usual), but there is also an installer for a bunch of random stuff: obvious things, like various localization files, fonts, and printer drivers, but also various applications, some of which are part of the base OS. There’s no indication anywhere as to what you’re supposed to do with this stuff. ((OK, I take that back. Apparently you can choose not to install certain applications during the main installation, in which case you can add them later on. That makes some sort of sense – but I wouldn’t expect Safari to be on that list!)) I wound up installing everything except the unnecessary localizations and printer drivers.
Overall Leopard is very nice. The look and feel is much more consistent than before; Time Machine is gorgeous. Everything feels a bit more responsive, and Safari gives me far fewer “beachballs”. The controllable grid spacing in Finder is a great improvement. I haven’t tried Spaces yet, since I use multiple screens already.
More as I learn…
UPDATE: Apple has just released Login & Keychain Update 1.0 for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which seems to fix the WiFi problem. Of course, in order to for you to be able to install it, your WiFi will have to stay up long enough for Software Update to download the fix…
UPDATE: Several comments here have useful links; in addition you might want to check out Eric’s blog.


The straw that breaks the camel's back

King Kaufman, Salon’s sports correspondent:

So I was thinking to myself, “What’s the deal with all this schlocky movie music Fox has been using on its postseason broadcasts?” Wednesday when the Fenway Park public address announcer introduced John Williams, the guy who writes all that schlocky movie music. He was there to conduct a subset of the Boston Pops for the national anthem.
The announcer called Williams “the epitome of our culture.”
And that’s when I decided to go live among the howler monkeys.


"Laws Are for Other People"

Here’s Christopher Orr in TNR:

Whether he intended to or not, at a town meeting in Iowa last night Rudy Giuliani offered what may be the most honest defense of torture I’ve seen from an American politician. It is also, of course, a deeply immoral one. Asked whether waterboarding constituted torture, he replied:
It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. [emphasis mine]
What the United States is doing isn’t torture because it’s the United States doing it. I suspect this is the way a lot of torture apologists feel, but give Giuliani credit for being (I think) the first to come out and say it.

This is the same Giuliani who said at the United Nations, on October 1 2001:

On this issue – terrorism – the United Nations must draw a line. The era of moral relativism between those who practice or condone terrorism, and those nations who stand up against it, must end. Moral relativism does not have a place in this discussion and debate.
There is no moral way to sympathize with grossly immoral actions.

Hypocritical S.O.B….


"Never Attribute To Malice That Which Can Be Adequately Explained By Stupidity."

Quite apart from ignoring their own End User License Agreements, it now appears that Microsoft doesn’t understand the concepts of A/B testing and “phased deployment”. One user reported that:

Window Server Update Services forced Windows Desktop Services 3.01 on the fleet of machines even though admins had configured their system to install updates only for existing programs and the search program wasn’t installed on any machines (well, until then, anyway).

Of course, Microsoft’s EULAs are written so broadly that it is probably quite legal for them to trash your system by mistake.