Friday, May 27, 2005
Trust Your Judgement
For more than four years - steadily, seriously, and with the unsentimental rigor for which we love them - civil engineers have been studying the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, sifting the tragedy for its lessons. And it turns out that one of the lessons is: Disobey authority. In a connected world, ordinary people often have access to better information than officials do.
Proof can be found in the 298-page draft report issued in April by the National Institute on Standards and Technology called Occupant Behavior, Egress, and Emergency Communications. (In layman's terms, that's who got out of the buildings, how they got out, and why.) It's an eloquent document, in many ways. The report confirms a chilling fact that was widely covered in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. After both buildings were burning, many calls to 911 resulted in advice to stay put and wait for rescue. Also, occupants of the towers had been trained to use the stairs, not the elevators, in case of evacuation.
Fortunately, this advice was mostly ignored. According to the engineers, use of elevators in the early phase of the evacuation, along with the decision to not stay put, saved roughly 2,500 lives. This disobedience had nothing to do with panic. The report documents how evacuees stopped to help the injured and assist the mobility-impaired, even to give emotional comfort. Not panic but what disaster experts call reasoned flight ruled the day.
In fact, the people inside the towers were better informed and far more knowledgeable than emergency operators far from the scene. While walking down the stairs, they answered their cell phones and glanced at their BlackBerries, learning from friends that there had been a terrorist attack and that the Pentagon had also been hit. News of what was happening passed by word of mouth, and fellow workers pressed hesitating colleagues to continue their exit. (Link)
If You Want to Blow Up Washington.
Why the Europhiles Are Voting "No" to the EU.
All of this reminds me of the collapse of the Charlottetown Accord here in Canada. It was in essence a new constitution for Canada, and all the politicians argeed that this was "Good" for Canada. They then decided to call a referendum to get the support of all Canadians.
I was opposed, and in my first political act as an adult I voted no to the accord. I agreed with most of it, but the articles for amending the constitution became very onerous. We would have been stuck with this document and it had a lot of flaws.
In the end most Canadians told the politicians to fuck off, and the accord died.
The same thing is happening in the EU now. The process has gone too quickly and with too little input from the people, and in France and the Netherlands the Eurocrats are going to be told to fuck off. This is probably a good thing; another attempt, a less ambitious attempt, with be made to create a new constitution and it will succeed.
All say that they feel themselves vaguely to be Europeans, not just French. All are students in engineering at a prestigious institute in Toulouse - a booming, cosmopolitan city, heavily dependent on trade with Spain and Italy, and the European Airbus.
Two will vote against the European Union constitution on Sunday. One is torn between support for the idea of a united Europe and hatred of the language in the text. The fourth will vote "yes", but with a heavy heart.
Alexandre, Sylvain, Baptiste and Nicolas, aged 19 or 20, are members of an informal debating club at the Institut National des Sciences AppliquÃ©es in the suburbs of Toulouse. They have agreed to meet me to explain why - against all expectations and past voting patterns - young people in France, aged 18-25, plan to vote crushingly against the EU treaty. . .
Sylvain Girssner - long hair, black sweat-shirt and dark glasses, a definite "non" - said: "I have been shocked by some of the language in the treaty. Money, free trade, profits and unrestricted competition are the only values ... This treaty simply does not represent my view of the world."
Alexandre Larribeau, short-haired, blue-shirt, a half-Spanish Parisian, and another definite "non" said: "OK, most of the language about free markets and competition has been in all the previous European treaties. But no one asked us about the previous treaties ... We are looking at the language now for the first time and seeing what the EU is all about and we don't like it. And we don't like the idea that this constitution could freeze things like that for 80 years."
All are in favour of some form of European Union, maybe even more federalist than the present EU. Asked what their "alternative Europe" would do, if it did not promote trade, they say: "A much more ambitious, common environment policy, Europe-wide harmonisation of social guarantees and a better deal for the developing world."
This is not the selfish, nationalist, left of most French trades unions, terrified of an invasion of Polish plumbers. It is not the workerist left of the Communists or the miserabalist-ideological extreme left. It is a more humanist, softer, vaguely anarchist, pro-Third World left, influenced heavily by the anti-globalist movement. It is reminiscent of the idealist-hedonist left of my own student days in the early 1970s. (Link)
Pentagon: We Didn't Flush The Qur'an
The Pentagon admitted last night that it had uncovered five instances of mishandling of the Qur'an at Guantánamo Bay, but it claimed that there was "no credible evidence" that a copy had ever been flushed down the toilet.
Brigadier General Jay Hood, commander of the US prison in Cuba, said an investigation had uncovered 13 separate allegations that the Qur'an had been mishandled, 10 by prison guards and three by interrogators.
Presenting what the Pentagon described as an interim report into alleged mistreatment of the holy book at the base, he said that in only five of those 13 instances - four of which were by guards and one by an interrogator - was there anything that could be broadly defined as mishandling of a Qur'an.
The investigation follows publication of allegations about the toilet incident in Newsweek magazine that was blamed for rioting in Afghanistan during which 16 people died. The magazine published a retraction, but went on to detail further allegations of desecration of the Qur'an by US military interrogators.
Brig Gen Hood said that in three of the five instances the mishandling appeared to have been deliberate, but refused to elaborate other than to say that none of the incidents was a result of a failure to follow standard operating procedures.
But he was emphatic that a prisoner who reportedly complained to an FBI agent in 2002 that a military guard threw a Qur'an in the toilet has now told investigators that he never witnessed any form of Qur'an desecration.
Following his complaint to the FBI agent, the unidentified prisoner was questioned by Pentagon officials and said only that he had heard talk of guards mishandling religious articles, but did not witness any such acts, according to Brig Gen Hood."I'd like you to know that we have found no credible evidence that a member of the joint task force at Guantánamo Bay ever flushed a Qur'an down a toilet," he said. (Link)
Business Leaders Demand Climate Action
A group of Britain's leading industrialists has written to the prime minister urgently demanding long-term policies to combat climate change.
The heads of the 12 leading firms say climate change is a huge challenge that needs serious investment by business.
But they say they cannot invest because they are not sure what future government policies on climate will be.
The letter is signed off by the heads of BP, Shell, HSBC Bank, BAA, John Lewis, Scottish Power and more.
Between them the firms employ tens of thousands of people and have a turnover of £452bn.
The letter has been arranged through the Prince of Wales Business and Environment programme. The business leaders say they are very concerned about the prospect of dangerous climate change and support the government's target of reducing CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050.
They regret that industry and government are currently caught in a Catch 22. Governments are nervous of clamping down on climate change emissions for fear of a backlash from business.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) successfully lobbied against proposed cuts last year. They said the measure would harm British business.
The Department of Trade and Industry and the prime minister have so far been backing the position of the CBI.
But in their letter the business leaders say they believe emissions cuts of 60% can be achieved in the UK without damaging competitiveness if firms use energy more wisely and harness new technology.
They believe measures to hold CO2 emissions to a safe level would reduce economic growth by no more than 2% by 2050.
They say bold policy action could actually boost Britain's profits by making the UK a world leader in low carbon technology.
The group say some of the technologies to achieve this goal already exist but need to be developed. Some are yet to be invented.
They point to a study showing that even if the UK starts seriously developing the market for zero emissions cars now, total emissions from cars will not start to fall until 2040.
The business leaders demand that the government establishes a long-term value for carbon emissions reductions and consistently supports and provides incentives for the development of new technologies.
They say the prime minister's presidency this year of both G8 and the EU offers an historic opportunity for a breakthrough on climate.
At home the group say the government should eliminate contradictory policies that lead to increase in CO2 - such as out of town developments.
They say ministers should make sure no new policies on any topic will fuel climate change. (Link)
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Where the Hi-Tech entertainment business is going
This article is an excellent overview of the fight for control of the media distribution system everyone is expecting to come into being over the next few years. A lot of the pieces are there but the ensemble has not come into being.
How do you predict the future? That's easy. How do you create the future? That's hard.
Over the years, I've probably written a dozen columns about how to predict the future. The process is pretty simple, really. Just look for a logical vector from the past to the present, then use a bit of English to predict a second vector from the present to the future, because there is always a kink precisely at the point we call "today." Recalculate occasionally so the vector turns into a curve and converges on some date you've chosen in the future. What makes predicting the future easier than creating it is that only observation and thought are required, and that vector is the sum of all forces, seen and unseen. Creating the future, in contrast, requires lots of work, and all the forces generally have to be summoned or at least enticed by the creators, which makes it a combination of engineering, marketing and voodoo. Unseen forces, rather than being automatically integrated, are what kill you.
In high-tech, we like to look back at the days of Xerox PARC in the early 1970s as an idyllic period of future creation. Within three years, fewer than 100 people invented computer networking, client-server computing, graphical user interfaces, and laser printing. They did so by literally living in the future -- using Moore's Law to anticipate the probable performance of hardware 10 years in the future, then building that hardware, no matter how high the cost, and creating for it applications that represented the best way to get work done. Xerox PARC created many things, but one of the most important was a creative culture that was software-based because it had to be. The hardware was all cobbled from eyes of newt and sealing wax -- materials that probably wouldn't be used in real products a decade hence - but the software was real. And it changed the way technologies were developed.
But it didn't create the future.
What Xerox PARC did was to help make the future (today's present) possible. Those people laid out a vision of the future, but except maybe for the laser printer, they did little to actually make it happen.
This is just a long way of getting around to another look at last week's column on inflection points, of which I pointed out four: Microsoft's apparent betrayal of its hardware OEMs with the Xbox 360, Google's apparent power grab with its Google Web Accelerator, Yahoo's big play to dominate subscription music services, and the final pieces coming together for Apple's video download strategy. These may turn out to be inflection points or not -- I don't really know. And whatever they are, they are at best attempts to influence the future, because that's a huge (and very difficult to control) part of creating the future. No entity is powerful enough to make the future do anything. All we can do is nudge.
Even the most powerful industrialists with the biggest bets on a particular version of the future can at most influence where things are going. We saw Bill Gates do that recently when he predicted the ultimate demise of the iPod at the hands of mobile phones. Because we'll eventually all carry phones, Bill argued, and because smarter and smarter phones will do more than just make phone calls, we'll have no need for an iPod. That's the impeccable logic of a man who makes mobile phone software and has no horse in the portable music player race. He's trying to influence the future, not predict it. That's a subtle difference, I'll grant you, but it is a difference. And if you'll look at Bill's record for predicting the future, it is mainly about influencing, and therefore, hasn't been very accurate. Mine is better.
So is the Xbox 360 a betrayal of Microsoft's hardware OEMs or not? Jim Allchin said recently that it wasn't intended to be a home media center -- that would be left to the Media Center version of Windows. Intentions are all about positioning, not reality. While Microsoft may say the Xbox isn't a media center, it appears to be one and Microsoft will be thrilled if the public recognizes it as such. It might also be positioned as a component in a media center strategy involving a PC, but if that's not a direction the market takes, will Microsoft suddenly stop making Xboxes? Of course not.
So while the Xbox may not be perceived by HP and Dell as a frontal assault on their PC businesses, nobody will be surprised if it becomes that. And it isn't lost on Intel that the XBox uses a PowerPC processor or three.
Just as any company that would like to help define the future, Microsoft is throwing products onto the market and making pronouncements intended to affect the market, but only time will tell what will actually happen.
The same for Google and its Google Web Accelerator. Readers were doubtful about my idea that this was a land grab on Google's part. More likely it was market research or an effort to make Google's own spider programs work better by uncovering previously hidden web real estate. Maybe, maybe not. But Google thinks big and they don't do frivolous public betas.What we can say about any public beta from Google is that it is a statement of direction and possibly an effort to influence the future. So let's think a bit further about where this accelerator thing could be going. Let's refine our vision a bit.
Google just bought land in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland, Oregon -- 30-plus acres with options on additional parcels. What the heck is that for? This is beautiful land outside any major city. Not enough land for a corporate campus, but that's okay, because there isn't much in the way of local housing, anyway. So what's it for?
It is probably for a data center -- a one million-plus square foot data center that could easily be inhabited by a million or more CPUs. The attraction for Google is reliable electrical power since their new property is not far from one of the many dams and powerhouses that make up the Bonneville Power System.
Now drop back to the Google Web Accelerator. Yes, it is just one of many Google initiatives. Yes, it can be circumvented in a number of ways. But Google is planning something big, so how could the Web Accelerator be a part of that?
What did Bill Gates say? That the iPod was at best a transitional technology to be supplanted by mobile phones? Well, it is true that we'll all eventually carry phones. And it is true that we are all wanting more and more information. And it is undeniably true that the current view of the World Wide Web from most so-called "Internet-enabled" mobile phones is pretty pitiful. Enter one possible version of the Google Web Accelerator as an intelligent web interface generator for mobile users. There is no other project I have heard of that could -- on-the-fly -- convert web content for this new interface, which happens to be used by more than a billion people worldwide.
One way to influence the future -- particularly if you are a rich player with little or no market share in a new segment -- is to dramatically underprice the competition, just as Yahoo has done to Real and Napster with its $6.99 per month Yahoo Music subscription service. Real contacted me this week to say that there is no way that $6.99 is Yahoo's actual cost to provide the service, so the company has to be losing money on every subscriber. But for a new entrant in the field -- one with essentially no subscribers -- the cost is really minimal.
In the publishing business, one measure that every executive knows is the marginal cost of acquiring a new subscriber. You'd be amazed at the cost, too, which in publishing is typically around the cost of a full-priced one-year subscription, which might be $10-$40 or more. That's why magazines work so hard to keep us RE-subscribing, because a retained subscriber is just as valuable as a new one, and a lot cheaper.
Now look again at Yahoo's music plan, and you can see that they are willing to pay a certain amount per subscriber, and that the easiest subscribers to get are those poached from another service, since they already believe in the concept. Yahoo's probable goal is two-fold: to take the lead in subscription music services, and to remove from the field completely one of its major competitors, probably Napster.
If Napster reduces its subscription price to compete with Yahoo, it will immediately start losing more money than Yahoo simply because it has more subscribers. More importantly, though, Napster's whole business plan gets squished and its ability to raise more money is diminished. Yahoo's pockets are deeper than Napster's and Real's, but Yahoo will probably settle for removing a single player from the field. The question then is whether the market will stick with Yahoo if it raises prices? THAT will determine where the future really lies.
Now to Apple. It is one thing for a Microsoft, with 95 percent market share (and then some), to try and influence the future, but very much another thing for an Apple, with around two percent. But maybe market share isn't all that important. I know that Steve Jobs is thinking in terms of his place in history, and he isn't even remotely satisfied with the current story. Bill Gates once told me that Steve could never win, but Steve doesn't know that, which is a decided advantage.
Apple's story is an example of seeding technology and having to wait to harvest. IPods help, of course, but there are still 20 times as many personal computers as iPods, so iPod is only part of the story. The bigger part is Apple's QuickTime, which they'll be happy to tell you is installed in more than 400 million devices, of which 98 percent are NOT made by Apple.
Apple, like Microsoft, wants to be in the content business. And even more than Microsoft, Apple has done a pretty fair job of seeding its technologies into industry standards. And finally, Apple has become a true consumer electronics manufacturer, which requires a mindset that opens a number of interesting possible futures.
Microsoft's vision of the future inevitably has at its center a device that costs at least $250 and averages closer to $500. Apple, as a software-centric maker of consumer electronic devices, can set its device price much lower, say around $125. That's a market intrinsically four times the size of the one envisioned by Microsoft. We saw this in last week's column, where it became clear that the endpoint of Apple's video strategy isn't a Mac or a PC at all, but a hardware decoder device the size of a pack of cards. That's a much easier sell, but it has to be backed up with Internet services to make it work.
These Internet services, based on QuickTime, are what Apple has spent so many years building and seeding in the marketplace. Apple doesn't need to increase Macintosh market share to be successful in the movie download business. Nor do they require a large end-user installed base to be a dominant player in back-end services. Apple's goal is to remake the entertainment business and so is Microsoft's, yet in the entertainment industry, where it counts, Apple's presence is as great or greater than Microsoft's. This didn't happen by chance, but is a clear result of Steve Jobs' attempt to create the future in his own image.
Only time will tell if it works. (Link)
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Galloway slams the U.S.
Here is what he said.
The excerpt is about four minutes and is amazing.
Canadian Political Drama Put to Song
British Anti-War Thug Trashes U.S. Senate Committee
Whatever else you made of him, when it came to delivering sustained barrages of political invective, you had to salute his indefatigability.
George Galloway stormed up to Capitol Hill yesterday morning for the confrontation of his career, firing scatter-shot insults at the senators who had accused him of profiting illegally from Iraqi oil sales.
They were "neo-cons" and "Zionists" and a "pro-war lynch mob", he raged, who belonged to a "lickspittle Republican committee" that was engaged in creating "the mother of all smokescreens".Before the hearing began, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow even had some scorn left over to bestow generously upon the pro-war writer Christopher Hitchens. "You're a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay," Mr Galloway in formed him. "Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink," he added later, ignoring Mr Hitchens's questions and staring intently ahead. "And you're a drink-soaked ..." Eventually Mr Hitchens gave up. "You're a real thug, aren't you?" he hissed, stalking away.
It was a hint of what was to come: not so much political theatre as political bloodsports - and with the senators, at least, it was Mr Galloway who emerged with the flesh between his teeth.
"I know that standards have slipped in Washington in recent years, but for a lawyer, you're remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice," he told Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the senate investigations committee, after taking his seat at the front of the high-ceilinged hearing room, and swearing an oath to tell the truth.
"I'm here today, but last week you already found me guilty. You traduced my name around the world without ever having asked me a single question."
The culture clash between Mr Galloway's bruising style and the soporific gentility of senate proceedings could hardly have been more pronounced, and drew audible gasps and laughs of disbelief from the audience. "I met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him," Mr Galloway went on. "The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns, and to give him maps the better to target those guns."
American reporters seemed as fascinated as the British media: at one point yesterday, before it was his turn to speak, Mr Galloway strode from the room, sending journalists of all nationalities rushing after him - only to discover that he was going to the lavatory.
By condemning him in their report without interviewing him, the senators had already given Mr Galloway the upper hand. But not everything was in his favour. For a start, only two senators were present, sabotaging Mr Galloway's efforts to attack the whole lickspittle lot of them - and one of the two, the Democrat Carl Levin, had spent much of his opening statement attacking the hypocrisy of the US government in allegedly allowing American firms to benefit from Iraqi oil corruption.
Even so, Mr Galloway was in his element, playing the role he relishes the most: the little guy squaring up for a fight with the establishment.
For these purposes, Senator Coleman served symbolically to represent all the evil in the world - the entire Republican party, the conscience of George Bush, the US government and the British government, too: no wonder his weak smile looked so nauseous.
"I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq ... senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong," Mr Galloway told him.
And yet for all his anti-establishment credentials, Mr Galloway is as practised as any of his New Labour enemies at squirming away from awkward questions. Under scrutiny by Senator Levin, he deployed a classic example of the bait-and-switch technique that is the government minister's best defence in difficult questioning.But Mr Galloway Goes To Washington had never really been an exercise in clarifying the facts. It was an exercise in giving Norm Coleman, and, by extension, the Bush administration, a black eye - mere days after the bloody nose that the Respect MP took credit for having given Tony Blair. And it went as well as Mr Galloway could have wished. (Link)
Five years minimum until "peace"
That reminds me, a lot of the leadership in the U.S. is confused about the insurgency in Iraq because it lacks a political wing. It is largely just violence without trying to present an alternative to the American puppet regime. I have seen comments along the lines of, "how can they hope to win when they don't present a credible alternative regime?" This shows a major misunderstanding about the insurgency. The insurgents are expecting a civil war, after the Americans are gone, until them they will not present a political alternative because the media is largely controlled by the U.S., so any attempt to engage in debate would be a play into America's hand. THe insurgents are fighting a war of liberation against American rule, or a decolonization struggle would be another way of looking at it.
It could take at least five years before Iraqi forces are strong enough to impose law and order on the country, the International Institute of Strategic Studies warned yesterday.
The thinktank's report said that Iraq had become a valuable recruiting ground for al-Qaida, and Iraqi forces were nowhere near close to matching the insurgency.
John Chipman, IISS director, said the Iraqi security forces faced a "huge task" and the continuing ability of the insurgents to inflict mass casualties "must cast doubt on US plans to redeploy American troops and eventually reduce their numbers".
Insurgents have killed 600 Iraqis since the new government was formed. The IISS report said: "Best estimates suggest that it will take up to five years to create anything close to an effective indigenous force able to impose and guarantee order across the country."
The report said that, on bal ance, US policy over the past year had been effective in emboldening regional players in the Middle East and the Gulf to rally against rogue states.
But it warned that the inspirational effect of the intervention in Iraq on Islamist terrorism was "the proverbial elephant in the living room. From al-Qaida's point of view, [President] Bush's Iraq policies have arguably produced a confluence of propitious circumstances: a strategically bogged down America, hated by much of the Islamic world, and regarded warily even by its allies".
Iraq "could serve as a valuable proving ground for 'blooding' foreign jihadists, and could conceivably form the basis of a second generation of capable al-Qaida leaders ... and middle-management players", the report said.
Yesterday, a statement was placed on the al-Qaida in Iraq website claiming that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Islamist who has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, had been injured.
The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, asked Muslims to pray for his recovery but did not say how or when he was injured. It said: "Let the near and far know that the injury of our leader is an honour, and a cause to close in on the enemies of God, and a reason to increase the attacks against them."
There were reports this month that the US military was investigating whether al-Zarqawi was at a Ramadi hospital and whether he was ill or wounded.
The thinktank report points to US estimates that there are between 12,000 and 20,000 hardcore insurgents in Iraq. It says that Iraqi politicians have been keen to blame the rise in sectarian violence on foreign jihadists. "But they may have overstated their case."
Insurgents demonstrated their ability to hit US forces in the heart of the Iraqi capital yesterday when a military convoy was targeted by a car bomb, killing three US troops.
A fourth US soldier was killed in a drive-by shooting as he sat atop a Bradley fighting vehicle at an observation post in central Baghdad.
The US military also announced yesterday that four soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb on Monday in Haswa, 30 miles south of the capital, bringing the total number of US fatalities since Sunday to 13.
Yesterday, Iraq's new interior minister, Bayan al-Jabr, who is also a member of the ruling Shia-led alliance, met two prominent Sunni Muslim figures in an effort to reduce sectarian tensions. Officials said the meeting was designed to "curb all hateful attempts aiming to plan sectarian sedition among the Iraqi people".
Toby Dodge, senior fellow at the IISS and expert on Iraq, estimated yesterday that there were about 1,000 foreign fighters in Iraq "perfecting the use of car bombs" and causing more problems across the region, including Saudi Arabia. There seemed to be no "viable exit strategy" for foreign troops.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
American Conscript Spies
Here's how the "spy" section of the legislation works: If you "witness" certain drug offenses taking place or "learn" about them, you must report the offenses to law enforcement within 24 hours and provide "full assistance in the investigation, apprehension and prosecution" of the people involved. Failure to do so would be a crime punishable by a mandatory minimum two-year prison sentence, and a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Here are some examples of offenses you would have to report to police within 24 hours:
You find out that your brother, who has children, recently bought a small amount of marijuana to share with his wife; You discover that your son gave his college roommate a marijuana joint; You learn that your daughter asked her boyfriend to find her some drugs, even though they're both in treatment. In each of these cases you would have to report the relative to the police within 24 hours. Taking time to talk to your relative about treatment instead of calling the police immediately could land you in jail.
In addition to turning family member against family member, the legislation could also put many Americans in danger by forcing them to go undercover to gain evidence against strangers.
Even if the language that forces every American to become a de facto law enforcement agent is taken out, the bill would still impose draconian sentences on college students, mothers, people in drug treatment and others with substance abuse problems. If enacted, this bill will destroy lives, break up families, and waste millions of taxpayer dollars. (Link)
In Vienna, they've started running freight over the tram system. The Wiener Linien, the public transport authority, runs perhaps the best system I've ever met (especially as they haven't discovered the ticket barrier yet), including an intricate network of tramways carrying a variety of different trains that I'm not sick enough to detail. The plan, now, is to carry goods needed to maintain the system on goods trams like the one shown, and then perhaps also deliveries to businesses in the city, waste for disposal, and maybe also post. Link (in German) and more pics: here.
The trams are known as "bims" from the sound of the bell that invites the unwary to stand clear, as they go like a bat out of hell at the slightest provocation. For some reason, in my experience, the further east you go in Europe the faster the trams get - the Bratislava ones are quicker, and the huge ones in Budapest are a public menace rivalled only by the cars. (Link)
Is Bush Paranoid?
An aircraft carrier packed with hundreds of US marines will be anchored off the west coast of Scotland during the G8 summit, according to security sources.
The assault ship, also laden with helicopters, is expected to be dispatched as the United States armed forces prepare their own massive security operation to protect the president, George Bush, during the Gleneagles summit in July.
A fleet of Galaxy C-5 planes, carrying armored limousines and the helicopters that will take Bush and his entourage to the venue, is expected to touch down at Prestwick airport. The US is also believed to be insisting on having its own command post so it can act independently of the British police and military if there is a threat to the president.
A military source said: "The Americans want to do everything themselves. They want to have their own helicopters; their own armored limousines. This happens at every summit like this, and it always causes tension between America and their hosts. (Link)
Tha Anatomy of Sarcasm
The ability to comprehend sarcasm depends upon a carefully orchestrated sequence of complex cognitive skills based in specific parts of the brain. Yeah, right, and I'm the Tooth Fairy. But it's true: New research details an "anatomy of sarcasm" that explains how the mind puts sharp-tongued words into context. The findings appear in the May issue of Neuropsychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
The Israeli psychologists who conducted the research explain that for sarcasm to score, listeners must grasp the speaker's intentions in the context of the situation. This calls for sophisticated social thinking and "theory of mind," or whether we understand that everyone thinks different thoughts. As an example of what happens when "theory of mind" is limited or missing, autistic children have problems interpreting irony, the more general category of social communication into which sarcasm falls.
Simone Shamay-Tsoory, PhD, and colleagues at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and the University of Haifa, studied 25 participants with prefrontal-lobe damage, 16 participants with posterior-lobe damage and 17 healthy controls. All participants listened to brief recorded stories, some sarcastic, some neutral, that had been taped by actors reading in a corresponding manner. Here is an example of sarcasm: "Joe came to work, and instead of beginning to work, he sat down to rest. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard." Meaning: "You're a real slacker!" Here is a neutral example: "Joe came to work and immediately began to work. His boss noticed his behavior and said, "Joe, don't work too hard!" Meaning: "You're a hard worker!"
Following each story, researchers asked a factual question to check story comprehension and an attitude question to check comprehension of the speaker's true meaning: Did the manager believe Joe was working hard? When participants answered got the fact right but the attitude wrong, they got an "error" score in identifying sarcasm.
Participants with prefrontal damage were impaired in comprehending sarcasm, whereas the people in the other two groups had no such problem. Within the prefrontal group, people with damage in the right ventromedial area had the most profound problems in comprehending sarcasm. The ventromedial area is the inferior (rear) part of the prefrontal cortex, and includes the cortex on top of the orbits of both eyes and the inside part of the frontal lobes.
The findings fit what we already know about brain anatomy. The prefrontal cortex is involved in pragmatic language processes and complex social cognition, thus it followed that that participants with prefrontal damage had faulty "sarcasm meters." At the same time, damage to the ventromedial area, which is involved in personality and social behavior, will disrupt not only understanding sarcasm but also understanding social cues, empathic response and emotion recognition. The authors write, "Understanding sarcasm requires both the ability to understand the speaker's belief about the listener's belief and the ability to identify emotions."
The findings highlight the importance of lesion size in sub-regions of the frontal lobe because the extent of the right ventromedial lesion was significantly related to performance in the sarcasm task: The worse the damage, the greater the impairment.
In sum, Shamay-Tsoory and his/her colleagues propose a neural network for processing sarcastic utterances:
- 1-The left hemisphere language cortices interpret the literal meaning of the utterance;
- 2-The frontal lobes and right hemisphere process the intentional, social and emotional context, identifying the contradiction between the literal meaning and the social/emotional context;
- 3-The right ventromedial prefrontal cortex integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional knowledge of the situation and previous situations, helping the listener determine the true meaning.
Shamay-Tsoory says, "A lesion in each region in the network can impair sarcasm, because if someone has a problem understanding a social situation, he or she may fail to understand the literal language. Thus this study contributes to our understanding of the relation between language and social cognition." (Link)
Tragic, Unfortunate, and really weird
Thanks to Luke for sending this one to me.
PS. This story is wrong on at least four different levels, probably more.
Spectators cheered as entire Cambodian Midget Fighting League squared off against African Lion
Tickets had been sold-out three weeks before the much anticipated fight, which took place in the city of Kâmpóng Chhnãng.
The fight was slated when an angry fan contested Yang Sihamoni, President of the CMFL, claiming that one lion could defeat his entire league of 42 fighters.
Sihamoni takes great pride in the league he helped create, as was conveyed in his recent advertising campaign for the CMFL that stated his midgets will "... take on anything; man, beast, or machine."
This campaign is believed to be what sparked the undisclosed fan to challenge the entire league to fight a lion; a challenge that Sihamoni readily accepted.
An African Lion (Panthera Leo) was shipped to centrally located Kâmpóng Chhnãng especially for the event, which took place last Saturday, April 30, 2005 in the city’s coliseum.
The Cambodian Government allowed the fight to take place, under the condition that they receive a 50% commission on each ticket sold, and that no cameras would be allowed in the arena.
The fight was called in only 12 minutes, after which 28 fighters were declared dead, while the other 14 suffered severe injuries including broken bones and lost limbs, rendering them unable to fight back.
Sihamoni was quoted before the fight stating that he felt since his fighters out-numbered the lion 42 to 1, that they “… could out-wit and out-muscle [it].”
Unfortunately, he was wrong. (Link)
Capitalising on adversity
A South Korean barbecue restaurant that was trampled by elephants last month has reopened after repairs and is now capitalising on its mishap.
The eatery in the capital, Seoul, has been renamed Restaurant Where Elephants Have Been and is offering a special elephant-inspired menu.
Three elephants smashed windows and overturned tables on 20 April after escaping from an amusement park.
Customers fled in terror. One woman was knocked down, suffering broken ribs.
But now the owner of the restaurant, Keum Taek-hoon, has used the insurance money she received after the break-in to remodel her restaurant.
It now has a sign featuring three elephants and offers an "elephant set" - seven vegetable dishes and a hot soup, "since elephants like to eat vegetables", she said.
Ms Keum said many more customers were now visiting her restaurant, out of curiosity.
"What can I say about the elephants? Thank you for causing the trouble? Well, that just might be right," she said. (Link)
When adventurer Duane DeFreitas isn't avoiding rattlesnakes, he's probably instant messaging. Welcome to the internet, jungle-style.
Taking a break from setting up a small network, I head outside to see if the nearest building is likely to be able to pick up a wireless network signal. "Make sure you turn right at the bottom of the stairs," says my host, "or the jaguar will eat you."
Welcome to the surreal world of Duane DeFreitas, an adventurer and guide living in the tropical rainforest of Guyana.
DeFreitas spends months at a time in the jungle, exploring the wilderness, photographing wildlife, and acting as a guide for researchers and intrepid travellers. The only means of transport are boats (if you don't mind carrying them round the odd set of treacherous rapids) and feet.
There's nothing to fear in the jungle, except crocodilians, piranhas, sting rays, venomous snakes, scorpions and carnivorous jaguars. Oh yes, and the beavers can give you a nasty bite too. Not surprisingly, most people in the jungle walk around with large knives, or "cutlasses" as they are known locally, just to be on the safe side.
When he's not out in the forest, home to DeFreitas is Dadanawa ranch, a collection of wooden buildings in the middle of nowhere, including a slaughter house where lunch is killed, and a tannery where the skin from yesterday's lunch is turned into leather.
DeFreitas has given up his collection of pet rattlesnakes after one bit him, but under the house is a collection of monkeys, and, tied to a piece of climbing rope attached to a cable stretched between two trees, the jaguar - healthy, lithe and potentially lethal - which he saved as a cub when its parents were killed.
Scattered around the place is a collection of old truck parts and bits of iron which may come in handy from time to time. Out here it pays to be self sufficient: the nearest town is across the Rupununi river and down a gruelling four-wheel-drive track - about three hours away in the dry season, or about three days away in the wet. There's no telephone, no mains electricity, no anything really.
Except, surprisingly, broadband internet access, in all its glory. With a satellite dish outside the house, and electricity provided by solar panels and a current inverter, DeFreitas is possibly the world's least likely internet nerd.
It's amazing how useful the internet is when you're out in the jungle.
At one point DeFreitas tells me that a plane I am scheduled to be taking in a few days' time has been cancelled, but rearranging my travel plans is as easy as getting online and having an instant message chat by candlelight with someone in Georgetown, the capital.
Thanks to the internet, it's possible for DeFreitas to stay in contact with Jacksonville Zoo, in Florida, which is sending a cage for the jaguar, and which will soon be taking the animal away where it can be looked after professionally.
And using internet telephony program Skype, DeFreitas will soon be able to chat with other Skype users around the world - just as soon as he figures out where to get a microphone and speakers from.
Which highlights a major problem for the adventurer-nerd type. The internet brings a vast array of goods and services within reach, but how do you actually get your hands on them?
To use an internet telephony service to call regular telephone numbers, or to order most stuff online, you need to have a credit card. The trouble is that when you live in the jungle, you tend not to use - or even have - plastic. Which means if you live in Amazonia, you probably can't use Amazon.
Still, the same old internet-related problems occur in the rainforest as in the most mundane broadband-connected home in suburban Britain. The principal one, of course, is that - with very little to do in the evenings apart from drinking rum and listening to the insects - the whole of DeFreitas' family wants to use the internet at once.
Which is why it's fallen to me to figure out how to configure an ancient router that's appeared from somewhere to configure a network to cover the whole ranch, and why I need to see if a Wi-Fi signal would reach the wooden building next door.
It's easy to make a dog's dinner of setting up a network, but in this case, it would all too easy to end up making a jaguar's dinner of it too. (Link)