Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Google Safe From Cuil

According to studious Brits, the new search engine Cuil.com (named after the mythical Finn MacCuil who, following a salmon cooking accident, had the ability to gain wisdom by sucking his thumb) hasn't got all its kinks ironed out. One review went so far as to suggest it wasn't ever intended to work as advertised, but merely to showcase some search tech components for some hypothetical buyer of crawling and indexing technology.

Entertainingly, I can't find this blog or any evidence of it on Cuil. I can usually use Google to search for posts I would like to link to. And it was sloooow.

As suggested by Daring Fireball, you can follow news about Cuil using Google News.

So, Google is safe. For now ....

Arguing Iraq?

On Brian's Study Breaks, I saw a quote from the Talking Points Blog discussing whether Maliki's discussion with Obama had killed McCain's principle campaign issue.

The number of ways to spin Maliki's statement about timelines probably compares to the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. McCain has already been quoted responding, in effect, well I know Maliki and I know what's going on there, and any withdrawal will have to be conditioned on conditions at the time, so at the end of the day there won't be a timeline, there'll be conditional plans to withdraw.

Maliki and German interviewers have already been at odds over exactly what Maliki said and what it meant. Maybe nobody knows for sure what a politician means when his lips are moving.

One thing is certain: it's put McCain on the defensive and Obama will seek to keep him there.

One thing Maliki has done is to try to redefine victory, though:
So far the Americans have had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal, because they feel it would appear tantamount to an admission of defeat. But that isn't the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory, of a severe blow we have inflicted on al-Qaida and the militias.
via Der Spiegel
The genius here is that Maliki is doing what Americans have failed to do, which is to define victory in a tangible sense. Just because it's arguably true doesn't mean it's not potentially good propaganda.

Curiously, the headline at Der Spiegel stating Maliki endorses Obama's 16-month timeline is contradicted by a careful look at Maliki's actual quote:
That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.
If he isn't accepting Obama's 16-month fixed timeline, is Maliki really endorsing a conditional withdrawal scheme like that suggested by McCain? Obviously I don't think this is what he meant -- it's clear he views McCain as too willing to stay longer than Iraqi politics will tolerate -- but it makes one wonder what he means. Given McCain's comments on Maliki's practicality, perhaps what it means to withdraw U.S. troops also varies from camp to camp; might air support be welcome, but not ground patrols?

The truth is out there ....

The fact that U.S. troops' ongoing presence offend Iraqi's notions of sovereignty are clear from this comment:
It is a fundamental problem for us that it should not be possible, in my country, to prosecute offences or crimes committed by US soldiers against our population
If it's the hope of all parties that Iraq govern itself successfully and defend its people from terrorists, it's odd that there should be such debate about making it plain this has occurred. The political issues seem to include whether Iraq's ability to handle its security problems should be proven ahead of time or should be tested by a no-conditions withdrawal designed to scare Iraq into readiness, and the political charge certain terms like "timetable" and "timeline" have taken on in the U.S.

New Battlegrounds for Apple?

A previous post discussed the possibility that Apple might squander its margins lead over competitors by discarding the commodity hardware that ensures Apple greater profitable pricing range with the same OEM components used by hardware competitors.

Perhaps Apple plans taking advantage of Vista's weakness in the low-end, ultraportable hardware category in order to stake out a big piece of turf.

However, I think something bigger might be lurking.

Remember in the early years of the century when analysts told Apple on earnings conference calls that it should be building PDAs, and Steve Jobs said he thought that PDA makers were doing OK and that he didn't see how Apple would add value to that space, and that Apple expected a major collision between PDAs and cell phones in the near future? The unspoken conclusion that seemed to be offered was we're not interested in that market. Then, a few years and many rumors later, Apple turned up with this product? Folks said Apple was being coy or secretive.

And remember how Steve Jobs said the PC wars were over and that Microsoft had won? And that if he were in charge of Apple, Jobs would forget the Mac other than as a cash cow and get cracking on the next big thing? Following his return and the replacement of the Mac's operating system with the one he had built for Next Inc., Apple's turned in such market-beating growth in the U.S. PC market that Microsoft has launched a new defensive strategy aimed at competition from Apple.

(Maybe part of Microsoft's problem in selling its users on Vista upgrades are the result of Microsoft losing the battle rather than Apple winning it. In either case, the practical result is similar.)

But, think about Apple's share growth. Apple doesn't make a $500 subnotebook. Apple doesn't make any loss-leaders. Apple is taking share in the segment of the market where there's the most money to be made (or lost, depending where you sit). And I submit that Apple isn't making this money purely on the basis of its hardware; Apple is long-known to use a different operating system than other manufacturers, a fact that has historically maintained a barrier to entry for new adopters with investments in non-Mac software titles (or in non-Mac versions of software titles available on either platform).

Apple is taking share instead on the basis of its software. Already a possible world leader in Unix (HP, Sun and IBM, long-time big-iron Unix vendors, still occasionally claim to be the king), Apple is selling its operating system now on set-top boxes, phones, music players, and -- if you can believe this -- computers. The development environment on Apple's platform creates an international advantage on the basis of its software. The fact that small developers can get off the ground quickly using the Cocoa development environment, can deliver single-version applications with support for numerous local languages, can accept user-created language extensions for redistribution, and so forth make it an attractive single-image solution for worldwide operations.

The fact that Apple's future product is not the music player but the Mac platform may not yet be obvious to everyone, but it's clear to this author that Apple is pushing the platform and that various hardware on which it can run are just tools for advancing the whole. Just as Apple didn't really mean it wouldn't build a PDA or a phone -- but was biding its time for attack -- so too did Apple not really mean that the war for platform share was over. Maybe Apple viewed the desktop as old-fashioned and was willing to cede it largely to beige-box makers, but Apple's software strategy clearly calls for folks to run applications on desktops. And notebooks. And handhelds. And on the set top (and maybe soon inside the set itself).

The next battleground for Apple is the old one, sort of -- but also sort of not. Apple isn't setting a 1984-era operating system against something created by keen-witted DEC engineers; it's setting Unix with real-time support and a friendly user-interface against a pig so bloated it can't fit into its briefs.

Anyone want to take a bet when Microsoft ships Windows 7? And how it'll perform on subnotebooks? Or whether it'll run on handhelds? And what one needs to do to localize its native applications?

For the record, I expect that with most of the world not shelling out $1000+ for its computers, Apple will remain a tiny niche player as measured by global unit sales share. However, I expect Apple to release products that don't enter into the denominator of global PC share, and to continue gaining share in the segments of the market that are high-end enough to have profit worth chasing.

The question is, will hardware components become such cheap commodities that demanding users can be satisfied for $450, and if that day comes, what will Apple's competitive strategy be then? Taking the cream of the market over $1000 might not mean as much one day as it does now.

In the meantime, Apple's profit share is much greater than its unit share precisely because it targets the segments where profit exists. So long as commodity hardware can support Apple products, Apple's IP-based margins advantage should position Apple competitively against vendors obliged to pay third parties for their pre-installed operating systems and applications.

Expect Crazy iPhone Share Numbers

Since iPhones were basically out of stock last quarter (Jobs announced 600,000 units sold in the quarter at Apple's developer conference, and then announced 717,000 for the whole quarter), the sales share of the iPhone -- surely noted by some to be "plummeting" -- is likely to take a crazy turn now that iPhone sales have redoubled on the launch of the new model July 11.

Apparently, in the pre-launch period demand for all kinds of smartphones waned, and on launch competing products got slammed. Assuming Rogers' experience in Canada is reflective of broader experience, the industry numbers for smartphone sales will create consternation, and the post-launch sales numbers will create lopsided sales share numbers. Folks will be wondering loudly about the growth of the industry based on competitors' sales, and will be prone to making wild predictions about Apple's future sales based on launch quarter numbers.

Think as you read third parties' bloviations on gadgets and their futures. Anything you invest, you should do on the basis of thoughtful research and not the buffoonery of lazy hypesters. Analysts and reporters don't need to back their predictions with real outcomes. It's your money we're talking about!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Americans Finally Driving Less

Whether due to politics or fuel prices, Americans cut their driving billions of miles last May compared to the prior May. And there are millions more Americans doing this driving.

Nobody Clicking ID Ads

Just as when nobody clicked Mercedes ads after I lambasted the 2004 E230CDI, nobody's been clicking the anti-evolution ads after I dismantled an anti-evolutionist's position.

Honestly, I have no idea why a person reading my blog would want to click either, except for spite. They'd more likely click a Lexus ad or a link to donate to a scientific society.

Google's supposed to be really smart about this stuff, no?

Why Apple's Margins Could Fall

Apple used to make pricey computers using chips not found in everyday PCs, and needed to charge (relatively) a small fortune because the components cost Apple more than vanilla boxmakers' parts cost them.

When Apple announced its future computers would be Intel machines and provided a roadmap for migrating applications to cross-platform builds using the Cocoa application frameworks, it also promised to save Apple from being in effect the party bankrolling an arms race against Intel for performance. Margins seemed to benefit from lack of need to re-invent the wheel. Apple could focus innovation where Apple had real fire, consumer software (it bought all the pro apps it sells, and its home-grown pro apps -- whether stand-alone software like Aperture or Software-as-a-Service offerings like its old email system or its new cloud computing initiative) haven't exactly demonstrated a flair for solid or reliable performance worthy of professionals' trust) and cosmetic design.

(In consumer software, though, Apple has some real success: folks seem happy to buy iLife upgrades, and iTunes has supported zillions of iPod users serviceably enough while helping Apple sell music at a faster clip than can #2 U.S. vendor Wal-Mart. Operating system upgrade revenue is significant in launch quarters to move the margins needle noticeably.)

By owning the operating system when it moved to commodity hardware, Apple gained a terrific position from which to compete: Apple could distinguish machines with Apple software and operating systems while offering compatibility with competitors' products, all while building machines for similar cost to those of competitors but being free never to pay a royalty to Redmond for every box sold. Even undercutting competitors on price, Apple could enjoy higher margins, because Apple would avoid the per-unit cost of an operating system license.

As Apple spreads its fixed operating systems costs across millions of units -- including cell phones and some iPod models -- the per-unit cost to Apple can become trivially small. Yet, as a major hardware vendor in the U.S., Apple can command the best prices on components used in every manufacturer's machines. The more machines Apple sells, the better its margins.

And that's before factoring in software and service sales. That's just the hardware business.

Apple apparently has an itch, though. Apple reportedly will start shipping custom portable computer hardware, involving custom chipsets or motherboard architecture, in order to achieve either size or performance objectives. Leveraging technology from the HyperTransport consortium, Apple may try to reduce latency or increase throughput between components and the CPU, though Intel plans addressing these issues with hardware to be released later in the year.

Why is the performance issue so critical? Does it significantly impact battery life, or other features of significant impact to mobile users? Why should Apple compete on computer hardware technology when it can simply coast along on the tech accepted by every other vendor?

Is Apple angling to rouse Intel to provide special terms to Apple to keep it loyal, by showing that its software architecture enables it to make snap decisions on hardware changes any time Intel is found wanting?

The bottom line is a lower bottom line: if Apple invests in competition to build hardware available as a commodity to competitors, Apple will be building niche gear at a relative premium at the expense of the margin cushion earned by its highly-leveraged operating system investment, but it will do so in a way that involves not only up-front R&D costs but ongoing per-unit production costs over the entire lifespan of the technology. If that lifespan isn't long -- and what is, in the tech world -- Apple faces retreat to commodity hardware or another round of R&D expense. Yes, Apple can certainly choose after it's designed its alternative between its own tech and the commodity parts, but it would still bear the economic burden of engineering the alternative.

Why bother doing this, when Apple's unit volumes surely enable it to play existing manufacturers against one another in an arms race to make a winning Apple supply bid -- and at no cost to Apple beyond seductive phone calls?

There may be a place Apple might productively engage in such research -- like the handheld market, where there is no standard platform from which to ride the train of commodity OEM part supply. I'm not sure the notebook market is the place for this, though I'm open to seeing arguments on the suitability of current tech to the market. After all, Apple did get Intel to engineer special packaging for MacBook Air parts.

So, what's Apple thinking? Is the custom tech for handhelds or tablets or some market that's poorly addressed by existing hardware, or is Apple just itching to wage war on multiple fronts again?

Women's Lib Under Sharia

Pilgrims marking the death of an eighth-century saint had the one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join him today when several women advancing into the ranks of the once male-dominated field of suicide bombers formally joined their fraternity.

Forward-thinking proponents of government conducted in accordance with an ultraconservative interpretation of sharia have in recent years given the nod to the mentally handicapped and to women, actively recruiting them for entry into the profession, the unemployment rate for whose initiates has held steady at an astounding zero percent since statistics have been kept.

Recruiters failed to comment for this story when asked why individuals ordinarily scorned as inferior should be recruited for an endeavor whose craftsmen they claim to be exalted heroes.

Why Is The U.S. (Still) In Iraq?

The New York Times, which recently allowed presidential hopeful Barak Obama to publish and diseminate his views in an in-paper Op-Ed piece, recently rejected a rebuttal submitted by his opponent John McCain.[1]

The interesting thing about the rebuttal, in my view, is that it expressly articulates what seems to have been quite unclear to many Americans at the outset of operations in Iraq: its purpose. While stating that he "expect[s] to welcome home most of our troops from Iraq by the end of my first term in office," McCain commits himself to "the goal of creating stable, secure, self-sustaining democratic allies" in the Middle East.

This is the goal I had discerned in U.S. invasion planning, but it's clear this perception was not as widespread as I believed. It was not widespread within the military, which war-gamed only to the fall of Bagdad, and apparently undertook little thought about what it would take to get the country running again, afterward. It was not widespread within the American public, which seems to have become very excited at the non-appearance of chemical and biological munitions for which Iraq's previous government had failed to account. It certainly wasn't widespread in the Middle East, where folks seem to crow on about Americans stealing oil (oh, really?) and land (take the land; please!) and defiling holy sites that local opposition happily turns into military targets by employing them as cover or firing platforms.

Failing to identify the U.S. objective leaves the definition of success in the hands of national enemies. Failure to clearly articulate the American purpose at the outset fueled a propaganda nightmare we've not yet ended.

While it's nice to hear some objective other than mere flight from the theater of battle, which is the sense I get from the Obama campaign and its vacillating explanation for why the U.S. should withdraw quickly, I also point out that the objective McCain articulates depends on a naïveté regarding the operation of human institutions and the nature of man.

When Truman oversaw the end of the Second World War, he wasn't able to withdraw all the troops in the next term, even unambiguously winning by receipt of a formal document of surrender by the leaders of an enemy state. In the Middle East, the enemies haven't got a state apparatus to surrender, and the governments we've obliterated in pursuit of our goals haven't helped the U.S. claim plausible victory because the U.S. hadn't clearly articulated those governments' obliteration as the purpose of the military intervention. Winning on the battlefield isn't enough to win the conflict at hand.

It's a propaganda war, and it will last longer than any person now living, whether we have troops in the Middle East or not. The only question is how many Americans will die in battle if we fight abroad compared to the number that will die in political murders if we give enemies thousands of miles of sanctuary. It's not a question for which I have data, but it's surely the question policy-makers in the United States should be weighing.

Alas, it's more important to them to weigh the next election.

[1] The New York Times effectively wrote an op-ed piece in writing a rejection letter inviting a re-write, for which it offered some suggestions:
It would also have to lay out a clear plan for achieving victory -- with troops levels, timetables and measures for compelling the Iraqis to cooperate. And it would need to describe the senator's Afghanistan strategy, spelling out how it meshes with his Iraq plan.
The editors there either have never heard Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke's famous maxim, or they are counting on it to ensure McCain embarrasses himself: No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

AT&T Does Not Really Want Your Business

As it turns out, moving one's phone service isn't the snap I imagined.

When I called AT&T to move my local phone number about a block and a half, and to see whether AT&T wanted to sell me broadband or other services, I was unable to get a human.

I tried AT&T's web site -- oddly located at http://www.att.com/easymoney (someone at the firm has an ironic sense of humor; read on!) -- and went through a very laborious process of discovering that all the service bundles involved a crippled DSL service with not-very-broadband limit caps. To get faster service, you need to pay more, but those rates weren't available in bundles.

After about thirty minutes of fishing -- including getting numbers off paper bills and signing up for an online account management feature that didn't exist when I started service at this address -- I spotted a link for folks who are moving.


I clicked it and started putting services into my checkout cart. This also took a while, because picking a DSL service also involves several laboriously-slowly-served pages of options for whether you want to install the modem yourself or want a $200 tech visit, or whether you want a modem or a modem-plus-wireless-gateway device, either of which costs money and both of which come with a mail-in coupon for the pre-sales-tax price of the device. They don't put all these options on one page, which would be a snap; they serve these options to you piecemeal, with every page taking about a minute to be served to your existing cable broadband connection, through which every other site on the Internet roars through like greased lightning.

Finally, I get it all set up. I look around for some place to ... you know ... tell AT&T where I'm moving. I don't see it so I figure I should click for checkout, and that the address will be part of the checkout option. After yet another glacial age, I see a page telling me the function I attempted was down due to maintenance, apparently the exact same 'maintenance' that was up last week when I got the same error. The text in the maintenance message invites me, if I want to order a product or service, to call a toll-free number:

For the record, I know this dude. He normally wears his hair trimmed close to the skull, and keeps every hair perfectly organized with military precision in an orderly grain pattern. The wild corona of hair depicted in this ad existed only after they let him stand for a month in the sun waiting for a human on AT&T's toll-free number. He's only smiling because he's begun to hallucinate, and thinks the shimmering oasis near the horizon is surrounded by dancing girls. He is presently recuperating in a sanatorium, which I can't identify due to federal health privacy guidelines.

I roll my eyes. I called the toll-free number over a week ago trying to set up service, and couldn't get a human despite heroic efforts to find some department willing to sell me services if I pleaded. But I dial the number.

A recorded voice asks me what I want, and suggests I say things like "pay a bill."

Angrily, I say: "Moving."

The voice asks me if I'm moving and want to move current service to a new address.

I'm shocked. "Yes," I barely stammer.

I hear sounds I normally associate with transferred calls, and hear another recording explaining how that while AT&T is open 24-hours, that office isn't able to take my call. The recording does not suggest at any time when a human might deign to take my money.

I have a referral code, CH1020133, by which I can purportedly track whether users actually achieve service orders through AT&T's site. I offer a donut to the first person who succeeds. Or a coffee. Your pick; I'll ship at my expense. (UPDATE: to compete for the coffee or donut, you may have to use the site http://www.att.com/referrals to enter the referral code, though I see referral code boxes in the checkout window displayed before users are informed the online service registration is a big time sink that doesn't lead to service activation or orders or address changes at all. Take your pick. I will wait to see whether AT&T tells me I have a referral, but I won't be holding my breath -- their service is the pits!)

I don't think AT&T is actually taking new customers at all this month, unless maybe for cellular service activated with in-person human involvement.

When I used to get calls asking whether I wanted AT&T to provide me with some service or another, I used to lambast the callers with unhappy recollections of what AT&T charged to rent me phones when AT&T held a lawful monopoly on telephone service in the United States. I remembered for years, though it's slipped my mind now whether it was $19.95 a phone a month, or $25 a phone a month, for folks who wanted multiple-line phones with rollover. If you had a modem, though, and used it much, you really needed two lines.

Remember 300 baud dial-in to your favorite local BBS? Compuserve?

Heh. This stuff is so much cheaper now. If AT&T weren't promising to bundle unlimited long-distance calling with local service, they'd never have a prayer of selling me any service of any kind ever again.

If I can't move the service within a week, I'll find a different local provider and post the information here. For long distance, I've been using ECG's long-distance service and honestly, they're a dream.

Get this: when you call, you can get a human. You rarely do this, because the phone bill is not only cheap, it's consistently accurate. Unless you are curious about weird things like international rate plan options to specific countries, you can happily never call ECG at all.

Given how little ECG charges, maybe I don't need to pay anyone for unlimited long-distance service.

Hmm . . . .

UPDATE: ECG does not need to be called over international rates any longer, as they're available online. Email billing can get you 2.5¢/min rates. I've had these guys for years and love them -- chiefly because I never notice they are there because the service always works. Look carefully and notice none of my links to ECG have any kind of referral/kickback data embedded in them. This is a real endorsement.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Congress Grants Self Higher Credit Limit

If my kids had a track record with money like Congress, I'd cut up their checkbooks and credit cards.  Congress, however, doesn't have parents to keep it in line.  Like a kid free in a candy store after-hours and with little concern about later tummy aches, Congress has gorged itself consuming other people's sweet assets.

To accommodate its undiminishing appetite, Congress has raised its "limit" of the national debt to a fourteen-digit sum.

The fact that the latest reason for the credit limit increase is the housing mortgage debacle doesn't really help us see the cause of it all.  Yes, bailing out financial institutions that facilitated bad loan decisions in the context of a scheme to turn a quick buck syndicating loans to buyers unwilling to consider their increasing financial risks might be a foolish idea, and it might be important to prevent loss of confidence in the financial markets, but it's still business as usual in Congress:  it's not really their money, so they don't hesitate very long spending it, especially if there's a near-term political angle.

And there always is.  One can pick one's evils and rail against spending in Congress -- regardless what political bent you might have;  both major parties have Treasury printing-press ink on their fingers.  You're a dove?  Rail against decades of foreign wars, arms races, occupation expenses in places like Germany which aren't seriously likely to be invaded, and various forts and bases all over the country where it's unlikely the US will be invaded.  You're a neo-con?  Rail against the public assistance programs that hand food stamps to pimps, pushers, madams, and hookers all over the country while they claim to be unable to find gainful employment or to be too disabled to work.  You're a Libertarian?  Rail against the federalization of every imaginable criminal offense and the attendant enforcement and penal overhead of a level of domestic regulatory micromanagement that would shock the Constitution's authors to know.

And, regardless what spending most offends you, you get -- as a free bonus -- to gasp in shock at the size of each annual budget that must be committed to interest payments on debt incurred through prior years' overspending.  The fact some politicians hope to cast government as more efficient flies in the face of the numbers, unfortunately:  the debt keeps rising and there seems to be no effective political force to bring overspending in line with likely future capacity to make interest payments.  You can look at various federal budgets at a dedicated federal web site, maintained through funds raised under threat of prison and seizure from citizens living peacefully as they work honest jobs.

In case you're interested just what the debt is, helpful civil servants have made it easy to learn.

If anyone has theories that might explain what forces will lead Congress to turn from the path to national insolvency, I'm keen to hear them.  I simply don't see any point of leverage for controlling a Congress perpetually bent on spending its way into re-election.  

AAPL Apologia: MobileMe

Some poor sod at Apple -- name as yet unknown -- has said in a first-person post from Apple's own web site that (a) Steve Jobs instructed him to report to users on the state of MobileMe as the bugs are worked out, and (b) MobileMe has permanently lost some of the email with which paid users had entrusted Apple.

The fact that MobileMe is in such a state that a company-ordered blog on its rectification is necessary comes as a surprise in light of the future held forth ten years ago when Sun Microsystems advertised Webtone, the promise of internet services as cheap and reliable as dial tone.  (Turning a profit out of Java and Solaris -- both now free to use -- has proven a bit harder than making technology work, though, if the relative performance of AAPL vs JAVA shares is any indicator.)

Apple needs to figure out how it's going to serve mail.  May I suggest QMail?  Sadly, I think the problem is deeper than decisions about which mail server software to choose.  I believe Apple has a serious need to understand how its back-end can serve the needs of millions of simultaneous users with desktop and mobile devices that all want to synchronize content while third parties are pushing data to applications running on the iPhone.  I'm honestly surprised Apple can get caught with its pants down like this.

But you get what you see:  Apple, with its pants around its ankles in the enterprise services market.  Is there a better advertisement for competitors like RIMM?

Crazy Ads

After posting about some poor rhetoric found in the anti-evolutionary debate, and admitting the view that ID offers little of value to the science curriculum as is offers to cloud rather than to encourage exploration of natural forces that might be discovered to govern the physical world (and thus may be subject to manipulation to advance quality of life), I started noticing Google posting some interesting adverts on this site.

Google picks ads on the basis of content, but also on the basis of what amounts to an auction.  Guess who turned up as the high-bidders for the post discussing evolution?  Have a look:

I'm naturally curious who would bankroll adverts soliciting requests for free booklets touting Creationism.  Anyone with an interest in the subject can have a look at Genesis, free of charge, without waiting for a pamphlet in the mail.  Indeed, those hoping for spiritual enlightenment are likely much better looking at the . . . well, admittedly not the original, but one of the numerousdifferent, but well-intended translations of copies accessible to would-be translators.  Such translations have at least a colorable claim to derivation from originals, whereas pamphlets published originally by mortals hoping to sell specific explanations of how holy works are meant to be interpreted in light of presently-accepted facts about the natural history of the planet are frankly as suspect as can possibly be.  

Those guys are just selling something.

The above advertisement is an even more transparent effort to harmonize current views of the evidence with religious thought in ways that appear to discourage serious effort to view the world about one.  The thesis that the observed facts are consistent with divine will and not with the happenstance of nature, and that scientific efforts to discover physical laws by examining Creation are somehow undermining the dignity of the Creator, requires one to accept a number of interesting axioms regarding the Creator, Creation, and their relationship.

Consider for a moment the position of Henry David Thoreau, who seemingly believed escaping nature to spend the Sabbath indoors an affront to the work placed before Man for his enjoyment and study.  If there is a manual set forth by the divine to instruct human beings in the way in which to live their lives, why should that manual not be the very universe itself?  Where Genesis recounts the first divine instructions given humans, it is interesting that these early requirements did not include a command that each should abase one's self as beneath the contempt of the Creator, and to hide one's eyes from the world as it it, too, were beneath notice, and to accept learning only by memorizing texts distributed by a priesthood.  Genesis 2:19 seems to suggest very strongly that it was an approved project of our species to inspect and name everything that can be found.  How shall we undertake such lofty work if we fail to investigate what's been laid before us?

Someone should examine these pamphlets to see what they contain.  Google's rules prevent me from clicking the links.  I have some doubts about the depth of their theological analysis, and I suspect strongly that they represent an effort to preach religion as contrary to the study of the world in which we live.  Such a strange idea, that we should not learn from the world the rules laid out to govern those within it.  

Whatever else ought one to do?

The folks who view science as opposite to their religion must have a very weak grasp of their religion, or little power to reason.  The scientific method is nothing more (or less) than a system of rigorously subjecting hypotheses about the world (its contents and the rules that govern them) to tests intended to reveal flaws in the hypotheses.  Without the method we'd have little confidence in things like the charge on an electron, the gravitational constant of the universe, or the speed of light through vacuum.  The scientific method has allowed its practitioners, over time, to develop a considerable heap of hypotheses that have survived substantial abuse, to the point that (regardless their poor initial reception) they are regarded as if unbreakable laws.

Consider ideas like the universal theory of gravitation, and the principles of conservation.  For millennia, humans continued to observe that objects (a) tended, when not otherwise supported, to fall down, except birds, which somehow pushed the air, and (b) tended to come to a halt when no longer pushed.  Far from representing obvious truths, these ideas needed some experimental validation.  Objects dropped outside a gravity well don't fall to Earth.  Objects released under zero-resistance conditions don't come to a halt.  Programs to study other planets would hardly be plausible without understanding like this.  Programs to provide energy and food to a planet of finite resources will depend on proven principles in which careful people will be able to risk huge sums with confidence.

People who believe religion is contrary to experimental discovery of the principles that govern the behavior of the things found in the universe where they live have developed a shocking religion indeed.  The idea that people would expend scarce resources advertising to convince people to turn their backs on science as a religious requirement is curious and disturbing, but given the range of people on this world, entirely unsurprising.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thank God For Bad Rhetoric

I first encountered David Berlinski on Mr. Penick's blog Intelligent Design. In this YouTube video (given here under a different title with some editorialization), Berlinski begins arguing that evolution is criticized by different sorts of people (a join-the-bandwagon argument, humorously opposed by equally silly evidence collected by Project Steve) and then analogizes evolution of whales to the project of re-engineering an automobile into a submarine. Berlinski seems to invite evolution to be imagined as a process controlled by outside designers constrained to build new products out of existing products, a circumstance not in fact found either submarine design or in any articulation of scientifically-based evolutionary theory I have yet to encounter.

To truly appreciate the facetiousness of Berlinski's arguments, one does well to view him in the context of actual opposition -- in a debate on evolutionary theory and its proposed alternatives. Here, Berlinski offers fallacious argument in full view of cameras and onlookers and apparently gets away with it.

He does it beautifully.

This is, of course, why I think it's worth examining: his pitch is attractive to consumers of educational policy argument, and we should give the pitch a review, better to appreciate what it does and does not offer.

When evolutionary proponents held forth certain recorded fossil observations as strong evidence of descent with modification by virtue of their apparent completeness, David Berlinski argued they were insufficient in light of gaps elsewhere in observed fossil specimens:
Barry Lynn: Mr. Berlinski, you're never going to be satisfied.
David Berlinski: You're right.
Lynn: Every time we find 16 new things, new fossils, to fill in the so-called fossil record that was missing, you just say, "Find 16 more."
Berlinski: I'll tell you exactly. Here is what Darwinian theory requires: for every significant morphological or physiological feature in a modern species we should have a panoply of intermediate forms that explains how they arrived. We don't have them for some good reasons, but we have nothing like an explanation ...
This thesis regarding what one should expect evolution to predict in the fossil record underpins Berlinski's argument against evolution as an acceptable explanation for the observable evidence of speciation. When given an opportunity to interrogate opponents in a live debate, he offered this question as an intended show-stopper:
Berlinski: Would you agree, as almost everyone else affirms, that the overwhelming pattern of the fossil record is sharply discontinuous?
While invoking the authority of the crowd he postulates agrees with him, he asks whether phenotypes observed among surviving fossils show the continuity he urges is required to support the theory he doubts. Why, however, should be urge phenotypic continuity as a necessary result of evolution?

Even assuming every fossil could or would be observed and recorded, why should anyone imagine phenotypic continuity in the fossil record? Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits is not the theory under discussion. If one accepts that the mechanism by which ancestors pass traits to offspring is the transfer of genetic material, one would not expect continuity at all. One would expect discrete changes in phenotype to be acquired, associated with discrete changes in genetics. There are, after all, but four nucleic acids. Changes in a creature's inherited genetic structure must represent a discrete change, because the genetic mechanism affords only discrete changes and admits no half-measure: a point on a certain gene is either identical to that in its ancestor, or it is not. And there are only four molecules to fit in the spot in question.[1] Given a mutation, though, the story isn't yet told to mere observers of form: the genetic change may manifest in a phenotypic change, or it may not.

Just to clarify a bit: Brown-haired parents who produce blonde descendants do not do so only by making several successive generations of progeny with increasingly lighter hair. They either have brown-haired children, or they have children who inherit recessive light-hair-encoding genes from both parents -- in which case the offspring's hair will appear sharply discontinuous from that of immediate ancestors. No one is ever surprised that Berlinski's continuous parade of intermediate forms do not appear when unexpected-looking children are born, even if traits cause one to doubt the identity of a child's father (spotting the mother at the time of birth is ordinarily trivial). The same is true if one child is tall and the other short: some kids are just thought to take after one parent's parent, or the like. What of it? Is anyone really surprised all visible changes between do not occur in the context of a continuous progression?

Yet, David Berlinski urges his audience to accept as a test of whether genetic evolution could explain observed speciation whether observed morphological changes among observed fossils are marked by continuity. This is absurd. In light of the discrete nature of the inheritance mechanism, it is in fact contrary to expectation. One would not expect continuity. One would expect isolated points of data -- where specimens were preserved for observation -- and one would expect these isolated points to be different.

And the phenotypic change -- the visible manifestation, if any, of a genetic change -- cannot be continuous if its mechanism is necessarily discrete.

However, discontinuity isn't the only argument Berlinski makes; he tries to make a pitch for unlikeliness, but instead reveals himself not to understand the basic mechanism by which inherited traits are thought to be passed to descendants. Later in the same debate, Berlinski has this exchange:
Berlinski: Let's turn to the question I so vainly tried to pump an answer from Dr. Scott ... How many morphological changes do think are required to effect the transition those charts of yours [depicting a series of fossils described as ancestors of modern whales] were said to document?
Miller: I will give you a straight answer. And the straight answer is that when you look at two species that are separated by five million years --
Berlinski: Okay.
Miller: -- of geological time the number of changes must be very, very large. However --
Berlinski: Give us a number.
Miller: -- However, recent studies of speciation -- and I'm sorry to pick this specific species, but it's relevant to your question -- in sunflowers have shown conclusively that a new species can be established in terms of a speciation-like isolation mechanism, with as few as ten genetic changes. That's your answer.
Berlinski: I've read the same Science papers you have but those are very close; a dog-like mammal and a whale are very far!
Miller: That's right! And the other end of the room is very far away, and it should not surprise you that I get there with one step at a time, and that's what we're talking.
Berlinski: No matter the number I give you, you will neither assent nor disagree with the number? If I say there are 100,00 morphological changes required to take a dog-like mammal living on the land to a whale --
Miller: Oh, sorry, yes, I will answer that. That's way too high .... The good genetic evidence is that there are about 100,000 genes in a human being. I would best guess there's somewhat fewer in whales. What you're telling me is that to change from one similar organism, an organism that looks more like a whale than any terrestrial animal that has ever lived, to a whale that looks more like a terrestrial animal than any whale has ever lived, would require every gene to change, and sir I --
Berlinski: No! I never talked about genes!
Miller: -- Sir, you asked me for a number and I said, on that basis, a hundred thousand is too high. [2]
Berlinski's idea that one should ask questions about morphological changes rather than genetic changes is also silly, unless he seeks to propose a different mechanism than genetics to explain the transmission of traits from ancestors to descendants. This, of course, hits on the fundamental weakness of David Berlinski's argument: he proposes nothing. He merely shrugs at whatever evidence is offered, and says "yes, but I'm not convinced."

What kind of test is that? He can keep saying he's unconvinced as long as doing so keeps him in speaking engagements.

And that's the beauty of his pitch. Calm and composed, Berlinski recites his demand for more evidence, only to shrug at whatever is produced. Faced with a fossil record documenting the transition from reptile ancestors to their mammal descendants -- so detailed the controversy is not whether it's the right lineage but where to decide observed fossils should start being labeled mammals -- he sidesteps by asking about the present state of knowledge of spiders' ancestors' fossils. Given an argument about genetics, he insists he never asked about genetics but is interested only in the evolution of phenotypic (he says "morphological") change. So long as he keeps his cool, his interrogators must perforce look like buffoons as they lose their composure in exasperation. Doesn't he know what he's talking about?

Well, apparently not -- but he'll look damned good while he does it. And he need neither propose a theory nor test one to do it.

Testing theories is, in fact, the real way to falsify (and thus correctly reject) them. To be sure, one might test theories in many ways; we are creative creatures and some interesting discoveries have been made using experiments composed of little more than logic. However, the applause-o-meter isn't the kind of test likely to produce consistent results of the sort on which one would want to base public policy. Trying to embarrass, confuse, exasperate, or misrepresent the views of opponents may be a good way to achieve notoriety and get appearance requests on entertainment programs, but it's not worthy of the name science.

If it weren't so easy to spot David Berlinski's rhetorical flaws, just imagine what his argument might support. So, thank God for bad rhetoric. It's a fantastic tip-off to the sort of reasoning that should be immediately discarded in the search for genuine data on which to base one's conclusions.

The most interesting thing about the debate over evolution is the fact that both sides accuse the other of politicizing the debate, and using power rather than evidence to "win" through policy implementation. The primacy of political power over actual data-supported research results isn't confined to evolution, either. We see this also in ecological policy, energy policy, health policy, liability policy -- the problems facing the quest to get good policy (in education, public health, trade, you name it) are beset by folks who care more about being thought right than actually making sure they're right -- people who care more about getting their intended result than getting the right result.

I strongly believe that a lively debate over scientific matters improves the likelihood that bad ideas will be weeded out before they become established as the basis for policies that will only consume resources without useful or intended results. Unfortunately, the sort of public spectacle Berlinski encourages with arguments about people's credentials, about the number of adherents to their point of view, about the number of papers that contain or don't contain the word "evolution" -- these are pure entertainment. They are vacuous of the reasoning one needed to inquire into the evidence about any theory about the world one might hope to test.

This is a serious problem, unfortunately. These entertainment-oriented "rhetorical" tools (argument ad hominem, appeal to authority, etc.) abound in political debates. Debates about scientific matters impacting public policy -- regarding the environment, public health, liability issues -- impact so many aspects of our lives that we should not stand still for analytical incompetence as the matters are deliberated (and supposedly reasoned). The result is that we -- consumers of policy produced by legislatures, employers, benefit plans, and judicial systems -- suffer from policy developed without the benefit of rational consideration.

Despite my strong conviction that ID offers no helpful thesis (if you teach kids "it's magic" it offers them no tool for understanding how to work with the forces -- still operating and yet remaining subject to discovery -- that operate upon and govern the world, and offers no opportunity to improve understanding and interaction with the world -- which in my view one of the fundamental reasons to acquire education), I would rather see legitimate efforts to hone good theories about speciation than merely see destruction by political force of folks whose principal crime is a crackpot theory. We have, on this planet, come to respect some crackpot theories over time (Galileo's theory of the orbit of the Earth about the Sun; Newton's theory that all matter tends to continue in motion until acted upon -- an idea that flew in the face of millennia of observation that things tend to come to a halt when no longer pushed; atomic theory; germ theory; the theory of sterile surgical technique; the dietary theory of the origin of pellagra; it's endless, isn't it?) and it's hard to know from the great sea of crackpot theories which ones will turn out to be supported by evidence once observer can be troubled to collect it. The ecological debate is like this much more than the ID debate, of course, as the ID debate plainly offers a naked theological proposition not subject to test, but my point is that we have to think about the standards by which we will regard theories (regardless of origin) when designing policy potentially impacted by the theories. At present we have in my view a simple political fight, and may be tolerable in the case in which the prevailing theory happens by blind chance to be more correct than its critics, but it's a poor model for consistently developing good policy, and worthless for developing ideal policy.

The most interesting thing about the debate over evolution is the fact that both sides accuse the other of politicizing the debate, and using power rather than evidence to "win" through policy implementation. The primacy of political power over actual data-supported research results isn't confined to evolution, either. In ecological policy, energy policy, health policy, liability policy -- the quest to get good policy (in education, public health, trade, liability, you name it) is beset by folks who care more about being thought right than they do about any activity designed to increase the chance of actually being right -- that is, people who care more about getting their intended result than getting the best available result.

What we need, perhaps, is to develop a general rule for deciding when a theory has sufficient evidence to support expending public resources on it. Any takers for this project?

[1] It's also possible, due to molecular folding issues, that single changes might alter molecular structure in such a way as to prohibit affected sections from being accessed by the molecular mechanisms that enable the creation of proteins that have significant impact in a developing organism. Assuming the mutation isn't fatal, code thus obsoleted might have a substantial and discontinuous impact on the phenotype of those expressing the traits involved. Obsoleted code might thereafter be subject to change or elimination in future generations without much observable impact -- except, of course, that the eliminated code might change macromolecular shapes by folding or other mechanisms in such a way as to alter the likelihood of other segments of the DNA will participate in the kinds of chemical interactions that lead to protein manufacture.
Thus, the right point change might create a folding issue that would have an enormous impact on the genetic material likely to be active in a developing organism. The expected result might be a big change, though it's highly likely such a change would be fatal if it resulted in phenotypic expression. If not, however, the possibility exists that the resultant change would be significant.

[2] In point of fact, since it's possible to have more than one point mutation in a gene, and that particular genes might be subject to repeated mutation over millions of years, I would tend to disagree with Miller that 100,000 is necessarily too high a number of mutations given his assumptions about the number of genes in the creatures at issue.
Modeling the number of mutations one would expect to be associated with a large speciation project spanning millions of years probably requires more considerable analysis than is plausible off the cuff during a live debate. Whether the number is enormous or not enormous doesn't really address the question of the possibility of descent with modification, it merely invites questions about the likelihood of a particular occurrence and the mechanisms by which different sorts of mutations might be possible.
There are some non-point-mutation sources of genetic alteration, like the so-called "jumping genes", that might be interesting to understand more about before trying to calculate the probability of speciation by descent with modification, or trying to use descent with modification to predict likely future fossil discovery patterns. For an entertaining (and scary) evening, read Doglas Preston's and Lincoln Child's purely-fictional horror-thriller Relic, the bogeyman of which originates with such a modification. While the monster is fictional, the discovery of "jumping genes" is not. A mechanism like the jumping gene might enable in one event to impart the accumulated effect of a whole geological age of mutation through the transposition, intact, of a proven gene from a different species with an evolutionary history as long as a gene's new host. Once isolated from its source species, the new gene would of course be subject to divergent evolution through the (slower and less radical) mechanism of random mutation.

The Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

Due to the miracle of Blogger's featured blog list, I saw John David Hoptak's blog, The 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry/ Civil War Musings, and much liked what he offered. Of course, lots of other folks saw his blog that day, to his considerable surprise. (And to his considerable subsequent link spam ...)

The entry that inspires treatment by the Jaded Consumer is "I Just Don't Get It . . .", expressing puzzlement about freedom-loving Americans (just ask 'em) who seem to have something against the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. Naturally, my own take is a bit orthogonal. As a consumer of government interventions, I'm interested in what government has done to ensure genuine emancipation and the circuitous path it's taken, with emphasis on the fact that the route has been so fraught with internal conflict as to have been often ineffective, and so overwhelmed with salesmanship and grandstanding that the history of the path has been overshadowed by recent myth.

The story as I've received it from my elders and from the general media and from authorities on Constitutional law is that the Post-Civil War Amendments to the United States Constitution served to prevent state action to discriminate racially to perpetuate the badges and burdens of slavery. (Incidentally, the literal "slave badge", now collectible, seems to have been a license to work on a slave's own account during idle time, though owners were entitled to a share in proceeds. As regulations varied with location and time, I haven't specifics, but one can read an overview or buy books on it.) The mainstreamed view is that the post-bellum Amendments, being insufficient to halt racially-motivated evil conducted through private rather than government action, were too weak to have the impact of establishing racial equality. The evil flourished until in the wake of the Switch In Time That Saved Nine (given more treatment here, and has some discussion on a government web site here), after which Congress was permitted in effect a general police power under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.[1] Then, the story goes, we got good things like nationally uniform minimum wage laws and weekly hours limits and so forth.

In fact, the Supreme Court upheld a strange smattering of weekly hours caps and wage controls for some industries and not others even before the threat of the court-packing plan. And at least some Southern states really did have enforceable civil rights laws before 1900. And it was illegal for Lopez to bring firearms to school before he was charged with violations of federal laws.

But let's get on to the main event, which is the rights of Ms. DeCuir in the 1800s when she wanted to ride on a riverboat's topmost cabin. She was in Louisiana after the Civil War, and her riverboat operator refused to rent her his "white cabin". She didn't want to ride in the lower cabin he offered her, and she stood willing to pay the extra fee the upper cabin commanded.

But, it's the 1870s; she's S.O.L., right?

Not in Louisiana.

Louisiana's law derives from Napoleonic Code, and is different in a number of particulars from the Common Law one finds in the civil courts of other United States jurisdictions. The Common Law enables courts to craft law that expresses the policy of the State. Thus, the Texas Supreme Court can decide that the Texas Constitutional requirement that every driver be insured against motor vehicle liability means that insurers' spousal exclusions are void and unenforceable as between an insured and the insured's tort-victim spouse. There need be no statute specifying this result for Texas to achieve it, and no-one is shocked that Texas law should develop this way. It is how common-law courts do their work.

In Louisiana, the heritage of the Napoleonic Code achieves the opposite result. The legal presumption that the Code is complete prevents courts from lightly proclaiming new law. Louisiana's post-Civil War Constitution, therefore, despite being replete with proclamations of the Equality of Man, can't be expected to be interpreted creatively in diverse cases to ensure that equality is really protected. The cynic predicts that research will show Lousiana's legislature sat back, giggling when Northerners required Louisiana to write equal protection language into the new Constitution, knowing no court in the state would interpret it to mean a damned thing. Yet ... that was not the result at all.

At the time Ms. DeCuir suffered discrimination at the hand of steam-boat operator Mr. Benson, Louisiana had on the books a transportation-specific statute spelling out that no common carrier could refuse service or otherwise discriminate against prospective on the basis of (among other things) color. Moreover, the statute provided for the award of exemplary damages upon proof of violation. The jury hearing Ms. DeCuir's case upheld her claim and awarded her $1,000.00 under the statute. The award was preserved on appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Louisiana apparently took equal protection seriously enough to give its statute teeth, and it actually enforced the statute.

Ms. Hall (the steamboat operator's administratrix) appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Her complaint was essentially that as the holder of a federal navigation license, her steamboat operator shouldn't have been subject to state regulation of his business on the Mississippi River. The case offers no evidence the dead Mr. Benson had been aggrieved by anything other than a thwarted desire to discriminate against Ms. DeCuir, and offers no support for the theory that other states' regulation created an environment in which Mr. Benson's business had been endangered by inconsistent regulation between states having ports on the Mississippi. However, the United States Supreme Court came to his aid. Having just announced that the Fourteenth Amendment, and statutes passed by Congress under its authority, had no power to regulate private actors who might discriminate, the United States Supreme Court announced that Louisiana was not entitled to regulate private actors to prevent Mr. Benson's discrimination, either. The Supreme Court, in order to reach this decision, hypothesized that a different state might lawfully make it a felony offense to mix races in the same cabin, which in turn would place operators like Mr. Benson in a nasty bind: to travel between the different ports, he would have to choose whether to violate the law of his origin, or the law of his destination, and his business would be impossible.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, it must have shone like a ray of sunshine upon inveterate discriminators when the United States Supreme Court invited Southern states to pass laws making it illegal to mix races in similar accommodations, vehicles, etc. What racist would have imagined that salvation from having to apply equal treatment to all comers would come from the very federal government that stuffed "equal protection" down their throats at gunpoint?

Had the United States Supreme Court not overturned Louisiana's equal protection statute, imagine the possible result. Might minority confidence in the rule of law have grown sixty years ahead of its ultimate schedule? Might a few whole generations have been saved from institutionalized, legally-mandated segregation? Might Black civil rights lawyers have thrived a hundred years ago in an environment that allowed them to protect their communities with valuable legal rights? Might the relationship between the police and minorities have developed differently across the twentieth century?

Had Louisiana's statute awarding punitive damages not been reversed in 1877, who would imagine that Rosa Parks would have suffered indignity on state-regulated public transit?

Instead, in 1877 the high court of the United States issued a blueprint for official oppression. This instruction was not ignored: in an absolute about-face, Louisiana in 1890 required separate cars for African Americans. The Supreme Court blessed this statute in its 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which originated in the very same New Orleans courts that had previously upheld Ms. DeCuir's right to equality and awarded her exemplary damages on proof her equal rights had been violated.

So, what does this teach us about emancipation? First, the federal government was wildly inconsistent with its effort to ensure equal protection. The Emancipation Proclamation lacked the power to transfer title from masters to their slaves, and Congress never appropriated funding for a mass taking of property. The Thirteenth Amendment overcame that obstacle, by declaring slavery abolished without reference to compensation. However, the various branches of the federal government failed to work to achieve equality -- or worked at cross-purposes over the subject -- and state-level efforts to ensure equality were thwarted by federal courts. The result was an inability of slave-descended persons to acquire full emancipation due to pervasive and systematic efforts to oppress and marginalize them -- efforts that in some cases trace directly to federal interference on Commerce Clause grounds with genuine efforts to protect civil rights, the violation of which was vastly more deleterious to interstate commerce than the hypothetical risks on which basis the state laws were abolished.

There were other problems with federal efforts to achieve equality immediately. The Emancipation Proclamation, by its own terms, did not apply to any slave located within the states not in rebellion. News of the Proclamation didn't reach slaves for some time, a fact that has given rise to an entirely different celebration, Juneteenth, the celebration of the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, received on June 19, 1865 upon the pronouncement of General Order No. 3 by General Granger upon his arrival to Galveston, Texas. The practical effect of the Proclamation was brought about by force of arms, not words, and the legal effect was begun with amendments to the United States Constitution required to deprive former owners of what had been legally recognized property without the inconvenience of paying them.

The Emancipation Proclamation touched off litigation over slave-financing contracts between slave-dealers and dispossessed owners, of course, and the exact date of emancipation was left for courts to decide. The truth is, however, that until Americans all believe in the justice of Emancipation, and believe in the equality of folks who look different, the nation will be doomed to suffer the expense and inconvenience of inequality and injustice, however maintained, in as many aspects of life as they shall continue to be perpetuated.

I imagine a small child in the back seat: "Are we free, yet?"

Well, we're getting there. We're getting there.

[1] An example of "interstate commerce" being used to achieve non-commercial general police objectives is the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal law that in some interpretations requires a fifteen year minimum sentence be imposed on a criminal who never crosses a state line or leaves his home county, if he commits several serious crimes. The fact there is federal firearms law at all outside of the District of Columbia, United States possessions, or the like is rather interesting in light of Congress' express authority to define and punish piracy and felonies committed upon the high seas, which under the doctrine Expressio unius est exclusio alterius implies that the right to define and punish other crimes, or felonies committed other than on the high seas, was not granted by the United States to its Congress. Discussion of this here and here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

MobileMe Mucking It Up

Apparently, Apple just hasn't figured out how to get reliable performance out of the back-end it's deployed to service folks who thought paying Apple $99 a year would give them reliability in their online experience.

Will performance like that allow Apple to make businesses a meaningful offer anytime soon? One of the hypotheses regarding MobileMe was that ActiveSync licensing would allow small businesses to avoid licensing Microsoft products directly in order to synchronize data. If Apple is botching its offerings with reliability, it'll have a hard time competing to serve customers who demand it.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg says of MobileMe: "at $100 a year, Apple's MobileMe service sounds great, but doesn't work." Perhaps that will wake the long-slumbering fools in charge of Apple's online offerings. But ... perhaps not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Praise for Jim Butcher

I'm angry that Jim Butcher seems to be putting out about one Dresden Files book a year, when it's clear I can read at a rate much closer to one a day. It's an unfair criticism, perhaps. But to be honest, it's the only real problem I have with his work.

(He also writes a pure-fantasy series of which you can read freebie snippets.Each book in the Codex Alera supports Butcher's batting-1000 record in writing his own series.)

Butcher's Dresden Files series, starring Chicago's only Yellow-Pages-listed professional wizard Harry Dresden, offers a big canvas across which Butcher paints with clear, fresh colors: his world is internally consistent, his problems are diverse, and the works offer opportunities not only to ride along on a great adventure but to watch from the inside as Dresden confronts internal battles that resonate with real life. The Dresden Files offer a three-dimensional world, augmented as it is by various paranormal elements. Since the paranormal things are subject to limits and rules, the existence of "magic" and "faeries" doesn't so much produce a deus ex machina as produce a new class of problems by which harry can be outclassed, and more rules against which poor Harry can run afoul.[1]

But Harry is a good guy, and we like seeing him pull it together enough to stay alive, win the prize, and save the girl. Or ... be saved by the girl. Oh, yeah.

Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is a great way to consume all those endless free hours you've been worrying will spoil your otherwise nicely occupied life. There are at present
teneleventwelve novels in the series (now that
Turn CoatChanges is out). Butcher does a great job of showing you the gun over the mantle in order to set you up to believe it's there when it's finally used, and some of these setups span several books. It's a well-crafted series and I look forward very much to following it wherever it leads.

And it leads somewhere. Jim Butcher has announced the titles to the three novels that will cap the series, meaning that the series has a known conclusion. This, in turn, means that fans have protection against the author being waylaid and lead into the weeds while the pen is still in motion. Expect The Dresden Files to continue its excellence the whole way through.

A little free snippet, serving as a prequel to the series, appears on Jim Butcher's site. The works, in chronological order of occurrence in Butcher's world, are:
and the final three, which are not expected to follow immediately but after some undetermined number of intermediate volumes, have unannounced release dates:
  • Hell's Bells
  • Stars and Stones
  • Empty Night

There's a DVD series of the Sci-Fi Channel's adaptation.
There's a graphic novel series Welcome To The Jungle.

Romance. Harry has a love interest. He also has allies with a love interest. These love interests don't always work out. Love interests in the series seem to be recurring opportunities for people to be threatened by adversaries, or needled by rivals. The bad news is that since Butcher only shows on-camera the things that seem very directly related to the story and the characters and where he is going, there aren't lots of love scenes even while Harry has relationships that in theory would support them. The good news is that the romance angle isn't absent, and he does have conflicts involving his love interests, and it's all a good read. If you want graphic details you need another author, however. Of some interest might be Romantic Times awarding Jim Butcher the Career Achievement Award in 2007 for the Urban Fantasy category. Apparently there's enough romance to get a mention, but not enough to win a romance category :-)

Television. The Dresden Files television series on the Sci-Fi channel was, before it was canceled in favor of a performance-wrestling show, a really good hour of fiction. However, there is no guarantee that things depicted on the screen are consistent with the books. For example, the Red Court vampire Bianca is depicted onscreen as a love interest (at least in flashback) to a Harry Dresden that otherwise isn't really connecting with women. The books have Harry meeting her for the first time on poor terms (eventually depicted on SciFi when he approached her about a murder victim in the SciFi version of Storm Front), and their relationship doesn't do much better than formal tolerance before it's cut off for good in an episode in which Harry hotheadedly (but sympathetically) touches off a supernatural war. Details like the hair color of Harry's cop friend change, but the atmosphere is similar. Other instances of variance committed in the spirit of interpretation rather than rewrite include that Harry's "blasting rod" is replaced with a drumstick which he uses like a magic wand, and Harry's wizard's staff is replaced with a symbol-carved hockey stick. These things make Harry stand out less in Chicago, and help the audience believe what they're seeing. In the books, it's clear folks either believe he's a crackpot or are "in the know". To make the story work better on television, the skull "Bob" was given the ability to project the image of the human body he had in life (which is different in SciFi series than in the books, because in the books Bob was never a human, but a supernatural construct designed for archiving and retrieving data, which became sentient, slickly raising some AI ideas in a fantasy environment). The SciFi series created a backstory for the once-human "Bob" and built an episode around it and Bob's loyalty to Harry, which again runs against the situation established in the books, in which the possessor of the skull commands the entity housed in it irrespective of personal loyalties, a fact Harry exploits in Dead Beat once the bad guy sets down the skull to do some hard work. And yeah, we should expect the skull Bob to be a bigger deal now that it's clear what class of entity it really is ....

Philosophy. Butcher's personal background in Christian activities shows through in the values of his protagonists, and in the details of some of the characters' powers. This doesn't come off preachy; Dresden is a non-Christian and this seems to work fine (thus far). The fact Harry is swept up as the series progresses in a conflict involving divine forces and the damned is just part of the scenery, and serves to frame the conflict in place among the Big Forces Shaping The Universe so readers can infer cosmic significance as the conflict develops. The occasional scriptural exegesis (e.g., on what suffering a witch to live really meant) doesn't subtract from the story, but like the love scenes is added only when it actually advances your understanding of the characters and the story and will make what follows more believable. You can enjoy the series without accepting particular religious views, as they're presented in a world that's also discussing as if seriously the politics among faeries. The upshot is that specific sources of character values offer color and dimension, but they don't offer the kind of in-your-face attack as in some other authors' stories.

Quality. Jim Butcher isn't the only author writing crossover fiction that tries to combine fantasy, real-world, mysteries, romance, and so on. However, he's doing one of the most sophisticated jobs of it that I've ever had the pleasure to discover. I mention Charlaine Harris at this juncture not to rate one over the other, but to point out that there's more than one author still doing urban fantasy properly in the Southern Vampire series, which stars Sookie Stackhouse as a mind-reading small-town waitress. (I've not read Harris' other series, Aurora Teagarden, Lily Bard, or Harper Connelly.) Enjoying either of these quality authors to the utmost is best with some grounding in fiction and pop culture, as both authors throw jokes that resonate against what you know from the rest of your literate life. It's possible to miss references and not feel too lost, but to get every giggle you need to have lived a bit, and brains enough to recall the references.

Others play in this space, but Butcher works in it.

[1] Also, a potential spoiler, depending what you've read so far: Butcher has been building over the course of several books the premise that Outsiders, against which magic mostly fails to work, are pulling the strings behind a large number of problems that have occupied Harry over the course of the series, so we are being led to expect confrontations in which Harry's wizardry won't be the answer. Some relationship exists between Outsiders and the King of the White Court Vampires, who's used rituals to direct Outsiders against victims, and the King himself seems unable to be targeted by wizards' attacks, suggesting the sort of immunity Outsiders might possess once they appear onstage. The setup thus far is that Harry's family -- a complete mystery when the curtain opened on Storm Front -- is somehow integrally interconnected with the problem that will materialize with the Outsiders, and will presumably offer both the reason they're causing the problem and the solution to it.