Saturday, November 16, 2002

We apparently have a foiled attempt by terrorists to release cyanide on the London underground. Apparently there is an al Qaeda connection.

Given Britain's profile in the war against terrorism, this doesn't greatly surprise me, sadly. Again, what is striking is how low tech a means of attack this is. While very posionous, cyanide is very easy to obtain and is likely to disperse pretty rapidly. Nerve gas it isn't. September 11 was purely an attack that involved no physical resources at all, and since then we have seen bombs and now cyanide. That is about it. No nuclear weapons, no biological weapons, and no particularly powerful chemical weapons. Al Qaeda sometimes brags a log but seems technologically much less capable than was, for instance, Aum Shinkriyo.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Glenn Reynolds is again mentioning the peculiar possible connection between Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Al Qaeda. This one is largely circumstantial. What is not circumstantial is the connection between Asimov's foundation and the Aum Shinkrikyo cult: the people who released nerve gas on the Tokyo underground. These people essentially used the Foundation Books as a handbook. The case that Al Qaeda have used it is much more circumstantial. The Guardian suggests that even if it is true, bin Laden might keep quiet about it because Dr Asimov was Jewish).

It's easy to see why these particular books are popular with apocalyptic cults. They are about a single man (Hari Seldon) who sees scientifically that civilization is about to fall. According to his mathematics, the only way to preserve civilization is to create a society on the edge of the galaxy which will slowly grow into the new galactic government. This process is to be supervised by another even smaller (and secret) elite, whose job is to ensure that the new civilization successfully takes route. The established order disbelieves Seldon's predictions and is hostile to his project's formation. The books provide great justification if you think that the modern world is sick and collapsing and that you and a small band of followers with non-mainstream views believe that you are the only people who can save it from catastrophe.

Dr Asimov of course would have been horrified by this use of his work. He was a lifelong Democrat and humanist, although a certain favouritism for elites did come through in his work from time to time. (He was a little too pessimistic for my liking on things like environmental issues, too. He had a little too much willingness to accept the Paul Erlich "Most of us are doomed and so we should decide who must be saved" view. I considerably prefer Arthur C Clarke's ideology. ). Also, Asimov's editor when he wrote Foundation and its first few sequels in the 1940s was long time Astounding Science Fiction editor John Campbell, who did prefer stories in which a certain sort of scientific elite won the day, so some of this ideology may have come from Campbell. (Campbell's enthusiasms could overflow into pseudoscience from time to time, too. Campbell was the editor who first gave editorial space to the new "science" of Dianetics, invented by L Ron Hubbard, so in a sense he deserves some of the blame for Scientology, too. Eventually Campbell woke up to this and had a falling out with Hubbard, but this took perhaps a little too long).

The other recent politician with a liking for Asimov's work is Newt Gingrich, who was a big fan. He too liked Foundation, fitting it in with his enthusiasm for history. It does seem to appeal to those who are intensely ideological rather than pragmatic. (Of course, the difference is that Gingrich's ideology was not especially extreme, and was within the rules of a democracy). I read recently in the New York Review of Science Fiction describing Gingrich visiting Asimov in his apartment in New York when Gingrich was a freshman congressman. Gingrich was apparently rather star-struck, and was just delighted to meet the writer.
The music industry responding to competition by improving the quality of its product. Fancy that.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Is royal toothpaste decanted three hours before it is used?

I have ignored the royal scandals until now. Mainly I have done this because as an Australian republican, I keep my head down on issues involving the royal family in Britain. However, the Times this morning reports this alleged fact about the Prince of Wales.

There was a story yesterday that his beloved aide, Michael Fawcett, is the only person who knows "how to load his toothbrush the way Charles likes it".

This is complete hearsay, and the source is not given, but this is so bizarre that I tend to think it must be true.
Which Founding Father Am I?

Found via NZ Pundit . He gets to be John Adams. Why can't I be John Adams?

Bruce Sterling again:

I'm a big fan of the digital revolution. I actually think its been extremely benign, compared to things like nuclear power, even air travel, mass electrification and railroads; I mean, this is one of the big ones. It's way up there, but compared to the other ones, it's really "sweet-tempered" and nice. These are basically civilized people out here. I mean, nobody's jumping up there and saying, "I've got a computer; its time for the final solution!"

Update: Sterling also has a new column in Wired, although the first installment is a worthy but fairly dull piece on international corruption. (I can read much the same in the Economist).
Okay, some thoughts on Turkey. I went there for ten days in June, and had one of the best holidays I have ever had in my life. I arrived in Istanbul late in the evening, and had a domestic flight out of Istanbul at about six the next morning. I thus had a layover of a few hours. If I had been more sensible, I would perhaps have gone into the city and spent those few hours in a hotel, but as it was I just decided to rough it in the terminal. This turned out to be an interesting experience. This was in the middle of the football World Cup, and I spent the first couple of hours in a cafe/bar, watching the day's matches on a television in drinking a beer or two as I talked about the matches with the locals. At this point, I could have been at any airport in Europe. Thanks to Ataturk, Turkey uses a Latin script, so there is little difficulty reading the signs or anything like that. It was very comfortable and familiar.

Further on, at about two in the morning, I left the bar and went to a cafe for a cup of coffee. The cafe was a branch of "Gloria Jeans", the downmarket semi-Starbucks clone that sells coffee in malls worldwide. Gloria Jeans strategy seems to be to avoid Starbucks worldwide. Rather than having outlets in stand-alone stores in the US, it puts its outlets in mall food courts. Rather than building stores in first tier international markets like Japan and England, its international expansion takes place in secondary markets such as Turkey (and Australia, which is why I was familiar with the brand in the first place). I sat down, and a young woman at one of the tables smiled at me. I sat down at her table, and we started a chat. She was about twenty, and was studying Environmental science at an Istanbul university, and was waiting for a friend of hers to arrive in Paris. She told me that Istanbul was a beautiful city, and that the Turks were a friendly people and I would have a good time, but that sadly the government in the country was hopeless and that while Turkey was a middle income country, everything was going down the drain.

I got this a lot when in the country. Our government is hopeless. We have no power, and no influence in the world. It's all our own fault. I spent a few days travelling around Cappadocia and Pamukkale with American friends who I met up with. The extent and magnificence of the ruins was dazzling to behold. A lot of them were, of course, Christian. A lot of them were pre-Constantine Christian, so there were churches built in caves in hills to hide from the Romans. And such.

I went for a drive through some of the towns around Cappadocia, and it was a lot like driving through the poorer parts of Europe. Every now and then you find drive into a village, containing men sitting around in the village square as is typical in southern Europe, shops selling food, It perhaps did not quite pass the test of being able to find the railway station, a food shop and a bar, but it wasn't too far off. However, the dramatic difference was the skyline, drive over a hill into any town in Chistendom, and the thing that dominates is usually the steeples of the local churches. In Turkey, of course, what you see instead is minarets.

Of course, I flew from London to Istanbul, so it was a sudden jump from one culture to another, rather than a gradual shift. About a decade ago, I went to Budapest, and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire was certainly visable there. No minarets, but Turkish baths and Turkish architecture. It would be fascinating to drive from Rome all the way to Istanbul some time. In fact, it would be fascinating to drive all the way to Cairo some time, to see the Christian and Islamic influences wane and wax through Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia and Albania and Kosovo and Macedonia and Greece and through Turkey and through Syria and Lebanon and Israel, through Jerusalem, Bethlehem, through the Gaza and the Sinai and eventually to the Nile. Sadly, such a trip is unimaginable. I hope that some time in my lifetime it will not be.

Istanbul was one of the most magnificent places I have been to in my life, plus I should give some thoughts on Turkey as a secular Islamic society, but that is for another posting, I think.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Good piece by Jefferson Chase (via aldaily in the Boston Globe, basically arguing that humorlesness in any organisation or person is something to worry about, and that a lack of openness to humor tends to indicate the absence of openness to criticism.

Osama bin Laden shares Hitler's anti-Semitism. Moreover, if we believe John Miller's 1999 Esquire interview, neither bin Laden nor his followers have anything resembling a Western sense of humor. (Miller's description of bin Laden's incomprehension at an attempted ice-breaker - to the effect that, as an engineer, Osama should know how to build a decent driveway up to his cave - is itself high comedy.) As Germans know from historical experience, fanaticism, unease with modernity, a poor sense of humor, and ethnic hatred are intimately related.

Plus there is this

Changing trains in the main square of the eastern half of Berlin two weeks ago, with the issue of Merkur in my pocket, I was inclined to answer both questions with a ''yes.'' Some 10,000 people had gathered that cold, wet, miserable day to protest against US threats toward Iraq, and I couldn't help think of the phrase ''huddled masses'' at the sight of the shivering peace activists with their handmade signs. The general tenor was a combination of ''war is bad'' and ''this war is bad because it is being fought for oil companies and other multinational corporations,'' which didn't stop the protestors from wearing Jack Wolfskin parkas, Timberland boots, and baseball caps. One young man sat on a concrete block spouting antiglobalization slogans while warming himself with a hot Whopper. This was funny, but also a little depressing. The Left , I thought, is in trouble .

Certainly anti-globalisation protestors and radical environments have far too much earnestness about them. It is an unpleasant earnestness, generally too. If you want to actually argue against them and want to use actual economic arguments to do so, this often seems to prove that you are a member of the enemy by definition, and therefore they refuse to listen to you. When walking past these sorts of demonstrators, I feel the immediate urge to go and get a Starbucks latte to carry in one hand and a Big Mac for the other. However, I too have seen what Chase describes: the demonstrators doing it too. Usually, though, there is a complete lack of realisation of the ridiculousness of it.
About four years ago, I had one of the more surreal experiences of my life. As a legacy of a misspent youth , I have a number of friends who are scientists of repute. It so happened that I visited the Cloisters, the medieval art museum at the top of Manhattan (which is part of the Metropolitan Museum) with two world class molecular biologists. In one gallery, we sat down in front of a number of tapestries of unicorns . I sat there and studied the art for a moment, and then slowly the nature of my friends' conversation entered my head. They were discussing just precisely how they would go about making a unicorn. That is, if they started with a horse, just precisely what genes would they have to splice into its DNA in order to produce a offspring with horns growing in the middle of their heads. They were doing this completely unselfconsciously, and hadn't thought about just how astonishing what they were saying was. The world is astoundingly stranger than it was even 20 years ago. ( New Scientist magazine used to publish April Fools jokes about strange sounding scientific breakthroughs - the development of the "tomato cow", a mixture of cattle and tomato DMA to produce a plant that produced fruit with tough, leather like skin which were high in protein was one) but gave it up a few years ago when it found that the real things it was reporting about were just as strange as anything it could make up.

Perhaps this is another sign of the apocalypse (or at least the Singularity ).

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Well, a vancomycin resistant staphylococcus bacterium has been imminent for a while, and here it is. In the short term, this is bad news, and makes going to hospital much scarier. In the long term, developing drugs that are capable of killing this new staph is not going to be impossible. (When it comes down to it, we humans can develop new medicines faster than bacteria can evolve. When we developed antibiotics, we knew nothing about molecular biology. We now know a lot, and this will eventually tell). Meanwhile, though, we should avoid taking antibiotics unless it is really necessary. And, if you do start a course of antibiotics, you should always finish them.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Interesting piece on Turkey in The New Yorker. It's obviously a country of immense importance: an Islamic country that is actually our friend. It is a shame that is always seems unable to get its act together politically. I went to Turkey earlier this year myself. Istanbul is one of the most magnificent cities I have ever been to. I will post lots more on this tomorrow. I have not really been in the mood for blogging for the last couple of days.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Biased Survey result of the Day

58% of women would prefer an HDTV to a 1 carat diamond ring. As the survey was conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association, there is no reason to actually believe it, but still.....
Jack Nicholson is a great actor, but I am not sure he quite deserves to become the first man to win four acting Oscars. (Katherine Hepburn won four on the female side of the draw).

That said, About Schmidt is a film I am very much looking forward to seeing. Director Alexander Payne's previous film Election is one of the (mostly) overlooked gems of recent years: a marvellous satire on both politics and that social group that David Brooks was later to refer to as the Organization Kid . Payne also managed to realise that Matthew Broderick can be perfectly cast playing morally dubious (or at least morally shop worn) characters. Keneth Lonergan got this perhaps even better in You Can Count on Me. Both directors took Broderick's Ferris Bueller persona and retained some of it while playing against it. Hitchcock was better than anyone at this type of casting: his use of Jimmy Stewart to play apparent everyman types but in fact slightly weird and kinky characters in Vertigo and Rear Window was brilliant. (If Tom Hanks is the new Jimmy Stewart, then someone really needs to cast him in something interesting like this, too. And no, Sam Mendes does not count. In The Road to Perdition Hanks is just playing a fairly ordinary Hanks type, who happens to work for the mob).

In any event, I doubt they will give Nicholson another Oscar just yet, however good is the performance. Perhaps what might be called the "Meryl Streep factor" might come into play here. After Streep had won twice, the academy didn't feel the need to award her any more oscars, although she has continued to be nominated endlessly. Of course, there is another factor, which is that if a very famous actor who won some oscars years and years ago looks about to die, he or she might win another one. (See Katherine Hepburn, or Ingrid Bergman for that matter). Meryl Streep may get one of these, but not for a few years yet. And Nicholson last won an Oscar in 1998, so he doesn't qualify on the "years and years ago" test.
I am a migraine sufferer

If you do not suffer from migraines, there is a temptation to just assume that people who suffer from them just have headaches, and not to be terribly sympathetic. I was sympathetic, but I was certainly not sympathetic enough. I personally did not start getting them until I was around 25, and I am a mild sufferer. My migraines only affect me occasionally - the one I had this weekend was my first in about a year - and they are relatively short lived, lasting no more than a day. However, they are awful, and I am completely unable to function when I have them. (I am now over this one, but I am lying down, feeling pretty weak. I just had a bowl of Cantonese noodles, and that did me the world of good).

For some reason, migraines, hangovers, motion sickness, and acute mountain sickness have very similar symptoms. (At least they do for me). Intense headaches. Dehydration, vomiting, Sensitivity to sound and light. I wonder why this is. (are my susceptibilities to migraines and motion sickness related?) The symptoms are usually most intense for migraines (and AMS, although I have only had this once).

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