Archive for October 18th, 2009

Microsoft Stabs FireFox

| October 18, 2009 | Reply
Microsoft Stabs FireFox

I’ve long been an advocate of the FireFox browser. I’ve used it since it was first announced, and rarely use IE for anything but testing web designs and browsing Microsoft’s own non-W3C compliant web pages.

One of my reasons is that Internet Explorer has major vulnerabilities via its ability to directly run ActiveX code on the machine of users without asking permission. That is, it is a hacker’s pipeline into your operating system.

Well, a few weeks ago, a Microsoft Update quietly installed the .Net Framework assistant into any FireFox browser it found. Shoved that narrow shiv of vulnerability right into the heart of the generally more secure FireFox core. When it was noticed, the savvy segment of FireFox users were outraged. Not just because it was done, but because it was done in such a way that it couldn’t be easily removed! Sure, it would let FireFox users see those rare sites dependent on ActiveX, but it would also let hackers run ActiveX on your machine!

When I found out, I first Googled to find a way to remove it using regedit and about:config (two dangerous powerful tools). But a week later, updates by Microsoft and FireFox made it easier to remove. If you have it, remove it.

Here’s one of the articles about it from ZDNet, a generally Microsoft friendly environment. This article also contains removal instructions that assume you have recent updates.

btw: If you didn’t know. FireFox spell checks all blog entry fields as you type. And you can add nifty customizable Make Link tools for easy creation of links in comments to blogs and such. Just highlight text on a page, rt-click and Make Link to copy complete link code, ready to paste.

Share

Read More

Elizabeth Warren: Nothing much has changed

| October 18, 2009 | 8 Replies
Elizabeth Warren:  Nothing much has changed

Elizabeth Warren has lots of bad news, the “stabilized” economy and the huge Wall Street bonuses notwithstanding. Warren is the Chair of the Congressional TARP Oversight Panel.

Good for her, hammering on Henry Paulson’s enormous bait and switch. Most of that TARP money was supposed to be used for loans for small businesses, not more gambling and bonuses, which is where it appears to have gone. Yet, according to Warren, there will “never” be a meaningful accounting of that money.

Share

Read More

California court declines to publish anti-camera decision

| October 18, 2009 | 1 Reply
California court declines to publish anti-camera decision

Many of us have been caught by those increasingly ubiquitous red-light cameras. Police departments and local governments argue that these sorts of cameras improve safety and increase revenue. Studies are increasingly putting the lie to the safety claim, but nobody’s disputing that these traffic enforcement mechanisms bring in revenue.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March that

… a study in last month’s Journal of Law and Economics concluded that, as many motorists have long suspected, “governments use traffic tickets as a means of generating revenue.” The authors, Thomas Garrett of the St. Louis Fed and Gary Wagner of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, studied 14 years of traffic-ticket data from 96 counties in North Carolina. They found that when local-government revenue declines, police issue more tickets in the following year. Officials at the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police didn’t respond to requests for comment.

California state law prohibits compensation to operators of these red-light cameras based on the number of tickets issued. Localities have been side-stepping this law through “cost-neutrality” provisions, which allow the cities to pay the operators up to a certain monthly amount. After that cap is reached, the city keeps all the revenue beyond that point. The intent of the law is to remove an incentive to ticket as a means of increasing revenue to the private operators. There is now a second appellate court ruling that has struck down the red-light programs as illegal under the state law.

Share

Read More

Rage and Injustice

| October 18, 2009 | 2 Replies
Rage and Injustice

When people ask why laws must be changed to protect behavior that seems “outside” social norms, it can sometimes be difficult to make the point that rights must accrue to individuals and their choices or they mean nothing. So when a woman is stoned in some backwater country for adultery (whether she is in fact married or not) or a young girl has her clitoris snipped off without having any say in the matter or when a child is allowed to die from a treatable illness because his or her parents believe that only prayer can save them or when people are denied basic civil rights because they don’t play the social game the same way as everyone else or—

If this were an issue of a racially mixed marriage, everyone would be aware and outraged. In this case it is not, it is a lesbian couple with children, who suffered a dual outrage—the first being denial of partner’s rights at the hospital where one perished and the second being the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the survivor against those who callously disregarded their basic humanity. The assumption by strangers that because they didn’t fit some cookie-cutter definition of Normal that their fundamental humanity could be abridged in a life and death situation is not something that is redressable other than by law, because without a law people will make up any old justification to be assholes. And without a law, the rest of us will let them get away with it.

Read the story. Be outraged. But do not be silent.

Share

Read More

The nasty brutish “Darwinism” concocted by I-don’t-give-a-crap free-marketers

| October 18, 2009 | 9 Replies
The nasty brutish “Darwinism” concocted by I-don’t-give-a-crap free-marketers

Many conservatives have a “hate-love relation with biology.” Primatologist Frans De Waal terms this “the first great paradox of the American political landscape” in his new book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. In this new book, De Waal has produced another tome of lively writing and thoughtful analysis, reminding us of our exquisite human animal roots. He is out to set the record straight on a gnawing social issue: too many people invoke “evolution” to justify treating each other in contemptuous ways. This has got to stop, because this modern version of “Social Darwinism” paints a highly selective and distorted view of the kind of animals we humans are based on a wildly inaccurate distortion of how natural selection works.

Although I am not even halfway into De Waal’s book, I can see that De Waal has launched a sustained broadside against the commonly expressed perspective that evolutionary theory equates to “social Darwinism,” an approach embraced by many conservatives. The idea of social Darwinism is that “those who make it [successfully in life] shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t.” The idea was championed by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer in the 19th century. Spencer “decried attempts to equalize society’s playing field,” and said of the poor that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.” De Waal comments that the business world fully embraces this idea and characterizes competition as a “law of biology” that will improve the human race. We thus have “the second great paradox of the American political landscape”:

Whereas the book found in most American homes and every hotel room urges us on almost every page to show compassion, social Darwinists scoff at such feelings, which only keeps nature from running its course. Poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness. Why not simply let the poor perish?

Many of these conservatives embrace the metaphor of the invisible hand, arguing that this invisible hand “will take care of society’s woes.” De Waal notes, however, “the invisible hand . . . did nothing to prevent the appalling survival-of-the-greatest scenes in New Orleans” following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Why are the assumptions about biology always on the negative side? [p. 4] . . . What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. [p. 7] . . . Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence [p. 10] . . . [It is a great myth] that human society is a voluntary creation of autonomous men. [p.20] . . . When our ancestors left the forest and entered an open, dangerous environment, they became prey and evolved a herd instinct that beats that of many animals. We excel at bodily synchrony and actually derive pleasure from it. [p. 20]. . . . All primates have this tendency [to develop trusting alliances], and some even invest in the community as a whole. Instead of just focusing on their own position, they demonstrate group-oriented behavior. [p. 34]

De Waal’s main message is that we are NOT condemned by nature to treat each other badly. Though competition is part of the picture, we have evolved to be predominantly groupish and peace-loving beings who are well-tuned to look out for each other. Not that we always look out for each other admirably, but there is plenty of reason to conclude that human animals are highly social in an empathetic way. Keep this book handy for the next time someone claims that they don’t need to care about people who are struggling to make it because nature is “dog eat dog.” That approach to life is a cop-out; it is certainly not justified by Darwin’s work.

Share

Read More

Dan Choi: Love is worth fighting for.

| October 18, 2009 | 1 Reply
Dan Choi: Love is worth fighting for.

Dan Choi is a well-decorated combat veteran who was dismissed from the military because was gay. His message at the National Equality March rally was simple and compelling. Choi made it clear that he is done asking and he is now telling. Don’t ask, don’t tell must be repealed immediately.

Share

Read More

Orangutan trying on a t-shirt

| October 18, 2009 | Reply
Orangutan trying on a t-shirt

While visiting the St. Louis Zoo today I photographed a young orangutan trying on a t-shirt. It was a delightful display, though not unexpected, given the long-documented tool-use of orangs:

Many wild orangutans have developed an amazing ability to use tools to help them exploit what food they can find. They’ve been observed using probes like twigs to extract insects and honey from tree orang-1trunks (held in their hands or their teeth), as well as blunt tools to scrape seeds from spiny fruit cases.

In addition to food-gathering tools, wild orangutans have been observed making tools to scratch themselves, fashioning leafy branches into “umbrellas” to shelter themselves from sun and rain, and using branches as swatters to repel bees or wasps that are attacking. Many have also been seen using “leaf gloves” to handle prickly fruits or branches, or creating “seat cushions” to sit comfortably in thorny trees.

Tool use hasn’t been observed in all orangutan populations, and it shows great variations even when itorang-2 exists. This suggests to scientists that tool use is the result of innovation and learning that’s passed on from one generation to the next – one of the hallmarks of culture.

orang-3

[More photos . . . ]

Share

Read More

What is truth?

| October 18, 2009 | 4 Replies
What is truth?

What is truth?

Big question, right?

It’s something philosophers have been pondering for as long as there have been philosophers pondering. I’m not going to pretend to be able to answer it here but I would like to list a few things that truth is not.

Belief is not truth.

Faith is not truth.

Desire is not truth.

Hope is not truth.

Vague prophecy is not truth.

The other day a believer in a religion forum conversation I was a part of told me that he hopes that some day I learn the “truth” and get saved. I am always wary when a word is willfully and consistently misused. There is an Orwellian doublespeak creepiness about the mis-use of the word “truth” by believers that is disturbing to me whenever I hear it.

People often speak of a personal truth and I suppose that concept has some validity, but all too often that personal revelation, which ends up being called truth, is applied to humanity as a whole. In other words, “My truth must be your truth”. That is a very myopic viewpoint and one thing about belief in God that has always rubbed me the wrong way.

That same believer more recently posted that because he knows the truth no one will ever be able to change his mind or shake his faith. He is mistaken if that’s what he thinks the non-believers are trying to do by arguing against certainty. Why would I want to take away from him his life’s philosophy that he has worked so hard to discover? Conversely, why would he want to deny me mine?

As an atheist all I have ever wanted from believers is respect. Respect for my doubts. Respect for my journey. Respect for MY personal “truth”.

Does belief rule out respect and understanding for other paths of life? I don’t think so but if that is the case, that is just one more reason that I would prefer to hold on to my doubts.

Share

Read More