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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Any Port in a Storm

Our initial thought on hearing of the sale of US port management to Dubai Ports Management, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, was that it was "crazy talk." It seemed such a ludicrous idea, we could hardly imagine how anyone could consider it. We weren't alone in leaping to that conclusion, of course, as a virtual, bipartisan firestorm has developed around the issue.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking, as you dig into it a little deeper. We are always troubled when too many people who are reliably wrong are agreeing with us, and that was certainly the case here. Besides, if there is one issue that takes precedence over all others for the Bush administration, it's the Global War on Terror. GWB knows that success or failure in this area will be what defines the success or failure of his entire presidency. If this is really as stupid as it seems, how could it have gotten beyond the initial discussions?

Of course there are arguments for allowing the sale to go through. One of the best, but least often heard, is that owners of property (the current port management company) do and should have the rights to sell that property, if "ownership" has any meaning. Americans and American companies buy up foreign companies and properties every day, and we look (are) hypocritical or foolish if we have a cow when a foreign company does the same in the US. The US port management operation is just a small part of the $6.8 billion purchase of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. The company is based in London and operates in 18 countries.

Much was made of the UAE's pre-9/11 role as a financial conduit for al-Qaeda and of its recognition of the Taliban government. But that was then, and now it's today. Since then, the UAE have proved their reliablity as an ally against the terrorists. The UAE is also relatively free, and about 40% of the supplies headed for Iraq pass through ports in the UAE. Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal elaborates:
An alternative way of looking at the Dubai Ports World decision is that it finally binds an Arab nation to our side in the war on terror and that it represents a recognition by some Arab elites that their self-interest coincides with ours. Dubai was already cooperating in tracing and identifying al Qaeda's financial flows. Presumably they are in the port-management business for the money. Now you may disagree with this, but there is at least an upside and downside here worth weighing. No chance of that now. The press yesterday clearly set the chalk lines for public discussion on the ports: The only issue now is whether the White House caves to "bipartisan pressure."
Henninger compares today's political and opinion leaders to Yosemite Sam, the character from Bugs Bunny cartoons who would start shooting wildly in every direction at the drop of a hat. It's an apt comparison here. This "ready, fire, aim" approach is corrosive to our political process, and it's certainly not conducive to good decision-making by our government. Henninger continues:
It has been a truism for a century that press stereotypes set the tone of many public events. We used to call this the conventional wisdom; now it's a "narrative." By and large it's a neutral phenomenon. But in our jacked-up media age, first impressions--false or true--becomes powerful and hard to alter. Surely this is one reason Vice President Cheney's office resisted "releasing" the shooting incident into the media ozone.

Our political elites, rather than recognize they are playing with a new kind of fire, instead have become pyromaniacs, lighting the fires. New Orleans even now can't get out from under the initial crazy statements the pols were hurling over Katrina. Our politicians seem to have arrived at the conclusion that they somehow no longer bear responsibility for what they say, or that there is no consequence to what they say. But they do and there is. Yosemite Sam was a cartoon. The ability of government to function in a dangerous world is not.
Henninger reminds us that Sen. John McCain, to his credit, was one of the few who called for learning the facts before jumping to convulsions. We note that Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel also deserves some praise on this score:
JournalStar.com: On other matters, Hagel said this week's furor over the Bush administration plan to allow the United Arab Emirates' state-owned Dubai Ports World to manage a number of major U.S. ports "risks a very dangerous backlash in the Arab world." The Arab world "could see America as anti-Arab," he said. Much of the political rhetoric here clearly fuels that impression, he said.

"This has been blown totally out of proportion," Hagel said. "It never was an issue about security. This is a port management company." Port security remains in the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service and law enforcement agencies, he said.

The UAE, Hagel said, is "one of America's strongest supporters" in the Middle East. "Gulf states house our military bases. They finance a lot of our national debt."
We'd have liked these quotes even better had Sen. Hagel stopped there and simply called on everyone to calm down. Instead he added a few barbs, largely blaming the Adminstration for the furor. Hint for Sen. Hagel: Very few Republican votes will be won currying favor with the New York Times by trashing Republicans. You need Republican votes to stay in the Senate, let alone move on to a presidential nomination.

So we've now turned around completely on this issue. We not only see how this purchase could be allowed, we support allowing it. This opinion shift is relatively painless, since we didn't shoot our mouth off, taking a definitive position, before hearing the facts. Maybe this approach will catch on.

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Uncle Tom

We normally think of columnist Clarence Page as "usually interesting, sometimes right," but we may have to upgrade his rating a notch or two. He writes about his interview with James Henson, Sr., a descendent of the real man whose story inspired the fictional Harriet Beecher Stowe character. It's an interesting story, which Page interleaves well with parts of the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin. What really caught our eye, however, was the passage below (empahsis added):
"It's ironic that Uncle Tom is a derogatory term today, yet he was such a powerful character in bringing about the abolition of slavery," Henson Sr. said. "The way he was depicted as almost Christlike caused a lot of Christian people to say, if the institution of slavery could kill someone as kind, gentle and noble as Tom, we have got to put an end to this institution."

But Tom's image became a victim of the book's success. Its popularity spawned countless stage productions called "Tom shows" that often were little more than minstrel shows turning noble Tom into a gross buffoon. A new stereotype was born and later thrown back by black-pride activists at anyone who wandered off the reservation of mainstream black political thought.
Wow. A shot right at the political straightjacket Black America has wrapped itself up in. We might have said "plantation" in place of "reservation," but we admire him for this nonetheless. He goes on to specificly mention Harry Belafonte's racist remarks directed at Colin Powell and Condi Rice:
Most recently, we have seen Harry Belafonte put a new and pernicious spin on the Uncle Tom smear by calling Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice "house slaves" for supporting President Bush's policies. Conservatives, especially black conservatives, were quick to counter that Belafonte was a house slave of the Democratic Party and an Uncle Tom to the liberal establishment. Two can play that nasty name-calling game, for what it's worth.
Well said, Mr. Page. Although we do think this suggests more symmetry to this kind of attack than really exists. Obviously, the "reservation of mainstream black political thought" is relentlessly liberal, and conservative blacks are the main targets of these nasty labels.

Friday, February 24, 2006

SobekPundit for President!

SobekPundit has announced his candidacy for president in '08. Hey, we could do a lot worse for a candidate. Come to think of it, we have regularly been doing a lot worse. On the plus side, he's not a lawyer. On the negative side, he's in law school now.

To maximize his chances he's running in both the "major" parties, so see if you prefer him as a Republican or as a Democrat.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Harvard Values

The Left Wing Loonies of the Harvard faculty finally got their way, as Harvard President Lawrence Summers submitted his resignation this week. We suppose the handwriting was on the wall when he backtracked under intense pressure from the same can of nuts after daring to suggest that genetics might have something to do with aggregate differences between the sexes in career choices and proficiencies.

At the time one female, or perhaps we should say "womyn," professor who heard the speech claimed to be so upset she became physically ill and had to leave the lecture. We guess that proves conclusively that women are just as capable as men in all areas, not overly emotional bags of hormones, as Summers was obviously implying. But we digress...

Actually, any reasonable person who looked at what Summers really said in context would have a hard time finding much to disagree with, let alone descend into sustained apoplexy. Unfortunately, Summers quickly gave up on defending the reasonable, temperate remarks he had given in a speech designed to challenge rigidly fixed ideas. Instead he turned to appology for "offending" those who leap to take offense at any deviation from the PC Line. A crowd that has built its influence on nursing grievances is not about to accept any appologies either.

This mindset is one of the many reasons Tycho never considered going to Harvard. (Price and value are two other excellent reasons.)

A Harvard professor herself, Ruth R. Wisse, writes of the Summers lynching:
The movement to unseat Mr. Summers remains a mystery to most people outside Harvard. In the early days of his presidency, he challenged several tenured professors to account for the direction of their research and teaching. After some faculty had signed a petition urging divestment from Israel, he warned against the recurrence of anti-Semitism in a new guise. At an academic conference on the under-representation of women in science, he speculated on the implications of the differences between male and female test scores. At convocation ceremonies he congratulated Harvard students who served in the ROTC, which had been banned from the campus since the days of the Vietnam War.

Each of these actions offended one faculty interest group or another, and jointly they signaled a bold style of leadership in a direction broadly perceived as "conservative"--though it was in the service of once-liberal ideals.
Interestingly, Wisse reports that Summers is extremely popular with the Harvard students. She believes this "coup d'├ęcole" may cause a student backlash against the faculty involved. We hope she's right about this, as a student body radicalized against left-wing radicalism in the faculty would be a delicious irony. We're not holding our breath on this, though. It's not like these tenured twits have to pay any attention to what their customers think. At least not yet...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Home Wireless Security

I've had a home wireless router for almost 3 years now, in various states of non-security along the way. Lately, I've been learning about this topic for myself, so I thought I'd pass along what I've learned.

Why bother? It's certainly simplest to run your wireless network completely open, and that idea may be tempting. Internet access should be "free," right? What difference does it make if a neighbor, or even a stranger, mooches a little of your bandwidth? Well, what if the neighbor, or neighbor kid, or stranger is sharing pirated music over your access point? What if he's downloading or distributing kiddie porn? If anyone traces that traffic, they'll trace it back to your IP address and to you. It was without your knowledge, but, since your ISP's records will show it all came from your house, good luck convincing people it wasn't you.

Secondly, all traffic between your router and your wireless computer travels through the air in the clear. Anyone nearby can "sniff" the packets and determine exactly what's in them. Your email (and password), what web sites you visit, all your internet activities are open to the world. Information you enter in a secure webpage (one that starts with "https://...") is still secure, but most other things are open.

So what can be done to make it harder for uninvited guests to join and/or monitor your wireless network, and how effective are these steps?
  • Changing default names
  • SSID hiding
  • MAC address filtering
  • WEP encryption
  • WPA encryption
New Names. The first thing to do is to change the default name of your network and the administration password for the router. This is easy to do, and it at least prevents accidental access. It's also more fun than having your network named "Linksys" or "Belkin54g."

SSID Hiding. The SSID is the name you give your network. The router may broadcast that name or "hide" it. In practice hiding the SSID provides very little security, as the network can still easily be detected. I actually turned the SSID broadcasting back on, because it's more convenient to be able to see the network is available.

MAC Address Filtering. Each machine on a network has a Machine Address Code (redundantly called "MAC address"). It possible to set most routers up to only accept connections from computers with specific MAC addresses. This is the system used by the U of Neb and also by the college Tycho attends. This seems to be super safe, since the network administrator has to affirmatively add a MAC address to the approved list to grant access. In fact, this is not secure at all against a determined, semi-sophisticated hacker. The problem is that the MAC addresses themselves are traveling through the air in the clear. A hacker with a packet sniffer can quickly compile a list of approved MAC addresses for the network. Setting his machine to spoof an approved MAC address is also easy. Since this approach is also a pain in the neck to administer, there's really no reason to consider using it, if you have any better options.

WEP. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encrypts the data that passes between your machine and your router. The encryption can use either a 40-bit or 128-bit key. The encryption algorithm used is strong, but the implementation is severely flawed. Someone who knows what they're doing can break WEP encryption in less than an hour, perhaps a lot less, depending on the passphrase you choose. WEP is good enough to stop the casual cyber trespasser, but it will not hold up against a sustained attack. If that's the best your systems support, go ahead and use it. It's certainly a lot better than nothing.

WPA. The encryption system to use, if your network supports it, is WPA (aka WPA-PSK). You establish a good, long, random "passphrase" and enter it on the router and on each machine that will have wireless access. All the traffic is strongly encrypted and can't be read without knowledge of the passphrase ("pre-shared key").

The WPA encryption works fine with my Belkin router (set to "AES" encryption) and my PowerBook running Mac OS 10.4 ("Tiger"). Apple calls it "WPA-Personal," as opposed to the "WPA-Enterprise" system which uses a server. Presumably, the encryption/decryption adds some overhead, but there seems to be little or no impact on bandwidth on my 802.11g/DSL network.

So if your wireless hardware and software supports WPA encryption and you're not yet using it, make the switch today.

Much of the information here is culled from the excellent Security Now! podcasts on this topic. See episodes 10, 11, and 13 in particular for more information.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Visit from Dr. Escultura

We still consider this June, 2005, DLMSY post to be the definitive word on Escultura, Wiles, and Fermat's Theorem. It includes a complete rundown on the "controversy," links to other posts here and elsewhere on the topic, an explanation of Fermat's Last Theorem, and why Dr. Escultura's claims to have refuted the proof advanced by Dr. Andrew Wiles cannot be believed.

We promised ourself not to write anything more about this topic, but recently another one of our old posts drew some new comments from Dr. Edgar Escultura* himself. Since tomorrow is our blogiversary, revisiting the saga at this time can be justified for "historical" purposes, as well. Our HaloScan comments go away after a few months, so we have copied Dr. Escultura's comments into this post to preserve them for posterity.
The real number system has a number of defects among which are the following:

1) most of its concepts are ill-defined and are, therefore, ambiguous, nonsense.

2) The trichotomy axiom is false (i.e., it does not qualify as an axiom) because the real number system has no natural ordering.

It follows that FLT as formulated is ambiguous, nonesense, the reason it could not be solved. The first crucial step in resolving FLT would have been to fix the real number system first which Andrew did not do. I did by constructing the real numbers (the decimals, specifically) on three simple consistent axioms yielding the new real number system without ambiguity and contradiction. Moreover, this new mathematical space yields countable counterexamples to FLT proving that it is false. For details of this resolution, see my thread, Contradiction-Free Mathematics, in the math forum Sci Math that started last Jan. 5. All of these is accomplished in over half a dozen papers also listed in the same thread. Together with applications including physics there are now over three dozen papers on the subject in refereed international journals listed in the same thread.

I encourage viewers to take their comments from the top not from the flat of their foot.

E. E. Esccultura [sic]
E. E. Escultura | Homepage | 02.11.06 - 9:37 am | #
The problem with this line of argument, as we explained in our previous post, is that it's irrelevant. Fermat posed the problem in the integer number system, not the real number system. That's where Wiles solved the problem, and that's where any meaningful refutation of Wiles's work must take place. As we wrote:
We will note, however, that Escultura's "refutation" of FLT is only valid in the special mathematical universe he has created, at best. Since FLT is cast in the standard number system, disproving it by changing the rules is not much of a feat.
So whether or not this "new mathematical space yields countable counterexamples to FLT" really makes no difference. Redefining decimals? So what? Only integers are involved.

Apparently after reading some other posts here on the topic, Dr. Escultura* returned to leave two duplicate comments on the same thread:
All I have seen here so far are comments that miss the issue and focus on rumors and hearsay when the Manila Times headline of the April 1, 2005 article was quite categorical and unambiguous:

UP Prof Proves Princeton Man Wrong.

I explained in my previous post what the issue was and what I did and cited the publications where I accomplished this feat. No one is interested in those rumors anymore and this website will not thrive on them.

E. E. Escultura
He's probably right in saying that DLMSY will not thrive on this topic. We won't be quitting our day job just yet.

* Note that we can't be absolutely certain these comments are really from Dr. Escultura. It's possible that someone else is spoofing his identity. The comments were posted from IP addresses in the Philipines, however, and they do make the same arguments Dr. E. has made in in the Manila Times and numerous other venues.

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Weekend Activities

Saturday was "squandered" on fun, including watching Predator and then Bananas with Viper and with Viper and Mrs. Abe, respectively.

Sunday was devoted to doing the tax returns. We always do them ourselves, as it helps maintain a sense of outrage about the overreach of government. All we ask for is a tax code simple enough for a PhD chemist to understand. Is that too much to ask? Apparently.

First Blogiversary This Week

It was Feb. 22, 2005, when we made our first "permanent" post here at DLMSY, so our one-year blogiversary is coming up on Wednesday. On the off chance that some of you haven't yet read the entire blog, here's our favorite post from week 1. It's about the widespread, yet somewhat silly, tendency to use "strongman" as a euphemism for "dictator" or "autocrat," in this case referring to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Don't Let Me Stop You: Strongmen and Strong Language: We can imagine Hosni there in the gym, dripping with sweat, working on his benchpress or clean and jerk. Or perhaps he prefers the Bowflex or one of those other, latenight abs-of-steel panaceas. What is the secret of his muscle mass development? Could he be training with Jose and Barry's pharmacists? No doubt we'll soon be seeing references to "California Strongman, Arnold Schwartznegger," or "Jesse Ventura, Minneapolis Strongman," in a publication near you.
There are several paragraphs more of this post, for those who want more of this timeless prose.

Our first two posts were about the UN, and the week 1 archive page also includes a rare Tycho post (on Kelo before the decision).

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Untold Story

Here's a story from Iraq by a guy who lived it, Robert C. J. Parry. It's about the positive, heroic actions of his unit, and how those have apparently gotten lost in the PR flap about the misdeeds of a few. His article appeared in the LA Times (and made it to the Lincoln Journal Star), so perhaps that's a hopeful sign.
LAST MONTH I returned from Iraq, swapping my desert camouflage for a suit and tie to resume my desk job at a Century City firm. For the first time in 18 months I was separated from my battalion, the 1st of the 184th Infantry Regiment, which was among the first California Army National Guard units to be sent into combat since the Korean War.
The article can't really be summarized, so you'll have to read it all, but it's well worth it.