December 09, 2003
You've Got Junk Mail!

I hear that the federal government is going to pass a law to define and prohibit certain kinds of electronic junk mail.

At what point does junk e-mail cross over from being protected free speech into being a nuisance that infringes upon the free speech of others?

I, like many people who have worked for a while in and around the internet, am inundated with digital noise to the point where it makes it impossible for me to quickly, reasonably, and accurately sift through my e-mail to read legitimate messages. The signal to noise ratio is *so* huge, I can't just sit down and read all of my e-mail. I need filters to pull messages with specific content to bring them to my attention, and then I'm still missing key e-mail scattered among what's left. So, like many others, I use a filter to sort the rest (two filters, actually), and the filter(s) often fails to catch some junk while it incorrectly flags a legit piece of e-mail as noise.

In any given day, I probably would only have to spend about a half hour attending to my e-mail to deal with legitimate messages (even including legitimate solicitations for my business, and there are a few, you know). But the avalanche of junk e-mail extends the time required so much as to make e-mailing a major hassle.

I went to bed last night at 4am, and I cleaned out my junk mail filter before going to bed. I got up at 8am and checked my e-mail, and I already had a megabyte worth of junk e-mail waiting for me in the filter. Bleh.

I also notice lately that a lot of the junk isn't even trying to sell me anything or draw me into some particular website. Rather, it's just a collection of random words or selections from news articles or short stories that have no context and no reason. I'm guessing that this is an attempt by some of the junk mailers to confuse "smart" junk mail filters that look for patterns in the content to determine what's noise and what's not.

At this point, then, the junk mailers are no longer just harrassing me by making it difficult for me to receive legitimate messages because I'm inundated with offers I have no interest in. They are deliberately trying to confound my ability to even do the sorting. Sending me a random collection of words or a context-free snippet from some (copyrighted) passage is not even speech. It is outright harrassment above and beyond the problematic deluge of low-content unsolicited junk e-mail.

So where does junk e-mail cross the line between free speech and infringement of *my* rights? Some unsolicited mail is actually a good thing, in my humble opinion. But these days, most of it is not. I'd say the line is somewhere between zero messages a day and one megabyte's worth. Somewhere between a genuine sales pitch to an appropriately targetted audience and a sack of random words intended to gag my mailbox. But within that broad range, where should the line be drawn?

Here's to our federal government. May they draw the line fairly and firmly.

Posted by at 10:08 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (0)
The Halo 2 Conspiracy

I don't play video games anywhere near as much as I'd like. Too many good books to read and good movies to see, too much good work to do, too much quality time to spend with my family, etc.

But every once in a while, I get a chance to play, and my favorite game by far (at present) is "Halo" by Bungie / Microsoft. The game has been out for a while, and there is a sequel in the works.

A friend of mine who has ties to (but does not work at) the manufacturer of a certain game box system has an interesting hypothesis for why Halo 2 has been delayed (aside from the obvious: production schedules almost always slip).

The manufacturer of the game box in question is switching processor chips, and will be introducing the new chip in its next major release of the console. My friend hypothesizes that the release of Halo 2 will coincide with the release of the next version of the console. He further hypothesizes that Halo 2 will have special features that will only be usable on the new version of the console, and that the old (ie, the current version, which is the one I have) console will be able to run Halo 2 but not access these special features. In this way, the manufacturer might hope to lure consumers into buying the next version of the console when they might otherwise just stick with the version they have.

Again, I'm more inclined to believe it's delayed because, well, just because. Bungie has been late shipping *every* version of Halo's predecessors (Marathon), plus, if I recall correctly, every other game they've done (Oni, et al). They hardly need any additional excuses to be late with Halo 2. The guys and gals at Bungie are *very* good at what they do, and they have shown a tendency to favor "getting it right" over "getting it out on time." This strategy has done well by them so far.

But that said, I like my friend's conspiracy theory. We'll know when it ships, of course, but it has that plausibility that appeals to one's sense of order -- that the thing we want is not being denied to us "just because", but for a specific reason. And that reason is *nefarious*! Anything that delays our gratification must be nefarious!

However, while we're making up reasons for the delay, I'd like to suggest my own theory.

Halo is a "first-person shooter" game, which means that the player controls a character in what is essentially a battle (to fight, maim, and kill baddies) and sees everything on the screen from this character's view point.

Allow me to hypothesize that Halo 2 has been delayed because the makers wanted to add some cool new weapons to the main character's arsenal. Machine guns and sniper rifles aren't good enough. I suspect we'll see a flame thrower in the next version, for example.

But I *also* expect that, in keeping with modern times and modern themes, we'll also see the deadliest weapons of them all. The kind that make airport security personnel quake with fear: pocket knives, nail clippers, and shoes.

Posted by at 11:42 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (0)
 December 15, 2003
Lucky Once

I remember hearing the "Lucky Once" concept expressed in reference to the IRA, but the concept theoretically applies to terrorist organizations anywhere. The terrorist has an advantage -- up to a point -- with the idea that the government has to be lucky all the time in order to prevent terrorism, whereas the terrorist only has to be lucky once to be successful. True enough.

But once a terrorist organization is identified *and targetted*, that rule regarding luck gets flipped around. Now the fugitive has to stay lucky all the time, whereas the government forces only have to get lucky once.

The task forces set up by the US and its allies to capture "Iraq's Most Wanted" (remember the playing cards?) and al Queda have been working at it for a while. They expand their intelligence, they capture more members, which expands their intelligence, and the cycle continues. As long as the task forces remain focused on their task, they must, inevitably, succeed.

Saddam Hussein had to stay lucky forever. We only had to get lucky once. And luck always gets better the more you work at it. We've been working at it. Mr. Hussein's luck ran out when the US finally captured the guy who could point to where Hussein was hiding out.

There's all kinds of irony that abounds here. al Queda had to get lucky to bring down the twin towers; in fact, it has been reported that they weren't expecting quite that much luck. But now they and similar terrorist organizations might find themselves done in by their own initial success.* They finally got our attention.

Now that they do, in fact, have our full attention, can they stay lucky forever?

Unless the federal government loses its will, Osama Bin Laden and the remains of the al Queda network will be found. We only need to get lucky once.

* Note that the terrorists have succeeded, on a few occasions, in carrying out terrorist acts. They have not, by and large, succeeded in their supposed political goals. What was the point of striking the twin towers? To crush the US? To encourage us to pull out of the Middle East? To convince us to abandon Israel? This is the problem with the "lucky once" concept. It's not enough to be lucky in your means. The idea is to be lucky in attaining your goals. Terrorism can be a means to expelling an invading army. Sometimes. But as a foreign policy tool, it really isn't a terribly effective means for attaining your goals.

Posted by at 12:51 PM in the following Department(s): Tidbits III | Comments (1)
 December 17, 2003
Quick review: Return of the King

I've been suffering from insomnia again, so I put it to good use for a change last night and walked across the street to the movie theater after Alexander was put to bed and Paulette was doing some work for a client. The theater was sold out of tickets for the midnight showing of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, just as I had expected.

However, there was a guy at the window who was asking the cashier if there was any way they (the theater) could resell a ticket that the guy had bought but now couldn't use. What good luck! I told him I'd be happy to take it, so the guy told the cashier nevermind, I bought the ticket, and caught the first showing of this long-anticipated movie.

(I guess I told you all that so that you wouldn't think I'm a total geek, like the guy who had "stood in line" since 9am that morning so he could get the best seats. Sheesh.)

So, here's my preliminary review of the movie:




I'll post a more detailed review later. If I feel like it. As this is a chick flick, I reserve the right to change my mind about it.


PS: I say 'dragon' because I don't remember the name of those particular creatures. The pseudonymguls, or something.

PPS: I've never actually seen "Fried Green Tomatoes". But so what? You get my point.

PPPS: Oh, and I've heard it said that the Ditches of Madison County is a romance for males. I have only three words in reply: Sam and Frodo.

Posted by at 10:29 AM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 December 24, 2003
Mad Cow Observations, part I

They found a "presumptive positive" case of Mad Cow Disease (or, BSE) in Washington State today. Early reports are that the disease infects the brain and the spinal cord, and that these items had been removed before the meat was sent along its merry way to become somebody's dinner. Still, the local news media in Western Washington State is having a field day whipping up a frenzy over "Where has the meat gone?" even though, by their own accounts, it can't carry the disease.

Still, it *is* big news, and could be an indication of a larger problem. I'm sure we'll all know more in the weeks to come about whether there is a danger, and how far any danger may go.

In the meantime, however, I am reminded of a sentiment I've heard expressed under different, but similar circumstances:

If we stop eating beef now, then the cows have already won.

Posted by at 12:51 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (0)
Orange Observations, part I

The Federal Government of the US recently raised the "Terror Alert" level to "High" (or, Orange). This is the second highest level, the highest being "Oh Shit!" (Brown?)

The government has stood at this "High" level of terrorist threat on several occasions since the new system had been put into place. Each time, no attack came through. Now the news media -- in general -- pose the idea that there's an element of The Boy Who Cried Wolf going on here. Is there really a greater threat this time? "You bet your life" says the staff of our fearless leader.

This raises a kind of no-win situation for the Guardians of Justice. If they detect that there's a threat, and they prepare for it, and part of the preparations mean alerting the public, then those preparations may 1) thwart the pending attack, or 2) dissuade the potential attackers.

[There's an important distinction here: to thwart could mean to arrest the bad guys, to take away their resources, or otherwise make it impossible for them to pull off the attack. To dissuade simply means to convince the attackers that they should back off for now, because the timing of the attack is no longer ideal, what with everybody paying attention and all.]

The problem with either thwarting or dissuading is that you can't actually demonstrate that the attack *would* have happened once it, well, doesn't. Proving a negative is always problematic. The only thing you can do is wag your finger *after* an attack has occurred and say, "You should have done more." Witness the finger pointing after September 11th. (From "The building should have been built to withstand planes that weren't even invented yet" to "President Clinton should have gotten Osama Bin Laden earlier, even if we didn't have the political will just then to risk invading Afghanistan," and so on.)

So, we've gone to this heightened state of alert a few times, and then the attacks that we were worried about didn't happen. Does that mean we shouldn't have gone to a higher state of alert?

Who can say?! How can we ever know?!

We can't.

The feds say that they have credible evidence that attacks are being actively planned to be carried out within the next month. They've said similar things on previous occasions. And presumably, they weren't doing this just for the hell of it. I mean, really, what political brownie points do you score by telling the public "There's no reason to panic, but LOOKOUT!!!!"

How do you gain politically by telling the population during the busiest economic period of the year that they could be at risk if they travel away from their home?

Hence the no-win situation. Raise the threat level, and you risk 1) nothing happens, which makes you look like the boy who cried wolf, or 2) something happens, which means you were attacked despite your precautions.

Pundits are like Monday morning quarterbacks. They can always say what we should have done after the fact, but it's ultimately up to the guys on the field to make the call as to what to do as events unfold.

Does the fact that I make this observation about pundits and no-win-scenarios make me a pundit, too?


Posted by at 01:18 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (2)

Copyright (c)1998 - 2010 by Allan Rousselle. All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed, all reservations righted, all right, already.
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