Thursday, October 23, 2008

I've been called worse by better!

Next time you want to call me names, just remember that I've been called worse by better.

A good friend of mine was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend a dinner with Richard M Stallman a.k.a. "RMS". My friend cast about for questions to ask RMS during dinner. Here was mine (which I am told was printed out and handed to RMS, rather than verbally paraphrased):

Ask him what he thinks of William Wallace (Character portrayed in                                                                  
Braveheart). Does he see himself as someone who wanted to be just an                                                               
average farmer, but got pulled into something bigger and more important                                                            
because his conscience would not let him ignore what was going on? Or was                                                          
he always scrapping for a fight and the free software issue seemed to suit                                                         
him well.                                                                                                                          
My guess is that it's the latter, but he is only capable of seeing himself                                                         
as the former.
And the response from RMS:

"This is hostile. Who wrote this? Fuck him."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ID Not Required!

This comes from my friend Phil Mocek. I've reprinted it here with permission unedited.

Hi, everyone. Sorry for the rather impersonal mass mailing.

Some of you, namely KU basketball fans and Kansas Citians, have undoubtedly already seen this, but I'm pretty excited about it and want to bring it to others' attention: On Wednesday, April 9, 2008, the  Kansas City Star ran a front-page article [1] about my efforts to stand up for our right to travel freely in this country without being monitored by our government.

[1]: <>

Inspired by people like John Gilmore [2], Chris Soghoian [3], and my friend Ben [4], I've been flying without identifying myself to TSA agents for a couple years, and after my last flight to Kansas City, I filed a complaint with the TSA about signs posted at the airport [5] that falsely state that travelers must present photo identification before crossing the security checkpoint.

[2]: <>
[3]: <>
[4]: <>
[5]: <>

After receiving a response from TSA [6] confirming that there is no requirement that people show ID for domestic flights (and not mentioning anything about fixing the signs), I got in touch with the right people, and the next thing I knew a reporter from the Kansas City Star was interviewing me.  At the time I had no idea it would end up on the front page, much less on a somewhat-commemorative "National champion University of Kansas basketball team returns home to big parade" issue that was surely in the eyes of many people who wouldn't otherwise pick up the paper.  (That a picture of me, someone who would rather watch paint dry than sit through a basketball game, is likely to end up on the walls of hundreds of KU fans is particularly delicious.)

[6]: <>

I feel pretty strongly about this issue and hope that you'll give it at least a little consideration.

If you're so inclined, please read on for my best newspaper-friendly summary of why I've been doing what I do.  I submitted this to the Star today and very much hope that it is published by them as an op-ed. Judging by the interest the story seems to have generated in KC, I think  there's a good chance that they will do so.  If they do, I'm going to do what I can to get one of the Seattle papers to pick it up, and I also have a connection at the AP who might be interested.


While flying out of Kansas City last year, I saw TSA signs at the airport stating that travelers must present government-issued photo identification.  I knew that wasn't true, and I didn't show ID. I neither caused trouble nor slowed things down for other travelers when I asserted my right to travel without checking in with the government by identifying myself; I was taken out of line to be screened along with other "selectees".

After returning home, I filed a complaint with TSA.  I received a response from Jeanne Oliver, Associate Director of TSA Office of the Executive Secretariat.  She did not indicate that TSA would fix the problem, but did confirm that if a traveler is "unwilling or unable to produce a valid form of ID, the traveler is required to undergo additional screening at the checkpoint to gain access to the secured area of the airport."  People who show ID receive a less-thorough screening.  Any time saved when people volunteer to show ID comes at the cost of less effectively checking them for dangerous items.

We're being lied to about federal air travel policies by airport security at KCI and other locations, and it's not making us any safer.

Government agents requiring people to show ID before boarding a flight wouldn't make air travel any safer.  It's relatively easy to get a fake ID, and regardless of how much technology we put into ID cards, a criminal will be able to purchase a fake one or steal someone else's identity and get a real ID with his picture and the other person's name.

We can and do call upon TSA to ensure safe air travel by preventing people from carrying dangerous items onto flights.  TSA's current practice of allowing people who show ID through security with less  screening than other people receive contributes to a false sense of security, breeding complacency among passengers, crew, and TSA agents.

I acknowledge that the inconvenience of showing ID is trivial.  My concern is that a requirement to show ID would allow the government to monitor and restrict our travel.  Our courts have established that   people in this country have the right to travel and associate without being monitored or stopped by the government unless they have been convicted of committing a crime or are suspected -- with good reason -- of having committed a crime.  They have ruled that we cannot set up roadblocks and checkpoints to stop everyone who passes just to catch the few who have done something wrong, or to find the few who are suspected of intending to do something wrong.

Recent Congressional testimony suggests that over 900,000 names are now on the United States' so-called "terrorist watch list".  Many people who have found themselves on the list are U.S. citizens who have no ties to any terrorist organization.  There is no appeals process for those who have been blacklisted.  We are not allowed to know who is on the list, who put them there, or why they were put on it.

If these people pose a danger to others, why don't we go arrest them instead of waiting for them to present themselves at the airport, then hassling them or preventing them from flying before sending them on their way?

Even if we could prune the list so that it included only people who actually pose a "known" threat, potential terrorists could probe the system by sending people on innocent trips, observing which ones were subjected to additional screening, then later sending the other people on a real terrorist mission.  Restricting travel based on an ID check simply cannot improve security.

People can show their ID to whomever they want, whenever they want to do so, if it makes them feel safer.  My doing so doesn't make me feel any safer.  When a government agent asks me to show my papers or searches me, I feel *un*safe.  It reminds me of descriptions of life in the former USSR, where identification was required upon demand, movement was restricted, and people either kept quiet and did as they were told, or risked disappearing into the night, never to be heard from again.

When I see security guards in airports wearing what look like police uniforms and demanding identification, and police on our streets wearing what look like military uniforms, driving DHS-grant-funded armored vehicles, marching in riot gear with machine guns, pepper-spraying and
Tasing peaceful demonstrators, it makes me feel like I live in what is approaching a totalitarian state.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Communicating with Highly Physically Disabled People

I just finished reading the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a memoir dictated one letter at a time by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a stroke victim who suffered from locked-in syndrome.

Jean-Dominique was only able to communicate by blinking his left eye. An alphabet was developed that was re-ordered from the usual alphanumeric ordering, so that the most frequently used letters were at the beginning. To communicate, the speaker would cite each letter and Jean-Dominique would blink when the appropriate letter was said. Slowly, words would be built up and sentences would eventually form, conveying meaning. It was a tedious process and it had its drawbacks:
" "Want to play hangman?" asks Theophile, and I ache to tell him that I have enough on my plate playing quadriplegic. But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball - and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition." (Pages 70 and 71, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

Since Jean-Dominique was a native French speaker, the letter frequencies in his special alphabet were based on the French language. The alphabet looked like this:


For the English language, the letter frequencies (which can be found here) would be:


It occurred to me that there had to be a more efficient manner to do this. I see two problems:

  • It takes a great deal of time to get to a letter deep into the alphabet. 
  • The deeper in the alphabet you go, the more likely it is that an error.

In order to improve communications speed, I came up with this alternate "tabular" method:

Note: Since the standard Latin alphabet has 26 letters, a six by five table left four empty spots. I chose letter pairs to fill those spots. The letter pairs were guessed at, as my brief searching was unable to turn up any letter pair frequency tables. I have no doubt that an exhaustive lexical analysis of the English language would turn up the true top four letter pairs. Some pairs like IE and EA are very common, but they are pretty cheap to create one letter at a time, so it's not worth using them in the far bottom corner where it takes more steps to get to them.

This alternative method works as a simple Cartesian coordinate system. That's fancy mathematics speak for "select the row and then select the column". To find the letter M, the letter selector starts at the top row and works down row by row, until the patient blinks when the second row is chosen. This means the patient could be interested in the letters T, I, R, M or B. The selector would then work across the columns until the patient blinks when the M character is chosen. In total, six stops were made to get to the M character. The old system would have required fourteen; more than twice as many. In addition, by locking the selector into a given row, the possibility for error is greatly reduced. If the selector picks the wrong row or misses the target letter, they will know they've done so because the patient never blinks by the end of the row. With the old system, the selector would have to go to the end of the entire alphabet to find that they've missed the letter.

To give you a better idea of the benefit of this system, here's the same table with the relative costs of getting to each letter added. The letter represents the target letter, the number represents the number of steps, or "cost", required to get to that letter and the number in parenthesis is the cost the old system required to get to that letter:

E - 2 (1)A - 3 (3)N - 4 (6)D - 5 (10)W - 6 (15)
T - 3 (2)I - 4 (5)R - 5 (9)M - 6 (14)B - 7 (20)
O - 4 (4)H - 5 (8)U - 6 (13)P - 7 (19)X - 8 (24)
S - 5 (7)C - 6 (12)Y - 7 (18)J - 8 (23)PH - 9 (27)
L - 6 (11)G - 7 (17)K - 8 (22)Z - 9 (26)LY - 10 (29)
F - 7 (16)V - 8 (21)Q - 9 (25)QU - 10 (38)RY - 11 (27)
Some immediate observations are that the letters E and T actually require one more step in this system than the old. In addition O and A cost the same in both systems. However, it should be noted that the overall cost savings is dramatic when you start creating whole words. For example. Let's take the following sentence (chosen from a random poster I saw at my Son's elementary school):

The cost breakdown is as follows:

WordOld CostNew Cost
Thus with the old system, it costs 70 letter stops to spell the test sentence. With the system I am proposing, it only takes 41. It is also important to note that the word SEE costs the same in both systems, which is an example of how the extra step to find the letters E and T are quickly absorbed by economies elsewhere.

Potential improvements on this would be to re-arrange the alphabet on a per patient basis. Since everyone uses a slightly different subset of their native language's words, their letter frequencies would likely be slightly different. If available, recordings and writings from the patient created prior to becoming disabled could be analyzed to alter the table layout. However, after the patient starts using the table, I would suggest that it not be altered unless absolutely necessary, as a familiarity will have been built up that will be difficult to overcome to take advantage of newer efficiencies. It would be interesting to study whether or not patients adapt their vocabulary to the table, thus removing any need to alter the table to introduce efficiencies after being introduced to it.

A potential objection to altering the table on a per patient basis prior to being introduced to it, would be that each patient should use the same letter table to keep communications uniform. I would overcome this objection with the idea that patients will not be using this system to talk directly to each other. This system would only be meant to facilitate communication between a disabled patient and an able bodied person who can work the board. The able bodied person working the board, should be able to adapt to different boards for different patients, especially considering that the incremental improvements in communications speed will far outweigh any inconvenience to the board operator. In addition, there is no reason why the intermediary could not be a computer, thus allowing similarly disabled patients to communicate with each other in real time. I wonder if it would be a positive thing for a patient to share their feelings with someone in the same situation?

It is important to note that this system is only useful for persons who already have the ability to read and can process information relatively normally. It is also only useful to those that have the ability to consistently gesture in a singular fashion, such as an eye blink, or some other "single bit" manner. If multiple gestures can be clearly and consistently mastered, there are much faster ways of communicating than the system that I am proposing. It would be very interesting to be able to study systems that apply to various numbers of feedback bits from the patient. As a general rule, the greater number of feedback bits available from the patient, the more robust and efficient the communication. I should coin the term CFB - Consistent Feedback Bits. A basic eye blink would be one CFB. An eye blink and a finger twitch, would be two CFBs and so on. The various systems of communicating could be indexed by CFBs. A specialist could assess the patients CFBs and perhaps use therapies to expand the number of CFBs, and then a system of communication could be chosen that best fits their unique situation. Again, many of these systems of communications would fall apart if the patient is simply cognitively unable to process information.

I believe that this system requires the ability to see out of at least one eye, but could possibly be used with a blind patient as long as they could hear well enough to memorize the table and give "single bit" feedback as they were learning. If the patient were blind and deaf, it may still be possible to communicate as long as they had relatively normal information processing abilities and could feedback to indicate to their teacher where they were in the learning process.

Monday, February 25, 2008

PZ Myers: The Courtiers Reply

I found this to be absolutely brilliant in its construction and execution. It echoes a sentiment I have often felt when reading logical deconstructions of Atheist works by inconvenienced believers. Except in this case, it puts into words what I have only been able to internally articulate in vague emotional terms.

Reposted from

There's a common refrain in the criticisms of Dawkins' The God Delusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) that I've taken to categorizing with my own private title—it's so common, to the point of near-unanimous universality, that I've decided to share it with you all, along with a little backstory that will help you to understand the name.

I call it the Courtier's Reply. It refers to the aftermath of a fable.
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.
I'm afraid that when I read H. Allen Orr's criticism of The God Delusion in the NY Review of Books, all that popped into my head was a two-word rebuttal: Courtier's Reply. You would be amazed at how many of the anti-Dawkins arguments can be filed away under that category. That's all you'll get from me on Orr's complaint—it's another Courtier's Reply. If you want a more detailed dissection, Jason Rosenhouse provides it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Poor Choice of Words...

This unemployment benefits appeal was forwarded to me by the writer's sister. I've redacted all of the identifying information with X's to protect the innocent (and the guilty). While I do not condone violence, including threats of violence, perceived or otherwise, I can empathize with her frustration...

Okay, so my sister...whose name has been partially changed, wrote the letter below which earned her a call from the XXXXXXXX County Bomb Squad Sheriff today.  The funny part (besides the fact that they called her) is that it's been two weeks since she faxed this to the unemployment office.  The sheriff said that he sympathized with her letter, as did all the other's who had read it.


Ima D. Bomber
Decision to appeal:  denied benefits
Reason for appeal:  I believe I had a "good cause for quitting".

        My decision for quitting my job is quite clear.  My husband was laid off from work, we were unable to pay the rent on my single income and we were subsequently evicted from our home.  As I had no way to house or feed my children, I was forced to separate from my husband and travel across the state to move in with my sister's family (including my mother who also resides at that address).
        I put in my two week notice to my employer, with every intention of fulfilling my obligation. As I found that telling this woman I hardly knew that I was being evicted from my home was far too embarrassing, I told her that I was moving to my sister's to help care for my ailing mother. This was not entirely honest but, as my mother suffers from anxiety and a heart condition, I found this a more acceptable reason for my departure During my lunch break on 11/19/07, however, I received a distressing call from my children regarding a lack of food in my house and knowing that I had no way to pay for groceries, I knew I would have to move more quickly than planned.  At this time I had finally reached my breaking point and had a complete emotional melt down. Knowing that I could not return to work with my face blotchy and my eyes full of tears, I told the supervisor that I was suffering from a migraine headache and could no longer work that day and, furthermore, I had to pack my belongings quickly so I would not be able to return to work for my remaining days.  Although your office found this reason for quitting my job both "plausible and/or compelling", it did not fit into one of your nine clearly defined reasons for "good cause" and my benefits were denied.                                         

        Since that time I have gone through a number of emotions.  Starting with utter despair, continuing on to a feeling that I can only relate as a suicide bomber and finally to an almost uncontrollable anger.  I am unable to make my car payment or my car insurance payment and will be unable to get to a job, even when I get one. So, yesterday, I found myself applying for state assistance.  Now I have gone from being a productive member of society that pays my taxes, to a user of state resources set aside for those who can not provide for themselves.  Now YOUR taxes are being used to support me even though I am quite capable to supporting myself, but needed a bit of help to get by.  I believed I was paying into an unemployment system that would provide for me should this unfortunate event arise and I find that they are not.                             

        I have been paying taxes since I began my first job at age sixteen and have only once before received unemployment benefits.  During that time I had been laid off because the government did not find it necessary to supply enough funds to provide my patients, the mentally ill, with a nurse.  My union fought bitterly and used my story as a compelling reason for the government to stand up and take action to help those suffering from mental illness.  Again, I find that the government has no problem taking my money, but has no intentions of using it to help me or my fellow Americans in any way, other than to support immigrants (noting that all government forms come with a variety languages to choose from) and a war against those who wish to immigrate here.  I am proud to be an American.  I know a lot of them and they are generally a good people.  The people in charge of the bigger picture, however, are obviously taking advantage of our general good nature and at some point this MUST come to a stop.

        I have considered bombing target areas, but find that I do not have the stomach to kill innocent people like yourself who are just trying to do their own job and take care of their own families.  Nor do I have the availability or knowledge to use a weapon large enough to make any impact that would draw the governments' attention.  I have seriously contemplated suicide and hope that you will think of me whenever you hear of someone who has literally come to the end of their rope.  The irony in all of this is that if I proceeded down either of these paths I would probably end up in prison or a mental hospital and either way the American tax dollar would be paying to support me even though the government could not provide for a few months unemployment that I paid for in advance.

        So, if this letter falls into your hands and you find yourself saying, "I would love to make a change, but I don't have that kind of power." do not despair.  I have been in your position, wishing I could do more for my patients with mental illness and finding that the government has more money wasted in meetings, paper work and red tape than in truly trying to find what will work best to aid the American people and implementing it.   All I ask is that you pass this letter on to your boss and if he/she finds himself/herself saying, "This is totally out of my hands." then they should continue to pass this letter up the chain of command.  I know eventually this will fall into the hands of someone who says, "It is my job to make sure that my boss is not bothered with this kind of thing."  To that person I would like to say, "Please file this between your butt cheeks.  Because you are part of the problem and not part of the solution!"


Ima D. Bomber (aka #XXX-XX-XXXX)