Tuesday, March 22, 2005

More on Schiavo

Culture of Life vs. Sanctity of Marriage

Terri and Michael married. They chose to bind their lives together this way. Michael is Terri's Living Will, just as Terri would have been Michael's had the situation been reversed. That's the nature of marriage - its very core. Absent a written Living Will attesting otherwise, Michael's judgment about what Terri would want is the only judgment that counts. Not because Michael holds some unique authority, but because Terri chose him out of all people to act for her in dire circumstances. Respect her choice.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Terri Schiavo

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't her husband be completely within the law if he simply walked into the hospital, disconnected her from the medical devices, placed her in a wheelchair and took her home? We all have a right to refuse medical treatment, and we can't be held against our will absent a court order or some kind of due process. Since Terri can't act for herself, that authority rests with her husband exclusively, does it not?

How did the national conservative political consensus, to judge from conservative news outlets online and in the MSM, skip completely over the traditional, common-law conservative position that this is a family matter and the husband makes these decisions, and arrive at the profoundly radical view that the state has to intervene and if Florida lawmakers won't cooperate, then the Feds must get involved? If Terri had been at home all along and the state decided to intervene and remove her to a hospital and force these medical treatments on her over her husbands objections, conservatives would be apoplectic! What the hell is going on?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Possible synergy ahead?

Cell, the new processor architecture co-developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba, looked to me at first glance as the next Crusoe, Emotion Engine or Transputer - past harbingers of revolutions that never were. Uniting on a single piece of silicon a mid-grade PowerPC processor with eight simpler flexible co-processors is an interesting idea, and might even be useful for some purposes, but I didn't see any real general applicability for the design for most of what we do or think we should be doing near-term with computers. Yes, I know, the Cells are supposed to open up some kind of magic window for sharing computing resources with everyone else out there, but that kind of thing takes considerable coordination and cooperation, and I don't see any of the needed groundwork in OS or application-level support for the hype. And what would we really do with the eight co-processors in most computing applications? I foresaw lots of idle time, and idle transistors are a waste of resources.

Two unexpected (to me, anyway) recent announcements have me wondering about my initial reaction, though. First, Ageia announces the PhysX 'physics processor', designed to off-load from the main processor all of the calculations required for solid and fluid behavior in simulated environments, like video games. And they were even smart enough to pick an established API (NovodeX) to access these features, so developers can write to the API and the application will run with or without the PhysX chip, though at vastly different speeds. Needless to say, electronic game developers are very interested. And now a German University has revealed a real-time ray tracing chip called SaarCOR for rendering graphics in a completely different way than the rasterization methods used in essentially all modern graphics processors. If the reports are to be believed, and they look pretty convincing, this technology is going to force a complete reevaluation of imaging engines. Like PhysX, the SaarCOR chip is accessed via an open API - OpenRT. So if you write for OpenRT, you can use or not use the chip and still function, though if you go SaarCOR-less, you'd better have a large network of very fast conventional processors at your back.

So, where does this lead? Maybe nowhere. But, maybe, Cell is perfectly positioned to take advantage of two coming transformational technologies. Those eight co-processors, 'Synergistic Processor Elements', according to the Cell group, sure look like the kind of resources an enterprising developer could leverage to do some NovodeX and OpenRT work, paving the way for Cell2 with on-die PhysX and SaarCOR SPEs in addition to the general purpose ones. No other architecture currently in production could match Cell's advantage in taking this approach, because no other design has so much spare computing power designed specifically for the kind of highly regular, parallel processing necessary for real-time realistic physics and ray-tracing.

But what do I know?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Gimme! a break

Along with the new Turion processors announced today, AMD also revealed their newest scheme to completely confuse and infuriate you when you try to comparison shop at the local electronics store. The new chips will be designated as the ML-30, -32, -34 and -37, or the MT-30, -32 and -34. M for mobile, so far, so good. L or T for what? Why, for how 'mobile', meaning having a low power budget, the line is. From A to Z, no less, with Z being the most mobile of all! In practice this means that the L line has a 35 watt power budget and the T line has a 25 watt budget. Intel's Pentium M stuff is 27ish, as a reference. Well, at least the numbers should be logical, right? Well, kinda. Higher is faster, but the ML-32 and -34 both run at 1.8GHz. The difference? The -32 only has 512KB of L2 cache (all of the others have 1MB). Why? Is it a different core? A -34 who couldn't pass QA as and got demoted? Who knows? My advice is to skip the ML-32 until more information comes out. You'll want the 1MB cache to help offset the performance penalty of the single-channel memory interface, in any case.

Oh, and lest I forget, Turion64 isn't a processor, it's a 'technology'. You know, like Centrino. In other words, Madison Avenue tech. AMD isn't even trying to hide this fact like Intel does, by forcing you to use their chipsets and wireless stuff in order to use the branding. Mostly because they don't have a chipset or wireless stuff, though they don't explain it that way in the press release!

Gimme! Redux

AMD announced it's Turion mobile processor line today. SiS announced a mobile chipset to support that line, and ATI has one out as well. Where is my laptop?!?

Anyway, the new processors are all 90nm SOI low-power chips with the latest AMD 64-bit cores - with support for SSE2, SSE3, etc. - though they sport the older Socket-754-style, single memory channel interface with the rest of the system. They won't be outrunning the desktop 64-bit AMD stuff, but they won't fall very far behind them either, and they will do it on far less power and will generate far less heat. They are competitive with Intel's Centrino stuff in this regard, but the Centrino line is still purely 32-bit. Very nice 32-bit, though.

If all goes according to plan, a few laptop makers should have some new designs out later this month sporting these new chips and chipsets. I expect to see mostly the ATI chipset in them, since it's been announced for a few weeks now, and includes a decent video solution right there in the chipset itself. Again, this embedded video won't light the world on fire, but it should be a big step up for most laptops, and you can still use a discrete video solution where warranted.

So, low-power, cool, 64-bit, solid video, PCI Express, all the modern chipset stuff like SATA and too many USB 2.0 ports, and works with standard SO-DIMM PC3200 memory, which can be found with pretty tight timings - the next wave of laptops should be pretty darn sweet.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Why can't I buy this laptop?

A 15inch or better display, 1280x1024 or better native resolution, an AMD Athlon 64 (the 90nm version for lower power consumption and heat generation), up to 4GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce Go 6800 Ultra video chip, a 120GB hard drive, full modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and aCD/DVD combo writer? All of these pieces exist in laptops, just not together. Except, maybe, for the 4GB of RAM. It's not like I'm asking for dual processors or SLI video. I don't even care about PCI Express. You could even substitute ATI's Mobility Radeon X800 for the Nvidia video chip. There are literally dozens of boutique laptop makers out there these days, who cater to gamers and others who want kickass laptops, but not one of them offers this particular combination of AMD 64-bit sugar and latest-generation video spice. Battery life be damned! I use my laptop 99% of the time as a desktop replacement. Someone, make this laptop, please!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Chimp vs. Human

The recent attack by several captive chimpanzees on St. James and LaDonna Davis at a California sanctuary has generated a burst of Internet chatter on the relative bodily strength of these animals as compared to our own. It seems to be almost universally acknowleged that adult chimps are somewhere between four and eight times as strong as are humans despite being somewhat smaller by weight on average than a human of similar age. Mr. Davis was grievously injured in this attack - according to various reports all of his fingers were lost, one foot was severed, much of his face, including his lips, nose and one eye were torn off, etc. Simply awful.

But does it require any kind of immense and seemingly improbable disproportionality of physical strength to inflict injuries like these? Judging solely from the scanty injury reports I've read, my guess is that most of these injuries are bite damage. Most animals have disproportional powerful jaws and teeth compared to humans, and this includes the great apes. So they certainly wouldn't be at a disadvantage to us when it comes to using teeth and jaws to cause injury, and nothing in Mr. Davis' list of injuries seems to me to be beyond what a human could also cause if they were sufficiently enraged and put aside the social constraints that normally limit such behavior. Humans are fully capable of biting off fingers, toes, lips, noses, ears, etc. We don't, as a rule, but we certainly can.

Various sites I've looked at give anecdotal evidence of chimpanzee Herculean feats of strength, but they don't strike me as dispositive. One site mentions that adult chimps have no problem dragging three-hundred pound logs around on the ground - a feat of strength they suggest would be beyond human capacity without specialized training. Frankly, I find this ridiculous. I'm no athlete, but I know I can drag three-hundred pound logs around quite easily. In a pinch, I could probably shoulder a three-hundred pound log and march off with it. And I haven't spent my life climbing trees and otherwise living the chimp life, which offers considerably more opportunity to keep the old body in peak physical condition. Another site offers the results of a test in a zoo enclosure where a metering device was connected to a rope where they could actually measure chimpanzee pull strength. Two examples where presented, one in the eight-hundred pound range and one around twelve-hundred pounds of pull. This they compare to a human effort of two-hundred pounds or so. Again, this seems pretty silly. Weightlifters regularly deadlift more than eight-hundred pounds, and that's a true lift, not a jerk where the body's mass can be used to multiply an instantaneous force.

This is not to say chimps aren't strong - they are clearly very strong indeed. What I think we're seeing here is that people have anthropomorphized chimpanzees to a great extent. The truth is that they are what they are - powerful apes with a very different morphology and lifestyle than ours. Humans are larger on average than chimpanzees, but much of that size is concentrated in our legs, which are much larger proportionally than are the legs of chimps. Interestingly, no site I can find even mentions a comparison between the relative strength of chimp and human legs. The implicit assumption seems to be that upper-body strength should be roughly proportional, which seems pretty strange considering humans and chimps don't live the same way even if all modern cultural and technological adaptations are removed from the scenario. Humans are cursorial, while chimps are arboreal. We are weaker proportionally in the upper body and stronger proportionally in the lower body. How you get from there to the 'four to eight times stronger' position that seems to dominate the conventional wisdom is unclear.

Social Security

Has anyone out there found a site that really explains the projected outcomes of the various Social Security reformations being pitched? It would be interesting to compare the current system's average payouts per quintile with some obvious alternatives. I'd like to see, for example, what Joe Average would have coming at his retirement if he'd just taken what he and his employer currently pay into SS and instead simply purchased the same bonds the SSA does with its surplus.

Friday, March 04, 2005


There is quite a bit of entertaining churn in the Blogiverse recently regarding positive signs in the Middle East, President Bush's justifications for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, consternation of Democrats, Europeans, etc., about the prospect of Bush's having been 'right' all along, and so on. And, as expected, counterchurn from Republicans, conservatives, hawks, etc., about how they knew all along, and so on. And counter-counter churn from all sides to all sides about how these are only encouraging signs, it's hardly a done deal, one election does not a democracy make, "The end cannot justify the means", human nature never changes, it really is a different world, and on and on and on. Naturally, I can't let everyone else have all the fun - I have to pile in, adding my own noise in the absence of any signal.

Here's the thing - we are all merely human. Every single one of us. None of us can ever really 'know' the right course of action to take in a given circumstance if the only judgment of the 'rightness' of a given course is its outcome. We aren't capable of knowing that outcome in advance, hence we can't use that outcome as a justification for taking the action. However - and here's the rub - the world isn't random, at least not at the human scale. While we can't 'know' an outcome in advance, we can certainly use what knowledge we've gained in the course of study or living or whatever to inform our actions to the extent that certain outcomes are more or less probable than are others in any given situation. Consider 'reasonable person' doctrines in a legal setting, for example. We aren't blind to future events, but we do see them only dimly through the lens of our own knowledge of the world, and what fogs our future vision is the complexity of the world itself, and of all of the other actors on that stage. Still, having poor vision is no excuse for closing your eyes. Accordingly, and here we find the crux of so many modern problems, we should not fool ourselves about the relative keenness of our or anyone else's prognoses. I see only dimly into the future, and so do you, and so does everyone else - we aren't all equal in the regard, but even the best of us aren't very good at it, at least not on a consistent basis - our very best see quite far on occasion, but even they miss much more than they catch.

This is why "The end cannot justify the means" remains a useful, albeit incomplete, guide to moral behavior. Equally useful, however, is "Lack of certainly cannot excuse inaction". We all have a moral obligation to keep both our limitations and our capabilities firmly in mind when we make judgments about the actions we take, because if we do not, no morally sound judgment is possible, however good or bad the end may be. Of course President Bush cannot morally justify invading Iraq by pointing to the success of recent elections there, but neither can opponents of the invasion claim that these happy ends can have had no moral bearing on the decision to invade. Either position is untenable. The truth must lie somewhere in between.

The difficult reality is that no one has ever been or ever will be gifted enough to know, in advance and with demonstrable certainty, whether or not Invasion A will lead to Happy Ending B. We will also never be able to know if Lack of Invasion C will lead to Horrible Catastrophe D. The world will never be that simple or predictable. This is, believe it or not, a Very Good Thing. Not only is the world too complicated and unpredictable to make that kind of perfect certainty possible, but if it was possible, then the end could be used to justify the means, which would reduce all moral judgment to mere arithmetic. So here we are, imperfect beings in a complex world, forced to make decisions about things we know little about, fully aware that our ability to predict the outcome of any action we take or don't take is extremely limited and unreliable - it's quite wonderful, really. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Enough rope?

Power Line (http://www.powerlineblog.com/) has a second piece on this Barbara Demick story from the L.A. Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-chat3mar03,0,8347.story?coll=la-home-world). I've read both, and I have to say I side with the original reporter on this one. I can see how some might consider the story an apology puff-piece for North Korea, but as I read it, it's exactly what she claim it is - the view of one wealthy North Korean 'businessman' of the strained relationship between his nation, its neighbors, and the U.S., conveyed in a manner free of the 'rancor' that normally accompanies such views given by either side.

What's much more interesting to me is the underlying assumptions about the world, society, people, freedom, etc. in Mr. Anonymous' worldview. In particular, the sense of wounded pride he feels was assuaged when his country annouced that it had developed nuclear weapons. I can understand this on one level, but it's worth mentioning that there is a difference between a parent warning a child not to play with matches and a cop warning a would-be criminal not to go for a gun, which is closer to the reality here from my point-of-view. I wonder how South Koreans would judge the analogy.

On political prisoners vs. social agitators tomes could easily be written, and have been - the clash of worldviews is starkly obvious, but I would have liked Ms. Demick to have asked the obvious questions - "If Asians really prefer a 'benevolent father leader', why are so many of them social agitators? Why, if they in any real sense 'chose' their current government, does that government do so much to prevent North Koreans from having any contact with the outside world? If North Koreans are really as happy with Kim Jong Il as you would have us believe, why spend all those resources maintaining that huge army north of the 38th parallel? Wouldn't the traditional Asians in South Korea voluntarily join your state if the appeal of your system were as strong as you say?"