Pots and Kettles

From Bush’s speech last night.

The terrorists who attacked us â?? and the terrorists we face â?? murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance, and despises all dissent.

…just like a certain other ideology closer to home.

Cool Caterpillar

Yesterday at the Old Reservoir near our house in Lexington, we (actually Amy) spotted a really cool-looking caterpillar on a tree. It was almost certainly a tussock-moth caterpillar, much like this one except that on ours the four distinctive tufts on the back were yellow rather than white. It’s a good thing I didn’t pick it up as I was tempted to do, because apparently the bristles can be quite irritating.

What is Wrong with Us?

OK, I’m as outraged about Karl Rove’s comments as everyone else with half a brain or heart, but should that really be everyone’s #1 concern? Couldn’t we, for example, spare a little more of that outrage for the unnatural disaster in Zimbabwe? If we’re going to pressure the White House to do something, shouldn’t we pressure them to do something about that instead of a man we always knew was a mentally unbalanced sleazemeister? Our priorities are a bit out of order, I think.

BitTorrent Broadside

Bram Cohen, the implementor of BitTorrent, has thrown a little bit of a tizzy about Microsoft Research’s Avalanche project. He goes so far overboard in his haste to slam it that I feel a detailed response is called for. The rest is “below the fold” to avoid crowding up my front page too much.

Bermuda Bacteria?

Some researchers at Cardiff University, primarily concerned with the use of methane hydrates as an energy source, hit upon an interesting potential explanation for the Bermuda Triangle.

Another Snow Platypus

It looks like I’m not the only person to have made a snow platypus in Massachusetts.

Coordination Problems

Ever since I touched on the “Gifts of the Magi” problem in Reflections on Code, I’ve wanted to write a more focused technical article about it. I’ve been turning examples and explanations over in my head ever since, and I think I’ve figured out how I want to say it. Let’s start by looking at some examples, both technical and non-technical.

  • You’re walking down a hallway, and you meet someone going the other way. You move left, they move right. You move right, they move left. You step aside at the exactly the same moment they step aside. Eventually you hit on a combination that allows you both to proceed.
  • You’re in the left lane on a highway, coming up behind someone. You wait a few moments, giving them a chance to move over (like you undoubtedly think they should have done already). Eventually you give up and move to pass them on the right…just at the moment that they finally move over to let you pass.
  • Two nodes sharing a communications medium try to transmit at the same time, garbling each others’ data.
  • A filesystem, a volume manager, a block I/O subsystem, and a RAID controller are all trying to optimize their access patterns, but nothing ever actually seems to get better.

What these scenarios all have in common is multiple entities each trying to adapt, but failing because what they’re adapting to is itself trying to adapt in a different (often opposite) direction. In the remainder of this article, I’ll describe in greater detail both how bad this can get and how it can be avoided.

More Amy Pictures

These are all from her first birthday party last week. As usual, you can click on any image for a larger version.

Gift Idea

OK, I am a total nerd. I want one of these for Christmas.

Gulag, or not gulag

A lot of folks on the right are frothing at the mouth over Amnesty International’s characterization of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as a “gulag” recently. Did you know that “gulag” is actually an acronym? It’s from Russian “Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-trudovykh LAGerey” which translates to “Chief Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps” in English, even though the term is typically applied to a single camp and not the whole set. Anyway, the outrage seems to be based on the fact that the Soviet gulags were much worse than Guantanamo Bay, but is that the only standard by which we should evaluate the accuracy of the term? What are the salient features of gulags? What do people think of when they hear the term?

  • The Soviet gulags were part of a system of isolated detention facilities (an “archipelago” as Solzhenitsyn put it) hidden from normal means of oversight. The US system of detention facilities including Guantanamo Bay, Bagram in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq shares this feature.
  • The gulags were places that people were sent and held without due process. Check.
  • Treatment of detainees in the gulags defied established norms of treatment for either domestic prisoners or foreign combatants, being instead subject to special rules unique to that system. Check.
  • People were often sent to gulags for reasons that were primarily political, not criminal or martial as those terms would normally be understood. I’ll give a little and say it’s unclear whether this is true for the US system.
  • The conditions in the Soviet gulags were abysmal and shocking, leading to massive death and suffering. I think we can all agree that – even if every report of abuse and even torture that we hear is true – this is not generally the case for the US system.

That looks like three and a half out of five to me. I think the focus only on the last of these items, to the exclusion of the other four, is no more than an attempt to distract attention from the fact that the US detention-facility does in fact have a lot in common with the Soviet gulags. No, they’re not nearly as bad, but they are facilities of the same general type and purpose. Amnesty’s comparison is therefore valid in a purely dispassionate sense, though perhaps it was still ill considered because of the emotive content that the term conveys. It’s kind of like comparisons to Hitler; some such comparisons are actually valid, but they’re rarely useful. Both Amnesty and their critics would do well to stop making such appeals to emotion and concentrate on rational debate about detention policies.