Archive for March, 2005

Backup plant

This news came out last week in an article in The New York Times, one at New Scientist, one at /. and a post at Boing Boing. It is still worth posting, though. A study using Arabidopsis published in Nature. The offspring of plants homozygous for a mutation should contain the mutation and none of the normal wild type gene. Some had the normal version, though. These offspring somehow corrected the mutant genes using an as yet unknown mechanism.

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Michael M. on March 31st 2005 in General

The New York Times on Grokster

The New York Times had a shorter article and another slightly longer article about the MGM v. Grokster arguments before the Supreme Court yesterday. The justices were tough on both sides. It is a hard one to call, but based on the facts and lower court decisions, I expect Grokster to win. Boing Boing is also all over the hearing with posts here, here, here and here.

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Michael M. on March 30th 2005 in General

Grokster NPR mockery

I listened to the NPR coverage of the Grokster case I posted on earlier. In the lead-in to the story, Steve Inskeep called it “one of the latest efforts to share music for free.” I am certain that Grokster has other purposes. Bits are bits. Grokster can share computer files of many types, both copyrighted and freely distributable. Then came Nina Totenberg‘s dual pronged attack of propaganda and falsehoods.

“Napster was a computer software system that created a massive central online computer index of songs and movies that anyone could copy illegally with a click of the mouse.”

While it is a small point, Napster was a music sharing service. I remember Wrapster that allowed sharing of other files over Napster, but Napster, at least in its heyday, was only for music files. It did not allow movie sharing as best I can recall.

Totenberg threw around 90% as the fraction of files on Grokster that were illegal to copy. What are the other 10%? The crux of the Sony-Betamax case, interestingly not mentioned until the end of the segment, seems to have been that VCRs have legitimate uses, and even if they also can be used for illegal purposes, their legal uses make them legal devices. If the plaintiffs concede that many of the shared files are legal, what is there left to decide?

“At the Recording Industry Association of America, I got a demonstration from one of their computer mavens.”

Grokster, one of the defendants, actually produces the program, yet Totenberg chose its enemy rather than a Grokster representative or a third party to demonstrate the software. The results were completely predictable. The plaintiff’s expert demonstrated how Grokster could be used to circumvent copyrights.

“The computer screen shows me how many other users are online at the same time sharing copyrighted material, in most cases illegally.”

I believe that it shows her how many other users are online at the same time. Does it show her that they are sharing copyrighted material versus legally distributable material? Does Nina Totenberg know? Considering her apparent level of understanding and how every computer I have ever used worked, I doubt it.

“Once the song is downloaded, it can be transferred to an iPod in just a few moments.”

Why did Totenberg pick on the iPod? There are many devices that play music files, and files obtained using Grokster can be copied to many devices. One can copy bits to any device designed to store bits.

A Grokster spokesman was interviewed. He pointed out that Grokster has no more role in what its users share than Microsoft does in what Outlook users email to one another. It was an excuse for balance, I suppose. Then it was back to the propaganda.

Totenberg put forth a pitiful analogy to copying house keys. One who copies house keys to let someone commit a crime is an accessory to the crime. The problems with the analogy are that the Grokster software is more like a key copying machine and the company is more like a manufacturer of such machines. A person can use a key cutting machine as an accessory to a crime. Is the company that made the machine also an accessory? I am unaware of any successful prosecution against manufacturers of key cutting machines as accessories to burglary. Most analogies are bad, but many are tolerable in the service to some greater message. This one is just doltish.

“In the Supreme Court today, lawyers from the entertainment industry will tell the justices that Grokster and Streamcast have deliberately designed a system that aids and abets copyright theft, that the companies have refused to install devices that would limit theft and that they’ve marketed their software to maximize theft.”

I doubt that Grokster sprang into existence without a concerted programming effort. Every device, system and program with sufficient storage and input/output capacities was deliberated designed, and as such, every last one of them aids and abets copyright violation. This pretend criticism has the ring of an actual criticism, but it is the product either of an incredible, ridiculous lack of thought or of a devious aim to mislead. The former seems more likely. That Grokster failed to limit copying is another asinine criticism. Digital devices and their software read, write and change bits. They were designed to do exactly those tasks, and they do nothing more. It should not be the duty of Grokster to act as police. As for Grokster’s marketing, I have not seen it. I never used Grokster, and I do not recall ever seeing advertising for it.

Finally, there was an attempt to scare based on tax returns. The demonstrator managed to download a tax return using Grokster. If I left my tax return next to a photocopier, anyone who walked by could copy it. The case of making my return available through a file sharing service is similar. Programs certainly should make unintended sharing difficult, but there is enough blame to go around for stupid users to receive some. That Totenberg chose to end her coverage with a scare tactic aided by the so-called maven provided by the plaintiff is terrible.

For reasons unknown to me, NPR failed to take her off the story and reprimand her severely. Instead, she was allowed to file this report as part of All Things Considered. Instead of her earlier travesty of a report, she actually covered the interactions of the justices with the lawyers, and the justices asked tough questions of both sides instead of cheerleading for the plaintiff while throwing a tiny bone to the defendants.

That the Bush administration filed an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiffs disturbs me. I do not like seeing the president taking sides in a civil trial not directly involving him.

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Michael M. on March 30th 2005 in General

Poor Grokster reporting

A story on NPR‘s Morning Edition follows the bad trend of previous coverage. Representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America were interviewed. Reporters discussed all the illegitimate activity conducted using peer-to-peer networks. Where was the other side? There were a few sentences about VCRs and player pianos. I heard nobody from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. Larry Lessig did not speak. I heard nothing about his amicus brief filed in association with Creative Commons or about any of the people who have filed amicus briefs favoring Grokster. One might not even know that Grokster won in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after hearing NPR’s coverage.

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Michael M. on March 29th 2005 in General

Museums uncensored

Despite other mistakes, this editorial in The New York Times rightly stands against the censorship of science films mentioned previously.

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Michael M. on March 28th 2005 in General


I lamented the predictably backward attitude of The New York Times in a post this past weekend. As found via this post at Lessig‘s blog, this new editorial lowers their standard further. The editors or the newspaper of record pitifully fail to separate transmission and content properly. I never have used Grokster, but a loss in the Supreme Court would be a travesty. Another article covers Brazil‘s move toward free software, following a previous post.


Michael M. on March 28th 2005 in General

Parallel devolution

Evolution receives some attention here. Certain strains of fundamentalist Christians often appear to be the biggest opponents to the teaching of evolution, but they are not the only ones. Resistance to evidence comes from many camps. An article from The New York Times covers a parallel fight with the bonus of calls for books to burn.


Michael M. on March 27th 2005 in General

Easter Bunny Hopper

I got no candy today, but this article on Edward Hopper, my favorite painter, in The New York Times is a present. It was published in the regional section, an appropriate place for writing about a painter tightly tied to New York. I remember the building he lived in on the north side of Washington Square Park although I did not know he had lived there. When I lived on Long Island, I visited the Whitney Museum several times. It is my favorite museum. Its collection of Hopper paintings is fantastic. There is a whole room on the top floor displaying a fraction of the museum’s holdings. This biography provides a good overview of Hopper, and this one fittingly mentions Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. I do not know of any of his works here. The Art Institute of Chicago is not so far away, though.

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Michael M. on March 27th 2005 in General


I noticed that some people write “To Kill a Mocking Bird” instead of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” To Kill a Mockingbird appears in many lists of favorite books, often as “To Kill a Mocking Bird,”and the movie is one of the better book adaptations. I googled. I found a very silly animation by a St. Louisan now at Stanford. He, too, uses Creative Commons.

I blamed the confusion over the name on the geographic misfortune of knowing mockingbirds only second hand through books. Mockingbirds are real. They are my state bird. According to Wikipedia, the northern mockingbird exists throughout North America. My blame probably was misplaced. Mockingbirds occasionally are mean. They might attack you. They sure will get into it with squirrels, but squirrels are rarely nice. They will throw acorns at people, probably at mockingbirds, too, for no reason. Harper Lee left out the uglier side of mockingbirds. Her assertion that it is fine to shoot blue jays is perfectly true. I was taught the same as a child although I never managed to shoot any. They steal, and they are mean. They tricked some scientists, but I know better. I wonder whether anybody who writes “mocking bird” thinks that it means any bird that mocks rather than a particular type of bird with a knack for imitation

Harper Lee’s public silence is well noted although hardly unusual. This article (See update.), an excellent one, from The Chicago Tribune probably tells more than she wants told. The comment about sister Alice Finch Lee’s accent reminds me of my own grandmother, another south Alabamian of the same era. I missed their childhood world, but I had my own cast of eccentrics and long lazy days. I understand her division between New York and Monroeville. Many marvel at it as a curiosity, but it seems about right to me. New York is a maze of wonder and freedom for a small town Southerner, for anyone who has a mind to let it be so. Of course she takes the buses and trains. Being unbound also allows tongues of flame to leap through now and then. According to this page Harper Lee was asked to write an introduction to her famous book, and she replied,

“Please spare ‘Mockingbird’ an Introduction. As a reader I loathe Introductions. To novels I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are brought back into print after decades of interment…’Mockingbird’…has never been out of print and I am still alive…It still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

I ought to read it again. Zeebo’s encounter with the mad dog just dawned on me this morning fifteen years too late. There is no telling what else I missed.

Update January 30, 2006: Here is an alternate source for the story.

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Michael M. on March 27th 2005 in General


This article in The New York Times predictably sticks up for crummy archiving policies. In a twist of web weirdness, I ran across a journalist and online producer for The Spokesman Review, one of the newspapers covered in the article, through a post about PBS. In an earlier post, he wrote that Austin City Limits should podcast. I hope he exerts good influences on his employer.

I use Creative Commons with the nifty WP-CC plugin for WordPress to license the content here. The Washington Post had an article by Ariana Eunjung Cha on Creative Commons. The article is even and, as far as I can tell, accurate. Creative Commons provides tools for handling copyright in more collaborative, less restrictive ways. Having used Linux and GNU software for ten years, I support this movement toward open expression in other areas. More people need to understand “derivative” as something besides an insult.

There is an article on /. about the Wellcome Trust‘s new policy requiring open publication. In academic publishing, the restrictive policies of many journals are against the whole point of academics. A friend told me that her advisor weights these policies when choosing where to submit a research article.

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Michael M. on March 26th 2005 in General

Miss Mattie

My parents told me about an article in my hometown newspaper on Miss Mattie. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi named her an Ageless Hero. She has worked in the children’s section of the library since just before I was born. Prior to working there, she had her own kindergarten. I have wished for over twenty years that I could have gone to her kindergarten.

I did have the pleasure of regularly attending her story hours at the library. We sang along with her and her autoharp. She told stories and put on puppet shows. Her friend Scooter Mouse who lived in the library intrigued us with his motorcycle perched on a high ledge and a little ceiling light that let us know when he was in. We had snacks and got little favors. My sister and I both still have our pet rocks at home. I checked out books. Today I often stop by the neighborhood branch of my library.

I can imagine what her copy of the newspaper must look like, riddled with holes. She sent me clippings and congratulations when my name appeared in the paper even through college. She did the same for my sister and probably for dozens and dozens of children. She does wonderful things unprompted, and to her, everybody is somebody worthwhile and good.

I often visit the library on my more extended visits home. A couple of years ago, I met one of her former kindergarten pupils who now lives far away. He is older than I, and I had heard about him while growing up because he was well known around town. He had brought his children to meet her. Miss Mattie called him by his childhood nickname, and his children, bright and funny themselves, corrected her. She accepted their bossiness and immediately engaged them. They were real people with things to say.


Michael M. on March 26th 2005 in General


The New York Times Magazine had a story last weekend about a Harvard economist. His story is a good one. As a researcher, he treads through dangerous country.

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Michael M. on March 26th 2005 in General

Columbia High

A previous post addressed the conflict at Columbia between Jews and Arabs. Judging by this article, the principal of Columbia is preparing to step in and break up the fight although he will not punish them for what happens off campus. He should give them all detention for a whole semester.


Michael M. on March 24th 2005 in General

John Hurt page

I came across a good page on John Hurt at Vanguard Records that I want to share. I have blogged about him two times before.

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Michael M. on March 23rd 2005 in General, Music, Recorded

Wax on

From fighting kindergarteners to the ultimate Turing test, from hollering “Freebird” to smooth talking the ladies, Waxy links teach me.


Michael M. on March 22nd 2005 in General

mc chris /. interview

mc chris was a subject of previous blogging. /. has an interview with him today. There is nothing too surprising in it, but I liked it.

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Michael M. on March 22nd 2005 in General, Music, Recorded

Mind over movies

Charlie Kaufman is my favorite screenwriter. He mixes big questions with absurdity and humor better than anyone else plying his trade. This post at Mind Hacks led me to a couple of fun articles on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one at k5 and another at Slate. It was my favorite movie of the year. Lacuna has a good site, too.

Although I work in neurobiology, I did not take a scientific approach to the movie. I do not study memory anyway. The two articles point out how the movie emphasizes association over linear temporal encoding. Joel’s leaps from one memory to the next following thin threads match my own experiences. While the big helmet was just a funny prop, Kaufman captured the terrain of memory well. I should get a copy and watch it again.

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Michael M. on March 21st 2005 in General, Movies

NYT race op-ed reaction

The op-ed blogged yesterday drew letters to the editor at The New York Times. As this post notes, the divide between biologists and social scientists whose letters made the paper is glaring. Lynn M. Morgan‘s first sentence caught my attention. I take every invocation of nature as a reason for suspicion and distrust. Race might have bad roots. It definitely has been used for bad. Neither condition precludes its use for good. She and Herbert J. Gans both display their knack for the obvious by pointing out that race is used to treat some people unfairly. Biologists David Fitch and John Waldman accept trends among people and move to the real questions of how we ought to treat one another. Martin E. Fuller appears to be a retired chemist.

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Michael M. on March 21st 2005 in General

NY Times race op-ed

I liked this op-ed on race by Armand Marie Leroi that appeared in The New York Times. He wrote Mutants, an interesting looking book. The essay concerns the changing opinions and roles of race. Many scholars reject the notion of race. I heard Cornel West say something about the fallacies of race in college. While the injustices of bigotry have led to attacks against the very notion, race does have some utility.

There is an old saw that the differences within a racial group are greater than the differences between racial groups. Leroi credits this notion to Richard Lewontin. He then explains that the original approach neglected to look closely at correlations that carry significant information. I always knew that if I could make good guesses about ancestral origins of people based on looking at them, there must be genetic analyses that could do the same. Whatever clues I use must be largely results of genetics.

This topic holds particular interest in the medical world. I went to a lunch presentation about the Charles Drew Community Blood Donation Campaign. Charles Drew was a prominent African-American doctor who contributed to the development of blood banks through his work as a researcher and an administrator. The campaign attempts to encourage blood donations by African-Americans and to find good donor matches for victims of sickle cell disease who require frequent blood transfusions. Pairing a donor with a specific recipient based on closely matched blood types should lead to fewer complications. Because people with sickle cell disease often receive many transfusions, they can develop antibodies that increase risks and make finding suitable matches increasingly difficult. I would be a Charles Drew donor. I already give blood. At the lunch, I asked a question either about becoming a donor myself or about the focus on African-American donors. The doctor speaking told me that he could tell fairly well who was black and who was not based on blood tests.

I loathe hearing race dismissed as a social construct. What idea or category is not constructed socially? Sometimes the statement is a shorthand for stating that notions of race are notoriously imprecise and often misleading, as they definitely can be. The statement is often given thoughtlessly. There was a battle waged in the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine that I missed. Race is a flawed notion, and being a word, it has different meanings in different contexts. To put it mildly, people mingle. There have been geographic factors leading to separations, though. Race is a poor substitute for medical information we would like, a genetic profile of each patient to guide treatments and predict responses to drugs, but ignoring race and subjecting patients to extra risk by doing so is unconscionable.

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Michael M. on March 20th 2005 in General


I read that a few IMAX theaters have chosen not to show certain films because they conflict with too many audience members’ religious beliefs. I found this article in The New York Times via a Boing Boing post. The Saint Louis Science Center has one of these theaters, but I have not seen any movies there. I do not know whether it has refused any films on similar grounds. By choosing not to show these films, these theaters are failing their educational missions. Kowtowing to ignorance should be anathema to every educational organization. I also hate to see Southerners step up on cue for whipping boy duties.

Cosmic Voyage, which I have not seen, was mentioned prominently in the article. It has a zoom out sequence in the spirit of Powers of Ten, one of the greatest science films ever. The American Museum of Natural History has a similar exhibit with scales of time instead of space. The description of Cosmic Voyage reminded me of another Boing Boing post from earlier in the month. The Simpsons had an introduction inspired by Powers of Ten that is clever and funny. If you are a friend who cannot obtain the movie, let me know if you want to see it.


Michael M. on March 20th 2005 in General, Movies

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.