February 9th, 2006

monkey, fear

google desktop users beware

EFF points out the risks of the new "search across computers" option for Google Desktop.
"Unless you configure Google Desktop very carefully, and few people will, Google will have copies of your tax returns, love letters, business records, financial and medical files, and whatever other text-based documents the Desktop software can index. The government could then demand these personal files with only a subpoena rather than the search warrant it would need to seize the same things from your home or business, and in many cases you wouldn't even be notified in time to challenge it. Other litigants—your spouse, your business partners or rivals, whomever—could also try to cut out the middleman (you) and subpoena Google for your files."
Heads up. [em-dashes corrected here; see comments for discussion of the encoding errors in EFF original]
study, words, language

Gary Gygax, pronunciation spellings, and RP -- my sordid past

A discussion with tsenft regarding the relative social stigma of various linguistic forms in US vs. UK English led to my rambling about r-less and r-ful dialects of English, and orthographic socialization.

Which makes me think of my first real conscious encounter (I was perhaps ten years old) with orthographic standards mismatching with language standards: in the Gary Gygax Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook, which included a discussion of the word milieu in the sense of the construction of the world ("a fantasy milieu"), new to me at the time.

The discussion included a pronunciation guide that indicated that it should be pronounced "mill-YER". Of course, this was completely mystifying to me, and made no sense to me in any dialect I was familiar with (East Coast US Standard and American Southern (Georgia)). I knew next to nothing about French, but I was pretty sure that there was no /r/ sound in this word.

I eventually worked it out (years later) when I realized that Gygax and his uncredited co-authors were writing in a spelling tuned for Received Pronunciation, in which the orthographic "mill-YER" would be pronounced [mɪlˈjɜː], which is a pretty good approximation of the French. Had he written "mill-YEH" an RP speaker would have read [mɪlˈjɛ], with the final vowel too front and too short, but the phonological effect of the underlying /r/ in RP is to lengthen and back the [ɛ] to [ɜː].

Oh, and GIP due to kirinqueen -- thanks!
study, words, language

this will not be funny to many

Labmate just summarized a paper: "the naive algorithm is O(2n). He spends 10 pages explaining how his algorithm is O(1.9601n)."

My answer: "So if n is large, it's intractable anyway, and if n is small, it doesn't matter anyway."

"Basically, yeah."

I'm glad it's not me trying to justify that paper to the reading group.


Deutsch is not the problem

The liberal political blogosphere is all a-twitter [link rundown in that last] about George Deutsch, who apparently tried to clamp down on NASA scientist James E. Hansen's publication of information about global warming, and most recently tried to pull the "it's just a theory" line on the Big Bang. NASA administrators are understandably pissed and (after some time) wrote a strong statement about political appointees trying to control NASA science.

The NYT describes as Deutsch "a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign". But the latest dirt on Deutsch is that he's been padding his resume and actually didn't graduate from Texas A&M as previously reported. There is much rejoicing and schadenfreude among the bloggers.

One of my labmates (a frequent reader of the Democratic (and I do mean capital D) weblogs) tipped me off to this story, but I ended up in a vocal argument with the guy because I felt that this detail was so not the point of the outrage, and descends to mudslinging.

I still feel that way. Deutsch should lose his job -- not because of his resume issues, but because he's a political appointee who should not be attempting to control the publications of a science organization like NASA. It muddies the water to attack this footsoldier on those grounds -- the real problem (as Hansen has said) is far deeper than this little schmuck: it's a problem with a political power environment that sees everything as a powergrab.

Deutsch is a loser, but cutting him off at the knees based on his lack of degree also cuts off our chance to draw the parallels. Political appointees of the Bush administration all see their role as political, not as stewardship. From this we have gotten:
  • Michael Brown running FEMA
  • Republican appointees gutting the NLRB
  • Samuel "never saw executive power he didn't like" Alito on the Supreme Court
  • Jack Abramoff writing legislation
  • Michael Powell et al. at the FCC
That corruption -- the bending of all government services to serve political ends -- is what we should be attacking, not incompetent little peons like George Deutsch.

I wish somebody could offer Deutsch a "blogosphere plea bargain": if he'll talk candidly about what kind of explicit and implicit controls he was being asked to put on NASA's science work, we'll lay off. In the meantime, picking on his academic record is a red-herring and takes the fight straight into the gutter, and the Cheney/Rove/Libby axis is really good at the gutterfight.

As people who believe that science -- whether government-funded or not -- is better served by independence from the political wings of government, we owe it to ourselves to stick to the real issue: that Deutsch is an example of political handlers trying to control the dissemination of actual facts.

Reporters Without Borders would -- and should -- raise a hue and cry over political control of news reporting. Where is the "Scientists without Borders"?
  • Current Mood