There's a saying making the rounds on twitter, facebook and the occasional protest sign:

Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care. You're thinking of Jesus.

It's a clever saying, but Jesus frowned on forcing one's views on others, not to mention taking things from people by force. Thus he was not a socialist.

Voluntary charity? He was all for it. Submitting to an oppressive government? His own advice. Using government to oppress others? Not his cup of tea.


How To Sell A House

We have finally sold our house, and are in the process of attempting to buy a different one. This has given us some insight into the process and, I like to think, a little wisdom, which I will now share with you.

If you are attempting to sell a house, here are some things that you can do to improve your chances of success:

Clean. Bugs, dirt... buyers don't need to see it.

Price. Base your asking price on the market, not on what you want to get. Unfortunately lots of people are underwater; unfortunately nobody's going to come and pay thousands of dollars more for your house than it's worth.

Fix broken windows. Not much more needs to be said.

Replace urine-stained carpet. It doesn't cost as much as you'll get back in the price. You'd be amazed how many people don't do this.

Don't leave the TV on during a showing. It's really distracting. Possible exception: if the TV is included with the house.

Have the house ready 20 minutes before the agent says they'll show up. Better too early than too late. They're frequently early.

Keep the house clean after you return home after a showing. They frequently show up late.

Turn the lights on before a showing. It makes the house look brighter and nicer.

Conform to the buyers' expectations. For example use the master bedroom as a bedroom, not as a workshop.

Paint. It's cheap and makes walls look nice. It also lets you cover up your bad color choices with something neutral.

In this terrible economy there are no guarantees, but following these steps will help.


Paranoid Web Browsing

Lately I've found myself explaining to several people how to set up their web browser for maximum safety. There are lots of ways to attack a web browser, and the days when you could hop online with Internet Explorer and be fine are long gone (if they ever existed to begin with). Here's what I do to crank up the paranoia level:

1) Use the Firefox web browser. It is not sponsored by a corporation that is interested in tracking your activities. It has a lot of third party plugins for augmenting your privacy and security. It is free to download and it runs on both kinds of operating systems: Windows XP and Windows 7.

2) When I install Firefox, I go to the options page and make a few changes. First, I set my home page to something that's neutral, like http://www.google.com/ . In the privacy tab, I select "Use Custom Settings" and check the box that says "Clear history when Firefox closes." Then I verify through the settings window that this means deleting Cookies, Active Logins and Cache, as well as the three kinds of history.

3) Then I install Firefox plugins using the Tools -> Add-ons window. In the Get Add-ons tab there is a search bar that helps you quickly locate extensions that are useful. The ones that I install are Adblock Plus (for blocking ads), NoScript (for blocking script execution except on sites that I whitelist), Flashblock (for not running flash animation by default), BetterPrivacy (for deleting flash cookies when Firefox exits) and PrivacyChoice Opt-out (for opting out of hundreds of tracking networks like Google and AOL). The most disruptive of those to my usual browsing experience is NoScript; after a fresh install I find that I am constantly having to whitelist my regular sites using the Options button at the lower right that NoScript makes available when a web site requires some type of scripting to behave properly. In the long run, though, NoScript might be the most important protection against attack, because the vast majority of attacks against web browsers involve some kind of scripting, and NoScript ensures that your browser does not run every single script by default, possibly helping me to avoid attacks that the anti-virus programs or browser makers aren't aware of yet.

4) Before logging in to a web site using a username and password, I exit from my web browser and open a new instance. Since I've configured Firefox as described above, this clears out all of the tracking cookies that my previous browsing may have accumulated. When I'm done using the web site that I'm logged in to, I close Firefox again. As a result, amazon.com doesn't know what my google user name is, and doubleclick.net doesn't get to track my interests across multiple web sites. Attacks that involve reading my browsing history are also minimized, because I've cleared my browsing history automatically.

That's about it. Is there anything I've overlooked?


Freedom and Honduras

There's a surprisingly encouraging article at Reason Magazine titled Global Freedom Had Few Blooms. Not so much because of the article, which listed many assaults against freedom that had occurred over the course of the past year, but because of the comments involving the case of Honduras.

Honduras, in case you didn't know, recently averted a coup by the sitting President, Manuel Zelaya. Its Supreme Court, with the cooperation of its Congress, ordered the military to remove him from the country, and made another person from Zelaya's party the interim President. Afterwards, evidence of vote fraud (in the form of election returns for a referendum that had not yet taken place) was found on computers in the office of former President Zelaya. That the United States supports Zelaya, and not the people of Honduras, raises troubling questions.

The article at Reason included Honduras as an example of a place where democracy did not do so well, but the commenters quickly corrected it, pointing out what I've said above, and much more as well. Check it out for yourself.

This article was encouraging not only because it led to an accurate description of the Honduran situation, but because that description came from the grass roots, so to speak, not from above. The world of the future that I want to see is one where thinking, action and awareness move from the bottom up, not from the top down.



The Singularity is the idea that we are on the verge of technological advances so amazing that we cannot comprehend what is on the other side. In a nutshell, technology will allow humans to be so smart that we will be able to improve our intelligence exponentially. The linked talk by Vernor Vinge quotes I.J. Good:

"Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the _last_ invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. ... It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make."

The Singularity is exciting to think about, but I am unconvinced that it will actually happen. We know that Moore's Law has been true, more or less, for the past thirty years, but we don't know that that will continue into the future, and we have good reason to believe that it won't, at least without breakthroughs that open up new computing technologies. In other words, we don't have any guarantees, or even direct evidence, that it is possible for computing speed to exceed certain thresholds.

We also are not significantly closer to understanding the nature of consciousness, intelligence or sentience. We know little about how a brain functions. We do not know how to manipulate existing memories. Strictly speaking, none of those are required for the Singularity to occur, but they would help.

Don't get me wrong: the Singularity is possible. But likely? I don't think we have enough evidence to know, one way or the other. Inevitable? No.


Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

We recently watched The Plan, a film offshoot of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica television show. As fans of the show, we enjoyed it; it added some details and filled in some plot holes from the regular series. Someone who has never seen the show, on the other hand, would probably be lost.

The BSG franchise has many tragic elements, and The Plan focuses on several; genocide, betrayal and mistrust feature prominently. They continue to be eclipsed, however, by the sense of sadness I feel about the end of the series.

Next on the schedule is a re-viewing of Battlestar Galactica: Razor. After I watched it for the first time, it crystallized my view that in the series, the humans are the bad guys and the Cylons are actually the good guys. Seasons 3 and 4 added this refinement: the Cylon "skinjobs" (who look like humans) are also bad guys, leaving only the robot-like Centurions to be proper protagonists. Razor is much more accessible to non-fans, and I'm curious if any have seen it before seeing the rest of the show.


Observations about Ft. Hood

It's still too soon to know all of the details of the attack that occurred at Ft. Hood, Texas yesterday, but here are some of my preliminary observations:

1. Like many before it, this attack took place in a gun-free zone; gun-free zones therefore do not prevent attacks, and arguably make these attacks more successful.

2. When seconds count, the police are only minutes away. In this case the police responded quickly, but the attacker still had time to shoot 41 people. That's a lot.

3. If anybody can be trusted to carry firearms at all times it is members of our military. Like police officers, hunters and millions of law-abiding citizens, they have been trained in the safe use and handling of guns.

4. Like police officers, members of the military are targeted for attack.

5. It's impossible to predict ahead of time who will attempt to murder someone, so attempting to restrict firearms to sane, stable people, or even to just police and the military, will not prevent this kind of attack.