Dynamist Blog

Back in Action

Yay! My iBook is back from the Mac hospital and, miracle of miracles, nothing on the hard disk was lost in the process. I have most of the important stuff backed up, but I was delighted not to have to reload all the software.

Not a Virus, But Still Could Be Bad

Numerous readers have written to correct my incorrect use of the term virus to describe the program currently attacking Mac OS X. Here's reader Lawrence Rhodes's explanation:

You've probably received a thousand of these, but the Opener script discussed on MacInTouch doesn't replicate, so it's not a virus. It might be part of a Trojan though--be careful of what you install. MacInTouch reported only one instance so far.

And here's one that hurts, from Sean Gilligan:

Love your writing (on non-tech topics) [ouch--vp]! Opener is a "root kit" and is only useful after you have taken control of a machine with a virus or other method. At least for the time being, OS X users do not have to worry about viruses.

At any rate, I'd rather have my OS X machine back and worry about Opener than stick with the old OS. Thanks to everyone who wrote to correct me.

Wiki Wars

The Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia created by volunteer contributors. Its open-source model taps the dispersed knowledge of many different people. But what happens when contributors vehemently disagree on the facts? Red Herring reports on the pre-election Wiki wars:

Disputes over content related to Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have been growing since August, prompting the popular reference site's administrators to warn users last month that election-related entries may be the focus of "contention and debate," possibly diminishing their neutrality.

Wikis like Wikipedia are web sites that encourage users to share information by allowing them to freely write and edit content.

Wikipedia community members held an online town hall meeting last month to try to solve the disputes over the entries, to no avail. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's administrators are periodically "freezing" contentious pages--locking out any edits for brief periods of time. Since May, Wikipedia's Mr. Kerry entry has been frozen at least seven times, while its Mr. Bush page has been locked down almost as often.

Indeed, entries for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have become the most contentious in the history of Wikipedia, said Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikipedia Foundation, which is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have created even more debate than entries for sex and religion. As of October 8, Wikipedia's President Bush entry had been tweaked 3,953 times. Its entry for Senator Kerry had been modified 3,230 times. By contrast, Wikipedia's article on Jesus has only been edited 1,855 times since the site's inception in 2001.

The whole article is here and includes an interesting chart of contentious Wikipedia entries.

I'm working on an article (not election-related) on the Wikipedia as a model of social organization. If you've got thoughts on the subject, or relevant experiences, please drop me a line.

Free Speech on Campus

As if college campuses didn't have too many speech restrictions already, the election season has brought more. Campus administrators have gotten the bizarre idea that they should cancel already scheduled speeches by controversial people like Michael Moore because it's an election year. This stands normal constitutional reasoning on its head. Even Robert Bork believes that political speech enjoys First Amendment protection. But apparently, a lot of university administrators are, shall we say, ill-educated in the law (not to mention opposed academic freedom).

In this context, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), on whose board I serve has issued a useful statement reminding students and administrators of the principles involved.

In recent weeks, FIRE has seen a sharp increase in the number of inquiries regarding so-called "partisan" speech on campus. These inquiries have corresponded with reports of speakers being "un-invited" because college and university administrations feared that their speech would be "too partisan." For example, FIRE has received reports that the president of Florida Gulf Coast University cancelled a planned speech by Professor Terry Tempest Williams, fearing that Williams would be critical of President Bush's environmental policies. Similarly, California State University at San Marcos recently canceled a university-sponsored appearance by Michael Moore on the grounds that his speech would be "too partisan." FIRE has also received multiple requests from students asking us to intervene to prevent the use of student activity fee funds for politically-themed speeches.

It is deeply distressing and unfortunate that universities (and even students) are attempting to stifle political speech in the weeks before a Presidential election. If the First Amendment means anything at all, it means that speech must be free to influence the political process in this country. The founders of our nation considered the Bill of Rights essential because they recognized that true democracy would be impossible if one were not free to advocate political positions, whether they be mainstream, revolutionary, conservative, or anywhere else on the ideological spectrum. It is hardly an argument that speech should be censored because it might be used to change a person's point of view so close to an upcoming election. Speech often serves its greatest societal function when it is used to change minds through reasoned debate and discussion. The concern of college administrators should not be the maintenance of an artificially-imposed "balance" but instead the protection of open discussion, expression, and candor.

While various state and federal laws prevent public and private university officials from explicitly campaigning for or against candidates on university time or through the use of university resources, not all speech regarding a political candidate is considered unacceptable "partisan" campaigning. The U.S. Constitution puts profound limits on the ability of public university administrators to suppress student-sponsored speech, even if that speech explicitly and purposefully endorses a political candidate.

Read the rest here.

FIRE does great work, and deserves your tax-deductible financial support. You can donate here (or find out how to do so offline). And each dollar you donate to FIRE's defense of free speech on campus will be matched one-for-one by the John Templeton Foundation, which has pledged a challenge grant of $100,000. Don't miss this great end-of-the-year philanthropic opportunity.

The Advantage of an Obsolete Computer

I've borrowed Steve's iBook while mine is in the Apple hospital, recovering from that nasty wine spill. And I'm relearning just how inferior OS 9.1 and IE5 are to OS X.3 and Safari. But there's no cloud without a silver lining, apparently, since OS X is now under virus attack. Maybe by the time they fix my computer, there will be some form of protection from what sounds like a very nasty worm. Here's the Slashdot thread.

Why No Blogging?

Last Monday, as I was taking a pre-speech bathroom break, a clumsy waiter spilled a glass of wine on my laptop. I came back to discover that my computer wouldn't turn on, depriving me and my audience of my PowerPoint illustrations. (Fortunately, I know the speech really well, and you can do a lot with words and gestures.) The computer came on later that night, running off the AC adaptor but not the battery--a real pain when you're traveling, but not an insurmountable problem. Then Wednesday night it died. Completely. Apparently, over the intervening nine days, the wine-induced corrosive cancer had spread. Now I have no computer, except when I borrow Steve's. Hence, minimal blogging. I hope to return to action next week.

Cloning for Research

The United Nations may soon give friends of freedom yet another reason to support unilateralism (and cheer the U.N.'s general toothlessness). Having failed in the U.S. Senate, efforts to criminalize therapeutic cloning have gone international. Sponsored by Costa Rica and supported by the Bush administration, a measure to create an international convention to ban all forms of human cell cloning, including cloning for research purposes, has returned to the U.N.

While deeply concerned about potential U.S. laws, I don't share this site's fear of international conventions without enforcement power. Their roundup (via Instapundit is, however, a useful reminder that this issue never goes away.

Meanwhile, thanks to Senate rules and constitutional checks and balances, cell-cloning remains legal in the United States. Although clinical applications are still far away, scientists at Harvard want to clone cells for basic research. From the Boston Globe account (reprinted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer):

The cloning experiments proposed at Harvard represent the next step in the evolution of embryonic stem-cell research, a controversial field that has emerged as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. The two teams want to use cloning to produce embryonic stem cells that precisely match the genetic material of patients with juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's disease and a range of other maladies.

Researchers believe that comparing the development of these cloned cells with healthy cells will give them a powerful new tool to study disease and possibly suggest new avenues for treatment.

Both teams are part of the recently formed Harvard Stem Cell Institute, set up by the university earlier this year to fund embryonic and other types of stem-cell research.

"This is exactly the kind of work that we envisioned for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute," said Harvard biologist Douglas Melton, the senior researcher on one of the teams. "We want new ways to study and hopefully cure diseases."

Background on the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is here.

Against "Hopelessness and Intractability"

Bill Gates and Paul Allen will go down in history for founding Microsoft and thus helping to make personal computers ubiquitous. But wouldn't it be cool if their philanthropic passions also gave us commercial space travel and a vaccine against malaria? It lacks the glamour of the X Prize, but this malaria advance is big news, no matter how much the NYT may have responsibly downplayed it. Here are the basics from the WaPost:

An experimental vaccine can slash the risk that children will get malaria, apparently offering the first effective way to inoculate youngsters against one of the world's biggest, most intractable killers, researchers reported yesterday.

An eagerly awaited study involving 2,022 children in Mozambique, in east Africa, found the vaccine cut by one-third the likelihood of getting malaria and reduced by more than half the risk of developing serious, life-threatening cases of the disease.

"We're very excited," said Pedro Alonso of the University of Barcelona, who led the study. "This is the first conclusive evidence that a vaccine that can protect African children against malaria is possible."

While additional hurdles remain, if follow-up studies confirm the findings the vaccine could be available for widespread use within five years, marking the achievement of one of the most elusive goals in modern medicine. The effort to create a vaccine against the mosquito-borne parasitic killer has been marked by repeated failure....

The malaria parasite infects about 300 million people each year and kills between 1 million and 3 million, mostly children -- making it the most common infectious disease and among the top three killers. Although malaria has been largely eliminated from the United States and Europe, it remains a major public health scourge in the developing world. In Africa, malaria is the No. 1 killer of children younger than 5, claiming the life of one child every 30 seconds by some estimates....

Scientists have spent decades trying to develop an effective vaccine but have been repeatedly stymied, in part because of the complexity of the parasitic protozoan that causes malaria and its multistage life cycle. Experts had begun to wonder whether it would ever be possible to create an effective vaccine.

"Malaria has had a sense of hopelessness and intractability about it," said Melinda Moree, director of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which is promoting development of malaria vaccines with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "These results bring hope to us all that a malaria vaccine might at last be within our grasp."

Although the vaccine so far seems far less powerful than most childhood shots, researchers said it could prove more effective when tested in younger children, who need it the most. Even if it proves no more effective, it still would provide a powerful weapon.

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