Conversation on Torture with Doomsy

January 5th, 2007

Been having a cross-blog discussion with Doomsy over at the Liberal Doomsayer about our recent crimes torturing detainees, as widely reported in NYTimes and on Alternet. A follow-up to this post from me that I figured I should post again here:

The thing is, I don’t think we ever can redeem ourselves. America hasn’t been a saint throughout its military and political history, but as many leftist columnists are now pointing out, we have dropped our bar so far below the one we set at Nuremberg that it’s hard to see how the world can forgive us, never mind we, the people, forgiving the US Government. Saddam, a dictator we helped create and helped carry out his war crimes, was executed in an instant, in the most inhumane way. A member of the military I recently interviewed told me [paraphrasing] that “every military officer knew full well that Saddam would be executed the second he was turned over to the ‘Iraqi Government’,” and those quotes are his, not mine. In his mind, and he has been in West Baghdad for the last year fighting on the front lines, the “Iraqi Government” is nothing more than a a few corrupt politicians and a few importantly-placed American agents. “We’ve turned over detainees who weren’t even proven guilty of their crimes in Iraq, and the ‘Iraqi Government’ murdered them with a shot in the head before we were even out the door. We’ve all come to understand that ‘handing someone over to the Iraqis’ is doublespeak for ‘send that person to die’. Who physically pulls the trigger is really an irrelevant detail.” So I don’t want US Government officials telling us this is “their [the Iraqi’s] system, their method of justice.” It’s ours, the blood is all over our hands. The fact that we torture should come as no surprise. And the case of Donald Vance (note: an American contractor who blew the whistle on his employer in Baghdad and was held and tortured by our military) just shows that no one is safe, that we don’t reserve our techniques for those we consider “evil”, but that it has just become a routine process for our military operations.

“The Good Shepherd”: A Good Film Concept, but Lacks a Pulse

December 28th, 2006

I have to agree with Peter Travers’ review of The Good Shephard. The movie is not a complete failure: it’s beautifully made, and beautifully acted. Unfortunately, it is just not well-written.

We go through three hours of meeting character after character, in different time periods, sometimes the same character appears twice with different names (due to double-agentry), and at the end of it all you feel that the only character who got a bit of development was the leading one, Matt Damon’s, who hardly spoke a word throughout the movie.

I tried hard to like this movie, I really did. But I think it’s a crime to employ this much acting and cinematography talent, and end up with a movie that says little else about life inside the CIA but the spy cliche, “trust no one.” The movie is full of visually memorable scenes, but absolutely no memorable dialogue.

The movie should have been more focused, had less characters, and covered less ground. DeNiro: either you make a seven hour epic, or you make a Hollywood two hour film. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, I’m afraid.

Free and DRM-Free E-Books

December 26th, 2006

I got a Nokia 770 for Christmas, to replace my aging and dying Palm V. I’ll probably write more about the 770 and the Palm V later, but suffice it to say that I got the Palm V when it came out, approximately 10 years ago, and have used it ever since. My main uses for it were AvantGo and Vindigo, although in the past I did get other uses out of it as well. I plan to keep the Palm around mainly for the Vindigo features, which I haven’t seen done better anywhere else. (No book on the planet has as much information about NYC as my 8MB Palm V with Vindigo loaded on it.)

I basically got the 770 because of all the great stuff I heard on Teleread and other sites about its use as a portable e-book reader. Indeed, that has been the most pleasant experience on the device. With the Evince PDF viewer and with FBReader (an Open Source ebook reader for a lot of different formats, including HTML, Plucker, and zTxt), I am able to read a ton of stuff while I’m in my commute, and all on a beautiful 800×480 screen that fits in the palm of my hand. (Yes, finally I get to read with serif, anti-aliased fonts!)

I have been overwhelmed with how many free e-books you can find online, thanks in part to efforts by groups like Creative Commons. Here are some good ones:

Feel free to post more in comments!

Embarassed to be an American

December 18th, 2006

Following up on the torture table from my last post, today I read two of the most engrossing and depressing articles I’ve ever read, about detainees tortured by the US Government, using cruel and unusual punishment to humiliate and destroy the human spirit.

The first is written for the Guardian, but syndicated on Alternet. It describes Jose Padilla, an alleged terrorist.

The purpose of these measures appeared to be to sustain the regime under which he had lived for over three years: total sensory deprivation. He had been kept in a blacked-out cell, unable to see or hear anything beyond it. Most importantly, he had no human contact, except for being bounced off the walls from time to time by his interrogators. As a result, he appears to have lost his mind. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean that his mind is no longer there.

It simply must be read. Then, as if this weren’t enough, I read a similar article, but describing an entirely different case, in the New York Times. This time, it describes Donald Vance, a security contractor who was a whistle blower pointing out corruption within his organization in Iraq, who was then captured by the US Military and subjected to torture techniques because he had been “associated” with the organization whose flaws he had been instrumental in illuminating. The amazing part is that he took detailed notes of his stay, and the New York Times article presents this evidence along with testimony from Vance himself. It shows a detainee system so fundamentally broken and so insanely immoral that I had a lump in my throat while reading the words on the page. You should read them too.

The two men slept in their 9-by-9-foot cells on concrete slabs, with worn three-inch foam mats. With the fluorescent lights on and the temperature in the 50s, Mr. Vance said, “I paced myself to sleep, walking until I couldn’t anymore. I broke the straps on two pair of flip-flops.”

How will we ever redeem ourselves? There simply is no excuse for this kind of behavior. We have become what we sought to destroy.

The Humanity

December 14th, 2006

Check out this interesting table about world views on torture over at the BBC.

Notice how the best scores are in Spain, France, and Italy (where more than 80% find the practice of human torture repugnant — what bleeding heart liberals! :)). I always knew that these countries had a better grasp of morality than Americans, but not by this degree.

Looking at those statistics for the US (where 38% think some degree of torture is permissible), it makes you think we’re not even a progressive country. Our percentage is lower than Turkey, the Ukraine… we’re only 1% off from Russia, for crying out loud! In Russia, they torture people “just in case” they do something bad!

The Three-Way Division of Web Development Labor

December 12th, 2006

There is a great article posted by a developer of the open source FreeMarker project on a proposed “third” role for web development teams — something between a backend application developer and a frontend web designer.

Check it out.

I have to say, so much of this article rang true for me. I just finished a web application in which we had four developers but two main rules: backend developer and frontend designer/developer. Due to the type of project it was (and the skillsets of the people involved), backend work was done by 3 of the 4 team members, and frontend work was done by a sole designer.

The issues we had were that:

  • The backend developers could only make guarantees about what kind of object to pass to the view. But often, in order to get access to other “global” objects, the frontend designer would have to hack controller code as well. (Luckily, data services were tiered off out of the controllers, so at least the designer didn’t have to muck about with SQL.)
  • The designer hated the idea of pushing some logic “back” into application code. So, though we as backend developers proposed a layer for configuring things like which menus to display on each page, etc., the frontend designer preferred to engage in the copy-paste-modify antipattern instead, so that it could just “get done.” I can see why: it’s a pain to context switch from JSPs, HTML and CSS to Java POJOs that then will have to be checked using JSTL anyway!

If, early on, we had decided to use FreeMarker instead of JSTL, perhaps the frontend designer could have had access to more powerful macros, and wouldn’t have done the copy/pasting. But I think overall, the two tiers are too few; I agree that you need someone to sit in between and think about how to cleanly integrate backend logic and frontend design.

Linux Desktop Talk at NYU

December 8th, 2006

I gave another talk for CANYU and the emerging open source clubs at NYU about Linux on the desktop. Here is the synopsis:

LINUX AND FREE/OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE

The State of the F/OSS World Update
with talk/demo by Andrew Montalenti

December 5, 2006 @ 7pm
Room 813, Warren Weaver Hall

Open source software is now mainstream. Whether it’s the nearly ubiquitous Mozilla Firefox browser, the Azureus peer-to-peer client, the Eclipse IDE, or the Linux kernel, almost everything in the computer world has been touched by free / open source software developers collaborating across the globe.

Judging by the state of the community, this movement doesn’t seem to be losing steam. With Microsoft Windows Vista around the corner offering a potentially bloated and hardware-requirements-heavy experience, desktop Linux operating systems are taking aim at the big giant, with big support around Ubuntu, Fedora (Redhat), and SuSE (Novell), among others.

So, what’s next for the free / open source world? That’s what this talk is meant to help you find out. After explaining a bit of the history of free and open source software, and the history of recent community and corporate efforts to make it widely available, this talk will show off some of the new, cool technologies coming out of the open source community, such as 3D desktop effects, productivity tools, enhanced multimedia support, better support for laptops, and a full suite of industry-grade development tools. The talk will also discuss some of the legal and intellectual property issues facing the open source community, with a particular focus on the recent news coming from the Novell / Microsoft deal and Sun’s decision to open source Java.

Who is this talk meant for? Anyone who hasn’t tried out Linux on their desktop, or anyone who is at least mildly interested in the current and future state of the computer industry. Free / Open Source software has completely rocked the industry, changing every aspect of it from top to bottom, and this wave is only growing bigger every day. NYU students interested in copyright issues surrounding open source may also find this talk valuable.

In any event, this won’t be a boring lecture — it’s meant to be interactive and fun!

The speaker will be bringing free CDs of Ubuntu Linux, a community-driven desktop Linux operating system which you can install on almost any home PC! Come for the free CDs, stay for the revolution.

It went very well, with about 10 people in the audience. You can download the slides in OpenOffice or PDF. Admittedly, the slides aren’t as cool without the live demo of Beryl I did at the talk itself. Yay 3D desktop effects.

Taming spam with spamassassin and evolution

November 18th, 2006

I’ve found the anti-spam support on Linux to be pretty poor overall. Considering how common this problem is and how ingenious OSS guys usually are, I’m a bit surprised.

I am trying to use Evolution with SpamAssassin, and finding horrible slowness and bugs in the bayes_* databases to be the norm.

If you are attempting this setup, I recommend the following hacks:

1. Do not use bayesian autolearning in spam assassin, as this is a broken way to update your spam filters.
2. Instead, create a JUNK and HAM directory in Evolution, and move your junk mails and ham mails there.
3. If you have already tagged mails as Junk using Evo’s “Mark as Junk” feature, you need to hack these mails out of that folder and move them into a regular Evolution folder. “Mark as Junk” is really not moving mail anywhere, but just “tagging” it, and then the Junk folder is like a vfolder which searches for all mail tagged as junk. This is cool, but sucks if you want to run sa-learn on your mbox in order to train spamassassin. The way to get around it is to create a mail filter in Evo which says: “if mail is marked as junk, then mark it as not junk AND move it it to folder named JUNK.” Then you apply the filter to your Junk directory and Evo will copy them out. (Note: if you try to merely “copy” the mail messages to another folder, they will simply not move — again, Junk is a “tag” in evo, not a location).
4. Now from the shell, go to .evolution/mail/local and find your mbox for your mail. You can use sa-learn –spam –progress –mbox to learn it as a spam, and change –spam to –ham for ham.

This is much better than using the built-in Evo stuff. Do this every few weeks until you don’t have to anymore.

The Working Life

November 16th, 2006

I never knew working all day would be so draining. Don’t get me wrong: I love my work, I love working on software projects with smart people, but I get home and just want to hack around on UNIX, read a book, or watch some Bill Maher and I haven’t even the energy for that.

Tonight I violated my own rule (hence the 2am post), but will probably pay for it tomorrow in coffee during the day.

I need a kick-ass job that’s only part time but pays full time salaries.

p.s. been using the Spring Framework extensively on a project at work. All I can say is, “Wow.” I’m finally enjoying Java development again. The framework truly rocks, but you just need to give it some time. Once it grows on you (I suggest Manning Press’ “Spring in Action”), it becomes like a fungus that permeates the way you think about software design. Really cool.

p.p.s. it fucking rocks, btw, that the Dems won the House and Senate. Bill Moyers 2008?

Great tool for LaTeX users

September 12th, 2006

Check it out. It’s called rubber, written in Python.