Anonymity for Thee…

This press release from Annoy.Com is bizarre. On the one hand, the government went after Annoy.Com because it enables people to communicate anonymously, but on the other hand the government put a gag order on the very existence of the case for a year. This is almost as absurd as the habit some appeals courts have of never publishing their decisions.

It is sites like Annoy.Com that are going to kill online privacy and create popular support for government intervention. A story about the indictment includes a link to the anonymous e-mail greeting card that got this whole case started, though be warned it is pornographic. Actively helping people send unsolicited threats (and Annoy.Com has to be joking if they do not think that is clearly meant to be construed as a threat when sent unsolicited) is just feeding into the censorship frenzy, and it is just plain bad manners besides.

Animal Research Yields New Clues About Myotonic Dystrophy

    While animal rights activists were busy fire bombing the cars of researchers in Great Britain in early September, the journal Science reported a stunning breakthrough in understanding myotonic dystrophy thanks to a savvy neurologist and genetically modified mouse.

    Myotonic dystrophy afflicts about 40,000 Americans — it is the most common form of muscular dystrophy. The disease causes progressive muscle weakness that often starts by causing stiffness in the hands and eventually makes it extremely difficult for victims to walk, swallow or breathe. Almost nothing is known about the disease. In 1992 researchers discovered the genetic defect on the chromosome that causes the disease, but so far that knowledge hasn’t gotten researchers very far.

    The obvious solution was to create an animal model for the disease, but until the new research, the numerous efforts to create mice afflicted with symptoms of myotonic dystrophy failed. Neurologist Charles Thornton managed to succeed, however, where others had failed, and his breakthrough pointed to an immediate puzzle that might help break research into the disease wide open.

    Like human beings with myotonic dystrophy, the genetically modified mice suffer from a degenerative stiffening of the muscles. Thornton’s research team added a genetic defect into mouse chromosomes that closely resembles the genetic defect in human chromosomes (in normal genes, a particular base sequence is repeated about 30 times, whereas in the genes of those who suffer from myotonic dystrophy, the base sequence is repeated literally hundreds of thousands of times).

    The results were fascinating — the muscle stiffness in the mice was caused by an accumulation of messenger RNA (mRNA) in the nuclei of the muscle cells of the mice.

    This, to my knowledge, is an unprecedented discovery. Messenger RNA is supposed to be little more than an instruction manual for building DNA. Think of RNA as a sort of robot builder — it collects the proteins it needs in the environment and then assembles them according to its instructions to create a DNA strand which it then sends off to do the job of building the body. Genetic diseases occur when the RNA has faulty instructions and thus builds faulty DNA.

    What Thornton’s team found, however, was that large numbers of mRNA were somehow accumulating in the nuclei of the muscle cells and causing damage to those cells in ways that will require a lot more research to understand. As Thornton put it,

Normally, messenger RNA transmits genetic information out of the nucleus and into the main part of the cell where its instructions are carried out. That’s its only job. In this case, it seems to stay in the nucleus, and it’s doing something entirely different that’s harmful. The messenger itself is actively making cells sick.

    This is the sort of basic science discovery that would be very difficult to arrive at relying solely on experiments with human beings — in fact decades of research on muscular dystrophy never even came close to suggesting the possibility that RNA of all things might be capable of damaging muscle tissue. As Thornton eloquently described the benefits of using mice in a press release,

Why all the fuss over mice? Well, it is possible to test dozens or even hundreds of potential treatments in mice in a short span of time. Without an animal model, it takes several years and some risks to test just one treatment in people. I’m hopeful that these mice will accelerate the discovery process.

    Thornton’s discovery opens up a whole line of previously unknown areas that have implications not only for myotonic dystrophy, but for diseases such as Huntington’s and Fragile-X syndrome which are caused by similar genetic defects.

Source:

New mouse marks latest stride in muscular dystrophy research. EureakAlert!, press release, September 6, 2000.

Very Good, Basic Article on MPEG-4

Slashdot recently linked to this excellent article on MPEG-4, which is an extension of the MPEG-2 video and audio compression scheme that is currently used to compress video in DVD format.

Why should you know about MPEG-4? Because although it is somewhat difficult at the moment, MPEG-4 can be used to take an MPEG-2 encoded movie on DVD which typically takes up 3 to 4 gigabytes for a full length movie and compress it to fit on a CD-ROM with surprisingly little loss in quality. If you put them side by side, you’ll notice a quality difference between your MPEG-2 encoded DVD and the MPEG-4 version, but its still far superior to the enormously successful VHS format and its far more portable.

The real downside at the moment is that MPEG-4 is extremely processor intensive. The article at Tom’s Hardware notes that it can take up to 10 hours to encode a DVD into MPEG-4 format even on a very fast machine, and you’ll want a pretty serious system for playback too, but since even Best Buy’s selling 800MHZ Pentium III machines for $1,300 these days this is less of an issue than it would have been a couple years ago.

Thanks to the controversy over MP3s, inevitably the discussion about MPEG-4 is going to come back to piracy issues. A 650mb to 700mb file might seem a lot to transfer today, but the students at the college I work at regularly use the fast pipes here to download new DVD releases in MPEG-4 format. My attitude toward movie piracy is the same as it is for music piracy — DVD’s are dirt cheap for most new releases.

What I’m really excited about is the possibility of creating a supercharged media server sometime within the next 12 to 18 months. I’m envisioning a tower system with a 1GHZ or better processor, a DVD-ROM, high end sound card, 384 mb of RAM, an AGP video card like the Matrox products that has both analog video in and out ports, and four 100-gig ATA/100 hard drives in a striped RAID array (yes I know there are no 100 gig hard drives out yet, but they are not too far away).

That way you’ve got 100 gig for MP3s (even encoding at 256 like I do, that’s room for about 1100 CDs worth of music), 100 gig for storing DVDs converted to MPEG-4 format (enough room for about 140 films depending on the length), set aside another 150 gig or so for using Matrox card as a TIVO type system and capturing television shows you want to see (imagine having the entire run of Babylon 5 on a HD by recording it off the SciFi channel), and just leave 50 gig to spare for the heck of it. Connect it to your home audio/video system and you’re in business.

Reckless Accusations of Plagiarism

    My friend Cathy Young recently went through a nightmare thanks to some very reckless plagiarism charges.

    The story actually starts several years ago when the Boston Globe fired a woman, whose name escapes me, because she admitted to making up quotes in a column she was writing. After having nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize, they quickly showed her the door. It was the right thing to do.

    But then, they royally screwed up. Along came Mike Barnacle, a very popular columnist at the Globe and a marginal national media figure. Barnacle got caught swiping a George Carlin routine and passing it off as his own in a column. Did they fire him? Nope. Then it came out that there were numerous columns that Barnacle had written in which he apparently made up everything. Barnacle wrote a touching column many years ago, for example, about a white family and a black family meeting in a Massachusetts hospital where they had children who each needed an organ transplant, and in the end the white family helps pay for the transplant for the black kid. The only problem is Barnacle made the story up.

    It took forever for the Globe to finally fire Barnacle, compared to how quickly they showed the other columnist the door. Flash forward to a couple months ago. The Globe’s only conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, decided to write a July 4 column based on a widely circulating Internet e-mail that describes what happened to those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The Internet e-mail version has a lot of errors, so Jacoby hit the books finding out what really happened to the Founders. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention in his column that he took the idea from an Internet e-mail. He was suspended without pay for 4 months which is basically the death penalty — clearly the Globe wanted him to resign.

    So here’s how we finally get to Young. Wanting to appease critics who charged the firing was ideological, the Globe hired Young and another columnist to fill in as the conservative voice in the newspaper. The only problem is that Young is more of a libertarian, and even when she tends toward pragmatism rather than ideology. FrontPageMag.Com pretty much attacked her as not being a real conservative, as did someone from the National Review. But the most bizarre charge was from Jewish World Review columnist Deb Schlussel who claimed that Young had plagiarized from Schlussel’s columns; an extremely serious charge based on the Globe’s sensitivity over plagiarism.

Here are the passages that Schlussel claims were plagiarized from that July 4th column:

Schlussel:

Yesterday, most American college students were celebrating our country’s rich
history stemming from its independence, right? Nope. Most of them don’t know
a thing about U.S. history. For them, the Fourth was just another day to party
with MTV, drink beer, eat hot dogs, and celebrate American pop culture. Just
another day of ignorant bliss.”

Young:

 As we watch the fireworks and have barbecues on the Fourth of July, do
we still remember why? That’s not entirely a rhetorical question. After a timely
news report on the results of a history quiz administered to more than 500 young
Americans, the answer may actually be in doubt.

Schlussel:

       What a coincidence, last week, when
TV producer Norman Lear bought one of the few original copies of the Declaration
of Independence for $8.1 million on-line. He probably wanted to hide it from
our kids before the Fourth arrived. Quick, before history poisons the empty
TV minds of our kids. Like Santayana’s trite but true adage, “Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” After the 224th anniversary of
our country, we’re well on our way to proving his proposition.”

Young:

If people don’t know anything about the Constitution, they’re not likely to
get too upset when politicians violate it. They may even abet the destruction
of our freedoms. A recent survey by the Freedom Forum, in which 40 percent of
Americans could not name even one First Amendment freedom, also found that 51
percent thought the press had too much freedom, and most would ban speech that
offends racial or religious groups. Those who forget the past, it is said, are
doomed to repeat it. Are they also in danger of losing its gains?”

    Schlussel is essentially arguing that the only way Young would have mentioned July 4th barbecues or repeated Santayana’s famous “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is if she saw read Schlussel’s article first and then swiped the ideas. Give me a break.

    In fact, Schlussel’s charges are probably motivated more by the fact that Young has attacked Schlussel in print for some of the nuttier things she has written in the past about the WNBA. Young’s column, WNBA is not a feminist conspiracy rightly ridiculed Schlussel’s bizarre rant against the WNBA. The most bizarre part of Schlussel’s ranting, which really illustrates the kind of person she is, was her attack on NBC’s media coverage of the death of WNBA player Kim Perrot,

The WNBA is no different. The league’s biggest story was also off the basketball court — the cancer death of point guard Kim Perrot. And the WNBA is milking this story for all it’s worth because there’s not much to milk on the court. Yet, the receipt of a kidney transplant by NBA player Sean Elliott of the San Antonio Spurs is getting much more attention, another illustration that fans could care less about the WNBA.

    Aside from the rank insensitivity here, personal stories tend to predominate sports coverage because sports broadcasters are trying to appeal to people besides the hardcore sports fan. This is why most Americans probably know more about Kurt Warner’s wife than about the offensive scheme used by the St. Louis Rams.

    The Jewish World Review should really be ashamed to put such baseless charges of plagiarism in print, especially how given how seriously such claims can affect a writer’s career.

Bizarre Site: McHawking.Com

    I thought I did some esoteric things on my web site, but somebody’s actually taken the time and money to put up a site at MCHawking.Com too look at what life might be like if Stephen Hawking was a rap star, complete with a couple MP3 songs. Very weird, but then again I don’t understand the whole Eminem phenomenon either.

More Winer Weirdness

    From what I can tell of the software he’s written, David Winer sure has a good head on his shoulders and really understands the way users want to approach things, but he seems to have a fundamentally basic inability to get along with any other given human being for more any length of time, which is important when you’re considering buying software from his company.

    The latest blow-up is Winer getting angry at Tim O’Reilly over the future direction of RSS. Winer started getting upset after O’Reilly invested money in Pyra which Winer apparently thought was a betrayal of trust or something, and now they’re arguing about what role O’Reilly Publishing plays in the development of RSS.

    There are two things that always annoy me about Winer’s rants. First, he has a habit of casually republishing on his site e-mail that he receives from people he’s arguing with. In this case he’s got a screen shot of an e-mail that Tim O’Reilly sent him. I think most people have an expectation that e-mail is generally private. I’ve gotten a lot of nasty e-mail from folks but if I’m going to republish it on my site I’ll strip out the identifiers so it’s anonymous or get permission. I’d be very wary of ever sending Winer an e-mail.

    Second, often times Winer seems downright paranoid. O’Reilly’s e-mail complains that Winer is distorting the record, and says that,

I’m assembling a list of all the false claims you’ve made against us, and at some point, if you keep this up, it will be published as an expose. When people see both sides, you will lose even more credibility than you have already. You’re lucky I haven’t been waging the kind of PR campaign against you that you’ve been waging against us.

    What’s Winer’s take on this e-mail? That,

But it is wrong for the CEO to threaten the CEO of a much smaller company for merely saying what he believes to be true. In all my years in the software business, after public differences with Microsoft, Netscape, Apple, etc, no CEO of any company, or even an executive, has ever threatened me as boldly as Tim O’Reilly does.

    Winer can savage O’Reilly all day, but the second O’Reilly threatens to publish a list of false claims Winer has made, all of a sudden it’s a threat. I believe this is from the “can dish it out, but can’t take it” department.

    Finally, on an only somewhat related topic, I was a bit surprised to see Winer promoting Chuck D given Public Enemy’s past use of anti-Semitic imagery in their music, including the recent professional reunion between Chuck D and Professor Griff, who was forced out of Public Enemy after he made very anti-Semitic. This isn’t just to pick on Winer, since this is largely the MTV and music journal’s fault, but it is amazing the degree to which anti-Semites can be rehabilitated by the media.