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20 October 2005 to 15 September 2005
Excellent scientists are lining up to play the admittedly entertaining game of seeing who can think up the cleverest way to explain what's wrong with "Intelligent Design" to other excellent scientists. This is not only pointless, but reinforces the companionably inane idea that scientists find "Intelligent Design" threatening, which of course they do not, since anybody actually teaching high-school biology will naturally dispose of non-scientific objections in the process of explaining the whole concept of science to begin with. Scientists object to "Intelligent Design" not because it is threatening, but because it is insulting.  

Here is an attempt, then, to explain both what's wrong with the idea, and why intelligent (as opposed to "Intelligent") people hate that there even needs to be a discussion over it.  

1. Reading a statement about "Intelligent Design" at the beginning of a high-school biology class is like reading a statement about Scientology at the beginning of a Catholic mass.  

2. The government requiring high-school biology teachers to read a statement about "Intelligent Design" at the beginning of their classes is like the government requiring Catholic priests to read a statement about Scientology at the beginning of their masses.  

3. More precisely, because high-school biology is hard enough to teach to begin with, the government requiring high-school biology teachers to read a statement about "Intelligent Design" at the beginning of their classes is like the government requiring Catholic priests to read a statement about Scientology, in English, at the beginning of a Latin mass.  

If you can find an actual person who thinks "Intelligent Design" belongs in schools, try that on them, and let me know if it helps.
Looking out the window of my new office, you can see my old office. This sounds symmetric, but my old office had no windows. The new windows don't open, so there's still something to dream about, but they're eight floors up, pointed west along the curves that the commuter rail and route 2 follow out of Cambridge and over the hills into Lexington and Concord. Toy trains hum past, below, and in between them I can watch people furtively scurry across the tracks through surreptitious holes in the fences. On the other side of the tracks, cranes are either building or destroying something, and I'm never sure which. Later in the day the sun arcs down from over the building itself and glows in at me. On the good days, when I can accept that my company is paying me to learn, without obsessing too much on the lack of obvious ways in which they seem prepared to help me do anything with what I learn, this is a pleasant scenario.  

The old office was across the street from a pond, around which loops the paved path on which I'd been doing most of my running. The new office is just around the corner from a paved bikepath that runs eastward into Cambridge or westward into Arlington. The pond loop had the logistical virtue of being uninterrupted, but the section of the bikepath I run has only one intersection that requires waiting for traffic. The pond loop runs through trees, around water. The bikepath runs through neighborhoods.  

The new office is a short walk from a subway station. My house is a short walk from another station on the same line. It was possible to reach the old office via public transportation, too, but not expediently, so for nine years I mostly drove to work. Now I ride the train. This is cheaper for me, since the company pays for passes if you waive parking, which I assume is also cheaper for them. I hope it's cheaper for society, too, although it's a government-run subway system, so it's hard to guess. My car is a slightly better music-listening environment in acoustic terms, but on the train I can also read. Some kinds of routine daytime errands were easier to run with a car, but several are a great deal easier without having to park one. Mostly it's less stressful. From inside a car, the roads are an obstacle course and their occupants an anonymous enemy. From outside, in it, the city is a place filled with people.  

So from driving to and from a windowless room, and running in woods, I have switched to walking and riding the train to a watchpost, and running past homes and schools. My days are not necessarily more beautiful, and certainly no more natural, but they are clearly more humane. I am more a part of the city I live in. And although I'm not sure it's the place I should be living in, if it makes questionable sense to live here it makes no sense to live here and not be here.
I press Play, and the first song on the new Gamma Ray album starts.  

This could be fairly simple. Although there are a number of moral routes I could have taken to this moment, for my own reasons I have purchased the digital encoding of this album on a compact disc. I have a compact disc player, and it has a Play button.  

The disc, however, is sitting on a shelf in my study at home, several feet away from the player. The player is only connected to speakers in my house, anyway, which are not loud enough to reach me here in my office, a few miles away.  

This still could be fairly simple. I've ripped the CD into iTunes on my PowerBook at home. The PowerBook is up, and iTunes is running. iTunes is running here on the Windows PC in my office, too, and iTunes has an inherent gladness to share music.  

Sadly, Apple succumbed to myopic pressure and limited iTunes-sharing to computers on the same local network. But the fix for this is again fairly simple: Rendezvous Proxy, a little piece of software that runs on the PC, pretending to be another machine on the PC's local network, while actually just forwarding all requests to some other destination.  

This isn't quite enough. iTunes Sharing runs over port 3689, but my employer's corporate firewall blocks that port. In fact, it blocks just about everything, with the grudging exceptions of ports 80 (normal web-browsing) and 443 (secure browsing, i.e. https: sites). The fix for this is SSH Tunneling, a technique by which an SSH (Secure SHell, i.e. secure remote command-line login) client on the work PC intercepts messages intended for some blocked port, tags them with their intended destination, and re-routes them through an SSH connection to an SSH server on the other end, which reads the tags and re-re-routes the messages back to the path on which they originally set out. OS X has an SSH server built in, and there's a free SSH client for Windows called PuTTY.  

Of course, SSH normally accomplishes this magic over port 22, which is itself blocked here. And, for that matter, my PowerBook is behind an AirPort wireless router at home and thus not directly accessible to outside connections to begin with. Happily, these two problems can be solved at once: PuTTY can be switched to send SSH messages over any port, so I have it using 443. On the other end, the AirPort can forward incoming traffic on a given port (like 443) to any other port (like 22) on another computer on the home network (like my PowerBook).  

So here is only a semi-complete list of all the tweaks and contortions necessary to get this to work:  

- SSH server running on the PowerBook (built into OS X)  

- iTunes running on the PowerBook, with Sharing enabled in iTunes Preferences  

- Remote Login (i.e. SSH) enabled in the PowerBook's Firewall (in System Preferences under Sharing/Firewall; I have iTunes Sharing enabled there, too, but that isn't necessary for this, since the SSH Tunnel terminates inside the firewall)  

- Port Mapping on the AirPort set to send router port 443 to port 22 at the PowerBook's internal network IP address (10.0.1.x; look this up in System Preferences under Network/AirPort)  

- SSH client (PuTTY) running on the work PC, sending SSH over port 443 to the public IP address of the AirPort (look this up in AirPort Admin/Config/Internet at home)  

- SSH Tunnel set up in the PC SSH client, forwarding port 3689 on the PC to (this part confused me for two days before I understood that the destination IP address of a Tunnel is a forwarding instruction to the SSH server, so is the PowerBook's IP address for itself; also, in SSH vocabulary this tunnel is Local, which means the data starts here at the PC end, rather than Remote, which would be a reverse tunnel for getting to the PC from home)  

- Rendezvous Proxy running on the PC with a host proxy defined for IP address, port 3689 (this time the address is the PC's address for itself, i.e. the PC end of the port-3689 SSH Tunnel from the above step)  

- iTunes running on the PC, set to look for shared music  

For extra credit:  

- a second host proxy defined in Rendezvous Beacon for  

- a second SSH tunnel defined in PuTTY routing 3690 to 10.0.1.x:3689, using the internal network IP-address for our second PowerBook at home  

- sharing enabled in iTunes on the second PowerBook  

- iTunes Sharing enabled in the Firewall on both PowerBooks  

That gets me access from work to either of our iTunes libraries at home.  

For extra extra credit:  

- VNC server running on the first PowerBook (OSXvnc), using display 0 (port 5900)  

- a third SSH tunnel routing 5900 to  

- VNC client (TightVNC) running on the PC, connecting to localhost (i.e., the PC end of the port-5900 tunnel, as with Rendezvous Beacon above)  

This gives me remote control over the PowerBook at home, including (since the AirPort Express is connected to our home stereo) the ability to wirelessly stream music from the home PowerBook (actually, either of the home PowerBooks, since the second one's library is now wirelessly available to the first one via iTunes Sharing) into the home speakers. For maximum drain on worldwide network resources, I can then start an audio chat from my home PowerBook back to my office PC, and use that to listen to the music playing in our house. I suspect this signal-path exceeds the total complexity and throughput of the internet as of twenty years ago.  

PS: Note that order of operation is critical. All the home stuff must be set up first, and at work the SSH connection (with all the tunnels) must be established before anything else will operate. Security-wise, both the SSH and VNC connections require passwords (and iTunes sharing can optionally require a password, as well), and all these traffic streams are passed in encrypted form (through SSH) over a port that would normally be carrying encrypted traffic anyway (443, https). The value of this last detail I will leave as an exercise for the reader.  

PPS: The crowning caveat, at the end of this whole fantastic process, is that I carry my iPod to work with me every day, anyway, since I listen to it while commuting on the train, and it has the exact same music library as my PowerBook, so mostly what I really do is just plug it into my desk speakers, accomplishing the same Gamma Ray effusion in rather simpler fashion. (But if simplicity were an invariant goal, I wouldn't be listening to Gamma Ray to begin with.)  

PPPS: Great album.
I always pay my credit-card bill in full, every month. I'm not boasting, I'm just explaining. I don't use my credit card for cash advances, either, so I never incur any finance charges.  

Or never intentionally, anyway. When we were in Indonesia recently, though, I paid for our entrance visas with my Visa, and only later discovered that this was processed as a cash advance. Annoying, and the fee was ruinously absurd as a percentage rate, but it was small in absolute terms (and less than I paid in meaningless bank fees for ATM withdrawals on the trip), so I paid it and forgot about it.  

There was a tiny finance charge on the following statement, too. After some scrutiny I figured out that it applied to a prorated portion of the cash advance for the time between when the previous statement had been issued and when my payment had gone through. There was something morally offensive about this, a loophole that allowed them to charge me despite my paying my bill in full, but for $.50 I didn't feel like sitting on the phone to complain about it. So I paid it and forgot about it.  

But the next statement there was another $.50 charge. In fact, looking closer, I found that they were actually charging me $.01 on what was supposedly a $.50 cash advance, which was then bumped up to $.50 because that's the minimum finance charge. They were charging me finance charges on my finance charges! An infinite loop!  

I have worked as a customer-service rep, so I try to help make my customer-service experiences as efficient and painless for both sides as possible. So instead of pretending ignorance or assuming beligerence, I just called CapitalOne and explained in detail how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges. The rep listened politely, and then delivered a pre-scripted speech in monotone about the general concept of fees. I explained in detail again how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges, and the rep listened politely and then delivered a pre-scripted speech in monotone about the specific concept of finance charges on cash advances. I explained in the same detail yet again how one cash advance had led to them charging me finance charges on my finance charges, and the rep delivered a third pre-scripted speech in monotone about the advanced concept of finance charges on pro-rated balances of cash advances.  

At this point I got angry enough to point out to the rep that they'd now given me three speeches, all of which covered topics I'd explained in detail in my original description of the problem. So could I get a supervisor now? This yielded a fourth speech, in exactly the same monotone as the other three, about the regrettable necessity of consulting a supervisor to determine how to respond to this complex problem.  

I don't know that the supervisor ever understood the problem, either, but eventually, albeit without admitting that their business practices were developed by observing the behavior of ticks feeding on feral coyotes stuck in bear traps, they agreed to credit my account for "these charges".  

My next statement, however, contained not a $.50 credit, but a $.49 credit. The remaining cent was again accounted for as a cash advance, which thus generated an even tinier fee, which was then dutifully rounded up to the $.50 minimum again.  

I've just gotten off the phone with them again, having reached incrementally higher levels of authority and ostensible responsibility, and been assured that this time the whole thing will be corrected. If it isn't, I will keep calling until I am connected directly to the actual accountants in whatever sickly circle of Hell they malinger.  

But this must happen to tens or hundreds of millions of credit-card users, all over the world, every month, only most of them don't notice, or don't have the time or energy or self-confidence to complain. The aggregate corrupt revenue of negligently or deliberately corrupt business practices like this, across every negligently or deliberately corrupt world industry, is an internal measure of our collective moral failure, and while it's dwarfed by the aggregate corrupt revenues of active immorality and amorality, like resource depletion and selling sugar-water where there are no dentists, greater evils do not forgive lesser ones.  

Look around you, particularly where you work. Look for any evil you participate in allowing. Stop it.  

[A postscript, in fairness, since I mentioned CapitalOne by name: I use CapitalOne because it's the last card I could find that does not impose arbitrary, financially unjustifiable and far-higher-than-$.50 fees on transactions recorded in non-US currencies. But the avoidance of one evil doesn't forgive other ones, either.]
For the past two days, a huge work-crew has been ripping up row after row of still-blooming pink flowers from the careful gardens in front of the new building into which my office just moved. Railed trucks laden to the top with flowers still clumped with rich potting soil have driven off towards, I guess, some sort of flower-based landfill on which, to compensate for building toddler playgrounds on top of industrial waste, we will no doubt construct an elevated uranium diffuser or a plant that converts wheat berries into asbestos via cyanide leaching.  

This morning, the same crew is emptying trucks filled with new, already-blooming and subtly redder potted plants, cracking the plastic pots off by whacking them with trowels, and patiently digging the plants into mounds of new potting soil along the strips of just-evacuated dirt. The trucks lumber away again with stacks of broken plastic, huge engines grumbling, and the crew revs up overcharged gas leaf-blowers to blast the clods of dirt off the wide, empty sidewalks. By tomorrow the grounds will have been restored, refreshed, to their normal lessee-attracting state of methodical cheer, for at least as long as abject terror keeps the flowers on the new plants.  

This is corporate America's idea of "gardening".
The fact that Tom's of Maine Body Wash is made entirely of "natural" ingredients doesn't mean that you'll enjoy getting any of it in your eye.
I still haven't gotten over the first time I saw a UPS truck from above and realized that they're white on top, not brown.
L'Arc~en~Ciel: AS ONE (1.8M mp3)  

For anyone in the US who is at all curious about J-Rock (as opposed to J-Pop), the new L'Arc~en~Ciel album, AWAKE, is actually available domestically.
I've started imagining that the Dictionary.com word of the day is one that has just been invented, that day, to help us with some new situation for which we previously had no focused concept, or maybe that has been retroactively erased from the past via time-travel and then reintroduced to remind us of a way of thinking that had fallen into neglect.  

On Tuesday somebody devised the word "officious" to describe the oblivious use of procedure in place of judgment. The immediate derivation is from "official", which of course comes from the root "offal". Even if this one doesn't get used in conversation so much, off.icio.us will be an excellent domain name for a web clearinghouse of Bush-administration aid programs for New Orleans evacuees.  

Wednesday's (re)neologism was "afflatus", a 92-point Louis De Bernières word that describes the way in which divine inspiration propagates (and is attributed) like flatulence.  

Today's is "quorum", which is a method of reaching consensus by figuring out how many people you are allowed to ignore.
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