Archive for January, 2008

The First Anti-Smoking Nazis – Literally

Because Hitler and the Nazis make such great archetypal villains, something like a freaky Bat Man nemesis like the Joker or the Penguin, dropping a “you’re a Nazi” bomb in an argument is now fairly standard practice.  This seems to mainly be a shortcut for the mentally lazy.  And sometimes beyond laziness, it is often a sign of all-out mental confusion – as when someone who actually opposes things like Racial Preferences is called a “Nazi” – when I think the Nazis were actually pretty big into the whole racial preference thing.

The problem with making the Nazis these cartoon characters to be pulled out in failing arguments is that people too easily forget the small incremental steps that actually led a nation to do some pretty horrendous things.  One major contributing factor to the viciousness of the Nazi Regime was the way in which the unopposed government grew to control nearly every aspect of its citizens lives.

I’m thinking about the Nazis this week because on February 1, 2008, my home state of Maryland will impose an all-out indoor smoking ban, including bars and restaurants.  Now, probably like most people, I am personally happy about the ban.  It is going to be great to take my kids out to dinner at bars/restaurants and not have to worry about smoke.  It is also going to be great to leave a bar without having to immediately put my smoke laden clothes in the laundry.  Not to mention that it is just going to be great just to be able to breath in a bar (especially without worrying about obnoxious cigar smokers).

Anti Smoking NazisBut at the same time, I fear that this is just the sort of incremental government intrusion into personal liberties that can lead to far worse policies.  Once a government can dictate what is healthy for you, they pretty much have free reign to stomp out anything they don’t like.  It seems to be the same concept as censorship but working on the other 3 senses – instead of censoring what you see and hear, it is what you taste, smell, and feel.  Is there any aspect of a person’s life that can not be linked back to some public health aspect?  And how long before we have a regiment of “Physical Jerks” as mandated by the government in 1984.

Oh and another thing, “you’re a Nazi” if you support smoking bans.  You see the Nazis were one of the first governments to attempt to ban smoking – read all about it here.  Call me lazy, but its true.

Fighting with Windows Vista to Register COM Components

With great trepidation, I starting developing on my Windows Vista machine this month.  Although I had gotten the Vista computer last August, it was just too unreliable for me to risk my daily productivity with.  This unreliability included things like being unable to perform the very basic functions of an Operating System, such as file management.  Just a few examples of things I’ve encountered: 

  1. Couldn’t copy files because of an “Out of Memory” error (description and Vista Hotfix)
  2. Frequent File Explorer and Windows Photo Gallery crashes and lock ups when you rename a file (no workaround)
  3. Copying and extracting zip files is excruciatingly slow (description and workaround)

I generally like new technologies and I definitely like to see when User Interfaces are redesigned to make them easier to use.  Some of that happened with Vista but in general it is unreliable bloatware that will only serve to further diminish Microsoft’s reputation and market share.

But while I could carp about the technology failure that is Vista all day, the primary point of this post is to offer a few hints and “Gotchas” for those unfortunate souls who still need to do ATL/COM development.  Vista adds User Account Control security which adds some requirements for registering COM components.   So here is the advice:

  1. Create a shortcut to Visual Studio.NET that is set to “Run as Administrator” (Properties | Shortcut Tab | Advanced | Run As Administrator Checkbox)
    • Even though your account is an “Administrator” account in Vista, unless you select the “Run as Administrator” option your regsvr32 calls made during the build will fail.
    • Creating a shortcut and setting this option is the easiest way to do this so you won’t forget
  2. If like me, you create batch files to regsvr32 a bunch of COM dlls/components, you may suddenly notice that these batch scripts don’t work in Vista (even when you Run as Administrator).  To make these work in Vista:
    • Follow the same steps as above for creating a shortcut to the batch file and setting to Run as Administrator
    • When you Run as Administrator a batch file, Vista sets the current directory to C:\Windows\system32 (versus running from the current directory like it used to in the good ‘ol days), so you need to change the current directory back in your batch file
    • So here is a sample modified regsvr32 batch:

REM Stuff Added to get regsvr32 batch to run in Vista

REM Change the directory back to where this ran from (instead of System32)
set INSTALL_PATH=C:\MyFiles\PATH-TO-COM-Dlls\bin
cd %INSTALL_PATH%

REM Original Stuff that ran pre-Vista

regsvr32 MyCOMComponent.dll
pause

Of Mindpixels and Madness

Following a somewhat ignominious tradition started by Alan Turing*, the modern-day father of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), 2 more prominent AI researchers committed suicide within a few months of each other as reported in this excellent article in Wired Magazine

One of the now-deceased researchers was Chris McKinstry who formed the MindPixel project, which I became interested in when I read this I, Cringely article several years ago on the subject.  The MindPixel project was a database of atomic, discrete expressions/thoughts (those would be the MindPixels**) entered by volunteers.  The thinking was that this database could then be used to build higher-order thinking in machines.  As a notable exception to the dot-com bust companies of the time, this project actually had (a) a well-defined goal and (b) an attainable business plan for reaching this goal.  Nonetheless, MindPixel failed to spark any mainstream business or technical interest or achieve appreciable success, and this may have been caused, at least in part, by McKinstry’s own sometimes eccentric and abrasive personality.

As also detailed in the Wired Article, following an eerily similar path, Push Singh was working on a similar subject matter, the Open Mind Common Sense project with many of the same goals as MindPixel.  In contrast to McKinstry, who most would agree had a somewhat unstable personality, Singh seemed to be the very picture of professional success and stability.  Yet such appearances are rarely good predictors for suicide.  And sadly, it seems that Singh’s initial depression was the result of poorly managed pain that resulted from a back injury.   

So what are we to learn from these 2 unfortunate souls driven to despair and suicide?  Are scientists who work on difficult problems more likely to commit suicide?  BBC had a documentary “Dangerous Knowledge (video here)” which looked at the lives, accomplishments, descent into insanity, and sometimes suicides of 4 prominent scientists (including Cantor who drove me a bit mad with set theory and orders of infinity).  But I don’t think highly driven people and geniuses are any more or less prone to depression or suicide than the rest of us. 

If anything is to be learned from any suicide it is to try to seek out help and treatment before attempting this “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  Even if you are not a Turing, McKinstry, and Singh, you no doubt still have much to contribute to the world.      


* Alan Turing himself followed a tradition started by Oscar Wilde of being criminally prosecuted by the British for homosexuality and then dieing in his mid-40s.

** Google is also trying to define something similar to a MindPixel with its concept of the “knol (knowledge unit)” though these knols seem to be much higher ordered concepts (articles in fact) 

Cough Medicines Too Risky for Kids but Psychotropic Drugs are Just Fine

Here in the Middling Years of the Nanny State, it is with little surprise that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to ban cold medicines for young kids.  Like most such prohibitions, the ban is not completely without its merits: the argument that adult remedies rarely work the same on kids and that they may not work at all and the fact that 750 kids per year had to go to the hospital for reactions or side-effects (though this hardly sounds like a statistically significant number in a nation of 300 million – 150 children a year actually die from bee stings but we haven’t outlawed bees yet).

So OK, now that we have this evil cough syrup menace taken care of, wonder if the FDA can be troubled to turn its attention to far more serious drugs that are specifically marketed and targeted to children: serious hard-core psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin, Paxil, and many others (which are mostly speed/amphetamines – remember when those things were bad?). 

Sometimes given with good cause, sometimes irreverently referred to as a “straight-jacket in a bottle,” these drugs have skyrocketed in use in children over the past 15 years.  Yet,  no-one (except the drugs companies and medical professionals who profit no doubt) even knows exactly what percentage of kids are on this stuff (estimates seem to place the number at 5 million US kids).  

Far more disturbing are the consequences of these policies of mass medication: 

Government drug policy makers must be on some serious mind-altering drugs themselves when they prioritize relatively benign medicines such as cough remedies before these incredibly potent drugs.  Where is a Nanny State when you need one?