Monthly Archives: June 2006

Like everyone else, I have

Like everyone else, I have a terrible problem with email spam. I sit down at the computer to read email about every four hours, and I have at least 200 emails every time. I dread going on vacation, and have been known to check into Internet cafes from Uganda to Shanghai just to compulsively clear out the old Inbox. It behooves me to find a solution.

I refuse to change my email address regularly, which is the solution many people recommend, because that leaves me without a surefire way for old friends and associates to find me during my peripatetic life. I’ve had the same email address for eight years, moved homes four times and changed phone numbers three. And every spammer in the universe knows it.

For a year, I used Spamarrest, which really does work. The problem is, it stops every email coming from the mail server to your Inbox, examines it, and sorts it. Unknown senders receive an auto-reply that says something like “I am protecting myself from spam. Answer this question once and you will never have to do it again.” Less sophisticated people didn’t know what this means, and the tech savvy disdain it. They think I ought to be able to take care of the problem by creating Rules and Folders and letting the email client do the sorting. Me, I’ve never had great success setting up those filters; it’s a great guessing game whether I’ve got the Rules right. I’ve never been good at either making or following Rules in any part of my life.

But the worst part about Spamarrest was the way it slowed down the receipt of email.
I’d be sitting at the computer, talking to someone on the phone, and I’d say “please forward that to me,” about a document on the other end. The person would send it, and there would be what seemed to be a half hour of small talk — phrases like–“didn’t get it yet, did you check your Outbox?” “No, not yet.” The message would be sitting in Spamarrest limbo.

It was probably no more than a matter of seconds before Spamarrest made its decision and sent the worthy messages on to me, but it seemed eternal. So when my annual contract was up, I cancelled the account. By far the best feature of Spamarrest is that, although they auto-renew you as every other “Software as Service” does, they really do allow you to cancel if you wish.

So now I was thrown back on the abilities of individual email clients. On the PC, I won’t use Outlook because of its security vulnerabilities, although it does a really good job of spotting spam. So does its Macintosh cousin Entourage. But both of those email clients crash frequently, too. So I thought I’d try Thunderbird, the open source cousin of Firefox.

Like most open source products, Thunderbird is stable and quick. It’s not bloatware, like Outlook. It’s also not fully integrated with calendars and stuff, like Outlook. That is its downside.

As spam filters go, Thunderbird’s is schizophrenic. I have both a Mac(Book) and a PC. Because I’m intellectually curious, I have been watching how the spam function works on both. With Thunderbird, as with Outlook, you mark a message as junk, and the program learns it. It should never darken your Inbox again thereafter.

Now I’m not telling you I read every spam message, but I do go through the junk folders every couple of days to see if there are any false positives–if anyone I really wanted to hear from got caught in the filter.

And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a huge difference. Pottery Barn, for instance, is junk on the PC, but not on the Mac. Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, an organization to which I belong, is spam on the Mac, but is an Inbox resident on my PC. Hoodia seems to get through on either machine, although I’ve finally gotten rid of the penis enlargement and mortgage rate ads on both.

All this is but a simple way of saying I can�t figure it out and I don�t have an answer. Email is broken, and try as I might, I can�t fix it.

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Why are some societies innovative

Why are some societies innovative and not others? How does innovation spread? And why were some civilizations (European) the conquerors and others (Native American) the conquered? I�m finally getting around to reading Jared Diamond�s Pulitzer Prize-winning book �Guns, Germs, and Steel,� and some of the answers surprise me. It turns out the advance of civilization isn�t a matter of people at all, but rather a matter of geography and environment. The conquerors are the people from areas of the world with the most resources and the best opportunities to meet other people, survive that encounter without dying from new germs or conquest, borrow innovation, and blunder on.

When you were in school, you were probably taught that the dawn of civilization was between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in a place called the Fertile Crescent. Depending on your world view, that�s either the Garden of Eden or the geographical spot where the first hunter-gatherers became farmers.

And why did this happen? Because at certain latitudes, like that of the Fertile Crescent, climatic conditions caused a greater variety of wild grasses to flourish. Some of these grasses mutated into common forms of cereals, which our ancestors discovered could be cultivated to feed large groups of people. The more wild grasses, the more chance of edible mutations. The more edible mutations, the more chance that food cultivation could develop. Clearly, cultivation would have a tough time developing in Greenland. Hence farming started in the Fertile Crescent.

Before food cultivation, people were nomadic. They foraged for food in roving bands. There really wasn�t enough food to support people who didn�t contribute to finding it. And the nomadic lifestyle meant the accumulation of very few �possessions.� You had to travel light. Grab the baby and move on.

But once the initial fourteen grains (barley, millet, rice, etc) were domesticated for food and could be planted, it became possible to create larger tribes and stay in one place. Another advance was the ability of a society to divide labor � not everybody had to be engaged in the location of food. Now some members of the tribe could be artists, scribes, engineers.

With the cultivation of food came the domestication of animals. The same parts of the world that produced great varieties of grasses fed many more species of animals. Human beings tried very early on to domesticate animals for food, but of the many animals on earth, only a fairly small number (cow, pig, sheep, dog) could be domesticated either for food or pets. We found out which ones very quickly.

Lots of animal species just didn�t lend themselves to domestication. Either they were finicky eaters, or they wouldn�t breed in captivity, or they were just too dangerous. The zebra, for example, bites and never lets go. The mammoth is too large; while other species take too long to mature. Even today�s professional zoologists can�t domesticate these species � although they can tame individual members.

Living with domesticated animals was a mixed blessing, because animals were hosts for microbes, to which the animals were immune (survival of the fittest), but we were not. Eventually, whole tribes that lived in certain regions developed immunities to the germs from familiar animals. But when they met another tribe from another region, they were often wiped out by the other tribe�s microbes � to which they had no immunities. The Spaniards wiped out the Incas that way. Many smaller tribes wiped out larger ones with microbes, not guns.

Enough of these fascinating examples. The takeaway from this incredibly detailed book is that latitudes, growing seasons, and whether your continent lay on an east-west axis were the most influential factors in how and where civilization spread and whether your particular tribe (later �state�) was the inventor of a technology or a victim of it, a conqueror or the conquered.

I realize that Diamond is a geographer, and that his particular hammer may cause him to view certain aspects of history as nails. Nevertheless, his hypotheses are backed up by a great deal of evidence.

Why do we care? Because one of the key points of the book is that necessity is not the mother of invention. Quite the contrary, many inventions are exactly like early stage technologies: imperfect, and without apparent use. Primitive societies stumbled on rocks that could be tools, marks that could become writing systems, or grasses that could be food. If they ate something and it didn�t kill them, it had a market.

In Diamond�s view, man is not even the central player in the advance of civilization. He�s just there to take advantage of evolutionary mutations, endlessly trying various pegs in various holes to find out which ones fit. If you believe that there�s any connection between the past and the present, our efforts to systematize innovation within universities and corporations could be less fruitful than we think.

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North of Boston, where I�m

North of Boston, where I�m visiting family, its spring, and the chorus of birds is deafening if you are listening. For me, a desert dweller (most of the time), it�s overwhelmingly green here, and at this time of year the climate seems perfect. So beautiful it�s painful.

Hard to believe anything can change it; unlike the West, New England seems very much as it was when I grew up on the East Coast many years ago.

But according to Al Gore, it is indeed changing, because the planet is undergoing the phenomenon called global warming. And if you believe Gore�s research, the consequences are both unpredictable and devastating. I�ve actually been hearing about man�s impact on Earth for a good many years � at least as far back as the �60s, when the environmental movement began (for me). But I�ve never seen it borne out, and it�s been easy to dismiss. We have all dismissed it, because it�s invisible.

With the possible exception of enacting CFC regulations, which changed the propellants in our spray cans, we really haven�t acknowledged that human beings in large numbers have environmental impacts. No big whoop. No big sacrifices. But perhaps now that several hundred thousand people were dislocated by a hurricane�

It’s an interesting coincidence that the unexpected acceleration of Alberto from tropical storm to near-hurricane came almost simultaneous with the release of Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Last week I saw the film; this week I’m hearing Max Mayfield of the national Weather Service say that there hasn’t been a hurricane that hit landfall this early since 1966. Fortunately, Alberto accelerated and then ejaculated prematurely, never really reaching hurricane status. But there was Jeb Bush on TV, asking people to evacuate. And as I flew over the East Coast, the turbulence signaled a tropical storm.

Gore himself has never been one of my favorite people. When he was in office, I overlooked him; when he ran for office I thought he was ineffectual. But now I know where he was spending all his intellectual energy all these years: the man has actually been to Antarctica, to the North Pole, and everywhere else it is possible to see the effect of global warming.

In some ways, the movie is startling to watch. Gore juxtaposes photos of snow forty years ago in the Alps, the Himalayas, and other beautiful snow-covered places to show us that in another fifty years, there will be no Snows of Kilimanjaro. He shows pictures of mountain glaciers melting into the sea, and polar bears drowning in water that used to be ice.

I wish I knew more about the science, and I also wish Gore were not a political figure. I know he still not be taken as seriously as he probably should be, because he belongs to a political party and comes with all its baggage.

From what I have read on the EPA website,, there is very little doubt that global warming is occurring. The temperature worldwide has gone up 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last hundred years, largely due (scientists think) to human activities that cause greenhouse gases to be trapped in the atmosphere and bounce back down to earth, warming things up.

So is this important? And if so, why? One shocking part of the Gore movie for me was when he showed digitally how, if the temperature went up far enough to cause Greenland, which is largely ice, to break apart, the resulting rise in sea levels would sink most of New York, half of Florida, and of course, New Orleans.

He also showed how increased heat in Europe and Asia might cause large numbers of heat-related deaths. But when? Where? How? The fact that we can’t get concrete answers to these questions will doom our ability to deal with the problem.

The problem is, once we get into predicting the future, we’re on less firm ground than when we study the past, and it will be difficult to get people to care about a warming planet when they still feel it’s a bullet to be dodged. We just don’t know when Greenland will split, or when the last of the glaciers will vanish.

As one of my closest, most thoughtful friends says when I remind him that the tuna he’s ordering contains mercury, “that doesn’t apply to us. We�ll be dead. Tell that to someone of child-bearing age.” So I�m trying.

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How did we get here?

How did we get here? I mean humanity. How did human beings get to the point where we can replace body parts, keep people alive artificially on breathing machines, clone sheep, and do face transplants — and yet still fight each other to the death over what amounts to differences of opinion? In the years since we came on this planet, we have come everywhere and nowhere.

This morning I woke up to the news that we had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. “We” is the American people, represented by our military. Killed means we dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house 35 miles outside Baghdad that he was using as a safe house. Zarqawi’s dead face was all over the TV screen as I greeted the dawn, which I usually do by petting both dogs and turning on the water in the yard. Dawn is the best part of my day.

But this morning I was depressed and not elated, and even the dogs knew it.

Yes, this man’s a terrorist. Yes, he was reponsible for the deaths of thousands. Yes, the world is better of without him. But how do we advance civilization by killing him, admitting we killed him, and putting it all over the world’s TV screens? Doesn’t that just piss off all the people who follow him? Do we really think they are all sitting around saying, “oh, wow, we should change our religious views because the Americans are stronger than we are?”

It doesn’t work that way. The jihadists operate out of a belief system, not from facts. If indeed facts exist at all. Wouldn’t it be interesting to entertain for a moment the thought that both sides operate out of belief systems, and facts are an illusion? If there is no external reality, how can we be right and they be wrong, or vice versa?

Hold that philosophical thought. Let’s just look at the tactical implications of what we’ve done.

We’ve now upped the ante. We’ve made all the people who say we are an overbearing colonial power that wants to turn the world into greedy capitalist pigs appear to be correct. We have given the religious zealots a crusade — or a jihad. We’ve encouraged the mentally ill to believe their view of reality is accurate. We’ve martyred a pig.
I later saw an interview with the father of Nick Berg, the man who presumably was beheaded by al-Zarqawi. Michael Berg is now running for Congress, on a platform of non-violence.

�Do you feel like you have gotten revenge for your son�s death,� the interviewer asked.

�Revenge?� Michael Berg replied. �What good is revenge? It�s a tragedy when anyone dies, and now the father of al-Zarqawi will suffer just as my family suffers.�

Berg went on to say that revenge only begets revenge, and that he would never ask for or seek revenge. Further, he says he feels obligated to stop the cycle of revenge.

�But what if you could have stopped the hand that held the knife in the room with your son? Wha tif you could have saved his life?� the interviewer blundered on.

�I would have certainly tried to stop him,� said Mr. Berg. �I would have thrown my own body in the path of the knife. But I would never cause another man to die.�

The man�s forgiveness, spoken through tears, puts us to shame.

I heard one good adjective this morning in all the TV I watched, and it was “medieval.” A commentator called the world view of the jihadists “medieval.” But I am worried that our response is equally medieval, and we’ve just succeeded in waving our collective male reproductive organ. If we have terrorists in Toronto, they are not under the direct influence of al-Zarqawi, but under the influence of the same TV and Internet we all see.

And we didn’t look good on TV this morning.

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It says something about American

It says something about American culture that one of the most popular TV shows on cable this year has been the National Geographic Channel’s “The Dog Whisperer,” a series about a roller-blading Mexican immigrant named Cesar Millan who teaches wealthly Los Angelenos how to correct behavior problems in their dogs. Millan himself lives with about fifty dogs, and he is their pack leader. He can tame a dog without saying a word; he does it with mere body language.

I confess to being a Dog Whisperer addict. I Tivo the show every week to get my tips on how to create the environment that will render my dogs “calm submissive” –the ideal dog-mood to which all dog owners should aspire, according to Cesar Millan. However, as the teachings of this guru reveal, Americans do not assume the pack leader role, forcing it back on the dog. Then they wonder why the dog is insecure and barks, bites, chews things around the house, or hides from other people. This, says Millan, is the fault of the owner, not the dog.
I am not a novice dog owner. There has been a dog or two in my life, especially when the kids were young, a time in which I chose to have three high-maintenance, low-intelligence Afghan hounds who required so much exercise that my husband used to run them by putting their leashes on, getting in his truck, and driving slowly through the neighborhood while the dogs ran alongside. Luckily, we didn’t live in a planned community. We would have been expelled.

Now that I think about it, the fact that John exercised the Afghans in this fashion, and kept them outside the house as well, probably meant he was seen by them as their pack leader. He certainly didn’t pamper them as they lounged in our front yard of decomposed granite in the heat of the summer.

But that was in the ’70’s, before all the “Me” decades that followed, changing life for both people and their pets. My current dogs would no more sleep outside in the summer than fly to the moon: the golden sleeps in bed with me, and the chow (our pack leader) on a blue suede sofa that has never seen a human butt.
A few years ago, Jon Katz wrote a book called “The New Work of Dogs.” In it, he said that while dogs are historically bred for things like hunting, retrieving, herding, and guarding, they are now virtually precluded from those activities in urban and suburban environments. Instead, they are asked to provide emotional support to their owners, as the humans go through beginnings and ends of relationships, aging, deaths of spouses and friends, and other upheavals.
This, Katz said, and Cesar Millan agrees, is hard work for the dog. And on top of it, the average dog owner doesn’t know half as much about his dog as the dog knows about him. The wonderful feeling we get from “dog love” happens because the dog makes a study of us and devotes his life to trying to please. We don’t really do that for the dog. We may buy tons of toys, feed a raw, healthy diet, or put booties on the dog in winter, but we never ask it this is what the dog wants. It’s what we want, or what we think is right. According to Cesar, what the dog wants is stable environment, in which it can be calm.
So every once in a while, a dog acts out. And then the owner freaks out.
But not all dogs need the Cesar Millan treatment. Some will never outgun you for pack leader. My friend Dan rescued a two-year-old golden retriever recently. Blu had obviously been abused in its previous home, because when I first met him, he ran away when I tried to pet him. In fact, he wouldn’t come near anyone.
But he seemed to love other dogs, and I have a big yard, so I told Dan to bring Blu over any time. Sure enough, he formed a friendship with my retriever, after my chow (the alpha dog and the leader of my family pack) decided it was okay to have Blu in the backyard.
Blu and my dog played together for weeks, but I was never able to get Blu to come near me. Finally, I took some advice that was not from Cesar Millan. My daughter (who also has two goldens, one a rescue) told me to get down on the floor to the dog’s level and talk to him.
I did it. I trapped him in a room without the other dogs, got down on the floor, and holding him by the collar, I spoke into his ear in a calm, loving voice. “You’re beautiful,” I told him. “You are safe here. Everybody here loves dogs. You are home.” First he tried to look away, but finally we connected.
It only took one more floor-session before Blu was literally eating out of my hand. I am not the Dog Whisperer, and I’m probably not Blu’s pack leader, but it doesn’t matter. I have made him happy.

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