February 27, 2003

Mr. Rogers has passed

It's a sad day in the neighborhood.  Fred Rogers, creator and host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, has died from stomach cancer.  He was 75 years old.  My daughter and I were just watching an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood together the other day, and I was proudly explaining to her that I grew up with Mister Rogers, and now she was growing up with him.  As a kid in the 70's, it was impossible to not be drawn into his world.  I hope PBS keeps reruns of his wonderful show going for years to come - I want to pass on the teachings of Mister Rogers to my kids.  He was always there, like a familiar blanket, a consistent friend.  Even the parodies (like Eddie Murphy's"Mr. Robinson") were classics.  It's like he was seeped into the dye of the fabric of my life - faded now, but just reappearing with new strands, as I'm sharing the joys of fatherhood with my daughter.  Good-bye, Mister Rogers.  You touched more lives so directly through the power of the tube than you know.  Here's another tribute.

BTW, PBS Kids has some great information on how to explain this to your kids.

"I'm taking care of you
Taking good care of you
For once I was very little too
Now I take care of you."

-- Fred Rogers

February 26, 2003

Technorati downtime

Grrr, the Technorati server box is down.  Time to head over to the colo facility and bring 'er back up.  Apologies if you've been trying to get through.  If you really need your Technorati fix, try the development box for now.

UPDATE: Everything i back up and running again. Total downtime: About 4 hours. Nightly watchlists still went out tonight. The old girl is back up and steaming away. Phew.
Posted by dsifry at 10:14 PM | TrackBack | View blog reactions

February 25, 2003

Cheap Digital Camera recommendations for use by a 3 year-old

This may sound a little strange, but I've gotten great advice from all of you folks out there on the web before, so here goes:

mel-thumbnail.jpgI've been thinking about getting a present for my daughter's 3rd birthday.  This morning I was struck with an idea - she already loves taking pictures with me, both as a model and as the photographer - she loves my Nikon 990 because it gives instant gratification when you share the photo thumbnail with each other right after the picture is taken.

Of course, the Nikon 990 is (a) too heavy, and (b) too expensive to let her use regularly, and besides, it's my camera.

But as an experiment, I would love to get her a cheap, kid-friendly digital camera that she can use and have as her own.  I think it would be incredible or her to go back to these photos later in life, and relive the perspective that she has now.  I'm sure that most of the shots will be total crap, but then again, so what?  Storage is cheap, and it is not like we're wasting film and burning cash.

Here's my requirements in a camera:
  1. Small enough to grip with kid's hands
  2. Lightweight
  3. Rugged enough to handle short drops, minor spills, etc.
  4. LCD screen on the back (this one is important, it gives instant feedback)
  5. Auto-exposure mode
  6. At least 640x480 resolution
  7. Approx. $100 or less
I don't really care if it is new or used (used is perfectly fine), or the number of megapixels as long as it can create web-ready pictures.  An auto-flash would be nice, but it isn't necessary. 

I went looking on e-bay tonight, but unless you know exactly what you want, it's really hard to wade through all the chaff.  I just don't want to be made into a sucker by buying a chintzy piece of crap.  Perhaps an older generation camera that has seen some wear-and tear and seen some love by someone who has now moved onto a next-gen camera would be perfect for my project. 

Any ideas?  Leave a comment below.

Stanford Spectrum Policy Conference

I'm really looking forward to the Spectrum Policy Conference going on at Stanford this weekend.  One of the highlights will be a panel with FCC Chairman Michael Powell, renowned economist Harold Demsetz, and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski.  Being on the west coast, I haven't been much involved with spectrum issues, but givenrecent rulings on the phone companies, not to mention the work that my own company is doing using unlicensed radios, using smart radios and more efficient use of the finite spectrum opens up a trapdoor from the monopolies and regulation that has slowed so much growth in the past.

I'll be doing a bunch of blogging from the conference, although I have a feeling there will be problems with the WiFi implementation, given Stanford's university policy towards 802.11, although I am interested in seeing how the university staff has implemented access control on a wide range of hardware. I've already offered to bring a Sputnik AP which will allow guest access and enforce access control and bandwidth shaping on the attendees, but haven't heard back yet from the organizers.  NB: I'm also looking forward to meeting Larry Lessig (why haven't you blogged lately, Larry?)  Also it'll be great to see local advocates like Tim Pozar, DeWayne Hendricks, and Doc Searls there.  If you're coming to the conference and you want to met up, drop me a line.

UPDATE: Looks like Dave is going to set up another one of his awesome Spicy Noodle parties (but this time in a different place) for Saturday night. I'll bring my camera.

February 21, 2003

Hey, that's my telephone number on Google!

Stalker PhoneHere's an interesting Google tidbit - it's now the world's largest reverse phone directory.  Simply type in a phone number, and chances are, you'll see a little telephone icon with your name, address, and convenient links to Yahoo! Maps and Mapquest so that anyone can find out where you live.

Here's a great example.  Simply type in a favorite phone number, say: (301) 424-6613.  That's total information awareness for you, and all brought to you by your friendly neighborhood search engine. with easy driving directions.

Am I the only guy that gets uncomfortable about this?  Is the genie already out of the bottle?  Will we be forced to live in a world without any privacy altogether?  Hey, I understand the tech behind this, and if Google abandoned the service, others would continue to expand their directories.  Is it too late for privacy?  Are we the victims of our own wish for transparancy and frictionlessness?

I wish I had the answer...

February 19, 2003

New Kiddie Porn extortion spam in the wild: Hoax?

UPDATE (2/19/02 5:15 PM): Since I haven't received any confirmed reports of this attack, I'm assuming for now that I've been duped, and that it is a hoax. I'll keep my eyes on the story, and if any new details emerge, I'll post them here. My apologies for the alarmism. Original post (plus update) follows:

There's a new, nasty attack out there on the web, and this time it involves an innocuous email, an Olympics website, surreptitious downloads of kiddie porn, and blackmailers from Bulgaria who threaten to "expose" innocent victims - unless of course, the victim pays $50 and hands over their credit card numbers.

The story broke in CSO magazine this month:
Between sobs, she explained that, a week earlier, she had gotten an e-mail about the upcoming Summer Olympics in Greece. Since her nephew was hoping to be on the U.S. track team, my coworker was hoping to learn something that might help him. It took a while for a webpage to open up, but when it did, she read all about Greece and the Olympics.

Two days later, she got an e-mail from an unknown address asking for $50 or they would tell her management that she had been surfing pornography sites. They even said they could prove she had downloaded child pornography!

"They even told me which directory it was in on my computer," she cried. "And sure enough, when I looked there, I found the most disgusting pictures."
South Africa's ITWeb picked up on it, and ran a more in-depth article about the scam.  This is the first scam I've heard of that uses an innocuous email, possibly combined with browser flaws, to download illegal material to a victim's computer without their consent. This takes some decent technical skills on the blackmailer's part, browser or OS bugs, and uneducated users.  The problem is that we've got lots of those prerequisites out there.

This does not bode well.  This is like diesel oil and fertilizer to trust on the net.  It is frightening, because it doesn't require malicious intent on the part of the victim - all he does is click on a link in an email from someone he doesn't know, and BAM, he's snared.  Law enforcement needs to be trained on this so that innocent victims aren't treated like sexual predators.

Hopefully, education will help to stamp this out.  If you get an email extorting money, contact your ISP or corporate security team.  Send them a link to this article.  And whatever you do, don't pay the bastards or give them your credit card numbers.  You're only opening yourself up to a wide range of further identity theft.

UPDATE (2/19/02 12:00PM): I'm investigating whether or not this is real or is a hoax. There are some other articles coming out that cover the story, but as Dan Gillmor eloquently points out, the original story in CSO is written under a pseudonym, so until I hear from others in the security community, I'm going to back off on my original alarmism.

Even if we look at this from a theoretical attack point of view (which I sincerely hope it is), it is a technically feasable attack. And the thing that really scares me is that when someone does implement this attack, the fallout and reaction from the general public - which is clearly at most risk from this attack - will be terrible and fierce, and it will be a knee-jerk reaction to control and "regulate" the net.

Either way, it's lose-lose. :-(

Word Bursts and Trend Spotting

Math geekout time:

An interesting article in The New Scientist, talking about how tracking changes in word frequency can be indicative of emerging trends.  For those of you with a mathematical bent, this is a rough approximate of what LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) of a set of documents over time does as well.  LSI allows you to "reduce the dimensionality" of the word frequency lists by taking advantage of the fact that some words and phrases are synonyms, or are in a variety of ways related to each other. 

The big problem with LSI over large data sets (like the web) is that the calculations required to perform it (SVD) are difficult to solve numerically as the document sets get larger.

The "word burst" idea gets around all of that because it just follows individual word or phrase frequency trends.  It's an interesting idea, something that would be cool to implement...  But not for now.  Right now, other tasks have higher priorities.  Could be a fun weekend project, though...

February 18, 2003

A VC with a clue

I've been enjoying Tim Oren's blog recently.  He's a VC at the Pacifica Fund, and it's obvious that he's on the cluetrain.  He's recently posted some great insights on:  Power Laws and the Amateur Scientist, Reverse subsidies for Solar Energy, Google+Pyra, and Joltage.  But if you're only going to read one of his essays, check out Ruminations on venture capital, trust networks, and information theory.  He nails it - what VCs do, how entrepreneurs get notices, and the importance of reputation and trust networks in moving plans ahead.  If you're an entrepreneur thinking about going for VC money, this is a must-read.  The more I work out here in silicon valley, the more I realize that it is a really small valley.  I've added Tim to my blogroll, and I'm looking forward to more of his insights and observations.  It's always cool to hear from someone who understands power laws, LSI (and SVD), and who subscribes to the BAWUG lists...

February 17, 2003

Found this in my referer logs

Hey, can anyone read Portuguese?  Here's the machine translation.  Looks like a cool site, I wonder what it is all about? Boa vinda a meu blog!

February 15, 2003

Google buys Pyra (and blogger)

Well, Evan Williams announced it from stage at Live from the Blogosphere, and Dan Gillmor breaks the story in the Merc.  Congratulations, Evan, Jason, and the whole Pyra team.  Pyra is the company that runs Blogger, for those of you who didn't know the connection.
Posted by dsifry at 9:50 PM | TrackBack | View blog reactions

February 14, 2003

Technorati Anywhere!

I whipped up a little tool this evening that I thought y'all might like.  It's called the Technorati Anywhere! bookmarklet.  What it does is simple - the bookmarklet opens a new window or tab in your browser with the list of links (and short excerpts) of people who link to the page you're viewing. It is a new way of instantly checking sources and finding out the credibility of the page you're currently viewing. If you don't like your browser opening new windows or tabs, here's a version of Technorati Anywhere! that shows the results in the current window.

It works with recent versions of IE, Netscape, Mozilla, and Safari.  The only requirement is that you have Javascript enabled.

To install it, do the following, depending on the browser you have:

For IE 5.5 and above users:
Right click on one of the links above, and then click on "Add to Favorites..."  Since there's some Javascript in the bookmark, IE will tell you that "You're adding a favorite that may not be safe."  Click OK, and you're done, it is in your favorites.
For Netscape 6 and above and Mozilla 1.0 and above users:
Drag the link into your bookmark bar.  Alternatively, you can right click on the link and then click on "Add bookmark". 
For Safari users:
Drag the link into your bookmark bar.
That's it!  I hope you enjoy it.  I like it better than the Technorati Sidebar I created a while back, and the instant gratification of being able to find out the Link Cosmos for any page on the web gives me a much richer experience.  I hope you enjoy it too  Send me feedback and leave comments below, I'd love to hearfrom you on its usefulness, bugs, new features whatever.

Update: Emmanuel M. Decarie sent in the update to get everything working with Safari.  Thanks, Emmanuel, that was quick!

February 12, 2003

Breaking the (power) law

Clay Shirky has gotten a lot of people talking about power laws and how they relate to the blogosphere.  Dave Winer and others disagree, and there's a bunch of other interesting conversations going on as well.  What's interesting is that both Clay and Dave are right, depending on how you look at things.  Dave sees the world from the microeconomic point of view - it is really easy to create new communities with blogs, and there is no scarcity of links.  Clay looks at things from the macroeconomic view, seeing overall patterns of thought leaders evolving as people look for editors and subject matter experts to help guide them through all the links.  Clay is also right in his observation that blog linking will tend to follow a power law - that is, a small proportion of bloggers will get a huge number of incoming links as the Technorati Top 100 will attest across the blogosphere.  However, what Clay doesn't emphasize, is that blogging communities, even though they have some lightposts, tend to form into small open communities.  That's why my blogroll looks very different from Glenn Renolds', or Doc Searls', or Joel Spolsky's.  Even though we might all have a few bloggers in common, most of the links are different.  In other words, the blogging space has a high degree of dimensionality

I thought about the problem that this presented to a traditional link engine.  When you rank bloggers simply by the number of people who link to them, you get a very static list of "a-list" bloggers, as shown by the Technorati Top 100.  What I wanted to do was to break that power law, and give more exposure to the lesser known, but still interesting bloggers, especially on days when they stand out and do something interesting.

I think I've found a way to do that, and it all boils down to the fact that Clay described a power law.

The Technorati Top 100 ranks based on a linear relationship of the incoming links to a blog.  A linear equation looks like this:

y = ax + b

As we all know, that leads to a boring top 100 page.

So, I started playing around with the ranking algorithm.  Now, a power law looks something like this:

y = ax2 + bx + c

Or, a more skewed graph looks like:

y = ax3 + bx2 + cx + d

Remember high school algebra?  I'm sorry to make your brain hurt.  The key point to remember is that equations that follow a power law start to get really big really fast as you increase x.  You start to get a graph that looks like a parabola.

What I wanted to do was to give some of the lesser-known bloggers some visibility.  The way I did this was to invert the power law when I did my rankings. I looked at two variables:  The number of new inbound links to a blog, and the current number of total blogs already linking to it.

In order to reverse the power law, I used the following as the ranking algorithm for the Interesting Newcomers page:

n = Number of new inbound links
c = Current number of inbound blogs (as of the day before)

(n3)/(c+n)2  where c > 30

And I'm using a quadratic equation for the "Interesting Recent Blogs" page:

(n2)/(c+n)2  where c > 40

The results are very interesting.

What the ranking algorithms described above does is make it progressively harder to move up in ranking as the number of current inbound blogs increases.  This effectively negates the power law that Clay describes, and gives us a way of measuring apples to apples.

Basically, the idea is that for a relatively obscure blogger who has, say, 40 people currently linking to his blog, getting 4 or 5 new blogs linking to him can have the same effect as a a-list blogger getting 40 or 50 new links.

Intuitively, we know that this is right - After all, it's very easy for Doc Searls to get 20 new links to him - he has such a large readership.  But for a smaller blogger to get a bunch of new links, he must have posted something really interesting that day.

One more point - why does c have to be greater than 30 or 40?  Well, there's two reasons for this: This equation doesn't work well when the number of current incoming blogs is very small - someone who has only one person linking to him can jump right to the top of the ranking if he gets one or two new links, and that's not very interesting for us.  The second reason to set the bar at a certain level is to ensure that the blogger in question actually has an audience.  The audience may be small, but at least some people are linking to him, which is a good way to knock out the cruft at the real tail of the power curve.

These equations probably aren't perfect - I haven't done any curve fitting or formal statistical analysis to make sure that the equations are correct, but I'm just using my holistic "feels good" barometer.  The power law may not be a quadratic or cubic relationship - it could be of a different power, but the quadratic and cubic relationships give a decent spread of both a-list and unknown interesting bloggers in the Technorati Interesting Recent blogs and Interesting Newcomers lists.  For the Interesting Newcomers list, I simply cut out all of the bloggers who already have an audience - so you won't see any a-list bloggers on that list, at least not once they become a-list. :-)

This is interesting research for me, but the most satisfying thing about it is that I've found a way to identify interesting new writers and add them to my blogroll - people who I would have never had found out about otherwise.  I can also use the other Technorati tools, like the link cosmos, to find out who is linking to them - which gives me a quick feeling for who is in their community. 

Let me know your thoughts - do the new rankings look reasonable to you?  Ar you finding new and interesting blogs?  More of the same old same old, or just boring crap?  I know I've already found one new blog I'd never heard about before - Exploding Cigar, currently number 4 on the Interesting Newcomers list.  Very funny, great blog.

UPDATE: Jason Kottke has done the analysis, and comes up with the following formula:

y = 5989.8x-0.8309

The important part of that equation is the power degree - -0.8309. To counteract that effect, we need to invert that (hope I'm getting my math right), which would make the power needed to ocunteract the power law to be approximately x1.2038. That about matches up with the formula I spelled out for the Interesting blog list, which approximates a x1.5 relationship, for reasonable values of c. Note: This is something I just did on the back of a napkin with only 4 hours of sleep, and no coffee, so I may be way off, but if some kind mathematician can check the work and comment, I'd be much obliged.

February 11, 2003

Linux gives us the power we need to crush those who oppose us.

I'm Steve, and I'm a super-villain.
Posted by dsifry at 5:55 PM | TrackBack | View blog reactions

February 7, 2003

More Technorati News

In my last post, I discussed a database overhaul that significantly improved the access times of the Technorati link tracking service.  This has resulted in faster load times, and faster web spider indexing times, which means fresher information on the site.

But that's not all that I did in my recent weekend reengineering at Technorati.  I also:
  • Added in <guid> fields to the RSS feeds.  These special RSS 2.0 tags allow you to identify each RSS entry with a unique identifier, and are perfect for the RSS feeds that Technorati produces.  I added them so that RSS Aggregators can identify posts and links uniquely.  When you get an RSS watchlist, it is filled with up-to-the-second information on who is linking to you.  It also includes text in the feed noting when the link was created, and when the blog was created.  This means that every time you check your RSS feed, the text inside each item in the feed changes.  The <guid> field allows aggregators to keep track of these posts, and mark them as read, for example.  If you've got a Link Cosmos as big as Dave's or Doc's, that helps seriously cut through the clutter.
  • Fixed the blog indexing engine so that a blog that is reachable from two or more addresses will be identified as such.  For example, take a look at the awesome bOingbOing blog.  Some people link to it at www.boingboing.net, and some people link to it at boingboing.net.  The links go to the same place, but the old Technorati code thought there were two blogs there.  That's fixed now.  It also means that the Technorati Top 100 and Interesting Recent Blogs lists are more accurate as well.
  • Fixed the Link Cosmos display engine so that links that you create to your own blog don't show up on your Link Cosmos.  I got lots of complaints from people on that bug, and I think it is most prevalent with people who use Radio with its Categories option to post multiple blog channels to different directories on the same site - it generates lots of self-referential links when doing blog updates.
  • Added a Creative Commons license.  You (and your browsing tools) will now see at the bottom of every Technorati page, the Creative Commons copyright license for the page.  The license gives you permission to permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work with attribution, and not for commercial purposes.  In other words, you can't make a knock-off Technorati site by pulling all the content and replacing Technorati with your name, and you can't use the Technorati results for commercial purposes unless we work out a deal.  Of course, that license doesn't apply to the RSS feeds that you get when you purchase a watchlist.  You can use those for commercial purposes all you like.
The new site has been up for about a week, and it seems to be handling the load pretty well.  Please send me feedback and let me know what you think!  How can Technorati be better?  What is missing from the blogging world right now?

Here's one idea I've been toying with:  Would you be interested in viewing graphs of the number of incoming blogs/links to a site over time?  It would be a great way to track interest  and authority of a site as time passes.  Would you be willing to help subsidize the work necessary to build it and store all the data?  It's not something that I could work on right away (Sputnik work is my #1, #2, and #3 priorities right now), but I'd be interested in your thoughts.  Leave comments below, and let me know.
Posted by dsifry at 9:33 AM | TrackBack | View blog reactions

Technorati Technical Update

It's been a while since I've been able to blog, but I've just had a minute or two to come up for air, and I wanted to mention the goings-on at Technorati.  Things have been really great.  It seems that lots of people find the service useful, and people are signing up for watchlists.  Unfortunately, what also happened was that the database schema backing the Technorati site was poorly designed (bad Dave!), which made the website slow to a crawl over the last few weeks.  What happened is that I had a really big table in the database called "links" that had the following structure:

       lid bigint NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
       bid bigint NOT NULL,
       linkedblog bigint NOT NULL,
       href VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       linktext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       title VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       priortext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       aftertext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       created DATETIME,
       updated DATETIME,
       current CHAR(1) NOT NULL DEFAULT 'Y',
       PRIMARY KEY (lid),
       INDEX (href),
       INDEX (bid),
       INDEX (linkedblog),
       INDEX (created)

There were two big problems with this table - first, each record was way too big.  I thought I was getting the best of both worlds when I mde all of my char() columns VARCHARs - only use the space you need, right?  More on that later. The second problem was that I had over 6 million active links that Technorati was tracking, so traversing the database was s-l-o-w.  And since I was using Linux on x86 and MySQL as the backend for the database, I was going to start bumping into the 2GB file size limit in short order.

Here's where some good old-fashioned database optimization techniques came into play.  One of the best things I learned about database design was to make it easy to calculate record offsets.  That means using fixed character field widths for tables that need fast lookups.  So, what I did was split the links table into two tables, and made some changes to the new links table:

       lid bigint NOT NULL AUTO_INCREMENT,
       bid bigint NOT NULL,
       linkedblog bigint NOT NULL,
       href CHAR(127) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       created DATETIME,
       updated DATETIME,
       current CHAR(1) NOT NULL DEFAULT 'Y',
       PRIMARY KEY (lid),
       INDEX (href),
       INDEX (bid),
       INDEX (linkedblog),
       INDEX (created)

CREATE TABLE linkcontext (
       lid bigint NOT NULL,
       title VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       linktext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       priortext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       aftertext VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL DEFAULT '',
       PRIMARY KEY (lid),

You'll notice what I did - I pulled out all of the information that wasn't in an index, and put that data into the linkcontext table.  I made sure that there was a unique key (lid) that identified the data for a particular link, and also kept the space-saving format of the VARCHAR.  Essentially, the index file for the linkcontext table is simply a set of pairs - the lid of the link, and the offset of the linkcontext record corresponding to the data.  I did lose a bit of flexibility with this system - Notice that the link href is now a maximum size of 127 characters, down from a theoretical maximum of 255 earlier.  I decided to take this tack because the number of URLs that were longer than 127 characters are less that 0.01 percent of the URLs in the database, so I figured it was an acceptable loss.

Actually, I originally tried cutting the database down to 63 characters, but that unfortunately cut out a bunch of interesting sites, like Reuters, which use long URLs to designate topics and types of headlines, for example.  So, 127 was the right number.

The biggest changes came to the links table - Note that every column has a fixed width.  What that means is that MySQL no longer has to do reindexing of the table whenever inserting or deleting records - all it needs to do is a quick multiplication of the lid offset with the total number of bytes per record.

But wait, what does all this mean when doing SELECT calls?  Doesn't it mean that I have to SELECT information from two tables instead of one?

Yes, that's true, but again, we can take advantage of the power of left-handed JOINs.  Here's how I extracted data from the links table before:

SELECT lid, bid, href, linktext, priortext, aftertext, nearestpermalink, UNIX_TIMESTAMP(created) AS created, UNIX_TIMESTAMP(updated) AS updated FROM links WHERE href LIKE 'http://www.sifry.com/%' AND current='Y' ORDER BY created DESC

Slow stuff, because we had to jump around the indexes looking for the contents of the href column.

Here's what it became:

SELECT links.lid AS lid, bid, href, linktext, priortext, aftertext, nearestpermalink, UNIX_TIMESTAMP(created) AS created, UNIX_TIMESTAMP(updated) AS updated FROM links,linkcontext WHERE href LIKE 'http://www.sifry.com/%' AND current='Y' AND links.lid = linkcontext.lid ORDER BY created DESC

No need for two SELECT calls - or any change to the other business logic following the SQL - by waiting until the very last item in the WHERE clause, I've reduced the number of columns that match the WHERE to an absolute minimum before matching up the links with the related linkcontext data.  The speedup?  From minutes per query to seconds (or less).

I made some other changes to the codebase, including a number of bug fixes and content change, but I'll discuss that in another blog post...

Alan Alda for Science Advisor!

Alan Alda has answered the call, responding to the Edge Question, and it's remarkably good.  Each answerer is asked to become President Bush's Science adviser, and answer the question, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

Excerpts from Alda's response:
The world is going to come to an end in about 5 billion years no matter what we do. So, in the long run, you're off the hook. It's true that things like Global Warming, plus the increasing loss of clean water and bio diversity, can hasten The End Of Everything As We Know It, but even so, it will all end eventually. Nobody gets blamed for continuing a disastrous policy, so there will be no harm to your reputation if you do nothing. People simply do not say, "Caesar did nothing to halt the Roman practice of putting lead in the air and water, probably resulting in the eventual weakening and fall of the empire." But they're absolutely  fascinated  with the way he could divide Gaul into thirds.

Recognizing this, I will not advise you to do anything related to the environment. I will simply ask permission to put a glass of water on your desk every day with little things swimming in it. Sooner or later, you'll slip and drink from it, and while you're in the hospital, we can talk about the billion or so people who have nothing else to drink.