Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Two weeks to the Mars rover landings ... and fingers are crossed
A U.S. spacecraft named Spirit is to land on Mars this week. It is to be followed in three weeks by an identical spacecraft named Opportunity, that is to land in a different location. Once on Mars they are to deploy rovers to search for water to determine if the cold, barren planet could once have harbored simple life forms. But the mission is fraught with risks.

If we have a reasonable amount of luck this could be a fantastic way to start 2004.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

BBC NEWS | Americas | US air marshals demand resisted - But what about the armored doors?

BBC NEWS | Americas | US air marshals demand resisted
The American directive, which has come into immediate effect, applies to all flights using American air space. An estimated 800 to 1,000 passenger flights a day could potentially be required to use sky marshals.

According to the regulation, 'where necessary' foreign carriers 'will now be required to place armed, trained law enforcement officers on designated flights as an added protective measure'.

Armed marshals disguised as passengers are already deployed on thousands of US flights each week.

Several countries, including Germany and Canada, already use armed guards, while others are considering, or in the process of implementing, the measure.

I've been told that the only truly significant plane-related security improvements since 9/11 were armoring the cockpit door and training pilots to dump fuel and drop the plane when an assault is underway. These changes don't directly reduce the risk of a takeover, but they make the plane much less useful as a weapon. So they reduce the motivation for seizing a plane, with indirectly reduces the risk of a takeover.

The abrupt request for air marshalls on international flight causes me to wonder if those changes were made only for US pilots. If that's true, then someone senior ought to lose their job. The training and armored door mandate should have been obligatory for all flights entering North American airspace since early 2002. I hope they were.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Iraq as the Spanish American War?

Krugman: Citizen Conrad
These days, everything old is new again. Income is once again concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, and money rules politics to an extent not seen since the Gilded Age. The Iraq war bears an eerie resemblance to the Spanish-American war. (There was never any evidence linking Spain to the Maine's demise.) And Citizen Kane is back, in the form of an incestuous media-political complex.

I like the Spanish-American war analogy. We are indeed in an odd variant of the Gilded Age. Looking for other historical examples, the "alien" Iraqi culture of honor, vengeance, violence and family reminds me of nothing so much as the American South @ 1850. Makes one wonder if our soldiers, who come largely from south, really find Iraq so incomprehensible. (Parenthetically, I suspect Iraqis are at least as racist as every other traditional society. I wonder what effect the ethnicity of our polyglot military has on Iraqis? I've not seen mention of that anywhere.)

Sunday, December 21, 2003

When more is less: All Products Search Results: 1000 places to see before you die
Amazon now does full text searching. This is a "feature", it took a lot of work to add this.

It's also stupid.

Anyone who's ever done full text searching can tell you that, without a lot of smart tuning, it returns junk. Amazon hasn't doen the tuning.

Google would never have screwed up like this.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

A positive view of Iraq -- from an independent source

Telegraph | News | It is stupid to say life in Iraq has got worse
In the streets of Baghdad and other cities, plenty of excitable people tell you that life under the Americans is now worse than it was under Saddam, but that is stupidity of a high order.

Last week one of my BBC colleagues interviewed a man who had been dropped into a vat of acid by Saddam's torturers. They then immediately fished him out because they felt his crime had not warranted such a hideous death. When he eventually recovered from his burns he went to thank them for saving his life; only to discover that they had been executed in their turn.

The mile-long, 24-hour queues for petrol, the power blackouts that last for 14 hours a day, the chronic shortages of clean water and medicine, the sudden and frightening rise in crime that has followed the American and British invasion are all very bad but they don't remotely compare with the viciousness of Saddam's regime, and they won't last for ever.

Iraqis are quick-minded and impatient, and many of them resent the behaviour of the American soldiers in their cities. Yet the level of resistance to the Coalition forces seems to be falling, and it is nothing like serious enough to drive the American forces out. While they stay, the country will hold together.

A BBC senior editor is a relatively independent voice; indeed the BBC has often been accused on an anti-American bias. (In my opinion they have a mild disposition to carping when things go better for the Americans, and they occasionally go way off track, but 95% of the time they sound right.) This brief report paints a more positive picture than we usually here, and I trust it more than anything I get from Fox.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Humans: Fat by Nature?
... it is not obvious that getting fat is a natural response to plenty. Animals rarely get fat, even when food is abundant, unless they are old and domesticated. Young animals almost never get fat. Young people do all too frequently.

Humans have around ten times as many fat cells in relation to their body mass as most other animals. Polar bears are similarly off the curve, but then they have good reason to be fat: they need insulation and go for long periods without food. Pigs are well-padded, but they were bred for it.

Perhaps humans were bred for it too. That is what the thrifty-gene theory suggests. It was thought up by James Neel, a geneticist, in 1962, as he was seeking an explanation for the extreme porkiness of the Pima Indians. He postulated that they were fat because of the bad times their tribe had been through. They were minding their own business in Mexico and Arizona in the 19th century when incoming farmers disrupted their water supply. Some Pima starved and many were malnourished. Those who survived, suggested Neel, did so because they had some innate advantage%u2014a thrifty gene that meant they were particularly good at storing energy. Their descendants inherited a trait that became a burden, not a benefit.

Andrew Prentice, professor of international nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reckons that the thrifty gene is widespread among the human race. He puts it down to agriculture. Hunter-gatherers, he argues, did not much need a thrifty gene. They may not have had the plenty that agriculture could provide, but they were few and their food supply flexible. However, after man settled down to farming around 12,000 years ago, the population grew, and soon lots of people depended on a small range of crops in a limited area. When the crops failed, disaster struck. And it did so often, and relatively recently, in Europe.

In 1321, some 20% of English people are reckoned to have died of famine. There was cannibalism in 1563 and 151 famines were recorded in England before 1620, the year the Mayflower sailed to America. American genes may be especially thrifty. Some immigrants were survivors of disasters such as the Irish potato famine. They also had to survive the crossing and the business of making a new life, which wiped out plenty of weaker stock. From 104 passengers on the Mayflower, only 23 left descendants. That was mostly because of crop failures and starvation, relief from which Americans still celebrate at Thanksgiving.

It is weird that humans should be so different from all other mammals. Surely an ability to tolerate famine is important in rats? I'm not sure the thrifty-gene theory alone makes sense. I wonder if it's just a gene flaw, a side-effect of the very small human gene pool and high level of semi-clonal breeding.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Prewar propaganda: Bush claimed bio and chemical weapons with drone delivery to east coast.

Florida Today Local News: Senators were told Iraqi weapons could hit U.S.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday the Bush administration last year told him and other senators that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but they had the means to deliver them to East Coast cities.

Nelson, D-Tallahassee, said about 75 senators got that news during a classified briefing before last October's congressional vote authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Nelson voted in favor of using military force.

Nelson said he couldn't reveal who in the administration gave the briefing.

The White House directed questions about the matter to the Department of Defense. Defense officials had no comment on Nelson's claim.

Nelson said the senators were told Iraq had both biological and chemical weapons, notably anthrax, and it could deliver them to cities along the Eastern seaboard via unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

'They have not found anything that resembles an UAV that has that capability,' Nelson said.

Nelson delivered the news during a half-hour conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. The senator, who is on a seven-nation trade mission to South America, was calling from an airport in Santiago, Chile.

'That's news,' said John Pike, director of, a Washington, D.C.-area military and intelligence think tank. 'I had not heard that that was the assessment of the intelligence community. I had not heard that the Congress had been briefed on this.'

Since the late 1990s, there have been several reports that Iraq was converting a fleet of Czechoslovakian jet fighters into UAVs, as well as testing smaller drones...

Huh? This is "local news" in Florida Today? Doesn't make sense. This ought to be front page news in the New York Times. I'm assuming it's a mistake of some time. If this were really the intelligence briefing our senators got then things are even worse than I'd imagined.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Alternate universe: Musharaf assasinated, Saddam at large

Pakistani President Narrowly Escapes Assassin's Bomb
President Pervez Musharraf narrowly survived an assassination attempt here Sunday night when a large bomb detonated on a bridge 30 seconds after his motorcade had crossed.

Visibly shaken, General Musharraf appeared on state television and described what was by far the most serious attempt on his life since he sided with the United States in the campaign against terrorism in September 2001.

In an alternate universe, Musharraf was assasinated today, multiple bombings struck Baghdad, and Saddam released a recording cursing the deceased American ally.

So goes history. Had the US forces been less diligent, Saddam might have escaped for another day. Musharraf's assasintation could have triggered chaos in Pakistan, forcing American redeployment to South Asia.

On December 15th, the good guys were skilled and lucky.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Dave Barry on computer security - Your Miami Everything Guide:
It's time once again for Keyboard Korner, the computer-advice column that uses simple, ''jargon-free'' terminology that even an idiot like you can grasp; the column that shows you how to ''take command'' of your personal computer, if necessary by reducing it to tiny smoking shards with a hatchet.

Dave Barry is a not-so-secret computer geek. This very funny column captures the state of windows personal computer security in 2003 -- hopeless.

States sell voter registration information to marketers

Wired News via NewsScan: Mining the Vein of Voter Rolls

Unbeknownst to most citizens, state officials are selling their
voter-registration information to political candidates, nonprofit groups
and data collectors who then combine it with census data, purchasing
histories, credit reports and magazine subscription lists in order to
fine-tune their messages or marketing pitches to specific constituencies,
such as pickup truck drivers who subscribe to "Soldier of Fortune" or SUV
drivers who buy lacy underwear at Victoria's Secret. And while some states
limit sales to political groups, 22 states lack any criteria restricting
who may purchase the information. "Voters fill out these forms in good
faith, thinking the information they're providing is needed for the purpose
of administering elections," says California Voter Foundation founder Kim
Alexander. "Then they get phone calls or a knock on the door from campaign
strangers who have a list of their personal data." Alexander says the
information requested by many states, such as Social Security numbers and
mother's maiden names, could easily be used for identity theft. The
situation has become especially troubling since Congress passed the Help
America Vote Act last year, which required that states develop a
centralized, statewide voter-registration database, making it possible for
third parties to collect huge amounts of data very easily. Alexander says
the reason there's been no outcry against the practice is that "the people
who ultimately decide how voter data should be allowed to be used are the
politicians… Politicians need to rein in the laws, yet they're the biggest
consumers of data." ( 11 Dec 2003)

Yawn. Same old, same old. Privacy is for billionaires. Evidently Americans don't care for it.

Friday, December 12, 2003

The Bush Smallpox Scandal

Bioterror Preparedness Still Lacking, Health Group Concludes (
One year after President Bush sought to energize the nation's bioterrorism preparations with an unprecedented smallpox vaccination campaign, the program has all but ground to a halt. A report released yesterday, meanwhile, finds that only two states -- Florida and Illinois -- are prepared to distribute and administer vaccines or medicines that would be needed in the event of a major outbreak or attack.

One of the tools Bush used to build support for the occupation of Iraq was the threat of a smallpox attack. Subsequently, however, his actions did not match his rhetoric. So did he never really believe this was a threat? Was he lying all along?

Fortunately, since the original plan was created but after Bush had already demonstrated his words were dishonest, we discovered that pre-1970 smallpox immunizations are still effective. So a lot of people over 35-40 are immune or resistant, maybe enough to slow the pace of an epidemic of conventional smallpox.

This doesn't change the fundamental equation however. Somewhere lies either profound deceit or profound incompetence. I hope it's the former (heck, we already know Bush is dishonest) but I fear the latter.

NYT Science: The differences between a chimpanzee and homo sapiens

Comparing Genomes Shows Split Between Chimps and People
Humans and chimps shared a joint ancestor as recently as five million years ago. Biologists have long supposed that if they could identify the genes that changed in the evolutionary lineage leading from the joint ancestor to people, they would understand the genetic basis of how people differ from chimps and, hence, the essence of what makes humans human.

Because the sequence of DNA units in the two genomes is 98.8 percent identical, it seemed that just a handful of genes might define the essence of humanity.

The project received a lift two years ago when a large London family with barely intelligible speech was found to have mutations in a gene called FOXP2. Chimpanzees also have a FOXP2 gene, but it is significantly different. The human version shows signs of accelerated evolutionary change in the last 100,000 years, suggesting that the gene acquired a new function that helped confer the gift of speech.

But the process of transforming the joint human-chimp ancestor, who was probably a very chimpanzeelike creature, into a human seems much more complicated in light of the new analysis. In a preliminary screen, Dr. Clark and his colleagues have found that a large number of genes shows signs of accelerated evolution in the human lineage. Those are genes that, by a statistical test applied to changes in their DNA, appear to be under strong recent pressure of natural selection and so are likely to be those that make humans differ from chimpanzees....

The authors of the Science article note that many of the human genes they found to have undergone accelerated evolution turn up in the list of Mendelian diseases, those caused by defects in a single gene. The reason for that curious association could be that the genes serve new functions, ones that emerged so recently that evolution has not had time to install backups, Dr. Clark said...

Staggering. Contrast this article with my post of two days ago on the neuro circuitry that underlies human perceptions of self and cognition. Those circuits are most similar in great apes and humans; since the great apes and we parted paths a while ago this suggests a certain degree of parallel evolution.

Large numbers of genes with a lack of functional redundancy ... Something staggering happened in the past 200,000-300,000 years. Why did homo sapiens alter so quickly? What were the selection pressures? I think the usual explanation is that by that time human population density had risen sufficiently that competition and/or cooperation pressures became intense, and the war of cognition began.

Of course geneticists will not be able to resist the obvious experiments. With a few tweaks here and there, we will create sentient chimpanzees. It might be even easier with the great apes. Since we're eating the great apes at a terrific pace (we probably ate the Neanderthals and Homo Erectus as well) presumably that will be done on zoo bred creatures. After they can talk, we can explain ourselves to them. The chimps will understand, but the great apes may find us a bit off-putting.

What's the respiratory rate of the universe?

Reading a popular cosmology article (a hobby), I caught note of a hint that some models of physics suggest quintessence need not have a modal state. This is interesting because observations of distant stars and galaxies suggest that about a billion years ago the expansion of space accelerated. The lay assumption is that expansion will now continue at this accelerated pace, and that the universe will slowly dwindle into nothingness.

It is a bit odd, though, that such a great even should occur just as life on earth began to appear. Odd.

Not such an odd coincidence, however, if quintessence varies in an erratic way. We know space expanded very fast as the universe was "born" (the big booooooiiiiiiiiinnnnngggg), and then we think it expanded fairly smoothly, then it sped up. But maybe it speeds up and slows down all the time, sometimes with big jumps, sometimes small jumps. Maybe it's even uneven, like baking bread. Maybe some times and places it even contracts (and there, does time run backwards ... but of course if time ran backwards forwards and sideways for us we'd never know -- our awareness points from birth to death irregardless of how an observer might see us).

Maybe the universe belches and bubbles and breathes, a scaled up version of quantum foam.

It's nice being an unrestrained speculator.

Of course it did, then we might really have no idea how old the universe really is, nor is it clear what "old" would mean in that context. Age might be variable.

Fred Hoyle might be pleased.

9/27/2007: Alas, I've read a few good lay books on cosmology since I wrote this post, and it turns out this expansion is an unfortunately good fit for current theory. My non-physicist interpretation is that space has a invariant "springiness" that is constant for all time, but gravity's effect wanes with distance (inverse square of course). So gravity's getting weaker and weaker, the spring never weakens, and the expansion constantly accelerates. Only things firmly bound by gravity (milky way, some neighboring galaxies) will remain in Sol's future light cone.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

BW Online | December 8, 2003 | A Guide to Phone Number Portability

BW Online | December 8, 2003 | A Guide to Phone Number Portability
Best set of instructions I've seen -- in fact, the only set of instructions!

Keep your older service until the newer phone rings, bring phone and bill to the new phone store. Offset cost of switching with a free phone deal.

NYT Review: Neuroscience and the nature of humankind

Humanity? Maybe It’s in the Wiring
The body, it turns out, is as important as the brain. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa Medical Center and the author of the book 'Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain,' has pioneered the argument that emotions and feelings are linked to brain structures that map the body. From human social emotions, he said, both morality and reason have grown.

In 1980 I remember Armando Howard, then my Caltech roommate, expounding at length on this thesis, that the brain "thinks" with the body.

This is an amazing summary of the latest thinking in neuroscience, most of it new in the past 10 years. It is also a stunning triumph of reductionism. Consciousness and behavior seem less emergent, and more a result of relatively well cirumscribed modules, than some had expected. More like something that could be emulated in software.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Bush Government to pass SPAM at will bill

CAUCE Latest News
The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE, is disappointed by the passage of a weak anti-spam bill in the House of Representatives and Senate. This legislation fails the most fundamental test of any anti-spam law, in that it neglects to actually tell any marketers not to spam. Instead, it gives each marketer in the United States one free shot at each consumer's e-mail inbox, and will force companies to continue to deploy costly and disruptive anti-spam technologies to block advertising messages from reaching their employees on company time and using company resources. It also fails to learn from the experiences of the states and other countries that have tried 'opt-out' legal frameworks, where marketers must be asked to stop, to no avail. In fact, the bill would preempt an opt-in law set to go into effect in California on January 1, 2004, which was passed after an state opt-out law similar to the current federal legislation was found to be a failure.

Business as usual. The right companies made the right payoffs and our Congress rolled over. Not only does the bill not work, it's actually worse than no action at all.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Globalization and the Export of American Labor: NYT Algonquin Discusssion

Who Wins and Who Loses as Jobs Move Overseas?
An excellent overview. In the 90s American IT workers lost income, and investors gained income, through the use of foreign IT labor using special visas. In the 00s we're seeing a much stronger variant of labor shifting -- moving the work to where the labor is.

This is another step in the shift of wealth from labor to capitalists (shareholders, etc). That's not a bad thing, if capital markets are honest and ownership is widely distributed -- and if the nation takes wise measures to ease the shock of labor transitions. Of course we may now lack both of these prerequisites.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The Political Compass: How do you rank politically?

The Political Compass
This online test is produced by a UK journalist, and it's very UK like. It's fairly clear what the "right" answers are, and how an awful Republican might answer. The "wrong" answers are phrased in such a way that it's hard to imagine even GWB really getting a "bad" (authoritarian) score.

I ended up being left-libertarian. Just to the left of Jean Chretien and the right of the Dalai Lama, but about as libertarian as the Dalai Lama. So I guess I'm in happy company.

Defect rates in American justice: 10-15% in the most severe cases

Bob Herbert, NYT: Returned to Life
In an interview, Professor Protess said he initially was surprised by the number of cases he and his students encountered in which the prisoners were innocent. "I'd always thought that miscarriages of justice were an aberration and that our justice system, overwhelmingly, worked well," he said. "But I was seeing error rates of 10 to 15 percent. I was very struck by how pervasive the problem was."

I asked if he thought any innocent people had actually been executed.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "There's just no question."

We know error rates in medicine are reasonably high. The justice system is no better, and probably worse. Any system will err to either false positive (imprisonment and/or execution) or false negative (acquittal of the guilty); justice is supposed to err to false negative (innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, etc), but in the US that's not working. Instead we err towards false conviction.

I am reasonably confident that George Bush doesn't give a damn.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Cat lovers and rare beef eaters may be easy prey for automobiles ...

BBC NEWS | Health | Eat worms - feel better
One third of Britons carry the toxoplasma parasite in their brain.

Its natural home is the cat and it's spread in cats' faeces. It can be picked up by any mammal, from rats to cattle. The main way we get it is by eating undercooked meat (which is why 80% of the French are estimated to have it, with their love of rare meat).

Once we have it we have it for life, there's no way we can get rid of it.

Research shows it somehow manipulates rats' behaviour - it makes rats attracted to cats - their natural predator, so they're more likely to be eaten by a cat and the parasite can complete its life cycle.

For years scientists thought it had no effect on our behaviour, but now the parasite's changing their minds. Recent research suggests that people with toxyplasma have slower reaction times than those without and are also more than twice as likely to be involved in a traffic accident than those who aren't carrying the parasite.

The BBC news story is a tie in to a BBC broadcast. The broadcast sounds gruesome and fascinating. I've been following the UC/hookworm studies for years and I'm looking forward to the study publications. This Toxoplasma data is new to me though, and it's rather unsettling. It's not good news for people who have pet cats or who like their meat rare. Personally, I'm switching to well done, though it may be too late for me! Good news for dog loving cat hating vegetarians though ... (I think dogs don't get toxoplasma ...)