Saturday, January 31, 2004

Georgia Takes on ’Evolution’ - The Decline and Fall of American Education

NYT: Georgia Takes on ’Evolution’
A proposed set of guidelines for middle and high school science classes in Georgia has caused a furor after state education officials removed the word 'evolution' and scaled back ideas about the age of Earth and the natural selection of species.

Educators across the state said that the document, which was released on the Internet this month, was a veiled effort to bolster creationism and that it would leave the state's public school graduates at a disadvantage.

'They've taken away a major component of biology and acted as if it doesn't exist,' said David Bechler, who heads the biology department at Valdosta State University. 'By doing this, we're leaving the public shortchanged of the knowledge they should have.'

Although education officials said the final version would not be binding on teachers, its contents will ultimately help shape achievement exams. And in a state where religion-based concepts of creation are widely held, many teachers said a curriculum without mentioning 'evolution' would make it harder to broach the subject in the classroom.

Georgia's schools superintendent, Kathy Cox, held a news conference near the Capitol on Thursday, a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article about the proposed changes.

A handful of states already omit the word 'evolution' from their teaching guidelines, and Ms. Cox called it [evolution] 'a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction.' She added that people often associate it with 'that monkeys-to-man sort of thing'.

Still, Ms. Cox, who was elected to the post in 2002, said the concept would be taught, as well as 'emerging models of change' that challenge Darwin's theories. 'Galileo was not considered reputable when he came out with his theory,' she said.

Fortunately they still teach science in China and India. Minnesota is no different from Georgia, our new Republican administration is writing a biology free set of science standards. (You can't teach biology without natural selection; heck, you can't even teach cosmology without natural selection.)

The degradation of public education may have some unanticipated consequences. Private schools, where the elite are educated, will continue to teach science. I'll wager even catholic (private) schools in Georgia and Minnesota will teach modern biology. The transformation of schools into agents of evangelical christianity may make vouchers acceptable to a wider group, and accelerate a movement away from public education.

If the evangelicals continued their steady victories, there will eventually be a public evangelical educational system and a private secular/other system. The private secular system would attract the educated elite, and they in turn would attract parents seeking social networks. The evangelical school system of 2010 could become a stigmatized backwater of ever growing ignorance (ok, so it might produce an incompetent President or two ...).

The evangelical right can indeed win this war, but they may not like what they get. Perhaps they should reconsider ...

Understanding Bush: It's all about faith

NYT, Friedman: Budgets of Mass Destruction
It should be clear to all by now that what we have in the Bush team is a faith-based administration. It launched a faith-based war in Iraq, on the basis of faith-based intelligence, with a faith-based plan for Iraqi reconstruction, supported by faith-based tax cuts to generate faith-based revenues. This group believes that what matters in politics and economics are conviction and will — not facts, social science or history.

Yep. Among this group conviction is a virtue. Machiavelli covered this in 'The Prince'. Sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it doesn't. If you defy gravity long enough you discover abrupt deceleration.

Africa: Outsourcing 2008?

BW Online | February 2, 2004 | Africa: The Next Wide-Open Wireless Frontier
For a telecommunications industry hungrily seeking new avenues of growth, a surprising opportunity is emerging. Sub-Saharan Africa -- home to more than 650 million people, three-quarters of whom live on less than $2 per day -- has become the world's fastest-growing market for mobile-phone service. Last year alone, the number of mobile subscribers in the whole region shot up 37%, to 34.4 million, compared with a 32% rise in Eastern Europe, the No. 2 growth region, according to researcher Gartner Dataquest. 'It's just a huge opportunity,' says Ali B.M. Conteh, chairman of Vodacom Congo (DRC), the No. 1 mobile provider in the continent's third-largest country.

Do the math. 650 million people. Say, because of disease and famine only 1 in 10,000 live to be an adult genius. That's 65,000 adults smarter than almost anyone you or I know. Smart enough to learn english, then take thin scraps of material from the web and learn most anything. Back in the good old days, say @ 1995, I used to say Africa would one day be considered a prosperous rising nation.

Hey, I remember when Bangladesh was "the basket case of the world".

Remember when, in the boom years, we wanted to gird the world with high speed wireless via low earth orbit satellite? Gates liked the network that, by an accident of design, would have brought cheap net access to all of Africa. He's not all bad.

We never built those satellites (though Iridium is still hiring, but Africa won't build analog phone networks. By the time they build, 3G will be the only option.

Maybe Africa won't be the next India by 2008. But, by 2018? Bangaloreans will be furious about jobs lost to Lahore.

Or not. If we don't put furious effort into mitigating the ravages of HIV, Africa may truly fail, and in dying spawn a thousand al Qaedas -- with better weapons and smarter operatives.

Maybe we shouldn't let that happen?

Clear Channel (Republican Radio): Kill all the Bicylists

Business 2.0 - 101 Dumbest Moments in Business
We deeply regret that comments made by on-air personalities were misinterpreted. Clear Channel does not condone advocating violence in any form.'—Clear Channel Radio CEO John Hogan, after disc jockeys at three of the company's stations urge listeners to attack bicyclists with tactics that include slamming on car brakes, throwing open car doors suddenly, and beaning riders with soda bottles.

(Clear Channel is the American Republican version of Pravda -- an organ, along with Fox, for a focal political agenda.)

There's something about adults on bicycles that enrages a certain kind of person. That person almost always votes Republican, often lives in the south, and may be female or male. It's enough of a personality marker that it ought to be a part of online dating personality profiles.

Someone should do a sociology thesis on this.

PS. Ever notice that no President, no matter how active, would ever confess to riding a bicycle?

Friday, January 30, 2004

Brad DeLong: why the rational middle despises Bush

Brad DeLong's Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004): a Weblog
Jeffrey Frankel is not, by nature, a bitter or a partisan person. Yet today a huge number of people who--like me--do not think of themselves as by nature bitter or partisan neverthless find that we are bitter, very bitter, and have become partisan, very partisan. Consider that back before the George W. Bush administration even a figure like Paul Krugman was careful to stay even-handed: to balance a criticism of the supply-siders in the Republican Party with one of the strategic traders in the Democratic Party, to balance a condemnation of the Republican establishment for thinking that boosting corporate profits solves all ills with a condemnation of the Democratic establishment for thinking that neoliberal reforms in developing countries solve all their ills.

Why do so many of us who worked so hard on economic policy for the Clinton administration, and who think of ourselves as mostly part of a sane and bipartisan center, find the Bush administration and its Republican congressional lapdogs so... disgusting, loathsome, contemptible? Why are we so bitter?

After introspection, the answer for me at least as clear. We worked very hard for years to repair the damage that Ronald Reagan and company had done to America's fisc. We strained every nerve and muscle to find politically-possible and popularly-palatable ways to close the deficit, and put us in a position in which we can at least begin to think about the generational long-run problems of financing the retirement of the baby-boom generation and dealing with the rapidly-rising capabilities and costs of medicine. We saw a potential fiscal train wreck far off in the future, and didn't ignore it, didn't shrug our shoulders, didn't assume that it would be someone else's problem, but rolled up our sleeves and set to work.

Then the Bush people come in. And in two and a half years they trash the place. They trash the place deliberately. They trash the place casually. They trash the place gleefully. They undo our work for no reason at all--just for the hell of it. Reading Suskind's The Price of Loyalty shows just how casual and unthinking it was. As the Economist writes:
Economist: On the other side of the Atlantic, the budget is even less balanced--thanks in part to three rounds of tax cuts enacted since President George Bush took office--and the controversy just as bitter.... Paul O'Neill, Mr Bush's former treasury secretary... laments Mr Bush's style of leadership (disengaged), his case for invading Iraq (disingenuous) and his fiscal record (dismal). The last of those flaws has excited the attention of the International Monetary Fund, which gave a warning in a report last week that America's deficits, if left unchecked, posed a gathering threat to America and the world. Mr O'Neill says that when he raised his concerns about fiscal profligacy with Dick Cheney, the vice-president, he was told "deficits don't matter." The IMF insists they do. The decade of deficits that lies ahead for America will put upward pressure on interest rates, crowd out private investment and erode longer-term productivity growth...

And every single senior Republican economic policy appointee comes out of a look back at the past three years looking very badly. X fails to organize meetings so that the long-run budgetary consequences of short-run policy moves are properly considered. Y pirouettes in midair and transforms from a deficit hawk into a deficit dove so as not to offend White House Media Affairs. Z lowballs the interest rate effects of higher deficits--and manages not to talk about the savings and investment effects at all. W mutters in the privacy of his own office about the importance of maintaining a surplus--but doesn't have the nerve to say "Boo!" to a goose (let alone to George W. Bush) once he steps outside his office door. V remains silent while the clown show that is the Bush economic policy process--a process he cannot view with equanimity--rolls forward. U cuts his own agency staff off at the knees and shows no interest in the very important and interesting work on the long-run fiscal options that they have done. Outsiders like R who assured me back in the fall of 2000 that Bush understood and would tackle the long-run problems of funding entitlements and the social-insurance state manage not to emit a public peep of complaint. Q talks about how much the president wants to reduce the deficit without daring to put his own position on the line within the administration by demanding that words like "deficits are bad" be accompanied by an actual plan to reduce the deficit. Every one. Every single last one.

And it is worth pointing out that it's not just the economic policymakers. The same holds true of all the other executive-branch Republican political appointees: defense, international affairs, science policy, social policy. Is there anybody (with the exceptions of John Donaldson and Mark McClellan) who has emerged or well emerge from this administration like a reputation? And it's all the Republican senators and members of congress as well. People who used to have some claim to respect--paging Pete Domenici, anyone?--have simply rolled over and played dead.

"Is George W. Bush the worst president ever?" is the question that George Akerlof asks. A fish rots from the head, yes. But this fish is rotted all the way down to the tail.

So we sit here out in the Alpha Quadrant, bitter.

Perfectly said. GWB has managed to transform rationalists into rabid partisans. Quite a trick.

Krugman: What's Happening to America?

Op-Ed Columnist: Where’s the Apology?
...Still, the big story isn't about Mr. Bush; it's about what's happening to America. Other presidents would have liked to bully the C.I.A., stonewall investigations and give huge contracts to their friends without oversight. They knew, however, that they couldn't. What has gone wrong with our country that allows this president to get away with such things?

The brilliant Mr Delong has raised a similar question lately, with an additional focus on what's happened to our press.

This is the fundamental question a lot of people are starting to ask themselves. Maybe the issue is not Bush, or the Republican Party, or media consolidation. Maybe, as Pogo once said, "We've met the enemy and he is us".

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Saddam and GWB: a consensual hallucination (NYT, Dowd)

Maureen Dowd: Dump Cheney Now!
The awful part is that George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein were both staring into the same cracked spook- house mirror.

Thanks to David Kay, we now have an amazing image of the president and the dictator, both divorced from reality over weapons, glaring at each other from opposite sides of bizarro, paranoid universes where fiction trumped fact.

It would be like a wacky Peter Sellers satire if so many Iraqis and Americans hadn't died in Iraq.

These two would-be world-class tough guys were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to show that they couldn't be pushed around. Their trusted underlings misled them with fanciful information on advanced Iraqi weapons programs that they credulously believed because it fit what they wanted to hear.

It's rare that Dowd says something interesting -- she's a once solid journalist that got hooked on the "insider bitch" schtick. This is an exception; she's right to point out that GWB shared a set of delusions with Saddam. (I, like most of the people I know and read, also thought Saddam had weapons and malicious intent -- but GWB should have had better intelligence than I have.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 - Declining testosterone might put men at risk for Alzheimer's - or NOT - Declining testosterone might put men at risk for Alzheimer's
The researchers found that higher levels of free testosterone seemed to protect men from Alzheimer's. The team reports that for every 50% increase in free testosterone in the blood, there was a 26% reduction in the risk of developing the disease.

Testosterone usually declines with age, but the team found that men who later developed Alzheimer's had testosterone levels that fell dramatically, in most cases below what is considered normal. By the end of the study, men with Alzheimer's had blood levels of testosterone that were half the levels of the men who remained healthy.

In some cases, the drop in testosterone was detected up to a decade before the men were diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

The researchers found a possible correlation between testosterone drops and the diagnosis of Alzheimer's type dementia. The journalist found that higher testosterone is "protective" (though I bet the researchers hinted strongly that this was so).

It's tiresome and annoying. I put the blame on editors and reviewers of academic journals. They should insist that authors expunge leaps to causation and insert text making it harder for journalists to "sex up" the results.

Alzheimer's appears to be a longterm, maybe lifelong, degenerative process. If there really is an association with a decline in free testosterone I suspect the decline is a manifestation of the same disease process. If high testsosterone reduces the risk of Alzheimer's, I suspect it would be related to some increase in mortality among people with early Alzheimer's -- such as risk taking behavior coupled with declining judgement.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Alzheimer's excitement: apoE clears key proteins

BBC NEWS | Health | Proteins 'hold Alzheimer's key'
Scientists have identified two proteins that may help prevent the brain plaques that are linked to Alzheimer's disease.

The proteins appear to work in tandem to orchestrate removal of potentially hazardous molecules from the brain.

However, unless the two are in the correct balance they actually seem to promote deposition of the amyloid protein which forms the plaques.

The research, by Washington University of Medicine, St Louis, is published in the journal Neuron.

The key proteins are called apoliprotein E (apoE) and clusterin.

We've known for a few years that mutations in the apoE gene increase the risk of Alzheimer's. So this is an amazing extension of those results. Very exciting.

It will not be the whole story. We've seen in Parkinson's Disease that a single "disease" is really the endpoint of a number of different genetic and environmental combinations. Alzheimer's Disease (really Alzheimer's Syndrome) is likely similar; when we're done we'll have redefined the syndrome and named the pathways.

Since Alzheimer's appears to be an acceleration of the "normal" aging of the human brain, it's possible that any treatments for Alzheimer's will extend the elasticity and capability of most adult brains. Were that to happen, our social security crisis may evaporate.

On the other hand, there's evidence that prions are critical to memory formation. Some Alzheimer's treatments may erase existing memories, or interfere with memory formation.

What would you do with Microsoft's 10 billion? (a quarter)

MacInTouch Home Page
Microsoft yesterday reported record revenue of more than $10 billion for its latest fiscal quarter.

Once upon a time JP Morgan bailed out a bankrupt federal government. At this rate, given our leadership, Microsoft will acquire the US government after Washington enters Chapter 13.

Even this staggering number is an understatement. Microsoft makes most of its money from monopoly rent on a product which costs them pennies to produce. Most of this revenue is profit. I suspect they don't pay much tax on it though.

If the average cost of a senator's vote is $250,000, Microsoft can buy the senate many times over -- every fiscal quarter. People like John McCain and a few others can take the role of Apple -- an independent with some entertainment value.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

NYT, Tom Friedman: War of Ideas -- Why we must sacrifice American jobs to avert more 911s

Op-Ed Columnist: War of Ideas, Part 6
...Just read the numbers and weep: of the 90 million Arab youth today (between the ages of 15 and 24), 14 million are unemployed, many of them among the 15 to 20 million Muslims now living in Europe. "There's not enough jobs and not enough hope," Jordan's King Abdullah told the Davos economic forum. According to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, between 1980 and 1999 the nine leading Arab economies registered 370 patents (in the U.S.) for new inventions. Patents are a good measure of a society's education quality, entrepreneurship, rule of law and innovation. During that same 20-year period, South Korea alone registered 16,328 patents for inventions. You don't run into a lot of South Koreans who want to be martyrs.

I was at Google's headquarters in Silicon Valley a few days ago, and they have this really amazing electronic global map that shows, with lights, how many people are using Google to search for knowledge. The region stretching from Morocco to the border of India had almost no lights. I attended a breakfast at Davos on the outsourcing of high-tech jobs from the U.S. and Europe to the developing world. There were Indian and Mexican businessmen there, and much talk about China. But not a word was spoken about outsourcing jobs to the Arab world. The context — infrastructure, productivity, education — just isn't there yet.

So what to do? A lot of help can and should come from Europe. Although America is often the target, Europe has been the real factory of Arab-Muslim rage. Europe has done an extremely poor job of integrating and employing its growing Muslim minorities, many of which have a deep feeling of alienation. And Europe has done a very poor job of investing in North Africa and the Middle East — its natural backyard.

America is far from perfect in this regard, but by forging the Nafta free trade agreement with Mexico, the U.S. helped create a political and economic context there that not only spurred jobs and the modernization of Mexico, but created the environment for its democratization. Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo remarked to me: "I don't think I would have been successful in political reform without the decent economic growth we had [spurred by Nafta] from 1996 to 2000. Those five years, we had average growth of 5 percent." It was in that optimistic environment that Mexico had its first democratic transition from the ruling party to the opposition.

So if you take anything away from this series, I hope it's this: The war of ideas among Arabs and Muslims can only be fought and won by their own forces of moderation, and those forces can only emerge from a growing middle class with a sense of dignity and hope for the future. Young people who grow up in a context of real economic opportunity, basic rule of law and the right to speak and write what they please don't usually want to blow up the world. They want to be part of it.  

Friedman is simplifying, and he knows it. Looking at the whole picture modernization is very disturbing and disruptive; it will promote serious short term violent response. It's also irrelevant that Europe is not helping matters; the US will still be the lightning rod.

In general though, I agree with him. To avoid 9/11 reenacted many times by many parties, with far better weapons and technologies, we need the developed world to have hope. The only way we've found to do that is globalization and trade. That means we create great pain in this country; pain in blue collar workers, knowledge workers, an front line managers (Directors and below.)

There are things to do to alleviate that pain; so that reducing poverty abroad can also improve the lives of everyone in America. I've outlined them in earlier posts. Not all that hard, easier than travel to Mars. All it takes is some smart political leadersh .... Ok, easier than traveling to Alpha Centauri.

Microsoft protects "open" Office file formats

Microsoft seeks XML-related patents | CNET
Microsoft has applied for patents that could prevent competing applications from processing documents created with the latest version of the software giant's Office program.

In a complex universe, it is good to have a few reliable certainties.

Microsoft's fortune and power has been based on three things:

1. Control of the trade press in the 1980s and 1990s and of government in the 2000s.
2. Using their operating system control to eliminate competitor applications and turn Office into a revenue stream.
3. Leveraging widespread piracy to ensure their file formats became universal "standards", without making them truly open.

Even before the Bush administration delivered on their promises to end the US vs. Microsoft antitrust legislation, the proposed measures would have failed. Despite pleas from a very few people (ie. me) they never considered removing file format control from Microsoft. That single action was fundamental to restricting Microsoft's practices and improving the quality and creativity of productivity software, but it was almost universally overlooked.

When Microsoft switched to XML for its .NET file formats, a few naive individuals thought they were "opening" their file formats. I was certain they would not do this -- not while there was a ghost of a chance that a desktop Linux was goint to emerge. I didn't know how they were going to keep their formats closed however. I'm not as smart as Microsoft -- patents are the obvious answer.

Did Microsoft plan to appear "open" with their XML file formats (and thereby reduce some antitrust pressure -- though by then the game was over) for a time, even though that was never their intent? I don't know, but they are definitely smarter than I am. I wouldn't put it past them.

Oh well, the Bush administration suggests that we're not really able to sustain a healthy long-term democracy in an age of uncertainty. Maybe we need to follow the Singaporean route, and usher in the Monarchs of Microsoft.

Friday, January 23, 2004

John McCain on the Senate Omnibus Bill

U.S. Senator John McCain onthe Senate Omnibus Spending Bill
An unsuspected reader (I thought only my mother read this blog) sent me the link to John McCain's senate floor speech on the omnibus spending bill. I tried excerpting from it, but it's quite long and every part of it is worth reading. You can skim it fairly quickly.

The most disturbing aspect of the spending bill is how little coverage it's really gotten. John McCain's staff has done all the work; a lazy journalist need only excerpt a portion of his speech. So why is there no coverage? Brad DeLong wonders what's happened to our press corp:
... I've heard too many reporters tell me that they have to cut the administration and the Republicans a break in their stories or they'll have their access and sources cut off. I've had too many editors tell me that other editors are doubting their own judgment, and in close (and maybe not so close?) calls deciding to give the administration and the Republicans a break because of what the reaction to being "overly critical" will be. We have deep, systematic flaws in our press corps...

PBS | I, Cringely - On Outsourcing

PBS | I, Cringely . Archived Column
There are those who argue that the numbers involved are too small to worry about.  What do a few thousand engineering jobs matter?  These people simply don't know how thin the engineering talent is in many companies.  Take 100 programmers out of any software company short of Microsoft or IBM ,and you've crippled some program and maybe the whole company.  And the same is true for most of these other critical industries where big work is typically done by small teams.

Cringely's thesis is that oursourcing is economically efficient but locally harmful. Most economists would agree. He has a good point about how thin the engineering talent is in most companies.

Other than protectionism, what could the US do?

Two things:

1. Strip benefits from employment, especially healthcare. This is a necessary part of healthcare reform.

2. Merge 401K, Roth IRA, and 529 plans as part of social security reform. Mandate contributions. Below a certain income level the government makes a separate contribution. One draws from the plans when not employed, including when retraining for a new position. There is no such thing as "retirement", merely fully employed and not fully employed. When the funds are exhausted a guaranteed annual income kicks in -- the replacement for "welfare". Shift taxation to consumption and a flat "citizenship" tax, since corporations will inevitably dodge taxes.

Emergent computation -- the thinking world (Nature)

Nature: Do plants act like computers?: Leaves appear to regulate their 'breathing' by conducting simple calculations.
"Plants appear to 'think', according to US researchers, who say that green plants engage in a form of problem-solving computation.

David Peak and co-workers at Utah State University in Logan say that plants may regulate their uptake and loss of gases by 'distributed computation' - a kind of information processing that involves communication between many interacting units.

It's the same form of maths that is widely thought to regulate how ants forage. The signals that each ant sends out to other ants, by laying down chemical trails for example, enable the ant community as a whole to find the most abundant food sources...."

More correctly the plants "compute", though the distinction between "thinking" and "computing" is a subtle one, having much to do with what consciousness is (if it exists at all).

The theme of computation as an emergent behavior arising from the interaction of many systems capable of maintaining stateful information is very hot now. E O Wilson popularized this in entomology. The more we look at biology, the more we see computation. I was struck the other day, for example, how a red striped shirt seemed to have a JPEG artifact. Problem is, I was looking at the shirt, not at a compressed digital photo of the shirt. I expect that somewhere in our visual, sensory and perceptual cortices something rather like JPEG compression is occurring.

The next set of articles will be about computation across species (symbiotes, parasites) and ecosystems -- producing emergent behaviors. Does an ecosystem have the processing capability of a rat?

The Gaia cultists must be having a good laugh!

Of course where else do we have lots of connected entities each of which holds stateful information? We have it in economies, and across the Internet. Of course these stateful entities appear to be independently conscious humans, but recent research strongly suggests that emergent computation is occuring. One day perhaps we'll measure the IQ of that emergent entity ... or it will measure ours ... :-).

After Disputes, Congress Passes Spending Plan - McCain's speech

After Disputes, Congress Passes Spending Plan
Congress finally finished last year's spending business on Thursday, sending the president an overdue, $820 billion measure that finances most of the federal government as well as thousands of home-state projects sought by lawmakers.

By chance I heard a speech John McCain gave on the senate floor as this came up for a vote. The speech was devastating. There have been a lot of bad budgets in the past hundred years, but this one may be among the most vile. It reflects the will of Bush and the extraordinary corruption of our political process. Since most of the congress now sits in safe seats, they are presumably protecting themselves against primary challenges -- or increasing the size of their bribes.

Hearing McCain speak, I wonder if he's considering leaving the party -- maybe for a Vice-Presidential position with Kerry or Clark?

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Boston Globe: Senate Republicans hack democrat's files - violation of the DMCA?

Senate panel's GOP staff spied on Democrats, Charlie Savage, Globe Staff, 1/22/2004
WASHINGTON -- Republican staff members of the US Senate Judiciary Commitee infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media, Senate officials told The Globe.

From the spring of 2002 until at least April 2003, members of the GOP committee staff exploited a computer glitch that allowed them to access restricted Democratic communications without a password. Trolling through hundreds of memos, they were able to read talking points and accounts of private meetings discussing which judicial nominees Democrats would fight -- and with what tactics.

The office of Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle has already launched an investigation into how excerpts from 15 Democratic memos showed up in the pages of the conservative-leaning newspapers and were posted to a website last November.

With the help of forensic computer experts from General Dynamics and the US Secret Service, his office has interviewed about 120 people to date and seized more than half a dozen computers -- including four Judiciary servers, one server from the office of Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and several desktop hard drives.

But the scope of both the intrusions and the likely disclosures is now known to have been far more extensive than the November incident, staffers and others familiar with the investigation say.

The revelation comes as the battle of judicial nominees is reaching a new level of intensity. Last week, President Bush used his recess power to appoint Judge Charles Pickering to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, bypassing a Democratic filibuster that blocked a vote on his nomination for a year because of concerns over his civil rights record.

Democrats now claim their private memos formed the basis for a February 2003 column by conservative pundit Robert Novak that revealed plans pushed by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, to filibuster certain judicial nominees. Novak is also at the center of an investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA agent whose husband contradicted a Bush administration claim about Iraqi nuclear programs.

Citing "internal Senate sources," Novak's column described closed-door Democratic meetings about how to handle nominees.

Its details and direct quotes from Democrats -- characterizing former nominee Miguel Estrada as a "stealth right-wing zealot" and describing the GOP agenda as an "assembly line" for right-wing nominees -- are contained in talking points and meeting accounts from the Democratic files now known to have been compromised.

Novak declined to confirm or deny whether his column was based on these files.

"They're welcome to think anything they want," he said. "As has been demonstrated, I don't reveal my sources."

As the extent to which Democratic communications were monitored came into sharper focus, Republicans yesterday offered a new defense. They said that in the summer of 2002, their computer technician informed his Democratic counterpart of the glitch, but Democrats did nothing to fix the problem.

Other staffers, however, denied that the Democrats were told anything about it before November 2003.

The emerging scope of the GOP surveillance of confidential Democratic files represents a major escalation in partisan warfare over judicial appointments. The bitter fight traces back to 1987, when Democrats torpedoed Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. In the 1990s, Republicans blocked many of President Clinton's nominees. Since President Bush took office, those roles have been reversed.

Against that backdrop, both sides have something to gain and lose from the investigation into the computer files. For Democrats, the scandal highlights GOP dirty tricks that could result in ethics complaints to the Senate and the Washington Bar -- or even criminal charges under computer intrusion laws.

"They had an obligation to tell each of the people whose files they were intruding upon -- assuming it was an accident -- that that was going on so those people could protect themselves," said one Senate staffer. "To keep on getting these files is just beyond the pale."

But for Republicans, the scandal also keeps attention on the memo contents, which demonstrate the influence of liberal interest groups in choosing which nominees Democratic senators would filibuster. Other revelations from the memos include Democrats' race-based characterization of Estrada as "especially dangerous, because . . . he is Latino," which they feared would make him difficult to block from a later promotion to the Supreme Court.

And, at the request of the NAACP, the Democrats delayed any hearings for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals until after it heard a landmark affirmative action case -- though a memo noted that staffers "are a little concerned about the propriety of scheduling hearings based on the resolution of a particular case."

After the contents of those memos were made public in The Wall Street Journal editorial pages and The Washington Times, Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, made a preliminary inquiry and described himself as "mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch."

Hatch also confirmed that "at least one current member of the Judiciary Committee staff had improperly accessed at least some of the documents referenced in media reports." He did not name the staffer, who he said was being placed on leave and who sources said has since resigned, although he had apparently already announced plans to return to school later this year.

Officials familiar with the investigation identified that person as a legislative staff assistant whose name was removed from a list of Judiciary Committee staff in the most recent update of a Capitol Hill directory. The staff member's home number has been disconnected and he could not be reached for comment.

Hatch also said that a "former member of the Judiciary staff may have been involved." Many news reports have subsequently identified that person as Manuel Miranda, who formerly worked in the Judiciary Committee office and now is the chief judicial nominee adviser in the Senate majority leader's office. His computer hard drive name was stamped on an e-mail from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League that was posted along with the Democratic Senate staff communications.

Reached at home, Miranda said he is on paternity leave; Frist's office said he is on leave "pending the results of the investigation" -- he denied that any of the handwritten comments on the memos were by his hand and said he did not distribute the memos to the media. He also argued that the only wrongdoing was on the part of the Democrats -- both for the content of their memos, and for their negligence in placing them where they could be seen.

"There appears to have been no hacking, no stealing, and no violation of any Senate rule," Miranda said. "Stealing assumes a property right and there is no property right to a government document. . . . These documents are not covered under the Senate disclosure rule because they are not official business and, to the extent they were disclosed, they were disclosed inadvertently by negligent [Democratic] staff."

Whether the memos are ultimately deemed to be official business will be a central issue in any criminal case that could result. Unauthorized access of such material could be punishable by up to a year in prison -- or, at the least, sanction under a Senate non-disclosure rule.

The computer glitch dates to 2001, when Democrats took control of the Senate after the defection from the GOP of Senator Jim Jeffords, Independent of Vermont.

A technician hired by the new judiciary chairman, Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, apparently made a mistake that allowed anyone to access newly created accounts on a Judiciary Committee server shared by both parties -- even though the accounts were supposed to restrict access only to those with the right password.

The Democrat's files were, by default, copyrighted. They were also protected, albeit imperfectly. Bypassing protections on copyrighted materials is a violation of the (vile) Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Congress usually exempts themselves from their own laws, but if they didn't exempt themselves on this one .... The DMCA penalties are very onerous.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Britain's dishonor: guilty by statistics

BBC NEWS | Health | Global experts slam cot death policy
...On Monday, the Court of Appeal cleared Angela Cannings of murdering her two sons.

The judges said the medical evidence that helped convict the 40-year-old woman was unreliable.

The medical evidence they referred to was 'Meadow's law', espoused by prosecution witness Sir Roy Meadow. He maintains that one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder.

At one trial, he said the chances of two infants from one family dying from cot death was one in 73 million.

The UK government has now ordered a review of 258 cases where parents were convicted of killing their children in light of Monday's ruling.

Thousands of other parents who had a child taken away from them on the basis of similar evidence will also have their case re-examined.

However, experts in Europe and the United States believe Britain's approach to investigating sudden infant death is wrong.

Your child dies of SIDS, so now you're on the firing line. A second child dies, so now you're guilty. Talk about grading on the curve! I suspect many of those parents were absolutely innocent - even if many or most were guilty. Those people, innocent of crime and cursed by tragedy, then lost their surviving children or went to prison. Those double victimes may say this is as bad as the American system of executing people without just process. Shame on Britain for tolerating this law; one wonders what other similar procedures have been followed. They're almost as low as we are -- ok, not that low.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Poverty in America - NYT Magazine

A Poor Cousin of the Middle Class
Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing, not just one problem but a constellation of problems: not just inadequate wages but also inadequate education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves.

The difference between the Raptors (Republicans) and the Losers (liberals/democrats) is how we consider the "unfit", those who've lost out in a culture of aggressive natural selection. The religious Raptor might say that they have done something to displease God, the secular Raptor that the unfit do not deserve sympathy.

The Loser would say that we need another answer; that a reasonably comfortable life with a hope of happiness should be available to everyone; not luxury, but some happiness, comfort, and security.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

U.S. School Segregation Now at '69 Level (

U.S. School Segregation Now at '69 Level (
Half a century after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of American education, schools are almost as segregated as they were when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, according to a report released today by Harvard University researchers.

The study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, shows that progress toward school desegregation peaked in the late 1980s as courts concluded that the goals of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had largely been achieved. Over the past 15 years, the trend has been in the opposite direction, and most white students now have "little contact" with minority students in many areas of the country, according to the report.

"We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the nation are becoming increasingly segregated," noted the report, which was issued on the eve of the holiday celebrating King's birthday.

Triggered by a civil rights case in Topeka, Kan., the Brown decision marked the start of three decades of intensive efforts by the federal government to integrate public schools, first through court orders that opened white schools to minority students and later through busing. Its most dramatic impact was in southern states, where the percentage of blacks attending predominantly white schools increased from zero in 1954 to 43 percent in 1988.

By 2001, according to the Harvard data, the figure had fallen to 30 percent, or about the level in 1969, the year after King's assassination.

"We are losing many of the gains of desegregation," said Harvard professor Gary Orfield, the primary author of the report. "We are not back to where we were before Brown, but we are back to when King was assassinated."

The Harvard study suggests that Hispanic students are even more segregated than African American students, while Asian Americans are the most integrated ethnic group in the country. The increase in Latino segregation has been particularly marked in western states, where more than 80 percent of Latinos attend predominantly minority schools, compared with 42 percent in 1968.

Despite the national trend toward resegregation, there are significant differences among states and regions, Orfield said. Maryland is one of the most "rapidly resegregating states" in the country, he said, partly because of the phasing out of court-ordered busing in Prince George's and Baltimore counties and partly because of migration patterns.

The District of Columbia has long been one of the most segregated school districts in the nation, a trend accentuated in recent years by the exodus of white middle-class families.

The most segregated states for black students are New York and Illinois; the most integrated are Kentucky and Washington. For Latinos, the most segregated states are New York and California; the most integrated states are Wyoming and Ohio. Virginia ranks somewhere in the middle for both African Americans and Hispanics.

According to Orfield and other researchers, the resegregation trend picked up momentum as a result of a 1991 Supreme Court decision that authorized a return to neighborhood schools instead of busing, even if such a step would lead to segregation. The consequences were particularly dramatic in school districts such as Prince George's County's that were declared "unitary" by the courts, meaning that they had made a good-faith effort at integration.

According to the Harvard data, the average black student in Prince George's County attends schools with 12 percent fewer white students than a decade ago. In Charlotte, black exposure to white students has dropped by 16 percent, and in DeKalb County, Ga., it has declined by 72 percent.

"Most schools in this country are overwhelmingly black or overwhelmingly white," said Elise Boddie, head of the education department of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., which litigates civil rights cases. "We have still not committed ourselves as a country to the mandate of Brown versus Board of Education. If these trends are not reversed, we could easily find ourselves back to 1954."

The report said that a massive migration of black and Latino families toward the suburbs is producing "hundreds of new segregated and unequal schools and frustrating the dream of middle-class minority families for access to the most competitive schools." It predicted that the suburbs soon could be threatened with the problems of "ghettoization" that have already affected big urban areas.

Such a development, the report warned, would bring the nation closer to the "nightmare" of "two school systems" and "two housing markets" mentioned by King in one of his last public appearances.

"There have been considerable gains in some areas, such as the number of [minority] students attending college," said John Jackson, education director for the NAACP. "But you still find many school districts across the country that are segregated and unequal. The implications are the same as in the '50s: Minority students in high poverty areas are not getting a quality education.

The law of unintended consequences. For integration to have worked we would have had to put vast amounts of money into the educational system; more than equalizing funding even as schools merged. We didn't do that.

Faced with a relative decrease in perceived quality of education and fears of increased risk to their children, middle class Euros (anglos, whites) left the cities and wealth Euros enrolled children in private schools. The urban public school system came to resemble the unequal and underfunded Black public schools of the the 1960s.

I don't think preserving busing would have changed things. And I don't think we're getting closer to the "nightmare" of two systems, I think we're already there.

In the meanwhile Euros will be a minority majority soon; we already are in California. So the equation will change again.

I don't know what would have worked for America. If I didn't distrust Republicans so intensely and deeply I'd try vouchers -- but the vouchers would never be adequately funded by this administration -- and special needs children would be abandoned to the wolves.

Give away the software, sell the hardware

New Economy: Can Hardware Rise Above Software?
... For Microsoft, the issue transcends online music. The foundation of Microsoft's power and leverage in the computing industry is based almost entirely on a set of software sockets known as application programmers' interfaces, or A.P.I.'s. It is those A.P.I.'s that other software publishers must adapt to in writing programs for use on Windows machines. By controlling the shape of the sockets, and what can fit into them, Microsoft has a powerful advantage against its competitors.

The Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit in the 1990's was about Silicon Valley's quarrel with Microsoft over control of the A.P.I.'s. During the trial in 1998, Apple's lead software designer, Avi Tevanian, described his company's efforts to persuade PC makers to bundle Apple's QuickTime media software with their machines and how Microsoft demanded that Apple 'knife the baby' - in other words, drop the QuickTime bundling effort.

Now, with the new Apple-Hewlett alliance, Mr. Jobs finally has a QuickTime bundling arrangement. The program, which allows for the playing of video clips on a PC, will be a standard feature of every Hewlett-Packard computer. So will another Apple software technology, Rendezvous, which is an A.P.I. designed to let the computer identify and create links to any printer, camera, music player or other digital device without complicated configuration procedures on the user's part.

Simply put, Mr. Jobs has managed to inject Apple's DNA into the PC world, meaning that it will be increasingly easy for his company to offer PC users any kind of iPod-style device - whether for music or other media - the company may create in the future.

Don't be surprised, in other words, if Mr. Jobs and Apple have many razors in the works.

Markoff knows, though he didn't say so, that Apple has always made money off hardware. Apple has long given away software (bundled with machines) while controlling what hardware would work with the software. So the iPod is only the continuation of an old business model. What's more novel is Apple's move towards software leasing (.Mac) -- something Microsoft longs to do.

IBM is bundling Linux with its non-PC hardware, so it's been giving away the (free) software and selling hardware for a while.

He's partially right about Quicktime. Yes, HP is bundling. But just as important is that iTunes, freely downloaded by millions, is a trojan horse for QuickTime. That's the bigger bundling. The Rendezvous observation is very important.

Microsoft completely controls the software industry -- with the exception of Linux which has a much smaller revenue stream. The analogy is an organism that totally occupies and ecological niche. Eventually organisms that can't compete move into another niche. Given Microsoft's power the mutations required are considerable -- software costs plummet by a rock. Eventually Microsoft is competing against "free" (not free of course, just that the costs are concealed.)

Friday, January 16, 2004

Alsoft - DiskWarrior - when OS X goes really bad

Alsoft - DiskWarrior

Mad Cow: Casting light in dark places

PCRM >> News and Media Center >> Health News Release Archive
Farmers routinely feed animal remains, blood, and manure—particularly chicken feces—to cattle. Although the USDA prohibits the feeding of ruminant (e.g., cows, sheep, and goats) remains to ruminants, this rule is poorly enforced and does not preclude many other risky practices, including the feeding of blood, manure, and nonruminants (e.g., chickens, pigs, etc.) to cows. Cattle remains are also fed to chickens, whose wastes are then fed back to cows. PCRM recommends a ban on all these practices.

Those rapid fire cracking sounds you hear are the sounds of "straws breaking backs" across the nation.

The Mad Cow incident is causing some light to be cast into some very dark places. These practices have been revealed in a few books and articles, but mostly we've chosen not to know. Now we know, and even the most fervent Republican doesn't trust this administration to keep our food safe.

Coincidentally, our closest Burger King just closed.

If organic coops were publicly traded, their share prices would be going mad. At the prices that middle class folk will soon be paying for meat we'll be eating a lot less of it. On the other hand, poor people will soon have be able to eat very inexpensive steak -- if they choose.

Globalization and the Export of American Labor: Outsourcing non-IT knowledge work -- now it's the lawyers

Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune, On business: Outsourcing hits legal services
First it was the apparel workers -- the working class -- who saw their $10-an-hour jobs go overseas.

More recently, the United States has started to export to India the $35,000-a-year customer-service center jobs from the likes of American Express Financial Advisors and $50,000 technical-support positions from IBM and ADC Telecommunications to India and elsewhere where educated, English-speaking workers are hired for a tenth of the cost to communicate with U.S. customers by phone and over the Internet.

Now, six-figure lawyers and legal support staffs are starting to sweat.

At West, the Eagan-based legal-publishing unit of Canada's Thomson Corp., there's a buzz over a small test office in Bombay, India, where Indian lawyers may one day interpret and synthesize U.S. court decisions for subscribers of Westlaw, the online legal network relied upon by thousands of practicing U.S. attorneys.

To date, this work has been the growing province of a group of 150-plus editor-lawyers in Eagan and elsewhere who review court decisions, synopsize them and write "headnotes" for each point of law. This work is then keyed into Westlaw's league-leading database, enabling lawyers to quickly review and cite decisions and other relevant case law in West's venerable classification system.

So far, just a few months into the quiet Indian pilot-office experience, the half-dozen or so Indian lawyers have been doing online interpretation and legal-classification of "unpublished decisions" of U.S. state and lower courts that are not considered big deals -- or "precedential" in legal parlance.

West editor-lawyers, who make up to $100,000 per year, continue to do the "published opinion" work and are editing the work of the Indian lawyers.

The Indian lawyers are trained in British Common Law, different than U.S. law. But they've been brought into West for in-house training, and more through West trainers in Bombay.

Their work so far has been good, and has the West editors "terrified" that the pilot program will blow into a wholesale operation, which would displace lawyers in Eagan and elsewhere making five or more times the Indian lawyers.

Kyle Christensen, a spokesman for the 6,000-employee West unit in Eagan, said the Eagan workforce has been expanded in recent years to accommodate case analysis and headnoting for Westlaw.

And, as part of its expansion to start giving the same treatment to unpublished opinion, West opened the Bombay office to "assess potential improvement in the product and how we might better use outside resources," Christensen said.

"None of the work, to this point, that has been completed in India has made it into any of our publications. It's a test. It's possible that some of the low-end support could work out. The analysis, headnoting, detailed classification will remain in Eagan." he said.

Referring to the Indian office, Christensen said: "They're not actually providing analysis. They're doing some review of how to assign key numbers to administrative law decisions. And they're doing some training on writing headnotes for unpublished decisions."

The West spokesman is quick to add that dozens of West lawyers also work in Minnesota to interpret the legal decisions of British, Spanish, Greek and other courts for lawyers in those countries.

Still, West's Indian office is a toehold in what once was considered an all-American business, immune from the foreign competitors that took manufacturing, and now services jobs, overseas.

The American Lawyer reported recently that General Electric and other U.S. behemoths are starting to use low-cost Indian lawyers to supplant some of the work formerly done by outside U.S. law firms.

A vice president of the Chicago-based outsourcing firm Mindcrest, which has an Indian subsidiary that handles legal work, told the American Lawyer that business is booming for basic research and low-rung work usually done by paralegals and junior lawyers for U.S. corporations and law firms.

Moreover, Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., the market research firm, predicts that by 2015, more than 489,000 U.S. lawyer jobs -- about 8 percent of the total, will shift to lower-cost countries.

Ironically, a Twin Cities personnel recruiter says the trend will grow because corporations and senior partners at law firms will have a financial incentive to farm out the less-costly boilerplate work now done by junior people.

Ron Kreps, the managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Fulbright & Jaworski, said: "West provides a great service, you bet they do. We can't just rely on a West editor and keynotes, but yes, they get you started. And it's very important that the keynotes are accurate.

"I don't care where the people sit who write them, but I do care that they know U.S. common law and the trends in the U.S. And that's different than British common law. The bigger question is: Can professional services be done offshore? That's the question a lot of professions are worried about."

Globalization, long the nightmare of displaced Minnesota taconite miners, electronics assemblers and North Carolina textile workers, takes on a different wrinkle when it starts to claim not just the job of Jane Lunchpail, but also threatens the jobs of those who were banking on country club memberships.

Fascinating, an understated and very well written summary. Not surprising; I've been predicting this one for a couple of years. Nice to have confirmation though.

The synthesis and extension of existing "content" (industry term for this type of knowledge) has no regulatory barriers. It requires intellect and domain knowledge, it requires an ability to read but not speak or write English, it does not require physical presence. If the domain knowledge is costly in the US, but substantially less costly overseas, the work will move very quickly. In other words, the barrriers to migration of work in this instance are very low and the incentives are high.

I know of one corporation in the medical content domain who's essentially outsourcing some of their content management and development to a (relatively) "low wage" nation. (In this case English speaking and highly industrialized, but physician wages in many nations are a fraction of US physician wages. The same thing is true for lawyers.)

I think this globalization, which does put my own job at risk, is a great thing for the world. Insofar as we are a part of this world, it's a great thing for us. The challenge for a great leader is to find a way mitigate the great hurt it will do to many people in the US. Injuring the career prospects of lawyers is likely to lead to more change than unemploying blue collar workers and IT professionals. Lawyers are close to politicians, and politicians have the power. The danger is a stupid protectionist response, one that will harm us and the world. The other choice, however, is far too novel for our current administration to consider. One can only pray that a miracle occurs and Bush is displaced from power this year.

Gore on Bush: Orwellian language

NYT, Herbert: Masters of Deception
...Amid cheers, he [Gore] made it clear that the broad interests of the American public are consistently betrayed by the policies and practices of President Bush and his administration. 'They devise their policies with as much secrecy as possible,' he said, 'and in close cooperation with the most powerful special interests that have a monetary stake in what happens. In each case, the public interest is not only ignored, but actively undermined. In each case, they devote considerable attention to a clever strategy of deception that appears designed to prevent the American people from discerning what it is they are actually doing.

'Indeed, they often use Orwellian language to disguise their true purposes. For example, a policy that opens national forests to destructive logging of old-growth trees is labeled Healthy Forest Initiative. A policy that vastly increases the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the air is called the Clear Skies Initiative.

Orwellian language has been a strong feature of the Republican party since Gingrich. Stalinists and Nazis were past masters of the art; it's important for any power structure where self deception is critical.

Krugman compares the Bush administration to Nixon. I think Bush is a curious blend of Nixon and Reagan; a fascinating combination of a sharp mind, extraordinary discipline, unbounded arrogance, and a total lack of curiousity about the world.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The extraordinarily rapid selection and evolution of the human brain

Evolution of Gene Related to Brain - Nicholas Wade -NYT

A gene that helps determine the size of the human brain has been under intense Darwinian pressure in the last few million years, changing its structure 15 times since humans and chimps separated from their common ancestor, biologists have found.

The gene came to light two years ago, when a disrupted form of it was identified as the cause of microcephaly, a disease in which people are born with an abnormally small cerebral cortex...

The gene, known as the ASPM gene, has been under steady selective pressure throughout the evolution of the great apes, a group that includes orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, Dr. Lahn and colleagues say in an article being published today in the journal Human Molecular Genetics. By contrast, the versions of the gene possessed by monkeys, dogs, cats and cows show no particular sign of being under selective pressure.

The progressive change in the architecture of the ASPM protein over the last 18 million years is correlated with a steady increase in the size of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive function, during the ape and human lineage. Evolution has been particularly intense in the five million years since humans split from chimpanzees.

"There has been a sweep every 300,000 to 400,000 years, with the last sweep occurring between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago," Dr. Lahn said, referring to a genetic change so advantageous that it sweeps through a population, endowing everyone with the same improved version of a gene.

But since the last sweep, the gene seems to have been kept stable by what geneticists call purifying selection, the removal of any change that makes a significant difference to the gene's protein product, according to an independent study by Dr. Jianzhi Zhang, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan. Dr. Zhang's report was published last month in the journal Genetics.

Early hominids like Australopithecus africanus, which lived some three million years ago, had a brain that weighed about 420 grams (15 ounces); modern human brains range from 1,350 to 1,450 grams, an increase that Dr. Zhang calls "one of the most rapid morphological changes in evolution." The brain of a typical patient with microcephaly is the same weight as that of an australopithecus, Dr. Zhang noted, as if disruption of the gene negated three million years of development.

Disruption of the ASPM gene was identified as a cause of microcephaly two years ago by Dr. Geoffrey Woods, a British pediatrician, and Dr. Christopher Walsh, a neurogeneticist at the Harvard Medical School. Their finding instantly caught the interest of evolutionary geneticists.

At least five other genes, yet to be identified, can cause microcephaly when disrupted by a mutation, so ASPM is not the only determinant of human brain size. But given what is now known about its evolutionary history, it does seem to be an important one. It acts during fetal development to prescribe the number of cells in the future cerebral cortex.

Most human genes exist as families of similar members, formed when one gene gets accidentally duplicated one or several times. The ASPM gene is "almost unique," Dr. Walsh wrote by e-mail, because in all known animal genomes, it has resisted the usual duplication events and been maintained as a single copy. Single-copy genes can cause serious disease if disrupted by mutation. But their advantage, in terms of evolution, is that "you only have to edit them once to create a lasting change," Dr. Walsh said.

Evidently, the ASPM gene has been heavily edited, but with an apparently fortunate result.

This is breathtaking work, and it fits in well with a series of articles I've posted about over the past few months. Comparative DNA analysis shows very extensive changes in many genetic determinants of brain morphology and cognitive functions -- all of which appears to have slowed or stopped in the past 150,000 years. We are freshly made.

We don't know what those selection pressures were, but it's commonly assumed that they are due to human interactions, both competitive and cooperative. We've had no significant predators for some time. What was the first mutation that set us down the road that chimpanzees did NOT follow?! It is the fascinating difference, something that causes us to enter into a building pattern of cognitive development. (Science Fiction fans will recognize the "altered evolution" theme of a myriad of good and bad science fiction stories.)

Our "newness" also suggests that cognition may be frail and fragile, with many "new'" genes that may lack redundancy. This is a single copy gene! I suspect cognitive defects (schizophrenia, learning disorders, pervasive developmental delay/autism, etc) are FAR more common in humans than in any other animal. Our cognition is frail.

Can we estimate the capabilities of an Australopithecus from studying persons afflicted with microcephaly?

This research also points the way to the next shocking scandal -- enhanced chimpanzees. I am sure some research in the next 10 years will create a chimpanzee with an enhanced brain -- if they haven't already done so. Let me be among the first to insist on their civil rights.

O'Neill learns Cheney is the mole -- a great story of the Bush White House

Paul O'Neill, Unplugged, or What Would Alexander Hamilton Have Done? NYT OpEd
... Mr. O'Neill's is a woeful tale of what it feels like to sit in the office once occupied by Alexander Hamilton and be subservient to people like Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.

'We need to be better about keeping politics out of the policy process,' Mr. O'Neill told Dick Cheney, his old friend from the Ford administration who had recommended him for the job early on. In this tale, the Treasury secretary repeatedly implores the vice president to foster a more open and rigorous policy-making process in the White House, but to no avail. These scenes are reminiscent of a spy thriller in which the protagonist warns the head of counterintelligence that there is an enemy mole in their midst, only to discover that his confidant is actually the mole.

Long after the reader has figured it out, Mr. O'Neill finally realizes that Mr. Cheney is the leader of the inner circle ....

O'Neill appears to have been genuinely shocked by how things turned out. How could he have been so naive? He should have known better. If we knew how he fooled himself we might understand how to awaken the other fools.

$1 Billion for Mars, $1.5 billion for marriage.

Bush Plans $1.5 Billion Drive for Promotion of Marriage
Bush adds $1 billion to NASA's budget and calls it a Mars mission. He then puts 1.5 billion into marriage promotion.

The media goes nuts.

A few points.

1. $1 billion is not going to take us to Mars.
2. $1.5 billion to promote marriage is sheer flaming idiocy.
3. Bush is evidently printing money. No wonder the dollar is falling.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The Maher Arar Case: American Disgrace, take II

The Maher Arar Case: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal
Christopher Pyle writes about the Maher Arar case:

Torture by proxy / How immigration threw a traveler to the wolves: On Sept. 26, 2002, U.S. immigration officials seized a Syrian-born Canadian at Kennedy International Airport, because his name had come up on an international watch list for possible terrorists. What happened next is chilling.

Maher Arar was about to change planes on his way home to Canada after visiting his wife's family in Tunisia when he was pulled aside for questioning. He was not a terrorist. He had no terrorist connections, but his name was on the list, so he was detained for questioning. Not ordinary, polite questioning, but abusive, insulting, degrading questioning by the immigration service, the FBI and the New York City Police Department.

He asked for a lawyer and was told he could not have one. He asked to call his family, but phone calls were not permitted. Instead, he was clapped into shackles and, for several days, made to "disappear." His family was frantic.

Finally, he was allowed to make a call. His government expected that Arar's right of safe passage under its passport would be respected. But it wasn't. Arar denied any connection to terrorists. He was not accused of any crimes, but U.S. agents wanted him questioned further by someone whose methods might be more persuasive than theirs.

So, they put Arar on a private plane and flew him to Washington, D.C. There, a new team, presumably from the CIA, took over and delivered him, by way of Jordan, to Syrian interrogators. This covert operation was legal, our Justice Department later claimed, because Arar is also a citizen of Syria by birth. The fact that he was a Canadian traveling on a Canadian passport, with a wife, two children and job in Canada, and had not lived in Syria for 16 years, was ignored. The Justice Department wanted him to be questioned by Syrian military intelligence, whose interrogation methods our government has repeatedly condemned.

The Syrians locked Arar in an underground cell the size of a grave: 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, 7 feet high. Then they questioned him, under torture, repeatedly, for 10 months. Finally, when it was obvious that their prisoner had no terrorist ties, they let him go, 40 pounds lighter, with a pronounced limp and chronic nightmares.

Why was Arar on our government's watch list? Because "multiple international intelligence agencies" had linked him to terrorist groups. How many agencies? Two. What had they reported? Not much.

The Syrians believed that Arar might be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because a cousin of his mother's had been, nine years earlier, long after Arar moved to Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that the lease on Arar's apartment had been witnessed by a Syrian- born Canadian who was believed to know an Egyptian Canadian whose brother was allegedly mentioned in an al Qaeda document.

That's it. That's all they had: guilt by the most remote of computer- generated associations. But, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, that was more than enough to justify Arar's delivery to Syria's torturers.

Besides, Ashcroft added, the torturers had expressly promised that they would not torture him.

I've written about this before. We need the Washington Post or the New York Times to get to the bottom of this. Reporting has been limited to a few blogs. Are the allegations correct?

60 years ago Americans imprisoned Americans with Japanese ancestors -- because of their ancestry. That was a national disgrace. We are again disgracing ourselves.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

NYT: Insurance pays $2000 for smoking cessation advice

Focus on ’Prevention’ Divides Cancer Experts: "The 2,000 people, the worried well, who come each year to Memorial Sloan-Kettering's cancer prevention center will learn that many cancers can, in fact, be prevented, and that it is up to them to have the appropriate medical tests and to live right.

For their $2,000 fee, most of which is paid by health insurance, they may be steered to smoking cessation sessions, or watch a cooking demonstration and hear a talk by a nutritionist. They will learn the early signs and symptoms of cancer and they almost certainly will have a cancer screening test.

... Cancer prevention has become a buzzword these days, with some medical centers, like M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, planning entire buildings just for prevention. Its center will open in about a year, big as eight and a half football fields.

We used to give away this advice for free, at the end of the much-derided annual "physical exam". Apparently at $2000 a pop, paid by health insurance (!?!) it's much more effective. It must come as a shock to patients to learn they can reduce their cancer risk by not smoking.

This fits perfectly with marketing and economics research on pricing theory. If the patients/students were paying out of pocket I'd say this was "medical infotainment" -- marginally useful information that has a high entertainment value. But their insurance companies are paying?! There's something wrong here.

As for Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson -- this is a variant of what they've done for years; live off the worried well. To some extent this may be subsidizing other care and research they provide.

Friday, January 09, 2004

BBC - US fears of 'dirty bomb' - homeless men with radium pellets

BBC NEWS | Americas | Fresh US fears of 'dirty bomb'
Scientists have been secretly testing radiation levels in major US cities as part of the latest security alert, the Washington Post has reported.

The newspaper says officials feared a radioactive "dirty bomb" could target New Year celebrations. It says the government sent out dozens of nuclear scientists with detection equipment hidden in briefcases and golf bags to check for radioactive material...

... The first and only alert came in Las Vegas on 29 December, when detection devices picked up a trace of radiation, the newspaper says.

The White House was notified, but the radiation was found to have come from a cigar-sized radium pellet, used to treat cancer, that a homeless man had found and hidden among his belongings.

Ok ... so substantial hunks of radium pellets are just ... errrr .... lying around? This is supposed to be reassuring? How many cigar sized radium pellets does it take to build a dirty bomb anyway?

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Nursing Shortage Forces Hospitals to Cope Creatively

Nursing Shortage Forces Hospitals to Cope Creatively
A study by Dr. Aiken found that patients scheduled for routine surgery were 31 percent more likely to die in a hospital with a patient-to-nurse ratio of eight to one than in a hospital with a ratio of four to one. The study was published last year in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

There are probably vast differences, particularly in the wealth of the facility and the patient population, between low ratio and high ratio institutions. So the results are noteworthy but not conclusive -- as with all studies of this nature.

That said, I have a strong belief that overburdening health care workers increases error rates. (Duh!) Nursing is under particular stress. It is a peculiar profession in the combination of shift work, physical demands, emotional burden, and cognitive and training requirements. Medicine is not nearly so physically demanding. A paraplegic physician can excel at a very wide variety of work in almost all settings, a paraplegic nurse would probably not do direct patient care. It is not surprising that the role cannot be filled at any affordable price -- particulary as the US population ages. It is hard to be 55 and moving patients around.

Nursing will have to split into several different roles with different training requirements. In particular I think a lot of the physical aspects of nursing, which are often very satisfying to care providers, may shift to other workers.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Nicholas Kristof (NYT): The God Gulf - comment - The Yahwites and the Jesites

Op-Ed Columnist: The God Gulf
America is riven today by a 'God gulf' of distrust, dividing churchgoing Republicans from relatively secular Democrats. A new Great Awakening is sweeping the country, with Americans increasingly telling pollsters that they believe in prayer and miracles, while only 28 percent say they believe in evolution. All this is good news for Bush Republicans, who are in tune with heartland religious values, and bad news for Dean Democrats who don't know John from Job.

From an email to Nicholas Kristof:

Great article on American religion. You are the only columnist I know of leading on this most critical of issues.

I think you've skirted, however, a second great schism, between the "Yahwites" and the "Jesites". Both call themselves Christian, but they are as different as the Old and New Testaments -- and equally irreconcilable.

The Yahwites worship Yahweh, and draw their theology from the Old Testament -- a quintessentially Republican document. The Jesites follow a blend of the teachings of Paul and Christ, a doctrine that is more comfortably Democrat or even secular humanist. Mainstream Prostestant and Catholic churches, now in decline, lean towards Jesism; the evangelicals tend to Yahwism.

The Yahwites are in ascendance. In their doctrine God rewards virtue with wealth, and punishes his enemies with brutal power -- sowing salt upon the fields of the dead. The Jesites, always a minority, are in retreat. In particular the teachings of Jesus are so peculiar and demanding as to be almost unattainable for most humans. Jesites are always falling short of their ideal. Frustrating and not so marketable as Yahwism.

There is only a small theological gap between the Yahwites and the Wahaabi, so it is ironic that fundamentalist Islam should see Bush as their virulent enemy. Not the first irony in history.

Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper (

Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper (
Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper
Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage

A long and thorough article on the Iraqi program. Since the invasion of Iraq we've learned how weak our intelligence has been; Libya has confirmed the suspicion that much that was suspected of Iraq was true only of Pakistan.

Late in the article it presents one of the few mitigating explanations of our intelligence failure -- that we read the same reports Sadaam read, and those reports were deceptions designed to preserve the lives and advance the careers of Iraqi engineers and scientists. This theory has the advantage that it may also explain why Sadaam set himself up for invasion. It will be interesting to see if it survives the inspection of historians.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Yes, the religious right is winning -- roll over Dawin. News | Avenging angel of the religious right
This September, Discovery [front for the religious right] lobbied the Texas State Board of Education to mandate language in its high school biology textbooks challenging what Chapman called 'fake facts' in evolutionary studies. After a heated debate in which dozens of Discovery fellows and their opponents from the scientific community testified, a panel voted to adopt the textbooks after a promise from the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency that all remaining 'factual errors' would be addressed by publishers before the textbooks get into the hands of students. Discovery hailed this as a major victory, but the effect is clear: The fact that both human and other mammal embryos have gill slits -- which proves to mainstream scientists that we share an evolutionary lineage with prehistoric vertebrates -- is slated for 'correction.'

Since Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation (next to California), it has a major influence on what publishers decide to put in their books. And so, as it has gone with other cleverly orchestrated Ahmanson-funded campaigns, Discovery's small victory is intended to have national consequences.

If you don't like the facts, then change 'em. It worked for Mao, it works here too.

Ahmanson and Christian Reconstructionism -- Wahaabism for the west News | Avenging angel of the religious right
... It was then that he found his salvation in the church and in R.J. Rushdoony, a prolific author and an influential theologian of the far right. Rushdoony is the father of Christian Reconstructionism, a strange variant of Calvinism that stresses waging political struggle to put the earth, and in particular the U.S., under the control of biblical law. In his 30-some books, he advocated everything from the end of government-administered social welfare and public schools to the execution of homosexuals. For around 20 years, until Rushdoony's death in 1995, Ahmanson served on the board of his think tank, Chalcedon, granting it a total of $1 million. In exchange, Rushdoony acted as Ahmanson's spiritual advisor, imbuing him with a sense of order and a mission.

Biblical Law for the US. Islamic Law for Saudi Arabia. There's less distance between Wahaabism and GWB than is commonly thought. | Joe Conason's Journal - Cockburn on Rupert Murdoch | Joe Conason's Journal
Murdoch offers his target governments a privatized version of a state propaganda service, manipulated without scruple and with no regard for truth. His price takes the form of vast government favors such as tax breaks, regulatory relief (as with the recent FCC ruling on the acquisition of Direct TV), monopoly markets and so forth. The propaganda is undertaken with the utmost cynicism, whether it's the stentorian fake populism and soft porn in the UK's Sun and News of the World, or shameless bootlicking of the butchers of Tiananmen Square.

More interestingly the Wall Street Journal's editorial page does the same thing, but only for Republicans and without a very clear payoff.

Robert Rubin joins the Krugman Coalition: Shrill and Shriller

Op-Ed Columnist: Rubin Gets Shrill
...Those of us who have suggested that the irresponsibility of recent American policy may produce a similar disaster have been dismissed as shrill, even hysterical. (Hey, the market's up, isn't it?) But few would describe Robert Rubin, the legendary former Treasury secretary, as hysterical: his ability to stay calm in the face of crises, and reassure the markets, was his greatest asset. And Mr. Rubin has formally joined the coalition of the shrill.

In a paper presented over the weekend at the meeting of the American Economic Association, Mr. Rubin and his co-authors, Peter Orszag of the Brookings Institution and Allan Sinai of Decision Economics, argue along lines that will be familiar to regular readers of this column. The United States, they point out, is currently running very large budget and trade deficits. Official projections that this deficit will decline over time aren't based on 'credible assumptions.' Realistic projections show a huge buildup of debt over the next decade, which will accelerate once the baby boomers retire in large numbers....

'Substantial ongoing deficits,' they warn, 'may severely and adversely affect expectations and confidence, which in turn can generate a self-reinforcing negative cycle among the underlying fiscal deficit, financial markets, and the real economy. . . . The potential costs and fallout from such fiscal and financial disarray provide perhaps the strongest motivation for avoiding substantial, ongoing budget deficits.' In other words, do cry for us, Argentina: we may be heading down the same road.

Bushies belittle Krugman by calling him "shrill", "hysterical" and a "girlie-boy" (I made up the last one.) Kudos to Krugman for adopting "shrill" as his slogan.

The Economist is beginning to mutter the same sort of thing -- hard for them since they sold out to the Republicans two years ago.

This forecast, and the real estate bubble, are good reasons not to put all assets in a hot market, and to look for investments that go up if the US goes down. (But do they exist?)

Monday, January 05, 2004

Scientist at Work: On Crime as Science (a Neighbor at a Time) - NYT

Scientist at Work: On Crime as Science (a Neighbor at a Time)
...In a landmark 1997 paper that he wrote with colleagues in the journal Science, and in a subsequent study in The American Journal of Sociology, Dr. Earls reported that most major crimes were linked not to 'broken windows' but to two other neighborhood variables: concentrated poverty and what he calls, with an unfortunate instinct for the dry and off-putting language of social science, collective efficacy.

'If you got a crew to clean up the mess,' Dr. Earls said, 'it would last for two weeks and go back to where it was. The point of intervention is not to clean up the neighborhood, but to work on its collective efficacy. If you organized a community meeting in a local church or school, it's a chance for people to meet and solve problems.

'If one of the ideas that comes out of the meeting is for them to clean up the graffiti in the neighborhood, the benefit will be much longer lasting, and will probably impact the development of kids in that area. But it would be based on this community action.

Crime rates respond to community actions. I have no idea how well done this reasearch was, but I've never come close to publishing in Science. I doubt there've been many such studies published at that level. Lessons for Iraq too? The beauty of the results is they represent something that can be done, and something that both Rebublicans (Raptors) and Democrats (Losers) can agree upon.

News of the Fermi Paradox: Abundant mature galaxies, abundant earth-friendly regions

Galaxies in Young Cosmos More Massive and Mature than Expected
The universe is laden with massive galaxies that formed while the universe was just one billion years old, an era when such mature galaxies were not expected to exist...
and separately
Conditions Ripe for Complex Life at 10 Percent of Stars

As many as 10 percent of all stars in the Milky Way Galaxy might offer suitable conditions for the development of complex life, according to a new computer model...

The study concludes that one in ten stars are in a region where enough heavy elements existed to form Earth-like planets and where supernova explosions were sufficiently rare so as not to squelch life. A final condition the stars met: Each could have supported planets over at least 4 billion years, roughly the time it took for complex life to evolve on Earth.

Taken together these results further diminish one proposed solution to the Fermi Paradox -- namely that we seem to be "alone" because conditions that are favorable for technologic civilizations are exquisitely rare. In fact they are in line with the sample-of-one theory -- if you have only one sample from a distribution you're best statistical assumption is to assume that it's typical.

That leaves the other common solution -- that expansionist technological civilizations like ours are very short lived; either because they destroy themselves or because they univerallly and fairly quickly turn into something that's not interested in following the Fermi path of exponential growth in the physical universe. Here we don't have a "sample" to go by -- our technological civilization is young but not yet over.