Friday, April 30, 2004

Understanding war crimes -- American GIs in Iraq

The Memory Hole > Photos of Iraqis Being Abused by US Personnel
War is brutalizing in the best of times. For the US military in Iraq this is not the best of times. Under conditions of extreme stress and inadequate support they are breaking down, just as warriors did in Vietnam and Algeria and the Pacific Islands and the Russian Front ...

Bush has lost his war. America has lost its reputation, its honor, its credibility, and many many lives. Bush has sacrificed so much. Even if his intent were just (and history will judge that), the execution of his plans was criminally incompetent. He should stand for court martial along with these GIs.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Defeating the pandemic of online news registration requirements

The Washington Monthly

More newspapers are requiring registration; it's becoming a real annoyance. It turns out there's a longstanding solution -- a "public" identity.

un: cyberpunk
pw: cyberpunk

The thread I link to (above) claims this is an old net tradition; that for years the net equivalent of Kilroy has been cyberpunk.

I just tested it for the LA Times. It works. Alas, it provokes some interesting responses from Hotmail and Yahoo suggesting they invalidated this one a while ago.

Eventually this un/pw will become invalid. But others will take its place.

I don't recommend using this approach -- it is certainly dishonest and arguably it's a form of theft. On the other hand ...

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Capitalism's challenge: attaching value to public goods

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004): a Weblog
Social value is drifting away from potential profitability, and this threatens to become a huge problem in our collective social resource allocation mechanisms. Google needs to grow to approximately ten times its current profitability and then maintain its market share and margins indefinitely in order to justify the $20 billion valuation. And that's hard to see: high sustained profits are the result of effectively-maintained barriers to competitors--think Microsoft, think Intel. What is going to be Google's counterpart permanent edge?

Writers are compelled to communicate. Coders are compelled to code. If writers and coders aren't paid for what their compulsions, they exercise them anyway. Writers create blog entries for their mothers and spouses, coders (being more useful) produce open source applications.

The internet allows the more marketable writers to reach an audience, and it allows distributed collaboration on software projects. Complex systems interact over time and produce new adaptations, such as very complex distributed software collaborations.

None of this activity is following market demands. It is compulsion-driven (historicallly always true for art and writing). The modern difference is that software creation can have large economic consequences (eg. Linux). To some extent the writing compulsion may also propagate memes at higher velocities, raising the "world IQ".

It would be historically consistent that even as capitalism stands unrivalled, odd cracks in the facade are emerging. These cracks are of great interest to economists, much as physicists are thrilled by miniscule errors in the predictions of the "standard model".

See also my post on market failures and a recent personal experience with a toy bank.

Pain of America's soldiers: at least five times the published fatality rate

The Lasting Wounds of War (
While attention remains riveted on the rising count of Americans killed in action -- more than 100 so far in April -- doctors at the main combat support hospital in Iraq are reeling from a stream of young soldiers with wounds so devastating that they probably would have been fatal in any previous war.

More and more in Iraq, combat surgeons say, the wounds involve severe damage to the head and eyes -- injuries that leave soldiers brain damaged or blind, or both, and the doctors who see them first struggling against despair...

The neurosurgeons at the 31st Combat Support Hospital measure the damage in the number of skulls they remove to get to the injured brain inside, a procedure known as a craniotomy. 'We've done more in eight weeks than the previous neurosurgery team did in eight months,' Poffenbarger said. 'So there's been a change in the intensity level of the war.'

Numbers tell part of the story. So far in April, more than 900 soldiers and Marines have been wounded in Iraq, more than twice the number wounded in October, the previous high. With the tally still climbing, this month's injuries account for about a quarter of the 3,864 U.S. servicemen and women listed as wounded in action since the March 2003 invasion...

... "We're saving more people than should be saved, probably," Lt. Col. Robert Carroll said. "We're saving severely injured people. Legs. Eyes. Part of the brain."....

... Accurate statistics are not yet available on recovery from this new round of battlefield brain injuries, an obstacle that frustrates combat surgeons. But judging by medical literature and surgeons' experience with their own patients, "three or four months from now 50 to 60 percent will be functional and doing things," said Maj. Richard Gullick.

"Functional," he said, means "up and around, but with pretty significant disabilities," including paralysis

The remaining 40 percent to 50 percent of patients include those whom the surgeons send to Europe, and on to the United States, with no prospect of regaining consciousness. The practice, subject to review after gathering feedback from families, assumes that loved ones will find value in holding the soldier's hand before confronting the decision to remove life support.

For every one dead, about 9 are seriously wounded. Of the wounded, a large fraction (1/3?) will die within weeks. Most of the remaining survivors will have significant or severe lifelong disability. Some will never work again, some will never do anything again.

For the purposes of measuring the burden borne by US forces, including reservists and the National Guard, and comparing it to previous conflicts, we should probably multiply the published fatality rates at least fivefold. I suspect, after such an adjustment, we're in the range of Vietnam era combat intensity.

Why is this? How can a relatively modest insurgency inflict such suffering on US forces? I suspect it's the same reason a relatively small group of fanatics can inflict great pain on civilizations. Technology has made effective weapons, techniques, and military infrastructure very affordable. The cost of inflicting harm has fallen faster than the cost of providing defense.

Monday, April 26, 2004

A conservative brit is fed up with the vacuous grins of GWB

Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | While Europe is a eunuch, America is our only shield
So much bad news turned up at Chequers over the weekend that the prime minister might be forgiven if he failed to spot the latest barrage of suicide bombings in Iraq. But Britain's 8,000 troops on the ground noticed, and are not happy. They are prisoners of an American command whose incompetence is manifest, whose soldiers are unsuited to their task, whose failures of policy have been laid bare...

... when Blair made his case about weapons of mass destruction, I believed him. By, say, October 2002, it became evident the Americans were determined to invade. If the Atlantic alliance was to survive, it seemed necessary that British troops should participate. I nursed a further delusion - that Britain might thus be able to exercise marginal influence on Washington's behaviour. We could press Bush to seek international legitimacy, to behave more even-handedly towards the Palestinians.

In all those things, I was wrong. To quote Berger again, the Bush administration believes the US "does not need to seek legitimacy from the approval of others. International institutions and international law are nothing more than a trap set by weaker nations to constrain us."

Yet the most likely outcome of the forthcoming presidential election is still a Bush victory. There is no reason to suppose this president will behave any differently in a second term. Unlike Clinton, the cynic and adulterer, Bush is a true believer. We are learning the hard way that, in power, true believers can be far more frightening and dangerous than cynics....

... If we are really fed up with Bush, if we recognise that no future US president is likely be entirely to our taste, we should surely get on with creating credible European armed forces. As it is, no European nation - with the possible exception of France - shows the smallest interest in spending money or displaying spine for this purpose.

Until we address this, and against the background of a struggle against international terrorism that is likely to grow more alarming rather than less, America remains the indispensable ally and shield. That means George Bush. At the very moment when most of us feel surfeited with the president's vacuous grin and impregnable moral conceit, we cannot walk away from his follies unless or until Europe makes itself something quite different from the eunuch it is today.

This guy is a conservative brit, in the mold of the Economist. He's spitting mad and a bit frightened. As I wrote earlier, America the Arational is likely to reelect Bush. For the rest of the world, this means more incompetence and greater danger. How to deal with an America that's no longer susceptible to reason

His answer is that the rest of the world needs to reorganize for its own defense, and figure that America will be as much a hindrance as a help.

Bush strategy: abortion access = Democrat = al Qaeda lackey - Transcripts
BLITZER: There is a clear difference when it comes to abortion rights between the president and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. In your opinion, Karen, how big of an issue will this abortion rights issue be in this campaign?

HUGHES: Well, Wolf, it's always an issue. And I frankly think it's changing somewhat. I think after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life.

And President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's try to reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions.

And I think those are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life. It's the founding conviction of our country, that we're endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Unfortunately our enemies in the terror network, as we're seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own.

Expect to see a lot of this. This is Willie Horton on steroids. Bush et al will consistently say in every possible way "a vote for Kerry is a vote for bin Laden" and "Democrats are terrorists".

Maybe it's time to drop the "Karen Hughes is a sweet innocent" masquerade.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Bushworld and America the Arational: Why Bush is likely to win.

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: The Orwellian Olsens
The Orwellian Olsens
Published: April 25, 2004

It's their reality. We just live and die in it.

In Bushworld, our troops go to war and get killed, but you never see the bodies coming home.

In Bushworld, flag-draped remains of the fallen are important to revere and show the nation, but only in political ads hawking the president's leadership against terror.

In Bushworld, we can create an exciting Iraqi democracy as long as it doesn't control its own military, pass any laws or have any power.

In Bushworld, we can win over Falluja by bulldozing it.

In Bushworld, it was worth going to war so Iraqis can express their feelings ("Down With America!") without having their tongues cut out, although we cannot yet allow them to express intemperate feelings in newspapers ("Down With America!") without shutting them down.

In Bushworld, it's fine to take $700 million that Congress provided for the war in Afghanistan and 9/11 recovery and divert it to the war in Iraq that you're insisting you're not planning.

In Bushworld, you don't consult your father, the expert in being president during a war with Iraq, but you do talk to your Higher Father, who can't talk back to warn you to get an exit strategy or chide you for using Him for political purposes.

In Bushworld, it's O.K. to run for re-election as the avenger of 9/11, even as you make secret deals with the Arab kingdom where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from.

In Bushworld, you get to strut around like a tough military guy and paint your rival as a chicken hawk, even though he's the one who won medals in combat and was praised by his superior officers for fulfilling all his obligations.

In Bushworld, it makes sense to press for transparency in Mr. and Mrs. Rival while cultivating your own opacity.

In Bushworld, you can reign as the antiterror president even after hearing an intelligence report about Al Qaeda's plans to attack America and then stepping outside to clear brush.

In Bushworld, those who dissemble about the troops and money it will take to get Iraq on its feet are patriots, while those who are honest are patronizingly marginalized.

In Bushworld, they struggle to keep church and state separate in Iraq, even as they increasingly merge the two in America.

In Bushworld, you can claim to be the environmental president on Earth Day while being the industry president every other day.

In Bushworld, you brag about how well Afghanistan is going, even though soldiers like Pat Tillman are still dying and the Taliban are running freely around the border areas, hiding Osama and delaying elections.

In Bushworld, imperfect intelligence is good enough to knock over Iraq. But even better evidence that North Korea is building the weapons that Saddam could only dream about is hidden away.

In Bushworld, the C.I.A. says it can't find out whether there are W.M.D. in Iraq unless we invade on the grounds that there are W.M.D.

In Bushworld, there's no irony that so many who did so much to avoid the Vietnam draft have now strained the military so much that lawmakers are talking about bringing back the draft.

In Bushworld, we're making progress in the war on terror by fighting a war that creates terrorists.

In Bushworld, you don't need to bother asking your vice president and top Defense Department officials whether you should go to war in Iraq, because they've already maneuvered you into going to war.

In Bushworld, it's perfectly natural for the president and vice president to appear before the 9/11 commission like the Olsen twins.

In Bushworld, you expound on remaking the Middle East and spreading pro-American sentiments even as you expand anti-American sentiments by ineptly occupying Iraq and unstintingly backing Ariel Sharon on West Bank settlements.

In Bushworld, we went to war to give Iraq a democratic process, yet we disdain the democratic process that causes allies to pull out troops.

In Bushworld, you pride yourself on the fact that your administration does not leak to the press, while you flood the best-known journalist in Washington with inside information.

In Bushworld, you list Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack" as recommended reading on your campaign Web site, even though it makes you seem divorced from reality. That is, unless you live in Bushworld.

I thought this was a pretty long list, until I realized she omitted economics, the environment, civil rights, health care, etc.

The comprehensive list would be at least 3 times as long.

Yet Bush will likey be reelected -- despite what "people like me" consider one of the worst records in the history of the presidency. Only Bush II could make the first term Reagan look good. (Second term Reagan, when his dementia was inescapable, was really Howard Baker -- a good middle-of-the-road president).

Maybe it's time for "people like me" to step back and think about why this is so. Bottom line -- it's the role of rationalism. Rationalists (of which Star Trek's Spock is the mythic paradigm), even when they are not scientists, respect science and logic. We have models and beliefs, but we test them. When they fail, we at least consider the possibility that the models are no longer making useful predictions. This doesn't mean rationalists agree on everything -- scientific disputes are often vicious. Very few rationalists are atheists, but we may speculate widely about the nature of deity/deities. Many rationalists have conventional religious beliefs, but they rarely expect God to intervene directly in the material world. Rationalists (at least the human ones) have feelings, emotions and intuitions, but we recognize them and balance them with logic and reason.

Rationalism, the respect for logic, empiricism, and science, is a distinct worldview. Rationalism came to fruition in the enlightenment. The "founding fathers" were extraordinary rationalists. Jefferson and Madison agreed on little, but their arguments referenced "reason".

Rationalism is not the only way of looking at the world. Faith and intuition are also powerful. Many very effective people have combined faith, intuition and rationalism in various parts. Faith is not my strong suite, but I think it's fundamentally advantageous; even in the purely material world a capacity for faith an adaptive trait. Many successful CEOs (and even more failed CEOs) seem to have an extraordinary faith in their own correctness -- despite making as many mistakes are most people.

Bush is not a rationalist; he is arational. He's not "irrational" or "stupid" or "insane", he is something far more effective. He operates on intuition unbridled by science and its burden of logic, analysis, and internal consistency.

Evangelical conservatives are also arationalists; this is not a matter of their faith -- it's that their stated beliefs are internally inconsistent. It's the ability to function happily with profound internal inconsistency throughout one's belief structure that marks the arational. Bush is likewise internally inconsistent, yet he is superficially effective in the exercise of power. (GWB is fundamentally ineffective -- unless his true goal is to bring on the apocalypse. Of course if God is speaking with Bush, then apparently God also wants the end-time to come, in which case I have an eternity in Hell to look forward to.)

Why will Bush get reelected? Because 21st century America has a strong arational streak, as does, the middle East, Africa, Russia and eastern europe. It's strong in politics, in the media, in battles over the definition of science education, and in the rise of non-science based healthcare.

Conversely, I think rationalism may be rising in China and India. If we were living in the 19th century this would result in a turbulent but survivable transition in power and influence from arational to rational nations. Unfortunately, we live in the 21st century, with weapons that can annihilate humanity a dozen different ways all at once.

If I were Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Warren Buffett, rationalists all, I'd be pouring every billion I had into trying to change the outcome of the near-term election, then trying to rebalance America. Only 10-15% of Americans will be strong rationalists, and I suspect it's wise to have 10-15% be strong arationalists. Now, however, the ratio is more like 10% to 50%. That's a threat not just to the American future, but to the future of humanity.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Recruiting for Iraq -- reminescent of a zillion science fiction stories

The New York Times > Business > World Business > Halliburton, in Iraq for the Long Haul, Recruits Employees Eager for Work
Is Iraq the right destination for a 48-year-old with eight grandchildren? Cynthia Johnson, the grandmother in question, laughed at the query as she tried on an airtight yellow jumpsuit that might protect her from a chemical weapons attack.

Ms. Johnson and hundreds of others hired by the Halliburton Company packed into what used to be a J. C. Penney store at the Greenspoint Mall here this week to prepare to go to Iraq. She said her job there, serving food to American troops, was more promising than her previous occupation, cooking on an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

'The money's better and there's the feeling I'm doing something useful,' said Ms. Johnson, a native of Deridder, La. 'My daughters and grandchildren worry for me, but a job like this doesn't come up every day'...

... until passing background checks and absorbing the description of the risks associated with working in Iraq, which include graphic photos of wounded employees returning home.

Everyday life continues to turn into science fiction. It's a cliche of a zillion space operas that barren and lethal "postings" run by brutal corporations are staffed by hardy desperados with few prospects. The cliche, of course, is rooted in myth and history -- the move to the frontier in the hope of a better life.

I hope they know what they're getting into. I suspect many of them actually do understand the risks; it sounds like Halliburton wants them to be well informed.

Friday, April 23, 2004

ADHD: We don't know how to treat it

National Institute of Mental Health Multimodal Treatment Study of ADHD follow-up: 24-month outcomes of treatment strategies for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

I've not read the study, but I've read commentaries that in some ways may be more illuminating. The bottom line -- we don't know how to manage severe ADHD/ODD. It looked like stimulant meds were a cost-effective approach, but their efficacy seems to decline over time. The best results seemed to come from very intensive interventions, but there's no money for them and even their efficacy is not clear over extended periods.

The other result of the study is that growth limitation from stimulants is real -- 1/2" at least. Since many of these kids are very short to begin 1/2" to 1" is significant -- it's not the difference between 5'11" and 6'.

Overall, humility is indicated all around. Maybe everyone will stop beating up on the "bumbling" primary care docs who get stuck managing so much of this problem (not likely).

For physicians and patients I think the take home will be that the stimulants appear to work and they also have significant side-effects. Parents and teachers like behavioral interventions, even though they don't seem to change school outcomes. Stimulant efficacy decreases over time and doses rise.

I suspect we'll now see the "consensus" move towards more intermittent use of stimulants, with higher doses during critical times and lower or no doses on weekends, summers, etc. This is partly a return to old habits, but I think the prn dosing is something we need to learn to accept -- or at least study. We do need to train and incent psychologists to learn how to work with these kids and their parents and teachers. Maybe more school based psychologists? I have a hunch much of what we've learned with autism therapy can carry over to these kids.

And it's very clear we need more basic research and clinical research. I'm intrigued by recent studies of short-term and very-short-term working memory.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Vest memo: what's happening in Iraq

A Report from Iraq: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal
This memo, posted by DeLong and a zillion other sites, is getting some attention. It's from a fan of Chalabi's who is no fan of Bremer's. Chalabi sounds rather more complex than the usual cartoon description. A fascinating insight into what's happening, and not happening in Iraq.

Politically it's hard to place. The author is a Pentagon insider, but neither classic neo-con nor classic conservative. He is deeply suspicious of Iran but says little about Syria. I wonder who leaked this and why.

It's getting enough circulation that either WaPo or the NYT will need to comment.

Monday, April 19, 2004

NYT Op-Ed Contributor: The Last Iraqi Insurgency - brutal force or quick exit?

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: The Last Iraqi Insurgency

This NYT OpEd article was written by a historian. He points out some seemingly uncanny resemblances to the 1920 Iraqi revolt against British rule.

The article starts out well, but it degenerates quickly. In a somewhat vague and incoherent conclusion he seems to favor repeating the 1920s British approach -- brutal mass murder. Given population growth, I assume he's talking about killing 100,000 or so Iraqis. Faluja is said to hold about 200,000, so maybe he favors eliminating the city?

This is why intellectuals should not be allowed to determine military action. He's as bad as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al.

On the other hand NPR featured an active service general today. The general complained of mission creep (the interviewer did not press the obvious point -- was the general complaining about Rumsfeld or Bush -- or did he think someone else defined his mission?). He presented what is likely to be Bush's exit strategy: "We went to Iraq to depose a dictator and to give the Iraqi people a chance at a decent future. It's not our fault that they didn't rise to the occasion ...".

I've always felt Rumsfeld planned to partition Iraq -- why else would he have put so few troops in play?

How common are false convictions?

The New York Times > National > Study Suspects Thousands of False Convictions
A Comprehensive study of 328 criminal cases over the last 15 years in which the convicted person was exonerated suggests that there are thousands of innocent people in prison today.
The study sounds very interesting, but the news report is quite weak. In medical terms a conviction is a "positive test result". Like every other "test", conviction is imperfect; the legal system will always acquit the guilty and convict the innocent. This study gives us some insight into the prevalence of false convictions, unfortunately the journalist provided only a rough number ("thousands"). The study also suggests the causes of false conviction in rape and murder cases. The most frequent cause of false conviction in rape is the misidentification of black men by white women, the most common cause of false conviction in murder cases is deception by "witnesses" (often in return for some advantage) and false confession (often by emotionally or cognitively disabled persons).

The lessons of the study may be:

1. Identification across ethnic groups as not as strong as within ethnic groups. "They all look alike" may not be mere slur, but an accurate statement about how recognition works. This should be relatively easy to research; I suspect the work has been done. The justice system should then relatively devalue identifications where the source and target are of different ethnic groups.

2. Confessions by persons with low IQ or psychiatric problems must be highly suspect.

3. Evidence obtained by persons who have something to gain is highly tainted.

I suspect the study also suggests endemic weaknesses in our system of criminal defense -- but the failure of the journalists or his editor to provide useful data limits that conclusion. I doubt we'll see any reform coming from our current regime. We need a Dickens for the 21st century.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

The New York Times > Magazine > The healthcare policy issue

The New York Times > Magazine > Now Can We Talk About Health Care?

The NYT Magazine focused on healthcare policy this week. The articles were so vapid I only scanned them. I was left with these probably unfair impressions:

1. Hilary doesn't like "Consumer-driven healthcare" (aka "defined contributions", "medical savings accounts", etc). She favors managed care. I though her objections to "defined contributions" were very weak, but they were political objections, not thoughtful objections. (There are thoughtful objections, but they require thinking about unpleasant things -- like rationing.)

2. A fairly healthy couple complained about their inability to get cheap coverage. They seemed to think it was fine for sick people to pay a lot -- just not healthy people.

3. A primary care doc blamed the implosion of primary care on the gatekeeper fiasco. She seemed to miss the effect of employer-driven care plan switching; that alone would have destroyed a care system based on longterm relationships.

I guess things aren't bad enough yet to trigger a real discussion. Let's try again in three years.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Amazon A9 search engine: The Net is getting less boring - or NOT? Search: American politics was famously corrupt in the Gilded Age jfaughnan

A9 is Amazon's new search engine. It's very much influenced by Google, with some interesting touches. One can login, and thereby, I assume, ensure that Amazon knows ABSOLUTELY everything about one. Of course I signed in, based on the recommendations Amazon sends me they don't have a clue who I am anyway.

I tested by searching on a string in a quite recent blog post along with my "jfaughnan" universal semi-unique ID string. A9 had indeed indexed it. Very impressive.

Nice to have some competition. Between RSS feeds, Blogs, search innovations and GMail the net is getting less boring again. It got pretty darned dull between 1996 and 2003.
UPDATE: They are actually licensing Google's search engine! No wonder they returned blogspot searches well.

So this is technically much less interesting, but politically fascinating. Google and Amazon were rumored to be lethal enemies. Are they joining forces in anticipation of Redmond's attack?

Baboon cultural transformaton: hope and human evolution

The New York Times > Science > No Time for Bullies: Baboons Retool Their Culture
Among a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya, a terrible outbreak of tuberculosis 20 years ago selectively killed off the biggest, nastiest and most despotic males, setting the stage for a social and behavioral transformation unlike any seen in this notoriously truculent primate.

In a study appearing today in the journal PloS Biology (online at, researchers describe the drastic temperamental and tonal shift that occurred in a troop of 62 baboons when its most belligerent members vanished from the scene. The victims were all dominant adult males that had been strong and snarly enough to fight with a neighboring baboon troop over the spoils at a tourist lodge garbage dump, and were exposed there to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis, which soon killed them. Left behind in the troop, designated the Forest Troop, were the 50 percent of males that had been too subordinate to try dump brawling, as well as all the females and their young. With that change in demographics came a cultural swing toward pacifism, a relaxing of the usually parlous baboon hierarchy, and a willingness to use affection and mutual grooming rather than threats, swipes and bites to foster a patriotic spirit.

Remarkably, the Forest Troop has maintained its genial style over two decades, even though the male survivors of the epidemic have since died or disappeared and been replaced by males from the outside.
Non-human culture has been demonstrated for many years, both in other primates and in non-primates. This is still an astounding discovery and natural experiment. Even though one expects the baboons to revert to "kind", it's easy to imagine how a reinforcing change in the evironment could reinforce the transformation and make it persistent.

More later ...

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

TaxCut & (probably) TurboTax: Bad beyond salvation

TaxCut - Home - TaxCut Federal

This year I purchased TaxCut Home (Federal and State) and TaxCut Business (LLC Partnership). I normally use an accountant to prepare my taxes, but for various reasons this year it made sense to try using software, with later review by an accountant.

So I had extensive exposure to one of two non-professional tax preparation packages. I chose TaxCut because of past poor experiences with Intuit software in general and with TurboTax in particular. Intuit's reputation for poor quality products has been well deserved.

I can say two things with some confidence:

1. TaxCut is no worse than TurboTax. If you have a relatively simple personal return it will probably work and may be worth the bother.
2. My experience was miserable and a great waste of time.

For my purposes personal tax preparation software is fundamentally broken and is likely to stay broken. It's broken in terms of

1. Defect rate.
2. Missing functionality (grossly incomplete help functions).
3. Missing interview components (esp. in the AMT domain)
4. Missing documentation, manuals, orientation, etc.
5. Gross errors in the application "model", in particular linkages between data entry fields and calculation fields.

So, it's broken for my purposes. It's probably broken forever.

But why?

That's the interesting question. On the face it, this is yet another market failure. But why has the market failed to deliver a working product at an any price? (The "deeper why".) Ten years ago this software worked reasonably well. Here's my best guess -- all of the following working together:

1. The AMT: The tax code has become cruftier and more complex every year. The AMT, however, is a quantum jump in complexity. Personal tax software couldn't keep up without a large investment in additional coding and documentation.

2. Piracy: Tax software is routinely pirated. One copy serves dozens of users. This does not incent publishers to produce a quality product. We're in a vicious circle though -- poor quality software angers those who buy the software; sharing/stealing it is cheap revenge. When Intuit tried to insert copy protection in 2003, they added a buggy copy protection scheme to buggy software --- and thoroughly enraged their customers.

3. Market shrinkage: My gut feeling is that a lot of people who used financial software have given up on the entire domain. Each year fewer of the people I know use Quicken or Microsoft Money. The reasons are complex, but usability, quality, and poor customer service are common themes. This shrinking base spills over into the tax software domain. Stock options and the AMT factor drove many users to accountants in the 1990s, and they're not returning now.

4. An unhealthy industry? I wonder, without any evidence at all, if the publishers of this software have a business model that serves customers. Does H&R Block make money on TaxCut, or is it a loss-leader to feed their tax preparation service? Does Intuit make a good profit on TurboTax, or are they squeezing the dollars on a failing revenue stream?

The last bit of sad commentary -- will any president ever have the right mixture of courage, idealism, and desire for personal annihilation required to reform the US tax system? I'm not talking about paying LESS in tax, rather about removing the bizarre AMT kludge while closing loopholes and raising upper income tax rates to compensate. I'm ok with paying more taxes (assuming a government that would use the money wisely, as in NOT the current regime), but there are MANY ways our tax code could be made cleaner and simpler even without radical revisions.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The more things change ...

Molly Ivins,
An unprecedented coordination between the Republican administration and big corporate interests held the country tightly in its grip. In most instances, the machine simply enjoyed the exercise of raw power with little effort to justify its actions. Come election time, though, the party of privilege and its moneyed patrons drowned out opponents with the sheer volume of their propaganda. Never before had so many dollars been spent to mass-market a political image. Above all, the machine pushed the message that it was the true guardian of patriotism, indistinguishable from the Stars and Stripes. Then, once in power, it opened the public treasury to a rapacious corporate elite. …

'Business lobbyists dictated the law at every level. Legislation was cooked behind the closed doors of private clubs and then passed into law. While the lobby fought ferociously against any check on its prerogatives, it had a special distaste for corporate taxes. Aided by its legislative enablers, the corporate elite indulged in a natural inclination toward monopoly -- especially when it came to media and transportation.'

That was Texas in 1905.

American politics was famously corrupt in the Gilded Age and extending into the time of Teddy Roosevelt. By 1905 the tide was turning. Not until the beginning of the 21st century did endemic corruption again extend from local to federal levels ...

Saturday, April 10, 2004

NYT Op Ed piece: The very late beginning of a focus on the root causes shared by al Qaeda and their Iraqi emulators?

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: One Hearing, Two Worlds

This article amplifies my 9/22/01 theme that modern technologies, including information technologies, have been a critical part of the transformation of terrorism. The cost of havoc has fallen sharply over the past 100 years.

The amplification of hatred through modern communication channels is, for me, a new theme. In retrospect it was also seen in the right wing Clinton-jihad. I may add this to my "root causes" model.

The author also breaks an unspoken rule -- he warns of the risk of a "fifth column" within the US. This has been very obvious since 9/11, but is rarely mentioned. The Bush administration seems hellbent on creating an American al Qaeda offshoot.

This is a thought provoking essay. Besides my unread web page on the topic, similar sentiments have been expressed in Wired magazine, Salon, and several similar not-quite-mainstream publications. Friedman has hinted at these themes in various NYT pieces.
One Hearing, Two Worlds
Robert Wright is the author of "The Moral Animal" and "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny."
Published: April 9, 2004

... The polar opposite of a preoccupation with state support of terrorism is the view that, in the modern world, intense hatred is self-organizing and self-empowering. Information technologies make it easy for hateful people to coalesce and execute attacks — and those same technologies can also help spread the hatred. That's why opponents of the Iraq war so feared its effect on Muslim sentiment.

If Ms. Rice didn't appreciate that fear before the war, she should now. The current insurgency seems to have spread from city to city in part by TV-abetted contagion. And insurgents are handing out DVD's with deftly edited videos featuring carnage caused by the war.

But Ms. Rice is unfazed. Yesterday she said the decision to invade Iraq was one of several key choices President Bush made — "the only choices that can ensure the safety of our nation for decades to come." Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the screen: "IRAQIS SAY AIRSTRIKE KILLED DOZENS GATHERED FOR PRAYERS." Do headlines like that make us safer?

... Yesterday even Bob Kerrey, a committee member who stoutly favored the war in Iraq, said that it is now helping terrorist recruitment through televised images of "largely a Christian army in a Muslim nation." He didn't pose the observation as a question, and Ms. Rice offered no comment.

... Once you understand how easily hatred morphs into terrorism in the modern world, new concerns arise. What about the feelings of American Muslims, who needn't cross a border to do damage? If they're alienated — by the Iraq war or just by the sense that they're viewed with suspicion and hostility — that could be a problem.

Nobody mentioned American Muslims yesterday, but the bottom of the screen featured this news: "SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, POLICE CHIEF SAYS SERIES OF ARSON FIRES TARGETING BUSINESSES RUN BY MUSLIMS WERE PROBABLY HATE CRIMES."

... many of the things that have brought the trouble — electronically contagious sentiment, elusively fluid terrorist networks, widely available recipes for homemade weapons — will similarly haunt a heavy-handed approach anywhere else in the world. Iraq is a microcosm of the administration's larger war or terrorism, and the verdict is coming in.

All the technological trends that are making hatred more lethal (not just in communications, but in biotechnology and other realms) will continue for a long time. A sound strategy for fighting terrorism in this environment will require extreme creativity — more than President Bush or his presumptive opponent, Senator John Kerry, has shown.

Similar themes have also emerged in retrospective analysis of the Rwandan genocide. Machetes were the primary instrument of mass murder, but communication and information technologies played a key role in planning and in the amplification of hatred.

A shared lesson of the Rwandan genocide and the 911 attack is that we in the west severely underestimate the capacity of other cultures to use modern technologies and ancient techniques to develop and successfully execute truly evil plans of significant complexity. Our mistake is a form or variant of ethnocentric racism. The Rwandan genocide, for example, was intricately plotted over a period of years. The plotters succeeded, in part, because those who learned of their schemes considered them ridiculous.

We are also prone to think that those who claim to hate modernity will avoid modern technologies. Hypocrisy is not a uniquely American vice.

Maybe we're finally going to start discussing the real problems. I've spent 3 years thinking about solutions every day. I've come up with a few, but solving this problem requires active thinking by a lot of people. We should have been working on this as a community, starting 9/14/01 -- if not much sooner. It is getting very late in the day.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Notes from the battlefront ...

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004): a Weblog
The Alamo is over-rated as a tourist attraction, dammit: We just got back on base. For a while there, I didn't think that would happen. We got ambushed yesterday, except it was a twenty-one hour ambush.

At about four AM the other day, the coalition force rode out the gate and took back the town. At nine thirty we rolled out, arrived at our usual destination, and by ten thirty, we were under fire. We were in a compound of five or six major buildings, large enough to be hotels, not quite large enough to be palaces, that had once been owned by Chemical Ali...

This soldier's blog was quoted by DeLong. It proved one thing to me -- we've no idea about what's going on in Iraq except that a lot of it is bad. This reads just like the invasion -- only more so.

Despite most of the Iraqi police and soldiers deserting, two did remain -- despite facing almost certain death.

Things are so much more complex than our media can express. But now we have these back door blogs ...

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Plan B for Iraq |

US options in dealing with a widening war |
... If US forces respond too weakly, they will embolden both sets of insurgents,' says military analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. 'If they respond muscularly - [which is] the US military's, particularly the Army's, natural response and the goal of the insurgents - they risk inflaming the entire population.'

...Dr. Eland's suggestion is to partition the country along ethnic and factional lines -- Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish - and withdraw in an orderly but deliberate fashion.

When Bush invaded without Turkey, without the UN, with stupid rhetoric, and with 1/3 of the required force, I assumed the plan was to partition Iraq. It was the only scheme that fit Bush's actions. I guess that wasn't Bush's plan after all; I still think it was, and is, Rumsfeld's plan.

So who gets the oil? Turkey will fight for northern oil with the Sunnis and Kurds. Iran will seize a chunk of the south. Kuwait will take a portion. Baghdad will fester and boil with nothing.

I guess Syria gets a few licks in too -- maybe they assimilate the neighboring portion of Iraq.

Basically, this is Yugoslavia on steroids -- same problem, much nastier neighbors.

If only it were possible to post Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Rice et al closer to the front.

DeLong extends the traditional trade model of comparative advantage to cover outsourcing

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004): a Weblog
... Let's try a finger exercise to evaluate the effects of expanded international trade via 'outsourcing' on an economy. We'll set up a simple model--not a realistic model, an unrealistic model, a model that has only the features we absolutely need to understand the principal impacts of expanded trade on an economy...

...Now we can evaluate this change in four ways:

(1) Let's look at the worst-off--the workers. Their real incomes have risen by 4,000 thalers a year. That's a good thing.

(2) Let's look at total national product. The 75% of the population of the workers have seen their incomes rise by $4,000 thalers a year; the 25% of the population who are yuppies have seen their real incomes fall by $10,000 thalers a year. That means that the average person's real income has risen by $500 thalers a year. That's a good thing.

(3) Let's assert the psychological law that no matter how rich or poor you are that equal percentage increments to your income have equal effects on your material well-being. 75% of the population has seen their real incomes rise by 10%. 25% of the population has seen their real incomes fall by 8.3%. The average proportional increase is 5.4%. That's a good thing.

(4) Let's look just at the rich yuppies, because they are the people we see on TV and who give big campaign contributions. Their incomes have fallen by 10%. Bummer.
David Ricardo is the justly famed 19th century theorist who demonstrated the power of comparative advantage -- the true underpinnings of trade liberalism. Here DeLong extends the classic simplified model to cover outsourcing.

It's a good essay. I'm persuaded -- and I was skeptical. I see what he means. DeLong argues for interventions to ease the pain of transition -- as have I.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Huffington loves blogs | A mash note to the blogosphere
... When bloggers decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They're the true pit bulls of reporting. The only way to get them off a story is to cut off their heads (and even then you'll need to pry their jaws open). They almost all work alone, but, ironically, it's their collective effort that makes them so effective. They share their work freely, feed off one another's work, argue with each other, and add to the story dialectically.

And because blogs are ongoing and daily, indeed sometimes hourly, bloggers will often start with a small story, or a piece of one -- a contradictory quote, an unearthed document, a detail that doesn't add up -- that the big outlets would deem too minor. But it's only minor until, well, it's not. Big media can't see the forest for the trees. Until it's assembled for them by the bloggers.

I also love the open nature of the form -- the links, the research made visible, the democratic back and forth, the open archives, the big professorial messiness of it all. It reminds me of my schoolgirl days when providing the right answer wasn't enough for our teachers -- they demanded that we 'show our work.' Bloggers definitely show their work. It's why you don't just read blogs -- you experience them.

All of which has made the blogosphere such a vital news source in our country -- and has made me besotted with blogs. It's a crush that I'm betting will quickly progress to going steady.

Many of the authors of well read blogs are themselves writers and journalists. They're not completely amateurs, more like pros playing in an amateur game. They can't do the in depth analysis and long term research major news outlets can do, but they are a new form of communication. The interactivity and loosely-coupled collaboration, interacting and consolidating data from traditional and new media produces a new kind of emergent analysis. The world-mind's IQ jumps another notch.

At the very least, an optimistic counterpoint to the News Corp/ClearChannel omniverse.

Salon is angry ... | What the 9/11 commission won't ask
... The story of the Middle East debacle, like that of the pre-9/11 terrorism fiasco, reveals the inner workings of Bush's White House: The president, aggressive and manipulated, ignorant of his own policies and their consequences, negligent; the secretary of state, prideful, a man of misplaced gratitude, constantly in retreat; the vice president as Richelieu, secretive, conniving, at the head of a neoconservative cabal, the power behind the throne; the national security advisor, seemingly open and even vulnerable, posing as the honest broker, but deceitful and derelict, an underhanded lightweight.

This is only one of series of recent Salon slash-and-burn essays. They are convincing.

Faughnan-Lagace Herald: RSS Feeds and Bloglines changes the line-up

Faughnan-Lagace Herald: Local and International News

I've maintained a family news page for over five years. It's the main newspaper for my wife and I. The BBC has remained at the top left for years, even when their Afghanistan/Iraq coverage made me grit my teeth. [1]. The New York Times has kept pride of place, while a few others have come and gone -- sometimes to return again. Turnover has been low -- maybe an item every few months.

Until now.

Bloglines is a web RSS client. It's not as fast or as elegant as NetNewsWire (OS X), but it's accessible from any machine anywhere. It keeps data on feeds I subscribe to (blogs I read, etc) on the net where it belongs; and it updates my site-specific history in the same place. It's a near-perfect solution [3] -- even though I fear its exploding popularity is degrading performance. (Time for Google to acquire them and make the founders happy?)

Blogines, using RSS feeds, is changing the way I use the net. There are about 82 subscriptions in my subscription list, covering hundreds of articles a day. I scan a read a subset of them, and I do it quickly. It's taken my data acquisition/monitoring capabilities up a notch. I'm finding almost everything I read on the net now has an RSS feed -- even though they don't advertise it. [2]

Many of the sites I would read intermittently have moved off our news page, the Faughnan-Lagace Herald, onto my (publicly accessible) bloglines page. Sites I always read thoroughly (BBC, NY Times, Washington Post, Salon, Slate, Slashdot, Macintouch, etc) are staying on the FL Page, but other sites that I'd often visit but then exit are moving to blogines. A few more magazine-like sites (BYTE, now much improved, Shutterbug, etc) are moving in.

I'm picking up the rhythm of this. I can get my data-fix more efficiently, and explore other heftier forms of learning. The Blogines implementation of an RSS client is providing Tivo-like control over my news/info monitoring process. The FL-Herald remains very useful to me, but it's nature is changing. It's not going away, but the lighther weight stuff has moved to Bloglines.
[1] I thought Bush did a poor job waging war in Afghanistan and a much worse job waging war in Iraq, but even so some of the BBC coverage was pretty hard to take.

[2] Go to Bloglines, enter the site URL in the subscription box. Most of the time an RSS feed displays.

[3] Why don't they allow me to define an automatic alpha sort?!

[4] What else is new? SmugMug lets me email images to them and offers a quick way to embed them in blogs. I think I might use that feature!

An essay on liberalism (American Prospect)

American Prospect Online - ViewPrint: "Democrats used to thrive on Hollywood endings. Today, liberalism is more like a dark, complicated novel. It's time to go back to making movies."
This is a fascinating essay. More later.

Brad DeLong: we lack an adequate theory of market failure

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal (2004): a Weblog
And if in modern American politics immigration is unrelated to social insurance, then even a small amount of belief in diminishing marginal utility of wealth leads to the conclusion that the government ought to put its thumb on the scale on the side of a more middle-class and a less Second-Gilded-Age economy and income distribution. How the government should do this, however, is an extremely hard problem--a problem that it is even hard to think about because we lack an adequate theory of market failure.

"...we lack an adequate theory of market failure". I read those words last week, they percolated to the top of my consciousness today.

We just spent $17 (w/ shipping) an a clock timer we ordered from a vendor of laboratory equipment. Five years ago one could spend $9 at the grocery store on a perfectly adequate mechanical timer that worked well and lasted for years. Now one can spend $5 on a nice-loooking mechanical timer that's absolute garbage and breaks within a few weeks of use. (Yes, it's made in China, but that's not the real point.)

The $17 timers we ordered don't feel any more robust or reliable than the ones now sold in the hardware store.

Then there's tax preparation software. I've used TurboTax and TaxCut. If only I could invoice them for the time they cost me.

For me, these are market failures. I run into these market failures every day, all over the place. The things the market is providing aren't the things I want or need, they aren't the things my family wants or needs. The only toys we can find that are any good are made in Germany -- and they are getting harder to find. Sure -- the price is right. But it's not the right stuff even if it were free.

Yes, we need an economic theory of market failures. My gut sense is that they're getting more and more common. My suspicion is that the complexity of the modern economy, and modern products, has outstripped the capacity of human beings to make informed decisions. We need to upgrade humanity to deal with the 21st century marketplace. But if the market is not serving us, then who (or what), is it serving ...?

smugmug review: full res image sharing and photo printing

smugmug - easy photo sharing with the world's best online photo albums

I've signed up ($25/yr w/ referrer code, $30 otherwise) with SmugMug, after previously using iPhoto's bundled photo service and Shutterfly, and experimenting with several different approaches to sharing images on the web (including use of the excellent iPhoto BetterHTMLExport app with my own pages).

SmugMug combines the usual online photo sharing and printing with remote full image storage (unlimited number of less than 8MB images, supposedly). It's the full res capability that's their real strength and that's how they justify their $30 fee.

They have a referrer program. If you use my coupon code (or click on the link) you get $5 off and I get $10 off my renewal. Here's the coupon code: sTHk2jeMi228c.

A few nice things:
1. They have a nice little OS X application that works with iPhoto albums to semi-automate uploading.
2. They publish their ICC settings for better printing results with embedded color profiles (I use sRGB).
3. They allow viewing in multiple resolutions with integrated print ordering.
4. You can mail images in.
6. Images have resolution-specific persistent URLS and can be included in blogs and other pages by reference.
7. Albums have a range of security features and some community features. (Some of the latter make me wonder about their customer base, the terms of service do formally exclude porn images.)
A few issues with the OS X Uploader:
1. No true synchronization - the uploader appends images to existing albums.
2. No upload of titles and comments.
3. No creation of albums; you must create albums via the web interface first. The paltry documentation/UI doesn't tell you this.
4. Bug: If you close the upload window, there's no way to reopen it. You have to quit and restart.
Other issues:
1. Their album UI and organization isn't as good as Shutterfly's.

2. This is not a replacement for off-site backup. I don't see how one can download an entire album en masse. If the house burned down, one would have to recruit friends and family to tediously download the full images one at a time. Of course if SmugMug goes out of business ...

3. As with ANY ASP-type service, if they go away or become miserable, all the work you've done (captions, organization etc) is gone. Not surprisingly, they encourage you do to a lot of this onsite work. That's what's known in the industry as "lock-in" [1]. When you get locked-in, you can't switch -- even if there's a much better choice. Most of digital life nowadays is about choosing how much lock-in is acceptable and how to mitigate it.
I'd like them to:
1. Open the source for the iPhoto uploader so the OS X community can enhance it.

2. If they use web services, open them for the entrepreneurial OS X community to produce uploader solutions.

3. Provide an option for a GRANDMA interface that would have
a. Larger text
b. Fewer controls
c. Sizing controls at the top of the photo.
d. Back button from the single photo view.
In terms of overall site functionality I want:
1. One click ordering by grandma with no login and all charges paid out of my account. (So what if someone finds the hidden URL? They can send $20 worth of photos to grandma??) See also for more details:
1. Decent service for image sharing, I've not tested their print ordering service yet.
2. Shutterfly is still my preferred service -- I hope the competition will incent them to do full image sharing.
3. SmugMug has the potential to be great - if they survive.
4. Remember the lock-in effect.
[1] Lock-in by file format control was the core feature of Microsoft's rise to vast monopoly.

Update 5/25/06: Still use them, still like them. I use PictureSync to upload images and their new Java uploader.

Monday, April 05, 2004

The Economist is out of love with GWB

Better ways to attack George Bush

Floor Statement of Sen. Daschle on the Abuse of Government Power

Floor Statement of Sen. Daschle on the Abuse of Government Power

We're now in range of the McCarthy era. Not there yet, but getting closer. Beyond the McCarthy era is the bit about "then they came for me". Here's what Daschle said, emphases mine. A while back I quoted McCain. One good thing about living under our current regime is we find out who the heroes are. (This posting comes via Doctorow/BoingBoing and Sterling -- science fiction writers of America seem to be oddly alarmed ...)
Mr. President, last week I spoke about the White House's reaction to Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9-11 Commission. I am compelled to rise again today, because the people around the President are systematically abusing the powers and prerogatives of government.

We all need to reflect seriously on what's going on. Not in anger and not in partisanship, but in keeping with our responsibilities as Senators and with an abiding respect for the fundamental values of our democracy.

Richard Clarke did something extraordinary when he testified before the 9-11 Commission last week. He didn't try to escape blame, as so many routinely do. Instead, he accepted his share of responsibility and offered his perceptions about what happened in the months and years leading up to September 11.

We can and should debate the facts and interpretations Clarke has offered. But there can be no doubt that he has risked enormous damage to his reputation and professional future to hold both himself and our government accountable.

The retaliation from those around the President has been fierce. Mr. Clarke's personal motives have been questioned and his honesty challenged. He has even been accused, right here on the Senate floor, of perjury. Not one shred of proof was given, but that wasn't the point. The point was to have the perjury accusation on television and in the newspapers. The point was to damage Mr. Clarke in any way possible.

This is wrong–and it's not the first time it's happened.

When Senator McCain ran for President, the Bush campaign smeared him and his family with vicious, false attacks. When Max Cleland ran for reelection to this Senate, his patriotism was attacked. He was accused of not caring about protecting our nation -- a man who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, accused of being indifferent to America's national security. That was such an ugly lie, it's still hard to fathom almost two years later.

There are some things that simply ought not be done – even in politics. Too many people around the President seem not to understand that, and that line has been crossed. When Ambassador Joe Wilson told the truth about the Administration's misleading claims about Iraq, Niger, and uranium, the people around the President didn't respond with facts. Instead, they publicly disclosed that Ambassador Wilson's wife was a deep-cover CIA agent. In doing so, they undermined America's national security and put politics first. They also may well have put the lives of Ambassador Wilson's wife, and her sources, in danger.

When former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill revealed that the White House was thinking about an Iraq War in its first weeks in office, his former colleagues in the Bush Administration ridiculed him from morning to night, and even subjected him to a fruitless federal investigation.

When Larry Lindsay, one of President Bush's former top economic advisors, and General Eric Shinseki, the former Army Chief of Staff, spoke honestly about the amount of money and the number of troops the war would demand, they learned the hard way that the White House doesn't tolerate candor.

This is not "politics as usual." In nearly all of these cases, it's not Democrats who are being attacked.

Senator McCain and Secretary O'Neill are prominent Republicans, and Richard Clarke, Larry Lindsay, Joe Wilson, and Eric Shinseki all worked for Republican Administrations.

The common denominator is that these government officials said things the White House didn't want said.

The response from those around the President was retribution and character assassination -- a 21st Century twist to the strategy of "shooting the messenger."

If it takes intimidation to keep inconvenient facts from the American people, the people around the President don't hesitate. Richard Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare, found that out. He was told he'd be fired if he told the truth about the cost of the Administration's prescription drug plan.

This is no way to run a government.

The White House and its supporters should not be using the power of government to try to conceal facts from the American people or to reshape history in an effort to portray themselves in the best light.

They should not be threatening the reputations and livelihoods of people simply for asking – or answering – questions. They should seek to put all information about past decisions on the table for evaluation so that the best possible decisions can be made for the nation's future.

In Mr. Clarke's case, clear and troubling double standards are being applied.

Last year, when the Administration was being criticized for the President's misleading statement about Niger and uranium, the White House unexpectedly declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate. When the Administration wants to bolster its public case, there is little that appears too sensitive to be declassified.

Now, people around the President want to release parts of Mr. Clarke's earlier testimony in 2002. According to news reports, the CIA is already working on declassifying that testimony – at the Administration's request.

And last week several documents were declassified literally overnight, not in an effort to provide information on a pressing policy matter to the American people, but in an apparent effort to discredit a public servant who gave 30 years of service to his American government.

I'll support declassifying Mr. Clarke's testimony before the Joint Inquiry, but the Administration shouldn't be selective. Consistent with our need to protect sources and methods, we should declassify his entire testimony.

And to make sure that the American people have access to the full record as they consider this question, we should also declassify his January 25 memo to Dr. Rice, the September 4, 2001 National Security Directive dealing with terrorism, Dr. Rice's testimony to the 9-11 Commission, the still-classified 28 pages from the House-Senate inquiry relating to Saudi Arabia, and a list of the dates and topics of all National Security Council meetings before September 4, 2001.

I hope this new interest in openness will also include the Vice President's Energy and Terrorism Task Forces. While much, if not all, of what these task forces discussed was unclassified, their proceedings have not been shared with the public.

There also seems to be a double standard when it comes to investigations.

In recent days leading congressional Republicans are now calling for an investigation into Mr. Clarke. As I mentioned earlier, Secretary O'Neill was also subjected to an investigation. Clarke and O'Neill sought legal and classification review of any information in their books before they were published.

Nonetheless, our colleagues tell us these two should be investigated, at the same time there has been no Senate investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as a deep cover CIA agent; no thorough investigation into whether leading Administration officials misrepresented the intelligence regarding threats posed by Iraq; no Senate hearings into the threat the chief Medicare Actuary faced for trying to do his job; and no Senate investigation into the reports of continued overcharging by Halliburton for its work in Iraq.

There is a clear double standard when it comes to investigating or releasing information, and that's just is not right. The American people deserve more from their leaders.

We're seeing it again now in the shifting reasons the White House has given for Dr. Rice's refusal to testify under oath and publicly before the 9-11 Commission.

The people around the President first said it would be unprecedented for Dr. Rice to testify. But thanks to the Congressional Research Service, we now know that previous sitting National Security Advisors have testified before Congress.

Now the people around the President are saying that Dr. Rice can't testify because it would violate an important constitutional principle: the separation of powers.

We will soon face this debate again when it comes time for President Bush and Vice President Cheney to meet with the 9-11 Commission. I believe they should lift the limitations they have placed on their cooperation with the Commission and be willing to appear before the entire Commission for as much time as the Commission deems productive.

The all-out assault on Richard Clarke has gone on for more than a week now. Mr. Clarke has been accused of "profiteering" and possible perjury. It is time for this to stop.

The Commission should declassify Mr. Clarke's earlier testimony. All of it. Not just the parts the White House wants. And Dr. Rice should testify before the 9-11 Commission, and she should be under oath and in public.

The American people deserve to know the truth -- the full truth -- about what happened in the years and months leading up to September 11.

Senator McCain, Senator Cleland, Secretary O'Neill, Ambassador Wilson, General Shinseki, Richard Foster, Richard Clarke, Larry Lindsay ... when will the character assassination, retribution, and intimidation end?

When will we say enough is enough?

The September 11 families – and our entire country – deserve better. Our democracy depends on it. And our nation's future security depends on it.

Somewhere the shade of Joseph Welch is applauding. Google Gmail is real Gmail is real
In truth, as guessed by a few of the more circumspect bloggers, it was both and neither. A double-April-fools joke. Metapranking, if you will. Google-style fun with a big pot of gold at the end.

I was right that this was a double-April-Fool's joke and that the service existed. I thought RSS would play a large role, but I don't see that just yet. I also thought that the 1GB allotment was not going to be free, but it sounds like it might be. Now that's astounding.

Still, I didn't do too badly.

Chimps and humans: Gene activity vs. Coding Differences

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | New light shed on chimp genome
... The human and chimpanzee genomes differ by just 1.2% between the coding genes...

... "What we have now done is systematically looked at gene activity in the brain of chimpanzees, humans, orang-utans and macaques and when we compare them the surprising finding is that we actually find quite a lot of differences.

"And in any particular part of the brain about 10% of our gene activity differs from those of chimpanzees," said Dr Paabo.

We expected large differences between chimp and human brains. How can that occur given almost identical genomes? The trick is modulation of gene expression; an eightfold amplification of coding distinctions. I doubt this answer suprises any geneticist, but the research is fascinating.

Since individual people are very similar (more than 99% identical genes), and yet individual genetically determined abilities are quite different, gene amplification perhaps accounts for much of the phenotypic (gene activity) distinctions between humans.

It may also be much easier to manipulate the expression of existing genes rather than inserting or altering individual genes. Fodder for future manipulation of the human as we come to understand what makes a genius.

DeLong Rethinks Outsourcing

Thinking About Outsourcing: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal
... As Paul Krugman puts it, free trade is a salable policy only if accompanied by a well-built social safety net and confidence in full employment. Our safety net is full of holes, and confidence right now that employment will be full is shaky. Preserving free trade in the 1970s and 1980s was a near-run thing, even though the magnitude of imports was not that great and the shock to America's distribution of income and employment not that large.

This is worth thinking hard about, for when "outsourcing" truly arrives--whether in one or two or three decades--it is likely to deliver a shock an order of magnitude larger to the American economy.

Consider: the income gaps in the case of "outsourcing" will be much greater than in the case of trade in manufactured goods. The income gap between Japan in and America in the 1970s was a matter of one-to-two. The income gap between India and America tomorrow will be one-to-ten. On the one hand, economists will say that the gains from trade will thereby be that much greater for the economy as a whole. On the other hand, the potential downward pressure on loser workers in rich countries will be that much greater as well.

Consider: trade in services potentially affects a much larger proportion of the labor force. Sectoral trade deficits in manufactured goods have rarely, rarely exceeded 3% of GDP. But what is the upper limit to the sectoral trade deficit in long-distance document-image pushing?

Consider: the assault by manufactured imports on American mass-production manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s was something done to American workers and firms standing together. The process of outsourcing will look very different: it will be something done by internationalized American firms to American workers. The politics of GM, Ford, and UAW asking for help together to deal with foreign competition will be very different from the politics produced by workers vs. CEOs.

And, conversely, consider India. Put 10 million people in India to work at $26,000 a year providing white-collar services to the industrial core, and you have boosted India's standard of living by 50%. And you have displaced only 4% of the potential target industries, for there are 240 million service-sector workers in the First World today.

Because this is an economic transformation that is going to hit not in one shot next year but over the course of the next generation, we have plenty of time: time to build the social safety net, the education and retraining programs, the social and economic institutions needed to turn the coming of trade in white-collar services from a win-lose to a win-win affair for America and Americans; time to rebuild confidence that employment will be full and the duration of unemployment spells short. But we will need all this time, because the magnitude of the approaching economic trade shock will be much larger than anything in our historical memory.

DeLong wrote a silly and quick blog entry on outsourcing. He was justly berated in the comments. This reads like a thoughtful response to his reader's comments.

He believes the impact from cognitive outsourcing will be relatively small over the next 1-3 years, but quite large 10 years from now. That's interesting, because on that timescale the great boomer die off will be starting, and there will be a great vacuum "at the top". He didn't consider the demographic trends, but I wonder if he's right about the timescale they may be a countervailing force.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Deleting time records to reduce overtime pay

Altering of Worker Time Cards Spurs Growing Number of Suits
... Experts on compensation say that the illegal doctoring of hourly employees' time records is far more prevalent than most Americans believe. The practice, commonly called shaving time, is easily done and hard to detect — a simple matter of computer keystrokes — and has spurred a growing number of lawsuits and settlements against a wide range of businesses.

Workers have sued Family Dollar and Pep Boys, the auto parts and repair chain, accusing managers of deleting hours. A jury found that Taco Bell managers in Oregon had routinely erased workers' time. More than a dozen former Wal-Mart employees said in interviews and depositions that managers had altered time records to shortchange employees. The Department of Labor recently reached two back-pay settlements with Kinko's photocopy centers, totaling $56,600, after finding that managers in Ithaca, N.Y., and Hyannis, Mass., had erased time for 13 employees.

,,,'A lot of this is that district managers might fire you as soon as look at you,' said William Rutzick, a lawyer who reached a $1.5 million settlement with Taco Bell last year after a jury found the chain's managers guilty of erasing time and requiring off-the-clock work. 'The store managers have a toehold in the lower middle class. They're being paid $20,000, $30,000. They're in management. They get medical. They have no job security at all, and they want to keep their toehold in the lower middle class, and they'll often do whatever is necessary to do it.'

Another reason managers shave time, experts say, is that an increasing part of their compensation comes in bonuses based on minimizing costs or maximizing profits.

'The pressures are just unbelievable to control costs and improve productivity,' said George Milkovich, a longtime Cornell University professor of industrial relations and co-author of the leading textbook on compensation. 'All this manipulation of payroll may be the unintended consequence of increasing the emphasis on bonuses.'

If you incent people strongly by strong rewards and strong punishments (termination), they will deliver -- by whatever means necessary.

We have shown this for elected officials (since 1776), for senior executives (stock options), Texas school principals (The Texan solution to graduation rates -- make the low end disappear), and now local management of various service businesses.

Franklin, Jefferson et al understood this problem quite well. Knowing the inevitability of corruption, they set up the competing bodies of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. (Only recently have the judicial and legislative been coopted by the executive ... but the authors knew no solution was perfect.) Similarly, in the past workers had unions, which fought with management. Now workers have the protection of ... Hmm. What protection do they have again?

The technology angle is interesting. A lot of fraud is easier when you leave paper behind. That's why so many people want paper trails in the voting booth.

ADHD and TV viewing: Stupid journalism

Attention Deficit Linked to TV Viewing (
Very young children who watch television face an increased risk of attention deficit problems by school age, a study has found, suggesting that TV might overstimulate and permanently 'rewire' the developing brain.

This stuff irritates me. I've not read the journal, but according to the press report the investigators found a relationship between tv viewing at ages 1-2 and ADHD-like scores on parental assessments performed at age 7.

It sounds like there is indeed an association between tv viewing at a young age and later development of ADHD. That's noteworthy. To jump from that to the above quote from the article is terrible journalism. I'm willing to bet, though, that the researchers were guilty of the same leap.

Findings of association from a case control study like this can suggest additional research, but it shouldn't suggest much else. I'm willing to bet that what this team discovered is that ADHD is a lifelong disorder (disorder = trait that is not adaptive) that's inherited, and that TV is popular with siblings of children with ADHD (who also have ADHD features), with adults of children with ADHD (likewise) and with children who have ADHD. There may even be more evidence to support my explanation than the equally unsubstantiated idea that TV exposure causes ADHD.

The last thing these parents need is another load of guilt. They're plenty stressed already.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

Gmail: you can't buy this kind of press ...

Google Gets the Message, Launches Gmail

So ... is Google's 1GB email service an April Fool's joke -- or not? The NYT and many, many slashdotters took yesterday's announcement seriously, but one of the very first Slashdot posts noted that April 1 was near.

This Google press release is clearly a spoof. So is this a simple April Fool's joke?

I'm betting it's more clever than that. I think they'll launch something similar, but it won't be called GMail. So this is kind of a double-Fool, establishing Google as definitively the world's most cool and clever company. Microsoft must be furious at this astounding example of guerilla marketing.

The 1GB free storage though, is a spoof. I wouldn't be shocked if they did provide a 1GB top limit, but it won't be free for most of us.

BTW: The real secret of Google's email service will be the deep integration of syndication (RSS, etc).

Mobs and their mad cruelty -- but the past is a poor guide

BBC NEWS | Middle East | US vows to catch Falluja killers
The echo of what happened in Somalia a decade ago will also be unwelcome for George W Bush as he seeks re-election as president later this year, our correspondent adds.

The BBC is wrong; the cruelty of the Falluja mob will strengthen US support for the near-term occupation. The reaction to Mogadishu was amplified by American talk radio and had a powerful connection to Clinton-hatred. Now that same demographic strongly supports Bush; they will viscerally connect the Falluja mob to the 9/11 attackers. In some sense they will appreciate having a clear enemy to focus on.

As others have pointed out, the lynch gangs of pre-1930s America would have been at home with this mob. The US military, fortunately for Falluja, is more disciplined. By now it will have occurred to many of the mob that the occupation forces have clear images of their faces and those around them. They will be starting to sweat.

This terrible event may yet be turned to the advantage of the occupation, and I hope to the advantage of greater Iraq -- if it's handled wisely. In that sense something positive may yet come of this.