Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Torture at Guantanamo bay

Salon.com News | More cold-blooded than Abu Ghraib

Torture, American style. I'm sure we'll excel at it.

We tried.

Yes, the blue states give money, the reds receive

A Dichotomy in Two Colors Ludwig von Mises Institute
An anti-government (Libertarian?) web site struggles with the astonishing conumdrum -- the blue states are net donors to the budget, the red states net recipients.

Monday, November 29, 2004

The arrested president

Ottawa Independent Media Center
Canadian authorities have arrested US President George W. Bush and charged him with offences under Canada's War Crimes Act.

Since the US army has been depleted by the Iraq conquest, the Canadians estimate it will be at least a few days before Canada is invaded ..

More from Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley

Morgan Stanley

Roach is evidently the man of the hour. Fascinating factoids.
Global: The World's Biggest Excess
Stephen Roach (New York)

... Over the 1996 to 2004 period, annual growth in US personal consumption expenditures averaged 3.9% -- nearly double the 2.2% pace recorded elsewhere in the so-called advanced world ... the personal saving rate plunged from an already-depressed 4.6% level in 1995 to just 0.2% in September 2004....

... Moreover, there has been an important shift in the asset economy that took the US consumption dynamic to excess in recent years. The first wave came from the stock market, as household equity holdings surged from about 13% of total assets in 1991 to 35% at the peak in 2000. During the final stages of the equity bubble, individual stock portfolios supplanted real estate as the US household sector’s most important asset... the equity bubble immediately morphed into an even more powerful strain of asset appreciation -- a sustained burst of US house price appreciation that has continued to this very day...

This multi-bubble syndrome was largely an outgrowth of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive post-equity-bubble damage containment tactics -- some 550 bp of monetary easing from early 2001 through mid-2003. Housing markets benefited handsomely from the support of 45-year lows in interest rates. And consumers, who had first discovered the joys of asset-driven wealth effects during the stock market bubble of the late 1990s, quickly put their newfound skills to work in reaping the gains of the housing bubble. Not only did they benefit from the psychology of feeling wealthier, but US homeowners were aggressive in taking advantage of breakthroughs in the technology of home mortgage refinancing. It wasn’t just the reduction in interest expenses, but the so-called cash-outs from rapidly appreciating housing assets enabled consumers to uncover a new and important source of incremental purchasing power... households may have liquidated as much as 8% of their equity in real estate in order to fund current consumption. For an aging US society that needs to build saving in order to fund the not-so-distant retirement of some 77 million baby-boomers, even this partial liquidation of asset-based saving is disturbing, to say the least.

...Lacking in domestic saving, American has had to import foreign saving from abroad -- and run massive current account deficits to attract that capital.

This is where the global enablers enter the equation. First, it was private investors seeking to share in the returns of the world’s greatest productivity story. Then, when doubts surfaced on that front, foreign central banks rushed in to fill the void. Over the 12 months ending September 2004, the “official sector” accounted for 28% of total purchases of long-term US securities -- nearly double the 15% share over the prior 12 months and about four times the portion during the 2000-02 period.... that left dollar-based assets with approximately a 70% weight in official reserve portfolios -- more than double America’s 30% share in the world economy and, quite possibly, the biggest overweight in world financial markets today.

Nor is it difficult to discern the motive behind this foreign dollar-buying binge. It’s all about the lack of internal demand in Asia and Europe and the related need to draw support from export-oriented growth strategies. And, of course, central to such growth tactics are cheap currencies that underwrite export competitiveness. Asia has led the way in that regard -- with hard currency pegs in China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia and soft currency pegs in Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. ... in the absence of this foreign support campaign, yields on 10-year Treasuries would have been in the 5 to 5.5% zone -- implying a rate structure that would have been far more problematic in providing valuation support to US asset markets and concomitant wealth-driven support to America’s asset-dependent consumer.

... Asset-dependent Americans truly have an excess consumption problem. It is still astonishing to me that the bursting of the equity bubble didn’t spawn a culture of prudence that weaned US consumers from the perils of an all too fickle wealth effect. With US house price inflation now at a 25-year high of 8.8% and with 15 states now experiencing double-digit house price inflation, this voracious appetite for risk is all the more disturbing. Similarly, Asian and European financiers -- be they private investors or central banks -- need to accept responsibility for the important role they have played in keeping the music going for saving-short, over-extended US consumers. They have taken the easy way out -- putting off the heavy lifting of structural reforms needed to unlock domestic demand and choosing, instead, to recycle foreign exchange reserves into dollars and rely on currency manipulation as a means to sell everything they can to America. In my view, America, Asia, and Europe are all equally guilty of opting for an extraordinarily reckless way to run the world.

Financial markets have an uncanny knack in restoring a sense of order to a dysfunctional world. The dollar is now center stage in this global wake-up call -- as well it should be, in my view. But dollar depreciation is not the endgame of global rebalancing. It is the means toward the end -- a potential trigger for a long overdue realignment in the mix of global saving and consumption.. By failing to face up to the imperatives of rebalancing, the world has collectively created the ultimate moral hazard -- a US consumer that is now “too big to fail.” ...

Long ago, I learned that most of the time it doesn’t pay to bet against the American consumer. There are rare occasions, however, when that rule doesn’t apply. That was the case in the early 1970s in the aftermath of the first oil shock. Back then, as a young staffer at the Federal Reserve Board, I was chastised by Fed Chairman Arthur Burns for being too negative on the US consumer. He argued that I didn’t appreciate the unflinching cyclical resilience of the US consumer -- a resilience that, ironically, was about to give way to America’s first consumer-led recession. A lot has changed in the ensuing 30 years. But for very different reasons, I now believe that another exception is in the offing. The American consumer is an accident waiting to happen. The sooner the world comes to grips with this problem, the better the chances of a successful rebalancing.

1970s. 1970s. Nixon. Stagflation. Coming soon to a screen near you ...

Epidemic! Epidemic!

WHO aide warns of avian flu pandemic

Problem is, I burnt out on SARS last year. I still don't understand why all hell didn't break loose then. My best guess is that there were multiple strains of SARS circulating simultaneously, and an innocuous one spread faster -- immunizing the susceptibles in advance of the killer strain.

So, now there are dire warnings on Avian Flu. After anthrax (dire warnings, then nothing -- yeah, I know it's not contagious, but that wasn't what the warnings were about) and SARS, are we able to take this one seriously?

The infection estimates are 1/3 of the world with 2-100 million deaths. If that happened the economic, social, and military consequences would be enormous.

On the other hand the SARS tale is not irrelevant. Avian flu has a 70% mortality rate in the infected, but SARS was about 15-50% depending on the population studied. Those are order of magnitude comparable, but those numbers can be exceedingly misleading for many reasons.

We ought to do a lot more with public health than we do, especially in the "red states" that don't fund public health at all. Other than that ...?
A global pandemic of avian influenza is "very, very likely" and could kill tens of millions of people around the world, a top World Health Organization official said Monday.

Governments should be prepared to close schools, office buildings and factories in case of a pandemic, and should work out emergency staffing to prevent a breakdown in basic public services like electricity and transport, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, the organization's regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

Such arrangements may be needed if the disease infects 25 to 30 percent of the world's population, Omi said. That is the WHO's estimate for what could happen if the disease - currently found mainly in chickens, ducks and other birds - develops the ability to spread easily from person to person.

Deaths associated with the rapid spread of a new form of influenza would be high, he said.

"We are talking at least 2 to 7 million, maybe more - 20 million or 50 million, or in the worst case, 100" million, he said.

While many influenza experts have discussed similar figures privately, Omi's remarks represented the first time a top public health official had given such an estimate in public. But his remarks on the likelihood that the disease would start spreading easily went beyond the assessment of many scientists, who say that too little is known about the virus to gauge the odds that it will become readily transmissible.

Dr. Malik Peiris, a top influenza researcher at Hong Kong University, said that Omi's range of potential fatalities was realistic and consistent with current research into the A(H5N1) avian influenza virus. The biggest questions, he said, were whether the disease would develop the ability to spread easily from person to person and, if it did, whether it would retain its current deadliness.

... Omi and Peiris each pointed out that the high death rate recorded so far might be overstated, because people with less severe cases of the disease might not be diagnosed as having it.

Peiris also pointed out that one likely way for the disease to acquire the ability to pass easily from person to person - the acquisition of human influenza genetic material by the virus - could also reduce the death rate to the range described by Omi.

"If the virus reassorts and picks up human influenza genes then it's quite possible the severity could be limited," Peiris said.

The WHO, a Geneva-based UN agency, has reported 44 confirmed human cases of A(H5N1), 32 of whom have died, a 72.7 percent rate. The WHO has identified only one case of probable human-to-human transmission - a mother who cradled her dying daughter all night - while the rest of the cases appeared to have been acquired directly from animals.

Arctic organic sediments and an update on climate science

The New York Times > Science > Initial Findings of Arctic Expedition Upend Old Notions

Althought this longish NYT article focuses on arctic sediments and possible oil resources, it's also an update on the latest thinking about climate change. A lot of people would like to know what caused that vast methane release.
... The cores provide the first evidence that vast amounts of organic material created by plankton and other life settled on the seabed, experts say. That kind of carbon-rich accumulation is a vital precursor to the formation of oil.

Some of the deepest, oldest, most carbon-rich layers, dated to around 55 million years ago, formed during a period called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when the world was running a raging temperature. Scientists believe that this relatively brief period, far warmer than the present, was caused by a spike in heat-trapping greenhouse gases far greater than the human-caused buildup that has occurred over the last century.

The initiating cause was a vast release of submarine deposits of frozen methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, but scientists do not yet know whether those gases were liberated by volcanic activity, a shift in warm sea currents, or some other force.

Around 49 million years back, with the climate cooling and the atmosphere's greenhouse burden declining, the retrieved shafts of sediment also speak of an extraordinary, short-lived era of several hundred thousand years when so much warm fresh water apparently topped the Arctic's oxygen-starved salty depths that the polar sea became matted with tiny Azolla ferns, resembling the duckweed that can choke suburban ponds.

Altogether, about 600 vertical feet of sediment from the ridge is rich dark organic material, implying that there could easily be two vertical miles or more of similar organic layers in the deeper adjacent basins, said Dr. Henk Brinkhuis, a geobiologist from Utrecht University in the Netherlands who participated in the coring project....

... The preliminary analysis reveals that the Arctic Ocean has been constantly icy for at least 15 million years, far longer than scientists had previously theorized. Dr. Moran said scientists had previously put the last ice-free conditions at four million to seven million years ago.

Experts involved in the research said these findings added sobering context to the current Arctic warming trend, which climatologists have linked to accumulating greenhouse-gas emissions and say could lead to a largely ice-free sea in summers this century.

No one expects ferns to cover the polar sea any time soon, but some experts involved with the research said the recent changes in the Arctic could result in a long-lasting warming that is likely to change the nature of the Arctic profoundly, for better and worse. In outlining the pattern of change during and after the last big Arctic warm-up, 55 million years ago, the new cores show "you can get a really strong cascade" toward warming that then can take hundreds of thousands of years to reverse, said Dr. Brinkhuis.

Whatever the future holds, it is becoming clearer with every new scientific poke at the freshly recovered shafts of layered shale, microscopic plankton fossils, pebbles and other material that the coring project will provide an unparalleled view of past climate changes at the top of the world, Arctic experts said...

... The $12.5 million project, financed by Europe, was conducted under the auspices of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, which is systematically coring seabeds around the world to reveal geological history.

... One of the most remarkable revelations is that the Arctic Ocean apparently briefly bloomed into a great matted soupy superlake.

Dr. Brinkhuis, who had worked for oil companies, said that previous drilling efforts by oil teams around the perimeter of the Arctic also captured this brief flowering of water plants, but no one had conceived that the layer might hint that the entire Arctic basin was one great matted pond.

"It's spectacular," he said. "Right at this transition from supergreenhouse to cooling, that's where there's this evidence of a bathtub situation there that is so fresh that this Azolla can really bloom and boom."

He said it was possible that the fast-growing plants, by absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, might have contributed to the eventual decline in the atmosphere's greenhouse gas concentration and climate cooling...
Note this was a European expedition. Perhaps in the US research into climate change is a dangerous subject.

DeLong's predictions on near term economic outcomes

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: A Weblog: Nouriel Roubini Tries to Read Tim Geithner's Mind
In my not too well informed judgment, at least, the big systemic vulnerability is that bond and currency markets do not seem to be pricing the full distribution of future possibilities. The most likely and central-case scenario for 2010, in my macroeconomic view, is one of medium-run equilibrium. Such a scenario sees:

1. A U.S. trade account near balance as foreign investors on net decide that they have a large enough share of their wealth invested in the U.S., and a stable U.S. current account deficit with net foreign assets growing at the rate of U.S. national product.

2. Consequently, a trade-weighted value of the dollar consistent with roughly balanced trade--that is, a trade-weighted value of the dollar 30% or more below what it is right now.

3. Some recovery of wages to their trend as the economy approaches closer to full employment, hence lower profits--and lower retained earnings to finance investment.

4. Continued large and growing federal budget deficits.

5. A great reduction in capital inflows and continued high budget deficits together diminish the supply of savings flowing into the financial markets, and a reduction in retained earnings increases firms' demand for outside capital. The implication is long-term interest rates in 2010 that are not low but high--supply and demand, you know.

This is the most likely future that I see: the central case. And the markets are not pricing it. The foreign exchange markets are not registering the likely large decline in the trade-weighted dollar out there in the medium-run future. The bond markets are not registering the likely large fall in long bond prices as insufficient savings supply runs into expanded investment demand.

I think I understand why the foreign exchange markets are not yet pricing the big dollar decline to come. As long as central banks are large actors in the market, the big foreign-exchange bets against the dollar undertaken by private businesses that are needed to drive the dollar down to medium-run equilibrium are very risky indeed. It's better for large private players (or they think it's better) to wait until it's clear that central banks are about to start dumping their dollar reserves for euros, yen, and renminbi before dumping their own dollar-denominated assets for euros, yen, and renminbi. Central banks are, after all, governments--and so private businesses think that it will be easy to anticipate what they are about to do and to front-run them when it's about to happen. Prematurely betting against the dollar takes on lots of risk for no real significant gain. That, at least, is how I think the big private players in foreign exchange are thinking.

I don't, however, understand the bond market. Do they expect the wage share to stay this low forever, and corporate profits [and] retained earnings to be abundant? Do they expect the capital inflow to continue forever? Do they expect the Bush administration to get serious about balancing the budget? None of these seem plausible as expectations, as modal scenarios, as central cases. But then why isn't the long bond market already pricing the supply-and-demand for loanable funds imbalance that seems inevitable in medium-run equilibrium? It's a mystery.

DeLong doesn't think the bond and currency markets are behaving rationally. (By extensions, since recently stocks track bonds, neither is the stock market.) He's worried that hedge funds are amplifying these miscalculations. If he's right, and the dollar falls quickly enough, the consequences may be severe.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Visit Montreal - virtually

Faughnan's Tech: November 2004 - Virtual Tours of Montreal

How did Greek status look -- to the Greeks?


I'd read that they were painted, but these designs seem a bit garish. They reminded me of Hindu statues.

Fewer remained in Fallujah that most had estimated

TerraNet Portal Site
The Red Crescent's Fallujah coordinator, Jotiar Nafaa, estimates that between 150 and 175 families are left in the city that once had a population of 300,000.

I read estimates of tens of thousands of stranded civilians. If the number remaining is only 175 families, and the civilian deaths are not in the tens of thousands, then something interesting happened. It might suggest that Fallujah's tribal leaders decided to abandon the insurgents to their fate, and instructed the tribes to leave. That would fit with hints that the insurgents were no longer welcome.

There will be books to read one day that may fill in this story. If the insurgents did become unwelcome, I wonder if it will be thought they went too far explicitly tormenting and murdering obviously harmless people. Perhaps there are disadvantages to humanizing one's victims.

The worst job in the world

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Life cheap in China's mines
In May 2002, according to China's official media, 21 miners were trapped by an explosion in a mine in the north-west of the country. But instead of attempting to rescue them, the mine's owner destroyed employee records and whitewashed over scorch marks, leaving them to die.

And in June 2003 in northern China, the bodies of 36 miners who had been killed in a blast in a gold mine were found to have been hidden in an attempt to cover up the accident.

Last year about 20,000 men died in mining accidents in China. That's the population-adjusted equivalent of 5,000 deaths in the US.

We, for now, don't live like that. Five thousand deaths would a Vietnam-level war by our standards. At the beginning of the 20th century, adjusting for population, perhaps life in US mines and major construction sites was comparable.

China is a world in itself -- living partly in the each of the past five centuries of western life.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Best neighborhoods and public spaces in north america ...

PS: PPS | Metafilter

A very nice reference for the traveler!

Challenges in evolution: male homosexuality

Richard Dawkins: Frequently Asked Questions
If a homosexuality gene lowers its own probability of being reproduced today, and yet still abounds in the population, that is a problem for commonsense as much as for Darwin's theory of evolution. And, intriguing as several of these theories may be, I have to conclude that it remains a problem.
This Dawkins FAQ page is fun reading, but I particularly enjoyed the discussion of how homosexuality fits with Darwinian selection. On reflection, though, I wasn't that impressed with Dawkins reasoning. He ought to have begun with an analysis of whether homosexuality was unique to homo sapiens, or whether it was also common among other primates, mammals, etc. It it's seen in other primates and also non-primates, then most of the explanations he advanced are unlikely to be true.

I'm inclined to the theory that there have been very substantial benefits to human and other animal societies from genes that, at least in some men, have the "unfortunate" (from the gene's perspective) additional effect of preventing reproduction. It's interesting to know this is an ongoing mystery however.

Electronic bill payment -- two routes, different motives

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Spending: Here's the Hook: Gifts for Online Bill Payers

This is a relatively dumb article. It talks about why vendors want their customers to pay online, but it entirely misses the more interesting story of bill payment handled by banks.

Online bill payment can be done two ways:

1. Vendor controls payment.
2. Bank controls payment.

Vendors want to get money as quickly as possible. They make money on mistakes that generate payments -- when the consumer misses the error.

Banks want to send money out at the last possible moment. They don't make money on a mistake that withholds payment -- there's no way the vendor will let that happen.

In this case the interests of the Bank are identical to the interests of the consumer. Check payment controlled by the bank is a fundamentally better solution. In addition it means a single system to learn and support.

Segregation today, segregation forever?

washingtonpost.com: Alabama Vote Opens Old Racial Wounds

Alabama voters decide to preserve segregation and poll taxes. On the other hand, they recently removed laws against miscegenation.

On careful reading, however, I can see why the good guys lost (again). The bill repealing segregation also sought to establish a right to public education. That could be the nose of the elephant -- after that might come the obligation to fund a public education. Then comes communism, or, worse, liberals and the teaching of natural selection.

Yay red states.
School Segregation Remains a State Law as Amendment Is Defeated

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- On that long-ago day of Alabama's great shame, Gov. George C. Wallace (D) stood in a schoolhouse door and declared that his state's constitution forbade black students to enroll at the University of Alabama...

...If Wallace could be brought back to life today to reprise his 1963 moment of infamy outside Foster Auditorium, he would still be correct. Alabama voters made sure of that Nov. 2, refusing to approve a constitutional amendment to erase segregation-era wording requiring separate schools for "white and colored children" and to eliminate references to the poll taxes once imposed to disenfranchise blacks.

..."There are people here who are still fighting the Civil War," said Tommy Woods, 63, a deacon at Bethel and a retired school administrator. "They're holding on to things that are long since past. It's almost like a religion."

... The amendment had two main parts: the removal of the separate-schools language and the removal of a passage -- inserted in the 1950s in an attempt to counter the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools -- that said Alabama's constitution does not guarantee a right to a public education. Leading opponents, such as Alabama Christian Coalition President John Giles, said they did not object to removing the passage about separate schools for "white and colored children." But, employing an argument that was ridiculed by most of the state's newspapers and by legions of legal experts, Giles and others said guaranteeing a right to a public education would have opened a door for "rogue" federal judges to order the state to raise taxes to pay for improvements in its public school system.

The argument plays to Alabama's primal fear of federal control, a fear born of years of resentment over U.S. courts' ordering the desegregation of schools and the creation of black-majority legislative districts.

"Activists on the bench know no bounds," Giles said. "It's a trial lawyer's dream."

Giles was aided by a virtually unparalleled Alabama celebrity in his battle against the amendment, distributing testimonials from former chief justice Roy Moore, whose fame was sealed in 2003 when he defied a federal court order to remove a two-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court. They were joined by former Moore aide Tom Parker, who handed out miniature Confederate flags this fall during his successful campaign for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court.

Arguing that the amendment could lead to higher taxes is a potent strategy in Alabama, which is one of the nation's most lightly taxed states and which resoundingly rejected a record $1.2 billion tax increase proposed last year by Gov. Bob Riley (R), a conservative, to pay for school improvements and lessen the tax burden on the poor. But many blacks view the Amendment 2 opponents' tax pitch as a smoke screen.

... This is not the first time that Steele has tangled with Alabama's constitution, a gigantic document that has more than 740 amendments and more than 310,000 words, making it the world's longest, at nearly 40 times the length of the U.S. Constitution. Four years ago, voters repealed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage.

... Yet the constitution, with its racist past and its racist present, only grows. On Nov. 2, it was amended three times -- numbers 743, 744 and 745.

Giles has said he would support taking out the passage about separate schools for "white and colored children" as long as the part about not guaranteeing a right to an education is kept.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Conflagration -- the european invasion of the americas

The New York Times > Opinion > Charles Mann: Unnatural Abundance is an astounding NYT essay by Charles C. Mann, author of the forthcoming "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus." The key observations are that, from an ecological perspective, the native american peoples were but one of large number of native "species" annihilated by the european invaders, and that those invaders that as much microbe and plant as human.

He doesn't mention dogs. There were dogs in the americas before the european invasion, but we know from recent gene studies that none survived. It would be interesting to know what killed them all. I suspect it was a pathogen that european dogs had adapted to.

Why were the microbial attacks so one sided? Europeans has spent hundreds of years in cesspools of festering disease -- cities. Plagues were commonplace. European immune systems were well tuned to the a wide range of pathogens. Native americans, living in a far healthier environment, had none of these adaptations. (I wonder how the anti-evolutionists explain the death of the native americans -- do they thing God did it?) Even to this day, euros are relatively resistant to HIV.

The essay sheds new light on how the Pilgrims survived. It had always seemed strange that such an ill-planned expedition should survive a northern winter. It turns out the plague had prepared their rations. I doubt Mrs. Cheney (famed for her campaign to teach mythology in place of history) would approve.
November 25, 2004
Unnatural Abundance

... Until the arrival of the Mayflower, continental drift had kept apart North America and Europe for hundreds of millions of years. Plymouth Colony (and its less successful predecessor in Jamestown) reunited the continents. Ecosystems that had evolved separately for millennia collided. The ensuing biological tumult - plants exploding over the landscape, animal species spiking in population or going extinct...

In a phenomenon known as "ecological release," imported species can run wild because their natural predators have not come along with them. Clover and bluegrass, tame as accountants at home, transformed themselves into biological Attilas in the Americas, sweeping through vast areas so fast that the first English colonists who pushed into Kentucky found both species waiting for them. The peach proliferated in the Southeast with such fervor that by the 18th century, the historian Alfred Crosby writes, farmers feared that the Carolinas would become a wilderness of peach trees.

South America was just as badly hit. Endive and spinach escaped from colonial gardens and grew into impassable, six-foot thickets on the Peruvian coast; thousands of feet higher, mint overwhelmed Andean valleys. In the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, the voyaging Charles Darwin discovered hundreds of square miles strangled by feral artichoke. "Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can live," he observed.

... Wheat, following bluegrass and clover, occupied huge swathes of the Midwestern savanna. Meanwhile, corn conquered Africa, Asia and central Europe. Corn so thrived in 16th- and 17th-century Africa, Dr. Crosby has argued, that it sustained a population explosion that let Europeans take millions of Africans for slaves without emptying the continent.

... Soon after Europeans arrived, European diseases killed 90 percent or more of the hemisphere's original inhabitants - at least 30 million people, and possibly 100 million, according to most recent estimates.

Four years before the Pilgrims' arrival, shipwrecked French sailors accidentally unleashed an epidemic, possibly viral hepatitis, on Cape Cod, which then swept through New England. The Pilgrims moved into an Indian village, Patuxet, that had been emptied by disease; they survived the first winter only after digging up food caches in victims' houses and graves...

... American Indians were ambitious, sophisticated landscape managers. In South America, they drained vast areas of wetland; scattered networks of raised agricultural fields in Bolivia, Colombia and the Guianas; and converted much of Amazonia into an "anthropogenic" forest - a mix of gardens, orchards and agricultural forests. Visitors to the Andes still gawp at the Indian terraces that carpet the highlands - more than 2,000 square miles of them in Peru alone, according to the geographer William M. Denevan, most of them at more than 9,000 feet.

Above the Rio Grande, Indians' principal land-management tool was fire, used to create and maintain open, game-friendly forests and grazing lands. Native pyromania created a third or more of the Midwestern prairie; fire kept Eastern forests so open that the first European colonists reported being able to ride through the woods in carriages. In California, Oregon, Texas and a hundred other places, Indian burning governed the conditions under which other species thrived or failed.

When disease carried away native societies, the torches went out. Trees and underbrush erupted in ways that had not been seen for millennia, filling in areas kept open by Indian axes and Indian fire. "Almost wherever the European went, forests followed," wrote the ecological historian Stephen Pyne. Far from destroying wilderness, in other words, European settlers created it - only it was a peculiar, unprecedented kind of wilderness, shot through with European invaders and characterized by population outbreaks from species that had formerly been uncommon...

...Other researchers have made similar arguments for bison, elk and moose. All were kept down by Indians - the big mammals by hunting, the pigeon because Indians both ate it and competed with it for the nuts on which it depended. The huge herds and flocks seen by Europeans were evidence not of American bounty but of Indian absence...

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Electronic Arts: The Inside Story


This got a lot of commentary on Slashdot as well. Electronic Arts has a curious approach to human resources. It's stupid in several dimensions and probably illegal. Never mind morality.

Reminds me of a science fiction short story by Vernor Vinge. I suspect now that story was based on EA.

The first to survive rabies

The New York Times > National > Girl Is First to Survive Rabies Without a Shot
Dr. Willoughby said he had tried to induce the coma in part because evidence suggested that rabies did not permanently damage any brain structure. Instead, death comes because the virus seems to cause temporary dysfunction of brain centers that control critical functions like breathing and swallowing.

An astounding win. Compared to this the Red Sox victory was plebian. We are all waiting eagerly for the journal report. I suspect NEJM will bag it.

Minneapolis church makes international news -- for its lefty politics

Economist.com | Churches and politics
THE next time you are in Minneapolis, you may like to visit St Joan of Arc church. Its weekend masses are packed; the congregation has doubled to 4,000 households in the past 12 years; the median age of its members is much lower than that of most other churches. It sends do-gooders to a sister parish in Guatemala, and professional musicians often stop by to jam at mass. This liberal Roman Catholic church hit a bump recently when conservative critics complained to Rome about some of its practices, including an open door for homosexuals. The bishop tried to intervene, but met a wall of protest from parishioners. St Joan's pastor, Father George Wertin, says that he is mindful of the church's teaching, but remains committed to inclusiveness and social justice.

Wow, Minneapolis makes the international news -- thanks to Joan of Arc church. We've been going primarily for the children's mass; the only place we've been that works for our family. At JofA no-one gives us a second look -- we're quite prosaic there. Now if we can just keep the bishop at bay. I doubt this bit of fame will help ...

Kristof on the 'Left Behind' books

The New York Times > Opinion > Kristof: Apocalypse (Almost) Now

Not Kristof's best column, because he missed the point. Yes, the Left Behind books are nasty and virulent, but it's also true that one can (selectively) read the Bible that way. As religious extremists are fond of pointing out, there are a lot of places in the Bible where "God" is nasty as all get out. That's the God of a some literate barbarians -- the early Israelis.

Things quiet down as the Israelis focus more on spirtuality and less on destroying their enemies. Christ is a real aberration though. I just don't see the continuity between the Old Testament and the teachings of Christ. There's a legacy for sure, but Christ is really a revolutionary. (Paul does yet a third version; a fusion really that provides the right formula for longterm success. Paul is a reactionary zealot -- and a pragmatist.

Bottom line, the Left Behind folks are very much in the spirit of the Old Testament. I'd say they aren't Christian though, more like Yahwhites. Kristof's right when he says they're religious extremists, but wrong to think they're not true to the spirit of a part of the Bible. The Bible is massively inconsistent.

Obesity doesn't compare to smoking

The New York Times > Health > Data on Deaths From Obesity Is Inflated, U.S. Agency Says

They messed up the numbers. Turns out obesity isn't great for you, but it's not in the same league as smoking. Since weight gain is common with smoking cessation this wasn't merely an academic distinction.

In addition to less dangerous than smoking, obesity mortality is concentrated towards the upper end of life, so years-lost are far less than for smoking.

Gmail - has a handle on spam

Gmail - Inbox

Very little spam gets through the gmail spam filters now. The number in my Spam box is falling. I decided not to empty that box, because:

1. Google doesn't provide an easy way to empty it.
2. I've hunch they weight their spam filters based on what's left in the Spam box. It's what I'd do.

So they've got a handle on the problem now. Yay for them!

Update: The spam folder has dropped from about 1500 entries to about 200. Gmail's antispam technology has really kicked in. I get almost no spam.

BBC portrayal of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment

BBC NEWS | Programmes | Newsnight | Hunting 'Satan' in Falluja hell

The BBC are a reasonably neutral source of information. This is a fundamentally sympathetic portrayal of a marine regiment, a regiment that accounted for 20% of the US soldiers lost in the battle for Fallujah. The Colonel of this regiment gaines some infamy for describing the enemy as Satan; this fills out the image in a different direction.

There are stories of very brave men* who died well and with little note. This journalist found very few civilians, but he found a 10 year old fighter.

* I write of "men" here. One of my neighbor's, a man I don't know, has a daughter who's a lieutenant in the marines. The sign he puts by his house tells us she's lost two of her men in Fallujah. So there is at least one woman marine fighting in Fallujah.

Phone Phishing (spam): coming soon to the elderly and the vulnerable

Net phone customers brace for 'VoIP spam' | Tech News on ZDNet

It's not just Net phones. Lately our home phone, which is not VOIP, has been getting phishing calls. Non-native english speakers who want to let me know that the Feds want to give me $10,000.00. (Hush money from GWB? I think not.)

With VOIP to voice linkages it's cost effective to set up a virtual phone bank across south Asia, China, and perhaps sub-saharan africa. If 10,000 callers were to participate in a pyramid-like phone phishing scheme, and each were to make 400 calls a day, that's 4 million calls a day. A call every few months -- assuming no automation. If the initial call is automated (screen out the able minded, avoid recordings, etc) it would be easy to scale to hit ever phone in the US every day.

Laws? You must be joking.

How well does phishing work? I've read that the hit rate is 1/40,000 for email. That's enough to provide a relatively small number of desperate and/or immoral people with a superb income. Who falls for these shemes? Do the math. Far more than 1/40,000 people have early dementia, schizophrenia, pyschosis, and a range of cognitive disabilities. They are frail, vulnerable, soft meat for these scum sucking vultures. (Ok, so I'm mad.)

The email route does limit the population of vulnerable persons. The phone route provides far better pickings; the equivalent of a valley full of fat deer to a hungry tiger.

We will come to miss the days that long distance phone service cost a lot of money.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Armageddon? No, more like stagflation

BostonHerald.com - Business: Economic `Armageddon' predicted

The 'A' word is major hype, on reading the article it's clear Roach has a tendency to hyperbole. What he describes is more like the stagflation of the 1970s, or perhaps something similar to Japan's prolonged slump. He thinks it most likely we'll muddle throught somehow, probably with higher inflation.

The Economist has made much the same warning for a while, as has Krugman and DeLong. DeLong has frequently pointed out that current 30 year Treasury rates are insane, and only make sense for buyers who expect to lose money but figure it's worthwile to keep the US running (eg. China). Bush could have acted to make this less likely, but he chose power. I'd love to know what Warren Buffett thinks of this.

One part rings very true to me -- the debt trap. I've been surprised lately, when speaking to friends of mine with good incomes, how many are in significant debt. Many have run up large debts paying for high tuition private schools for their children -- from preschool to graduate school. Others have spent fortunes on homes, following traditional advice to "live in one's investment" and in response to the NASDAQ crash of the 00s.

If we do hit something like this, it wouldn't be restricted to the US. It would take down the world, and it could plunge China into bloody chaos. Our best hope may be a more sedate stagflation -- and hope China forges ahead and drags us along. I do note some prescient friends of mine started betting on inflation about a year ago. I admit I've been hedging my own bets.

Of course if one believes a true meltdown lies ahead, it would be better to invest in friends, medications, tools, and shelter. I don't give that kind of outcome more than a 5-10% chance in the near term.
Economic `Armageddon' predicted
By Brett Arends/ On State Street
Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Stephen Roach, the chief economist at investment banking giant Morgan Stanley, has a public reputation for being bearish.

But you should hear what he's saying in private.

Roach met select groups of fund managers downtown last week, including a group at Fidelity.

His prediction: America has no better than a 10 percent chance of avoiding economic `armageddon'.

Press were not allowed into the meetings. But the Herald has obtained a copy of Roach's presentation. A stunned source who was at one meeting said, ``it struck me how extreme he was - much more, it seemed to me, than in public.''

Roach sees a 30 percent chance of a slump soon and a 60 percent chance that "we'll muddle through for a while and delay the eventual armageddon.''

The chance we'll get through OK: one in 10. Maybe.

In a nutshell, Roach's argument is that America's record trade deficit means the dollar will keep falling. To keep foreigners buying T-bills and prevent a resulting rise in inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will be forced to raise interest rates further and faster than he wants.

The result: U.S. consumers, who are in debt up to their eyeballs, will get pounded.

Less a case of ``Armageddon,'' maybe, than of a ``Perfect Storm.''

Roach marshalled alarming facts to support his argument.

To finance its current account deficit with the rest of the world, he said, America has to import $2.6 billion in cash. Every working day.

That is an amazing 80 percent of the entire world's net savings.

Sustainable? Hardly.

Meanwhile, he notes that household debt is at record levels.

Twenty years ago the total debt of U.S. households was equal to half the size of the economy.

Today the figure is 85 percent.

Nearly half of new mortgage borrowing is at flexible interest rates, leaving borrowers much more vulnerable to rate hikes.

Americans are already spending a record share of disposable income paying their interest bills. And interest rates haven't even risen much yet.

You don't have to ask a Wall Street economist to know this, of course. Watch people wielding their credit cards this Christmas.

Roach's analysis isn't entirely new. But recent events give it extra force.

The dollar is hitting fresh lows against currencies from the yen to the euro.

Its parachute failed to open over the weekend, when a meeting of the world's top finance ministers produced no promise of concerted intervention.

It has farther to fall, especially against Asian currencies, analysts agree.

The Fed chairman was drawn to warn on the dollar, and interest rates, on Friday.

Roach could not be reached for comment yesterday. A source who heard the presentation concluded that a ``spectacular wave of bankruptcies'' is possible.

Smart people downtown agree with much of the analysis. It is undeniable that America is living in a ``debt bubble'' of record proportions.

But they argue there may be an alternative scenario to Roach's. Greenspan might instead deliberately allow the dollar to slump and inflation to rise, whittling away at the value of today's consumer debts in real terms.

Inflation of 7 percent a year halves ``real'' values in a decade.

It may be the only way out of the trap.

Higher interest rates, or higher inflation: Either way, the biggest losers will be long-term lenders at fixed interest rates.

You wouldn't want to hold 30-year Treasuries, which today yield just 4.83 percent.

Toffler: of Future Shock fame

William Gibson
'Today, the technologies of deception are developing more rapidly than the technologies of verification. Which means we can use a television camera, plus special effects, plus computers, etc. to falsify reality so perfectly that nobody can tell the difference. And the consequences of that eventually could be a society in which nobody believes, everybody knows that seeing is not believing, and nobody believes anything. With the exception of a small minority that decides to believe one thing fanatically. And that's a dangerous social/cultural situation.

One of the consequences of living through a period like this, which is in fact a revolutionary period, is that the entire structure of society and the processes of change become nonlinear. And nonlinearity I think is defined almost by the statement that 'small inputs can have large consequences.' While large inputs can sometimes have very small consequences. That also means in a political sense that very small groups can, under a given set of circumstances, achieve power. And that is a very threatening idea for anything remotely resembling what we believe to be democracy. So we're going into a period, I think, of high turbulence and considerable danger, along with enormous possibilities.'

--interview with Alvin Toffler, in Modulations: A History of Electronic Music
Eerie. I'd wondered where Toffler went after the Future Shock books I read as a child. In retrospect the shocks he described were only the merest hints of times to come. As too our shocks shall seem but minor things ...

As goes deception and verification, so goes offensive and defensive weapons.

Body and Soul: Hunger in Iraq

Body and Soul: Hunger:

A woman who'd sworn off blogging post-election is stirred to write again -- by the starvation of Iraqi children. A consequence of our discount-conquest -- an invasion without the forces to provide security, a conquest designed around GWB's electoral calendar and electoral needs.

I left a comment:
Imagine if one were to create a website composed entirely of pictures of these children. Someone in Iraq would have to provide the pictures. A gallery of hundreds or thousands of pictures. Whatever we could get.

Once a week each of us prints out one of the pictures and mails it to the only people with any power:

Tom DeLay
George Bush
Bill Frist

That's all. One picture a week. With or without a comment.

The better species

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Dolphins prevent NZ shark attack
A group of swimmers has told how a pod of dolphins protected them from a great white shark off New Zealand's coast.

The lifeguards were training at a beach near Whangarei on the North Island when they were menaced by a 3-metre shark, before the dolphins raced in to help.

The swimmers were surrounded by the dolphins for 40 minutes before they were able to make it safely back to the beach.

Supposedly this is not terribly rare. Dolphins seem to have a soft spot for helpless creatures. In other words, they are stupidly sentimental.

Or maybe they're just better than us.

There's a brilliant Onion parody about emergent mutant dolphins with opposable thumbs. The Onion 'interviews" a terrified marine biologist cowering in a shark cage; he anticipates the inevitable and just vengeance of the unstoppable dolphins. Perhaps they'd be more merciful than we imagine.

Too bad they don't seem to be designed to take over ...

Chronic pain and brain injury

BBC NEWS | Health | Pain link to permanent brain loss
They scanned the brains of 26 patients with chronic back pain and 26 healthy people.

The patients with chronic pain caused by damage to the nervous system showed shrinks in the brain by as much as 11% - equivalent to the amount of gray matter that is lost in 10-20 years of normal aging.

The decrease in volume, in the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus of the brain, was related to the duration of pain.

Every year of pain appeared to decrease gray matter by 1.3 cubic centimetres.

Is the loss related to inactivity, or to pain itself? Is it related to neuronal depletion in the spinal cords (mentioned in article) or to persistent high cortisol levels (known to cause neuron depletion)? Why is the brain so vulnerable to pain or stress anyway? Doesn't seem to make any evolutionary sense. Does the brain injury somehow perpetuate the inactivity/pain cycle -- making the condition untreatable? What can we do to change the dynamic of chronic pain development? Is the pain the primary cause, or have we discovered an unrecognized primary neurologic disorder that has, as one of its correlates, a predisposition to chronic pain syndromes? Does this neuronal loss affect cognition, or is it primarily related to perception, sensation and movement?

And those are just the truly obvious questions.

We know that chronic pain, especially when associated with disability, is very, very hard to treat. The burden on families is staggering. The economic cost is awesome. The suffering of afflicted seems never ending.

We're just beginning to understand what's going on.

America -- a broken democracy?

Spending Bill Held Up by Tax Provision (washingtonpost.com)

Our democracy is broken.
A $388 billion government-wide spending bill, passed by Congress on Saturday, was stranded on Capitol Hill yesterday, its trip to the White House on hold as embarrassed Republicans prepared to repeal a provision that could give the Appropriations committees the right to examine the tax returns of Americans....

... "It's simply representative of the way Congress is now operating," said Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It shows on the one hand how easy it is to put something in [an omnibus bill] without anybody else knowing about it." Although this may look particularly egregious, he said, the giant bill also contains hundreds of other provisions that could not be enacted into law if they were offered as single bills requiring full debate and scrutiny in both houses.

Such huge bills, lawmakers acknowledge, represent a breakdown of the normal budget process. For the second time in three years, House and Senate Republicans, bitterly divided over the level of domestic spending, failed to agree on a budget blueprint, as required by law.

The impasse forced delays in drafting many of the spending bills, and when Congress returned last week from its election recess, it had yet to complete nine of the 13 annual appropriations bills. Seven of the spending bills had never been to the Senate floor for debate, one had never been to the House floor, and one funding the nation's nuclear weapons programs and Army Corps of Engineers water projects was still in a Senate subcommittee.

To overcome this problem, GOP leaders crammed all the remaining legislation into a single omnibus package that, under congressional rules, could not be amended.

It contained all the unfinished spending bills, along with three other pieces of major legislation -- the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act, the Snake River Water Rights Act, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

Along with those measures, lawmakers and staffs added thousands of local projects benefiting home states and districts. Also included in the final bill was a major provision barring states from enforcing laws that require health care providers, hospitals, HMOs or insurers to pay for, provide or give referrals for abortion.

But when the measure was rushed to the floors of the two chambers Saturday, few members had read it. Lawmakers absent from the Capitol for weeks while campaigning for reelection returned for a brief lame-duck session to complete the work of the 108th Congress.

The secretive process, Schick noted, gives GOP leaders enormous power to add provisions that they or special interests might want, and to delete provisions that GOP factions or the White House find objectionable.

Frist, for example, ordered negotiators to accept the abortion provision, even though it had never gone to the Senate floor and was only in the House-passed version of the bill covering health appropriations. Senate opponents agreed not to block its consideration after Frist promised to schedule a vote soon on a bill drafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to repeal the provision.

GOP leaders also deleted provisions on overtime regulations and the outsourcing of government jobs despite support in both houses.

Republicans control the entire government, yet they cannot manage a budget bill.

Oddly enough, the process we now follow gives a few leaders enormous power to punish their enemies and rewards their friends -- and to do so without inconvenient publicity. Imagine that; just by accident we've evolved a budget process that facilitates oligarchic rule and perpetuation of a single party system. This is the way Japanese democracy has worked for the past 40-50 years.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Puzzles in behavior: why would anyone work for Electronic Arts?

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Digital Domain: When a Video Game Stops Being Fun
For around $60,000 a year in an area with a high cost of living, he had been set to work on a six-day-a-week schedule. On weekdays, his team worked from 9 to 10 (that is, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and on Saturdays, a half-day (that means 9 to 6). Then Sundays were added - noon to 8 or 10 p.m. The weekly total was 82 to 84 hours.

By tradition, Silicon Valley employers have always offered their bleary-eyed employees lottery tickets in the form of stock options. E.A.'s option grants, however, offer little chance of a Google-like bonanza. An employee who started today with an options package like that of the E.A. worker just described (and who stayed with the company the four years required to fully vest) would get $120,000, for example, if the share price quadrupled - and proportionally less for more modest increases. The odds of a skyrocketing stock grew much longer this month, when the company said competition had forced it to cut prices on core sports titles.

Surgical residents work those kinds of hours, but typically only for a few years. The pay is less, but there's a clear goal in mind. Not a few of them enjoy that life, which has a certain simplicity to it.

Why do these engineers stay with these jobs? That's the real mystery.

What did Arafat die of?

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Arafat's Death Remains a Mystery, Nephew Says After Seeing Records

And so the rumor mill goes. The most convincing theory I've heard is that he drank himself to death. It's less scandalous and more prosaic than the HIV theory, but it still explains why those in the know would want to keep the cause of his death secret. Alcohol consumption is forbidden to observant muslims.

I suspect the story will leak out over the next few months. If the bottle count was high I'd increase my confidence in the alcoholism therapy with secondary liver, cardiac and marrow failure. It's killed more than a few men Arafat's age.

Planet of the microbes

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Science taps into ocean secrets
'In that regard, I think the big discovery is that 90% of all the carbon that's taken up in life in the oceans is taken up in microbes, and a large number of those may be in the deep-ocean sediments buried beneath the sea floor,' he told BBC News.

To a reasonable first approximation, earth is a planet of microbes. Macroscopic life is a relative aberration -- perhaps a transient aberration.

Many more details emerge on the Fallujah insurrenction

KRT Wire | 11/21/2004 | Al-Zarqawi underling emerges as force behind Fallujah insurgency

Knight-Ridder has had some of the best Iraq reporting anywhere. I wonder what drives them.

This KR article provides much more depth to the Fallujah story. Tribal relationships loom large. Omar Hadid may have been the key player, a man who made the hopefully fatal decision to stand and fight.

African american SAT scores

Universities Record Drop In Black Admissions (washingtonpost.com)
1,877 African American students nationwide scored higher than 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT last year, compared with nearly 150,000 students overall who achieved that score.
Almost 80 to 1. Should be about 20 to 1 based on population. This is really bad. I'd love to know what the comparable ratio is in Canada -- a country with decent public education.

Melee in Chile: Bush 1 World 0

Spats Over Security Roil Summit in Chile (washingtonpost.com)
Then Bush either realized he was missing something, or he heard the commotion. The president, who is rarely alone, even in his own house, turned and walked back to the front door unaccompanied, facing the backs of a sea of dark suits. Bush, with his right hand, reached over the suits and pointed insistently at Trotta. At first the officials, with their backs to him and their heads in the rumble, did not realize it was the president intervening. Bush then braced himself against someone and lunged to retrieve the agent, who was still arguing with the Chileans. The shocked Chilean officials then released Trotta.

Trotta walked in behind Bush, who looked enormously pleased with himself. He was wearing the expression that some critics call a smirk, and his eyebrows shot up as if to wink at bystanders.

You know Bush has won big when even I have to give him points. If the Chilean agents had unwittingly socked him things might have gotten even uglier, but I can't imagine him going anywhere without his security team. If he were still up to reelection I'd grumble that he'd staged the entire thing.

Political points aside, there's a substantially bad undercurrent:
...CNN's Mark Walz had his camera trained on Bush when a thundering herd of Asian reporters hit him in his blind spot. Walz, who has covered the White House since the last year of the Reagan administration, said it was the first time he had been knocked down. The cameraman landed on his feet and kept shooting, with an Asian reporter wedged under his right bicep.

Walz's colleagues commended him, both for keeping the camera on Bush and for not making a jerk of himself in front of the president. "I didn't want to embarrass myself or the American press by kicking it up a notch," he said.

In the hall afterward, a couple of pairs of journalists went at each other like a locker-room fight.
Bush has indeed united the world. Even our allies hate us now.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

States Rights -- NYT Magazine

The New York Times > Magazine > The Way We Live Now: A States' Rights Left?
Marriage affords a vivid example. In some states it is evidently more imperiled than in others. The Bible Belt states, in particular, have a shockingly high divorce rate, around 50 percent above the national average. Given such marital instability, these states are anxious to defend the institution of heterosexual matrimony, which may explain their hostility to gay marriage. The state of Massachusetts, by contrast, has the lowest divorce rate in the nation. So its people -- or at least its liberal judges -- perhaps feel more comfortable allowing some progressive experimentation. It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out, assuming the Bush administration does not succeed in choking off the right of a state to recognize same-sex marriages by getting the Federal Marriage Amendment enacted...

... One of the most striking differences among states is in their levels of wealth. Liberals tend to live in more economically productive states than conservatives. The top five states in per capita personal income (Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York) all went to Kerry; the bottom five (Utah, New Mexico, West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi) all went to Bush. Since the blue states are generally richer than the red states, they must bear a greater portion of the federal tax burden. Most of them pay more to Washington than they receive, whereas most of the red states receive more than they pay. Some liberals in blue states must wonder exactly what they get in return for subsidizing the heartlanders, who are said to resent them.

Here is where President Bush is their friend. According to a recent Brookings Institution analysis, as much as two-thirds of the benefits from the income tax cuts he pushed through in his first term go to taxpayers making more than $100,000 a year. These well-off Americans tend to be concentrated around New York City, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and other liberal enclaves. By contrast, relatively few of the benefits from the Bush tax cuts go to the Southern and Prairie states, where low-income working families with children are more the norm. At present, the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire by 2010. If the president succeeds in making them permanent, as he has vowed to do, it will mean lasting relief for the blue states. The money they had been sending to the red states could then be spent locally, according to their own liberal values -- say, on public schools (where they already spend more per pupil than the red states) or stem-cell research.

The more conservatives succeed in reducing the size and scope of the federal government, the more fiscal freedom the blue states will have to pursue their own idea of a just society....

/// Meanwhile, blue-state liberals should stop despairing and start thinking locally. Instead of saying, ''The United States is. . . . '' try saying, ''The United States are. . . . '' See? You feel better already.

This is a sly article, slashing at the hypocrisies of the red states while nobly asking for the rights of states to differ.

I, of course, am a huge fan of states rights.

Note that Bush's plan to remove the deduction for state income tax will make the blue states even bigger donors to the red states than we already are.

The fact that will not speak its name

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: A Doctrine Left Behind
They might have said that it is a deeply uncontroversial fact that the United States has from the beginning had too few troops in Iraq: too few to secure the capital or effectively monitor the borders or even police the handful of miles of the Baghdad airport road; too few to secure the arms dumps that litter the country; and too few to mount an offensive in one city without leaving others vulnerable.

They might have said that it is a deeply uncontroversial fact that the insurgency is spreading: when I arrived in Iraq 13 months ago, the insurgents were mounting 17 attacks a day; last week there were 150 a day. If the old rule of thumb about counterinsurgency warfare holds true - that the guerrilla wins by not losing and the government loses by not winning - then America is losing the Iraq war. The Iraqi insurgents have shown 'outstanding resilience,' as a Marine intelligence report compiled after Falluja put it, and 'will continue to find refuge among sympathetic tribes and former regime members.'

In every discussion that goes nowhere, there's an elephant in the room who's name cannot be spoken. The elephant in this room is the draft.

Yes, we don't have enough soldiers to conquer Iraq. Half-conquering Iraq has inflicted vast sorrow upon that nation; the humane choice would have been either to give up on the sanctions and focus on assassinating Saadam, or to invade with 350,000 troops.

So where would we get 350,000 troops for a 2-5 year period? It's not clear we have them -- not given other commitments, even if we did redeploy.

We're not a very youthful nation any more. Qualifications for troops have risen. Commitments have increased -- even outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we increased compensation by 50%, could we really fill a volunteer army large enough to meet demands?

I've read the arguments against the draft. They don't persuade me. It's true that the draft is a lousy way to create a modern fighting force -- but the draft could be used to fill a lot of non-critical non-fighting spots. This is particularly true in supporting services -- from packaging gear to sewing up abdomens.

So those of us who say Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney are probably war criminals, are also saying that the decision to conquer Iraq implied a draft. That's not a popular thing to say -- either on the right or the left. That's why no-one names the elephant in the room -- and the sterile argument continues.

Power corrupts - Republicans want access to tax returns

MSNBC - Republicans red-faced over tax-disclosure gaffe
Congress debated legislation Saturday giving two committee chairman and their assistants access to income tax returns without regard to privacy protections, but not before red-faced Republicans said it was all a mistake and would be swiftly repealed.

A mistake? Only in its presumption.

What would they do with those returns? Decide who to reward -- or who to punish?

Don't worry. This will happen in a less public way. Or, since there won't be much reaction to this, it will happen in a quite public way.

The ghosts of the children

Children Pay Cost of Iraq's Chaos (washingtonpost.com)

As near as we can tell about 50,000-150,000 Iraqi women and children were killed during the invasion and insurrection. Now we learn malnutrition has doubled following the invasion.

Do the "moral values" people give a damn?

Saturday, November 20, 2004

What does the "missing link" mean?

The New York Times > Science > Fossils Found in Spain Seen as Last Link to Great Apes
In their report, the researchers noted that the skeleton showed that those early great apes 'retained primitive monkeylike characters' and thus did not seem to support 'the theoretical model that predicts that all characters shared by extant great apes were present in their last common ancestor.'

This doesn't shock me as much as the mini-human discovery. I don't think it's quite in the same league; there was no real doubt among scientists that there was a primate ancestor of both humans and gorillas. The primary surprise seems to be that we actually found something from the miocene. Now we'll look for more.

It doesn't seem surprising that gorillas would have evolved over the past few million years. Why wouldn't they?

Of course this won't have any effect on the anti-rational anti-evolutionists. They're in a different universe.

Degenerative democracy

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Colmunist: No More Sham Elections
...The U.S. electoral system looks increasingly dysfunctional, and those of us who used to mock the old Soviet or Iraqi 'elections' for lacking competition ought to be blushing.

In Arkansas, 75 percent of state legislative races this year were uncontested by either the Republicans or by the Democrats. The same was true of 73 percent of the seats in Florida, 70 percent in South Carolina, 62 percent in New Mexico.

And Congressional races were an embarrassment. Only seven incumbents in the House of Representatives lost their seats this month. Four of those were in Texas, where the Republican Legislature gerrymandered Democrats out of their seats.

American democracy is somewhere between 35 (civil rights movement), 100 (women vote), 140 (emancipation) and 300 (first revolutionary war) years old. During those times there've been periods where it was pretty sick, and periods where it was quite healthy.

This is not one of those healthy times.

I wonder if this is merely a historic cycle, or a consequence of applying technology and technique to elections between two cynical and adaptive parties. In a system designed for two parties, wouldn't the combination of adaptability, research and information technology ultimately carve the population into balanced sets?

Of course a very cynical party could always take power and then change the rules, or exploit flaws in existing rules, so that we had an effective one party system.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Irelands smoking ban closing pubs ...

Europe: Where The Smoke Is Clearing

So Europe is finally facing reality. About time. The interesting item, though, is the fall off in pub business. I dimly recall reading some months ago that there's a synergistic pleasure interaction between smoking and alcohol use. I wonder if these patrons find drinking less pleasurable when they smoke less.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Passive-aggressive behavior in the NYT

The New York Times > Health > Mental Health & Behavior > Oh, Fine, You're Right. I'm Passive-Aggressive.

This is a fun review. The author correctly distinguishes between passive-aggressive behavior and passive-aggressive personality disorder. The former is normal and not rare (Minnesotans claim they're experts in it, I can't say if that's true or not), the very existence of the latter is in question.

I've long been fascinated by the so-called personality disorders; they dwell in the twilight zone between true pathology (which is never adaptive) and awkward individual variation. Borderline personality disorder tends to the pathologic, narcissistic personality disorder is a prerequisite for some careers.

It's always fun to pick one's unique personality disorder ...

Paying for intellectual work

Marginal Revolution: A Market for Journal Articles
The current academic publishing system is slow, tedious, and error prone.  David Zetland, a clever economics graduate student at UC Davis, has a better idea.  Zetland suggests that journal publishers should buy manuscripts in an auction.  You probably already have some objections, Where would the money come from?  Why would journal editors buy what they can get for free? etc.  But wait.  Here comes the clever part:

The money paid in the auction would flow not to the author of the paper but to authors cited by the paper and their publishers.  For example, if a journal buys a paper by A.Tabarrok for $1000 which cites an article by T.Cowen published by Oxford University Press and an article by M. Friedman published by the University of Chicago Press then Cowen, Friedman and their publishers would each receive $250 (the author/publisher split could vary.)

It's rather unusual to come across a new idea in the domain of intellectual property. The general principal is that contributors (in this case publishers) are paid for their contribution to a derivative work. Can this be extended to other open source content types?

Beyond mockery

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: November 14, 2004 - November 20, 2004 Archives: "'House Republicans were contemplating changing their rules in order to allow members indicted by state prosecutors to remain in a leadership post, a move designed to benefit Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in case he is charged by a Texas grand jury that has indicted three of his political associates, GOP leaders said today.'"

Fighting science: evolution and education

Boston.com / News / Education / K-12 / Evolution foes see opening to press fight in schools

The usual bad news. The forces of stupidity are on the march, and Bush is their champion.

How do these people explain antimicrobial resistance? Do they think Staphylococcus became resistant to Penicillin due to divine intervention? Or maybe the Devil did it? How they heck do they think biology can be taught without natural selection?

What's next? Mathematics? Maybe it's time to ban the transcendental numbers. After all, they could be considered blasphemous.

Goss and the CIA

Salon.com News | Killing the messenger

The CIA will serve the president.

The cabinet will serve the president.

Congress serves the president.

Soon the supreme court will serve the president.

I really hope I'm wrong about this guy.

How Kerry would have fought the war on terror

Salon.com Politics
A new report, 'Preserving Security and Democratic Freedoms in the War on Terrorism,' authored by Juliette Kayyem and Philip Heymann of Harvard University, pulls together the recommendations of a range of bi-partisan policy and security experts on 10 critical issues and the 'clear rules' they say are needed to reconcile 'critical democratic norms and security concerns around each.'

On coercive interrogations, the group says, 'The United States must comply with its treaty obligations not to engage in torture. Treaty obligations not to use cruel and inhuman techniques short of torture must also be obeyed unless there is a clear immediate threat to American lives that only coercion might stop; the president must approve this limited exception. Regularly permissible interrogation techniques consistent with the Convention Against Torture should be approved by the president and provided to Congress.' ...

A reasonable balance -- that's what a Kerry administration would have brought. A balance one could bring to judgment day.

Voted for Bush? Then pray for a merciful God.

Salon.com Politics
The two prisoners extradited from Sweeden to Egypt in December 2001, at least one of whom was later cleared, claimed they were beaten and tortured with electric shocks to their genitals. The report also notes a harrowing treatment that may have been used in Uzbekistan -- one country the Bush administration has aligned itself with under the banner of the global war on terror.

Among the countries where prisoners have been sent by America is Uzbekistan, a close ally and a dictatorship whose secret police are notorious for their interrogation methods, including the alleged boiling of prisoners. The Gulfstream made at least seven trips to the Uzbek capital.

The details bolster claims by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador, that America has sent terrorist suspects from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan to be interrogated by torture.

In a memo, whose disclosure last month contributed to Murray's removal, he told Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, that the CIA station chief in Tashkent had 'readily acknowledged torture was deployed in obtaining intelligence'.

We may never know the truth. Bush has surrounded himself by loyalists.

The allegations, however, are consistent with what has been admitted and with a series of allegations that came with supporting evidence.

Those who voted for Bush, voted for this. Many of them those voters believe in a vengeful God. They may have need of a merciful God.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Understanding Bush II: Dobson and homophobic america

James Dobson - The religious right's new kingmaker. By Michael Crowley
... no one helped Bush win more than Dr. James Dobson. Forget Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson ... Forget Ralph Reed, now enriching himself as a lobbyist-operative, leaving the Christian Coalition a shell of its former self. Forget Gary Bauer ... Dobson is now America's most influential evangelical leader, with a following reportedly greater than that of either Falwell or Robertson at his peak.

Dobson earned the title. He proselytized hard for Bush this last year, organizing huge stadium rallies and using his radio program to warn his 7 million American listeners that not to vote would be a sin. Dobson may have delivered Bush his victories in Ohio and Florida...

... An absolutist disgusted by the compromises of politics, he sneers at those who place "self-preservation and power ahead of moral principle." ... as the gay-marriage movement surged this year, Dobson's moral outrage over the direction of American culture went supernova, asserting in his recent book Marriage Under Fire that Western civilization hangs in the balance....

Dobson's clout emanates from Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based ministry he founded that is awesome in scope: publishing books and magazines, disseminating Dobson's weekly newspaper column to more than 500 papers, and airing radio shows—including Dobson's own—that reach people in 115 countries every week, from Japan to Botswana and in languages from Spanish to Zulu. The ministry receives so much mail it has its own ZIP code.

His rise began in 1977, when as an unknown pediatric psychologist in California he published Dare to Discipline, a denunciation of permissive parenting that tried to rehabilitate the practice of spanking. The book sold 2 million copies. Dobson then cranked out a string of follow-up Christian self-help books, with titles like Straight Talk to Men and What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.

... In 1983 he established the Family Research Council as his political arm in Washington, although he had his friend Gary Bauer enter the Gomorrah of Washington so Dobson could concentrate on his ministry in Colorado. Then, in the late 1990s Dobson began to grow disenchanted with Republican leaders in Congress for not pushing the Christian social agenda harder. In the 2000 campaign his tepid support of Bush may have helped dampen turnout among evangelical voters, a disappointment Karl Rove dwelled on for four years.

It was the gay-marriage debate that finally hurled Dobson into politics wholeheartedly. The subject of homosexuality seems to exert a special power over him, and he has devoted much idiosyncratic thought to it. When discussing gays he spares no detail, no matter how prurient...Dobson further contends that homosexuality, especially in such an early stage, can be "cured." His ministry runs a program called Love Won Out that seeks to convert "ex-gays" to heterosexuality....

To Dobson, gay marriage is a looming catastrophe of epic proportions. He has compared the recent steps toward gay marriage to Pearl Harbor and likens the battle against it to D-Day.

Is reaction-formation the dominant pychopathology of the religious right? One wonders if Dobson fears that he might be gay -- or could at least lean that way.

Christian Exodus: The moral values agenda and states rights

Christian Exodus :: Come Out of Her, My People
ChristianExodus.org is coordinating the move of thousands of Christians to South Carolina for the express purpose of re-establishing Godly, constitutional government. It is evident that the U.S. Constitution has been abandoned under our current federal system, and the efforts of Christian activism to restore our Godly republic have proven futile over the past three decades. The time has come for Christians to withdraw our consent from the current federal government and re-introduce the Christian principles once so predominant in America to a sovereign State like South Carolina...

...Christians have actively tried to return the United States to their moral foundations for more than 30 years. We now have a "Christian" president, a "Christian" attorney general, and a Republican Congress and Supreme Court. Yet consider this:

* Abortion continues against the wishes of many States
* Sodomite marriage is now legal in Massachusetts (and coming soon to a neighborhood near you)
* Children who pray in public schools are subject to prosecution
* Our schools continue to teach the discredited theory of Darwinian evolution
* The Bible is still not welcome in schools except under unconstitutional FEDERAL guidelines
* The 10 Commandments remain banned from public display
* Sodomy is now legal AND celebrated as "diversity" rather than condemned as perversion
* Preaching Christianity will soon be outlawed as "hate speech"

Attempts at reform have proven futile. Future elections will not stop the above atrocities, but rather will exacerbate them and lead us down an even more deadly path.

I find this web site fascinating. For one thing, it includes a very clear list of 8 critical demands, of which 2 involve sodomy, 3 are about church/state separation, and several imply unusual definitions of common words (such as "discredit", and "outlawed"). It's a good summary of the "moral values" agenda.

For another, I like the solution they espouse. I like the idea of states differentiating along cultural lines. If there are any rationalists left in South Carolina, they might want to consider moving to California, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, or Minnesota. If Hmong peoples can adapt to Minnesota winters, then so can South Carolinians. (If they move to Florida, on the other hand, maybe that state would tip to the rationalist side.)

I also enjoyed reading their plans. Anyone familiar with the history of Mormonism would recognize the outline of the original Mormon exodus and even echoes of early 20th century Zionism.
Phase One

The first move will commence when ChristianExodus.org reaches 12,000 members. Our research committee is currently selecting the first targeted city and county. We will encourage all 12,000 members toward this city and county. That number of activist migrants, when combined with the present Christian electorate, will enable us to win the city council, the county council, elected law enforcement positions, and elected judgeships. We will then be able to protect our God-given and constitutionally protected rights within our local community.

Initial goals:

1. 12,000 members by December 31, 2006.
2. Move thousands into South Carolina by October 31, 2008.
3. Work several local political campaigns in 2008...
4. Complete Phase One by end of 2008.

Additional Phases

Supplementary emigrations will begin with each new set of 12,000 members. In other words, the first 12,000 members will successfully execute Phase One. A second group of 12,000 members will then move to another city and county (Phase Two). Then the third set of 12,000 members will relocate to yet another city and county (Phase Three). ChristianExodus.org will continue this process until the General Assembly of the State is squarely in the hands of Christian Constitutionalists. It is possible that previously selected cities and counties may need to be reinforced with new members; therefore subsequent phases may also target previously chosen cities.

Distinct phases enable members to commit to move when they feel most comfortable. Some folks are ready to go today, and others will want to see some success before committing. The pioneers of Phase One will demonstrate the success of ChristianExodus.org's strategy, and provide a model for others to follow. Won't you join us in Phase One today?

Intermediate goals:

1. Complete multiple phases by end of 2013.
2. Overwhelmingly affect the state elections of 2014.
3. Institute constitutional reforms returning proper autonomy to the State by 2016 regardless of illegal edicts from Washington, D.C.


ChristianExodus.org understands that an important concern to our membership will be employment in our destination state. To help our members find employment, we will establish an employment service within our organization. ChristianExodus.org will recruit employers to hire our members as they emigrate. Different programs and incentives are currently being evaluated in the hope that we'll be able to find desired employment for all members who need help. Once launched, check our Employment page occasionally for updates and new opportunities.
There are hints of socialists leanings in the employment program, but that can hardly be avoided. I hope they succeed -- as long as emmigration from their communities is protected. The biggest issue is the same one that afflicts other cults -- laws protecting the rights of children.

Update: They will, of course, relearn the lessons of the Puritans. One's grandchildren regress to the mean. They lack the devotion of their grandparents.

Rolling Stone interviews seven very unhappy retired generals ...

Shrillblog: Seven Retired Generals Are Shrill!

Basic summary on the occupation of Iraq:

1. Rumsfeld is an idiot.
2. Bush is little better.
3. We are screwed.
4. Cut and run is a consideration.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Learning to ride for free

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > On the Contrary: Open Season on Others' Ideas
There have always been free riders in various walks of life. But the digital revolution and the rise of networked computers have brought us to the brink of a halcyon age for those who want something for nothing. Intellectual property is the new currency, and it appears that free riders have hit the jackpot. Their time is at hand, and we'd better deal with it.

This is fascinating. There's a nerd ethos that one is obligated to return free-rider gifts with donations. My more technical blogs and my web site are donations of that nature. I hadn't, however, thought this out further -- though I now dimly recall similar discussions in 'Whole Earth Magazine' durings its second golden age (early 90s, the first golden age for WEM was the 70s).

Not that this article is perfect. Drugs are costly in the US and cheaper elsewhere for many reasons -- free riding on development costs is probably not the most significant reason. Fragmented purchasing, direct to consumer marketing and even US liability behaviors are probably bigger factors.

NYT tackles some of the big pharma questions

The New York Times > Business > Dangerous Data: Despite Warnings, Drug Giant Took Long Path to Vioxx Recall
But a detailed reconstruction of Merck's handling of Vioxx, based on interviews and internal company documents, suggests that actions the company took - and did not take - soon after the drug's safety was questioned may have affected the health of potentially thousands of patients, as well as the company's financial health and reputation.

The review also raises broader questions about an entire class of relatively new painkillers, called COX-2 inhibitors; about how drugs are tested; and about how aggressively the federal Food and Drug Administration monitors the safety of medications once they are in the marketplace...

...Five times as many patients taking Vioxx had heart attacks as those taking naproxen.

In a separate NYT article there's a discussion about lowering the cost of drug development by changing how innovation is funded in the US.

These are big questions, the NYT deserves credit for tackling them. Is it just my imagination, or are they doing more of these research-intensive pieces lately?

The most interesting question is how intimate the relationship between the FDA and manufacturers has become. How many key people move between the FDA and manufacturing? How do key donations affect legislators? Eliott Spitzer must be watching closely.

PS. A fivefold relative increase in MI risk is an enormous increase. It's curious that such a large effect didn't emerge earlier. Is there something about patients who can't tolerate NSAIDS (and thus end up on Vioxx) that makes them also prone to MI?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Insider trading in the US Senate

Marginal Revolution: Senatorial Privilege

Yes, apparently everyone does do it. Senators cheat.
In February we reported on a new study showing that the stock picks of Senators, as revealed in their financial disclosure forms, outperformed the market by a whopping 12 percent.  Insider trading anyone?  Although it's not clear whether any laws have been broken, Alan Ziobrowski, one of the study's authors says 'there is cheating going on, at a 99 percent level of confidence.'

The SEC looked at the study but, surprise, surprise, it seems that they are too busy going after Martha Stewart to have the time to look into evidence that our leaders are using their political power and influence for personal gain.  An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer notes slyly, 'the SEC may have little incentive to tangle with the Senate, given their relationship. Senators approve members of the SEC's governing body, as well as the agency's budget.'

Unfortunately the article is not yet published, it is forthcoming in the Journal of Financial and Quantiative Analysis...

I wonder if they'll break this down by party. Shades of Hillary's pork bellies. Good thing no-one cares about this any more.

The end of the PAP smear?

Technology News: Health : Vaccines May Nearly End Cervical Cancer
If approved in a few years, as expected, the vaccine likely would be recommended for girls ages 10 to 12 in the United States and elsewhere. The study, to be reported Saturday in the journal The Lancet, is the second this month showing a vaccine's success against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, believed to cause most cervical cancers.

There have been several trials, all promising.

We may have to wait for the current cohort to die off, but sometime in the nex 60 years we may see the end of the PAP smear. If we eliminate HPV cervical cancer there are better ways to spend health care energies than PAP smears.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

A Feed aggregator for medical topics - Reider and Ross

Medlogs.com - The News Aggregator for Medical Topics

My esteemed colleague Jacob Reider has put together this news aggregator for medical topics. Jacob is quite brilliant and a hacker besides, so I ought to have expected this. I found it by accident though when I was testing Google's indexing of blogger. Google hadn't indexed my blog entry from November, but they did index this aggregator -- which in turn referenced the terms I was testing on.

Jacob has categorized my "Faughnan's Notes" blog as a medical blog. I'll have to try to put more healthcare related entries in it! In fact ithis blog largely politics and economics; Jacob probably stuck it in his collection because he has peculiar tastes.

I shall have to see if I can add this aggregator to my bloglines feeds.

PS. Google does seem to have done something major to their indices. They are now only a few weeks behind on indexing blogger and their "pages indexed" count has doubled. So maybe we SHOULDN'T think of shorting their stock!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Floresians: Homo erectus or homo sapiens?

The New York Times > Science > Miniature People Add Extra Pieces to Evolutionary Puzzle
There has been little evidence until now that Homo erectus long survived its younger cousins' arrival in the region. Modern humans probably exterminated the world's other archaic humans, the Neanderthals in Europe. Yet the little Floresians survived some 30,000 years into modern times, the only archaic human species known to have done so.

First of all, I think Stepen Baxter should get special mention for making the Floresians seem inevitable.

Secondly, this article mentions in a rather off-handed way, that our ancestors slaughtered both Homo erectus and Neanderthal. I'd long assumed that was true (presumably we ate them), but I'd not realized it was now common wisdom. It's scary to think that, as nasty as we are now, we might once have been even worse.

Lastly, this is a great article. If the Floresians were Homo sapiens they are at once both less exotic and more fantastic. As to those who doubt that such odd looking creatures could be of the same species as us ... they need to compare a chihuahua to a Great Dane.