Thursday, March 31, 2005

Is DeLay getting nervous?

The DNC has put together a rogue's case file for Tom DeLay: DNC Special Reports: Tom DeLay Case File. It's pretty interesting.

Meanwhile DeLay is making veiled threats against the Schiavo judges.

I wonder if he's getting nervous.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Political Animal spots the Heritage Foundation's Creationist Event

The Washington Monthly: Kevin Drum

Kevin Drum spots this description of an April 19th event to be held by an old bastion of conservatism (emphases mine):
A growing number of scientists around the world no longer believe that natural selection or chemistry, alone, can explain the origins of life. Instead, they think that the microscopic world of the cell provides evidence of purpose and design in nature — a theory based upon compelling biochemical evidence. Join us as Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, a key design theorist and philosopher of science, explains this powerful and controversial concept on the mysteries of life.
Growing? Philosopher of science? Powerful? Compelling?

Good. Very good. Keep it coming.

Ok all you remnants of the old Republican Party ... are you awake yet? Remember, you probably voted for Bush.

Guardians, Awaken!

You are (probably) very, very rich.

Global Rich List

Crooked Timber sent me to this one (read the post). The test doesn't actually measure wealth, it instead ranks yearly income on a worldwide scale. $40K a year puts one in the top 4%. Americans who consider themselves 'upper middle class' will be ranked as fabulously wealthy beyond all reason.

If one were to extend the range to include all Homo sapiens sapiens throughout time the scale would probably shift another order of magnitude.

Which reminds me of this scale.

Once you take the survey you're invited to donate to CARE -- my favorite charity. They're the only charity I've ever worked with that has been able to leave me completely and totally alone. When I started donating I wrote that I'd continue with my yearly donations as long as they never called, emailed, or otherwise pestered me or even shared my address. With one trivial exception (forgiven), they never have.

I don't think any other charity could manage that. Highly recommended.

Does chronic fatigue syndrome involve a neuropsychiatric failure of the placebo mechanism?

The New York Times > Health > For Chronic Fatigue, Placebos Fail the Test
Studies suggest that placebos relieve the symptoms for about 30 percent of patients suffering from a wide variety of illnesses. Migraine headaches, for example, respond at a rate of about 29 percent to placebo treatment, major depression at about 30 percent and reflux esophagitis at about 26 percent.

In some diseases, placebo treatments are even more effective - 36 to 44 percent of patients with duodenal ulcers improve on placebos, depending on how many of the treatments are offered each day.

But by pooling results from more than two dozen studies, the researchers, led by Dr. Hyong Jin Cho, a professor of psychiatry at King's College London, found that, among people with chronic fatigue syndrome, only 19.6 percent responded to placebos, not the 50 percent found by previous, less systematic studies.
Two NYT articles this month based on the same issue the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine? Good for them!

This is tantalizing. The article quotes researchers arguing that this proves CFS is "organic". Phaw. To a reductionist everything is "organic" -- including joy, sadness, laziness and all varieties of fatigue. The question is really about mechanism and intervention. Most pain and suffering syndromes, including fairly severe angina (this was shown in a famous and impossible-to-replicate study of a sham surgical intervention for severe angina) respond very well to placebo. In general anything that is "perceived" by the brain responds to placebo. In contrast malignant melanoma does not respond to placebo (though pain due to MM will).

Many of the symptoms of CFS are things that live in the brain -- sensations of tiredness, fatigue, malaise. They ought to respond to placebo. If they don't then one wonders if the pathophysiology of CFS somehow degrades the normal placebo response.

One interesting study would be to take a group of people with CFS, inflict an ethical amount of discomfort, and give half a placebo and half a pain medication. Do the same thing for a control group. It would be interesting to compare the therapeutic gap in both cases.

Maybe when we understand the neurophysiologic basis for the placebo response, we'll understand CFS.

Hmm. That's a lot of speculation ...

Hyperlipidemia and IQ

The New York Times > Health > Vital Signs: Abilities: The Smart Side of Cholesterol

People with high levels of cholesterol do better on a variety of tests measuring mental ability, researchers from Boston University have found. The study, led by Dr. Penelope K. Elias, appeared in the January/February issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The findings grow out of information compiled by the long-term Framingham Heart Study, and are based on the medical histories of 789 men and 1,105 women over about 18 years.

Although high cholesterol increases the risk of serious illness, including heart disease, the researchers found that when it comes to the brain, it may be a slightly different matter.

When the volunteers were given tests to measure mental skills like memory, concentration, abstract reasoning and organization, those with cholesterol levels that were borderline-high or greater (200 and above) scored somewhat better.
I wanted to find this interesting for two reasons:

1. I've long been interested in the neuropsychiatric effets of lipid-lowering agents. For pete's sake, lipids determine a lot of the physical properties of the cell membrane. There's long been a concern that some lipid-lowering agents seemed to be associated with a higher risk of accidental death and many have wondered about a connection between lipid-lowering agents and neuronal function.

2. Hyperlipidemia is fairly common, yet it seems to only have downsides. That's a bit odd, even for an inbred species like the east african planes ape (humans).

Alas, there's probably a reason this wasn't published in a major medical journal. Doing this kind of analysis on a data set obtained for an unrelated measure has a high risk of finding a misleading association. Even if the association were true it could be that both mental skills (IQ) and hyperlipidemia were related to wealth -- and thus lots of Haagen-Daas ice cream.

So, despite my enthusiasm, I suspect this is probably meaningless.
Be the Best You can Be: Five siblings with varying flavors of autism spectrum disorder

Great USA today article. Utterly brilliant blog posting. (OK, so it's my blog.)

Last gasp of the Republican Rationalists

The New York Times > Opinion > John C. Danforth: In the Name of Politics
....When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program, it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive. For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group is often to oppose the cause of another.

Take stem cell research. Criminalizing the work of scientists doing such research would give strong support to one religious doctrine, and it would punish people who believe it is their religious duty to use science to heal the sick.

During the 18 years I served in the Senate, Republicans often disagreed with each other. But there was much that held us together. We believed in limited government, in keeping light the burden of taxation and regulation. We encouraged the private sector, so that a free economy might thrive. We believed that judges should interpret the law, not legislate. We were internationalists who supported an engaged foreign policy, a strong national defense and free trade. These were principles shared by virtually all Republicans.

... in recent times, we Republicans have allowed this shared agenda to become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around.
It sounds like it might be possible to enroll Danforth as a "Guardian of the Enlightentment". He might even feel that natural selection belongs in science class, and intelligent design/creationism belongs in the philosophy or theology departments. (Gingrich is in the same category -- even though I disliked his conduct in the house).

So is this the last gasp of a powerless remnant of a now transformed party, or another sign that overreaching by religious conservatives is rousing a sleeping ... errr ...something? If the latter, we'll find out if the "something" is a "giant" or a dwarf.

Another reluctant guardian of the enlightenment -- and of a reality-based community

The New York Times > Science > Commentary: When Sentiment and Fear Trump Reason and Reality

Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. He writes in the NYT Science edition:
I have recently begun to wonder whether I am completely out of touch with the mainstream, and if so, what that implies.

When I was a young student it became clear to me that the remarkable success of the scientific method, which changed the world beyond belief in the four centuries since Galileo, made the power and efficacy of that method evident. Moreover, scientific ideas are not only powerful but so beautiful that they are on par with the most spectacular legacies of civilization in art, architecture, literature, music and philosophy.

This is what makes the current times so disconcerting...

... Those images came to mind again as I followed recent news of incidents in the United States in which fundamentalist dogma and its fear of the intellectual progress that comes from understanding nature has trumped the scientific method....

The "reality-based community," as one White House insider so poetically referred to it recently, is losing the fight for hearts and minds throughout the country to a well-orchestrated marketing program that plays on sentiment and fear...

...The pillar of our humanity that is most under attack is our remarkable ability to understand nature. We claim that in places like Afghanistan the enemies of truth are the enemies of freedom and democracy. If the scientific method is out of the mainstream in our country it is time to take a stronger stand against the effort to undermine empirical reality in favor of dogma.
The trouble with having sober rationalists as Guardians of the Enlightenment is that what they consider a passionate calls to arms is, in reality, snooze inducing. "Time to take a stronger stand"?. One imagines a sober council of elders about the round table even as the barbarian hordes gallop down from the mountains ...

Still, it's great to have such a noble recruit, even if he has been "out of touch with the mainstream". I do like the use of the phrase "reality-based community"; I'll adopt it too.

PS. Odd experience. I googled on "Guardians of the Enlightenment" and my blog post came up first. I doubt that will last.

Strong force black holes spit pions amidst a primordial quark-gluon liquid

The New York Times > Science > In Lab's High-Speed Collisions, Things Just Vanish

One would feel more confident that these little buggers can't swallow reality if the physicist's predictions were actually reliable. Alas, the scientific results appear to be somewhat surprising. While delightful, this does weaken the researcher's reputation as reliable prognosticators.

I like my title better than that of the New York Times.
The bits and pieces flying out from the high-speed collisions of gold nuclei at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island have not been behaving quite as physicists had expected...

...In a normal black hole, the energy comes back out as photons, particles of light, what is called Hawking radiation. In a strong force mini-black hole, the radiation would come out as particles known as pions. Because of the differences between gravity and the strong force, a strong force black hole would inevitably fall apart, Dr. Nastase said...

... The collisions of gold nuclei produce matter as it existed shortly after the Big Bang. In the everyday universe, protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei are made of smaller particles known as quarks that are held together by the strong force, and because the strong force is so strong, it is ordinarily impossible to pull out a single quark...

... physicists expected that at ultrahot temperatures the bindings holding the quarks together would loosen and dissolve into a new state of matter, the quark-gluon plasma...

... Five years later, however, physicists are still holding off from claiming they have made a quark-gluon plasma. That is in part because the result of the collisions looks more like a liquid than a gaseous plasma...

... The scientists working on the experiment hope to figure out by summer a more definitive answer of what they actually produced at RHIC.
Update: Yes, a superfluid.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lessons in technology: PDAs and the national health information infrastructure

Faughnan's Notes: Technology bites

Another example of why computers still don't work; and a comment on some deeper meanings.

Business need: be able to manage personal and corporate tasks and appointments separately. (Rule: don't intermingle.)

Ideal solution: A PDA/Desktop solution that allows one to identify tasks and appointments as being either work or home related and control their desktop synchronization appropriately.

Best available solution: Run two complete 'organizer' environments on my Palm PDA -- one is the native set, another Chapure is KeySuite. Each has its own synchronization. Integration is limited and occurs only on the PDA.

Problem: Even when the data models are consistent (that's another story, too awful to describe here), synchronization is problematic. Take for example today's story. Due to quirks in Outlook/Exchange I need to change the work desktop folder where I store my tasks.
1. Back up tasks in Outlook to a secondary store prior to surgery.
2. Copy all tasks to new folder. (Don't move, copy. I know from past experience moves are usually tougher for synchronization engines to handle than copies.)
3. Delete all tasks.
4. Synchronize and check.
5. Discover:
  • there are two tasks on the PDA KeySuite app that the synchronization engine can't "see". So they can't be dealt with. One is missing completely from the desktop. Not good.
  • when I copied in #2 there was an unrecognized filter applied; so the copy and sync didn't work the way I thought they did
Now #5 is a mixture of user error and bugs, but it's worse than that. I know from past experience:
1. In our setting Outlook/Exchange server are consistently messing up filters. Filter settings get lost or misapplied. It's a longstanding bug.

2. KeySuite has problems sometimes with filters -- it's a quirky bug and not replicable.
Fortunately, from years of experience, I know step 1 is reliable and it did indeed work today. So I'll wipe everything out, I'll get the missing task back somehow, and I'll sync and resync until everything is "clean" (for now).

How many people will handle all this? All those who combine servere geekishness with bull-headed obstinacy. I'd guess about five of us.

So once again -- why did the PDA market really collapse? It wasn't Graffiti that killed the Palm. I'd say it was a one-two punch:
1. Microsoft's FUD and well funded market entry incapacitated the few people at Palm who understood what was needed to provide true "profitable value" (vs. "user perceived value at time of buying decision").

2. Without a laser focus on the fundamentally very tough problem of synchronization and data models, the above was inevitable.
Are there broader lessons? Yes.
  1. We are ver far from having a reliable personal technology infrastructure. We can only manage simplicity, but the user market demands complexity.

  2. The US and UK are making billion dollar bets we can solve data model and synchronization problems in healthcare. But now I'm wandering into my real job, which I rarely mention on this blog ... This will, however, feature in a lecture I'm giving this Thursday.

Adaptive systems -- disabling the EPA hasn't been completely effective Environment: New European rules will force electronics firms to eliminate toxic substances and take back and recycle their products

The Bush administration has neutered, knee-capped and decapitated the EPA. This has had consequences, but there are mitigating factors. Since auto makers can't afford two assembly lines, California's emission rules protect the entire nation. (This is a virtuous example of the same phenomenonn that is turning science texbooks into catechisms.) It turns out that the European Union is also helping out:
... The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) legislation, which will apply throughout the EU from July 2006, bans products containing any more than trace amounts of lead, mercury, cadmium and three other hazardous substances. But it is just one of three pieces of EU legislation with which electronics manufacturers must comply. Another is the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which came into effect in August 2004 and requires manufacturers to take back and recycle electrical products. Finally, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) directive requires firms to register the chemicals they use in their manufacturing processes.

Although these rules apply only in the EU, their effects are being felt around the world. “We cannot afford to run two production lines,” says David Lear, Hewlett-Packard's director of Environmental Strategies and Sustainability. “We will be producing just one product for the worldwide market.” And component suppliers, wherever they are, must ensure that they comply with the new rules if their parts end up in products sold in Europe.

Similar rules are also being adopted elsewhere. China's Ministry of Information Industry is basing its rules on RoHS. In America, the Environmental Protection Agency has remained quiet on the issue, preferring instead to let the industry regulate itself. As a result, many states are introducing their own regulations. “The EPA is not taking a leadership role, which leaves companies trying to deal with each state individually,” says Mike Kirschner of Design Chain Associates, an electronics-manufacturing consultancy. California's rules, for example, are based on the directives...
In the 7 years prior to 2005 the US dumped about 550,000 tonnes of lead from electronic components. This may yet reverse some of the gains of removing lead from paint and gasoline (it's shocking now to recall gas once had lead in it). It's good to benefit from the distant mercies of the EU.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Revenge upon Green Bay: Minnesota educational rankings

Landlocked, cold and now No. 1 in H.S. diplomas

Minnesota is doing well in the education races. Our local paper. the Strib, takes the opportunity to land one on Wisconsin (and the Dakotas):
...Despite having one of the nation's top public universities, Dambroski's home state of Wisconsin trails Minnesota in both brainpower categories by miles. Its record in attracting educated people ranks with the Dakotas. Minnesota's record more closely resembles Colorado and California.
Clearly we Minnesotans are still mad about losing (again) to Green Bay.

PS. Blogger performance is truly abysmal today!

The NYT Magazine profiles Republican Exurbia -- through a megachurch

The New York Times > Magazine > The Soul of the New Exurb
One of the more striking facts to emerge from the 2004 presidential election was that 97 of America's 100 fastest-growing counties voted Republican. Most of these counties are made up of heretofore unknown towns too far from major metropolitan areas to be considered suburbs, but too bustling to be considered rural, places like Lebanon, Ohio; Fridley, Minn.; Crabapple, Ga.; and Surprise, Ariz. America has a new frontier: the exurbs. In a matter of years, sleepy counties stretching across 30 states have been transformed into dense communities of subdivisions filled with middle-class families likely to move again and again, settling in yet another exurb but putting down no real roots. These exurban cities tend not to have immediately recognizable town squares, but many have some kind of big, new structure where newcomers go to discuss their lives and problems and hopes: the megachurch.
I'm going to have to visit Fridley! I never thought of it as an Exurb. I'd love to know why these are such Republican bastions.

Remember Homeland Security? The EAPA can't handle prevention.

Schneier on Security: TSA Lied About Protecting Passenger Data

The Transportation Safety Authority lied about how they used travel data obtained from airlines. Shocked I am not. I would have been shocked if they'd actually been both competent and honest.

Schneier's story and the comments are both well worth reading. Arguably the ongoing thread of incompetence is even worse than the deceptions (is it a lying if no-one believes you?). My own experience with TSA staff has been unremarkable -- I've found them to be polite and far more attentive than I could be in their place. As an organization, however, they seem to be overwhelmed.

Alas, the Department of Homeland Security (remember them?) is no better. In a recent detailed analysis of US intelligence, The Economist dismissed the DHS with a single curt sentence. It's been a costly failure.

The 'East African Plains Ape' (that's us) was not designed to deal with prevention in a modern industrial society. It probably has something to do with the way we evolved, and the kind of probability heuristics natural selection programmed into us. Even so, Bush isn't helping.

The age of the net -- do we understand what we're riding?

Welcome to the largest bibliographic database dedicated to Economics and available on the Internet. Over 300'000 items of research can be browsed or searched, and over 200'000 can be downloaded in full text! This site is part of a large volunteer effort to enhance the free dissemination of research in Economics
Disregard the slightly mangled english -- this is an astounding work. There are so many of these projects on the net. Any one of us sees only a fraction of the whole.

Fifteen years ago there were only hints of what was coming. How well do we understand the changes swirling about us?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Redefining science: the Justice Department's 'religious rights' unit

The New York Times > Arts > Frank Rich: The God Racket, From DeMille to DeLay
The Los Angeles Times has uncovered a three-year-old 'religious rights' unit in the Justice Department that investigated a biology professor at Texas Tech because he refused to write letters of recommendation for students who do not accept evolution as 'the central, unifying principle of biology.'
I assume this unit will also protect Scientology in its attacks on psychiatry, and guarantee that Christian Science pre-med students suffer no discrimination in admissions based upon their religious beliefs. If not, I strongly urge the Christian Scientists, Scientologists, and other faiths, cults and variants thereof to bring a class-action discrimination suit against the Justice Department. Science must not discriminate based on its bizarre concepts of testable models and non-consensus reality.

[correction: in the first version a typo meant I wrote "consensus" instead of "non-consensus". Sorry!]

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Madness of the Great WAr

t r u t h o u t - Niall Ferguson | Sinking Globalization

This Foreign Affairs article by Niall Ferguson compares today's world to that of 1905. This is not new; it's been a common comparison since 9/11. Even so, Niall does a good job of bringing these comparisons to life.

I've been particularly interested for the past few years in American history from 1885 to 1910. This is a fascinating article.

Creepy logo award: Social Explorer

Social Explorer - About Us
Social Explorer is an organization based in New York City. Our objective is to help Visually Analyze and Understand the Demography of the U.S. through the use of Interactive Maps. Our primary functions include Demographic Data Analysis, Interactive Map Design and Software Development.

One of our main goals is to show demographic change that's occured in the U.S. since 1870 till present. We maintain a collection of interactive maps that visually show some of the available Census Data running back to 1870s.

We have over 60 years of combined experince in data analysis. With Dr. Beveridge at helm, we have produced statistical information and themathic maps to Prudential Financial Services, New York Times, Time Warner, and many other entities.
Then New York Times and National Science Foundation are sponsors, but they need to do something about their logo. The eye in the nation is creepy.

The Puzzle of social cooperation in the East African Plains Ape

Brad DeLong's Website: Large-Scale Social Cooperation in the East African Plains Ape
Of all the puzzles in xenobiology, perhaps the most remarkable is the existence of large-scale (but very imperfect) social cooperation among the East African Plains Ape of Sol III.
There are those among us who would wash the EAPA from its habitat; those who wish to restart this experiment with the most promising canines, or even those frustrating dolphins. And yet, there is an awful fascination to the EAPS, a careening wreck of a creature perched on the very precipice of a barely tolerable culture. This slobbering beast draws our fascination, suspends our wiser judgments and blunts our aesthetic revulsion. Perhaps, in the ultimate analysis, we share some tiny measure of the abundant flaws of the EAPA. From this unspeakable past springs our horrific attraction.

Scientific American to include alternative perspectives

Scientific American Magazine Table of Contents: Current Issue
...In retrospect, this magazines coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one sided...This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, and not just the science that scientists say is science.
Alas, the April issue is not yet on the web site, but it should be available shortly. Yet another defender of the Enlightenment has fallen into the abyss. Will none stand against the forces of Darkness?!

Seriously, beyond the great "balanced cover" and the overly timid spoof (do they really think their readership needed "April Fools Day" as the last 3 words?) this is a good sign that the "guardians of enlightenment" are at least trying to pry one eye open. The phrase "science that scientists say is science" is a fond acknowledgment of the legacy of Dennis Flanagan, creator of the modern Scientific American. Mr. Flanagan is memorialized in the April issue; he died on January 14th, age 86.

I guess I need to subscribe to Sci Am now, as well as the Atlantic. Of course I don't have time to read all this stuff.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Fear, aggression and social intelligence

Experimental domestication of foxes yields clues to cognitive evolution

Fear is the enemy of understanding ...
To better understand how dogs evolved their unusual social cognitive ability, the researchers studied an experimental population of foxes that have been bred in Siberia, Russia, over the last 45 years to exhibit, over generations, increasingly friendly behavior toward humans. After dozens of generations, these foxes now behave toward people much as pet dogs do--they even bark and wag their tails at the sight of a human. Critically, these foxes were not specifically selected during breeding for their social intelligence. However, the current study found that although the foxes were not intentionally selected to be more skillful at solving social problems, they are in fact just as skillful as domestic dogs at reading human social cues. The current study therefore suggests that social intelligence can increase simply as a result of an animal becoming less fearful and aggressive towards potential social partners.
Suprising and puzzling. In 45 years it was possible to breed a very different animal, with far less aggression and fear. That animal had new and powerful capabilities.

I assume a fox generation is about 1.8 years. A human generation is about 10 times as long. So in 450 years could one go from a rather nasty, aggressive, fearful and viscious primate to an interactive, socially intelligent primate? What if the selection were not so perfect, but was rather an 20% advantage with a socially cooperative animal? How long would evolution take to change that primate -- maybe a few thousands years?

Of humans alive today, what percent are throwbacks to another era?

For children with poor social skills, what role does focal "fear management" have in social skills training?

Why so much attention to a family tragedy?

The New York Times > National > Behind Life-and-Death Fight, a Rift That Began Years Ago

Yet another story about the Shiavo family tragedy. Why did this story get so much attention? Other than the length of the debate and the legal ferocity, this was otherwise medically (somewhat) routine. In the early 90s, assuming there was a reasonable family consensus in a patient with this type of condition, it would have been quite routine to discontinue tube feeding. I seem to recall that even in catholic hospitals this not unheard of -- until the Vatican reveresed course in the mid-90s and decided tube feeding was a minimal requirement. (But one could simply wait for pneumonia to set in, and treat that without antibiotics.)

So what made this a big story? Here are my guesses. Maybe it was all of these.

1. Of course the congressional cynicism and political ploys made this a big story. It's not every day our government goes nuts. This amplified the story, but the story was already out there.

2. The drunken sailor effect. There are a bunch of angry white men who won big in a viscious hard fought election. They've pummeled and broken their feeble opponents. We lie whimpering and defeated. Sadly, that gives the victor no pleasure. They wanted a fight. So like a drunken sailor, they're weaving around looking for another battle, another way.

3. The 'use it or lose it' problem. The culture wars built up a largely right wing cultural media machine, which in turn needs more culture wars to keep it fed and energized. In a hyper-developed sophisticated economy these feedback loops are very powerful -- but they were well understood by Randolphy Hearst generations ago. The 'military industrial complex' is a good analogy. This right wing media machine is a fine honed weapon, with nothing left to shoot at. This story gave it something to do.

4. Blood and purity. This is the most intriguing part of the story. I think it may be more cultural and geographic than political. In a chunk of the nation it seems the real issue was that the wishes of a spouse dominated those of a blood kin. This may seem quite obvious to many of us, but it's not all obvious to a large chunk of America. For this group, blood is what matters. They were surprised to discover that the law says differently. This made them angry.

5. Boredom. Iraq is fading from public attention. Afghanistan is long forgotten. The tsunami is all but forgotten. The elections are over. Social security is boring.

6. Demographics. The boomers are starting to run into these situations. We're intensely interested in them.

7. All of the above.

[Update 3/27: On reflection I'll toss in the millenialist aspects of this story. I'm getting the sense that about 10% of the population is looking for evidence of direct divine intervention. For example; Ms. Shiavo speaking -- that would qualify as divine intervention in my book. For this group they see a 'test case' from God. Given that perspective their passion will be, by necessity, enormous.]

Is lossy compressed music "better" than 'real' music?

Inside the MP3 Codec - Masking Effects

I wondered about this questions while flying home, listening to my AAC (MP4) encoded music on my iPod. These are old songs and tunes, yet I seem to hear more than I used to. Certainly neither my ears or my brain are improving; entropy rules. Probably it's simply using better headphones, and and perhaps the experience of listening with more care to more music. My iPod has brought more music to my middle-aged gray days than all the toys of my youth.

And yet ...

Lossy compressed music is fundamentally quite different from non-compressed music. It sounds reasonably similar to the original music because of our brain can't fully detect all the missing elments, and because in some ways the brain "recreates" what isn't heard by the ear. This lossy compression effect is usually considered a necessary evil; an unsatisactory compromise with the storage limitations of current technologies.

But one could hypothesize that the overall experience might in some way be "superior". With the 'unheard sounds' removed, can the brain better focus on the fundamental sounds? Could the process of 'filling the gaps' be in some way 'pleasant' for the brain, a mild excercise that is stimulating and agreeable?

It's easy to imagine all kinds of interesting experiments with different compression levels, different music, functional neurocognitive imaging, etc. I hope to read about these soon ...

It would be funny if it turned out that part of the appeal of the iPod is that people like lossless encoded music better than the 'real' thing.

Hope for Blogger?

Blogger Status Feb 18th

Blogger is now updating their status pages and they seem to be managing their problems more methodically. The situation is dire for those of us with a thousand or more postings. If the Blogger router assigns us to a troubled server we're dead in the water:
...What we are seeing is that individual application servers will trend toward 100% CPU usage over time - simply, the appservers get pegged and users on those servers encounter paralyzingly slow load times ...

Users with more than 500 posts are also being severely hampered at this time. We believe this is due to an improper use of system resources when users of such blogs either access the Edit Posts page or attempt to publish. We will be testing a potential fix to this problem over the next couple days and hope to push it to production early next week. Because of the extent of the change, we need to fully assess the impact on the service before deployment.
This last fix sounds potentially promising. I'll keep my digits overlapped.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Orcinus on hate groups, racial purity, and the role of the 'people like us'

Orcinus - Succubs

Orcinus connects the Red Lake shootings to a wide range of American hate groups, and references an exceptionally horrid 1985 murder. I'm unsure how strong the connections are, but it's a remarkable set of stories.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The harshness of mortal life - hidden refugees from North Korea

The New York Times > International > Asia Pacific > Glimpse of World Shatters North Koreans' Illusions

Howard French writes of two girls hiding in a Chinese border town.
Sitting on a bare floor in a chilly one-room apartment, Lee Hae Jon and her younger sister, Hae Sun, struggled recently for words to describe their lives since they clandestinely made their way here from North Korea five years ago. Their mother married a Chinese man and disappeared from their lives without a trace. Since then, a Chinese widow of Korean descent has taken the girls into her apartment and kept them clothed and fed. But for five years, the teenage sisters have not dared to go outside in daylight for fear of being sent back to their country, or worse, trafficked as young brides or prostitutes in this booming Chinese border city.

The sisters try to teach themselves Chinese, using a couple of old textbooks and repeating phrases from television, which they watch endlessly. A crude Hula-Hoop is their only source of exercise, and each knock on the door their only excitement. They never know whether it is help from their caretaker's friends or the police coming to arrest them.

'We have no friends, and no future, nothing at all, really,' said the soft-spoken older sister, Hae Jon, 17. 'But if we stay here, at least we have enough to eat. In our country, we could go for days without eating.'

Within months, according to an underground network of people who help support the sisters, Hae Jon may be alone. Hae Sun, a shy girl of 13, is dying of kidney cancer and is not permitted to be flown out of the country for advanced care.
The problem of pain. I don't buy Lewis answers.

Blowback - the sour fruits of an unwanted victory

When Frist and DeLay convened their emergency meeting of congress, the dems ran for the hills. The Schiavo bill passed. Bush flew in from Texas, the only vacation he's ever left for any cause, and signed the bill.

I thought the Dems were being cowardly, but in retrospect, whether they planned it or not, this was a brilliant Judo move. The polling data on the public response is so intensely negative, even among Bush supporters, that Rove must have known how this would go. The only plausible explanation for Frist and DeLay's action is that Rove never intended to win. He didn't expect the Dems to turn tail; he figured the Senate (at least) would defeat the bill. Then Ms. Shiavo would die and the ongoing moral fervor would give DeLay cover to dodge his impending conviction.

Instead, the bill passed. A personal tragedy became a constitutional issue. So negative has the response been, that a recent ABC news story has convinced activist groups like MoveOn to play politics themselves. I think this is a mistake, the dems should stay out of this one entirely. The MoveOn petition letter, however, has some noteworthy comments:
... a memo intended only for Republican Senators—uncovered by ABC News—reveals Republicans' true concern: "The pro-life base will be excited...this is a great political issue...this is a tough issue for Democrats." This story also takes the heat off Tom DeLay, who is facing a number of serious ethics charges and legal scandals...

...The New York Times talked to David Davenport of the Hoover Institute, a conservative research organization, who said, "When a case like this has been heard by 19 judges in six courts and it's been appealed to the Supreme Court three times, the process has worked even if it hasn't given the result that the social conservatives want. For Congress to step in really is a violation of federalism."

..."It's disturbing that doctors who would never venture a comment about the health of anybody from a homemade video are sitting on the floor of Congress making declarations," said Art Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. "My own impression, from a distance, is that they've subverted what they know to be good medicine for the aim of achieving a political goal."

...And reporters are now raising questions about a right-to-die law Bush signed as Texas governor, contradicting his position in the Schiavo case. Just last week, the law was applied for the first time, allowing doctors to remove a critically ill infant from life support against his mother's wishes. According to the Houston Chronicle, this marks the first time in American history that courts allowed a pediatric patient to die against the wishes of their parent.[7] As the Knight Ridder News service reports:

..."The mother down in Texas must be reading the Schiavo case and scratching her head," said Dr. Howard Brody, the director of Michigan State University's Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences. "This does appear to be a contradiction." Brody said that, in taking up the Schiavo case, Bush and Congress had shattered a body of bioethics law and practice."
Despite my quoting of the some noteworthy comments (I can't resist either) I still think the Dems should lay low and let the Republicans roast in their juices. This is political madness and a sign of the deep sickness at the heart of the Republican party. Let that be seen for what it is.

Why Wolfowitz?

Crooked Timber Wolfowitz for the World Bank!

I won't even try to comment on whether Wolfowitz is a good choice for the World Bank leadership. The Economist said NO, Crooked Timber makes a backhanded case for 'maybe not so bad'.

More interesting, is why someone would want to take a Pentagon #2 and have them lead the World Bank. Imagine that the decision maker (Cheney? Rove? Rumsfeld? Bush? Rice?) thought Wolfowitz was trustworthy, loyal and competent. Perhaps they thought like this:

1. The primary military threat to the US in the next 20 years comes from decaying states and non-state actors.
2. The US will deploy all of its military power against emergent threats, but this strategy will not succeed. There are too many threats and the cost of havoc will keep falling.
3. The US must drain the swamp by encouraging global wealth and prosperity.
4. The World Bank must become an agent of US defensive strategy - it must drain the swamp.
5. The World Bank is a now a military-strategic engine, hence it should be run by a Military/political strategist. Unfortunately Karl Rove is not available. Hence Wolfowitz.

If this is the thinking of Cheney/Bush/Rove/Rumsfeld/Rice then the World Bank will take on its old mission with new intensity.

I would approve (I'm sure Bush would be impressed by that!). Of course this is probably all my wishful thinking ...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Wasted money: school smoking education programs. So what about drugs?

The New York Times > Health > Vital Signs: Prevention: When the Smoke Doesn't Clear
schools around the country offer a wide variety of programs to keep students from smoking, but a new study suggests that they all have one thing in common: they don't work.
A meta-analysis of various trials show school anti-smoking programs are probably a waste of money. I suspect, based on this result, the same will be true of anti-drug programs.

Increasing the cost of smoking does work.

Time to try something else.

Mendel's head is spinning

Plants Fix Genes With Copies From Ancestors ( can restore from backup systems.
Then, in a move akin to choosing their parents, plants can apparently retrieve selected bits of code from that archive and use them to overwrite the genes they have inherited directly. The process could offer survival advantages to plants suddenly burdened with new mutations or facing environmental threats for which the older genes were better adapted.
Eons ago I wondered if biological systems would somewhere implement algorithmic compression programs resembling lzw compression. This is weirder.

I'm not sure it's totally unanticipated, I think I saw a star trek episode along those lines once (Picard is devolving towards some kind of lemur ...). Nonetheless, it's rather astounding. Gregor Mendel would really be amazed.

Technology bites

Palm is now palmOne and PalmSource - US

My Palm synching had been trouble free for a while. Reassuring to know it's still unreliable! PocketMirror bit me tonight -- all my contacts are in one category.

Some people wonder why the PDA market died. They also wonder why Quicken is fading away.

I could tell 'em!

Theocracy has its bright side -- the catholic church moves on to the death penalty

The New York Times > Washington > Bishops Fight Death Penalty in New Drive

We may be living in a nation that is increasingly theocratic, but even that has its bright side. In contrast to most evangelical churches, catholic churches have always technically opposed the death penalty. They've just been quiet about it. That may be about to end.

I hope mainstream Protestant churches will jump onboard. Even Senator Santorum (separate article), the bane of the Englightenment, is actually thinking that maybe it's a bad thing for the state to execute disabled, incompetent or (dare we say) innocent human beings. Santorum does seem a bit fuzzy about church doctrine vs. the Pope's personal prejudices -- he evidently missed out on a few catechism classes.

It will be amusing to see Catholic bishops and leftie right-to-choose activists sharing the same podiums (even if only virtually).

Bush won't like this one bit.

Digital Rights Management and iTunes: why we should fund Chinese hackers

MacInTouch Home Page:

A father posts on Macintouch about a fascinating problem with Digital Rights Management:
I'd like to raise an issue that I'm faced with and I'd like to know if others find themselves in the same situation, or if this is a time-bomb waiting to ambush others.

Since iTunes opened, I've been purchasing music for my young daughter. This is music that I have generally no interest in, it's music for her library. At the same time, I have my own music library which also includes music from iTunes. All of this music was purchased under a single iTunes account (after all, it is my credit card).

My young daughter is now not as young and is getting ready for college in the fall. I wrote to iTunes to ask how I can transfer her music to her own account so she does not have to share my account with me forever. iTunes wrote back that there is no way to do this. A few back and forth emails have not gotten me any forward progress on this issue.
There are all sorts of variations on this theme. Divorce, marriage, etc. How many more can we not imagine? Digital Rights Management currently binds content to machines accounts, and the machine account is (in theory) bound to a person. The goal, ultimately, is to bind digital media it to a single person by biometric methods (or the old "chip in the left ventricle" technique :-).

I had my first "bite" from Apple's DRM the other day. I had to activate a new machine, but the new machine had an older version of iTunes. When I played a tune I'd downloaded (for free of course, I don't buy music with DRM) iTunes informed me I had to upgrade to a new version of iTunes to play it. Apple did this because they needed to close a security frailty in their FairPlay DRM system. It's nibbles like these that remind me of what that the DRM-beast will look like when it's full grown.

We ought to establish a fund to support Chinese hackers. Soon we'll all be needing their services ...

Ends and means

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: A Blow to the Rule of Law
But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

How To Complain about your Wireless Service = especially SprintPCS

How To Complain about your Wireless Service

SprintPCS hides well, but this web site exposes its mailing address. Thank heavens for Consumer Union -- and Google.

Sprint finally managed to push me far enough that I decided to fill out a complaint form from the office of our famously combative state (MN) attorney general. Problem is, I needed a mailing address for the form and Sprint hides its mailing addresses quite well. Happily Google found it for me.

What drove me over the edge? They went too far in hiding information about their calling plans and contracts. After my second call to the desperate and hapless folk who work Sprint's customer service lines it became clear that Sprint considers information on their service plans to be a corporate secret. The information on the web site is hopelessly incomplete and misleading, and they don't provide printed summaries in any form to anyone.

GRRRR. Its worth filling out the bloody complaint form. Hatch wants to run for Governor of MN, if he wants to make his name he can go after Sprint and force them to put their plan information online clearly and completely.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Dyer has 8 more articles on his public site

Dyer 2005

If anyone knows of a free web service that would generate RSS updates based on changes to this page let me know!

You too can be a Guardian!

Want to be a Guardian of the Enlightenment? Well, if you have a Blogger account you too can join this exclusive club! Just add 'GOTE' to the interests section of your Blogger Profile. When the profile is viewed these 'tags' display as a link. Clicking on the link will display the thousands, nay ones, of your fellow guardians.

Join now and win a Darwin bookmark!

The Halifax Explosion -- how transient is history

CBC - Halifax Explosion
December 6, 1917 dawned clear and sunny in Halifax. Before darkness fell, more than a thousand people would die, with another thousand to follow. Nine thousand more would be injured and maimed in the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen...

...American emergency teams--most of them from Massachusetts—arrived as well. They remained for months, and became part of the rebuilding effort. Halifax was front-page news around the world. By one estimate, relief donations eventually topped $23 million.
Shades of the WTC attack including similar death toll, but this was an accident. Some quick thoughts:

1. A hundred years from now, how well well will most people remember the WTC attack?
2. Some of the terrorist scenarios that have been discussed in the past few years focus on hijacking a very explosive ship and deliberately triggering this kind of disaster.

I've been to Halifax, but I'd forgotten about this. I don't recall seeing any tourist booklets about the explosion.

(Link via Metafilter)

Defending the enlightenment: Darwin stickers

CHARLES DARWIN HAS A POSSE -- free bookmarks and stickers

Darwin. Franklin. Jefferson. Einstein. Sir Francis Bacon. We need stickers for all of 'em and more.

Rep Barney sums up the Schiavo debacle

Federal Court Hears Schiavo Case (

Totally incompetent. Not much more to say about this.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said it is foolish to think the bill will not become a legal precedent. 'Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions,' he said. 'This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make.'
Fortunately my wife has the technical skills to ensure that congress will not have to debate the placement of any future feeding tubes I may have.

Google books are online: The Origin of the Species

Google Print Search: The Origin of Species

Darwin now more readable. Quick, burn the computers.

The highlighted text is annoying however. I can't see how to turn it off.

Calendars, leap years and when spring starts

Why Leap Years?

Spring came on 3/20 in Minnesota this year. This page explains why the first day of spring varies, and gives some good calendar backgrounding as well.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Two years of war - visiting the graveyard Faces of the Fallen

Intel Dump suggested a visit to this Washington Post site on the anniversary of the war. I've made my visit. You should too. January was worse than I'd remembered.

Propaganda works in America

The New York Times > Arts > Frank Rich: Enron: Patron Saint of Bush's Fake News

In a rare non-partisan note, let me point out that the Clinton white house was reasonably good at propaganda. Bush has merely exceeded their skills by an order of magnitude.

Why invest so much into propaganda? Because it works:
... Enron "was fixated on its public relations campaigns." It churned out slick PR videos as if it were a Hollywood studio. It browbeat the press (until a young Fortune reporter, Bethany McLean, asked one question too many). In a typical ruse in 1998, a gaggle of employees was rushed onto an empty trading floor at the company's Houston headquarters to put on a fictional show of busy trading for visiting Wall Street analysts being escorted by Mr. Lay. "We brought some of our personal stuff, like pictures, to make it look like the area was lived in," a laid-off Enron employee told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. "We had to make believe we were on the phone buying and selling" even though "some of the computers didn't even work."

If this Potemkin village sounds familiar, take a look at the ongoing 60-stop "presidential roadshow" in which Mr. Bush has "conversations on Social Security" with "ordinary citizens" for the consumption of local and national newscasts. As in the president's "town meeting" campaign appearances last year, the audiences are stacked with prescreened fans; any dissenters who somehow get in are quickly hustled away by security goons. But as The Washington Post reported last weekend, the preparations are even more elaborate than the finished product suggests; the seeming reality of the event is tweaked as elaborately as that of a television reality show. Not only are the panelists for these conversations recruited from administration supporters, but they are rehearsed the night before, with a White House official playing Mr. Bush. One participant told The Post, "We ran through it five times before the president got there." Finalists who vary just slightly from the administration's pitch are banished from the cast at the last minute, "American Idol"-style.

Undoing the enlightenment: the attack on the science musuems

The New York Times > National > A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano (3/19/05)

The Enlightenment is being undone one science museum at a time (see excerpts below, emphases mine). The "Intelligent Design" team are doubtless "shocked, shocked" that their assaults on evolution are part of a larger attack on all of the "origins sciences". The Gates Foundation should be pleased with how well their money is being used.

This attack will work on science museums the same way it has worked on textbook publishers. An attack that denies 10% of a market is more than sufficient to bias future product production. Commercial IMAX theaters are the most vulnerable to attack, then southern science museums. If both of those are picked off then "origins sciences" will disappear from IMAX productions.

We need the Guardians of the Enlightenment to awaken. If I were a member of the Fort Worth science museum I'd be calling for an urgent meeting of the museum board -- and I'd be considering terminating any museum membership. In a more positive light perhaps science museums that actually teach and support science could create an international support network so that the strong (Boston, London, Toronto) could support the weak (Fort Worth, Texas). As a past Guardian once said: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject - or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth - fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.

The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say - perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film's bottom line - or a producer's decision to make a documentary in the first place.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including "Cosmic Voyage," which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; "Galápagos," about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.

"Volcanoes," released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr. Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film. He said theater officials rejected the film because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on Earth originated at the undersea vents.

Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum decided not to offer the movie after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of Imax theaters. Ms. Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous."

In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."

.... Hyman Field, who as a science foundation official had a role in the financing of "Volcanoes," said he understood that theaters must be responsive to their audiences. But Dr. Field he said he was "furious" that a science museum would decide not to show a scientifically accurate documentary like "Volcanoes" because it mentioned evolution.

... Mr. Cameron said he was "surprised and somewhat offended" that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in "Volcanoes."

"It seems to be a new phenomenon," he said, "obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."

... Large-format science documentaries "are generally not big moneymakers," said Joe DeAmicis, vice president for marketing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles and formerly the director of its Imax theater. "It's going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know going in that 10 percent of the market" will reject them.
Guardians of the Enlightenment Awake -- your fields are afire ...

Congress in desperate battle to avoid anything important

BBC NEWS | Americas | Congress to debate patient's fate
US President George W Bush has cut short a holiday in Texas so that he can sign legislation to intervene in the case of a brain-damaged American woman.
Today its steroids and bloviating about a family tragedy. Next week congress will pass the anti-Michael (Jackson) amendment.

These guys aren't stupid. They can talk about this kind of stuff for months. Anything to get away from Bush's flailing social security transformation or that darned pesky budget.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

National Do Not Call Registry

National Do Not Call Registry

The state registries are no longer used to update the federal list. So you have to do the federal separately. It works well, but it's only good for five years.

Something to add to one's "moving list", and to one's 5 yr calendar.

The Argentinian solution

Christopher Brauchli: The Etymology of Torture

Rendition. Torture. Corruption. Shrinking middle class. Fiscal chaos.

Which nation?

1. Argentina
2. United States of America
3. Both
In Argentina "transferal" referred to the process of taking a person from the Naval Mechanics' School in Buenos Aires known locally as ESMA. In an earlier incarnation it was an officers' casino. In its later incarnation it was one of the detention centers to which political dissidents, leaders of the opposition and those considered a threat to the military dictatorship were taken from March 1976 until the end of 1983. Its name notwithstanding, it would only have been considered a "school" by those who consider the use of torture as a teaching device to educate people as to what they should say to the torturer.

According to a description by Larry Rohter of the New York Times, the building had a long hall the name of which had something in common with "transferal" and "rendition." Its name was a euphemism. It was called "Happiness Avenue." There were no stores on Happiness Avenue as there are on some of the elegant avenues in Buenos Aires. There were just rooms in which acts of torture took place. "Happiness Avenue" was not a one-way street. Once the authorities completed the torture, which could go on for extended periods, the victim was drugged and participated in what the Argentine navy called "transferal." The victim was taken to the airport, placed in an airplane, flown over and then thrown into the ocean. Drowning was much pleasanter than the activities on Happiness Avenue. It had an end.

The United States uses "rendition" which loosely translated means "we provide the body, you perform the torture." "We" is the United States government in the guise of the CIA and "you" is the country to which those the soon-to-be-tortured are sent. Those who participate in rendition are sent to countries where torture is an accepted way of extracting information. That is not, however, why they are sent there. According to a report in the New York Times prisoners are moved to other countries in order to help the United States with budgetary problems. Administration officials have said that sending prisoners to Egypt, for example, is an alternative to the "costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the United States or in American-run facilities in other countries." The fact that those countries engage in torture is nothing more than a coincidence.

Even though rendition is primarily a money saving device, a number of individuals were tortured following their rendition. Maher Ara is a Canadian citizen who was arrested at Kennedy airport, transferred to and tortured in Syria before being released without being charged with a crime. Khaled el-Masri was arrested on the Serbia-Macedonia border, held and tortured for five months and then released without being charged. His captors told him it was a case of mistaken identity. They meant to torture someone else with his name. He was an incidental beneficiary of the torture rather than its intended target.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Intuit (Quicken): We don't just hate our customers. We make them scream. Electronics: Quicken 2005 Deluxe [Plan, Save, Take Control] [CD]

Wow. I've never seen a product sold on Amazon that got an average rating of 1.5 stars. This is a new record.

I first used Quicken in the 1980s. I think I started with version 2.0 on DOS 3.1. That was a great application, though it did tend to corrupt its database. Nobody's perfect. I started using a Quicken credit card around then -- got my transactions on a diskette. Completely reliable. Sigh. The credit card transactions were never reliable after Quicken moved to electronic downloads instead of the USPS.

Intuit has been a pretty steady death spiral for about 10 years. With Quicken 2005 they're scraping the bottom. I'm on QKN 2002, but Intuit has kindly informed me that as of 4/19 I won't be able to do funds transfer any more (never mind the revenue they make on my Quicken credit card). Quicken 2005 won't work with the relatively open OFX transaction standard, Quicken has stopped supporting that standard since they want to move transactions through their proprietary systems and capture the significant licensing revenue. Businesses, banks, and credit cards are balking -- they want to stay with OFX.

I hope the banks stand their ground.

It's time for me to move to Microsoft Money -- or, better yet, give up and go to a paper ledger. I'm lazy though, so first I'll see if I can find a copy of QKN 2003 or 2004. That ought to give me another year to switch to Microsoft Money.

How to buy a flash memory "MP3" player (but not the Shuffle!)

Microsoft Windows Media - Buying a Flash Memory MP3 Player

Crazy Apple Rumors linked to this site. It's absolutely hilarious! I believe it's a genuine attempt at Microsoft marketing. If you know the Apple Shuffle, you need to read this site.

Crazy Apple Rumors is very funny, but this is better. It reeks of bitter envy.

How to decrease your junk mail burden

The New York Times > New York Region > No Need to Stew: A Few Tips to Cope With Life's Annoyances

The NYT highlights tactics people use to get revenge on marketers (almost always) who annoy them. This is one of my favorites:
Wesley A. Williams spent more than a year exacting his revenge against junk mailers. When signing up for a no-junk-mail list failed to stem the flow, he resorted to writing at the top of each unwanted item: 'Not at this address. Return to sender.' But the mail kept coming because the envelopes had 'or current resident' on them, obligating mail carriers to deliver it, he said.

Next, he began stuffing the mail back into the 'business reply' envelope and sending it back so that the mailer would have to pay the postage. 'That wasn't exacting a heavy enough cost from them for bothering me,' said Mr. Williams, 35, a middle school science teacher who lives in Melrose, N.Y., near Albany.

After checking with a postal clerk about the legality of stepping up his efforts, he began cutting up magazines, heavy bond paper, and small strips of sheet metal and stuffing them into the business reply envelopes that came with the junk packages.

'You wouldn't believe how heavy I got some of these envelopes to weigh,' said Mr. Williams, who added that he saw an immediate drop in the amount of arriving junk mail. A spokesman for the United States Postal Service, Gerald McKiernan, said that Mr. Williams's actions sounded legal, as long as the envelope was properly sealed.
The USPO says its legal. Go for it guys! If only 10% of you do this, my junk mail burden will fall. It's not just revenge, it's an act of charity for all mankind.

Digital Rights Management: letting the snake in the door

via MacInTouch: Andrew Orlowski (The Register) writes about Apple tightening the iTunes DRM noose:
While Apple has been in the news again this week for its war against the people who promote its products, another of its wars has received much less attention. It may as well be a covert war.

Bit by bit, Apple is tightening the DRM noose, reducing the amount of freedom its own customers enjoy. Last year, the company cut the number of times users could burn a playlist from ten to seven. This time, Apple has chosen to cripple one of its coolest and most socially beneficial technologies - Rendezvous.

Apple actually applied the restriction two months ago, but the passage of time hasn't made it any sweeter. In iTunes, Rendezvous allows users on the same subnet to share their music - although this is limited to streaming only. But the most recent version of iTunes, 4.7.1, restricts that streaming capability even further, and users aren't happy, as this support discussion shows. It used to support five simultaneous listeners, but now iTunes only permits five listeners a day.
I don't think these are new lessons, but they are not easy to remember or apply. Apple's Fair Play DRM technology was introduced with a relatively large amount of freedom. As Apple's distribution scheme has gained market share, Apple has consistently revised its software to reduce the freedom of Apple's customers to use their software. Since Apple controls the software (iTunes), hardware (iPod), DRM standard (FairPlay), and distribution channel (iTunes store) they have unlimited power to control what their customers can do with their music. (Don't want to upgrade your copy of iTunes? Hah. It will be trivially easy to move you along.)

This is why I don't buy anything from the Apple music store - despite my affection for my iPod and for iTunes. I buy standard, non-DRM protected CDs. I use AAC encoding -- an open standard (MPEG-4) that is supported by non-Apple devices.

We'll see how this all plays out. The more we see how the market is deploying DRM the more we may come to love the pirates of the PRC.

If anyone still thinks Apple has some peculiar virtues I hope they are fully disillusioned. I'd absolutely choose Bill Gates to rule the computing world over Steve Jobs; if Apple can stay at a 5% market share I'm likely to remain an Apple customer. My great fear is that somehow Apple will hit a 10% market share -- at that point they'll be quite intolerable.

Is Bill Gates a creationist?

Science & Technology at Scientific Questions That Plague Physics: A Conversation with Lawrence M. Krauss -- [ COSMOLOGY ] -- Lawrence M. Krauss speaks about unfinished business

Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is a champion of the Enlightenment. In an interview with Scientific American he mentions something both disturbing and interesting.
...I'm not against teaching faith-based ideas in religion classes; I'm just against teaching them as if they were science. And it disturbs me when someone like Bill Gates, whose philanthropy I otherwise admire, helps finance one of the major promoters of intelligent design by giving money to a largely conservative think tank called the Discovery Institute. Yes, they got a recent grant from the Gates Foundation. It's true that the almost $10-million grant, which is the second they received from Gates, doesn't support intelligent design, but it does add credibility to a group whose goals and activities are, based on my experiences with them, intellectually suspect. During the science standards debate in Ohio, institute operatives constantly tried to suggest that there was controversy about evolution where there wasn't and framed the debate in terms of a fairness issue, which it isn't. [Editors' note: Amy Low, a media relations officer representing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says that the foundation 'has decided not to respond to Dr. Krauss's comments.']
One grant could be a mistake. Two grants is design. I'd gotten rumblings that among some middle-aged west coast geeks there's been a resurgent interest in 'intelligent design'. George Gilder might be the tip of the iceberg.

These are very smart and wealthy people, but they are not often scientists. If they have a technical background, it's not in biology. They are middle-aged now and feeling definitively mortal. Perhaps this is not surprising.

This will be interesting.

Yoo-hoo? Mainstream journalists? All you folks fretting about your role and relevance? How about looking into the Gates donations to the Discovery Institute?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Tsunami and the Nicobar islanders

The Tsunamis is "ancient" history now, but in researching the alleged near- Homo sapiens sapiens extinction event of the Tabo eruption I came across a web site describing the peoples of the Nicobar islands -- a group that colonized that area shortly after the Tabo eruption. The Negrito in particular represent a very ancient "race". The web site has news of how these people survived the Tsunami, but in at least one case rescue efforts have caused more pain than the Tsunami itself:

05-mar: ...While the Tsunami was in itself a traumatic experience for most, what has followed is even more traumatic. This is true especially for the inhabitants of Chowra, Bompoka and Trinket, the three islands in the Central Nicobars that were badly damaged and are now seen as unfit for habitation.

Chowra, a small flat island with a high population density and limited natural resources, had a pre-Tsunami population of 1,464, now reduced to 1,408. The relatively low number of casualties was completely unexpected. In view of the Tsunami's behaviour in Car Nicobar, the complete destruction of Chowra was initially feared. However, when rescue operations ended on Chowra on 4th January, it was found that 'only' 56 had died. No, the waves had not spared the rest of the population: most of them had been washed out to sea. But the Chowrites, sea people that they are, managed to fight the gigantic waves and swim back to land. The Chowrites are no ordinary people. Up to now, they are the only group in the Nicobars that have maintained a strong cultural identity despite outside interventions. It is known throughout the archipelago that the Chowrites have remained opposed to we1fare and development programs promoted by the Administration until recently. To the Chowrites, their identity and culture, inextricably linked to their land, are endowed with magic and has been foremost in all contact with the outside world.

For the first time, the people of Chowra have now been separated from their land. Following the rescue operations, all inhabitants of Chowra and Bompoka were moved to relief camps on Teressa island. Having spent two unhappy months there, they now wish to return to their islands and start a new life. But, unfortunately, they are not allowed to do so. In a meeting that was organized by the Administration on Teressa in early February, discussions were held with the Chief Captain of Chowra, Jonathan. The Administration urged Jonathan to stay in their new home on Teressa and tend to their plantations on Chowra, at least during the temporary rehabilitation phase. The main argument put forth by the Administration was the lack of water on Chowra. Jonathan failed to understand why this should be an issue after the Tsunami. Chowra had always faced water scarcity, no solution to which had ever been found or sought by the Administration, so why should this suddenly be an issue now? Jonathan expects nothing from the Administration. Why should he? He said that the desalinization plant that had been set up at one point worked only for a short while. It never got repaired or serviced when it broke down. His people had managed well in the past and they could do so now. Two weeks after that meeting, Jonathan, in a letter, still begged for boats 'to return to Chowra for at least 10 days to collect our left belongings ... before the [southwest] winds, because then there will be many problems once this wind starts. We have to reach Chowra before that'. When an official assessment team visited Chowra for the first time on 28th February, it was surprised to find that conditions on Chowra were much better than in most other villages/islands. Unfortunately, it had taken 2 months to realize this...

On human extinctions

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Experts weigh supervolcano risks

The BBC is doing a show on super volcanoes. These are supposed to happen every 100,000 years or so. They're as devastating as a really major meteor impact but five times more common. On the other hand, we think we might be able to avert a meteor strike. Volanoes ... well, probably not much to do there.

This quote, however, really suprised me:
One past super-eruption struck at Toba in Sumatra 74,000 years ago and is thought by some to have driven the human race to the edge of extinction. Signs from DNA suggest human numbers could have dropped to about 10,000, probably as a result of the effects of climate change."
Huh? I recall the 10K number from estimates of the origins of Homo sapiens sapiens, but that's 250K years ago. This is the first I've heard that we just about went down the tubes a mere 74K years ago. I think Home Floriensis and Homo sapiens neanderthalis both survived that period. Neaderthal man might have been better adopted to cold than other humans; I wonder if they would have flourished after the eruption.

Anyway, I want to learn more.

The ten commandments case brings Scalia out of the closet

Brad DeLong's Website: Nino Scalia, by Grace of God Justice and Lord

DeLong on Scalia:
Nino Scalia is allowed to break with those like Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln who think that legitimate power ascends from the consent of the people. It's a free country. He can take his stand with those like James I Stuart, Innocent III, and Khomeini who think that legitimate power descends from God.

But does such a guy have any business being a Justice of the Supreme Court of a free country? No.
The Ten Commandments case is forcing a lot of things out into the light. However it turns out, we'll learn a lot about America. The principle of separation of Church and State may be about to take a hard fall.


We need to concentrate some minds.

Undoing the Enlightenment: Divide First, Conquer Second

In an earlier post I digressed from some Senator Rick Santorum language associated with the No Child Left Behind legislation to a broader discussion of the Orwellian language used by creationists (now repacked as 'intelligent designists").

Upon discussion with my Muse (Emily), the diabolical strategy of the counter-Enlightenment agenda was revealed to me (how's that for theological language?). It is a strategy that Machiavelli, a scion of the Englightenment, would have most appreciated. For that matter, Sun Tzu would also approve. Consider this paragraph in a National Center for Science Education essay:
Santorum language appeared in the 2003 Kansas legislative session in the form of Senate Bill 168. SB 168 encouraged curricula that helped students understand "the full range of scientific views that exist," and exempted educational staff from any penalties for deviating from state curriculum requirements. SB 168 further betrayed its creationist leanings when it explicitly singled out "origins science" for special treatment, requiring that "origins science" -- but not other science -- be taught "inclusively, objectively, and without religious, naturalistic or philosophic bias or assumption." The artificial distinction between "origins science" (sciences dealing with the past) and "operations science" (sciences dealing with the present) has been a running theme in creationist publications for decades.
If one wished to undo the Enlightenment, how would one begin? One would not strike at strength, but at weakness. First divide, then conquer. "Operations Science" includes physiology, biochemistry, bacteriology, molecular biology, meteorology, chemistry, applied physics and far more. This is strong science. (Note, however, that medicine, a profession related to some of the strong sciences, has been shown to be vulnerable to attack.

On the other hand "origins science" is less immediate to the everyday life of the average person. Origins science is concerned with history, with fossils, with cosmology, and with evolution. The average citizen would feel that their life is not affected one bit by the study of dinosaurs, of quasars, of Neandertals, of the Aztecs, or of natural selection. This is vulnerable science. This is where one would start undoing the Englightenment.

Children of the Enlightenment -- arouse yourselves!

On spam, marketing, noise, search, reputation management and the evolution of the blog

Need an Outlook reference?

I was looking for a book on Outlook 2003. I don't need a novice reference, I need a power-user reference. I looked first at O'Reilly (the home of the power user), but they don't have anything current. Google and Amazon weren't helping, though Amazon was somewhat useful.

So I turned to an authority, a blog called Marc's Outlook on Productivity. Marc is not a super-power user, but he concentrates on this domain.

This is new. I could ask a friend, but I already know more about Outlook than anyone else I know. Five to ten years ago I'd have tried Usenet, but it's been done in by spam and blogs. Five years ago Google would have given me a good answer, now Google is overwhelmed by spam and marketing. Amazon usually works, but there aren't enough people interested in this topic to provide me with useful information. This isn't surprising, Amazon is often weak in dealing with multiple editions of computer books with a small readership -- there's too much dilution of a limited number of reviews. Once upon a time I'd have gone to a 'community site', but they have too much noise and are too hard to track.

So I took a new tack - the next best thing to asking an expert colleague for a recommendation. I went to the blog of an expert I trusted. I trusted this expert because I've followed his writing for a year or so. (Note: blog, expert, domain specific, reputation->trust)

The Post Categories in this blog (Note: ontology, terminology, classification, search, metadata) helped me find a relevant post very quickly. I ordered the book from Amazon. Unfortunately the publisher doesn't allow one to view the contents in Amazon (most annoying).

The pace of evolution of the web and of search in general is breathtaking. In ten years we've marched through an astonishing array of solutions, most of which have been destroyed by the twin demons of marketing and spam (arguably spam is a form of marketing!).

I wonder if the idea of personal authority and reputation will be the persistent solution. In all these years it's been a common thread. Attempt to automate (most nobly by Google) have fallen to the corrupting forces of marketing. Sure, people can be corrupted, but I've found that there's a goodly number of people that are surprisingly resistant to such influences. If they demonstrate this resistance over time, they become influential. (Then the corrupting forces can become irresistible, but there are always replacements .. and so it goes ...). Blogs, especially when they are authored by a single person, are the only way I know of in today's net to create an identify, a reputation, and finally, trust in domain recommendations.
am (noise). Interesting to consider what the biological equivalence is.

It's interesting to consider what the biological equivalence is.

PS. Note to marketing folk -- much of my professional life falls in the broad domain of marketing. Marketing is a powerful domain that rules much of modern life -- like all powers it has two faces.

Update 4/25/05: So, what was the book like? Not bad, but of the 1000 or so pages probably 30 are useful for me. People like me are not common enough to base a book on, so I guess I have to make do with a chapter her or there.

Monday, March 14, 2005

No Child Left Behind advocates teaching creationism?

Battle on Teaching Evolution Sharpens (

The No Child Left Behind Law contains a language that espouses the teaching of creationism in science classes [see update below for a partial correction]:
Some evolution opponents are trying to use Bush's No Child Left Behind law, saying it creates an opening for states to set new teaching standards. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a Christian who draws on Discovery Institute material, drafted language accompanying the law that said students should be exposed to 'the full range of scientific views that exist.'

'Anyone who expresses anything other than the dominant worldview is shunned and booted from the academy,' Santorum said in an interview. 'My reading of the science is there's a legitimate debate. My feeling is let the debate be had.'
In today's Orwellian world "full range of scientific views" is a codephrase for "intelligent design" which is a code phrase for "creationism".

If Bush and his ilk mandated a mandatory Yahweh- only religion class in public schools they'd at least win points for honesty. Alas, they're too cowardly for that.

I think I'll start advocating the teach of chiropractic theories as an alternative to traditional human physiology. There's at least as much "legitimate scientific debate" around chiropracty as there is around the fundamental value of natural selection. (ie. zero in both cases).

Update 3/15: Some more on the Santorum Amendment from an authoritative source discussing the assault on reason taking place in Kansas -- ground zero for the counter-enlightenment. The Santorum amendment was stripped from the NCLB final legislation but remains in the conference report. It is this tactic that's being repeated at every level of government. (Emphases mine, note the full range of Orwellian strategies and neologisms -- George is spinning now ...)
According to the Lawrence Journal-World, an antievolution resolution was introduced in the Kansas House of Representatives on February 15, 2005. The sponsor is Representative Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee), who said that the proposed resolution, which is nonbinding, was meant to promote "objectivity in science education."

Although the full text of the bill is not yet available, the story reports that the resolution includes language recommending the teaching of "the full range of scientific views that exist." This language is derived directly from the "Santorum Amendment," which U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) attempted to insert into the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Phillip Johnson, a leading promoter of "intelligent design," wrote the amendment for Santorum. The Santorum Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate but stripped from the bill by the House-Senate conference committee, and now only appears in modified form in the NCLB conference report. See NCSE's compilation on the Santorum Amendment for details.

Santorum language appeared in the 2003 Kansas legislative session in the form of Senate Bill 168. SB 168 encouraged curricula that helped students understand "the full range of scientific views that exist," and exempted educational staff from any penalties for deviating from state curriculum requirements. SB 168 further betrayed its creationist leanings when it explicitly singled out "origins science" for special treatment, requiring that "origins science" -- but not other science -- be taught "inclusively, objectively, and without religious, naturalistic or philosophic bias or assumption." The artificial distinction between "origins science" (sciences dealing with the past) and "operations science" (sciences dealing with the present) has been a running theme in creationist publications for decades.

On February 6, 2005, nine days before Pilcher-Cook introduced her antievolution resolution, an op-ed promoting the Santorum language appeared in the Kansas City Star. The opinion piece, written by Kansas City resident Vicki Palatas, was entitled "'Full range of scientific views' includes theory of a creator." Palatas wrote, "The report interpreting this legislation explains that on controversial issues like evolution, 'the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist.'" Palatas cited several talking points popular among intelligent design proponents, and concluded, "Intelligent design teaches the theory of a creator based on scientific observation and analysis, not the worship of one." In another opinion piece on January 2, 2005, Palatas explicitly grouped intelligent design with a laundry list of other conservative religious causes, decrying the failure of public schools to "allow teaching intelligent design as a theory of the creation of the universe." She concluded that governmental restraint in this and other matters amounted to "intolerance and maligning of our faith."
Passed by the Senate, but stripped in a committee?? Wow, American politics is interesting - especially considering that the House is famously conservative.

The National Center for Science Education essay is horrifying and fascinating. Note the contradictory themes of the creationists who can speak both "intolerance of faith" and a "theory of a creator". Or perhaps they are not so inconsistent -- for it is their faith that assures them that the "analysis of the creator" will give them the answer they expect. Historians of science might tell them that such analyses often give quite surprising answers. If we do develop methods to test for analyze "deities", Palatas and her ilk may yet regret their enthusiasms.

More practically, the lessons of the past few decades is that extremists are very, very persistent. They love the struggle itself. Rationalists fatigue, they move on, they have a life (yes, even I have a life -- actually, rather a lot of one). In our era the dominant extremists in America are right wing conservatives -- I think they'll win in Kansas. Science is going to take a serious beating for years to come.

Hmm. The enlightenment is beginnning to feel pretty anomalous. I need to consult a historian.

Race as a collection of genes that travel together

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: A Family Tree in Every Gene

The hypothesis is that genes tend to travel together, and that it's possible to assign a human being living today to a geographically isolated population in which a characteristic collection of genes was very common. That assignment is a "race".

This is a statistical model of race. Imagine a 'gene-space' consisting of (say) 100 or so marker gene values. If we treat this as a 100-dimension space then an individual human should appear as a point in this space. If we then add a dimension for frequency, we may "see" hills and valleys on this "surface". Those are "races". Most of us are somewhere on the flank of a mountain, but there ought to be (how can one resist the word?) "pure" folk at the peaks. Conversely we ought to be able to find folks living in "valleys" who are truly "unique". (Some say I'm "different", but I think they have something else in mind.)

Here's how Leroi puts it:
The New York Times March 14, 2005
A Family Tree in Every Gene

... If modern anthropologists mention the concept of race, it is invariably only to warn against and dismiss it. Likewise many geneticists. "Race is social concept, not a scientific one," according to Dr. Craig Venter - and he should know, since he was first to sequence the human genome. The idea that human races are only social constructs has been the consensus for at least 30 years.

The dominance of the social construct theory can be traced to a 1972 article by Dr. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, who wrote that most human genetic variation can be found within any given "race." If one looked at genes rather than faces, he claimed, the difference between an African and a European would be scarcely greater than the difference between any two Europeans...

Three decades later, it seems that Dr. Lewontin's facts were correct, and have been abundantly confirmed by ever better techniques of detecting genetic variety. His reasoning, however, was wrong...

.... The shapes of our eyes, noses and skulls; the color of our eyes and our hair; the heaviness, height and hairiness of our bodies are all, individually, poor guides to ancestry.

But this is not true when the features are taken together. Certain skin colors tend to go with certain kinds of eyes, noses, skulls and bodies... To put it more abstractly, human physical variation is correlated; and correlations contain information.

Genetic variants that aren't written on our faces, but that can be detected only in the genome, show similar correlations. It is these correlations that Dr. Lewontin seems to have ignored. In essence, he looked at one gene at a time and failed to see races. But if many - a few hundred - variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so...

... Study enough genes in enough people and one could sort the world's population into 10, 100, perhaps 1,000 groups, each located somewhere on the map. This has not yet been done with any precision, but it will be. Soon it may be possible to identify your ancestors not merely as African or European, but Ibo or Yoruba, perhaps even Celt or Castilian, or all of the above.

... Hispanics, for example, are composed of a recent and evolving blend of European, American Indian and African genes, then the Uighurs of Central Asia can be seen as a 3,000-year-old mix of West European and East Asian genes.

... When the Times of India article referred to the Andaman Islanders as being of ancient Negrito racial stock, the terminology was correct. Negrito is the name given by anthropologists to a people who once lived throughout Southeast Asia. They are very small, very dark, and have peppercorn hair. They look like African pygmies who have wandered away from Congo's jungles to take up life on a tropical isle. But they are not.

The latest genetic data suggest that the Negritos are descended from the first modern humans to have invaded Asia, some 100,000 years ago. In time they were overrun or absorbed by waves of Neolithic agriculturalists, and later nearly wiped out by British, Spanish and Indian colonialists. Now they are confined to the Malay Peninsula, a few islands in the Philippines and the Andamans...
The full article tries to justify race identification as a way to improve healthcare. I'm skeptical. Maybe as an interim approach, but we'll do better with pharmacogenomics than race as a proxy for individual gene values. I'd call this an interesting hypothesis rather than something that's immediately useful.