Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Seymour Hersh on what's next in Iraq

Hersh is a very well connected old-world journalist. The kind of journalist Bob Woodward was once supposed to have been.

Here he writes about how the Bush administration will manage the withdrawal of American ground forces (there's not much doubt we're leaving -- we've run out of troops [1]): The New Yorker: UP IN THE AIR Where is the Iraq war headed next? by SEYMOUR M. HERSH. Interestingly it's not clear that Bush realizes how bad things are (emphases mine):
Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that “God put me here” to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that “he’s the man,” the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reëlection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.

The former senior official said that after the election he made a lengthy inspection visit to Iraq and reported his findings to Bush in the White House: “I said to the President, ‘We’re not winning the war.’ And he asked, ‘Are we losing?’ I said, ‘Not yet.’ ” The President, he said, “appeared displeased” with that answer.

“I tried to tell him,” the former senior official said. “And he couldn’t hear it.”

...“The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,” the former defense official said. “He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’ ” He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. “They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,” the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. “Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,” the former official said, “but Bush has no idea.”

....the fear is that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would inevitably trigger a Sunni-Shiite civil war. In many areas, that war has, in a sense, already begun, and the United States military is being drawn into the sectarian violence. An American Army officer who took part in the assault on Tal Afar, in the north of Iraq, earlier this fall, said that an American infantry brigade was placed in the position of providing a cordon of security around the besieged city for Iraqi forces, most of them Shiites, who were “rounding up any Sunnis on the basis of whatever a Shiite said to them.” The officer went on, “They were killing Sunnis on behalf of the Shiites,” with the active participation of a militia unit led by a retired American Special Forces soldier. “People like me have gotten so downhearted,” the officer added.

Meanwhile, as the debate over troop reductions continues, the covert war in Iraq has expanded in recent months to Syria. A composite American Special Forces team, known as an S.M.U., for “special-mission unit,” has been ordered, under stringent cover, to target suspected supporters of the Iraqi insurgency across the border. (The Pentagon had no comment.) “It’s a powder keg,” the Pentagon consultant said of the tactic. “But, if we hit an insurgent network in Iraq without hitting the guys in Syria who are part of it, the guys in Syria would get away. When you’re fighting an insurgency, you have to strike everywhere—and at once.”

Bush believes God has a plan, and Bush has a role in that plan. Any resemblance to Jim Jones is purely coincidental.

[1] Anyone remember the original plan? We were supposed to have allies. Even before the invasion it was understood the modern US military is too small to occupy a nation. Of all the incompetencies I hold Bush/Cheney responsibile for, one of the greatest was treating France and Turkey as though they were inessential. A few billions to each migh have made all the difference. Instead the Bushies gave us 'Freedom Fries'.

Mars - ice, ice everywhere

If historians look back at our time, they will be puzzled by many things. One of the oddest puzzles will be the curious lack of interest in the stunning discoveries being made on Mars.
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Radar sees ice deep below Mars:

Mars Express has become the first spacecraft to detect reserves of water ice beneath the surface of the Red Planet, experts have announced.

The Marsis radar experiment carried onboard appears to have discovered water ice 2km into the subsurface.

It is thought the greatest reservoir of retained water on Mars could be found beneath the surface, perhaps providing a habitat for microbial life.

... Underground layered deposits at the planet's north pole have an upper unit thought to be dominated by water ice. This water ice is believed to be nearly pure, with only about 2% contamination by dust.

Beneath this ice layer is a lower unit containing sand cemented with water ice...

... Chryse Planitia is thought to have been shaped by the outflow of floodwaters from the Valles Marineris region and other areas of the northern highlands.

The radar should be able to detect liquid water if it exists in that form beneath the Martian surface.

'We have found no convincing evidence of liquid water yet,' said Jeff Plaut, Marsis principal investigator at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The science team will begin using the radar experiment to search for liquid water in late December.
Emphases mine. I suppose Europe was the same way when the first reports came in of mysterious lands across the ocean. There was a lot going on and the ocean seemed very wide. It was hard to imagine what the future impact of the news would be.

I note the word "convincing". I wonder what Plaut meant. Late December is not far away ...

Ice or not, Mars has water. Lots and lots of water. If anything like us is around in a hundred years, it will live there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Fundamentalism fun: open barrel, insert fish

If we weren't ruled by incompetent fundamentalists I'd resist the temptation to link this Skeptico post.
Skeptico: Putting the fun in fundamentalism

... My favorite has to be ... November’s post of the month:
One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.
A powerful argument. Still, I’m confident that sooner or later scientists, working diligently, will locate and identify this external source of energy that provides light and heat to planet Earth. Quite a day that will be.
The site Skeptico refers to is: Fundies say the Darndest Things!. Caveat: the posting quoted here seems a bit too perfect. I wonder about a setup ... Not everyone posting on an fundamentalist web site is necessarily sincere. It might be hard for college kids to resist the temptation to see how far they could push the envelope and not get caught.

GOP will win on Roe. If they want to ...

BBC NEWS | Americas | US abortion rights in the balance?

Update 12/4/05: This was an accidental post, I'd meant to put it in as a draft and edit it later. Nonetheless, it (oddly enough) received a comment, which was quite well written. I recommend clicking the comment link and reading Pidgas' post.

I thought the BBC news article was pretty well done, though the title is misleading -- as Pidgas suggests. It's Roe vs. Wade that may fall in the next year or so. As I've noted elsewhere the growth of genetic testing, and the desire of American parents for genetically optimal children, will enure continued use of abortion across all economic, cultural, and religious groups.

The more interesting question is whether the GOP really wants to defeat Roe vs. Wade. I rather suspect they'd hate to win that fight. It wouldn't end abortion, but it would cause them a great deal of political misery as the abortion fight moved into the legislature (where it does belong).

On the other hand, I suspect the Dems have finally recognized that Roe is a fight they can't win. It's an albatross for the Dems and funding stream for the GOP; the best strategy is to sit back and watch the GOP go into panic mode as victory becomes inevitable.

Earth belongs to the bugs

To a first approximation earth is the world of the archaebacteria. To a second approximation it is the world of the bugs:
A Pair of Wings Took Evolving Insects on a Nonstop Flight to Domination - New York Times - Carl Zimmer

A little over 400 million years ago, their six-legged ancestors came out of the water onto dry land. They have evolved into an estimated five million living species - dwarfing the diversity of all other animals combined. Even if you throw in all the known species of plants, fungi and protozoans, insects still win.

Insects are also a success in terms of sheer biomass. Put all of the insects on a giant scale, and they will outweigh all other animals, whales and elephants included.

And insects are also ecologically essential. If all humans decided to leave for Mars, taking all the vertebrates with them, the disruption to life on Earth would be incomparably less than the catastrophe that would ensue if insects disappeared. Forests would probably collapse, rivers and oceans would be poisoned, and many other animals would starve...
Carl Zimmer's blog is fantastic, btw.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Google, privacy, and outsourcing Total Information Awareness

The NYT has an OpEd on Google's privacy policies. There are no surprises there; one should always assume anything done online is public knowledge. Only the very sophisticated have any privacy now, and even they may be tracked by textual analysis software that can match text to identity based on idiosyncracies of expression (and, presumably, of thought -- giving new meaning to the concept of "thought police").

In general, privacy is very 20th century. I tried to fight this, but eventually I realized this was a losing battle -- especially after 9/11. Humans lived most of our existence in small communities with very little privacy; that is the world we've returned to.

There was one slightly interesting point raised in the article, though in reality it has little to do with Google:
What Google Should Roll Out Next: A Privacy Upgrade - New York Times

The government can gain access to Google's data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages. If the federal government announced plans to directly collect the sort of data Google does, there would be an uproar - in fact there was in 2003, when the Pentagon announced its Total Information Awareness program, which was quickly shut down.
This is not new, in fact even I've written about this over the past few years. The Feds discovered during the 90s that the best way to deal with inconvenient legislation was to route around it by outsourcing key functions; the FBI in particular outsourced many of their information gathering functions in the 90s. More recently, of course, our wonderous government has routed around inconvenient prohibitions by outsourcing torture. In the same manner Poindexter's "Total Information Awareness" didn't "disappear" (silly idea), it merely changed names and was outsourced.

Google isn't an outsourcing tool for the TIA project, but it the Patriot Act has made Google and other online services unwitting accomplices.

Will Americans' ever catch on? Not if the media continues to completely miss the real story. I'm saddened and amused to read of privacy legislation that targets government rather than corporations. Really, it's a total waste of paper.

If Americans did catch on, what could be done? We can't stop TIA now, privacy really is history. We could, however, make the corporations implementing TIA and other programs legally liable for errors. If we don't learn lessons of the utterly incompetent 'do not fly' list program, thousands of Americans will be injured by these outsourced program. We will then be living in Gilliam's Brazil.

The singularity and why you should be very nice to your children

Like most geeks, I have a bit of an interest in 'The Singularity' (insert appropriate theme music). I don't buy Kurzweil's thesis that we boomers will all be uploaded (Eternity plagued by the boomers? Lord help us all); but I can just barely imagine that today's children might live a lot longer than I will. So it was interesting to read this interview with Siggi, a German gentleman of roughly my age:
The World According to Siggi

Talking about immortality, do you think the information tracks we’re leaving online will be resulting in an infinite life of sorts? Or is this accelerating our decay and we’d fare better engraving our thoughts into stone?

Assuming the storage media won’t be failing on us, we’ll have many tracks be around for a long, long time. One day this will make it possible to reconstruct a person up to a certain point. Considering that you can only hope for many of the teen bloggers to never stop blogging. Paradoxically enough that’s the opposite of what you feel when you’re reading them.
I commented recently on Brin's blog that I thought a similar theme could be turned into a neat short science fiction story. Who would want to digitally resurrect a deceased boomer? Well, the boomer's children might be so motivated. So if you want your digital doppelganger to bear any resemblance to yourself, be sure to leave lots of artifacts .... :-).

Also, be nice to your children. To paraphrase an old Pat Benatar song: "Hell is for the parents of vengeful post-singular children". Ok, so that needs work.

PS. I think it's a part of Mormon theology that when one is 'saved', one can retroactively 'save' all of one's ancestors. Maybe that could be worked into the story ...

Freedom, China and a suggestion for young American -- volunteer editors

Kaikaisagirl of Harbin, China was reading Gordon's Notes (she'd searched blogs for English language comments on Harbim). She added a comment to my posting on the Harbin benzene spill. We've corresponded via the blog comments and recently she updated her blogger profile: Kaikaisagirl (she is). Her recent comments provide an interesting perspective on the 'new old world', China reborn (I edited lightly):
It's totally safe to post whatever I like in English on a foreign website ... I don't have the habit of writing a blog, especially an English blog. I have to try very hard to write an article readable to native speakers on an English blog site, every time I finish an English article, I find it flat and void :(

I'm raised in China; it's hard for any Chinese to have an excess interests in politics. A lot of people, like me, do care about what's going on domestically and internationally, but to be safe you can't become an activist in China...

... Harbin is not as bad as it sounds in the news, maybe it's because I live on campus. People have so many inconveniences without tap water. Although it will resume this evening, most of us still are skeptical of the water quality since benzene is difficult to get rid of -- and we don't trust the government.
I hope Kaikaisagirl is right that she can post these things in an English language blog. Reading between the lines it seems that one can be a bit of an activist in English outside of China.

Once upon a time (1982), in another life, I was peripherally associated with long forgotten minor Montreal based Chinese dissident movement called "China Spring". I have a vague sense, from then and now, that the Chinese government distinguishes between activism among intellectuals and activism that involves the masses. The former is sometimes permitted, but the latter is dangerous.

China is an exciting nation. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges we and China face, particularly when America is led by incompetents. Still, words from Harbin cannot help but be encouraging. There is hope.

I hope Kaikaigirl does continue to post to her english blog. I've added it to my feeds. It's very hard to post in a foreign language; I wonder if there's a role in these types of international blogs for 'local language editors'; native speakers who could lessen the burden of english grammatical and stylistic quirks. I wouldn't be surprised to see something like this evolve. It would be a real contribution that smart American high school students could provide, and it wouldn't look bad on a college application either.

Olaf Stapledon - forgotten visionary

Metafilter has an excellent note on "Olaf Stapledon: The Star Maker". The links are well worth visiting. Stapledon was a WW I veteran, and a contemporary of CS Lewis and Tolkien. All of them spent much of their lives reacting to the hell of 'the great war'.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Schneier on Security: Want to steal the identity of a Janus Mutual Fund holder?

If I held any Janus mutual fund shares I'd be writing them an letter ...
Schneier on Security: Vote Someone Else's Shares

If you have a valid proxy number, you can add 1300 to the number to get another valid proxy number. Once entered, you get another person's name, address, and account number at Janus! You could then vote their shares too.
This amount of information suffices for much identity theft. Schneier (and I) am right to spread the news. In the absence of any governmental action, we need to expose the staggering failures of these companies to implement even trivial security measures. I am sure Janus isn't the only mutual fund to make this mistake.

Perhaps the pasting they are now receiving will cause others to change their operating procedures.

The "better bicycle" approach to avoiding identity theft

The best way to prevent bicycle theft, is the "better lock"/"better bicycle" approach. No bike lock is invincible, so put your bike next to a better bike with an inferior lock (dings in the paint helps with being a less better bike btw, bike thieves are usually idiots). This is the same idea as how to outrun a bear -- just be faster than the guy next to you.

To that end, Hoofnagle (link via Schneier, god of security) has listed various measures one can take to make identity theft harder: EPIC West: Electronic Privacy Information Center West Coast Office: Hoofnagle's Consumer Privacy Top 10.

Implement these and the thieves will take your neighbors identity instead. This would be wonderful if your neighbor was, say, a US senator. (Note to Senators: Schneier says we need to make identity theft very expensive for banks -- then it will end. I believe that too.)

I'm impressed with the list. Most of them were new to me, and most are easy to apply. Recommended!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

American corruption: Is Abramoff a tipping point?

American governance was very corrupt towards the end of the 19th century; during the so-called Gilded Age. Taft is one of the few presidents that may have been worse than George Bush. (I think Jackson was also worse, so GWB is only #3 -- he did pass Nixon though.) Things turned around fairly dramatically under Teddy Rosevelt and the trust busters. But these things go in cycles ...

We've been in a bad spot since Reagan; Carter was the last genuinely honest President. (Clinton was infinitely better than Bush, but no bastion of integrity). I used to support the Concord coalition, but about 15 years ago it became apparent that we weren't going to be able to deal with our budget issues honestly until we dealt with the growing corruption in American politics. Tim Penny, a former Minnesota Representative, has spoken well on this topic, as has, of course, John McCain and Russ Feingold. Mostly, however, both Democrats and Republicans have been silent. Corruption is now the only bipartisan consensus.

But ... what about the Abramoff Affair?. If the Plame Affair is really about Cheney and the corruption of power, the Abramoff affair is about plain old bribery and corruption. Nothing new, only more brutal and direct than we're accustomed too. Mysteriously, for some unfathomable reason, Abramoff seems to have crossed some sort of line (emphases mine):
Lawmakers Under Scrutiny in Probe of Lobbyist (Washington Post)

The Justice Department's wide-ranging investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has entered a highly active phase as prosecutors are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies, lawyers involved in the case said.

Prosecutors have already told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least half a dozen members of Congress, lawyers and others close to the probe said. The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, lawyers and others familiar with the probe said.

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R), now facing separate campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, is one of the members under scrutiny, the sources said. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and other members of Congress involved with Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest, are also said to be among them.

Prosecutions and plea deals have become more likely, the lawyers said, now that Abramoff's former partner -- public relations executive Michael Scanlon -- has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and to testify about gifts that he and his K Street colleagues showered on lawmakers, allegedly in exchange for official favors.

... Investigators are also gathering information about Abramoff's hiring of several congressional wives, sources said, as well as his referral of clients to Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying and consulting firm run by former senior aides to DeLay. Financial disclosure forms show that the firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002.

... The former top procurement official in the Bush administration, David H. Safavian, has already been charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation. Safavian, who traveled to Scotland with Ney on a golf outing arranged by Abramoff, is accused of concealing from federal investigators that Abramoff was seeking to do business with the General Services Administration at the time of the golf trip. Safavian was then GSA chief of staff.
Does Abramoff represent a tipping point, or will any reform effort prove premature? I'm betting we won't see any real reform succeed under the Bush administration. Put my money on "no tipping point yet". Even if the US does move down the reform road, Italy is a sobering example of how unpredictable reform can be -- they took a huge step forward in the 90s, but then elected Berlusconi -- a man who makes Abramoff seem chaste.

Why the Xbox 360 and the Web 2.0 are awful news for the retail PC industry

Very low end PCs do a quite adequate job with almost all computer applications, save games. Modern games require a monster machine; even children's games require a relatively decent box. So games have been a major driver of non-laptop retail PC purchases -- and, because of their software quality issues, a major source of pain for parents.

Thurott suggests that this trend will soon end. The Xbox 360 is relatively inexpensive, and, for the first time, the gaming experience exceeds that of even a high end Wintel PC. Consumers will keep their old machines, and buy an Xbox. Good news for Microsoft, very bad news for companies that sell into the home market.

In the old days a new version of Windows would drive PC sales. It's clear that Windows Vista will require a honking machine. But why bother? What does Vista promise the home user that Web 2.0 (Google, Yahoo, etc) apps can't deliver better for less money? Sure there's digital photography, home video, etc -- but for all that OS X is a better bet (and a good Intel OS X laptop may be cheaper than a Vista laptop.) In fact the Xbox 360 is good for Apple; by negating the 'games' advantage PC's have had, it really levels the software playing field.

Good comments from Thurott. If the logic holds expect Dell and HP to experience many more bad moments. Apple should weather this well, while Microsft should do just fine. They'll make their rent money from leasing Vista and Office to businesses, and grow with Xbox for home video and gaming.

It is interesting that, with Xbox, Microsoft is becoming more like Apple. They own the hardware platform and the XBox OS ...

Is someone in Harbin China reading this blog?

I posted yesterday on Harbin China, a large city that the New York Times described as a "town". Harbin has lost a large portion of its tap water due to benzene in the nearby river -- an environmental disaster on the Soviet scale. (Arguably Bhopal India still holds the cup.)

My post seemed unremarkable, but it solicited a comment:
kaikaiisagirl said...
I agree with you. Seriously the NYT reporters don't know enough about China. I go to college in Harbin, it is like the 8th or 9th biggest city in China.
It's nice to receive affirmation, but is someone in Harbin really reading Gordon's Notes? "Kaikaiisagirl's" blogger profile tells us s/he joined in August of 2005, but the profile has no other information. I suppose this could be a machine generated post, but I don't see why. On balance, it's most likely someone in Harbin did read that post. Someone who reads and writes English fluently.

How?

Gordon's Notes is a hobby blog. It exists because I'm compelled both to write and to rage against the fall of America. It does not have the practical utility of either Gordon's Tech or Be the Best You Can Be; they have value for me as convenient place to keep my own notes. I have long assumed its readership consists of me, my wife, and, on occasion, a few friends. (My own mother gave up on it a while back.) My limited brushes with fame have been links from Brad DeLong and David Brin. I'm also syndicated in .... medlogs, a project of the ever inventive Dr. Jacob Reider. My guess is that my Harbin readership came via the last.

Fascinating.

Not coincidentally, I read recently the blog reading and writing is increasing exponentially in China (I almost wrote 'exploding in China', but that phrase has become a cliche nowadays). At the moment the authorities are not too aggressive, though raging against the communist party, or discussing life in Harbin, would be substantially riskier than my rants against the Vice-President for Torture.

One curious side-effect of the Chinese blogging scene is that bloggers who read English also translate what they read into Chinese. Years ago Cisco helped the Chinese government erect powerful blocks to forbidden sites; and later to defeat proxy servers that reached those sites. These blocks are perhaps less effective against millions of blogs, each of which excerpts fractions of the forbidden material -- effectively acting as millions of proxy servers.

This is an interesting example of natural selection in action. The role of personal blog as a low profile proxy server is an accident of nature, but blogs that crave readership will adapt to it. They will become more reliable "proxy servers", the better to serve their Chinese readership.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to send me comments on what life has been like in Harbin, I'll post them anonymously here. You can email me at jfaughnan@spamcop.net. I'll also experiment with turning off the 'members only' filter on my Blogger comments, and see how well using the moderation filter alone will work.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Harbin, China - since when is "millions" a town?

The NYT reports on a benzene spill that has contaminated the water for the "town" of Harbin, China -- leaving 3 million without tap water. Only in China could the residence of 8 million people (3 million in the urban core) be called a town. Looking at the Google satellite image it seems to be a very concentrated city, maybe the size of the city of Minneapolis but four times the population.

It sounds like the crisis in Harbin is mercifully easing ... If Minneapolis were to lose its water supply things would not be pretty....

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Is war becoming too expensive?

Wars used to consume lots of lives. The civil war, WW I -- incomprehensible volumes of lives. Raw human life, however, is not all that expensive. I shan't belabor the point since it's grossly offensive, but in low tech societies like WW I Europe it didn't cost much to raise a man to die in Verdun.

Wars are getting more expensive though - even for the aggressor. Fighers are educated and their economic output is far, far higher than in WW I. Their lifelong post-war care costs more. As we substitute technology for fighters that costs even more. The medium term costs of the "small" war in Iraq to the US are reaching above 200 billion.. The longer term direct costs for the US alone are now speculated to exceed 1 trillion..

Of course expense is relative. As a percentage of an 6-8 trillion dollar economy perhaps a 1 trillion dollar war is still a "small war". Is war really more expensive for 21st century America compared to 19th century Britain? I certainly hope war is becoming more costly in relative as well as absolute terms, but I don't know.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The perils of eBay, and why rough vendors like PayPal

I recently learned a few lessons about eBay and PayPal I'd like to pass on. The bottom line is that while I might use eBay to buy something from a regular person with a clear identity, I'll avoid eBay vendors. I've also reaffirmed and intensified my dislike of PayPal.

I bought a 'refurbished' Samsung i500 PalmOS cellphone from KM Electronics, an eBay vendor. I wasn't really trying to save money; the phone was the best option for my wife and her support staff (me) and it's no longer sold. I needed to go with 'refurb'. I took a gamble and lost, the phone has a defective digitizer. When I emailed KM Electronics I received a form response that made it pretty clear that they weren't going to be much help [1]. They also noted that if I produced a negative response on eBay they'd provide no further support or contact, irregardless of the terms of their warranty. Naturally I immediately submitted a negative response. (I have figured out ways to make the phone useful nonetheless.)

I learned a few interesting things about eBay and PayPal with this experience:
  • eBay vendors put credit card icons next to PayPal buttons. It is true PayPal will manage a credit card transaction, but the vendor is paid by PayPal, not the credit card company. So good luck using AMEX to bludgeon a shady vendor -- they got their money from PayPal. The credit card relationship is with PayPal, not the vendor. Clever! A handy bit of indirection that's a win-win for PayPal, eBay and the vendor.
  • eBay doesn't like negative reviews. I had to go through a little tutorial to write one. Helps explain why the reviews you see there are so often positive. I suspect the true 'negative experience' rate is several times higher than what's documented.
  • This PayPal vendor is fairly typical in not having any contact method save email. (Sure I could try to track 'em down, but it's not worth it.) Email responses are automated.
  • As noted above, vendors may go to some lengths to have positive comments; including intimidating anyone who might post a negative comment (voided warranty!). I think eBay ratings are very suspect.
I wonder how solid eBay's future really is. I'm kind of hoping Google's eCommerce solution vaporizes PayPal; though Google's product likely have the same beneficial (for vendors) "indirection" "feature".

[1] Selling refurbished phones is kind of a rough business, so it's not surprising they're a bit of a rough company. At least the phone's identifier was valid and Sprint could use it! I'm not their typical customer; I get the sense they specialize in selling things in bad net neighborhoods.

Update 11/24/05: After submitting my negative report, this is the (as expected) email I received from KM Electronics: "All service and warranty for your purchase has been cancelled." This is the type of vendor who sells on eBay -- submit a negative comment, void the support contract. Since this vendor sells a great deal on eBay, one presumes eBay approves. Clearly, the absence of negative ratings for some eBay vendors needs to be judged carefully.

Update 11/24/05b: This gets even more interesting. KM Electronics didn't respond to an email, but they responded very quickly to the negative rating. What an eBay vendor does under these conditions is give the customer a negative rating and some nasty comments, blocks the constumer from further correspondence, and then triggers an eBay mutual withdrawl option -- the simultaneous removeal of both negative comments.

Very interesting! eBay vendors like KM-Electronics (KMElectronics, etc) have more tools than I'd expected to keep their ratings positive. eBay is indeed a rough neighborhood, where advantage goes to the sharpest elbows. I wonder what's next -- goons at my door? If I had time to play the futures market I'd sell eBay short.

I'll post further updates here, I wouldn't be suprised if KM Electronics and eBay had more cards to play.

Update 12/20/05: MacSlash has a similar story. I wouldn't want to own stock in eBay.

Life as an outlaw - my experience buying a grayish market phone

How does a mild-mannered gray haired middle-aged guy become an outlaw? Well, in my case fighting with Apple's FairPlay DRM and struggling with my cellular carrier are leading me towards the darkseid.

My most recent experience was with the premature demise of my wife's coddled cellphone. Barely a year old the Samsung flip phone was malfunctioning. A far cry from the Nokia brick that was once stolen, tossed out a car window down an embankment, recovered from the mud days later, and worked flawlessly.

So I needed a replacement phone. I wanted the exact phone I have, the almost-great Samsung PalmOS (Grafitti ONE) SPH i500 so we could share accessories, chargers, etc. The phone would also replace her 1 year old CLIE TJ-27, famed for shoddy quality and the worthless needle stylus from heck. (Hmm, notice a trend here?).

Sprint, alas, had kiled the i500. There's no heir. The next closest thing costs $550 (Sprint rips off customers with the replacement phones). That did it. I wasn't going to spend that much on the infamously unreliable Treo, and we didn't have time to futz figuring our alternatives. Froogle and Pricescan only found eBay phones. I snapped and went to eBay.

There, with great reluctance and some research, I bought a 'refurbished' i500 from the most reliable seeming vendor I could find. I was forced to reactivate PayPal, a vendor I loathe almost as much as Sprint. (Hmm. George Bush. PayPay. Sprint. I think I'm getting seasonal affective disorder ...)

I purchased a phone from KMElectronics:
KM Electronics i500 Samsung Phone: Samsung SPH i500 Palm PDA Color Cell Phone Sprint - New: "YOUR PURCHASE INCLUDES-
1. Samsung i500 Phone & PDA
2. AC Charger
3. New Stylus & New Rechargeable Battery (jf: extended duration, not Samsung battery. The battery is huge; it makes the phone too thick for my use. So you have to budget for a new more useable battery too!)
4. New USB Cradle
5. Software / Manual on CD
6. For use with the Sprint PSC Network

(When new this phone came with two styli, a wrist cord, an ultra-slim and a reasonable sized battery, manuals, etc.)
Turns out the phone is $8 cheaper on their web site, it was $146 on eBay plus $12 to ship.

The good news is Sprint activated the phone without any problem or questions. Stolen phones with invalid ESN numbers is the big fear in this marketplace. In this case the ESN number was very hard to read (oddly poorly printed, I wonder if it was really the original ....) and the first reading I gave was invalid. Sprint didn't mention charging me, there's usually at least a $25 charge for a phone switch.

The bad news is that KM Electronics sent the wrong CD. Since I already have the CD this isn't a big deal for me, but it would be exceedingly annoying if I didn't. Also, a couple of buttons on the front of the phone are missing their labels. Too aggressive polishing?

The phone looks good and so far works well. I'll post an update on my further adventures in the twilight zone ...

Update 11/23/05: Alas, the digitizer is defective. Lost that gamble!

Update 11/23/05: More on this in my next post (on eBay and PayPal), but I did figure a way to work around the 'dead zone' on the i500. I can get most tasks done by using the OK/Cancel buttons on the phone and the option menus in the applications. I did receive a usenet report of a similar problem with a 'new' Samsung i500 bought a few months ago. Since the terms of service of KM Electronics made pursuing this with them a very costly and annoying option I think I'll see how well we can make this phone work.

Update 11/24/05: I do very much like having the same phone for both us, and being able to beam addresses between them, share batteries and retractable charge/sync cables, etc.

How special are we?

Science from Copernicus onwards has been about the 'descent of man'; from the apex of creation to a pointless blob of protoplasm on a meaningless dust speck in a vast cosmos.

But then there's the "cosmological coincidence":
Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Supernovae Back Einstein's "Blunder"

... the finding brings to the fore another question: the so-called cosmological coincidence. Observations like this one seem to prove that regular matter and dark energy have similar densities at precisely this moment in time, even though the density of matter has been declining steadily since the big bang. Even Einstein couldn't answer why that would be.
There are a number of these coincidences in modern physics. The reasons why they bother physicists are somewhat subtle, but they fall into the class of non-Copernican phenomena; things that seem to make our 'existential state' atypical.

I like to monitor this sort of discussion.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

We're leaving Iraq -- Why Murtha enraged Bush/Cheney.

Fred Kaplan was among the cautiously semi-pro war rationalists who hoped Bush knew more than we did and didn't expect his people to botch so many things. I was in that club too.

Now Kaplan, a student of military history and strategy, points out that the furor about 'cut and run' is nonensical. Once we gave up on calling on the 'individual ready reserves' we effectively declared that we're done in Iraq. Short of a draft, we can't last a year at current deployment levels.

So everyone who's "in the know" already knows we have to leave soon. (This explains, by the way, why the Iraqi government is now calling for a US departure timetable.) Ready or not.

Problem is, Rove has a story for how to do this, so it looks like we're leaving as planned. Murtha's declaration blew the story up. It makes the inevitable departure look like it's somehow a retreat before popular pressure. So Cheney blows his stack.

The odd thing is, Kaplan points out that Murtha actually has a plan. Chances are, more pain to Bush, it's the plan Rove wants too ...
What Murtha Meant - We're leaving Iraq anyway. At least he's got a plan. By Fred Kaplan

.... The Army recently announced that it will no longer call up the Individual Ready Reserves for duty in Iraq. The IRRs are retired—in many cases, long-retired—soldiers, who, by contract, are obligated to re-enter the force if called back to arms. This announcement is as clear a sign as any that, whatever George W. Bush and Richard Cheney might say about the likes of Murtha, they too know the troops are coming out. For without the IRRs, the Army will be unable to sustain the present levels for much longer.

It almost doesn't matter whether withdrawing or redeploying the troops is a good idea; it's simply going to happen because there is no way for it not to happen (short of a major act of political will, such as reviving the draft or keeping troops on the battlefield beyond reasonable endurance). This is what Murtha meant when he told Russert, "We're going to be out of there, we're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now." (There are political reasons for this near-inevitability, as well. When Murtha predicted we'd be mainly out of Iraq by 2006, Russert asked, "By Election Day 2006?" Murtha responded, "You—you have hit it on the head.")

So, the pertinent question becomes: What is the best way for redeploying? In other words, by what timetable (whether one is explicitly announced or not), after what political and military actions? How many U.S. troops should be left behind, and what should they be doing? Where should the others be redeployed, and under what circumstances will they move back into Iraq? Do we have any realistic strategic goals left in this war (one big problem in this whole fiasco is that the Bush administration never had any from the outset), and how do we accomplish them?

There's a very serious debate to be conducted in this country—not only about the future of our involvement with Iraq, but also about the use of force, the response to threats, the war on terror, the shape of the Middle East. John Murtha's proposal leaves open a lot of questions, but—seen for what it really says, not for how it's been portrayed—it's a start.
When the right wing shows pompous rage, they've been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The lies Bush and Cheney told - from former chair of the senate intelligence committee

Bob Graham had better intelligence access than anyone short of Bush/Cheney. He learned before the war that the Bush administration had willfully chosen to close its eyes, and proceed on a predetermined path -- evidence be damned. Before the world knew, Graham knew Bush could not be trusted. Emphases mine.
Washington Post - What I Knew Before the Invasion
By Bob Graham
Sunday, November 20, 2005; Page B07

In the past week President Bush has twice attacked Democrats for being hypocrites on the Iraq war. "[M]ore than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power," he said.

The president's attacks are outrageous. Yes, more than 100 Democrats voted to authorize him to take the nation to war. Most of them, though, like their Republican colleagues, did so in the legitimate belief that the president and his administration were truthful in their statements that Saddam Hussein was a gathering menace -- that if Hussein was not disarmed, the smoking gun would become a mushroom cloud.

... As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the run-up to the Iraq war, I probably had as much access to the intelligence on which the war was predicated as any other member of Congress.

I, too, presumed the president was being truthful -- until a series of events undercut that confidence.

In February 2002, after a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan, the commanding officer, Gen. Tommy Franks, told me the war was being compromised as specialized personnel and equipment were being shifted from Afghanistan to prepare for the war in Iraq -- a war more than a year away. Even at this early date, the White House was signaling that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was of such urgency that it had priority over the crushing of al Qaeda. [jf: around this time the US had its great defeat, when bin Laden and the leadership escaped from their mountain fastness].

.... At a meeting of the Senate intelligence committee on Sept. 5, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet was asked what the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) provided as the rationale for a preemptive war in Iraq. An NIE is the product of the entire intelligence community, and its most comprehensive assessment. I was stunned when Tenet said that no NIE had been requested by the White House and none had been prepared. Invoking our rarely used senatorial authority, I directed the completion of an NIE.

... We insisted, and three weeks later the community produced a classified NIE.

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

Under questioning, Tenet added that the information in the NIE had not been independently verified by an operative responsible to the United States. In fact, no such person was inside Iraq. Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States' removing Hussein, by force if necessary. [jf: this includes Iran, now suspected of having tricked Bush/Cheney into the invasion ...]

The American people needed to know these reservations, and I requested that an unclassified, public version of the NIE be prepared. On Oct. 4, Tenet presented a 25-page document titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." It represented an unqualified case that Hussein possessed them, avoided a discussion of whether he had the will to use them and omitted the dissenting opinions contained in the classified version.

... From my advantaged position, I had earlier concluded that a war with Iraq would be a distraction from the successful and expeditious completion of our aims in Afghanistan. Now I had come to question whether the White House was telling the truth -- or even had an interest in knowing the truth.

On Oct. 11, I voted no on the resolution to give the president authority to go to war against Iraq. I was able to apply caveat emptor...
Cheney's ferocious attacks of the last few weeks bring the phrase "cornered rat" to mind. He and Bush were duped by Iran, their own massive egos, and their faith-based agenda.

Steve Gibson's password generator

Gibson's passwords are as secure as he can make them. Do you trust Steve Gibson? I do. Definitely not human memorable.

Adventures in shopping continued: Amazon and daily pricing shifts

This is fascinating. I blogged previously on the dramatic fluctuations in Amazon and Amazon partner pricing for the very popular Canon Digital Rebel XT. I discovered then that if I put a variety of this item on my shopping cart, then 'deferred' purchase to "later", I could see the price changes as they occurred. Their were quite a few today -- similar to airline ticket price changes:
Please note that the price of Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 Lens (Silver) has decreased from $899.94 to $879.94 since you placed it in your Shopping Cart.

Please note that the price of Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only - Silver) has increased from $838.94 to $854.99 since you placed it in your Shopping Cart.

Please note that the price of Canon 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens has increased from $74.94 to $75.99 since you placed it in your Shopping Cart.

Please note that the price of Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only - Black) has decreased from $829.94 to $799.94 since you placed it in your Shopping Cart.
I'm sure someone has s written software that will check the deferred cart list items every 10 minutes, and execute a purchase based on the price fluctuations. Buying from Amazon.com these days seems to resemble buying shares on the NASDAQ. Inevitably the same sofware used to execute trading strategies will be used throughout the retail chain.

It's not just electronics by the way. The price of the Calvin and Hobbes compendium, a book, just jumped $10 on my shopping cart. I assume Amazon is adjusting costs in real-time based on sales, competitor pricing, customer profiles, the cost of gasoline, the futures market, and some randomness factor to measure the impact of different price points.

More complexity. More obscure costs. Where does it end?

PS. My "buy signal" for the next five days is something around $840 for the camera with the default lens.

Emily's new cell phone and the cost of complexity

Emily needs a new cell phone. Here 2-3 year old coddled Samsung flip phone is now unreliable (it turns off unpredictably when closed).

Unreliable technology. That's a cost of complexity.

Ok, I'll just buy her the phone I have, the Samsung i500. It's a flawed device, but I know it well and I've more or less got it working with Emily's iMac. It will run ePocrates and she'll finally be able to dump her crummy SONY CLIE TJ-27.

Except the Samsung i500 is history. The PalmOS being 90% dead, Samsung has switched the physical descendant of this phone to whatever it is Microsoft now calls their PDA OS. There's no equivalent at Sprint. This launched Emily into an eloquent rant on the cost of complexity -- summarized here.

This is progress, yes. But it has a cost. A 10 minute exercise will now consume hours of research -- starting with figuring out if I can buy the phone on eBay and get Sprint to switch it over. There's a huge hassle cost here.

It's a hassle and complexity cost we pay almost every day. Call it "the progress tax". It consumes a lot of our life.

We are starting to adapt. The price tag of a new item is now almost irrelevant to us -- the cost we look at is the complete cost of ownership. This is dramatically changing what we buy and how we buy. Even so, we can't avoid the progress tax completely, and sometimes the churn cost far exceeds the value of the "progress". Indeed, in many cases, there is change with regression, such as the loss of capabilities that we value (reliability in particular).

I would like to see more scholarly investigation of complexity cost and its impact on our lives. We know that the average middle class person watches much less TV than they used to. I wonder if that really represents a switch to other entertainment forms, or whether it's how middle class Americans are paying their complexity taxes ....

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Who has the bigger middle class - China or the US?

By one measure, China:
The Big Picture: China by the Numbers

• Shanghai boasts 4,000 skyscrapers -- double the number in New York City. Still, 17% of the entire Chinese population lives on $1 a day. Only about 300 million people in China, or 23% of the population, are considered middle-class.
Since the population of America is less than 300 million, and at least 25% is in poverty or tenuous circumstances, China has now a much larger "middle class" than America. I suspect in absolute terms the average member of the American middle class has much more money than the Chinese equivalent, but this transition is remarkable. America is very far from ready for China.

By the way, the word "only" in the above quote is kind of weird. What's "only" about 23% of China?

Fundamentalist history and biology - a bias issue for Universities?

Fundamentalists schools teach different versions of history, geology, biology, etc. In Saudi Arabia the Holocaust is probably not a big topic in modern history. In Christian fundamentalist America Darwin was inspired by Satan. (My public high school history class, by the way, taught that the Children's Crusade was a noble spiritual cause worthy of emulation. That was in the days that the Catholic Church wrote Quebec's history books.)

This can be a problem, of course, if one applies to university. What does an A grade in history mean if the history is fraudulent? What good is biology class without natural selection? Naturally, this conundrum has lead to a lawsuit:
University Is Accused of Bias Against Christian Schools - New York Times:

... The suit, scheduled for a hearing on Dec. 12 in Federal District Court in Los Angeles, says many of Calvary's best students are at a disadvantage when they apply to the university because admissions officials have refused to certify several of the school's courses on literature, history, social studies and science that use curriculums and textbooks with a Christian viewpoint.
If a fundamentalist math class teaches that imaginary numbers are satanic and cannot exist, should that math class be meaningful in college applications? If the college uses ACT tests, and the students fail biology, is that bias? If the student is admitted, and fails all of their college biology tests, is that bias? If I'm a Satanist, can I be denied admission to a Fundamentalist college because my theology doesn't match their standards?

Eugenics, take II

It's been a while since the heyday of European eugenics, but these days that ancient spirit is rising almost everwhere. Among the community of persons with genetic disorders, tests that allow quicker and faster abortions raise the specter of extinction ...
The Problem With an Almost-Perfect Genetic World - New York Times

.... One study of 53,000 women's choices, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2002, found that the termination rate ranged from about 1 percent for conditions that were classified as having no impact on the quality of life, to 50 percent for those considered to have a serious impact.

Women were far more likely to choose abortions for disabilities that have a high probability of affecting cognitive functioning. For conditions that have little or no impact on the quality of life but might require medical or surgical therapy, the abortion rate was 16 percent, but doubled for those likely to cause mental dysfunction.

As for Down syndrome, doctors estimate that about 80 percent of women who get positive test results choose abortion...
I would expect China to pioneer in this area, I think a magazine article on eugenics in China would be absolutely fascinating.

Americans may think that the evangelical movement will stop abortion in America. Wrong. The fear of a 'defective' child will keep abortion alive and well among all Americans who can afford it. Medical abortion rates do not differ significantly between evangelical fundamentalists and secular Americans of a similar socio-economic class. That datum predicts that abortion will remain available in America (though it may not be covered by medicaid) and that the new eugenics movement will stay with us. We shall all be ubermensch one (very sad) day ...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The American infatuation with performance: optimizing genius

The New York Times Magazine has a long review of various past and present programs to identify children with extraordinary intellectual gifts and guide them to careers of power, prestige, fame and prominence. Some of the projects have a strong eugenics influence, others are reminescent of Nietzshe, still others seem to feel the children will be "wasted" unless their gifts are harnessed.

The enterprise appears to have a history of disappointment. This matches my own limited experience with living among geniuses, my undergraduate experience at Caltech (note: I am not a genius). The geniuses I knew were exceptionally good at almost everything. They usually didn't study very hard, since they could excel with relatively little effort. They, were, however, not necessarily terribly ambitious. Indeed, I'm tempted to recall that the more balanced and well adjusted they were, the less driven and ambitious they appeared (even there, however, the numbers were small and memory is misleading).

Perhaps a truly brilliant deep thinker would conclude that many driven persons suffer from a lack of deep insight, and that they would be better to spend their limited days caring for loved ones and quietly contemplating the uncaring universe.

Update 11/20: One way to think about this is to consider Lance Armstrong. What made Armstrong one of the greatest atheletes of the past 100 years? Was it genetics? Sure. Was it luck? Definitely. Was it being emotionally well balanced and raised to be wise and mature? Uh, no. Armstrong was (he's mellowed a bit), by all reports, a bit of a nut case. He wanted to win in a "rip arms off", "sell soul", "pay any price", "crush the enemy" sort of way. He is even now not a nice man. A well rounded, well balanced, optimally raised person with Armstrong's genetics would more likely be a sunday school teacher than a world champion bicyclist.

Or consider Isaac Newton. Was Newton a nice well rounded man? No. Isaac Newton, perhaps one of the greatest human minds of all time, was a miserable, nasty, bitter, cruel, vengeful creep.

Genius is genius. It doesn't say anything about how the person will be, it doesn't even seem to correlate with insight. You may produce more Newtons by cruelty and spite than by wise instruction and compassion. Which is not to say we should torture our young geniuses, but we shouldn't imagine we'll produce great leaps in knowledge by making their lives more agreeable.

Autism-like findings in relatives of autistic children and the evolutionary biology of autism

The first degree relatives of autistic children share behavioral and neurologic traits with autistic persons: Be the Best You can Be: Autism-like findings in relatives of autistic children and the evolutionary biology of autism. What does that tell us about the natural history and evolutionary biology of autism?

Conason flays Woodward

Joe Conason works over Robert Woodward: Salon.com | Woodward's disgrace. When he's done, there's not much left of that ex-journalist. Worth reading, as a lesson in the seduction of power.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Walmart healthcare memo: You DO need to read the original

A few weeks ago there was a brief furor about the leak of a confidential "memorandum" that was presented to the board of directors of Walmart -- America's largest employer and one of our wealthiest corporations. The news coverage was pretty fluffly and it passed quickly with nary a ripple.

Recently, however, I read a summary in a trade newspaper written for family physicians. That coverage was more intriguing, it suggested the Walmart memo had very broad implications for workers and health care providers. Reading that coverage I speculated that Walmart was merely transferring the well developed risk selection techniques used by managed care entities to the employer setting. (Payors do not develop and market their "wellness" and "alternative medicine" programs for noble reasons -- these programs help them select for healthy customers who don't use expensive resources.)

I decided I'd blog on this, but I needed something to link to. Looking for a link, I came across the actual memo. (Link is to a Google search rather than memo source, I don't employ the lawyers of the New York Times.)

I read the memo. Wow. The newspaper coverage was truly awful.

This "memorandum" is a 27 page white paper prepared by McKinsey (famously ruthless consulting company) and 16 highly compensated Walmart employees for the board of directors of one of America's largest companies. There's not much dissembling, though there are a few euphemisms. It was written for an audience that probably dislikes euphemisms, and is so removed from the "associates" that it can think about them the way a farmer thinks about their valued cattle.

The memo is not particularly cruel, but it's dispassionate and ruthless. It's also very well done. If you receive healthcare in America, you should read it. Did you realize that the feared coverage expense is not the employee, and not the employee's children, but rather the employee's spouse? Yes, that's obvious in retrospect, but it never occurred to me.

Did you know that the economic advantage of Walmart's 'defined contribution' plans (aka 'medical savings accounts', health savings account, employee driven healthcare) is not the global cost savings, but rather that they're a better deal for employees with healthy spouses? (So that overall the benefit biases the workforce towards employees with healthier spouses?)

I'm not done with the memo. There's a lot there that I may yet comment on. Read it yourself. I recommend starting with the last 3 pages.

Don't imagine this is in any way unique to Walmart -- they're merely slightly ahead of the curve. This document is "free" consulting for every employer in America, and anyone who works with McKinsey will receive the same advice.

Personally, I think this is a great thing. The inexorable engine of capitalism will force all but the healthy and the genetically gifted out of employment and out of heatlhcare coverage. Sometime in the next decade, sooner than I'd anticipated, this will lead to a political revolt, and we will get to the place the world has been heading for over the past twenty years:
  • Second tier health coverage for the entire population that includes medications and procedures whose R&D cost has been fully recovered (depreciated). This second tier system will use less costly health care workers and will be extensively industrialized. Medicare, the VA system, the Indian Health Service, and Medicaid will go away.
  • Lexus care for the wealthiest 10-20% of the population. This will include life-extending technologies who's R&D costs have not yet been fully recovered. Black market versions of these technologies will be available illegally in India, China, and Thailand.

Amazon pricing weirdness -- Digital Rebel XT

This is weird. I'd heard Amazon plays some odd games with their prices. They sell the extremely popular Canon Digital Rebel XT in two versions, with and without lens. To see prices you need to add the items to one's cart. I added both. The version WITH the lens is $5.00 cheaper than the version without the lens.
Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only - Black) - Canon
Usually ships in 24 hours
$829.94

Canon Digital Rebel XT 8MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 Lens (Black) - Canon
Usually ships in 24 hours
$824.99
So is this a goof, or some diabolical scheme?

The price for the camera WITH the lens is very competitive with the slightly seedy but not criminal vendors like 'ibuydigital.com'.

Update 11/19: Amazon just jumped the price of the lens camera to $899. So either it was a goof or I'm being punished :-). Next time that happens, I'm buying it!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

How to Fund a Startup by Paul Graham

Thinking of starting your own business(es)? You need to read Paul Graham. Or so I say, never having started a real business (yet).

If you doubt the advice, however, start with this one: How to Fund a Startup

God bless the plague

Fafblog! is in good form as he tackles the alleged antipathy of christian fundamentalists towards the cervical cancer vaccine. Brilliant and ripping.

Personally I suspect the Christian fundamentalists aren't really going to fight this vaccine. Firstly I don't think they're really that sick, and secondly Rove wouldn't let them.

In a dark corner of a secure underground Google parking garage ...

Is the key to world domination ...
PBS | I, Cringely . November 17, 2005 - Paper War

...The probable answer lies in one of Google's underground parking garages in Mountain View. There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn't just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We're talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid.

While Google could put these containers anywhere, it makes the most sense to place them at Internet peering points, of which there are about 300 worldwide.

Two years ago Google had one data center. Today they are reported to have 64. Two years from now, they will have 300-plus. The advantage to having so many data centers goes beyond simple redundancy and fault tolerance. They get Google closer to users, reducing latency. They offer inter-datacenter communication and load-balancing using that no-longer-dark fiber Google owns. But most especially, they offer super-high bandwidth connections at all peering ISPs at little or no incremental cost to Google.

Where some other outfit might put a router, Google is putting an entire data center, and the results are profound...
Cringely claims next week's essay will fill in the rest of the tale. I'm waiting to hear about two things: 1. How will Google manage identity and ownership for GoogleBase data and 2. When does Google become the world's biggest private bank?

Schneier: the real SONY DRM story is the failure of McAfee, Symantec and Microsoft to catch it

Schneier, the deity of computer security, doesn't think SONY's malign incompetence is the real story. Rather, the real story is that the big name spyware antiviral software companies missed this intrusion.

Dang. I didn't think of that.

Schneier is right. We pay our XP taxes to Symantec and their kin every year -- and they blew it. Completely. Either they knew this was going on and didn't bother to tell us, or they missed it entirely. Both explanations are damning.

So, sure, boycott SONY. But also look to swith away from Symantec, Microsoft, and McAfee. They've disgraced themselves. F-Secure and Sysinternals, by contrast, deserve new attention. The next time my Norton Tax comes due, I'll switch to F-Secure Home instead.

SONY - "My God, what a fiasco".

SONY's spyware installation catastrophe has moved from merely "jumping the shark" into mad hilarity ...
Good Morning Silicon Valley: Let's see -- Secret installation? Check. Hidden changes? Check. Security breach? Check. Dangerous uninstall? Check. Now what was ... oh, yeah. Stolen code? Check.

...Looks like Sony's little sojourn to the ninth circle of PR hell isn't quite over yet. A pair of programmers who disassembled Sony's now infamous rootkit Digital Rights Management scheme, have found code that appears to have been plagiarized from VideoLAN, an open source media player distributed under the GNU General Public License. Worse, the code in question was written by "DVD" Jon Lech Johansen, author of a number of DRM-busting programs.

My God, what a fiasco...
Emphases mine.

It truly beggars belief. SONY may yet rival the stark raving incompetence of the Bush administration. I can't believe the CEO of SONY Music is still employed; in the SONY of the 1960s he would have died an honorable self-inflicted death by now. How are they ever going to keep track of all the lawsuits pouring in?

Combining PubMed RSS feeds with Bloglines to conveniently survey new developments

A Medlogs entry pointed me to an interesting new PubMed [1] feature -- syndication!
(1) Run your search in PubMed.
(2) Select RSS Feed from the Send to menu.
(3) Click Create Feed and copy the XML icon into your RSS Reader.
I of course had to try this out. Years ago I embedded (now broken) search links in web pages, but one runs into the notification problem. It's very boring to keep clicking on a link and finding nothing has happened. Syndication is a vastly better model.

I tested this out an old search I've long been interested in: the genetics of berry aneurysms and screening for subarachnoid hemorrhage. I logged into PubMed and set up a search, then followed the directions above; I limited the search to Bloglines, my syndication (RSS, Atom) web client, and added this URL as a feed to a new folder called "PubMed searches" (you can copy this URL and try this in your favorite feed client yourself.)

On my first view I got 41 hits. After reviewing those the list was empty (as it should be), but as literature emerges that list should refresh. One wonders how the PubMed server will handle the transactional burden, since these unique searches may not scale well to thousands or millions of users. For now, however, the PubMed RSS and Bloglines combination is the neatest thing I've seen in this domain since Grateful Med.

If you'd like to see how this looks, without doing all of the above work, visit the public view of my bloglines list and click on the PubMed folder. It is very cool. You can also see the searches on my (hidden) blogroll page.

I guess I'll have to update that old, old, page of mine. (11/17/05 - I did. The page was over 6 years old.)

[1] Old dogs remember MEDLINE, MEDLARS, Grateful Med, etc. Really old dogs even remember the vast printed volumes of Index Medicus, and using early terminals to send query strings to Bethesda. Creak, creak ...

Interesting alterantive to mass quarantine -- focus on the high-risk super spreaders ...

Scientific American has a brief note on a fascinating topic. I did some simulation work during my last degree (10 years past now!) and I suspect the simulation community has been exploring this for awhile. Public health, of course, has been thinking about this since 'Typhoid Mary'; more recently one sociable male flight attendant was once considered to have been a sort of "super spreader" early in the HIV epidemic.

It turns out computer modeling of epidemics suggests an alternative strategy to mass quarantine:
Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Study Assesses Impact of "Superspreaders" of Disease

... There are two ways for a population to protect itself: either everyone can act to reduce their chance of transmission--for example, by staying at home, which can throttle a country’s economy--or authorities can identify those most likely to be superspreaders, and focus their vaccination and isolation efforts on them. --Kaspar Mossman
In Minnesota we have recent experience with a young Amish child who is, due to an immune defect, a "super spreader" of polio [1]. The concept of "super spreader" has thus been in the news here. I suspect the simulation study is looking at more subtle super spreaders however.

If we do find reasonable tests to identify super spreaders, we would be well advised to think about compensating them for the inconveniences (or worse) a selective quarantine would create. As a way to manage the coming wave of epidemics [2], however, this is well worth researching.

[1] The combination of "super spreader", Polio, and unvaccinated community is potentially explosive, but fortunately our republican governor has not quite finished dismantling Minnesota's still excellent public health infrastructure.

[2] As humanity simultaneously travels more, congregates more, expands into Africa, and reproduces more, we become an ever richer petri dish for novel infections.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

iPod over all -- 10/10 on Amazon

Amazon.com: Early Adopters - computers list has an iPod in each of the top 10 slots.

The audio and video list has in each of its top 10 slots ... iPods.

I think Amazon only sells 10 varieties of iPod.

That's astonishing.

Gordon's Tech: Replicate the experience of 19th century phone service

Gordon's Tech: Replicate the experience of 19th century phone service: "Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, one can combine Skype VOIP, a modern laptop, a wireless LAN and a USB full duplex speakerphone to recreate the turn of the (prior) century experience of yelling 'HELLLLOOOO, CAN YOU HEAR ME??'."

A quick preview on the next thing to blow your world apart

Do it yourself. Almost. ... Dan's Data provides a quick update on the state of the art in 3 dimensional "printing". As in download the specs, run the illegal hacking software, and print yourself an anonymous encrypted cell phone. Ok, so we're not quite there yet. Soon though.

Alvin Toffler didn't know the half of it. (Or did he? Read the wikipedia article ...)

All your bases belong to Google: the beginning of the end

The net shook this morning as Google dropped the hammer:
Official Google Blog: First Base

Right now, there are two ways to submit data items to Google Base. Individuals and small website owners can use an interactive user interface; larger organizations and sites can use the bulk uploads option to send us content using standard XML formats.

Rather than impose specific schemas and structures on the world, Google Base suggests attributes and item types based on popularity, which you can use to define and attach your own labels and attributes to each data item. Then searchers can find information more quickly and effectively by using these labels and attributes to refine their queries on the experimental version of Google Base search.

This beta version of Google Base is another small step toward our goal, creating an online database of easily searchable, structured information...
Meanwhile, in Redmond, insiders are dumping their shares ...

The initial version of Google Base is entirely public. Too bad, I'd have liked to create a private list of contact information for our cub scout troop. There doesn't appear to be any access restriction, it's very much designed to create public knowledge. Some of the templates they provide compete directly with Amazon, eBay, Craig's List and (above all) newspaper classifieds, but they've yet to provide commercial transaction services (that's next week). Other templates are for recipes, reference articles, course catalogs and other shared knowledge. It appears one can use XML structures to create one's own templates (vendors bidding for software projects?). The intersection between formally structured and emergent metadata is intriguing.

Elsewhere, Google writes "content providers who already have RSS feeds can easily submit their content to Google Base without requiring much additional work". This is the original vision of RDF metadata as first presented in Apple's mid-90s "Project X" and the more recent vision of the "Semantic Web".

Google Base is a component of potential web services. Google will use it, so will others.

Now we await the micro-commerce transaction system that will transform Google into a multinational financial powerhouse.

This is fun. Scary, but fun. A bit like inline skating downhill ...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Economist is falling out of love with Bush

The Economist, a once great newspaper lately in decline, rediscovers some ghost of its historic spine. Emphases mine -- they do reveal a certain depth of feeling:
Torture | How to lose friends and alienate people | Economist.com

Nov 10th 2005
From The Economist print edition

The Bush administration's approach to torture beggars belief

THERE are many difficult trade-offs for any president when it comes to diplomacy and the fight against terrorism. Should you, for instance, support an ugly foreign regime because it is the enemy of a still uglier one? Should a superpower submit to the United Nations when it is not in its interests to do so? Amid this fog, you would imagine that George Bush would welcome an issue where America's position should be luminously clear—namely an amendment passed by Congress to ban American soldiers and spies from torturing prisoners. Indeed, after the disastrous stories of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan, you might imagine that a shrewd president would have sponsored such a law himself to set the record straight.

But you would be wrong. This week saw the sad spectacle of an American president lamely trying to explain to the citizens of Panama that, yes, he would veto any such bill but, no, “We do not torture.” Meanwhile, Mr Bush's increasingly error-prone vice-president, Dick Cheney, has been across on Capitol Hill trying to bully senators to exclude America's spies from any torture ban. To add a note of farce to the tragedy, the administration has had to explain that the CIA is not torturing prisoners at its secret prisons in Asia and Eastern Europe—though of course it cannot confirm that such prisons exist.

... Although Mr Cheney has not had the guts to make his case in public, the argument that torture is sometimes justified is not a negligible one. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, presumed to be in one of the CIA's “black prisons”, is thought to have information about al-Qaeda's future plans. Surely it is vital to extract that information, no matter how? Some people think there should be a system of “torture warrants” for special cases. But where exactly should the line be drawn? And are the gains really so dramatic that it is worth breaking the taboo against civilised democracies condoning torture? For instance, Mr McCain argues that torture is nearly always useless as an interrogation technique, since under it people will say anything to their tormentors.

If the pragmatic gains in terms of information yielded are dubious, the loss to America in terms of public opinion are clear and horrifically large. Abu Ghraib was a gift to the insurgency in Iraq; Guantánamo Bay and its dubious military commissions, now being examined by the Supreme Court, have acted as recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda around the world. In the cold war, America championed the Helsinki human-rights accords. This time, the world's most magnificent democracy is struggling against vile terrorists who thought nothing of slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians—and yet the administration has somehow contrived to turn America's own human-rights record into a subject of legitimate debate...

A diabolical use of Google Adwords

Dan, of Dan's Data fame, casually tosses this aside into a comment on strange Adwords adorning his site:
Dan's Data letters #154

Actually, of course, some people actually do click ads that contradict what a site is saying, and not always because they agree with the advertiser. If you're reading a page about how reprehensible anti-vaccination activists are, and find an ad-link at the bottom that says FREEMASONS USE VACCINES TO NEUTER CHRISTIAN KIDS, you might feel a strange urge to click it. Not only to revel in the craziness, but also to transfer some money from the crazies to the owner of the page on which the ad appeared.
Ooooohhh. That never occurred to me. I'm so naive. Heh, heh, heh ....

The Ownership Society and the evolution of Social Darwinism

Crooked Timber has some interesting comments on Barak Obama and John Edwards.

The Obama quote that caught my attention was his making the 'social darwinism' to 'ownership society' connection. I'd wondered when this would come up, I'm glad to see it emerge now. Just as Creationism 'evolved' into 'intelligent design', so too has 'social darwinism' evolved into 'the ownership society'. Kudos for Barak Obama for launching this meme.

CT also links to John Edwards. What did you think Edwards was doing? I'll bet you didn't know he's launched a guerilla war on poverty? Hmm. Dean and Edwards in 2008? They might get Jimmy Carter's vote. Four more years of Bush might make economic populism a winning solution.

Kaplan trashes Bush's new mantra: "I was wrong, but so were you."

I Was Wrong, but So Were You - Parsing Bush's new mantra. By Fred Kaplan is well worth the read. Point by point Kaplan walks through a recent Bush speech and exposes the fundamental lies in point by point detail.

Why such a pathetic attempt at deception? My guess is Bush long ago gave up on talking to anyone who might doubt him, now he's just fighting to keep his base intact. Their credulity is well understood.

Monday, November 14, 2005

How to Write a Complaint Letter - eHow.com

Makes sense to me: How to Write a Complaint Letter - eHow.com

Where we learned to torture -- from Maoist China

The NYT details how the US developed its torture methodologies. We took a program called "SERE" that was used to instruct military personnel on how to resist Korean and Vietnamese torture. We then inverted the methods to create our own torture program:
Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us - New York Times

...SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the 'confessions' they sought.
It's very American to learn from the best, and Maoist China drew on thousands of years of experience with torture. Our refined techniques are a credit to a long line of historic torturers. The next step will be to define a career path for the most capable torturers, perhaps one that leads to a cabinet level position and a presidential "Medal of Honor". Perhaps someone who will head the "Ministry of Comfort"?

PS. Where's Margaret Atwood these days?

The story of a man who couldn't read

Jacques Demers, a famed figure in hockey and in Quebec, recently revealed he cannot read. Actually, he co-authored a book about it. Reading of his achievements, and his ability to apparently conceal his disability, I wonder if he has some specific neurologic cause of his reading inability - beyond his limited educaton and traumatic childhood. It would be interesting to know of his children have had problems. The NYT article is well written and tells a remarkable tale.

What if the EU and UN declare Bush and Cheney to be international criminals?

Bush, Cheney and their administration probably violated a number of international laws in their outsourced torture operation. Now the investigations are underway.
Spain Looks Into C.I.A.'s Handling of Detainees - New York Times:

...Last week, related investigations were started by the European Union and the Council of Europe to look into reports of secret C.I.A. jails for terrorism suspects in Eastern Europe.

An inquiry seems likely by the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak. Last week he said that if reports of the C.I.A.'s activities proved correct, then the agency was engaged in a 'systematic practice of enforced disappearance.'...
Wouldn't it be "funny" if Bush and Cheney were found to be war criminals, and could not travel to Europe for fear of arrest?

Unlikely of course. They're merely doing what most tyrants do, and the UN is full of tyrants. Most European nations have similar episodes of shame in their recent history. Still, it's good to know at least one investigation is proceeding.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The neoprene back wrap and other parts of John's acute back pain recipe

Most mortals have more than a few flaws in their design. By middle-age you know most of them. Among mine is a bad back, a familial disorder that first manifested 25 years ago when I body surfed into the shore of Huntington beach.

So beyond my mere medical experience, I have twenty years of personal experience with (mostly) non-neurological bad backs (the kind where something tears, there's bleeding, scarring and lots of muscle pain). As in drop to the floor and lie there trying to figure out how to reach the phone. Which is why I'll pass on some hard won knowledge today, with the canes at my side. Don't follow this advice without the approval of your physician; your back may differ. You might even have a serious medical problem, though most bad backs are like mine.

Here is what works for me, It's also pretty much what's in the current guidelines:

1. Cold packs. The miracle innovation here is the TRU-FIT Ice/Heat Back Wrap w/ Gel Pack. Stick a cold pack in it (you're supposed to use the cold packs designed for humans, not the frost-bite inducing packs for picnic units). Wear it. Rotate pack every 1-2 hours, so you need 3 packs. For me 2-3 days of continuous use is important. Diabetics and elderly need to be careful of cold damage. There is a weight related problem with cold packs. Fat is a great insulator (that's one of the reasons we deposit fat under our skin). The more fat you have, the less effective the cold pack is; it becomes harder to cool the deep tissues and restrict incoming blood flow. One might be tempted to use the picnic coolers (colder stuff), but you run the risk of necrosing superficial tissue, visit to the ICU, death, etc. America seriously does need a pill for obesity; I wouldn't mind one myself.

2. Canes. $22 at Walgreens. Swear by them. Good for getting off the floor and making it possible to ambulate fast. When you need to cough, you need the cane. I use two for 2 days typically, then 1 for a week or so.

3. Meds: tylenol and ibuprofen alternating for 2-3 days then as needed. Vicodin (tylenol + hydrocodone) if you have it is very valuable for the awful first night, but no more than 1-2 days of use. You need the Vicodin on hand; when this kind of back attack hits a trip to the doctor is inconceivable (way too much pain). By the time one can travel the Vicodin is no longer needed. I used to prescribe Flexeryl to patients and I suspect it works, but I don't use it myself.

4. Sleep: on a carpeted floor, maybe with one of those very thin inflatable outdoor camping mats. Not the inflatable beds, the mats used by serious hard core hikers. Keep extra cold packs in a nearby insulated container. Also meds, water bottle and, for men, a .. ummm ..."receptacle". You don't want to have to get up if you can help it!

5. Ambulation and exercise. There are religious wars around this; extension exercises are most popular now. I do whatever doesn't hurt too much and I walk as much as I can. I skate to relieve back pain, which is insane. However, if one can avoid falling, this works very well after day 3-4. A gym elliptical exercise machine is far safer and works in a similar fashion.
I start the gym, cane at my side, on day 3. Climbing stairs often works well for me, if the decent hurts a down elevator is handy. Basically if it hurts, I do something else.

Usually by day 5-7 I can do a fair bit of exercise. I don't run ever, but biking and skating can work. It if hurts I don't do it.

6. Course? Awful for about 12-24 hours. Bad for another day. By day 5-7, if no re-injury, feeling almost well. It takes 6 weeks to have a reasonably solid back. I try to avoid heavy lifting for 2-3 months but often do it earlier (heavy for me is 80lbs, I'm a wimp). If I'm exercising properly I've never hurt my back when lifting fairly heavy items properly (straight back lift). Sitting, on the other hand, is really tough on a back. I have an Aeron chair at work (legacy of startup days) and in the acute phase I lie on the ground part of the day, ambulate often, and do phone conferences while walking.

7. Prevention? It's all weight control and exercise, and a some basic back hygeine. Sitting is bad but unavoidable. Don't push things, even light things, bent over. I knew I was due for this episode because family obligations have messed up my exercise regimen. Weight training and stretching and aerobic non-impact. Running is a very bad idea for most bad backs.

The only new prevention thing I'm going to add is using the gel pack early when I've done something dumb -- before my back "goes out" in a big way. I'm hoping early action with ice, healing activity, and careful exercise will avert major ruptures.

Update 8/1/2010: Things got much tricker later. I changed my mind on what works.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Smiting Dover - a test?

CNN.com - Robertson warns Pennsylvania voters of God's wrath - Nov 10, 2005

'I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city,' Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, 'The 700 Club.''And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there,' he said.
Mao retires. Idi Amin retires. Dover gets smited.

Robertson's theology is crude and annoying, but suppose God did smite Dover. Maybe God is looking for the few who would point out that this would be Evil. God would elevate us while Robertson fumed. You never know ...

More seriously, the fundamentalists seem nervous, almost panicky. Why? Except for Dover everything seems to be progressing smoothly. Perhaps they sense a building backlash that I don't see?

For the record, I'm ok with teaching Intelligent Design in the schools. Barring some new Nobel-prize winning discoveries it wouldn't be part of the science curriculum, but we could call it 'Intelligent Design'. We'd need a curriculum of course, and an evaluation program. I'd recommend gathering one representative of every ID group on each, from Scientologists to Satanists, Animists (10,000 representatives) to Catholics (only one representative of course), Buddhists to Baptists, Muslims to Mormons, Wiccans to Hindus (4,000 representatives) in a great assembly. All would gather in massive venue, probably the Roman Colliseum. When they agreed upon a curriculum the Intelligent Design course would begin.