Friday, March 31, 2006

Prayer by strangers harmful to inpatients

Prayers for recovery offered by strangers was found to cause a 40% increase in major complications among patients receiving coronary byapss surgery:
Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer - New York Times

.... The study also found that more patients in the uninformed prayer group, 18 percent, suffered major complications, like heart attack or stroke, compared with 13 percent in the group that did not receive prayers.
Does praying for a stranger anger God? Does all prayer annoy Him, or just Christian prayer? Perhaps multiple deities are involved...

Or perhaps the effect is only a statistical fluke, as many scientists and theologians, as well as all atheists, would expect. Catholics, for example, allow for miracles, but I think among mainstream catholic theologians prayer is thought to be about asking for wisdom and the strength to bear what comes, not a plea to a mercenary deity.

Personally I find the result disquieting, but I'm betting the P value is not significant. Note, however, a harmful result is just as suggestive of supernatural intervention as a beneficial result would have been. Both outcomes are a matter for contemplation.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Sago survivor is a mutant

And I mean that in the best possible way. This man has something different in his genes (emphases mine). - Sole Sago Mine survivor heads for Miracle Road - Mar 30, 2006

I think he's a got a great potential for a complete, possibly complete, recovery,' said neurologist Julian Bailes, who suggested 'genetic individual variability' might help explain McCloy's survival.

Bailes also cited other factors, including that McCloy was about 1,000 feet away from the miners who perished and was 'in better air.'
I wonder if his physicians expected him to walk or talk again. There's something rather unusual about how he managed severe carbon monoxide poisoning. It's unlikely he's unique, so researchers will want to figure out who else responds this way and why. The results could help with managing carbon monoxide poisoning in general.

Yahoo! yellow pages: the problem with being mostly right

Yahoo's yellow pages flopped big time today.

I used it to find a local business. The number was right, and so I sent my wife to the address, using the handy map link.


They moved some time ago. Many miles away. I am in deep doo-doo; ergo so is Yahoo.

From a systems perspective, this is a fundamental problem with a 'mostly correct' solution. Google's algorithmically constructed local search service is even less reliable, but ironically that's not a problem. It's easy to discover that Google's data is stale; so I've never trusted it the way I used to trust Yahoo.

Yahoo's listings have a corporate feel, as though they were updated, validated and maintained. They probably are, but I suspect the paper yellow page listings are still substantially more accurate -- if only because businesses aggressively maintain their paper listings.

Sigh. I hate the paper yellow pages, but maybe I'm stuck with them again. Certainly I can't trust Yahoo's directory service, and the cost of validating what I find may push me back to a solution I thought was dead 10 years ago.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Immigration: an interesting debate

Ahh, immigration. It divides Republicans and Democrats alike, so we can get a break from the usual culture wars.

My mother emigrated from England to Canada. I emigrated from Canada to the US. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Ireland to Canada. Speaking of Canada, my birthplace has an interesting take on immigration. They select for wealth and entrepreneurial productivity, a very mercenary approach that favors job growth in Canada and minimizes disruption.

The US has a different approach, and a different problem. Immigrants are selected for a willingness to work in harsh conditions for low wages (often associated with illegal status), for professional rather than entrepreneurial skills and for family bonds to citizens (the latter is where I came in). The consequence is economic benefits to immigrants and their employers, a mildly positive benefit to the nation as a whole, and probably negative effects on some US workers (per a recent Krugman/DeLong set of essays). The calculus is complex; if illegal aliens didn't harvest US crops either robots would do the work or the crops wouldn't be grown here any longer. On the other hand roofers would be paid more -- that work has to be done and can't be outsourced. Nannies would be paid much, much more, but many women and a few men would switch to day care or stop working.

Besides the economic complexities, there are interesting legal and cultural issues. To what extent is the US owned by its citizens -- vs. for example, the foreigners who increasingly own our bonds, our stocks and our land? What special privileges do America's owners demand as a benefit of ownership? Do we owners want to do something to boost wages and employment of less skilled workers, or do we want to boost overall wealth and lessen the impact of the aging boomers?

If it were up to me, I'd take a hard look at what Canada does -- maximize the economic benefits of the immigrant stream. I'd also want to get some real data on the impact on less skilled US workers; I'd probably choose "protection" of some domains. I would also look at a range of measures to favor and increase english language skills; I came from a nation divided by language (Quebec) and I think that's a very bad idea for the US. Lastly, I think a lot of labor intensive agriculture probably doesn't make sense for the US any more.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Indict the dogs

Molly Ivins wants to indict military dogs. She also uses the word "plangent". Clearly she is an enemy of America, and now that I've turned her in I assume I'll be forgiven my past sins.

I think Molly is starting to despair. I know I am ...

Monday, March 27, 2006

CEO Corruption: will there be unexpected consequences

Unless someone's made a gross statistical error, it is certain far beyond a mere reasonable doubt that a good number CEO option grants are being backdated to maximize returns:
The Big Picture: CEO Options: Luck -- or something else?:

... A Wall Street Journal analysis suggests the odds of this happening by chance are extraordinarily remote -- around one in 300 billion. The odds of winning the multistate Powerball lottery with a $1 ticket are one in 146 million.

Suspecting such patterns aren't due to chance, the Securities and Exchange Commission is examining whether some option grants carry favorable grant dates for a different reason: They were backdated. The SEC is understood to be looking at about a dozen companies' option grants with this in mind.

The Journal's analysis of grant dates and stock movements suggests the problem may be broader. It identified several companies with wildly improbable option-grant patterns. While this doesn't prove chicanery, it shows something very odd: Year after year, some companies' top executives received options on unusually propitious dates.
What kind of impact does this corruption have on a society? At what point do people start dropping out -- or become receptive to a populist reaction? It's happened in America before.

Prime numbers, Zeta functions, and quantum mechanics

Seed magazine has a very readable article that provides a 200,000 foot view of the relationship between number theory and quantum mechanics: Seed: Prime Numbers Get Hitched. I do wish Du Sautoy had mentioned whether this had any implications for cryptography; I believe current techniques rely in part on the technical difficulty of factoring large numbers. Naively one might think a breakthrough in understanding prime numbers would not be all that great for the stock market.

He mentions by way of background Riemann's role in anticipating general relativity, and also describing the Zeta functions that play a role in both QM and prime number theory. If we do reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, it would not be amazing if Riemann should turn out to be a common source. I have a bit of a personal connection here. As a high school student, back before there were photocopiers, I gave a talk on non-euclidean geometry. I don't believe I've subsequently worked my feeble brain as hard as I did preparing for that presentation. I doubt much of the class got anything from it; I could just as well have delivered it in ancient Greek. All the same, Riemann made a lasting impression on me.

At one point in my brash days I foolishly dismissed the uncanny connection between mathematics and physics with some "clever" phrase that I mercifully don't remember. I apologize to my victim. I've long since joined the ranks of those who find the relationship more than a bit unsettling.

Do not use IE until latest bug is fixed

The trick is hackers break into legitimate web sites and then set the trap that uses IE to put bots on home computers. I use Firefox for my own browsing, but at work I need to use IE for internal sites. That's probably OK for now. If you use IE you might consider installing and using Firefox instead for the next week or so. The install is very simple and clean, so it's easy to uninstall or just leave it lying around for weeks like this one.
Security Fix - Brian Krebs on Computer and Internet Security - (

More than 200 Web sites -- many of them belonging to legitimate businesses -- have been hacked and seeded with code that tries to take advantage of a unpatched security hole in Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser to install hostile code on Windows computers when users merely visit the sites.

In an update to its Security Response Web log, Microsoft security program manager Stephen Toulouse said the attacks Redmond is seeing against the IE flaw 'are limited in scope for now and are being carried out by malicious Web sites.'

I have to call Microsoft out on both counts, and I think some of what I've uncovered so far about these attacks should make it clear that the situation is serious and getting worse by the hour.
I assume IE on the Mac is safe, but there's not much IE use on Macs any more.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The myth of the skilled worker shortage

The NYT attacks the hoary nostrum that education and retraining is the answer to layoffs (emphases mine).
Retraining Laid-Off Workers, but for What? - New York Times

... Saying that the country should solve the skills shortage through education and training became part of nearly every politician's stump speech, an innocuous way to address the politics of unemployment without strengthening either the bargaining leverage of workers or the federal government's role in bolstering labor markets.

But training for what? The reality, as the aircraft mechanics discovered, is painfully different from the reigning wisdom. Rather than having a shortage of skills, millions of American workers have more skills than their jobs require. That is particularly true of college-educated people, who make up 30 percent of the population today, up from 10 percent in the 1960's. They often find themselves working in sales or as office administrators, or taking jobs in hotels and restaurants, or becoming carpenters, flight attendants and word processors.

The number of jobs that require a bachelor's degree has indeed been growing, but more slowly than the number of graduates, according to the Labor Department, and that trend is likely to continue through this decade. "The average college graduate is doing very well," said Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. "But on the margin, college graduates appear to be more vulnerable than in the past."

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a rough estimate of the imbalance in the demand for jobs as opposed to the supply. Each month since December 2000, it has surveyed the number of job vacancies across the country and compared it with the number of unemployed job seekers. On average, there were 2.6 job seekers for every job opening over the first 41 months of the survey. That ratio would have been even higher, according to the bureau, if the calculation had included the millions of people who stopped looking for work because they did not believe that they could get decent jobs.

So the demand for jobs is considerably greater than the supply, and the supply is not what the reigning theory says it is. Most of the unfilled jobs pay low wages and require relatively little skill, often less than the jobholder has. From the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004, for example, more than 55 percent of the hiring was at wages of $13.25 an hour or less: hotel and restaurant workers, health care employees, temporary replacements and the like.

That trend is likely to continue. Seven of the 10 occupations expected to grow the fastest from 2002 through 2012, according to the Labor Department, pay less than $13.25 an hour, on average: retail salesclerks, customer service representatives, food service workers, cashiers, janitors, nurse's aides and hospital orderlies.

The $13.25 threshold is important. More than 45 percent of the nation's workers, whatever their skills, earned less than $13.25 an hour in 2004, or $27,600 a year for a full-time worker. That is roughly the income that a family of four must have in many parts of the country to maintain a standard of living minimally above the poverty level. Surely lack of skill and education does not hold down the wages of nearly half the work force....

... By the spring of 2004, however, out of more than 800 mechanics from United who had gone through her program or were still going through it, only 185 were working again.

Despite their skill, 33 of those 185, or 18 percent, were earning less than $13.25 an hour working in warehouses, on construction jobs, in restaurants or in retailing. Some were "throwing boxes," as the mechanics put it, for FedEx, which paid them only $10 an hour at its shipping center in Indianapolis. They took the work, which entailed loading and unloading air freight packages, for two reasons: FedEx offered them company-paid health insurance, which some of the mechanics desperately wanted, and they saw in the job a gamble worth the hardship, given the glum alternatives.

... Of the 185 mechanics back at work in the spring of 2004, most earned $14 to $20 an hour as heating and air-conditioning repairmen, auto mechanics, computer maintenance workers, freight train conductors (CSX happened to be hiring) or cross-country tractor-trailer drivers, having graduated from a two-week driver-training course offered by Ms. Bucko's people.
Economists have seen this coming for a while. It's likely to get much worse, and this article should be read alongside a recent review of the status of the black American male. Black men are the 'canary in the mine' -- they suffer first.

My prescription? Glad you asked!

1. Universal healthcare in a multi-tiered system. (The universal care is "good enough", not "the best".)
2. Increased taxes on high earners and large asset holders.
3. Reinstate the estate taxes.
4. Universal 401K style savings that can be used both for retirement and for savings. Tax free accumulation on investments, when withdraw you pay taxes at current levels. (Zero if unemployed).
5. Make it easier for people to leave the labor market (see #1).
6. Eliminate any tax features or acccounting rules that in any way encourage outsourcing.
7. Measure what's happening and publish the results.
8. If #1-#7 aren't working, then get radical.

#7 seems obvious, but my recollection is that Bush has eliminated much of this measurement.

The last good toaster?

Toasters are a "missing middle" casualty. China wiped out all the middle and low end products, replacing them with very inexpensive and (as of two years ago) very unreliable toasters. I call this the "missing middle", because afterwords one ends up with the low end (with a great drop in average price) and the luxury/professional market. Alas, I usually buy in the "middle", so this is a bad outcome for me -- even though it's a good thing for most consumers.

In fact, with toasters, it seemed the "high end" had disappeared as well ( commercial toasters too big for our kitchen). I've visited various specialty stores, and the toasters were all made in China there too. They seemed as flimsy and unpromising as the much cheaper models sold in my neighborhood hardware store.

I figured I'd just have to wait until "made in China" came to mean quality products, just as "made in Japan" is today. Or until some retailer rediscovered the value of a "quality brand". I think brands are going to make a big comeback in the next 12 months, so that's not too long to wait.

Today, however, it occurred to me that Germany, with its protected markets and manufacturing inclination might still have reliable toasters. So I changed my toaster search to include "made in Germany". Which led to this Rowenta toaster.

It's a luxury solution of course, I didn't expect to find the "missing middle" in the export market. The electric motor is silly, and the price is steep -- though in the range of the "made in China" items sold in specialty shops. So, at least on the net, there is still a "Mercedes toaster".

Update 3/31: I struck Zeitgeist. Slate has a review of toasters out now. They found an interesting mid-range option. Some of the brands seemed to be going for "quality" too ...

Update 4/14/07: At least some of the components for some Dualit toasters are made in China, though it's "assembled in England". See the comments for more details, including this excellent comment:
Sorry to burst the bubble but the Dualit (at least the Vario 20293 Chrome) may be "assembled in England" but the parts are from China. Check out wholesale site on the internet to see the product country of origin. I bought one, the timer failed after about 3 months, when I opened up the toaster the timer clearly was labeled "made in China". I think that Dualit is assembling them in the U.K. but is using "globally sourced parts" (the new euphemism for Made in China). Buy a cheaper toaster it'll be made in China too but at least it'll say so on the outside instead of on the inside.
Amazon has complaints about early failures in the Dualit. There may simply be no escape from this trap. Maybe we'll all stop eating toast, or go back to the days of holding bread over an open flame.

Update 11/30/07: It's truly hopeless. Bigeejit writes in comments (emphasis mine):
Interesting post! I'm German, and I'm looking for a toaster not "Made in China". It's a nightmare.

Take a closer look at the parts inside of a toaster! Even it's an European or German brand toaster like a Bosch, Siemens, Krups, Rowenta, Braun, Tefal, Moulinex one... most of them look the same, and they are "Made in China".

I believe most of the toasters are manufactured in the same one Chinese plant. Each brand just gets a different plastic cover slipped over.

Well, I'm not willing to pay a high price for a German brand toaster manufactured in China.

@John Gordon: Rowenta is no longer a German brand since 1988. Today the brand is owned by SEB Group (France), and Rowenta toasters are "Made in China", too. Even the Rowenta toaster you mention.
Update 3/17/09: Professional toasters are still made in the US. From comments (Drawde):
.. There is still a toaster MADE IN THE USA. It's made by Star Mfg in MO, actually their toasters are made in TN.

These are heavy duty restaurant quality units. Our 4 slice weighs about 20 lbs, so keep that in mind in terms of storage, lifting etc.

We have the ST04 model, which I think has been replaced with a newer model designation, but I checked with the rep today and she said they are still made in TN.

They can be repaired even at a restaurant repair facility if need be, you can actually buy parts for them as well! Imagine! Of course the bad news, they are not cheap.

I think the 2 slice model is around $350 and the 4 slice $550 online. We actually picked up ours used on ebay for about $150...
Now I know what i want for my birthday ...

Update 6/25/11: This old post still gets comments. Today a vistor suggested
... the place to find and buy vintage and collectible kitchen appliances by Sunbeam, Toastmaster, Dominion, Kenmore, Arvin, Westinghouse, General Electric, Manning-Bowman, Universal and other makers from the Golden Age of chrome and bakelite...
The site appeal is primarily aesthetic, but they had a 1950s toastmaster that looked like it would be excellent. Sold of course.

Update 3/3/2012: Six years later, it all makes sense.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The law of large numbers: identical fake email addresses was infamous for abusing users of their "free" audio clients. Spam, nagware, inline obnoxious ads, intrusive reminders, seizing file ownership, quasi-spyware -- the whole nine yards. Bad news.

Alas, the BBC uses RealAudio.

I'd heard RA had reformed out of desperation and litigation, so I downloaded the Mac client. You STILL have to provide an email address, so I provided my usual fake address:

It was in use.

So I tried

In use.


In use.


That worked.

I want to know how many clones I have, and how many are a substantial improvement upon me.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Economist. Adieu.

Twenty years ago I began my subscription to The Economist. I had my first real job, as an intern (aka "first year resident) in family practice. I could afford The Economist.

The first 10 years were superb. Then things began to slip. There were still some fabulous issues though. Their millenium issue was unequalled. Alas, from 2001 onwards it was downhill all the way. The Economist managed to be shocked by Clinton's extramarital affairs; a bit rich for a magazine better known for its libertarian bent. The US coverage grew, the international coverage shrank, and about four years ago they brought in a total moron as "Lexington".

Now they've made the moron their editor.
Crooked Timber � � White smoke at the Economist

... I have to say that my first reaction is to wonder whether it’s too late to cancel the recent renewal of my Economist subscription. I expect the Economist to be vehemently pro-market, but by reading certain kinds of stories with a skeptical eye, and by skipping past certain others, you can find a lot of value in its pages. It has a clear ideological bias, but it isn’t usually actively dishonest. But Micklethwait, together with his scrofulous sidekick Adrian Wooldridge, was responsible for The Right Nation which is one of the lazier and more dishonest books on American politics that I’ve had the misfortune of reading in the last few years, and for the Lexington column which has shown a pretty reliable track record as a purveyor of Republican talking points. There are still a lot of very good people working for the magazine – but I worry that it’s about to undergo a quite substantial deterioration in intellectual quality.

Update: It’s Micklethwait as expected.
CT is too young to know that today's Economist is a mere shadow of its former self. The deterioration is well underway, and now it's a race to the bottom. Happily, over a period of a few years, I've been preparing myself to say good-bye. I'd decided earlier this year not to renew, but I was waiting for the editorial announcement before ordering my alternatives. I will substitute The Atlantic and Scientific American for The Economist. Newsweek has been doing well lately, I'll start reading that online.

Good-bye, The Economist. You were great once, but you have gone the way of all things.

Danger: Addictive temptations from the BBC

I'm becoming a frothing mad lunatic fan of the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time. I want to buy a T-shirt.

Damnedly, you can't download all the old programs to put them on an iPod. Here's the archive -- full of untouchable goodies for online access only. What am I supposed to on my commute, listen to mere NPR? (I used to like NPR, but now it's fit only to wrap the fish. I've seen the light.)

Maybe it's time for me to get some use out of 'Audio Hijack Pro'. Surely such misuse can't be immoral given the need to elevate my mind.

Let's not even glance at Radio 4's science archives or their history selection. Arggghhh.

Update 3/27/06: I can say that, theoretically speaking, Audio Hijack Pro (AHP), works very well for transferring the archival streams to an iPod. I suggest capturing as 'mono' with a bit rate of 64 kpbs. I use bookmarkable AAC so I can readily return where I left off.

The result is about the same size (20MB) as a podcast. It won't show up in the podcast menu on the iPod (since it's not), but it's easy to create an 'In Our Times' playlist that includes both the shows delivered via podcast and those delivered via AHP. You need the RealAudio client, which is now tolerable.

Read the section in the AHP documentation for tips on configuring capture from RealAudio; you'll do much better than flailing about. Using AHP properly you can set all the tags up in advance, including autonaming the saved file with the title tag using the %name% variable. You can also set the time to 45 minutes and auto-stop on silence. When you're done turn 'record' off and then drag and drop the file onto the "In Our Times" iTunes playlist icon you created.

AHP is slighly flaky. It caused problems on my iBook when the laptop went to sleep with AHP running. Just restart after use.

Theoretically speaking, it's quite easy to build up a a library of a large number of these sessions and catch up on years of IOT one commute at a time. Zoroastrianism is quite good, for example. Actually they all are. I'm awed.

Ask a stupid question ...

A pompous general questions the patriotism of a journalist who writes about national defense. I wouldn't have used his response, but there's something to be said for it:
Early Warning by William M. Arkin -

.... General: 'Mr. Arkin, do you consider yourself a journalist or an American.'

I took a drink of water as my blood boiled.

Me: 'Well General, because I am an American, I cherish the fact that I can call you a f***ing idiot for asking the question.
I'm too genteel to answer that way, and it did get his military sponsors in trouble which seems a bit impolite, but I see the point ...

Graphene, quasiparticles, anyons and quantum braids

Two days ago, I read a popular news report on graphene, a form of carbon with novel properties. In particular it appears to allow one to experiment with quasiparticles, a family which includes not only our familiar bosons and fermions but also, perhaps, anyons. In the article electrons were said to move within the two dimensional graphene surface at relativistic speeds. Here's an article, but it's not what I read.

Yesterday I read an article in Scientific American on topological quantum computing using "braids" to perform error-resistant qubit processing. It's only theoretical, for it to work one needs a good source of anyons. The Sci Am article was written months ago of course. The same issue included a book review pointing in which a physicist saw no challenges to the Standard Model of physics since there are no meaningful places where both quantum and relativistic effects are simultaneously important.

Hmm. Graphene and anyons. - 49 googlits today. Add topological, get 31 hits. Add braid and ... Google stops working. That's funny!

Update: Google finally returned! There were 3 hits when I added braid, including this conference. By the way, most of the physicists mentioned in the SciAm article on using topological methods (braids) to enable error-resistant quantum computing work for Microsofts Project Q. There are surprisingly few googlits on Project Q, apparently it came up during a site visit for one blogger. It's nice to know Microsoft is putting its monopoly rents to interesting uses.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dana Reeve: never smoked, died of lung cancer

The Blog of death covers Dana Reeves, best known, despite her considerable achievements, as the wife of Christopher Reeves.

She was only 44 when she died of lung cancer.

It is worth noting, I think, that she never smoked. As fewer people smoke, what lung cancer there is falls ever more often upon non-smokers. I need to get up to date on what the risk factors are now thought to be. (Second-hand smoke? Radium exposure? ?)

Life seem absurd? Maybe it is.

One of the explanations for the Fermi Paradox is that God 'made the world for Man'. Only for 'world' substitute galaxy or universe.

This is by far the most commonly held answer to the Fermi Paradox, even though the faithful don't usually think about their beliefs that way. Indeed, it's one of the more interesting arguments for the existence of God. Or rather, of a Designer.

A Designer of the physical universe? Or of a Simulation? And is there a difference? Brin returns to the theme, albeit without mention of my favorite paradox:
Contrary Brin: Design? Accident? Or Simulation?

* Leonard Susskind's new book, The Cosmic Landscape pits intelligent design against string theory and the megaverse. Surprisingly, Autodesk founder John Walker sides with intelligent design, but not by a deity -- by post-Singularity intelligences creating a reality simulation: "What would we expect to see if we inhabited a simulation?" Yes, I have discussed this in fact & fiction, many times. But the “symptoms” delineated by Susskind are definitely the kind plumbed by theoretical physicists who have a more extensive union card than I do!

To see this scenario played out in one of my short stories, go to:
Any fan of the genre knows from the start how Brin's story will turn out, so it's mostly interesting for the digressions along the way. If one were looking for evidence of a simulation, I'd suggest looking for hacks and shortcuts. Computation is never free; any deity running our simulation would be doing something recursive, like reusing an intermediate output as a part of more than one result. One might be able to create an experiment that would stress the system, and expose the hacks. Something using a quantum computer ....

Two occupations: Iraq and the Falklands

Do we Americans understand?
The Falklands: A lesson for America in Iraq - Editorials & Commentary - William Pfaff - International Herald Tribune:

... The third obstacle to the intervention's having a positive political effect in the region is that (for incomprehensible reasons) the model of conduct the administration has imposed on the U.S. Army resembles that of Argentina's military dictatorship rather than that of the British Army that liberated the Falklands.

The Bush administration practice of torture recalls that of the Latin American military dictatorships. So does its flair for totalitarian logic. Few understand why American forces now practice torture, sometimes torture to death, and systematic abuse of prisoners and 'detainees.'

This is conduct for which the Western allies hanged Gestapo and SS officers and Japanese prison camp commanders in 1945. Do not the Bush people, and U.S. Army commanders, know even that much history?

A totalitarian logic also exists, just revealed by the former deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan (who has been nominated by the Bush administration to become the United States' deputy attorney general).

Asked by two senior Republican senators, John Warner and John McCain, to describe the standards governing U.S. prisoner treatment, he replied that there are no standards.

The indirect meaning of Flanigan's statement that there are no standards is that nothing is forbidden. This seems a deliberate choice by the Bush administration.

This is why the United States is not a force for justice and order in the Middle East. It has become the opposite, a creator of disorder and injustice. Does the American public understand this?

William Pfaff

William Pfaff used to be one of my favorite writers, along with Gwynne Dyer.

I forget now why he was dropped from my news page. Maybe he was on sabbatical, or behind a paywall. Anyway, you can find his articles in the International Herald Tribune now. They're good reading. I'll put the search link back on my news page.

Canadians are made for suffering: Rogers wireless

I grew up in Montreal, but I've been in the land of the market for many years. Today, in Montreal, I returned to the land where the consumer is supposed to suffer. I used Rogers Wireless' automated phone system for adding minutes to a cellphone.

It was like a brief trip to hell. Their was no option for keypad entry, and it didn't like my diction. I had to speak a 16 digit number in such a way that it got every digit. This is a trivial task for most VR systems, but not for this one. There was no option for keypad entry and no escape from the system.


Even though America is in moral and economic free fall, we can at least take some minor solace from knowing that, in the US market, Rogers Wireless would be toast.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rogue Unit, Rogue Nation

It would be interesting to know the date that Bush and the GOP stopped talking about a "single rogue unit" and "a few bad apples":
Before and After Abu Ghraib, a U.S. Unit Abused Detainees - New York Times

... The story of detainee abuse in Iraq is a familiar one. But the following account of Task Force 6-26, based on documents and interviews with more than a dozen people, offers the first detailed description of how the military's most highly trained counterterrorism unit committed serious abuses.

It adds to the picture of harsh interrogation practices at American military prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as at secret Central Intelligence Agency detention centers around the world.

The new account reveals the extent to which the unit members mistreated prisoners months before and after the photographs of abuse from Abu Ghraib were made public in April 2004, and it helps belie the original Pentagon assertions that abuse was confined to a small number of rogue reservists at Abu Ghraib.

More like a rogue nation.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The rational right betrayed: Bush wasn't in on the con

A recent Brad DeLong post deserves to be read. Don't miss the "great" (as in terrible) Andrew Sullivan quote in Peggy Noonan Realizes She Has Conned Herself.

There are small government rationalists in the historic Republican camp. They play a key role in democracy; they are the respected opposition. They helped forge some of the best results of the blessed Clinton years.

They thought Bush was one of them, and that his apparent inability to add was just an act to con the proles. When the bills came due our 100% GOP government would, with immense and solemn reluctance, eliminate medicare, social security, medicaid and a vast array of Roosevelt's legacy. Now they've come to understand that Bush is a KGB agent designed to destroy America. Or maybe he's a space alien in disguise. Or maybe Bush is a mildly demented con artist and the GOP is corrupt. Whatever the truth, their horror is genuine.

They thought they were conning the dimwitted, but they've discovered their own wits were dim.

Tough on them, terrible for America.

The worldmind in action: finding impact craters

A scientist (amateur?), viewing a newly discovered asteroid impact crater using Google Earth, impulsively decides to look for more. He quickly finds two candidates (, but hours of additional work don't turn up any more.

It's a truism of the history of science that new instruments create a flurry of new discoveries. The new instrument in this case is not satellite imagery (old), or even Google Earth (though it's cool), it's the distributed worldmind. Lots of minds doing a vast amount of analysis.

After 9/11 I, among many others, proposed using a large collection of minds to process visual data from Afghanistan (obviously the security risks require some thought). I don't think that happened, but this story again shows us the potential of the new instrument.

Incidentally, the story of the early find and then nothing seems odd, but consider how many must have looked this way. The same idea probably occurred to tens of thousands of enthusiasts. The vast majority would look for a few hours then give up. If it takes 10,000 hours to find a crater, and the average search is one hour, then roughly 1 in 10,000 persons will make a discovery like this.

Friday, March 17, 2006

My Homeland security interview: via MoneyGram

Recenly I had to send some money to my sister in Canada. A quick Google search suggested MoneyGram or Western Union were my best choices, and MoneyGram works with Canadian Post Offices. It was the better option.

I ran into some technical glitches (password problem) and experienced a mixture of both insecure (they use password hints!) and stupidly secure practices (they wanted my sister to know my home phone number), but it did work. They most interesting part, however, was the automated interview with "homeland security". Three of the four questions were about finding out which "John Faughnan" I was:
4. Based on your background, in what county is 'xxxxxxx'? ( The
address listed may be partial, misspelled or contain minor numbering
variations from your actual address )
One question, however, wanted to know who I knew:
1. With which of the following people are you most closely associated? (
Names may be listed as last-name first-name, include maiden names or contain
slight misspellings.) [I've removed names]

A... A...
G... B...
H... H...
L... F...
S... N...
The names were a bit odd. They sounded vaguely Arabic, but mostly they seemed computer generated. I googled on them (that should boost my watchlist ranking!) but came up with no matches at all. Odd.

It was an interesting example of how Homeland Security is implementing its watch lists, and seeking to match a name to a profile.

I do wonder if everyone gets the automated interview...

Bad Google, bad: Blogger misbehaving

Blogger/Google hit me with a real one-two.

First they temporarily locked down my tech blog because their brain-dead algorithms mis-identified it as a spam blog, then, the moment they "whitelisted" it, they had a major hardware outage. It took them about 16 hours to recover, and they were awfully slow to admit on that they had a problem (times below are PT, outage was early evening on 3/16):

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The filer that we have been having trouble with in the last few days failed again. Those blogs that are stored on the bad filer are temporarily not available for publishing and viewing. We are working on replacing the filer and restoring access to the blogs affected.

Update (10:40 am, March 17): The filer has been restored. All affected blogs are available for publishing and reading.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

More Google/Blogger incompetence

Today Google locked down my tech blog because their alorithms miscategorized it as a spam blog. They reviewed and cleared the block, but now the site is wiped and I can't republish from the Blogger archives.

I would not be inclined to trust my personal files to Google.

Google has locked my tech blog!

#$#$!$!#$ Google.

Google's bots decided my tech blog, Gordon's Tech was a splog (spam blog). Wow, that's nasty. It's locked until they review it. I'll post here what happens next. Note the threat to delete the entire blog within 10 days.

I'm going to have to reconsider my enthusiasm for Google. I think it just dropped about zero.

Your blog is locked

Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. (What's a spam blog?) Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.

You won't be able to publish posts to your blog until one of our humans reviews it and verifies that it is not a spam blog. Please fill out the form below to get a review. We'll take a look at your blog and unlock it in less than a business day.

If we don't hear from you, though, we will remove your blog from Blog*Spot within 10 days.

Find out more about how Blogger is fighting spam blogs.

Update: They've unlocked it, but now when I try to publish I get "001". Enthusiasm heading for sub-zero levels.

The meaning of the decline of America

Books on the decline of a nation are like the proverbial stuck clock. They are wrong almost all of the time. Almost.

The same week that Salon made its bid for a Pulitzer Prize, they feature a review of a book predicting the decline and fall of America: Books | Decline and fall

... In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear to everyone that the United States had suffered a hideous blow, but few had any idea just how bad it was. It didn't occur to most people to wonder whether the country's very core had been seriously damaged; if anything, America had never seemed so united and resolute. Almost five years later, with Bush still in the White House, a whole cavalcade of catastrophes bearing down on us and a lack of political will to address any of them, the scope of Osama bin Laden's triumph is coming sickeningly into focus. He didn't start the country on its march of folly, but he spurred America toward bombastic nationalism, military quagmire and escalating debt, all of which have made its access to the oil controlled by the seething countries of the Middle East ever more precarious. Now the United States is careening down a well-worn road faster than anyone could have imagined.
It's easy to mock books about disaster and decline. After all, we who are relatively prosperous in America have, by definition, lived tolerably through several such books. On the other hand, it's hard to deny that America has "jumped the shark". Reelecting George Bush II. Delivering both the house and the senate to the 21st century GOP. The rise of theocracy. We're not in great shape now, and ahead lies the promise of far more dramatic acts of terrorism, of the post-oil world, geopolitical transitions, technological risks, climate change, the hoary ghost of Malthus (in the form of various plagues), etc, etc.

In any case, it was always very unlikely that America would remain ascendant forever. Like Spain, China (several times), England, the Netherlands, Turkey and so many other empires, we'll transition to some other role. We may have a faster rise and fall than most, but these are fast times. Centuries have become decades.

The more interesting question than the relative (and perhaps absolute) decline of America, is what it means. Will the world follow, or will human prosperity continue to grow overall? Certainly many of the challenges America faces are truly global; China's challenges are immense, for example. Will America's fall be relatively peaceful (Soviet Union style? - even better, the Netherlands) or a typically American meltdown? Will we keep some semblance of democracy, or will we re-elect some version of GWB? How should we, as individuals, adjust to the world ahead.

Those are the interesting questions. To me it's not about decline (highly probable and we're likely in the thick of it now), but about what happens to the world and how we manage the transition.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Amazon backup service: That was quick

The Singularity makes it hard to keep speculation in the future. Recently I was bemoaning the pitiful decline of Dantz Retrospect (my SOHO backup solution) and the dearth of alternative backup software. I noted that the looming prospect of Google offering free online backup was probably depressing the marketplace.

The surprise today was Amazon announced their storage solution first:

Amazon S3 Functionality

Amazon S3 is intentionally built with a minimal feature set.

  • Write, read, and delete objects containing from 1 byte to 5 gigabytes of data each. The number of objects you can store is unlimited.
  • Each object is stored and retrieved via a unique, developer-assigned key.
  • Authentication mechanisms are provided to ensure that data is kept secure from unauthorized access. Objects can be made private or public, and rights can be granted to specific users.
  • Uses standards-based REST and SOAP interfaces designed to work with any Internet-development toolkit.
  • Built to be flexible so that protocol or functional layers can easily be added. Default download protocol is HTTP. A BitTorrent (TM) protocol interface is provided to lower costs for high-scale distribution. Additional interfaces will be added in the future.


  • Pay only for what you use. There is no minimum fee, and no start-up cost.
  • $0.15 per GB-Month of storage used.
  • $0.20 per GB of data transferred.
S3 is not a backup service of course, it's a data service. Someone has to lease/sell the software that would do the backup work, storing the encrypted files on S3. It's not cheap though. I figure at least a $130 a year fee for a meager 50GB of backup. The economics may be wrong for use as a pure backup solution.

One wonders how S3 will survive Google's pending storage service. It would be surprising if Google were to cost more than 5 cents/GB/month.

What about the wisdom of storing one's files on an online server like Google's? Online backup is now commonly used by corporations, so it may simply be inevitable. In theory one could put sensitive files into encrypted disk images (but ANY change would likely mean a new full backup of the entire image); but I recently wrote about the limitations of that approach. Even the best of today's encryption might be no defense against a quantum computing code cracker of 2030. So encrypting an image would buy one at most a few years of protection. Maybe that's all we'll get. (Of course if the image file were subpoenaed one would be obliged to provide the key to break the encryption. Such a key might be hard to remember however ...)

Entitled opinions: Another podcast for the living mind

Recently I raved about the BBC's In Our Times podcast. Today, on browsing the iTunes home page for IOT (click on the small arrow next to the title of the podcast) I came across reviews. I didn't know the iTunes store had begun featuring reviews. Of course all the reviews were perfect fives, each vying to be more excessive in their praise.

One of them, however, suggested a look at an amateur (in the good sense of the word) rival from Stanford:
Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)

... hosted by Professor Robert Harrison - is a weekly literary talk show that ranges broadly on issues related to literature, ideas, and lived experience. The show is typically a one-on-one conversation with a special guest about select topics or authors about which he or she is especially entitled to an opinion...

Robert Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford University and is Chair of the Department of French and Italian, where he has been since 1985.. He was trained as a Dantista at Cornell University where he received his Ph.D. in Romance Studies in 1984. Among his publications are the books The Body of Beatrice, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, and The Dominion of the Dead...
The titles look great, but I've only just added this to my collection. A nice touch is that one can download the back catalogue, I think they've done over 10 shows.

I wonder if/when small radio stations will start simply broadcasting podcasts ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Where are my keys?

Via GMSV, a plausible visit to the near future: google in 20 years

Nasal decongestant addiction: I don't buy it

I don't buy the conventional explanation for nasal decongestant addiction:

Nasal Sprays Can Bring on Vicious Cycle - New York Times:
... It works so well that you tend to keep using it,' says Dr. David Vernick, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. 'You're used to breathing well with the spray, and when you stop it, you get congested. So you use it a little more frequently, yet the congestion doesn't clear up for long.'

That's because after three or four days of continuous use, the sprays can cause the nasal linings to swell up again, even when the cold or attack of sinusitis or allergy that originally caused the problem has passed. If this pattern continues, a patient has a good chance of becoming trapped in a vicious cycle of overuse and dependence that can last for months or years.
Nyah. It's not that I don't believe in the rebound effect, it's rather that it seems insufficient to explain the range of behaviors seen. I suspect that a small portion of the population develops a true cocaine-like addiction to the decongestant. Anyone who's taken oral sudafed at bedtime knows this class of drugs has stimulant activity. My bet is that a few people metabolize these drugs in a peculiar way, and the result is a truly addictive substance.

Pure speculation. No data.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Latest GOP Bill would send me to prison for 15 years ...

Fifteen years. Hmm. That might dissuade me from blogging or speculating about Bush's monitoring programs:
Reporters Exempt From Eavesdropping Bill

Reporters who write about government surveillance could be prosecuted under proposed legislation that would solidify the administration's eavesdropping authority, according to some legal analysts who are concerned about dramatic changes in U.S. law.

But an aide to the bill's chief author, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said that is not the intention of the legislation.

"It in no way applies to reporters _ in any way, shape or form," said Mike Dawson, a senior policy adviser to DeWine, responding to an inquiry Friday afternoon. "If a technical fix is necessary, it will be made."

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the draft of the legislation, which could be introduced as soon as next week.

The draft would add to the criminal penalties for anyone who "intentionally discloses information identifying or describing" the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program or any other eavesdropping program conducted under a 1978 surveillance law.

Under the boosted penalties, those found guilty could face fines of up to $1 million, 15 years in jail or both.
The WaPo article's headline actually contradicts the article's text. It's a bad headline, but what's clear is that non-journalists would probably be guilty if they promulgated or discussed the GOP's surveillance programs. I wonder if what I've written or speculated would qualify for jail time under such a law.

Were such a law to come to pass, I most certainly would not be talking about such programs on this blog, or in any other forum. I wonder what a council of the wise would say? Is "it" "happening here"? Perhaps the ACLU ought to launch an alternative form of 'doomsday clock' that would measure how close we are the 'tipping point'.

note: I fixed up a few links and revised wording after the initial publication.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Same genes, different outcome - why?

Chimps and humans have 99% overlap in genes. It turns out, of course, that not all genes are created equal. The impact of changes in transcription factors can be enormous, and that's what's different between us and chimps ... Eye on Science - Science Blog Archives - Why We're Humans, Not Chimps

... a comparative analysis of rhesus macaques, chimps, orangutans and humans shows that the specific genes for so-called transcription factors, which act as on-off switches for other genes, have changed dramatically over the past 5 million years.
All humans have very similar genes (almost clonal), but we vary greatly in capabilities. Presumably the transcription factors will turn out to be important in that too. That's where we'll intervene to ensure that, thirty years from now, wealthy children will have average IQs of 200. Speciation by wealth?

Gwynn Dyer: Interpreting America to Iran

Gwynne Dyer, the iconoclastic Canadian journalist and military historian has added another five articles to his web site. (Please email him and ask him to start a blog with a simple posting when articles are added).
17 February 2006 Iran, Oil and Euros
19 February 2006 The Leg Drain
23 February 2006 Iraq: Civil War
27 February 2006 America's Indian Ally
3 March 2006 Montenegro
The list doesn't include his recent fascinating article for the Tehran Times, in which he explains that Bush and his minions are indeed crackers and are willing, if not eager, to attack Iran with tactical nuclear weapons. In the article on the bourse he explains that while Iran's creation of a Euro-based oil pricing system could cause the US economy to crater this is not why the US may attack Iran -- Bush doesn't care about economics.

The de facto role with Iran is fascinating. Other than his income from the Tehran Times I don't know if he's being paid for this or if it's simply an emergent phenomena, but Iran could do far worse than employ Gwynn Dyer.

Saddam's downfall was apparently not understanding Bush II. Dyer's record suggests he understands Bush and the US, and he also understands Iraq and the middle east. We're all better off if Iran understands the nature of the US under Bush, and doesn't assume we won't do something perverse and, arguably, crazy.

Minnesota imports Indiana's climate

Global climate change involves severe perturbations to a chaotic system with an unknown number of attractors. In the near term some places may cool, but the poles are warming fast. Alaska is melting, and so is Minnesota.

I've noted before that cross country skiing and skijoring are dying sports in most of the US, here we learn that a local outdoor store feels guilty about selling snowshoes. The changes in Minnesota have been dramatic, even over the 12 years we've lived there...

... Out on Lake Osakis, a popular fishing spot in central Minnesota, there were half the usual number of shacks, and sheets of water lay over thin ice. In town, despite the completion of a new trail, snowmobile traffic was scant.

... state climatologists, using almost 140 years of data, have determined that Lake Osakis now breaks open in the spring, on average, a week earlier than it did a century ago.

... In northwest Minnesota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists cite warming as a reason why a moose herd that 20 years ago numbered nearly 4,000 may soon disappear. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, foresters are noticing that maples and oaks more suited to warmer climates are taking hold. Near St. Peter, naturalist Jim Gilbert says lilacs are blooming in the spring two to three weeks earlier than when he first began watching them in 1967. In Dakota County, parks officials no longer schedule skiing and snowshoeing events for December and January, for lack of snow.

Those examples are reinforced by a pile of meteorological data showing that the state has been getting warmer and wetter for some time...

Greta Petrich, who reports the Lake Osakis ice-out dates to the Department of Natural Resources, said local dealers are switching from selling snowmobiles to selling all-terrain vehicles. "Change or die," she said.

Brian Bahn, who works for Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, said recently that he finds it "hard to look somebody in the face and sell them snowshoes."

The Minnesota Department of Tourism, responding to the recurring mild winters, produced a video promotion this season that for the first time features indoor activities, not just ways to enjoy snow and ice. The spots show an actor in a bear suit ice fishing and snowmobiling, but also browsing in an art gallery and making moves on a dance floor.

... The causes and effects of the warming so far have been most dramatic in the Northern Hemisphere, because it has a higher proportion of both people and land -- which reflects heat, rather than absorbing it. And places far from oceans, such as Minnesota, are thought to be positioned for some of the most extreme changes.

... Minnesota's annual average temperatures have been rising faster than the rest of the globe's -- some say twice as fast. The state Office of Climatology has calculated the rise at 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1894. That's four times the variation the globe saw over the previous three to five centuries.

... Minnesota has been warming in both the short and long runs. For the Twin Cities, four of the five warmest winters since 1891 have occurred in the past 24 seasons. Four of the nine warmest have happened over the last nine winters, including this one.

According to University of Minnesota Extension meteorologist and climatologist Mark Seeley, the recent trends have been marked by warm winters, warm summer nights and high dew points. Elevated dew points -- a measure for human discomfort that also reflects plant vitality -- have increased in frequency and duration over the past 20 years. Dew points last July in Minnesota, Seeley noted, resembled those commonly recorded in Bombay, India.

Average annual precipitation -- often overlooked in discussions about climate changes -- has increased even more sharply than temperatures across Minnesota. Because of its connection to increased water vapor in the atmosphere, elevated precipitation is one of the central predictions in many global warming studies.

... While some climate scientists have predicted that the northern pine and birch forest could vanish altogether, Frelich said the red oak and red maple could replace it if the warming climate trend includes enough moisture. If the climate trend goes warm and dry, he said, the area could come to resemble oak savannah -- grassy prairie with intermittent stands of oak trees...
From our selfish family perspective, this is all bad. Winter is still too cold to bike and swim, but now it's too warm to ski and sled. Even ice skating outdoors is iffy; our local rink now uses a Zamboni to maintain the outdoor ice. Minnesota is going to need outdoor Zambonis and refrigerated outdoor rinks. We get more cloudy days (January was very gray); those cold, clear, crisp days of old are less common. Yes, 40 below is indeed cold, but those days weren't frequent and I kind of liked the challenge of dressing for extreme cold. (On the other hand, 19th century local winters were a bit much.)

We're at the vanguard of change now ...

PS. I want Google to start auto-generating at the end of each blog posting a list of all similar postings on the same and related blogs ...

Update 3/12: This Zimmer review of two books on global climate change is a nice extension of the above. Apparently an ITH editor introduced an error in the magnitude of the temperature change mentioned in the article.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A theory disproved: Saddam knew he had no WMDs

Why did Saddam risk an American invasion? One theory was that he himself thought he had bio and chemical weapons that he could use to blunt an invading force. A leak of a Pentagon report, printed in the NYT, claims that in fact he new Iraq had no WMDs but his senior leaders thought they existed:
Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top Threat - New York Times

The Iraqi dictator was so secretive and kept information so compartmentalized that his top military leaders were stunned when he told them three months before the war that he had no weapons of mass destruction, and they were demoralized because they had counted on hidden stocks of poison gas or germ weapons for the nation's defense....

... he ordered a crash effort to scrub the country so the inspectors would not discover any vestiges of old unconventional weapons, no small concern in a nation that had once amassed an arsenal of chemical weapons, biological agents and Scud missiles, the Iraq survey group report said.

Mr. Hussein's compliance was not complete, though. Iraq's declarations to the United Nations covering what stocks of illicit weapons it had possessed and how it had disposed of them were old and had gaps. And Mr. Hussein would not allow his weapons scientists to leave the country, where United Nations officials could interview them outside the government's control.

Seeking to deter Iran and even enemies at home, the Iraqi dictator's goal was to cooperate with the inspectors while preserving some ambiguity about its unconventional weapons — a strategy General Hamdani, the Republican Guard commander, later dubbed in a television interview "deterrence by doubt."

That strategy led to mutual misperception. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the Security Council in February 2003, he offered evidence from photographs and intercepted communications that the Iraqis were rushing to sanitize suspected weapons sites. Mr. Hussein's efforts to remove any residue from old unconventional weapons programs were viewed by the Americans as efforts to hide the weapons. The very steps the Iraqi government was taking to reduce the prospect of war were used against it, increasing the odds of a military confrontation.

Even some Iraqi officials were impressed by Mr. Powell's presentation. Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaish, who oversaw Iraq's military industry, thought he knew all the government's secrets. But Bush administration officials were so insistent that he began to question whether Iraq might have prohibited weapons after all. "I knew a lot, but wondered why Bush believed we had these weapons," he told interrogators after the war, according to the Iraq Survey Group report.
The story sounds persuasive, but the Bush/Pentagon propaganda campaign makes me cautious.

The implications are that the world believed Iraq had WMDs because every nation's intelligence service was hearing from Iraqi military leaders -- and those generals thought Iraq had WMDs. Only Saddam, and presumably some trusted insiders knew the truth. Saddam was reluctant to fully verify this because he feared Iranian invasion, and wanted Iran to think Iraq might have WMDs. That was the wrong choice.

Update 3/12: Kaplan has more details from a subsequent Foreign Affairs article.

Catherine the Great: A BBC audio podcast

It's taken me a while, but I've become addicted to podcasts.

I've exported my current podcast list and put it on my sharing page. I've only tested this once, but I believe you can save the podcast locally and then import it into iTunes. I don't know if it will replace the podcast you have or add to it, so I suggest exporting your list first. Caveat emptor.

What did me in? Well, the specialty casts on digital photography and security, and NerdTV (Cringely) are good, but what really got me was the BBC's Channel Four. In particular, their weekly show 'In our Time'.

Catherine the Great. Negative Numbers. Friendship, Human Evolution. The Oath. Where the heck do they come up with these shows? Do they pull them out of a hat?

The guests are always marvelous. They host invites two to three English Dons and lets them go at the topic, with a bit of guidance. It's a bit different from American talk radio. Instead of lunging at each other's throats they very politely contradict one another, but pretend nothing of the sort happened. They're not always smooth or even terribly articulate, but they are wonderful.

I get this podcast via iTunes. If you search you can find it, it's a bit hidden I think. The BBC also has a download list but I think the archives are shallow. (3/12: A contributor also suggests checking out the BBC's Listen Again page for more of an archival view.)

Here's a few notes on Catherine I picked up:
1. They are rather cute about Catherine's love life, which is generally the first thing people remember about her. In the US this would be the entire episode.

2. Vaccination (immunization) was in fashion. She was Protestant (german) and the catholic church opposed immunization as being "against the will of god" -- ie. unnatural. Catherine had her family immunized - a rebellious act. (Is this really true? I couldn't find any verification on the net. It's fascinating.)

3. She created a marvelous home for foundlings (orphans) in Moscow. No child survived there past the age of one year. (Is this true? Maybe it was the first few years?)

4. Russia in her time reminds me of a large US corporation. Not a democracy, but neither a classic aristocracy. More of a corporate oligarchy, but severance might have a sharp edge to it.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Origami really IS bad. Why?

When I read the NYT preview on Origami, I was sure Microsoft couldn't really be preparing another botched product. I figured after their disastrous slate experience, they wouldn't want to bring another flop to the market.

Then I read the CNET announcement:
Reality check for the much-hyped Origami PC | CNET

Bill Gates' vision of an ultramobile PC seemed like a winner: a device with all-day battery life, yet small enough to fit in a pocket and much cheaper than a laptop.

But as devices begin to come out a year later, reality still trails Microsoft's ambitions. The first generation of devices, being announced Thursday and already featured on Microsoft's site, are bigger, pricier and more power hungry than the software maker had hoped.

Microsoft acknowledges that instead of a mass-market hit riding a wave of prelaunch hype, these devices are likely to appeal only to the most hard-core gadget fans.

... Over the last year, several PC makers have been readying minitablets under the Origami code name. These minitablets are capable of running Windows XP along with a "Windows Touch Pack" that allows the devices to be more easily controlled using fingertip input. Microsoft expects that "gadget geeks" will make up most of the early buyers of the devices, which weigh roughly two pounds, pack a 7-inch screen and cost around $800.
Sounds like the NYT was right. Heavy, expensive, short battery life. It makes zero sense as a product.

This is an iPod video killer?! Either Microsoft is incompetent, or they're trying to poison the marketplace to buy time for a real product. That strategy worked well in the PDA market of the 1990s, but I'm not sure it will work today. I wonder what's in it for Samsung though? Are they taking a hit now in the hope of a payoff a year from now?

A simple explanation of the significance of the current account deficit

This is how you sell a nation.
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

Economic growth produces about $1.3 trillion of new net wealth in America every year, and at a current account deficit of $1 trillion only $300 billion of that is an addition to the wealth of Americans--the $1 trillion that matches the current-account deficit is an addition to the wealth of foreigners.

William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, called the Silent

DeLong's permalink is broken, but he has a lovely quote today from a book about William of Orange. I want to learn more about this man. We can only pray a leader of half this caliber might emerge in America.
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal
The end of C.V. Wedgwood's
William the Silent:

... There have been politicians more successful, or more subtle; there have been none more tenacious or more tolerant. 'The wisest, gentlest and bravest man who ever led a nation', he is one of that small band of statesmen whose service to humanity is greater than their service to their time or their people. In spite of the differences of speech or political theory, the conventions and complexities which make one age incomprehensible to another, some men have a quality of greatness which gives their lives universal significance. Such men, in whatever walk of life, in whatever chapter of fame, mystic or saint, scientist or doctor, poet or philosopher, and even--but how rarely--soldier or statesman, exist to shame the cynic, and to renew the faith of humanity in itself.

Of this number was William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, called the Silent.

The people understand the need for a strong leader

Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post experiences an unpleasant bit of synchronicity:
Two Leaders' Power Failures

... "The powers of the presidency have been eroded and usurped to the breaking point. We are engaged in a new kind of war that cannot be fought by old methods. It can only be directed by a strong executive who alone is not subject to the conflicting pressures that legislators or judges face. The public understands and supports that unpleasant reality, whatever the media and intellectuals say."

These words came from a White House aide defending U.S. policies on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, secret renditions and warrantless eavesdropping in a conversation with me. A few days later, I heard a Russian official use nearly identical terms to defend his country's coercive merging of private energy and media companies under state control...
Ahh yes, the "media" and the "intellectuals" are the problem. The people understand the need for the strong leader.

Gee, there's something familiar about that phrasing. I'm sure I've heard it somewhere before ....

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The falling cost of havoc - some numbers

I've long claimed that what we need to worry about is not al Qaeda in particular, but rather the falling cost of havoc. The Christian Science Monitor gives us some real world numbers, in an article explaining the limits of tracking financing:
Why terror financing is so tough to track down |

This, experts say, is partly a result of the vigorous multinational effort since 9/11 to break up the Al Qaeda network and stanch the cash flows that sustained terror attacks. But it's also due to the reduced cost of mounting terror attacks, they say.

Estimates suggest that the 9/11 attacks may have cost as much as $500,000 to stage. By contrast, the Madrid bombings of 2004 are believed to have cost no more than $15,000, and last year's London attacks perhaps $2,000.Four bombs, four rucksacks, some train tickets, a little gasoline, and a few phone calls.

"Terrorist financing is very different today," says Loretta Napoleoni, author of "Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks." "Five years ago, we had large movement of funds which went through the international financial system.

"Now we are just talking about four friends who raise £1,000 to stage an attack," she adds. "The unit cost of terrorist financing has crashed to the floor. They [terrorists] don't need another 9/11. They can do a small thing and create the same hysteria."

American Gulag

In a just world, we'd all pay for this.
They Came for the Chicken Farmer - New York Times

... Because Mr. Bush does not recognize that American law or international treaties apply to his decisions as commander in chief, these prisoners were initially not given hearings. The transcripts are from proceedings that were begun under a court order. They started years after the prisoners were originally captured — a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. And they were conducted under rules that mock any notion of democratic justice.

Prisoners do not see the evidence against them and barely have access to legal counsel. Now, thanks to a horrible law sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, they have virtually no right of appeal. The law even permits the use of evidence obtained by torture.

If the stories of the chicken farmer and the men with the wrong watches are new, the broad outlines of this disaster have long been visible. It is shocking in itself, and in the fact that average citizens have not risen up to demand that these abuses come to an end. The founding fathers knew that when you dispensed with the rule of law, the inevitable outcome was injustice. Now America is becoming the thing they sought to end.

There are so many, many, reasons to take power away from the GOP. I have no faith, however, that Americans will do the right thing.

A ranting madman takes on the Tungsten E2

This gentleman clearly has a "thing" about his PDA: Gordon's Tech: The Tungsten E2: Brain transplant report.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Brazil 2.0: A mandatory movie review

Everyone needs to study the Director's Cut of Terry Gilliam's Brazil:
Capitol Hill Blue - Warning! Financial responsibility can lead to terrorism

... They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges' behavior was found questionable...

... They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."

Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

I wonder if Walter Soehnge has tried boarding an airplane since this misadventure. I would not be shocked if he experiences a rather thorough search ...

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Economist provides a primer on the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam

The Economist, surprisingly, has a rather good article this week. Ten years ago good writing was common at The Economist, but nowadays in must be applauded. They've provided a primer on the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Some interesting fragments (emphases mine):
Sunnis and Shias: Does it have to be war?:

Mar 2nd 2006 | CAIRO, From The Economist print edition

... Iraq's experience may be unique, yet it is far from being the only example of tension between Sunnis, who make up 85% of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and the multiple sects of the Shia minority...

... In fact, throughout most of Islam's 14 centuries, the Shia-Sunni divide has been peaceful. Geography, for one thing, largely separates the sects. Both the far west and east of the Muslim world are solidly Sunni. Moroccans or Indonesians hardly know what a Shia is. Egyptians or Bangladeshis have little knowledge of what Shias believe. Shias have tended to cluster in small, often isolated communities in the centre of the Muslim world—in the Levant, the Indian subcontinent, Yemen and the Gulf—and on the Arabic-, Turkish- and Urdu-speaking fringes of historic Persia.

In terms of basic rituals, such as prayer and fasting, the two are not radically different. Before the modern era, the practice of Sunni Islam in many places was imbued with folk beliefs, such as veneration of Sufi saints, that softened the contrast with Shia customs. In mixed cities such as Baghdad and Beirut, the sects often intermarried. Some Iraqi tribes include clans from both. And while at times Shias have thrived under Sunni rule, in Mughal India for example, Sunnis fared well during the reign of the Fatimids, an illustrious and tolerant Ismaili Shia dynasty that ruled Egypt, the Levant and the heart of what is now Saudi Arabia from the 10th to the 12th centuries.

... the danger of conflict has always existed, ever since the murder, 29 years after Muhammad's death in 632AD, of the Caliph Ali, who was the Prophet's son-in law and the father of his grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein. The word shia derives from the Arabic shi'at Ali or the partisans of Ali, and referred at first to the political faction that believed leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet's family. When the caliphate passed instead to a rival branch of Muhammad's tribe, other disgruntled groups, including many non-Arabs recently converted to Islam, joined the Shia cause, which drew further emotive strength following the martyrdom of Hussein at the hands of a Sunni army.

Over time this political division deepened into doctrinal splits, with each branch elaborating its own interpretations of sharia, or religious law. Sunni Muslims preserved their unity by coming to accept four rival, but equally valid legal schools of varying rigour. Shia Islam followed a different course. It continued to split into subsects over questions of whom to recognise as the imam, a leader whose blood links to the Prophet were held to render him an infallible interpreter of God's will.

Whereas the Zaydis in Yemen recognised only five succeeding imams, Ismailis recognised seven, and Jaafaris 12, before the line of the imamate passed into occlusion, meaning that the imam is hidden but will one day return. The Jaafari, or Twelver branch now predominates among Shias, while most Ismaili communities are small and scattered, although esoteric offshoots of Ismailism, such as the Druze and Syria's Alawites, remain concentrated in the mountain redoubts of the Levant, their historic refuges from persecution.

While often remote from each other in beliefs, all these Shia sects retain relatively defined clerical hierarchies. The Jaafaris, who make up around nine in ten Shias, sustain a loosely church-like clergy through the application of a tax. The faithful are expected to pay one-fifth of their personal profits every year to whichever of several rival ayatollahs they choose as a marja, or source of authority. This tax base has given the Jaafari clergy both power and independence, while the pressure of constituents' choice has pushed them towards relatively innovative interpretations of scripture.

... The Shia clergy themselves are hardly united, and seldom have been. Throughout much of the 19th century gangs backing rival ayatollahs clashed in the holy city of Najaf. Bitter debate has persisted in modern times over the crucial issue of relations with the state. Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, aroused fierce opposition from other marjas with his declaration of Velayet al Faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, which was, in effect, a ruling that only learned religious scholars were qualified for worldly power...

... there is a rising sense in both communities, and not only in Iraq, of some kind of impending historical showdown.

One obvious factor is the upsetting of old balances by the intrusion of western power, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and more widely, through the global campaign against Islamist terrorism. But this intrusion was in turn largely provoked by something else, the radicalisation of large numbers of Sunni Muslims, fired by ideas of a return to “pure” Islam and of uniting Muslims into a single nation modelled on the early caliphate.

The most famous proponent of such ideas, Osama bin Laden, has always carefully refrained from any reference to the Shias. Yet he and many fellow-travellers adhere to a school of thought, influenced by Saudi Wahhabism among other currents, which holds the rival sect to be an elemental threat to Islam as a whole.

Before their overthrow, Mr bin Laden's protectors in Afghanistan, the Taliban, mounted merciless pogroms against that country's Shia minority, the Hazara, on purely doctrinal grounds. It is the parties in Pakistan most closely aligned to al-Qaeda that have bombed Shia mosques and torched Shia villages, simply because they hold the Shia to be infidels. Mr bin Laden's lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, refers to Shias as al-Rafida, a Wahhabist slur meaning rejectionists or turncoats. They are the near enemy, as opposed to the American far enemy, he says, “and far more destructive”...

Knowledge workers and executive compensation: a surprise ahead?

This was posted on Marginal Revolution: The best paragraph and a half I read yesterday. (some typos corrected and edits applied)
About that executive compensation you mentioned as an aside. I'm hoping you'll write about an aspect of this that I've not seen discussed.

Knowledge workers are usually said to be relatively unmotivated by money. So the creative types that power innovation are "willing serfs" -- happy to churn away given interesting problems, a decent wage, an occasional bit of praise and a good work environmnet.

I think there's truth to that belief, and probably even data. But what about the innate human response to unfairness? How will the knowledge worker react when they learn that their leaders, who they may or may not respect, are earning 20 times their salary? Will they continue to be happy as "willing serfs", or will our hard-wired response to unfairness kick in? Will they then be prone to sacrifice income or work perks to join a less unfair environment?

In the short term I agree that revealing executive compensation will increase that compensation, but I think the slightly longer term results are less predictable.

Bird flu: much harder to stop than thought

When you cross industrial agriculture with world trade with migratory birds, you get some unexpected results:
Recent Spread of Bird Flu Confounds Experts - New York Times

... In Croatia, for example, Mr. Kaat said, fertilizer made of manure from infected poultry probably spread A(H5N1). The manure is commonly used to fertilize fish ponds, which are frequent stopover points for migrating birds that probably contracted the virus there, he said. The virus persists in water for weeks.
The NYT article is a lesson in why governments should fund basic research. The economic importance of research into the ecology and migration of birds has increased dramatically in the past few months. We can't go back 10 years and fund the research we need today. This is where the market breaks down, and where government needs to play a role.

Propaganda works: the belief that Saddam was behind 9/11

A polling group surveyed US troops. It was widely reported that a large majority feel the US should leave within a year. The parts that weren't widely reported are more interesting (emphases mine):
Zogby International

The troops have drawn different conclusions about fellow citizens back home. Asked why they think some Americans favor rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, 37% of troops serving there said those Americans are unpatriotic, while 20% believe people back home don’t believe a continued occupation will work. Another 16% said they believe those favoring a quick withdrawal do so because they oppose the use of the military in a pre-emptive war, while 15% said they do not believe those Americans understand the need for the U.S. troops in Iraq.

The wide-ranging poll also shows that 58% of those serving in country say the U.S. mission in Iraq is clear in their minds, while 42% said it is either somewhat or very unclear to them, that they have no understanding of it at all, or are unsure. While 85% said the U.S. mission is mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks,” 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was “to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.”

“Ninety-three percent said that removing weapons of mass destruction is not a reason for U.S. troops being there” said Pollster John Zogby, President and CEO of Zogby International. “Instead, that initial rationale went by the wayside and, in the minds of 68% of the troops, the real mission became to remove Saddam Hussein.” Just 24% said that “establishing a democracy that can be a model for the Arab World" was the main or a major reason for the war. Only small percentages see the mission there as securing oil supplies (11%) or to provide long-term bases for US troops in the region (6%).

If there's one thing that all rationalists seem to agree upon, it's that there's no evidence Saddam played any role in the 9/11 attack and there's some evidence that he was no ally of al Qaeda prior to the invasion. So why do the vast majority of the troops believe in Cheney's propaganda? I'd guess it's partly that propaganda works very well, especially in a population selected for trust in their superiors. It's also probably partly 'cognitive dissonanance', the common behavior of reconciling oneself to an irrational situation by adopting a belief that makes the situation rational. Most of us would do the same thing in their place.

It's reasuring, however, that only 1/3 consider opposition to the war to be "unpatriotic". Considering the situation our troops are in, that's a sign of their wisdom.

Why has Iran been so slow to build its nuclear bombs?

The NYT addresses an interesting question - why didn't Iran have a nuclear weapon ten years ago? The answer seems to be a mixture of a theocratic/revolutionary dislike of scientists and intelligentsia, a wavering commitment to the program, and a lot of "bad luck".

The "bad luck" is unlikely to have been entirely chance. The Atlantic recently wrote of Khan's (Pakistan) nuclear dissemination program; it was surprisingly well understood by everyone from intelligence agencies to industry journalists. Many of the key technologies came from European companies, and some of those were thought to have been "turned". It would be surprising if both Iran and North Korea had not experienced a substantial amount of sabotage.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The PDA is dead. Long live the PDA.

What would you call a device that's about 2.5" x 3.5", has a 4" diagonal screen and 2/3 the horizontal resolution of a VGA dispaly, has handwriting recognition, and runs a wide variety of software?

I'd call it a PDA. But that market is dead, really dead. Try looking for a Tungsten E2 stylus sold directly by Amazon (vs. vendor partners). Ok, try some other big vendor. You may find some Tungsten E styli (I think, mirablu dictu, that the E2 uses the E stylus), but you probably won't find any marketed for the E2. That's an ex-parrot of a market.

So what can one make of this?
Next Version of Tablet PC's Said to Be Lighter and Smaller - New York Times
March 3, 2006

Microsoft and Intel plan to announce next week that several industry partners will make small, light versions of a tablet personal computer, people close to the two companies said yesterday.

The machines, which have been the subject of considerable speculation, will be tailored more for consumer entertainment than the larger tablet machines running Microsoft's Windows that were introduced in 2002. The larger tablets, typically with 12-inch screens, sell for about $1,500 and are used mostly by doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals in office settings. A tablet PC has a touch-sensitive screen that allows input with a pen.

The new models — a category called ultramobile personal computers — will have smaller screens, seven or eight inches, and sell for $1,000 or less, depending on options.

The machines will have the handwriting recognition software of the standard Windows tablet personal computers, and include wireless technology for browsing the Internet. But the new tablets will also have multimedia capabilities for playing music, movies and games in some models.

Intel will supply the chip technology for the ultramobile PC's, and they will run a version of Windows Tablet PC software....

They will be hefty, at about two pounds, and have a limited battery life of three hours or so between charges, the Microsoft consultant said. A new generation of low-power chips, extending battery life to six hours, will come next year. Later models, he added, will come with screens of four inches or so.

... A Web site set up by Microsoft,, stirred interest with vague assertions that a coming mobile technology "will change your life." Then, bloggers found and posted a video advertisement for Microsoft Origami mobile technology.

Intel has its own Web site,, suggesting the ultramobile PC's will be able to handle movies, music, games, television and the Internet.

The rumored video iPod is supposed to deliver than 4" diagonal (about 2.5" x 3/5" square with a 16:9 aspect ratio). Sounds a lot like what Microsoft is promising for ... late 2007. It's hard to believe they could be that far behind. To me it sounds like what they're promising is a PDA that runs XP. Wow. I'm so impressed by the radical evolution from the PalmPilot. Except, of course this device will play movies.

As to what's promised this year, I am so utterly unimpressed. The big news is that the much celebrated large slates have failed miserably. A vertical physician/architect market is not going to delight Dell. It's time to declare failure and kill those suckers. Ever try to read with one at the breakfast table? I rest my case. A laptop makes far more sense. So this year, instead, we get something that's still too big for a pocket or purse and has a when-new battery life of 3 hours?! Wow, that's such a dud.

If this story is true Apple is about to make a zillion dollars with a one year headstart on the 4" diagonal platform. I suspect, though, that Microsoft and their partners can't possibly be in such an utterly dismal situation.