Sunday, April 30, 2006

So how did the ultrarich manage to conceal their role in repealing the estate tax?

It's not surprising that the ultrarich should wish to repeal the estate tax. It's impressive how well they were able to conceal their role.
Maybe the Heirs Aren't Apparent - New York Times

THE watchdog group Public Citizen ( and the advocacy group United for a Fair Economy ( issued a report this week saying that 18 superwealthy families are largely responsible for financing the lobbying campaign aimed at repealing the estate tax; the Senate is scheduled to take up repeal next month.

The families, worth $185.5 billion, have financed and coordinated the campaign and have, until now, managed to hide their participation behind the trade associations and business groups they have formed to represent their interests, Public Citizen reported. The families include those behind some of the nation's biggest and best-known companies, like Wal-Mart, E.& J. Gallo Winery, Nordstrom and Koch Industries.
I wonder how many GOP races they funded in the last election? They don't have to bribe anyone directly, they just have to make sure their friends get into the House, Senate and White House.

The interesting question is how they managed to conceal their role so effectively. What else is this group up to that we don't know about? Are there any journalists left outside Salon and the Wall Street Journal? (Hello, NYT, anyone home?) The place to start is to think what else this group would care about, then look for odd infusions of cash, then trace the cash back. For them a $10 million "gift" is chump change. That's enough to buy a bunch of US Senators.

The hidden inflation of low quality

We have two DVD/VCR combo devices at home. One has a broken VCR, the other a broken DVD. They each cost about $120 and lasted about 18 months.

We once bought a VCR for about $250 that lasted five years. We had a CD player that lasted 12 years, in today's dollars it probably cost $550 or so.

So prices have fallen by at least half, but lifespans have fallen by about 3/4. The cost of ownership has risen significantly.

I wonder if that shows up in our inflation statistics, or do they just measure the cost of purchase?

Update 6/30/2013: Economists do write about this. I found this reference in notes from in the context of price controls.
D.      Countries that exercise price controls experience:
1.      Open, reported inflation - Occurs because not all prices are controlled or because planners increase prices.
2.      Hidden inflation - Monetary price increases, but not measured.
a.      Hidden transactions - black market or "under the table"
b.      Hidden quality deterioration, false quality improvement, or forced substitution of high-quality for low-quality products
3.      Repressed inflation - Occurs when price controls are effective, and inflationary pressure causes shortages or queues.
I thought of this again when Emily tried to buy our children a 'slip and slide' water toy. It cost $5, it leaked, and Target won't accept returns (obviously, if they accepted returns they could not sell these toys).

Searching Amazon, all of these devices had 2-3 star ratings due to leaks; there was nothing available at any price that was reliable. In Akerlof's words "Only lemons are on offer". On the other hand, we could buy 4 of the $5 toys and probably one would work. If our time cost nothing, and waste disposal were free, that would be the equivalent of a $20 toy (right price).

We don't have price controls, but we do have severe worldwide deflationary pressures -- probably related to global wealth concentration. They may be having the same effect as price controls, at least when it comes to quality.

See also:

An unwanted gift from Windows Update

I have my XP update configured to auto-download, but not to auto-install. I have to authorize the updates. I do this mostly so I can choose when to reboot, I've always authorized them.

Until today. That's when the update included this gem:
Windows Genuine Advantage
Size: 0.8 MB

The Windows Genuine Advantage Notification tool notifies you if your copy of Windows is not genuine. If your system is found to be a non-genuine, the tool will help you obtain a licensed copy of Windows.
Hmph. That's a nice gift. I hear WGA either does Office checking now or will soon.

Ethically I make an exception for Microsoft when it comes to stealing software. An illegal monopoly, paying the Bushies in return for a wrist slap, using the monopoly to perpetuate things like Microsoft Word -- heck, steal away you rogues you.

Practically, however, I'm not personally going to take the risk of running unlicensed Microsoft products. I use as little of their stuff as possible, but my licenses are clean. All the same, I'm going to wait and see when Microsoft will require WGA to get security updates. I figure that date is about two months away. I'll install then.

I'm so looking forward to replacing my XP box with an OS X environment that will virtualize Windows. I'll use my old Office and my old XP until their bits rot away ...

Friday, April 28, 2006

We really need to encourage Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter uses sexual innunendo to taunt adolescent males to attack protesters. I love it. She's so stupid, and so wrong, that she's walking performance art. With just a bit of a push she might go right over the edge.

It's the duty of every rationalist and humanist to encourage Ann to go just a bit further ... I don't think she'll hurt herself (or I wouldn't be advising this), but she's going to start doing some serious harm to her causes ...

Hookers, spies and the GOP

If the GOP hadn't sold their soul for power I'd almost feel sorry for the party. Duke Cunningham, a GOP stalwart convicted of accepting bribes, is a fallen hero -- but now his fall is looking ever more impressive...
Obsidian Wings: Girls!! Girls!! Girls!!

...according to people with knowledge of the investigation, Mr. Wade told investigators that Mr. Cunningham periodically phoned him to request a prostitute, and that Mr. Wade then helped to arrange for one. A limousine driver then picked up the prostitute as well as Mr. Cunningham...

...I've learned from a well-connected source that those under intense scrutiny by the FBI are current and former lawmakers on Defense and Intelligence comittees—including one person who now holds a powerful intelligence post. I've also been able to learn the name of the limousine service that was used to ferry the guests and other attendees to the parties: Shirlington Limousine and Transportation of Arlington, Virginia. Wilkes, I've learned, even hired Shirlington as his personal limousine service.

It gets even more interesting: the man who has been identified as the CEO of Shirlington has a 62-page rap sheet (I recently obtained a copy) that runs from at least 1979 through 1989 and lists charges of petit larceny, robbery, receiving stolen goods, assault, and more. Curiously—or perhaps not so curiously given the company's connections—Shirlington Limousine is also a Department of Homeland Security contractor; according to the Washington Post, last fall it won a $21.2 million contract for shuttle services and transportation support...

As to the festivities themselves, I hear that party nights began early with poker games and degenerated into what the source described as a "frat party" scene—real bacchanals. Apparently photographs were taken, and investigators are anxiously procuring copies.
The rumor is that this "senior official" has been suspected in Washington circles of leading a bit of a double life. If you want to know the name you'll have to visit the site. My morals allow me to point, but not to repeat.

If there are photos, this will be both terrible and irresistible.

Robert Reich has a blog

I was reading a NYT article on how Reich exposed a corporation trying to bribe him, when I was surprised by a reference to Robert Reich's Blog. I've long admired Reich, a curmudgeonly and proudly liberal intellectual best known for his stint as Clinton's labor secretary. His book 'Reason' was a terrific antidote to Coulter's diatribe. I was surprised, then, to learn I'd missed his blog!

Turns out he started it this month, I'm the 3rd bloglines subscriber. Let the deluge begin!

Update 4/28/06: Looks like the corruption story was his third post. The company was GM.

BTW, it's cute to see how he starts his blog:
Okay, so I'm blogging and blathering. I never thought it would come to this. But there's no other way to tell the whole truth. I don't know if anyone will read this blog, but it's worth a try. Until tomorrow ...

posted by Robert Reich | 5:35 PM | 9 comments
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
A test from your son


I know you may feel tentative about me setting this up for you, but I couldn't resist. Blogs are a great way to reach an audience immediately. I'm going to send you posting instructions to your email. You can post personal thoughts, political theory, pictures one day, a quote another, anything. There is an audience for this stuff, but you have to start posting to get it.

Much love.
Reich clearly had no idea how big his audience will be. I suspect he's learning ...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Longer life through younger mothers

The children of young mohters may live longer, on average, than the children of older mothers:
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : Longer life with younger mothers:

...They also discovered that being the first-born in a family meant a lot, boosting the odds of making it to 100 by nearly 80 percent...

... statistical analysis revealed that young maternal age at birth completely accounted for the first-born effect.
Paternal age had no affet in this study.

Everyone's first guess is that it's the age of the mitochondria that matter, in humans virtually all mitochondria are maternal. One wonders how many "first born" effects are really effects of maternal age.

Building virtual worlds in Google Earth: SketchUp

Great Cyber Shades of Snow Crash. Google is providing tools to build virtual worlds -- atop Google Earth.
Official Google Blog: A great day for 3D

... The new Google SketchUp is for the do-it-yourselfer, the hobbyist — really anyone who wants to build 3D models for use in Google Earth. Go ahead and model that new kitchen, or deck, landscape your virtual garden, or impress your teacher with a roller coaster or medieval castle. When you’re finished, place your model in Google Earth. There! The beginning of a virtual world. Warning: don’t start messing with this stuff after dinner because your first experience could be an all-nighter… making an idea come to life in 3D can be very addicting.

And what could be better than that? Well, sharing your work with everyone else through the 3D Warehouse. Accessible through both versions of SketchUp, 3D Warehouse enables you to upload, search, browse, view, and download SketchUp models. Just as you do with Google search, enter some keywords and the 3D Warehouse shows you all your options. Grab the one you want and import it into your model. (Note that the Warehouse is not stocked up yet — so model something yourself and upload it for all the world to see.)
Windows client, Mac promised (we'll see ...).

Google Calendar is hot!

Google Calendar is hot. I've posted in my tech blog that it's giving me geek goosebumps. A recent discovery, however, pushed it over the edge into this blog.

The XML URL for Google Calendar is a Feed. I now have a private bloglines entry that simply shows updates or changes to calendar events. Now, when my wife updates an event in the family calendar, my bloglines web-client RSS reader will display the updated event. This works even for a non-shared private calendar.

To find the feed url, click on 'manage calendars', a subtle link on screen left (anatomic right). Then click the calendar name you want to manage. (I have two calendars: Personal and Family. I can view them separately or as an integrated calendar. My wife can edit the Family calendar and view my personal calendar.)

You'll see Calendar Details. Click the XML button for the private address. A URL pops up with the helpful note that "you can copy and paste this into any feed reader". It works as advertised. Now bloglines shows the entries I haven't seen yet, and it only shows changes. If I'm logged in and I click on the header for an 'article' I get the details of the event for editing.

Then there's the tight integration with Gmail, the parsing of mail to create events, the natural language processing, etc. I've even momentarily stopped hating Google for letting Blogger fester ...

PS. Privacy? Surely you jest. Privacy is sooo 20th century.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Worse than Buchanan?

I don't know how I missed this one. Better late than never. Historians, admittedly an intellectual, thoghtful and liberal group, struggle to place Bush in the ranking of worst presidents:
Rolling Stone : The Worst President in History?

... Colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all. For years, these perennial debates have largely focused on the same handful of chief executives whom national polls of historians, from across the ideological and political spectrum, routinely cite as the bottom of the presidential barrel. Was the lousiest James Buchanan, who, confronted with Southern secession in 1860, dithered to a degree that, as his most recent biographer has said, probably amounted to disloyalty -- and who handed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, a nation already torn asunder? Was it Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who actively sided with former Confederates and undermined Reconstruction? What about the amiably incompetent Warren G. Harding, whose administration was fabulously corrupt? Or, though he has his defenders, Herbert Hoover, who tried some reforms but remained imprisoned in his own outmoded individualist ethic and collapsed under the weight of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression's onset? The younger historians always put in a word for Richard M. Nixon, the only American president forced to resign from office.

Now, though, George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever. In early 2004, an informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network found that eighty-one percent considered the Bush administration a "failure." Among those who called Bush a success, many gave the president high marks only for his ability to mobilize public support and get Congress to go along with what one historian called the administration's "pursuit of disastrous policies." In fact, roughly one in ten of those who called Bush a success was being facetious, rating him only as the best president since Bill Clinton -- a category in which Bush is the only contestant.
Well, an informal survey really doesn't mean too much, but I'm betting Bush will be among the 'worst of the worst' 20 years from now. Other than as an excuse for venting, the article is an excellent summary of the many ways that Bush has failed, irregardless of one's opinion of his underlying ideology.

It's not simply that his economic policies reward his campaign contributors and his old friends at the expense of his voters (forget the dems, just consider Bush supporters), it's that these actions contradict his rhetoric and impair his effectiveness. So he's even bad at being bad.

It's handy reference to have at hand when someone asks "what's so bad about Bush?".

Iraq: nobody knows where it will go

Phil Carter is a marine and a lawyer. His military law and politics blog was a few years old when he chose to rejoin the marines and deploy in Iraq. He's there now.

He reviews The Assassin's Gate, a book that's highly critical of the conduct of Rumsfeld, Cheney and (thus) Bush but is supportive of the US military's work on the ground. The review, and Phil's guarded commentary (he's on active service) are well worth reading.

I spent some time in Israel 20 years ago. That's where I learned that the reality on the ground is vastly more complex than what media can tell us, or even what intelligence analysts can capture. Carter says the same thing about Iraq. It's a complex place. There's a lot happening. You can justify whatever story you want to tell. Nobody knows how it will turn out, or what the cost will be.

Personally (I think Carter might agree), I think the odds would improve if Rumsfeld were gone, if Cheney were to shuffle off to a secret hide-out, and if Bush were to turn over the strategic direction to the braintrust Howard Baker is now leading. That might even happen ...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Black holes: the heart and lungs of a galaxy

It turns out that the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies like our's pump out a great deal of energy. This has some interesting effects on the evolution of a galaxy:
Black holes generate green energy - -

... The energy that each black hole emits as jets warms the surrounding environment. This prevents gas from cooling and coalescing into billions of new stars, and places an upper limit on how large a galaxy can grow.'In an environmental sense, the black holes are actually preventing galactic sprawl from taking over the neighborhood,' Weaver said."
Gas rushes into the black hole, pulses of energy rush out. To a physician it sounds like the heart and the lungs of a galaxy. Without these massive black holes it sounds like galaxies would be crowded with stars, and presumably much less hospitable to life ...

A guide to covert communications

Advice for paranoid reporters was written (somewhat sardonically) to help reporters deal with the age of Bush, but it's a handy catalog of techniques to use when one wishes to retain a measure of confidentiality and privacy.

Frothing mad: Colonel Wilkerson

One of the way Rove, Cheney and Bush destroy their enemies is to "feminize them". They does this to women and men alike, but of course it works better on males. Rove uses words historically associated with feminine ineffectiveness, words like "shrill" or "hysterical" or "histrionic". He and his minions ascribed these traits to many democrats in the last election, including Paul Krugman of the New York Times.

When someone uses this kind of effective grade school tactic, one response is to invert the pejorative. "Shrill? Hell, yes I'm shrill. You should be too." Shrillblog headlines those of us who are justly shrill.

Even with its new respectability, however, the word "shrill" seems a bit understated for Colonel Wilkerson's incendiary rage:
Colonel Wilkerson Is Really Shrill!

From the Kyoto accords to the International Criminal Court, from torture and cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners to rendition of innocent civilians, from illegal domestic surveillance to lies about leaking, from energy ineptitude to denial of global warming, from cherry-picking intelligence to appointing a martinet and a tyrant to run the Defense Department, the Bush administration, in the name of fighting terrorism, has put America on the radical path to ruin.

Big science: Regulating the master regulator genes

When I was a child of 19 or so, I helped write Fortran code to simulate the braking system of an ancient freight train. These pneumatic systems were not entirely designed, they evolved over time. A large amount of lost expertise was used to create a kludged system that would reliably activate at roughly the same time over a long train despite large signal latencies. Analysis showed that some of the pneumatic subsystems merely counteracted others, but the emergent behavior was reliable.

I don't recall, at the time, realizing that I was working on a metaphor that was widely applicable to biology, economics, software, and all other complex evolved systems. I think of those lessons again as I read about the very reliable and fantastically arcane bio-nano-machinery that controls the master regulator genes:
Studies Find Elusive Key to Cell Fate in Embryo - New York Times

A question of interest for biologists studying cell identity is what regulates the master regulator genes. The answer has long been assumed to lie in the chromatin, which determines which genes are accessible to the cell and which are excluded. The chromatin consists essentially of millions of miniature protein spools around each of which the DNA strand is looped some one and half times.

The spools, however, are not mere packaging. They can lock up the DNA they are carrying so that it is inaccessible.

Or they can unwind a little, so that the strand becomes accessible to the transcription factors seeking to copy a gene on the DNA and generate the protein it specifies.

... there are protein complexes — essentially sophisticated cellular machines — that travel along the chromosome and mark the spools with chemical tags placed at various sites on the spool.

A complex known as polycomb ... tags spools at a site called K27.

This is a signal for another set of proteins to make the spools wrap DNA tight and keep it inaccessible.

Another complex tags spools at their K4 site, which has the opposite effect of making them loosen their hold on the DNA.

The chromosomes of the body's mature cells are known to have long stretches of K27-tagged spools, where genes are off limits, and other regions where the spools are tagged on K4, allowing the cell to activate the local genes.

... In the current issue of Cell, a team led by Bradley E. Bernstein and Eric S. Lander reports that they looked at the chromatin covering the regions where the master regulator genes are sited.

They found to their surprise that these stretches of chromatin carried both kinds of tags, as if the underlying genes were being simultaneously silenced and readied for action.

... Each cell must avoid being committed to any particular fate for the time being, so all its master regulator genes must be repressed by tight winding of the spools that hold their DNA. But the cell must be ready at any moment to activate one specific master regulator as soon as its fate is determined.

The Broad team then looked at the chromatin state of the master regulator genes in several kinds of mature cell.

... they found that the bivalent domains had resolved into carrying just one type of mark, mostly the K27 tag, indicating the master genes there were permanently repressed.

But in each kind of mature cell one or more of the domains had switched over to carrying just the K4 tags, within which genes would be active.

... Dr. Bernstein's team worked with mouse cells, but its findings have been confirmed in human embryonic stem cells by Tong Ihn Lee and Richard A. Young of the Whitehead Institute...

The new findings raise the question of how the embryonic cell knows where on its chromosomes the bivalent domains should be established. Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Lander believe that the answer lies in the structure of the DNA itself.

The bivalent domains occur at regions on the chromosome where some of the DNA sequence is highly conserved ...

... These particular sequences, however, do not contain genes, so must be conserved for some other reason.

The highly conserved non-gene sequences were first detected in the dog genome, which was decoded last year. It was in trying to figure out what these regions did that the Broad team stumbled across the bivalent domains.

Although only half of the highly conserved regions contain master regulator genes, something in their DNA structure may be the signal that tells the cell where to create the bivalent domains.

... Dr. Young's team has studied another aspect of embryonic stem cells which ties into the new finding about bivalent domains. Three genes, known as oct4, sox2 and nanog, are known to be particularly active in the cells and are regarded as a hallmark of the embryonic state.

Dr. Young showed last year that the genes make transcription factors that act on each other's control sites in ways that in effect form a circuitry for controlling the master regulator genes.

He has now found that these transcription factors bind at many of the bivalent domains created by the polycomb complex.

... a working definition of cell status may be almost at hand, in Dr. Lander's view, in terms of a cell's chromatin state and the transcription factors that can bind to its available genes.

So, how many of these researchers will end up making the trip to Stockholm? There are a lot of moving parts that are coming together here. The Nobel committee will have its hands full sorting things out. I do think it's cool that one of the fundamental breakthroughs appears to have been an unanticipated side-effect of decoding the dog genome.

Fame aside, note the shape of things. The "master signal" that says "control me here" is the shape of the DNA. In other words, this control signal is topological. Signaling by shape is fundamental to DNA and protein alike, in the world of the cell topology is about creating a distinctive signature of electromagnetic fields (and perhaps quantum signals too). On the other hand, there is a binary system of "wrap" and "expose" that controls what DNA is read. On the third hand there's set of 3 genes for transcription factors that regulate each other's activity -- a configuration that will be familiar to anyone who's studied simple transistors.

If one abstracts the control systems as shape and charge, simple circuits and binary actions, it becomes possible to see how such an emergently complex nano-world could evolve a little bit of a time. I am still waiting, however, for the announcement that biologists have uncovered the DNA equivalent of the LZW-compression algorithm. [Note to software designers -- if you're looking for new compression algorithms, look how DNA solves this puzzle.]

This is huge news. The biggest thing I've read for a while.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Missed comments: Gmail eating them!

GMail has been eating (filtering as spam) Blogger's comment notifications. So if you're commented and the comments didn't get approved for posting, the blame goes to GMail's atrocious spam filtering. It appears to be untrainable -- I've several times marked these as 'non-spam'.

I think I've found all the comments and approved them.

Revolt against Rumsfeld: It's the torture.

This week's Economist features a Lexington column baying for Rumsfeld's head on a pike. I think this is the "new" Lexington, since the prior Lexington was a GOP poodle this is a bit of a change. There's no denying attacks on Rumsfeld are also attacks on Cheney and Bush.

Salon has more to say. They claim the root of the general's revolt is not so much in Rumsfeld's strategic failures and tactical blunders, but rather in his execution of Cheney's torture program:
More top brass blast Rumsfeld | News

..."I sense a great deal of distress among senior military officers over what's happened with prisoner treatment," Irvine said. "I believe the abuse is playing a significant part in how these generals are feeling and why they're speaking out. There's an understanding that whatever we're doing at Guantánamo and elsewhere constitutes license for others to do to us when our soldiers are taken prisoner in the future. There's the realization that we've pretty much trashed the high ground along with the Geneva Conventions."

On April 14, Salon revealed that Rumsfeld was personally involved in directing the harsh interrogation of a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, according to a sworn statement by an Army lieutenant general who investigated prisoner abuse at the U.S. base in Cuba...
The thesis is that emotional fire beneath the rebellion is a hatred for the dishonor Rumsfeld has brought upon America and the American military.

Honor. I figured Americans had forgotten what it meant.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Space Race. Brain Race.

I have to give FuturePundit credit here. I've long assumed that economic competition within the US will overwhelm any resistance to messing with IQ genes, but FP points out that competition will likely be nationalistic as well.

Obvious in retrospect; I'm sure it's shown up in a science fiction story somewhere. China is the obvious suspect to start things off, but the US is about as good a candidate. One or the other will make altering IQ genes a national agenda, and the race will take off.

Practically speaking nationalist competition only speeds things up a bit compared to internal economic competition. Either way the outcome will be a lot of people with very high IQ, and a lot of people suffering from the expected and unexpected consequences of this kind of gene manipulation.

It will be an interesting problem, but it's manageable. The much bigger problem will be artificial minds, I suspect the merely linear enhancements of gene-engineering will be a historical footnote; assuming there's a history.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

If it's not mini-B, it's no good

My Canon Digital Rebel XT and my Canon s410 both use mini-B USB connectors. The Motorola RAZR and the Blackberry use mini-B connectors. On the other hand, the Palm Treos use yet another of Palm's proprietary cables.

As a general rule (the iPod being the noteable exception), one could do worse than base all buying decisions on the use of the mini-B USB connector for data transactions.

The evolutionary biology of reading - and of sign language

Forget all this creationist blather about how hard it is to make a retina. The much more interesting challenge to evolution is that humans can read. Of course, as we'll see below, it's probably not going to be that much of a challenge ...

The evolutionary history of reading has interested since my undergraduate neuropsychobiology class in 1981. Translating visual input into perceived sound, or even directly into the mysterious connections that are the basis of thought and what-we-call-consciousness -- it's tough to imagine where that came from. It seems like a kludge of the first order, something that ties together very disaparate systems. Hardly surprising then that a significant portion of humanity are unable to read well, even with above average IQs.

My best guess was that it had something to do with sign language, and that maybe we "signed" before we could speak well, so signing language and spoken language evolved together. It was natural then to "read", reusing visual parsing and mapping subsystems that evolved contemporaneously with spoken language. [There's nothing original here btw. All those people who trained chimps to do sign language in the 1970s must have been thinking along the same lines.]

So given my interest, it's neat to read that new progress has been made in sorting out how we read (at least how we read phonetic languages!). Emphases mine:
Science & Technology at Scientific Controversial Theory Linking Reading Ability to Specific Brain Region Gets a Boost
April 20, 2006
Controversial Theory Linking Reading Ability to Specific Brain Region Gets a Boost

More than a century ago, a French neurologist suggested that a specific region of the brain processes the visual images of words. Without it, he postulated, people cannot read except by laboriously recognizing letter after letter, rather than whole words. Yet humans have only been able to read for several thousand years--perhaps not enough time for such a trait to evolve, some scientists have argued. New research, however, supports the idea that reading does rely on a localized set of neurons.

Previous imaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) showed that a small region buried deep in the left rear of the brain lit up with activity when subjects read, or recognized words, as opposed to perceiving other objects, such as faces or tools. Victims of stroke with damage in this region often reported reading difficulty. But because stroke damage in these patients was never confined to this region alone and imaging studies can only demonstrate correlation, not causation, controversy persisted.

Neurologist Laurent Cohen of the Hopital de la Salpetriere and his colleagues received a rare opportunity to explore this hole in scientific understanding when a 46-year-old epileptic came to them for treatment. His chronic seizures indicated that a small portion of his brain--roughly contiguous with the so-called visual word-form area--should be removed.

Prior to removing the damaged section, the scientists performed a series of tests on the man, including a wide array of reading challenges and the temporary placement of electrodes in his brain. He proved normal in all regards, including his ability to quickly recognize words no matter how many letters they contained.

But two weeks after the operation, though cured of his epilepsy, the patient complained of difficulty reading and tests showed that his ability to comprehend longer words had slowed by half. Even six months later, he needed roughly an additional 100 milliseconds for each additional letter to recognize a word.

The finding seems to support the contention that this region of the brain is critical to reading, but it does not answer questions as to how it developed. "One possibility is that the [visual word-form area] performs a visual processing function that predisposed it to being co-opted for reading," Alex Martin of the National Institute of Mental Health writes in a commentary accompanying the paper in today's Neuron. Nevertheless, the French team has provided more evidence that this region is critical to your ability to read this article.
This sure sounds like it supports the sign language theory. There's no way this evolved in the past 1000 years; Native Americans can learn to read and they only started about two hundred years ago. It had to be a subsystem that evolved long ago for a different purpose.

The theory that sign language and spoken language co-evolved is stronger than ever ...

More than a century ago, a French neurologist suggested that a specific region of the brain processes the visual images of words. Without it, he postulated, people cannot read except by laboriously recognizing letter after letter, rather than whole words. Yet humans have only been able to read for several thousand years--perhaps not enough time for such a trait to evolve, some scientists have argued. New research, however, supports the idea that reading doe"

Friday, April 21, 2006

Iranian bomb: Krauthamer and the cost of havoc problem.

The March 31st issue of Time Magazine included an essay by Charles Krauthamer. The essay is now behind a paywall, but a blog search found this excerpt (from a neoconservative-type web site). Emphases mine.
Clear and Present:

Today Tehran, Tomorrow the World

... We're now at the dawn of an era in which an extreme and fanatical religious ideology, undeterred by the usual calculations of prudence and self-preservation, is wielding state power and will soon be wielding nuclear power.

We have difficulty understanding the mentality of Iran's newest rulers. Then again, we don't understand the mentality of the men who flew into the World Trade Center or the mobs in Damascus and Tehran who chant 'Death to America'—and Denmark(!)—and embrace the glory and romance of martyrdom.

This atavistic love of blood and death and, indeed, self-immolation in the name of God may not be new—medieval Europe had an abundance of millennial Christian sects—but until now it has never had the means to carry out its apocalyptic ends.

That is why Iran's arriving at the threshold of nuclear weaponry is such a signal historical moment. It is not just that its President says crazy things about the Holocaust. It is that he is a fervent believer in the imminent reappearance of the 12th Imam, Shi'ism's version of the Messiah. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been reported as saying in official meetings that the end of history is only two or three years away. He reportedly told an associate that on the podium of the General Assembly last September, he felt a halo around him and for 'those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink ... as if a hand was holding them there and it opened their eyes to receive' his message. He believes that the Islamic revolution's raison d'etre is to prepare the way for the messianic redemption, which in his eschatology is preceded by worldwide upheaval and chaos. How better to light the fuse for eternal bliss than with a nuclear flame?
Krauthamer starts the article by quoting Richard Feynman. The rumbling you hear is my old professor (ok, so I went to two of his Physics-X lectures ...) approaching a relativistic spin rate. Insults to the honored dead aside, let me deconstruct the essay as such:
  • Fanaticism is not new, but the falling cost of havoc means it has a new significance for the survival of humanity.
  • Iran's leader is a religious zealot who wants to bring on the end-time (elsewhere in the same issue it's noted that he now has strong support among the young for a nuclear program, albeit perhaps not for the end-time).
  • Iran must be stopped, with a strong implication that military action will be required.
For the sake of discussion let's assume that President Ahmadinejad is indeed an apocalyptic madman. True, Saddam was accused of this as well and was found to actually quite calculating and not inclined to suicide. (Alas for us all, Saddam was no better at such calculations than were Rumsfeld/Bush/Cheney). True, Bush has been accused of this and he's probably not suicidal. No matter, let's assume it's really true of Ahmadinejad.

What can and should we do in this case? I'd say, not damned much. Bush has dug a deep hole for us. Thanks to Bush Iran is stronger than ever, and US actions in Iraq have enormously strengthened Ahmadinejad's political base. Thanks to Bush the US has no credibility to push for sanctions, and no international support for any serious action. Probably the best we can do is horse trade to get China to take the lead on this, doing whatever they can do to slow things down. (Putin seems as blind and incompetent as Bush.)

Could we nuke Iran and solve the problem? Maybe their bomb would be delayed a few years, but probably not much more than that. In the meantime there'd be enormous sympathy for Iran, and in many circles there'd be support for an anonymous counter-strike against the US. Incidentally, this idea of nuking Iran is morally repugnant.

So, what can we do? We delay, retreat, appease and hope for a miracle. Voting the GOP out of the house this year, and the presidency in 2008, might help a bit.

Anyone who voted to reelect Bush is at least partly responsible for this mess. Competence matters, rationalism matters, thinking matters.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Minnesota GOP Platform: Protect creationism

Gotta love the MN GOP. PZ Myers picked this out of their platform:
Pharyngula: Good ol' MnGOP

Protecting educators from disciplinary action for including discussion of creation science, adopting science standards that acknowledge the scientific controversies pertaining to the theory of evolution.
Discussing birth control too? I didn't think so. Only creationism gets special protection. What a bunch.

Civil liberties protection officer?

Normally it's obvious that anything the Bush administration does is bad. This is unusual in that it's not obviously in which way it's bad: - New U.S. Post Aims to Guard Public's Privacy:

Alex Joel ... named as the first civil-liberties protection officer for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence...

... 'There is no silver-bullet answer,' he says of balancing privacy and national security. 'There are actually a lot of silver BBs and if you put enough of those together in a coherent way, wrap it with good policy, procedures and training, then you can have the same impact as a silver bullet.'
Experience mandates we assume this is somehow covertly bad, even if we can't figure out how it's bad. It does remind me of the several good cybersecurity appointees -- all of whom quite within months of taking office.

Still, by the standards of our government, this is good in a not-so-obviously-bad way.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Outsourcing the grunt work of a web article

I wonder how many workers today privately outsource tedious tasks like this:
Philip Greenspun's Weblog

... I estimated that it would take me 10 hours to assemble these data by clicking around at Amazon. It is a bit more involved than you'd think because for many of these items, Amazon requires you to 'add item to cart to see price'. Anyway, I put the project up on and a guy from Pakistan did the job in two days for $10. He made only a couple of mistakes."
This is where huge productivity boosts can arise. Good to see a real-world example of what's long been theoretical.

A corporation I know of recently implemented a Dilbertian "educational" program on corporate security. Important topic, horrendous delivery and evaluation mechanism. Next time they do something like that employees may be tempted to outsource the process of doing the training and taking the exam ...

Neuregulin: Monster gene of madness

Neuregulin is a massive and complex gene that produces six proteins in the brain. Protein four is found to be over-expressed in some schizophrenic patients, possibly due to a point mutation in a regulatory gene.
Schizophrenia as Misstep by Giant Gene - New York Times

... Neuregulin is one of about 10 genes so far linked to schizophrenia ... It is one of the largest genes in the human genome, sprawling over some 1,125,000 units of DNA, and it generates at least six types of protein ...

... the variant stretch of DNA ... linked to schizophrenia does not lie in the neuregulin gene itself but just upstream of it, meaning that it presumably affects not the actual proteins produced by the gene but the way the gene is controlled.

... the first component of the transcript that makes the Type 4 proteins lies at the very beginning of the neuregulin gene and closest to the upstream genetic segment that is statistically linked to schizophrenia.

The researchers found that people who inherited two versions of the variant segment, one from each parent, were producing 50 percent more of neuregulin's Type 4 protein than those who inherited one or no copies.

... The role of neuregulin's Type 4 proteins is unknown, but they may be involved in making neurons migrate, a property of great importance when the brain is being constructed.

Dr. Law said that the variant segment linked to schizophrenia had a single DNA unit change at the center of one of the binding sites recognized by the transcription factors that control the gene. Loss of the binding site presumably upsets the regulation of the gene, causing too much of the Type 4 protein to be generated, she said.

Having slightly more than usual of a single protein may seem a very subtle derangement for so devastating a disease, but subtlety is to be expected, Dr. Weinberger said. "We know that all mental illnesses are about very subtle aspects of the wiring biases. They are about how you process complicated environmental stimuli, not about how you walk down the street.

It's extremely difficult to make a functioning brain. Autism, schizophrenia, mental retardation, all are felt to be related to possibly minor defects in brain development. Given how hard it is to make the brain work "out of the box", I'd bet there are a vast array of corrective processes that take place until the brain matures -- at age 25 or so in men, earlier in women. Some of the disorders we see may represent partial failures, and partial successes, of repair processes. (ie. sacrificing the mirror neuron network to support the primary neuron network ...)

Windows Vista: a disaster

Microsoft in the past few years has become the gang that can't shoot straight. For a time I thought they were faking it. Surely this ruthless bunch of cut-throat morals-be-damned competitors couldn't have become ineffective. I remember back when they ran the rags, playing PC Magazine and its ilk like violins. They were pirates then, and unfortunately successful.

Lately it's seemed that they were moving away from being pirates, and also from being effective. (Thank heaven, given the fruits of their success.) Thurott, a former Microsoft-groupie who's become a real journalist over the past few years believes things are very bad indeed.
Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows: Windows Vista February 2006 CTP (Build 5308/5342) Review, Part 5: Where Vista Fails

... For Windows, specifically, the situation is dire. As I've noted in the past, the Windows Division retains, as employees of the software giant have told me, the last vestiges of the bad, old Microsoft. This is the Microsoft that ran roughshod over competitors in order to gain market share at any cost. The Microsoft that forgot about customers in its blind zeal to harm competitors....

... So what went wrong? What didn't go wrong? When Bill Gates revealed in mid-2003 that he was returning to his roots, so to speak, and spending half of his time on what was then still called Longhorn, we should have seen the warning signs. Sadly, Gates, too, is part of the Bad Microsoft, a vestige of the past who should have had the class to either formally step down from the company or at least play just an honorary role, not step up his involvement and get his hands dirty with the next Windows version. If blame is to be assessed, we must start with Gates. He has guided--or, through lack of leadership--failed to guide the development of Microsoft's most prized asset. He has driven it into the ground.

Promises were made. Excitement was generated. None of it, as it turns out, was worth a damn. From a technical standpoint, the version of Windows Vista we will receive is a sad shell of its former self, a shadow. One might still call it a major Windows release. I will, for various reasons. The kernel was rewritten. The graphics subsystem is substantially improved, if a little obviously modeled after that in Mac OS X. Heck, half of the features of Windows Vista seem to have been lifted from Apple's marketing materials.

Shame on you, Microsoft. Shame on you, but not just for not doing better. We expect you to copy Apple, just as Apple (and Linux) in its turn copies you. But we do not and should not expect to be promised the world, only to be given a warmed over copy of Mac OS X Tiger in return. Windows Vista is a disappointment. There is no way to sugarcoat that very real truth.
No great loss. When I replace my last PC with a Mac, I'll run either XP or Win2K in the virtualizer for the few apps I need, including Microsoft Access, Visio and my old version of Quicken. Every week or so I'll boot Windows, otherwise I'll do very well without. Vista is irrelevant and unwanted.

Fresh organs from China: kill to order

We've known for years that China harvested organs from condemned prisoners. I, like many others, expected this practice to be monetized. I didn't anticipate this practice, though in retrospect it's obvious:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Involuntary Organ Donors

Professor Stephen Wigmore, who chairs the society's ethics committee, told the BBC that the speed of matching donors and patients, sometimes as little as a week, implied prisoners were being selected before execution.
In other words the prisoners are kept alive until their organs are needed, then they are killed. Sort of like cooking lobster.

Maybe there's still time to reconsider those Olympics? Not that the US is in any position to point fingers, Bush has reduced our reputation to the national equivalent of "psychotic pedophile".

Earth out of balance: Al Gore

America chose George Bush. I hope God will help America ...
A Campaign Gore Can't Lose
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 18, 2006; A19

Boring Al Gore has made a movie...

... You will see the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps melting. You will see Greenland oozing into the sea. You will see the atmosphere polluted with greenhouse gases that block heat from escaping. You will see photos from space of what the ice caps looked like once and what they look like now and, in animation, you will see how high the oceans might rise. Shanghai and Calcutta swamped. Much of Florida, too. The water takes a hunk of New York. The fuss about what to do with Ground Zero will turn to naught. It will be underwater.

"An Inconvenient Truth" is a cinematic version of the lecture that Gore has given for years warning of the dangers of global warming.

... You cannot see this film and not think of George W. Bush, the man who beat Gore in 2000. The contrast is stark. Gore -- more at ease in the lecture hall than he ever was on the stump -- summons science to tell a harrowing story and offers science as the antidote. No feat of imagination could have Bush do something similar -- even the sentences are beyond him.

But it is the thought that matters -- the application of intellect to an intellectual problem. Bush has been studiously anti-science, a man of applied ignorance who has undernourished his mind with the empty calories of comfy dogma.

... Gore insists his presidential aspirations are behind him. "I think there are other ways to serve," he told me. No doubt. But on paper, he is the near-perfect Democratic candidate for 2008. Among other things, he won the popular vote in 2000. He opposed going to war in Iraq, but he supported the Persian Gulf War -- right both times. He is smart, experienced and, despite the false caricatures, a man versed in the new technologies -- especially the Internet. He is much more a person of the 21st century than most of the other potential candidates. Trouble is, a campaign is not a film. Gore could be a great president. First, though, he has to be a good candidate...
I recall reading Tipper Gore was adamant that Al not run, but that his daughter wanted him to try it. If he made a go, I'd guess he'd run as an intellectual populist - a most unusual combination.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Lieutenant General Neubold: On Iraq and Rumsfeld

This is one of the articles by the dissenting generals -- the few who speak out: TIME Magazine -- Why Iraq Was a Mistake

Read the whole thing. He paid a price to write this, it deserves to be read in the original.
What we are living with now is the consequences of successive policy failures. Some of the missteps include: the distortion of intelligence in the buildup to the war, McNamara-like micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, the initial denial that an insurgency was the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq, and the continuing failure of the other agencies of our government to commit assets to the same degree as the Defense Department. My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions--or bury the results.
The "alienation of allies" is the charge that's often forgotten, I think it was the most senseless error. I remember watching Rumsfeld and his minions mocking our potential allies before the invasion, and deciding then that he was a fool.

I wonder what Neubold means by "failure of other agencies"? Is he referring to the CIA? The State Department? Really, we need a journalist to follow-up on that mysterious phrase ...

The anti-heroism of passive resistance to the Holocaust

French gendarmes sent 4000 children under age 12 to die at Auschwitz -- apparently the Germans didn't even particularly request them. The French have as much unexamined history as we Americans have (Germans have been obliged to examine their history more closely).

No great surprise there, simply another instance of the reeking evil that infests humanity. This is more novel:
France during the second world war | Not a good time to be hungry |

... What is remarkable, though, as Mr Vinen points out in this eminently balanced book, is that nearly 80% of the Jews in France survived the war. Hundreds of thousands of shopkeepers, postmen, priests and petty bureaucrats preferred turning a blind eye when there was a new face in town rather than alerting German authorities. Faint praise, perhaps, but this passive resistance helped save over a quarter of a million lives.
This is not heroism, but it is a sort of goodness. Many people would have to choose the path of least activity for it to work. I wonder too, how often some occupying German would decline to follow-up on the occasional report from the hinterland...

We must always remember. It could certainly happen here.

Quantum biology

Aeons ago, my biophysical chemistry lectures used to speculate about electron flows along the double helix. Now the hot topic is quantum tunneling of protons catalyzing biological reactions:
Biochemistry | Evolving enzymes |

IMAGINE hitting a tennis ball against a wall. Time after time, the ball bounces back. But, just occasionally, the ball disappears only to reappear on the other side of the wall. The wall is solid; no bricks are missing. It sounds surreal, but in the weird world of quantum mechanics such occurrences, involving very small objects over very short distances, are an everyday effect known as quantum tunnelling.

Whether such an effect could account for odd behaviour at larger sizes and distances has long been the subject of debate... The answer, reported in this week's issue of Science, is that enzymes also exploit this quantum-mechanical loophole.

The researchers, based at the University of Manchester and the University of Bristol, both in Britain, studied a compound called tryptamine ... an enzyme called aromatic amine dehydrogenase (AADH) removes hydrogen from tryptamine.

Hydrogen, the simplest atom, consists of a single proton encircled by a single electron. As electrons are point-like, their quantum mechanical behaviour is well known. But protons are far bigger, and the idea that they might be able to quantum tunnel is more controversial. Yet the AADH catalyses the breakage of the otherwise very stable, carbon-hydrogen bond at ambient temperatures, a feat that would appear to be impossible.

... the British researchers raise the possibility that short-range tunnelling in enzymes might be the result of evolutionary pressure...
Well, if it does happen, what would it arise from other than evolutionary pressures? That last sentence is an odd exception to a well done article.

It all seems very improbable, but if it is physically possible, then I suppose natural selection would come up with a solution. Maybe this is what was going on during that vast period of time between the cooling of the earth and the rise of the organism -- perhaps "solving" the puzzle of quantum catalysis is a much harder problem than going from a bacteria to a naked ape.

There's a historical angle. I dimly recall that Schrodinger and some colleagues speculated about a quasi-mystical quantum mechanical "spark" to life and consciousness; some more recent books have continued the trend. Ineffable quantum phenomemon is the geek alternative to the Soul. It would be amusing if this turned out to be, in some sense, true.

But can I trust The Economist on this? They recently wrote an article on GeneDupe's plan to create living versions of mythological monsters:
PAOLO FRIL, chairman and chief scientific officer of GeneDupe, based in San Melito, California, is a man with a dream. That dream is a dragon in every home...
I didn't blog on that one as I simply figured The Economist had been duped by some whacko; indeed I barely skimmed it. Alas, this week they revealed, through the title above a letter to the editor, that I ought to have thought about what the letters in the name PAOLO FRIL could also spell. Really, they are not trustworthy.

PS. If enzymes really can quantum tunnel protons, there will be some novel industrial applications of the technique. It would not be the first time the 'blind watchmaker' has taught we sighted watchmakers.

PPS. My second son promises that when he grows up, he will bring mythical monsters to life and resurrect beasts long extinct. Heck, maybe he'll do me too ...

America the big: my seating proposal

The good news is thatlast year my travel duties declined. The bad news is that I lost elite status. Now I fly cargo, where conditions are rugged. Today I was in the aisle seat. Not bad, but the very agreeable gentleman in the window seat weighed well over 350 lbs, and the guy in the middle was probably in the upper 200s. I sat somewhat sideways.

The world's getting bigger, and there's no miracle cure is sight. Of course catastrophic economic collapse from mismanagement, plague and global climate change may alleviate this problem, but for now we're "stuck" with it. It's not fair to punish the big people -- nobody outside of the NFL chooses to weight 300 lbs. The best evidence we have suggests most humans cannot control their weight.

So here's my solution -- another example of why we need government. Mandate that airlines provide a free extra seat for everyone enrolled in the 'fly-big' program. Enrollment is optional, but the benefit is obvious. A discrete abdominal measurement is all that's required, and the traveler gets special status. Nothing need be said, it simply happens that they always have an open middle seat by them. Ticket prices go up a bit, but since it's mandated there's no competitive disadvantage. A win-win situation, and well worth a few extra bucks a ticket.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Return of the Kings

Pharyngula writes:
Exxon CEO Lee Raymond's salary is $190,915.

Per day.

Bush - he can't even cut taxes

Bush's single claim to fame is "tax cutter". He can't even do that properly:
With Tax Break Expired, Middle Class Faces a Greater Burden for 2006 - New York Times

...The A.M.T. will cost Americans who earn $50,000 to $200,000 nearly $13 billion more next April. That is about how much people who earn more than $1 million will save because of the break on investment income like dividends and capital gains. Both figures were provided by the Tax Policy Center, which is a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.
It's as though Bush were running an IQ test on his voters. So far they're failing.

Ironically the AMT somewhat resembles the tax reform we need. It removes a lot of exemptions, if it were the only tax our returns would be simpler.

NASA launches new SETI project: optical search

I of course, predict this effort will fail:
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Telescope bid to spot alien beams

A new optical telescope designed solely to detect light signals from alien civilisations has opened for work at an observatory in Harvard, US.
It will conduct a year-round survey, scanning all of the Milky Way galaxy visible in the Northern Hemisphere...

... Visible light can form tight beams, be incredibly intense, and its high frequencies allow it to carry enormous amounts of information.

Using only present-day terrestrial technology, a bright, tightly focused light beam, such as a laser, can be 10,000 times as bright as its parent star for a brief instant. Such a beam could be easily observed from enormous distances.

'This new search apparatus performs one trillion measurements per second and expands 100,000-fold the sky coverage of our previous optical search,' said the optical telescope's project director, Paul Horowitz of Harvard University, Massachusetts.
On the other hand, I'd imagine that if it's going to work, we'd discover something pretty early. That would make for an interesting summer.

BTW, Greg Bear wrote the short story "Blood Music" in 1982. At the very end he casually resolves the Fermi Paradox using a biological variant of the inescapable singularity solution. That predates my prior "earliest science fiction explanation" by about five years. I need to add that one to my page footnotes!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Rumsfeld out? It's about nuking Iran

Why the new attempt to oust Rumsfeld?
BBC NEWS | Americas | Bush rebuffs attack on Rumsfeld

Six retired generals have spoken out against Mr Rumsfeld's handling of the war in Iraq and apparent disdain for experienced military commanders.

The defence secretary has also personally dismissed suggestions that he should resign.

"Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defence of the United States it would be like a merry-go-round," he told Arabic TV channel al-Arabiya.
I'm betting it's about nuking Iran. The prospect of going to war with Iran along with using tactical nuclear weapons, has galvanized the generals. Bad enough to be planning this kind of attack, worse still to do it with an a proven incompetent in command.

The generals can't replace Cheney, so they're focusing on Rumsfeld. As always, it's up to Bush. I can no more predict his thinking than I can predict pulsar signals.

I wonder how many generals secretly wish that old draft-dodging pot-smoking commie was running the country.

Update 4/15/06: Rather to my surprise, the NYT says the same thing. The military is worried abour Rumsfeld leading when Iran is the problem. Emphases mine.
The call by some retired generals for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation is more than an effort to assign blame for the problems that the United States has encountered in Iraq. It also reflects concern that military voices are not being given sufficient weight in the Bush administration's deliberations, as well as unease about the important decisions that lie ahead.

... The retired generals, in effect, have declared Mr. Rumsfeld unfit to lead the nation's military forces as the United States faces crucial decisions on how to extricate itself from Iraq and what to do about Iran's nuclear program.

... On Iran, which has not been addressed directly by the dissenting generals, the United States must decide how forceful a position to take to head off Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Mr. Bush has played down the threat of military action, but — with little progress in resolving the dispute through diplomacy — the option of turning to airstrikes is unlikely to go away. In mapping a strategy for Iran, the United States must balance its apprehension about the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran against the risk that military strikes against Iranian nuclear installations could lead to a wider war and fan regional unrest...

Friday, April 14, 2006

Lifeboat Britain

Dyer claims Britain keeps its nukes to be ready for invading hordes of global warming refugees. Canada, on the other hand, is indefensible. The US will take it.

Well, not much to do about that one ...

Gwynne Dyer has 12 new articles up

2006 has added 12 articles. I've given up on Dyer adding an RSS feed!

Narus: an ominous name

The Narus 6400 is one of the devices the NSA uses to monitor things like the automatic blogger email that I'll get after I post this : Daily Kos: All About NSA's and AT&T's Big Brother Machine, the Narus 6400.

Wave to the man with the camera son.

Economics of outsourcing

This is so obvious, it's strange Joel on software had to teach me it. On the other hand, he claims someone else pointed it out to him...
The Development Abstraction Layer - Joel on Software

... if only 20% of your staff is programmers, and you can save 50% on salary by outsourcing programmers to India, well, how much of a competitive advantage are you really going to get out of that 10% savings?

Why we can't outsource social services to churches

I'd have thought Trinity Lutheran in Minnesota would be better than this.
Pharyngula: Good thing we're moving to faith-based initiatives, huh?

...Trinity Lutheran Church had a sweet deal with county social services, getting remunerated for caring for disabled seniors, until the county pulled a fast one and tried to trick them into caring for a damned minion of the devil transsexual. They signed her up, showed her around, and then she mentioned that she'd had an operation, and the good reverend had to wield his deep personal knowledge of god's mind to smack her down.
Bottom line: having amateurs doing a professionals job is a very bad idea. Faith based social services is just wrong.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Google Calendar: No Safari, no sync?

Google Calendar does not support Safari.

I don't see a way to sync with iSync -- but maybe someone will build it.Official Google Blog: It's about time

... integrated with Gmail so you can add events mentioned in messages to your calendar with just one click.
.... simple to see calendars from your friends and family, or calendars you find with the built-in calendar search tool, right next to your own calendar. You can choose to share as much or as little of your own calendar, too.
.... You can turn any event on your calendar into an invitation just by adding the email addresses of your guests. They can see and respond to your invitation, whether or not they use Google Calendar themselves.
... Event reminders by email and text message to your mobile phone
... supports the iCal standard
... can add customized Google Calendar event reminder buttons to their pages, letting visitors quickly add copies of events to their calendars.The lack of Safari support is disappointing, but as I recall Gmail started out without it as well.

The Massachusetts miracle: healthcare reform

Most of the times I talk about America's problems with inequity and adapting to globalization, I mention the need to break the connection between employment and healthcare. Health care insurance should have nothing to do with employment status, irregardless of whether the delivery mechanism is single payor governmental care, medical savings accounts, or traditional insurance plans.

I figured this was unlikely to happen in the US barring a populist uprising in the 2008 elections. I knew there were rumbles from Massachusetts, but I didn't pay enough attention to them. My mistake ... (emphases mine):
Massachusetts Legislation on Insurance Becomes Law - New York Times

BOSTON, April 12 — In a ceremony full of pomp and political backpatting, Gov. Mitt Romney signed Massachusetts' landmark health care legislation Wednesday, setting the stage for the state to be the first to provide health coverage to virtually all of its citizens.

... Mr. Romney is considering running for president in 2008, and the success of the bipartisan health care plan could become a major selling point of his candidacy.

... "This isn't 100 percent of what anyone in this room wanted," Mr. Romney said. "But the differences between us are small."

Mr. Kennedy said, "You may well have fired the shot heard round the world on health care in America. I hope so."

The law is projected to provide coverage for about 515,000 of the state's 550,000 uninsured people and leave less than 1 percent of the population uncovered. It goes further than those of any other state.

It requires residents to obtain health insurance by July 1, 2007. People who can afford insurance and do not buy it will be penalized on their state income taxes.

The law takes the $1 billion in the state's free-care pool, which paid for medical care for patients without insurance, and uses it to subsidize insurance for people who cannot afford it. The legislation also makes it possible for more individuals and businesses to buy insurance with pre-tax dollars, saving them money. And it includes a system to encourage insurance companies to provide more affordable plans with fewer benefits or higher deductibles.

... The legislation, months in the making, almost fell apart over disagreements about whether businesses should be charged and how much if they were. Mr. Romney wanted no business fee. Mr. DiMasi wanted a much higher business assessment of 5 percent of a company's payroll,

... Mr. DiMasi, in an interview last week, said: "I see a significant commitment of businesses to contribute in some way to the insurance costs of the uninsured. I see this as a significant principle, whatever the dollar figure is."...

DiMasi, the democrat, is wrong. Romney, the alleged republican, is right. We need to break the relationship between employment and healthcare, not perpetuate it.

Even if McCain hadn' t mutated into an anti-evolution social conservative Bush clone, Romney would now have displaced him as the tolerable Republican candidate. Fortunately for whoever gets the Democratic nomination, there's no way in heck Romney will survive the GOP's nominating process.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

ABC News has a relatively technical analysis of Iran's nuclear program

Anthony Cordesman is a well known name in security circles. ABC News, oddly enough, features a technical analylsis he did of Iran's nuclear program.
ABC News: Analysis: Iran's Nuclear Leap Forward

... These are old P-1 centrifuges. It takes thousands operating continuously for a year to have major output and 10,000s to get seriously into the weapons grade production.
It's a weird world when network TV delivers in depth analysis -- in written form. Where it's picked up by Google's news processor and highlighted.

Imagine how that would sound in 1990.

In a world where there's zero trust of the US government, it's handy to have these analyses lying about. I don't necessarily trust Cordesman, but unlike the Bush administration he hasn't proven himself to be utterly untrustworthy.

Generals hate Rumsfeld. What about Bush?

The pressure to dump Rumsfeld grows. We've seen this before, rumor had him gone about a year ago. On the other hand, he sounded very tired and almost human the other day.
The revolt against Donald Rumsfeld. By Fred Kaplan

... It is startling to hear, in private conversations, how widely and deeply the U.S. officer corps despises this secretary of defense. The joke in some Pentagon circles is that if Rumsfeld were meeting with the service chiefs and commanders and a group of terrorists barged into the room and kidnapped him, not a single general would lift a finger to help him...
Rumsfeld stays because Bush wants him. Ultimately it is Bush who is responsible for what Rumsfeld does. The generals aren't dolts, they know that. Makes one wonder if they now despise Bush as well.

That is not a thought a general can express ... Rumsfeld is a handy proxy.

Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution?

Foreign Affairs is the preeminent political science journal. Brad DeLong is pointing his students to an article there:
Foreign Affairs - Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution? - Alan S. Blinder

...Although there are no reliable national data, fragmentary studies indicate that well under a million service-sector jobs in the United States have been lost to offshoring to date. (A million seems impressive, but in the gigantic and rapidly churning U.S. labor market, a million jobs is less than two weeks' worth of normal gross job losses.) However, constant improvements in technology and global communications virtually guarantee that the future will bring much more offshoring of 'impersonal services' -- that is, services that can be delivered electronically over long distances with little or no degradation in quality.

That said, we should not view the coming wave of offshoring as an impending catastrophe. Nor should we try to stop it. The normal gains from trade mean that the world as a whole cannot lose from increases in productivity, and the United States and other industrial countries have not only weathered but also benefited from comparable changes in the past. But in order to do so again, the governments and societies of the developed world must face up to the massive, complex, and multifaceted challenges that offshoring will bring. National data systems, trade policies, educational systems, social welfare programs, and politics all must adapt to new realities. Unfortunately, none of this is happening now.
This theme has emerged in a few places recently. The direct impact of offshoring has been small to date, but the future impacts appear to be inevitably enormous. Even today the indirect impacts have been large -- computer science departments in the US are emptying out. Students are bailing not because of the current job situation, but rather because they correctly evaluate the future job situation. Unfortunately it's not clear what the better options are. Accounting? No. Law? No. Medicine? No. Industrial ontology? Uhh, no. Engineering? Surely you jest. Fast food clerk? No -- it's being outsourced and robotocized. Butler? Ignore the search results, look at the AdWords.

I'd love to read the rest of the article. Alas, it's payware. I'll look for postings that quote more extensively and link to what I find.

PS. It's not true that the world as a whole can't lose. That's only true if you assume continous functions. If the US or Europe convulses in widespread social disruption, then the world as a whole does lose. It's like flying a big jet. You win if you change your flight plans to a better destination, but if the required maneuver is too challenging the wings fall off.

Dan Brown is ravished by Crooked Timber

Crooked Timber doesn't like Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons'. I'm sure Brown is quivering in his hot tub, but the comments are a lot of fun. I've not read any of this stuff, so I've no other opinion. A fun read. (BTW, Cryptonomicon is a marvelous book, but the first 100 pages are hard going.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Great DeLong discussion on economic policy

DeLong is discussing economic policy with Greg Mankiw, who chairs Bush's council of economic advisors. Here's how he summarizes Mankiw's response:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: National Saving

... To summarize: Greg wants to: (i) raise taxes, (ii) cut government spending, and so (iii) balance the budget, (iv) shift the tax code to be yet more friendly toward savings, and (v) reform ERISA so that employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension plans are the default option rather than requiring opt-in. I would buy into all four of those, with a footnote about how (iv) needs to be implemented in a way that does not reduce progressivity and make America a yet more unequal place.
In fact Mankiw's response is less direct than this. He leaves open the option of massive cuts in government services such as social security and medicare. DeLong is translating Mankiw's statement into something that's reality based.

The comments are excellent. One comment notes that a consumption tax is a great way to punish those who save, especially those who save in tax deferred accounts. It makes a mockery of the 401K for example. Read the comments.

DeLong wants a progressive tax code, presumably Mankiw doesn't care about that as much ...

Monday, April 10, 2006


Wow. Two references to tobacco in two zingers on DeLay, Frist and Boehner. Not bad as vitriol goes.
Political Crackups

... One cannot regret the fall of Tom DeLay, who combined a mastery of politics with a complete indifference to its purpose. Really, what did this man seek public office for? It's said that he was inspired by his conviction that the Environmental Protection Agency is like the Gestapo, but I suspect this theory is too kind. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who bristled with policy ideas, DeLay never seemed to care about anything beyond counting votes and cultivating links to the moneybags on K Street.

Still, in the absence of a functioning administration and a powerful House boss, nobody is running the asylum. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician who "diagnosed" Terri Schiavo by watching her on video, is as charismatic as a stethoscope and as principled as a cigarette salesman. I doubt many Americans could even recognize DeLay's successor as House majority leader, John Boehner, let alone say what he stands for. His most memorable moment came in 1995, when he chose the House floor as a suitable venue for distributing checks from tobacco lobbyists.

Can dogs get gluten-sensitive enteropathy?

Our husky-lab-? mongrel has had liquid stools since she came home at about 10 weeks. After 8 weeks of the scattershot therapies typical of veterinary practice we eliminated Gluten. A week later she was better.

Irish Setters get gluten-sensitive enteropathy but it's supposed to be a relatively mild condition compared to human Celiac disease and it isn't usually diagnosed until about age 6 months. So maybe it's just something that looks like GSE.

Fortunately losing wheat is not a big deal for a carnivore ...

I got my settlement check: Microsoft-Minnesota

It's little compensation for suffering beneath the Microsoft Monopoly, but my Microsoft Minnesota Class Action Settlement check came in. I'd submitted the receipt for my G5 iMac and I received $106 back [1]. I'll put it towards Aperture 1.1 if Apple is able to get that thing working, otherwise Elements 4.0.

At least we got cash, some states settled for Microsoft software vouchers. That would be an insult of the first order.

[1] The theory is that Microsoft's illegally earned monopoly affected the cost of all software and hardware, not just their own products. That's what monopolies do.

Microsoft must perish: OLE embedding

I've been much too kind to Microsoft.

Today I needed to paste some portions of an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document. I'm using Office 2003, latest SPs and fixes, reasonably modern laptop with a GB or so of RAM.

I didn't like the look of the default paste (HTML), so I tried embedding as OLE. It's been years since I've tried that. Excel OLE embedding in Word has always been a disaster (PowerPoint handles OLE embedding quite a bit better). What the heck, maybe 3 years of patches has helped.

It was awful. Truly awful. It sort of worked once, then my machine went on sabbatical.

I tried paste as RTF. Still looked bad.

Ok, I'll try Word's old metafile vector format. Word sat and thought for a while. Then it complained it couldn't locate my network printer.

I pasted as a bitmap.

A bitmap.

That's so retro.

Really, the kindest thing would be to put Microsoft out of its misery. It's a festering sore.

PS. The word on the street is that Win2K works quite well as an OS X Boot Camp option, and you don't have to pay XP fees. Most of us have an old copy of Win2K lying about, and of course for those who feel they've already paid Microsoft in blood for their monopoly there is no Win2K activation requirement ... For running the odd Microsoft app Win2K is just fine ...

Cheap havoc: bio-weapons via eBay

In the fall of 2001 I wrote about the "falling cost of havoc". As you'll see from clicking on the above link, the phrase has not caught on.

Slashdot has a thread today about the falling cost of bio-weaponry. This is what 9/11 was all about. Terrorism, hatred, fanaticism -- all old news. Primate stuff.

Cheap havoc -- that's new. That's big. That's why we now have an undeclared 'surveillance society'. That's why 'Big Brother' is here to stay -- as long as we have an industrial state.

Incidentally, what would I have done about this sort of thing that the GOP (the one party ruler of America) hasn't done? Consider the inescapable NSA watch lists. If we can't avoid watch lists, we need to manage the consequences. We need epidemiologists to evalute predictive value of watch list criteria. We need review boards to look for injury due to false positives. We need compensation mechanisms to help people and families who's lives are damaged by false conviction without trial. We need penalties for misuse -- severe enough to make government be very careful. We need to ensure that the powerful are as vulnerable and as "watched" as the weak.

There are many things we as a people can do to make 'life in a bubble' less miserable than it has to be. It's not the freedom we used to know, but it could be a good life.

Bush, Cheney and their ilk are not doing these things -- and we as a people are not discussing the fundamental issues. The blame for where we are going falls upon them, upon their political supporters, and upon those who remain silent.

Anthropologist needed: Why Orkut in Brazil but nowhere else?

Google seems to take a statistical approach to product development. They try a lot of things and see what sticks.

In the US the social networking application Orkut failed, but the rival is popular. (Everything I read about suggests it's about adolescent display and mating, so why isn't that explicitly discussed? No, I've never visited it ...).

In Brazil, however, Orkut is huge. There are 12 million regular net users in Brazil, and 11 million are said to be Orkut users:
A Web Site Born in U.S. Finds Fans in Brazil - New York Times

... In general, though, Orkut fanatics seem undisturbed by illegal activity on the site, which most of those interviewed said they had never come across personally. They were more interested in finding long-lost classmates and friends, one of the site's most lauded abilities. Schools, workplaces, even residential streets have "communities" joined by people who have studied, worked or lived there.

And everyone has stories of romance foiled by a telltale posting. Ms. Makray once found the page of a man who had flirted with her in a club. "He hadn't told me that he had children or that he was married," she said. "I discovered it on Orkut."

Erika Laun, 23, checks Orkut every day from work to keep an eye on her boyfriend. "When we were first going out," she said, "a girl who liked him was always sending messages and making fun of the messages that I sent him." The rival's sister, whom he didn't even know, helped out, sending messages like "Hey big boy, love you, 1,000 kisses."

"I was really angry," Ms. Laun said.

No one quite knows why Orkut caught on among Brazilians and not Americans, although the fact that it is an invitation-only network might explain why it exploded in Brazil. In a 2005 interview with the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Mr. Buyukkokten said it might be because Brazilians were "a friendly people," and perhaps because some of his own friends, among the first to join the network, had Brazilian friends.

Fascinating. Why did Jerry Lewis become huge in France, even as he disappeared in the US? Why are some movies flops in the US, and winners abroad? Is it all culture, or is some of this simply chance -- that Orkut reached a 'critical mass'/'tipping point' in Brazil that it never reached in the US? (Social networking applications have a non-linear value, just like email. Their value is a power function of users, not a linear function. So they can be worthless below a certain user threshhold, then quickly become very valuable.)

A great sociology paper should lie here, but the topic probably crosses the boundary between anthropology, sociology and economics. Hard to publish.

It's noteworthy that the examples given in the article are all about mating ...

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Drug reps and their whores - the commercialization of medicine

A successful drug rep ("pharmaceutical sales representative") will commonly earn over $150,000 a year. They know which physicians prescribe what, and they adjust their targeting appropriately. The AAFP attempted to block an organization that fights the corruption of physicians from appearing at the annual scientific assembly (this brain-dead decision was reversed when the membership began to howl). The most common strategy to corruption is to start small (pens, sponsored books) and then gradually ramp up -- the slippery slope is shallow at first.

The Atlantic is doing well these days; this article on the buying of physicians and the work of the drug rep is among the best of a good lot. Carl Elliott is a U of MN professor who lectures medical students about reps; here he writes sympathetically about both the drug reps and their physician partners. He makes a convincing case that both physicians and drug reps are increasingly similar cogs in the market machine of modern medicine.

Their are some simplifications. He writes as though most physicians believe they are not influenced by drug reps. I suspect many are more realistic, and know they've sold a bit of their soul. I'd like to read a study that asked three questions: "Do you accept gifts and samples from drug reps?" "Are your colleagues influenced by drug rep gifts?", and "Are you influenced by drug rep gifts and visits?". I think the most common answer would be yes, yes, no and next would be yes, yes, yes.

Drug reps know which physicians prescribe boringly, following the Medical Letter party line. They're polite to those physicians, but they don't spend a lot of time on them. They favor those who like the fashionable trends, and they leverage direct-to-patient marketing to make being fashionable ever more appealing. Back before they had that data, when I was in practice, they already knew not to bother with me and my partners -- but we were space aliens. Most of our colleagues were more welcoming, but I think they knew they were supping with a pleasant devil.

It's a fascinating tale of how commerce works, and how good people go sort-of-bad. I work in industry now, and I don't believe I'm incorruptible either. It's a tricky world, no doubt, and sales folks are a lot of fun ....

Update 4/16/06: The study I wished for has been done.
A 2001 study of medical residents found that 84 percent thought that their colleagues were influenced by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but only 16 percent thought that they were similarly influenced.
The above quote came from a behavioral economics paper. I'd like to see if the percentage who realize they're influenced by gifts rises with years of practice or if it's a persistent result of a fixed personality trait (ie. insight).

Saturday, April 08, 2006

When government goes mad: Cheney

Emphases mine. The usual liars will continue to tell the usual lies, but basically Cheney, with Bush's support, used fraudulent data to justify the invasion of Iraq, then used the powers of government to attack a critic of his fraud (emphase mine).
A 'Concerted Effort' to Discredit Bush Critic

... Fitzgerald reported for the first time this week that "multiple officials in the White House"-- not only Libby and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who have previously been identified -- discussed Plame's CIA employment with reporters before and after publication of her name on July 14, 2003, in a column by Robert D. Novak. Fitzgerald said the grand jury has collected so much testimony and so many documents that "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson".
The White House went off the rails some time ago.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A conspiracy for fantasy: Moussaoui

Dahlia Lithwick has the perfect summary of the Moussaoui "trial":
When You Wish Upon a Scar By Dahlia Lithwick

... This was what negotiators describe as a Pareto-optimal result: a win-win, in which Moussaoui, the government, and Americans craving vindication all got what they wanted. In the end, the verdict's only casualties are a few impossible-to-explain facts. Facts that should have added up to just this: We don't execute people for fanciful happenings that may have followed from imaginary conversations.

Nobody will dispute that Moussaoui would have happily done anything at all to help the 9/11 plot succeed. But he did nothing to help it succeed because, as everyone but Moussaoui now agrees, he was flaky, wifty, and weird. It's not a capital crime to be flaky, wifty, or weird. Nor is it a capital crime to wish you were a hero instead of a dud.

Yet because of Moussaoui's false testimony, the government's nutty conspiracy theory, and the nation's need for closure, Moussaoui's name will be in the history books and the law books for all time; inextricably linked with 9/11, just as it has always been in his dreams. And perhaps we will all sleep better for believing that if Moussaoui had come forward and told what little he knew, we could have stopped those terrible attacks, just as it happens in our own dreams.
Richard Reid, that sad retarded schizophrenic, was to have been the copilot with Moussaoui. It's the perfect note of mocking hilarity for the musical that will be written about the trial and execution.

Our national state is now passing pathetic.

Saletan takes the prayer study seriously

I've blogged previously on the recent prayer study. Turns out someone else is considering the results seriously: The Deity in the Data By William Saletan.

Saletan is not my favorite writer, but credit where credit is due. The article is uneven; he starts out as though the study showed prayer had no effect. In fact, of course, the study seemed to show that prayer was harmful. He finally touches on the theological implications of toxic prayer, so he gets full credit.

I've been wondering how the Satanists and religious fundamentalists would spin this - were they to take it seriously. I suspect neither would have any trouble. For the fundamentalists this is very biblical -- "don''t measure God" (though wouldn't they expect the scientists to suffer rather than the patients?). The Satanists would suggest another deity should have been consulted.

It's a bigger challenge for believers in a benevolent omnipotent God. I'd love to know what Ratzinger is thinking ... Probably that the results are spurious (which is also what I believe, and I'm sticking to that story ...)