Monday, July 31, 2006

Pandora: music radio and recommendations

Jacob Reider pointed to Pandora

Ad supported radio that suggests music based on one's likes. Oldest trick in the book (I think Firefly did this in the early '90s), but surprisingly rarely done. I'm suprised the Apple Store doesn't do this ... Amazon used to, but their recommendations service has all but vanished ...

Airport security 1995 - an insider's story

via Schneier. The beautiful thing about the web is all kinds of people can tell their stories, and people like Schneier tell us about the interesting ones. An insider's story about working airport security in 1995 is quite good. I liked the trick where he learned to carry any of the FAA test items through the metal detector without activating the alarm.

I wonder if things are different now; the security people I see at airports now seem a cut above this description. On the other hand, airport security is not terribly important. As has been pointed out many times, the most important post-9/11 security measures are:
1. armored cockpit door
2. pilots treat a hijacking as a suicide attack
3. passengers are inclined to resist (1 and 2 are more imporant).

Spolsky on pricing theory

Why does what you buy cost what it costs? Read Camels and Rubber Duckies - Joel on Software. I have a seriously dense textbook on pricing theory. Spolsky covers the key points in a single article. If you buy anything, it's worth reading.

It's non-trivial.

BTW, one technique he doesn't mention is sandwiching. Apple does this brilliantly. Sell one thing cheaply, one in between, one expensive. The cheap one is a bargain, but it's missing something everyone wants. The expensive one is wicked. The result is people will happily buy the middle one, and will pay more than they would have if the cheap one (which has a crummy margin) didn't exist.

The bottom price exists only to elevate the middle price.

An Interview with Charles (Bell Curve) Murray

About 10 years ago Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein wrote "The Bell Curve", a book that caused great outrage on the American left. I never read the book, but I dimly recall that the authors claimed that there was a general intellectual capacity that was roughly measured by IQ testing, that IQ was largely genetically determined, and that some ethnic groups had bigger average IQs than others. I think he was fond of South Koreans in particular, but I may be losing it there (I have a family relationship to Korea that probably affects my memory).

At the time I didn't say much, because, although I didn't care for the tone of the quotes I read, I suspected the substance would hold up. I thought the evidence even then was pretty strong that IQ was genetically determined [1], and that the main environmental effects were intrauterine and served only to lower the genetic limit. I also felt, with less data, that it was likely that there was indeed a general ability to synthesize and problem solve, and that it had some correlation with IQ test results. As to the ethnic relationships I was and am agnostic, but I didn't think the data was there to rule it out. So the book seemed plausible, albeit infected by an off-putting arrogance.

So I was interested in this Charles Murray interview featured in an obscure web site. Murry may even have mellowed slightly, though his religious devotion to Libertarianism is only mildly abated. It is interesting reading.

By the way, one way in which I believe I differ from Murray is that I don't think being smarter makes a person a more deserving human being. I value traits like integrity, compassion, mercy, wisdom, humility, curiousity, kindness, forgiveness... Murray seems to have adopted the Libertarian faith that intellect is the measure of perfection. (I wonder how they'll feel about our silicon heirs?)

[1] Yes, I've read some recent reviews claiming environment was more important than we'd thought. I thought the articles (NYT) were so dull and confused they weren't worth writing about.

Stress, disease and early aging

The NYT Magazine has a long article on disease and aging though I think the lead family photo is a big misleading (look yourself and contemplate). It doesn't have many surprises in it. It's one of a series of discoveries and reviews that show we age more slowly than we once did, largely because we're sick less often.

The main environmental influences are probably prenatal and certainly before age two (mothers should never smoke), but, there are later effects too. At least for the moment, we are spared much of the disease, parasites, and malnutrition that afflicted our ancestors. As a consequence, we age more slowly.

This is not a surprise to anyone who's studied old family photos. Our ancesters were old at 40 -- rather than 50-55.

FuturePundit, which pointed me to the NYT article, also features a related post about a gene that can be used to tell a person's biological age rather than their chronologic age.

I'm still waiting for the article that shows that aging is non-linear, and that we experience 'bursts' of aging after certain environmental triggers. The old folk tale about 'aging a year in a night' will be shown to be correct.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Geeks don't use Travelers Insurance

JOS calls out a comically stupid and offensive ad campain by Travelers Insurance. I wonder how much business they once had in Silicon Valley.

I assume that each year ad execs gather to nominate the absolutely worst ad effort of the year. This one is reaching for the decade award.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Dyer has about 10 new articles online

The journalist, military historian, arabist and eccentric web author has about 10 new June/July articles. This journlist doesn't do he said/she said articles -- and his record is good. Dig in.

The Ultra Portable Mobile Computer is doomed

The UPMC is crushed by a 10 year old Apple Newton in a head-to-head struggle. That's pathetic. The UPMC is dead. Move along folks ...

Black skin, SPF, and when a feature becomes a bug

[Update 7/31: read the comments. The BBC article really mangled the study, and my imagination was overly active. As our commentator notes, these melanomas aren't even clearly sun related. Detection was also not a problem, the involved skin is pale. I really don't know what to make of any of this, but you probably shouldn't waste your time on this post!]

Very black skin has SPF 13; I assume that very pale skin has SPF 1-2 (the BBC article didn't say) ...
BBC NEWS | Health | Dark skin 'does not block cancer'

...people with dark skin are more likely to die from skin cancer than those with fairer skin...

Dark skin has increased epidermal melanin which provides a natural skin protection factor (SPF) - a measure of how long skin covered with sunscreen takes to burn compared with uncovered skin.

Very dark, black skin has a natural SPF of about 13 and filters twice as much UV radiation as white skin, for example.
The BBC article is pretty weak. We're talking about melanoma. Very black skin is protective against melanoma, but it also makes it harder to spot early melanoma. The detection impact is only relevant when melanoma can be treated -- a modern phenomena.

In low tech societies black skin protects against death by melanoma, in high tech societies we can cure early melanoma. So the detection problmes mean that black skin has gone from being a 'feature' to a 'bug' -- at least in terms of melanoma protection. It's still a feature in terms of protection against sunburn, even the best sunscreens require frequent reapplication.

This is analogous to climate change and fur color. White fur is protective when there's snow, a problem when the snow melts. The difference is that our environment is technological.

Asians and other brown skinned persons may have the best compromise here. A reasonable SPF protection (maybe 8?) with reasonably easy detection as well. Sunscreen there just improves the odds. Good news for my younger kids. Getting black kids and adults to wear sunscreen will be damn hard. An effective SPF 13 sunscreen that doesn't wash is good enough to avoid a lot of sunburn, and without the scourge of sunburn kids and adults aren't going to put sunscreen on...

Hezbollah, collective punishment, and the falling cost of havoc

In the winter of 2001 I thought a lot about the falling cost of havoc. Technology changes the course and nature of conflict, and the relation between states and entities.

The theme returns:
Israel Finding a Difficult Foe in Hezbollah - New York Times

.... Never before in history has a terrorist organization had such state-of-the-art military equipment,” from medium-range rockets and laser-guided antitank missiles to well-designed explosive mines that can cripple an advanced tank, General Amidror said.
The cost of advanced weaponry is falling relative to income. Offense is cheaper than defense. The "IED" (improvised explosive device) is not really improvised, and it has changed the balance of power in Iraq.

In time missiles that travel hundreds of miles, with a great deal of "intelligence" and optional remote guidance, will become commonplace.

We still haven't thought enough about how technology is changing the nature of conflict. I fear collective punishment and police states will become the rule. I wish we thought about this more.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Landis: the odd thing about the test results

On NPR a specialist in doping described Landis results differently from the news stories. This is typical of what we're reading:
KRT Wire | 07/27/2006 | Landis denies cheating, admits Tour win will be questioned

...The test conducted at France's anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry turned up high levels of testosterone, which medical experts say can increase stamina in the short run.

According to a statement posted on the Web site of Phonak, a cycling union official informed Landis' team that the rider's sample revealed 'an unusual level of testosterone/epitestosterone' when he was tested July 20.
The story on NPR was that his free testosterone was not in fact elevated. The epitestosterone was very low, so the ratio was elevated to about 11. Anything above 6 is out of the accepted range, so a value of 11 is extreme.

I was hoping someone on medlogs would do a more clinical analysis, but so far the press reports are just repeating the elevated testosterone line. I admit I'm harboring the faint hope it's something innocent, but I'm also curious about what would mess up the ratio. An effect of another banned substance? It's been too long since I knew my endocrinology ...

Shrillblog: The History of the Shrill

DeLong writes The History of the Shrill. Made me look back to the first post. I think I joined on the 2nd post. Been reading every since.

Damn, I'm going to have to pay the NYT so I can read Krugman again ...

The most important MS Office preferences

SIVACRACY.NET: MS Office Upgrade, With Important New Features. I loved the one about "same ... default attributes". There are so many I could add that are MS Word specific. Maybe 'Destroy document after every third style applied ...'.

DeLong's top 20

DeLong lists the twenty blogs he reads most frequently. I'll check out the few I don't know.

Hijacked by the right, a scientist disembarks

A few years back a real scientist published a well respected paper noting some cooling trends in parts of Antarctica. The author became an unwitting recruit of the arational right - including performance artists like Crichton and Coulter. He chose the New York Times as his exit from the madness. My favorite line is emphasized ...
Cold, Hard Facts - New York Times

... Our results have been misused as “evidence” against global warming by Michael Crichton in his novel “State of Fear” and by Ann Coulter in her latest book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.” Search my name on the Web, and you will find pages of links to everything from climate discussion groups to Senate policy committee documents — all citing my 2002 study as reason to doubt that the earth is warming. One recent Web column even put words in my mouth. I have never said that “the unexpected colder climate in Antarctica may possibly be signaling a lessening of the current global warming cycle.” I have never thought such a thing either.

Our study did find that 58 percent of Antarctica cooled from 1966 to 2000. But during that period, the rest of the continent was warming. And climate models created since our paper was published have suggested a link between the lack of significant warming in Antarctica and the ozone hole over that continent. These models, conspicuously missing from the warming-skeptic literature, suggest that as the ozone hole heals — thanks to worldwide bans on ozone-destroying chemicals — all of Antarctica is likely to warm with the rest of the planet. An inconvenient truth?

Also missing from the skeptics’ arguments is the debate over our conclusions. Another group of researchers who took a different approach found no clear cooling trend in Antarctica. We still stand by our results for the period we analyzed, but unbiased reporting would acknowledge differences of scientific opinion.

The disappointing thing is that we are even debating the direction of climate change on this globally important continent. And it may not end until we have more weather stations on Antarctica and longer-term data that demonstrate a clear trend.

In the meantime, I would like to remove my name from the list of scientists who dispute global warming. I know my coauthors would as well.

Never even thought. That is pretty definite.

There's still important science to be done about what's happening over antarctica, and there's work to be done to improve climate models and better characterize all the contributors to global warming and climate change.

There's also important social science research to be done on the nature of irrationality in the American right ....

I didn't miss his slightly strained pitch for more monitoring stations in Antarctica. I'm sure that's a good thing on the merits, but it also reflects a scientist's love for his domain of study ...

Partitioning Iraq: 2003, 2006 and Leo Strauss

Sometime between 2002 and 2003, I noted two things:

  • Rumsfeld is probably not a blithering idiot
  • His methods in Iraq were manifestly not consistent with his stated aims

Therefore his stated aims were not his true aims. So what where (are?) his true aims?

In August of 2003 I wrote (emphasis is new below, I corrected some spelling errors too):

Bush's mishandling of the UN and Turkey, and the failure of the neoCons to listen to listen rationally to the CIA and the State Department, has really put the US behind the 8 ball. On the other hand, I don't think things are hopeless, and I'm pretty sure the UN alone won't be able to patch things up; if the US/UK leave Iraq the country will be partitioned. (I suspect Rumsfeld's strategy was always to partition Iraq between the Turks/Kurds/Iran and Kuwait, leaving a central Sunni portion without oil revenue.)

Partitioning Iraq, and surrendering the southern portion (less the oil?) to Iran now is now a commonly proposed desperate solution. No surprises there, except I thought this would come up more last year.

Why did Rumsfeld decide to partition Iraq? That’s very speculative, even by my standards. It probably has something to with Turkey — everything does in the middle east.

It may also be that this was his second choice. Perhaps given sufficient troops, allies and resources he would have aligned his methods with his stated aims. He knew from the moment Turkey dropped out, however, that the resources weren’t there. Instead he aligned his true aims with his resources but fed the original aims to the masses. A Straussian solution.

Why all the Flash based documentation? It's about languages ...

I’ve been a bit annoyed by all the Flash based software documentation I come across. I like the speed, convenience and portability of reading. I couldn’t figure out why these small demos were taking over the world…

Until I visited the BlogJet site (my Windows blogging client, alas, there’s nothing this good on the OS X side) and noticed the developers were Russian. Then I tried the Flash demo and learned something important quickly.

A lot of my favourite applications are developed by small companies with few or no employees who can write good English language documentation. It’s far cheaper and easier for these companies to illustrate key issues using a compact and fast Flash demo.

Reading and typing were very important when I was growing up. They’ll probably still be important 10 years from now … On the other hand —– 40 years from now? Who can say. Besides, not everyone thinks in words


The real estate bust and the effect of mortgage statements on consumer spending

I think I can confirm this NYT impression for the Twin Cities metro area, and also suggest a reason why it may have a quicker than expected impact on consumer spending ...
Sales Slow for Homes New and Old - New York Times

Adding it all together, a variety of experts now say, the housing industry appears to be moving from a boom to something that is starting to look a lot like a bust.
We bought and sold at the height of the boom. We couldn't wait any longer. Since we traded up I expected we'd end up with a short to longer term 5-7% loss (meaning I thought we overpaid by 10% but about half that was covered by our prior home sale). Our tough.

What I didn't expect was to have this explicitly stated in our mortgage statement.

Background first. Back when home prices were climbing, our bank began putting a number on the monthly mortgage statement reflecting the increase in equity. It was a very deliberate, and somewhat evil, move to make people feel wealthier. More wealth, more borrowing, more bank revenues. Except it also means more risk, since the rising numbers were illusory.

Economists have talked about this risky 'wealth effect' of the housing bubble, but they don't often talk about how that 'wealth effect' is mediated. In our case the bank was very explicitly communicating the 'wealth effect'.

That worked well for lenders when housing prices were going up, but for some odd reason our bank didn't turn off this number when prices started falling. So we now see a negative number -- roughly in line with my expectations.

So our bank is now explicitly communicating the opposite of the wealth effect --the poverty effect. Anyone who looks at their mortgage statement, especially those who enjoyed seeing the older rising numbers, are now seeing the falling numbers.

This direct and explicit communication may accelerate the consumer response to falling housing prices. The old delays will likely compress, resulting in a faster contraction. I wonder if the Fed is expecting this ...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Interoperability, standards, and the evolution of the codon

Standards are a big deal in healthcare IT (my industry). Standards for the building blocks of knowledge, standards for the way knowledge is assembled, standards so that software can act on knowledge and exchange knowledge between systems.

It is surprisingly hard to make the case for these standards. They have an up front cost, particularly early on. If you've got something that works, why change? The strongest argument is from economics -- even if it's tough to adopt a standard, eventually network effects will mandate its use and time will address the defects. (The hard part, of course, is knowing what the real standard will be ...) The future cost may be much higher than near term adaptation ...

Now we have a possible supporting argument from the history of life on earth. Standards adoption by proto-life was important to intra-organismal interoperability ...
The Loom : In the Beginning Was Linux?:

... Scientists have long debated how the same genetic code wound up in all living things. Why twenty amino acids? Why three nucleotides? One possibility was that it was just a "frozen accident." Another has been that it evolved in an ancient lineage and provided an evolutionary edge against others with different codes. ...

...Evolution gradually produced more precise genetic codes, Woese and his colleagues argue, but different communities of microbes evolved different codes. In each community, a shared code made it easier for microbes to share genes. If you plug a gene into an organism with a radically different code, it will produce a radically different protein--mostly likely one that is useless as well. It's like grabbing a piece of software and trying to run it on the wrong operating system.

The more microbes used the same genetic code, the bigger the pool of genes they could all take advantage of. Those shared innovations benefited the entire community as it competed with communities with other genetic codes. Imagine microbes colonizing some bizarre new ecological niche--a seep of petroleum, for example, or undersea volcanic chambers. The microbes that can take advantage of more innovations will outcompete the ones that belong to the smaller community. This advantage would also drive the evolution of different genetic codes to be more like one another, because communities of microbes would get access to even more innovations.

Over time, the benefits of a big innovation pool wiped out the original diversity of rare codes, replacing it with one universal language. Only later did life begin to lose its communal nature and begin to evolve into separate lineages that we see now as the tree of life. While those lineages produced things as different as humans and bacteria, they all share the same genetic code that evolved during that communal age.
Great analysis, but a better analogy would have been file formats and software, not operating systems and software (ok, so the distinction is blurry). Government lawyers made the same mistake in the Microsoft monopoly trial and the judge made the same mistake during the penalty phase. Data formats are far more important than software. Our software/os/interpreters are quite different from those of viruses and bacteria, but the data formats persist. Microsoft should have been forced to surrender control over their data formats -- and forget about their software.

In that regard evolution has something to teach open source movements, which historically have paid far too much attention to software and not enough attention to data. Health informatics understood this twenty years ago, and now fights over file formats with state governments indicates others are catching on ...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

ID - nucleosomes and DNA control

Another example of icomprehensibly baroque and bizarre "design":
Scientists Say They’ve Found a Code Beyond Genetics in DNA - New York Times

... Having the sequence of units in DNA determine the placement of nucleosomes would explain a puzzling feature of transcription factors, the proteins that activate genes. The transcription factors recognize short sequences of DNA, about six to eight units in length, which lie just in front of the gene to be transcribed.

But these short sequences occur so often in the DNA that the transcription factors, it seemed, must often bind to the wrong ones. Dr. Segal, a computational biologist, believes that the wrong sites are in fact inaccessible because they lie in the part of the DNA wrapped around a nucleosome. The transcription factors can only see sites in the naked DNA that lies between two nucleosomes.
It's described a kind of statistical code, not directly deterministic, but on average the right places get bound. I suspect it's another variant of meaning being embedded in topology as well as sequence. Only a madman would design such a bizarre system of encoding information, yet it is incomprehensibly robust ...

Fritos flavor twists: exhibit A in the American Obesity epidemic

My wife showed me a small bag of FRITOS FLAVOR TWISTS™ Honey BBQ Flavored Corn Chips. These are the sort of thing horrible parents like us sometimes allow their poorly served children to have. This itty bitty snack sized bag contains "4 servings".

Four. 4.

Why did FritoLay corporation decide to call this a "four serving bag"? Maybe it's because one serving has 160 calories and 15% of the fat RDA. So the typical snack sized bag priced at 99 cents, has 640 calories and 60% of the fat RDA.

In other words, one bag has about half the calories the average adult needs in a day.

I used to think the tobacco companies were all alone in the pit of corporate damnation. Philip Morris, meet FritoLay.

Domesticating rats, domesticating humans

Soviet-era geneticists showed they could domesticate foxes and rats in a human lifetime. The tame animals show white spots in their fur, smaller skulls and floppy rounded ears. Now researchers are trying to figure out which genes were selected for. The same genes might have been responsible for the domestication of humans ...
Nice Rats, Nasty Rats: Maybe It’s All in the Genes - New York Times

...Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard, has proposed that people are a domesticated form of ape, the domestication having been self-administered as human societies penalized or ostracized individuals who were too aggressive.

Dr. Paabo said that if Mr. Albert identified the genes responsible for domestication in rats, “we would also look at those genes in humans and apes to see if they might be involved in human evolution.”

Human self-domestication, if it occurred, would probably not have exactly the same genetic basis as tameness in animals. But Mr. Albert said that if he could pinpoint the genetic difference between the tame and ferocious rats, he would compare the chimp genome and the human genome to see if they showed a similar difference.

One possibility is that a handful of genes — perhaps even just one — underlie all the changes seen in domestication. A structure in the embryo of all vertebrates, known as the neural crest, is the source of cells that constitute much of the face, skull and pigment cells, and many parts of the peripheral nervous system and endocrine system. If the genes in the neural crest cells were delayed just a little in coming into action, a whole range of tissues could be affected, including the maturation of the adrenal glands that underlies the first fear response of young animals, Dr. Fitch has written.

Could a single gene that affects the timing of neural crest cell development underlie the whole phenomenon of animal and human domestication? “There would be one happy science Ph.D. student if that were true,” Mr. Albert said.
Of course the domestication of humans might have occurred long before homo sapiens, perhaps in homo erectus. Or maybe it's just ongoing. There may be a tension between domestication and sexual selection behaviors; it would be easy to imagine domestication varying over the course of human history ...

Update 7/26: I didn't give enough thought to the key concept here -- how quickly this transition occurs. Eight generations for the foxes. That's not an eyeblink, it's an instantaneous flip/flop on evolutionary time scales. This wild/tame behavior smells like some kind of evolved "switch mechanism" -- the organism can range from 'viscious' to 'tame' very quickly depending on environmental changes. I think there may even be evidence of this in baboon troupes that have been isolated by rivers and the like. I wonder if this is unique to mammals or if it's seen in birds and other social animals. (Ants, perhaps?)

With this kind of responsiveness isolated groups of humans and pre-humans might have gone back and forth many times over the past million years or so, depending on the local environment. We know the level of violence in medieval times was shocking by today's standards, and we know from gene frequency studies that human evolution can act on surprisingly short time scales. Wouldn't it be interesting if anglo-saxon of 2006 were genetically more domesticated than the anglo-saxon of 1000 ACE?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Using the futures market to predict the efficacy of clinical claims to cure Alzheimer's

The BBC today headlined a claim that  Daily pill to 'cure Alzheimer's'. In mice, of course.

Now there is some justification for the interest in PBT2. It's similar to a medication that's been approved in humans, and they've done some preliminary testing for toxicity in humans. On the other hand, we can cure tons of stuff in mice, and we don't really know the relationship between amyloid and dementia.

In some amounts amyloid seems to help protect the brain from injury, so if you reduce the amyloid you might be enabling another injurious process. (Of course we know of many human disorders where the body overreacts to injury, such that the response is 'worse than the disease'. Amyloid deposition could fall into that category.)

There are a zillion reasons this might not go anywhere. On the other hand, the economic impact of slowing dementia onset is enormous. Many more people would work into their 60s and 70s. (A large number of Americans stop work in their 50s, and numbers are even higher elsewhere.) The social security problems would diminish greatly as would medicare costs (dementia is a slow and costly killer).

So one way to judge how real this is would be to look for movement in the 30 year bond rates and related markets … If one really thought this would work, there would be some interesting speculative opportunities …

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ten decluttering tips

From a web site devoted to ... decluttering. Lord, talk about narrowcasting. Great Tips however. I think my wife might go for this one.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Smoking is good for the earth, bicycling is bad

Before I tell you the story, think about the title. Why would that be true?
. ..... think .... then scroll down ....
It's the longevity, of course (NYT).Incredibly, a witty fellow has earned great fame by pointing out that since bicycling is associated with longevity, bicycles are bad for the environment. Hmm. Sounds obvious, and conversely, smoking is good.

I suspect the tricky part of the paper was showing that whatever one saves on the bicycle, is more than made up in more years of using electricity and consuming stuff. The caveat is that if bicycling is somewhat dangerous, and I wonder if he took the increased trauma risk into full account.

It's a funny story, but the bicyclist author has a serious point to make. Whatever lifestyle changes we make, they can be swamped by increasing lifespan. If gas prices rise we drive less and walk more, using less gas but living longer and thus using more energy ...

Landis on the Tour: The greatest victory in the history of sport?

Floyd Landis is expected to win the Tour de France. If this happens, it will likely be his only win, as he's scheduled to have his osteonecrotic hip replaced after the tour. He will then be able to walk up stairs, but it is unlikely that he'll compete again.

He was profiled in the NYT Magazine a week ago. His physicians thought he was insane to compete, but realized he was beyond mere reason. Landis believed that relentless bicycling would wear a groove in his shriveled femoral head that would enable him to ride competitively. Maybe it did. I would like to see the post-op pictures, I hope Landis will publish them.

A few days ago he was in 11th place. Yesterday, against all reason, he fought his way back to 30 seconds behind the leader. Now he is 59 seconds ahead.

Even if he wins, there may have been greater victories in the history of sport. Maybe. Maybe not.

Update 7/27: Damn.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Cult of Reason and Rand

Yesterday I mentioned Ayn Rand's connection to the oxymoronic phrase 'Kantian Nihilism'. Rand must be particularly memic today, because Brin quotes Stacey quoting Shermer on Randism (Objectivism):
Contrary Brin: An Interesting Guest Posting...

Blake Stacey: "One quick note before I forget: on the subject of Ayn Rand, you should check out (if you haven't already) Michael Shermer's essay 'The Unlikeliest Cult', which was published in **Skeptic** magazine and reprinted as a chapter of his book **Why People Believe Weird Things**. I was able to dredge a copy out of a Google hit parade:

Here's the money quote:

'The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.

If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics.'
I don't know if I'd have phrased it the way Shirmer did, though I agree in part. I don't like the implication that "Truth" cannot be obtained by reason. Yes, Goedel proved that any self-consistent non-trivial system of expression has true statements that cannot be proven, but the phrasing suggests another path to "Truth". We don't know of any.

I would say that Rand's flaw is more that values can be intellectually derived. Most modern geeks try that in their youth and give up [1], but Rand persisted [2]. Human values are a byproduct of natural selection, early environment, and memetic flux. They are emergent, not deduced -- though there is a trend over time and wealth towards values of compassion and tolerance. Rand started with 'freedom' and tried to deduce all else, other's start with 'duty' (she hated that). Both are arbitrary starting points. Most of us ride both horses. Her problem wasn't that she chose a horse to ride, it's that she thought her choice was rational. It wasn't and it can't be.

That's why she's the queen of the Cult of Reason.

PS. Ever notice Rand's stories don't have disabled persons or children in them?

[1] I tried to derive a system that wasn't human centric. Not a pretty result.
[2] Oddly enough, I just remembered I once won some sort of prize for an essay on the emergent nature of human ethics. Forgot about that. It was a long time ago ...

Update 7/23/06: Crooked Timber gives us some more background on why Kant was accused of Nihilism. This was the money line for me:
[Andrew Bowie] ... Kant, who himself avowedly believed in God, was regarded as a threat in his own time because he rejected the idea that philosophy can have access to the (theologically) inbuilt structure of reality. However this aspect of Kant’s thought is understood, it evidently puts into question the idea that the ultimate truth of the world is accessible and therefore constitutes the knowable goal of philosophy or natural science.
So now we understand why the Queen of the Cult of Reason (Rand) would coin the phrase 'Kantian Nihilism'. Kant was an (old) threat to the magical belief of Rand and others that Truth (moral virtue) could be deduced by Reason from First Causes. Doesn't work guys. We've been at it for thousands of years. Ethics is a post-hoc justification for the things humans want to do, and the wants (like everything else about humans) are the result of natural selection, happenstance, and social environment ...

Do plaque causing bacteria secrete a local anesthetic?

If you were a bacteria munching on oral stuff, wouldn't you secrete a local anesthetic? After all, mosquitoes are far less evolved than bacteria, and they've mastered that trick.

I couldn't find anything written about it. Seems like a fun, albeit risky (might turn up nothing), research topic for a dentist somewhere.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kantian Nihilism and Caligulan Propriety

People who get their intellectual history from blogs like this sometimes use the phrase "Kantian Nihilism" as a shorthand for leftie commie pinko traitor sex drugs and rock and roll ideology. Ayn Rand liked it (apparently she was even dimmer than I'd thought).

The term triggers a full scale rant from Obsidian Wing's Hilzoy -- with this memorable sentence ...
Obsidian Wings: My Head, She Explodes!

... Since truth is one but error is infinite, there's no shortage of further subjects for Chris Muir's strips: Leninist anarchism, Kierkegaardian rationalism, Thomist atheism, Nazi Judaism, cautious and sober Maoism, Britney Spearsian profundity, Caligulan propriety and decency, Robespierrian restraint, Mozartian lugubriousness, and of course Muirian thoughtful, well-informed commentary.
Update 7/23: There's more later ...

Kauzlarich campaigns for assertive atheism

I'm of the older, quieter, traditional brand of agnostic/atheistic secular humanist pinko commie geek intellectual.

I have a great deal of sympathy and affection for religious belief and religious people -- despite some knowledge of the dark (very dark) aspects of religious history. I've read and studied more about religion(s) than most believers. People like me find the assertive atheism of the young-uns harsh and unkind.

On the other hand, people like Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich make a more aggressive stance understandable ...
Pharyngula: IOKIYAC

... Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: 'When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.'...

Why can't scientists come to agreement about global warming?

So asks Peggy Noonan.

The words 'moron' and 'idiot' are tainted by their original use to describe persons with cognitive disability. We need an entirely new term to describe people with fully functional nervous systems whose deep personality flaws cause them to think like a pithed frog.

I suggest Noonatic.

Cringely 1997 - WinTrust, IE and the death of Netscape

In a recent column Cringely mentioned that his archives go back to 1997. Net eons ago. And so they do. Here he writes about something called WinTrust, which sounds like Google Checkout. (Anyone remember Microsoft Wallet? No, I didn't think so.) He also claims that the future of the net is in Cybercash (no, didn't happen), online transactions (duh) and advertising (oh, yes).
I, Cringely . November 17, 1997 - Take a billionaire to lunch | PBS

... And then there's WinTrust: Microsoft is laying the groundwork so that all electronic transactions will go through Redmond. This may be the real reason Microsoft is pushing IE4 onto the OEMs so hard.

Cybercash, online transactions, Internet advertising. The browser is simply the front door to these innovative services/profit centers. The only way to make sure everyone will see those centers is to make sure everyone uses Microsoft's browser. Netscape has no interest in enabling WinTrust, so Netscape must die. Microsoft will gladly give away the browser for free regardless of the presence of Netscape just to be sure they can control the online gateway. From a business standpoint, this is sheer brilliance. But to some folks it's Big Brother coming from Washington state instead of DC.
Cringely was claiming Microsoft's original agenda was not a defensive move against Netscape, but rather an offensive move to direct all transactions through Microsoft. In retrospect, I don't think they were so clever.

Israel and Lebanon: why I can't condemn Bush (for once)

I've never been in a war. I would prefer not to be. Those who've read me will not mistake me for a Bushie, a neo-con, or a chicken-hawk.


Hezbollah is a terrorist organization embedded in Lebanon deep among the civillian population. They claimed to have 10,000 missiles and they were lobbing them into Israel. How wrong is Israel to invade Lebanon? Certainly they seem to have as strong a claim as the US had to invade Afghanistan (heck, Jimmy Carter supported that!), and a far stronger claim than the US had to invade Iraq.
Early Warning by William M. Arkin -

... When the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and former war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour raises war crimes and argues that there is 'indiscriminate shelling of cities,' I guess she is referring to Hezbollah's indiscriminate attacks upon Israel. I might not like what Israel is doing, and my personal tendency might be anti-war, but I just don't see war crimes or indiscriminate anything in Israel's conduct.
I remember when Isreal was internationally attacked for going into Gaza City in pursuit of embedded terrorists. They were intensely criticized, and I joined in as well. I read the follow-up, however. In retrospect Israel's conduct during that assault was at least as "cautious" as the US seems capable of executing, and maybe even a cut above what we can do - even when we're trying.

I believe Bush will move with deliberate slowness, barely cooperating with international diplomatic efforts, aiming to give Israel a window in which to attack Hezbollah. This is one of the rare times I'm not absolutely certain Bush is being incompetent or wrong.

PS. Even more oddly, I sort-of-barely-sympathize with Bush's stem cell research veto. I think the nation is very much in denial about the "slippery slopes" in biotech and we do need more public engagement than we've had.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tom sees Tomorrow: a political cartoon

Tom Tomorrow draws cartoons from the left. Today he juxtaposes a 2003 cartoon with a 2006 news story. It really is worth following the links; only a minute required.

For the tiny fraction that reads it, the seemingly ephemeral blogosphere is a kind of emergent memory. Ironically it has much longer recall than traditional media.

The astounding speed of human genetic transformation: The Germanization of Britain

Really dumb title. Fascinating research with immense implications:
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Britain 'had apartheid society'

... There are a very high number of Germanic male-line ancestors in England's current population. Genetic research has revealed the country's gene pool contains between 50 and 100% Germanic Y-chromosomes...

... Estimates range between 10,000 and 200,000 [germanic] Anglo-Saxons migrating into England between 5th and 7th Century AD, compared with a native population of about two million.

To understand what might have happened all of those years ago, UK scientists used computer simulations to model the gene pool changes that would have occurred with the arrival of such small numbers of migrants.

The team used historical evidence that suggested native Britons were at a substantial economic and social disadvantage compared to the Anglo-Saxon settlers.

The researchers believe this may have led to a reproductive imbalance giving rise to an ethnic divide.

Ancient texts, such as the laws of Ine, reveal that the life of an Anglo-Saxon was valued more than that of a native's.

Dr Mark Thomas, an author on the research and an evolutionary biologist from University College London (UCL), said: "By testing a number of different combinations of ethnic intermarriage rates and the reproductive advantage of being Anglo-Saxon, we found that under a very wide range of different combinations of these factors we would get the genetic and linguistic patterns we see today.

"The native Britons were genetically and culturally absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons over a period of as little as a few hundred years," Dr Thomas added.

"An initially small invading Anglo-Saxon elite could have quickly established themselves by having more children who survived to adulthood, thanks to their military power and economic advantage.

"We believe that they also prevented the native British genes getting into the Anglo-Saxon population by restricting intermarriage in a system of apartheid that left the country culturally and genetically Germanised.
Astounding. Vastly outnumered by the indigenous peoples, the newcomer's advantages combined with selective mating meant a complete ethnic and genetic conquest in mere centuries. I would never have guessed this. I wonder if it explains what happened to the Neandertals. In that case the Cro Magnon immigrants probably didn't interbreed very much and might have had very significant technological advantages. The Neandertals might have vanished, by the standards of history, overnight.

This is one of a series of stories emphasizing that the human genome has been under extensive selection pressure in the past thousand year, far more than most biologists had once thought.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Does Alzheimer's cause diabetes?

Kudos to a cautious article in the NYT which is careful to write that a study "links" Diabetes and Alzheimer's, without saying it's a diabetes -> Alzheimer's relationship -- even though the study director thinks it is. Note this quote:
Studies Link Diabetes to Risk of Alzheimer’s - New York Times

... More recently, though, scientists have begun to think that the diseases are connected in other ways as well. In both, destructive deposits of amyloid, a type of protein, build up: in the brain in Alzheimer’s, in the pancreas in Type 2 diabetes...
Which leaves open the possibility that a defect related to amyloid accumulation underlies some cases of both beta cell failure and neuronal failure. At one point islet cells where thought to derive from neural crest tissue, but that appears to have been disproven. Alas, the origin of stem cells is rather a popular topic and hard to approach in a quick google search ... Certainly a connection to the cells afflicted by Alzheimer's would support a shared etiology ...

Godchecker: why I love the web

It's stuff like this that renews my faith in the power of the web (credit - Pharyngula): - Your Guide To The Gods. Mythology with a twist

Welcome to Godchecker - your Guide to the Gods

We have more Gods than you can shake a stick at. Godchecker's Mythology Encyclopedia currently features over 2,850 deities.

Browse the pantheons of the world, explore ancient myths, and discover Gods of everything from Fertility to Fluff with the fully searchable Holy Database Of All Known Gods.
It's a treasure trove for fantasy, comic book and other writers. Consider Itzamna.

Yes, it's irreverent (thousands of deities will do that to a person), but it's a brilliant idea and it's a window on one of the central preoccupations of the past 10,000 years of human existence. A vast amount of creativity over thousands of years, combined with the invisible hand of memetic selection, and the peculiar invention of the web, has produced this work. Raise a glass to it!

PS. What's with spiders?! They have their own flock of deities ...

Monday, July 17, 2006

The risks of photographing your children

A man takes pictures of his children on a camping trip. They're naked. His life becomes "a living hell".

Positive predictive value is a very subtle concept [1], but somehow we need to teach it far more widely. In the meanwhile, be very careful about the children's pictures.

Update 7/18/06

[1] In this case the "test" is the judgment of the clerk at the photography store. Given that the prior probability of pornography in family photographs publicly developed is probably much less than 1%, even if the clerks have spectacularly good judgment the vast majority of "positive" results will in fact be false positives. In the world of medicine, this test would not be FDA approved.

Brad DeLong and the crisis of modern journalism

The president propagandizes (lies) about tax cuts paying for themselves. Journalists, with the honorable exceptions of the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, respond with he said/she said stories. DeLong blows a gasket.

I must be in the Zeitgeist. This is a more topical variant on the topic I raised earlier today -- why are journalists (and politicians) so disconnected from knowledge?

Here's my theory on the he said/she said practice that's destroyed modern jounalism, and, claims DeLong, threatens our society.

Newspapers are weak nowadays. Their business models (advertising) are under threat. Rove has perfected techniques to punish the disobedient. Journalists fear for their jobs and livelihood. The he said/she said routine allows one to tell half the truth -- without offending the powerful. Why should a journalist point out the president is lying, and lose their job, when nobody seems to care?

Oh wait, I've pointed the finger at the American people again. Funny how that works in a democracy. In this case, though, there is a mitigating factor. The economic collapse of newspapers is driven by technological transformation, not the result of societal disinterest alone. If our society endures we'll find a replacement for newspapers, but in the meantime their failing business model is hurting all of us ...

The 9th century civil war in Baghdad

The Abassid Caliphs (762 - 935 ACE) was an average In Our Time programme -- meaning it's quite excellent [1]. I was enjoying a 2nd listening on my morning commute when I realized I'd missed a major connection on the first go-round. They were discussing the civil war that destroyed much of 9th century (812-813 ACE) Baghdad, a war between the "western" Arabs and the "eastern" Persian forces fought in part over the requirements for becoming Caliph. One side insisted that only descendants of the Prophet were eligible, the other wanted power to be open to any devout and well educated Muslim.

Obviously twelve hundred years is not that long in the Middle East, but we knew that.

I suspect this connection is so obvious to most educated Iraqis that it probably goes unremarked. Certainly any scholar of the period would have thought of it when Bush first threatened invasion.

What I find curious is that I hadn't read this before. I don't read everything, but I do read quite a bit... Why is there such a gap between those who write for newspapers and the rest of the world? How can we better connect journalists to knowledge? [2]

[1] See my note on how to get these archival shows on your iPod.

[2] Of course even I don't dare wonder about connecting politicians to knowledge ... Imagine a world in which the President had to compete a training program before ascending to power ... in which senators went to class ... in which 'In Our Time' was the core of a required program of study ... A silly thought. On the other hand, isn't that what the US military does? Don't we require board exams and continuing education of physicians? In an increasingly complex world, why don't we require examination and certification of politicians? Maybe a 'no senator left behind program ... With public review of the results of course ... Heh, heh, heh...

Marine Philip Carter on the disaster of reducing the standards for soldiers

[As noted in the comments, I'd remembered Phillip's history incorrectly. He also spells his first name with two Ls! Arrgghh. I'd correct the title but since Blogger uses the title as the link (terrible practice) that would break any links. Apologies to Mr. Carter.]

Phillip Carter was a former marine soldier and a newly minted lawyer, scholar and journalist when he again became a marine soldier to serve in Iraq.

Phillip is extreme. I'm sure the Bushies are capable of ignoring him, but he must make them feel a wee bit queasy.

Today he tells us the lesson taught by the Steven Green rape/murder charges. Mr. Green is accused of raping a 14 yo Iraqi girl and murdering her and her family to cover up his crime. If this is true then he is a troubled and bad man who will likely be executed.

That's not the lesson. The lesson is that Mr. Green should never have been a soldier. He did not meet the military standards in place prior to the conquest of Iraq. He was recruited because the army was desperate -- they couldn't fill their quotas. They lowered the barrier and Mr. Green became a warrior.

Mr. Carter has written quite a bit on this topic on his blog and in print. Read the story and follow the links at the end.

Do not believe those who claim our military is in fine shape. We don't have the force structure to fight the war(s) we're now in. Mr. Carter has some suggestions ...

Richard Neill: The case against pay for performance

Richard has assembled a diverse set of links on the case gainst P4P: "The result of this thinking is P4P programs that promote physician behaviors that detract from the demonstrably valuable task of balancing complex competing co-morbidities to achieve improved outcomes.".

It reminds me of 'no child left behind'. From a special needs perspective I have mixed feelings. On the one hand testing less capable children makes it harder to ignore them. On the other hand, it creates paradoxical incentives to make them disappear. I think we'll learn similar lessons when we emerge from the other side of P4P.

When I was a real doctor, most of my patients were "special needs". Sure they were diabetic, but that wasn't necessarily their biggest problem -- or even in the top 3. Strange, but true. You dealt with what they were ready to deal with, and negotiated between the physician's priority and the patient's priority.

P4P will happen. It lets payors reduce payments, so it's inevitable. (Surely you were not so naive as to think P4P really meant extra money for doing well, rather than cuts for not doing well?) It will cause good and harm, but in the end I suspect Richard will be proven right.

Average age for mobile phone in Britain

This was a throwaway line at the end of an article on IPv6:
340,282,366,920,938,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 new web addresses created by internet chiefs . . . so we won't run out of space soon, then - World - Times Online:

8 The average age at which a child gets a mobile phone in Britain.
Huh? Age 8? Come on.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Mommy, what's smoking?

On the one hand, girls and women smoke for weight control and the foul spawn of satan are marketing candy flavored tobacco.

On the other hand, our 7 yo asks "Mommy, what is smoking" when reading a children's story from the 1960s. That's when we realize that nobody smokes in our neighborhood. Nobody. Our children don't see people inhaling burning materials.

Tonight my date* and I had a beer at a local bar -- which has been smoke free for a few months - along with the rest of the metro area. It was very pleasant.

When I was 7 I definitely knew what smoking was, and I knew about cleaning ashtrays. It's easy to miss progress.

* aka my spouse

DeLong, Mankiw, Krugman and why Paul should leave the NYT

Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw are having a 3 way debate. Paul writes in the NYT, a sad place to be now that he's behind the Paywall (more below). Brad champions Paul in DeLong's blog, Mankiw challenges Paul (and Brad) from his blog. Spectators chime in from the comments section and kibitzers add items in their own blogs. It's all very 21st century.

Mankiw represents a rare breed, the hyper-intelligent and articulate "Republican" (actually, I'm not sure he's Republican, but he did work for Bush for a while). [1] Paul and Brad are Clinton democrats. So it's a great discussion. Today Brad writes:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The Pattern of Growth in Income Inequality

...The big rise in inequality in the U.S. since 1980 has been overwhelmingly concentrated among the top 1% of income earners: their share has risen from 8% in 1980 to 16% in 2004. By contrast, the share of the next 4% of income earners has only risen from 13% to 15%, and the share of the next 5% of income earners has stuck at 12%. The top 1% have gone from 8 to 16 times average income, the next 4% have gone from 3.2 to 3.7 times average income, and the next 5% have been stuck at 3 times average income...
Mankiw argues that talent and education is worth more than it was, Krugman/DeLong agree that's probably true below the 99th percentile, but the real gains are a "market failure" presumably resulting from the actions of a corrupted legislature (my summary, read the articles to draw your own conclusion).

It's great to see this debate, and it shows again that the the NYT is dying. Krugman can't respond in detail because he's constrained by his 700 word limit. We can't read him directly because the NYT is desperate and needs Krugman to pull in subscribers. One result is we've lost Paul's voice. That's not good.

I'd like to see a major paper lure Paul away, and have Krugman negotiate two things: no paywalls and a blog extension of the printed column ...

[1] Most intelligent Republicans are silent these days, shamed by the glories of Bush.

Why the second front?

Why has Israel gone to war now with both Hezbollah and Hamas? Why did Hezbollah and Hamas choose to incite Israel now?

Obviously I don't have any inside information, or even any expert knowledge. So I'll resort to what one usually does when one is ignorant; I'll imagine There's a logical explanation.

I'm George Bush. There's a civil war in Iraq and US forces are strained. Iran and Syria are using Iraq for their own ends, which includes trying to keep the US tied down. (That's what I'd do if I were Iran and Syria, because it's entirely reasonable to fear Bush will go after me next.)

What can Bush do? He could open a second front -- give Iran and Syria something else to worry about. Except he doesn't want to attack them directly -- not with a US senate election coming up. Maybe he knows Israel is worried about Hamas and Hezbollah anyway. So he gives Israel an explicity statement of support -- if you decide to go after these guys, we'll guard your back and funnel supplies as needed.

And so there's a second front.

I don't know if any of this is a good idea, but Bushian incompetence has foreclosed most of the good ideas. All that's left now are the bad ideas. It makes a kind of sense ...

Update 7/21/06: At least one person who's not ignorant came to the same conclusion, though he portrays Israel as an unwitting tool of the Bush agenda. I think it's more of a cooperative decison.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fountain of reason or den of chaos? The best news is ...

One of Brad DeLong's hobbies is ripping the New York Times and (especially) the Washington Post for crummy journalism. In general, he makes his case well. On the other hand, people who read DeLong would probably agree with him:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: "If You Really Want to Know What's Going on, I Recommend Sticking to the Blogs":

But this is the world in which we live in: respected weblogs run by intelligent commentators with good track records and strong senses of honor are our best information sources these days.
The more mainstream journalists criticize the "rabid blogosphere", the more panicky they seem. The people on my bloglist are simply more informed, intelligent, and rational than 99% of what I read in the NYT or elsewhere. I don't know why that is so. Many the people I read are journalists and writers, so it's not a problem with journalists per se. My guess is that something's broken about the way the work of journalists gets turned into newspaper columns...

The universe as an engine

Serendipity brought the non-zero vacuum energy and thermodynamics into my head recently, which led to a science fictional idea.

Engines work because energy flows "downhill". You can't do work with the vacuum energy because it has nowhere to go. Now if one could connect to a universe with a different vacuum energy, one could presumably do work. One might even bring universes of differing vacuum energies into being simply for this purpose. And thus the science fiction story -- the vacuum energy of our universe is rising because an entity is pouring energy into it from another universe ...

There's got to be a short story in there somewhere.

The Yahoo death spiral: firefox incompatible

Yahoo's new map service doesn't work properly with Firefox. Forget Safari. Same story with their mail beta.


Yahoo was fingered recently in a NYT spyware expose -- they funded malignant spyware installation.


Conclusion -- irregardless of whatever anyone may be saying, Yahoo's days are numbered. Look for an acquisition. Microsoft has their choice of either AOL or Yahoo and both are playing as nice as they can. My guess is that Yahoo goes to Microsoft and AOL disintegrates with Google picking up most of the pieces.

Mac Attack the Minneapolis Star Tribune!

Mac users of the world unite! It's time to savage the Minneapolis Star Tribune -- my home town paper. (We had another, but it's been acquired for shredding purposes.)

Umm, seriously. Strib pages take minutes to load in Safari; they load well in Firefox/Mac. It's one of the irritating glitches that's pushing me to use only Firefox, despite its lack of Cocoa goodness and OS X services. When Firefox goes Cocoa (soon, soon) Safari will be toast.

Which is a shame, since I like Safari better. It's snappier, has far better printing, looks nicer, etc.

What to do? The Strib ignores my plaintive emails. So we need a bigger voice! All OS X fans are called upon to do two things:
1. Visit a few Strib pages with Safari and verify the agonizing slowness, then send feedback to the Strib. I suggest the Content:News link, there's no feedback link for site problems (suggest that too!).

2. On the Safari toolbar, click the bug icon on the right and send a report including the page code and image.
I'm betting this is a Strib bug that FF and IE handle better than Safari. Whatever, send feedback!

The limits of statistical methods: health, wealth and smoking

Rich people live longer than poor people.

We used to say this was because rich people took better care of themselves and smoked less, wore seatbelts, got vaccinated, had dental care, bettery bypass surgery, better breast cancer care, etc.

Then, a few years ago, a meme developed that the gap was due largely to power relationships. There was something about being on top that made one live longer (presumably this would be true of other social animals). The statisticians claimed that they'd controlled for the effects of smoking, seat belts, etc.

Now, smoking is back [2]:
Smoking is to blame for half of the difference in male death rates between men in the top and bottom social classes, say international researchers...
Half is quite a bit considering that researchers previously thought they'd accounted for the effects of smoking on mortality gaps.

We've seen this many times in healthcare research over the past decades -- case control research is essential and suggestive, but caution is always indicated.

We can't randomize infants to being rich or poor, or switch thousands of accountants and CEOs, so there's no alternative to population research. The results become more persuasive when reinforced by other lines of inquiry [1]. So if the power=health meme is reinforced by animal studies where one can randomize status it becomes stronger, but smoking is a powerfully proven source of mortality.

Occam's razor favors smoking as the simplest explanation for mortality differences, and researchers know that, so for me this is really a story about how hard it is to draw strong conclusions from population studies.

The battle will go on, and power relationships may indeed be more important as smoking decreases, because we need data to guide policy. Is it better to put effort into immunization adherence, smoking bans, breast cancer screening or liver transplants [3]?


[1] Science is about consistent and reinforcing models, each supported by variable amoungs of testable predictions. Where tests are less rigorous, we rely more on integration with other parts of the knowledge model.

[2] The slimeballs haven't given up yet, btw.

[3] The transplant bit was a joke. To date reducing the rich/poor mortality gap has seemed either relatively inexpensive (seatbelt laws, immunization, smoking bans) or impossible (substance abuse, power relationships). If things like expensive biosubstances, transplants, or stem cell therapies become more important the social strains will be significant.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Income growth in 2004 and exponential gaps

DeLong channels Krugman, now hidden from us by the NYT's paywall:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Krugman - The Further Derangement of the U.S. Income Distribution

... Here's what happened in 2004. The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent, a very good number. Yet last August the Census Bureau reported that real median family income -- the purchasing power of the typical family -- actually fell.

... in 2004 the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans surged by almost 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of the population rose only 1.5 percent. In other words, a relative handful of people received most of the benefits of growth.... Even people at the 95th percentile of the income distribution -- that is, people richer than 19 out of 20 Americans -- gained only modestly. The big increases went only to people who were already in the economic stratosphere.... [T]he real earnings of the typical college graduate actually fell in 2004.
Real earnings are after inflation. So the vast majority of US productivity gains in 2004 went to the wealthiest 1%. Everyone else fought over the scraps, with college grads actually losing ground (hmmm, outsourcing influence? It's hard to outsource plumbing, easy to outsource accounting).

The top 1% is departing from the bottom 99% at an exponential rate -- ascending to a neo-medieval world of relative power.

The curious thing about this is that Americans don't seem to care. I've heard the usual explanations of this (everyone thinks they might get rich too) and I find them hard to believe. On the other hand, I've realized in my old age that I'm not much like other people [1] and I can't really model their thinking ...

[1] The fact that this came to me rather late in life says something about my perceptual limitations ...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Democrat fund raising: incompetence or dirty tricks?

We worked pretty hard for the Kerry campaign. Our reward now is relentless spam from Minnesota DFL candidates and phone calls from other groups claiming to be related to democratic candidates. I believe the political parties are exempt from the telemarketer laws, so they have free rein. It's so obnoxious my wife jokes that these must be undercover GOP initiatives, trying to drive away funding for liberal candidates.

Well, full credit to the tricksters if there are any -- it's working. I suspect, however, that this is the result of sheer, unadulterated, incompetence and stupidity rather than sabotage.

I bet the GOP isn't nearly this braindead about exploiting their donors.

If there are any grown-ups with influence in dem fund raising -- wake-up! You're going to drive the party off a cliff. Stop the spam (the 'take me off your list' links only work transiently, we get added back in periodically), stop the calls, rethink this.

Or maybe it's all Libertarian tricksters ...

PS. The Dems should take some lessons from CARE Intl. When we first sent them a donation I wrote that I'd stop the moment they bugged me for more. They put me on some kind of 'if you call this guy you die' list -- we never get anything. Every year they get their check.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Contextual Google Ad above my Gmail spam list

French Fry Spam Casserole - Bake 30-40 minutes.

Cute. Google has finally added a 'delete all spam' link. It took out 6500 items at once -- 30 days of spam.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Physics in crisis: the non-zero vacuum energy

When I did my BS in 1981, I bought a copy of Thorne, Wheeler and Meisner's 'Gravitation'. I figured I'd study it in retirement, with a computer aide to do the math for me. It's a marvels book, one of the most extraordinary textbooks I've seen anywhere. My copy is autographed by Kip Thorne.

I think of that book now when I read of a conference Thorne attended, a Caribbean party for celebrity cosmologists. This comes from a report of the meeting:
Edge: THE ENERGY OF EMPTY SPACE THAT ISN'T ZERO: A Talk with Lawrence Krauss

...When you apply quantum mechanics and special relativity, empty space inevitably has energy. The problem is, way too much energy. It has 120 orders of magnitude more energy than is contained in everything we see!...

...One of the greatest developments in physics in the 20th century was to realize that when you incorporate special relativity in quantum mechanics you have virtual particles that can pop in and out of existence, and they change the nature of a hydrogen atom, because a hydrogen atom isn't just a proton and electron.

That's the wrong picture, because every now and then you have an electron positron pair that pops into existence. And the electron is going to want to hang around near the proton because it's oppositely charged, the positron is going to be pushed out to the outskirts of the atom, and while they're there they change the charged distribution in the atom in a very small, but calculable, way. Feynman and others calculated that effect, which allows us to get agreement between theory and observation at the level of nine decimal places. It's the best prediction in all of science. There's no other place in science where, from fundamental principles, you can calculate a number and compare it to an experiment at nine decimal places like that.

But then when we ask, if they're there, how much should they contribute to the energy in the universe, we come up with the worst prediction in physics. It says if empty space has so much energy we shouldn't be here. And physicists like me, theoretical physicists, knew they had the answer. They didn't know how to get there. It reminds me or the Sidney Harris cartoon where you've got this big equation, and the answer, and the middle step says "And then a miracle occurs". And then one scientist says to another, "I think you have to be a little more specific at this step right here".

The answer had to be zero. The energy of empty space had to be precisely zero. Why? Because you've got these virtual particles that are apparently contributing huge amounts of energy, you can imagine in physics, how underlying symmetries in nature can produce exact cancellations — that happens all the time. Symmetries produce two numbers that are exactly equal and opposite because somewhere there's an underlying mathematical symmetry of equations. So that you can understand how symmetries could somehow cause an exact cancellation of the energy of empty space.

But what you couldn't understand was how to cancel a number to a hundred and twenty decimal places and leave something finite left over. You can't take two numbers that are very large and expect them to almost exactly cancel leaving something that's 120 orders of magnitude smaller left over. And that's what would be required to have an energy that was comparable with the observational upper limits on the energy of empty space.

We knew the answer. There was a symmetry and the number had to be exactly zero. Well, what have we discovered? There appears to be this energy of empty space that isn't zero! This flies in the face of all conventional wisdom in theoretical particle physics...
This is the best summary of the physics dilemma I've read. The same math leads to a perfect prediction and a perfectly outrageous prediction. So we know the physics is very broken, but we don't have a path to follow. The best minds in the world can't come up with experiments to guide us. No wonder physicsts are extremely frustrated! I just hope I see a breakthrough before I get to meet Einstein in person ...

PS. Virtual particles came courtesy of Richard Feynman. I have his books too, but he was a much better lecturer than textbook writer.

Apple and Blackberry: be still my heart

My marriage to the Palm has been on the rocks for years. She's never been the same since she got a color screen, and let's not talk about the many tormented assignations with Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, the binge crashing, the discarded styli ... A dysfunctional menage a quatre, bien sur.

In despair I've contemplated whatever the heck Microsoft calls their PDA platform these days. Is it Microsoft Pouch now? I've stayed away because I don't know any geeks still using one of those Microsoft thingies. As bad as Palm is, and it's awful bad, Microsoft must be even worse.

All hope abandoned, I gaze longingly at Amazon's Blackberry reviews. Wow, those are enthusiastic users. Reminds me of the Palm Pilot -- before she sold her soul for rock and roll. Alas, Blackberry is all about Exchange servers and Windows -- and I'm a Mac guy at heart (no matter that I know XP far too well).

Which is why I will throw caution to the winds and believe this rumor:
Independent Online Edition > Business News:

... Apple is also said to be closing in on a new product launch in collaboration with Research in Motion, the maker of the Blackberry...
Forget the wireless music stuff. I've got plenty of CDs to listen to, thanks. It's the Blackberry integration I want -- especially if Apple/RIM supports multi-machine sync with the ability to select what syncs on a given machine (eg. Home/Work separation). Believe.... I must believe ....

I feel like the Newts when Jobs killed the Newton, praying that the US Robotics PalmPilot would save them ...

An excellent article on sociopaths and the military

I haven't blogged on the alleged rape/murder incident in Iraq because I had nothing to say. It sounded like true criminality, whereas the Haditha incidents are more complex. I do want to point out an excellent NYT discusion however. Mr Carey provides a good background and discusses the distinctions between an elite special forces soldier and a superficially similar sociopath.

Update 7/11: FMH is more critical of the article, and brings his psychiatric expertise to bear. Good discussion.

CallerID scams: the perils of flawed trust mechanisms

As Schneier repeatedly tells us, there's a big risk to a trusted identity mechanism. For example, expedited airport security checks based on special IDs increases the risks of a flaw in the ID mechanism. That's what's happened to caller ID, with unsurprising consequences: - Caller ID scammers plan to do a number on you:

...The AARP Bulletin recently reported a scam in which people received fraudulent calls claiming they missed jury duty and asking for their Social Security number. The calls seemed legitimate because the telephone number of the localcourthouse showed up on caller ID.

In Pennsylvania, constituents of Republican Rep. Tim Murphy were flooded with bogus calls from someone purporting to be from Murphy's office.

The primary worry for consumers is that if a call appears to be coming from their bank, credit card company or a government agency, they could be persuaded to give up financial data a thief could use to open new bank accounts or apply for loans and credit cards.

'It's a new way to scam people, because people rely on caller ID,' says Sid Kirchheimer, author of 'Scam-Proof Your Life' and the AARP Bulletin's Scam Watch columnist."
Sigh. This one came out shortly after I posted my essay on the threats ahead. Not far ahead evidently. The USA today article comes with a set of recommended safeguards; they remind me of the 'duck and cover' recommendations for nuclear attack ...

All the vulnerable people: eFraud, aging and special needs

Eight years ago I wrote a web page on Fighting Spam. That was a year after I'd first suggested to an ISP (Mindspring then) that they provide spam filtering services.

Alas, the spam deluge continues. My Gmail spam filter was stable at 5500 spams/month for about a year, but now it's up to 6500 spams/month. The zombie bots are getting worse.

Spam is bad, and it's sad that we still haven't adopted relatively inexpensive fixes like reputation management of authenticated sending services. I've come to realize, however, that the problems of spam are only the leading edge, the snout in the door, of something much worse. The most dangerous spam is increasingly about fraudulent schemes; desperate corporations like Vonage, Cingular, Yahoo and Delta are only marginal contributors. The spam is spawning phishing, splogs, and VOIP supported phone fraud, combining age old scams like the Publisher's Clearinghouse parasite, state lotteries, or "low interest credit card" scams with new technologies.

These fraud strategies are merging, morphing, and evolving with extraordinary speed, fueled by the worldnet. Charles Stross writes about sentient financial instruments, but one could as easily see how fraud strategies might be an even better candidate for emergent sentience [1]. Even as this happens, the prey population is growing with the aging of the wealthy western nations and the predator population is growing as the young and the desperate come online.

It takes a fair bit of intelligence, discipline and experience to see through these schemes and to to monitor one's human frailties. My handful of readers are likely immune. Not so our aging parents, not so the 50% of our population with IQs under 100. One day, all too soon, my IQ too will drop below some magic threshhold and I will join the population of the vulnerable. Most of us will, unless we die first. An increasingly complex world will offer endless opportunities for highly refined schemes to separate the vulnerable from their assets.

We're going to have to evolve new systems of defense, trust relationships, identity management and reputation management. Developing these systems will be a major social challenge over the next few decades. In the meantime, encourage your parents, and your vulnerable family members, to consult about their financial decisions.

[1] One of the leading theories for a driving force behind the evolution of the human mind is fraud detection and fraud invention.

Update 2/1/2010: See also - Phishing with the post-Turing avatar

Exploding LiOn batteries and air travel

[see update for my second thoughts]

I hadn't paid much attention to June reports of an exploding Lithium ion battery. This happens every few years, sometimes there are product recalls, sometimes not. Today a NYT article on the impact on Dell piqued my curiousity, and I read the Inquirer article. The pictures sure are impressive.

In the story a witness is quoted: "..It is only a matter of time until such an incident breaks out on a plane...". Hmm. Good point. When I was in high school a rogue lab tech demonstrated the joy of Lithium by dropping a chunk of it in a pan of water. That was one of my more memorable learning experiences. Lithium is wonderously reactive.

So how long before LiOn batteries are banned from air travel? It must now have occurred to a large number of people that a rare accident could be engineered into a planned event.

Update: Hmm. Second thoughts. There's not that much lithium in those batteries. Was that fireball photoshopped? Was there a big pile of paper beneath the laptop? One can set fire to a bag of newspaper and get a fireball on an airplane too ... I'd like to see a 'Dan's Data' analysis, but I suspect the FAA considered this problem a while back and decided it wasn't worth worrying about ...

Update 7/10: Dan did a quick private analysis for me and pointed to this public resource. Suffice to say LiOn batteries are not a security threat. The email from Dan also caused me to reflect again on something that's become apparent over the past five years.

Most terrorists, like almost all criminals, are not very bright. If someone like Dan went bad, the threat would be far greater -- but it's evidently rare for a truly bright or imaginative person to join a group like al Qaeda. Even their very few elite agents, like Atta or Zawahiri, were/are only a bit above average. I think that's the main thing that's kept us going, but it wasn't obvious to me when I wrote this.

Update 7/17/06But on third thought ...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Empire strikes back - An Apple employee on the dangers of tech blogs

Last week I wrote about the revenge of the consumer. Now I'll give some airtime to someone from the other side:
After Apple - We Are, I’m Afraid, Only Human

.... So some guy on a blog writing that Apple are saying that MacBook top cases are being replaced when they are not doesn’t help anyone. Not the pissed off customer who travelled thirty miles to the Store, not the Genius, no-one. So please blog writers, and yes, you know who you are, for the love of God stop writing this nonsense as if you know what you are talking about because you don’t and you are doing more damage than you could possibly imagine in your wildest nightmares. Seriously. Apple are damm good at admitting mistakes and when there is a need for a product recall everyone will know about it on the support pages of the website or if you have registered your product correctly a direct email will inform you. Even if the product is out of warranty Apple will honour the repair if it’s been officially announced. Most electronics manufacturers don’t do this sort of thing for their customers, Apple do. Most electronic manufacturers don’t have a free tech support area in their Store, if they even have a Store in the first place, Apple do. Blog writers are not the authority, Apple are, that’s not arrogance, it’s a fact.
Hmm. Food for thought. I'm biased by my experience with 3 consecutive defective 3rd generation iPods (I kept the last one rather than go for yet another return -- the usb sync doesn't work), but my iBook video fears turned out to be misplaced. Macintouch has made a valiant effort to look deeper, and they find some Apple products have unusually high defect rates and some are remarkably solid. (The G4 iBooks are a wonder of reliability, the 3rd generation iPods were somewhat lemony.) I remain suspicious about the quality of Apple's central repair services -- even the sober minded Macintouch site cautions against buying Apple refurbished laptops.

On the other hand I do believe Apple is far more responsive and supportive than Dell, and vastly better than SONY, Panasonic, etc. I'll try to give them a bit more credit than I have ...

Spyware companies: Yahoo, Delta, Cingular

Business Week has written an expose of a spyware company -- Direct Revenue. Take careful note of their paying customers and investors:
Spyware developers net huge profits, outrage - Tech News & Reviews -

Spyware rakes in an estimated $2 billion a year in revenue, or about 11percent of all Internet ad business, says the research firm IT-Harvest. Direct Revenue's direct customers have included such giants as Delta Air Lines and Cingular Wireless. It has sold millions of dollars of advertising passed along by Yahoo. ..
I'll be looking to avoid these three companies in the future. Yahoo must be in worse shape than the industry has realized. What they $#@$#! was Cingular thinking?

Update: A few others to live in infamy. Emphases mine:
By early 2005, Direct Revenue had notched deals with JPMorgan Chase, Delta, and the Internet phone company Vonage, according to former sales staffers and Direct Revenue documents. Cingular Wireless spent more than $100,000 a month at the peak of its relationship with Direct Revenue, current and former employees say. Direct Revenue put Cingular pop-ups in front of other phone companies' Web sites and news sites such as the one affiliated with tech magazine Wired. Vonage, meanwhile, was billed $110 for each customer that Direct Revenue delivered, according to a sales report from July, 2005. For that month, Direct Revenue billed Vonage for 287 new customers, or $31,570.

JPMorgan Chase confirms that it advertised with a Direct Revenue unit through the middle of last year, but says it was unaware of any spyware activity. Delta and Cingular declined to comment. Vonage didn't respond to inquiries.

...Many major companies, such as Cingular and Yahoo, have severed connections with Direct Revenue. But the ads of others, including Vonage, continue to appear in Direct Revenue pop-ups. Insight and TICC remain investors.
Vonage's share price is in free fall. They're making deals with devils, but it won't help them ...

Charles Stross and the Fermi Paradox

Charles Stross is a former pharmacist, former programmer and journalist, certified geek, and current full time writer. Most people would tag him as 'science fiction' writer. From what I've read of his journals, and especially his books, he's terribly bright and very imaginative.

Accelerando is one of his commercially successful books (you can scan it for free before you buy). The amateur Amazon reviews are well done (one of the two 'professional' reviews is by someone who didn't read the book); I can't add much to them. The book does not fully succeed as a novel -- it was published as a series of short stories and it doesn't hang together all that well. There are some annoying plot holes (no security on the goggles? Did one of the lead characters flee to alpha centauri or commit suicide? Why is Pierre asking what happened - he was there?!), some dangling and overly fluid characters, and too many synopses of 'what went before'. The writing itself is professional, and that's no mean trick, but the work would have needed a harsher editor and a complete rewrite to fly as a novel.

That's ok, because it's really a series of speculative essays disguised as a novel -- and the thinking is deep and creative. I thought I was being a bit whacky when I blogged about the spanish inquisition as a corporation, and the emergent sentience of corporations in the ecosystem of economic interactions, but Stross goes much, much further. He plays with the idea that at some point the relationship between finance wizard and financial instrument might be inverted, so that souls would be traded by sentient financial instruments. That's not bad; I can just about see how it might happen ...

The embedded essay I most enjoyed reading, however, is on one of my all-time favorite topics -- the Fermi Paradox. This is one of those conumdrums that bothers a very few people a great deal and is irrelevant to most of humanity.

In short, we ought by all rights, to be overrun by little green beings. The puzzle is that we appear to have much of the galaxy to ourselves. To Fermi fan-boys this is the biggest question around, compared to which matters of theology or epistemology are merely derivative.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox is most often expressed in the terms of the Drake Equation. The best bet is that something utterly inevitable ends all technological civilizations like our own in well under a thousand years. The most popular candidate for an "inevitable fate" over the past 23 years has been the Singularity (Greg Bear's 1982 short story 'Blood Music' is the earliest version of the Singularity theory I know of, Vernor Vinge developed the ideas extensively in the early 1990s.) Stross takes these ideas and pushes the boundaries. Why might a post-singular entity find travel unappealing? Why would it be hard for entities like us to live near such a beast -- even if it didn't spend any time thinking about us?

Reading Stross is like having an extremely bright and free thinking fellow over for a beer (or something, these UK writers seem fond of a range of substances). He tracks all over the place, the narrative doesn't always hang together, but it's a heck of a lot of fun -- and where else can a geek get his Fermi fix?