Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stay the course, the iron fist, and game theory

One of the reasons I was able to let go of The Economist as its quality deteriorated was that I could turn to the many excellent blogs I read. Crooked Timber is among the very best, and here they trash the "we must not show we can be turned" by reference to game theoretic models (emphasis mine):
Crooked Timber: Reputations are made of …

....The point being that since game theory in general provides the analyst with so many opportunities to twist himself repeatedly up his own arse like a berserk Klein bottle, if a given real-world course of action appears to have nothing going for it other than a game-theoretic or strategic justification, it’s almost certainly a bad idea. Thus it is with that bastard child of deterrence, “credibility”.

... The idea is that the war is costing huge amounts of money and lives with no real prospect of success and a distinct danger that it is making things much worse. However, to do the logical thing would send the signal to our enemies that we will give up if fought to a pointless bloody standstill.Therefore, for strategic reasons, we must redouble our efforts, in order to send the signal to our enemies that we will fight implacably and mindlessly in any battle we happen to get into, forever, in order to dissuade them from attacking us in the first place.... What’s it like as a piece of game-theoretic reasoning?

Lousy. It is certainly true that one of the benefits of doing something stupid is that it saves you from having to spend money on maintaining your reputation as an idiot. However, is the reputation of an idiot really worth having?

It turns out that it can be proved by theorem that the answer is no. If the game of being a belligerent idiot with no sensible regard for one’s own welfare was worth the candle, in the sense of conferring benefits which outweighed the cost of gaining it, then everyone would want to get that reputation, whether they were genuinely an idiot or not. But if everyone wanted that reputation,then everyone would know that simply acting like an idiot didn’t mean that you were one, in which case it would be impossible to establish a reputation as an idiot in the first place. The point here is that it’s one of the more important things in game theory that a signal has to be a costly signal to be credible; like membership of the Modern Languages Association, a reputation in deterrence theory is something that is worth having, but not worth getting. People who use the word “signal” in this context (usually on the basis of a poorly understood or second-hand reading of Schelling) don’t always seem to realise that they are explicitly admitting that the costs of being in Iraq are greater than the benefits...

Friedman, another entity with a lost reputation, calls for a strategy of the persistent iron fist. That's a slightly different tactic. It's worth considering how that would turn out. Let us assume America used the "iron fist" approach. It's worked for many nations in the past. So ten years from now Iraq is "pacified". What does the world look like then? Well, we'd have Putin's Russia to the east - brutal and powerful. In the west we'd have ... well ... the same thing more or less. You don't get to the use the "iron fist" selectively. If it is used in Iraq, it is used at home, it is used with allies, it is used everywhere. Wouldn't that just be grand?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Friedman deflated

Tom Friedman, a pompous windbag who's also a billionaire by marriage, is taken down style.
Chris Floyd - Empire Burlesque - Hideous Kinky: The Genocidal Fury of Thomas Friedman

.... Nowadays, of course, we hollow men, headpieces filled with straw, obviously lack the will to power. And so even while Tom adjures his great hero, the Commander-in-Chief, to unleash the re-invasion force (where Tom proposes to get 150,000 more fighting troops from remains a mystery; maybe China will loan us some), thereby "crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq's institutions and political culture from scratch," it's clear that he believes that the sissy-mary American public lacks the proper martial spirit to carry through the necessary 10 years of fisting that the Iraqis so clearly deserve. And so, more in anger than in sorrow, he proposes the only other possible alternative to a brand-new blitzkrieg: bugging out in 10 months time and forgetting the whole shebang ever happened. Otherwise, "it will only mean throwing more good lives after good lives into a deeper and deeper hole filled with more and more broken pieces...
Friedman is not the only person to lose his reputation and his credibility in the past few years, but few have been so public about it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How long can you live in a vacuum?

Unconcsious in about 30 seconds, but no irreversible damage if rescued within 2 minutes. Considering one has only about 6-9 minutes in water, this isn't as bad as one might guess. Excellent essay.

iPod. Lame. iPhone. Laughable.

Daring Fireball has a funny and insightful essay on the reaction of Palm CEO Ed Colligan to the Apple iPhone rumors. I go with the theory that Colligan is a savvy CEO; he's really very worried about Apple but is spinning a good story.

The part that made me laugh, though, was the footnote referencing an infamous Slashdot posting on the iPod's launch. It's well worth a read, and, no, you can't add comments.

I'm holding on to my decrepit Samsung PalmOS phone until I see Apple's iPhone or it dies completely -- whichever comes first.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Spindle neurons: 30 million years in Cetaceans, 15 in primates

It's not often that a research results gives me goosebumps. This one did, since I'd completely missed that spindle neurons had previously been identified in the toothed whales (how the heck did I miss that?!). Emphases mine.
Humpback whale found to have 'human' brain cell - World - Times Online

Researchers in the US have discovered that humpback whales have a type of brain cell seen only in humans, the great apes, and other cetaceans such as dolphins.

Studying the brains of humpbacks, Patrick Hof and Estel Van der Gucht of the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered a type of cell known as a spindle neuron in the cortex, in areas comparable to where they are seen in humans and great apes.

Although the function of spindle neurons is not well understood, they may be involved in processes of cognition - learning, remembering and recognising the world around oneself. The cells are also thought by some to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

The findings may help to explain some of the distinctive traits exhibited by whales, such as sophisticated communication skills, the ability to form alliances and co-operate, the researchers report in The Anatomical Record.

They say their study may subsequently indicate that such whales are more intelligent than they have been given credit for, and suggests that spindle neurons – the likely basis for complex brains - either evolved more than once, or have gone unused by most species of animals, kept only in those with the largest brains.

.... the spindle neurons found in humpback whales were discovered in the same location as toothed whales, suggesting that the cells may be related to brain size, reported Reuters.

Toothed whales, such as orcas, are generally considered more intelligent than baleen whales such as humpbacks and blue whales, which filter water for their food.

The humpback whales also had structures resembling 'islands' in the cerebral cortex, also seen in some other mammals and which may have evolved in order to promote fast and efficient communication between neurons.

Spindle neurons are thought to have first appeared in the common ancestor of hominids, humans and great apes about 15 million years ago, the researchers added. In cetaceans they would have evolved earlier, possibly as early as 30 million years ago."
So many questions. What the heck could convergent evolution produce the same neuronal structure in both cetaceans and primates? Is there only one high-probability path to [whatever] from our ancient common ancestor? What does it mean to have 30 million years of evolution working on these structures rather than a mere 15 million? How the heck did I miss the discovery of spindle neurons in toothed whales in 2000?

One prediction. If we retain a liberal civilization (vs., say, Putin's Russia), creatures with these neural structures will have "human" rights within seventy years.

PS. My guess on why I missed this? The original discoveries of spindle neurons in dolphins may have predated theories of their unique role in human cognition -- so it didn't get much media coverage.

Update 11/27/06: More memories filtering in. I think dolphins pass the "mirror test". That is, they recognize that the image in a mirror is connected with them. I believe it was recently discovered that elephants also pass this test. I think cetaceans and hippos are related, more distant to elephants. I also dimly think there's some connection between the "mirror test" and "spindle neurons". So will we find elephants have spindle neurons?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lead poisoning from Christmas Lights: California, China, and the GOP

A small inquiry leads, as usual, to a bigger story. Our outdoor christmas tree lights (Bethlehem Lighting commercial grade tangle-free lights) carry a warning label: "Handling the coated electrical wires of this product exposes you to lead, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm". Incidentally, to also cause brain damage in children -- with no known safe exposure level. (Prop 65, which mandates the law, only addresses birth defects, so if lead only caused severe brain damage in children, but not birth defects or cancer, no warning would appear. A political compromise, no doubt.)

Google helped track this down. This was a california story in 2003, but we missed it. The best summary is:
CHEC Articles: Holiday Lights and Christmas Trees May Contain Lead

If you've been shopping for holiday lights this season, you may have noticed a warning label on some of them stating that they may contain lead.

... Wire coating and cords are usually made of PVC plastic that may contain lead. Lead is used in PVC for several reasons. For wires and cords, lead makes the plastic more flexible and reduces the risk of fire. Lead is also used in many PVC products to stabilize the color. Lead in PVC products can disintegrate into lead-laced dust.

The labels began appearing on holiday lights, as well as on electronic equipment and cords on other consumer products such as hairdryers, after a number of lawsuits were filed by an environmental advocacy organization in California.

The amount of lead in the lights and other consumer products with warning labels may vary considerably. It is not clear if the amount of lead that is released poses a risk to human health. Some tests show that lead could come off in the hands. Note that nearly all appliance cords are covered with PVC that contains lead.

We recommend the following:

* Do not allow children to handle holiday lights!
* Adults should wash hands thoroughly after handling the lights.
* [jf: I don't think there are ANY lights made anywhere but China] Avoid lights made in China and other foreign countries, where there are no restrictions against the use of lead in consumer products. Lights made in the U.S. are likely to contain smaller amounts of lead, especially in the coating....
* Do not assume that holiday lights that do not bear the warning label are lead-free. It is possible that the lights are not sold in California. California is the only state that requires the warning label.
* Older lights that have not been labeled may also contain lead.
How much lead?
At the University of North Carolina at Asheville, researchers had a group of students put up lights then tested the lead levels on their hands. They found the lead levels were at least 10 times greater than what is considered safe.
That's a lot of lead. So much for assuming the GOP-eviscerated EPA is able to protect us.

So, to summarize, many electrical cords contain lead within the PVC covering. Chrismas lights from China (all of them) can contain quite a bit more lead since there's no effective regulation of lead in China; now that all lights come from China there's no other option for US consumers.

The GOP, including our rotten Senator Norm Coleman, has been trying to limit the ability of California to create local environmental rules that are stronger than federal mandates. The GOP is not going to support regulation of lead contamination in electrical cords; they're more likely to block this kind of warning label from appearing outside California.

Thank you California environmental pressure groups and thank you rabid attornies. In the meantime don't let children hand christmas lights, wash hands, and don't vote GOP.

Polonium and the bombing that launched the second Chechen war

I often update old posts with new information for future reference, but I don't usually call attention to them.

In this case I added enough to my post on the Litivenko polonium poisoning that I'll all attention to it. Litivenko was connected the unusually well founded conspiracy theory that the KGB (FSB now) was behind the Russian apartment bombing that launched the second Chechen war.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Vista in trouble. Already.

Joel Spolsky is a former Microsoftie with fond memories of the old company, certified very smart guy, and CEO of a boostrapped software company (Fog Creek). He's not a lifelong Microsoft despiser/disliker like me. So his verdict on Vista is a warning to respect:
Joel on Software

...Every piece of evidence I've heard from developers inside Microsoft supports my theory that the company has become completely tangled up in bureaucracy, layers of management, meetings ad infinitum, and overstaffing. The only way Microsoft has managed to hire so many people has been by lowering their hiring standards significantly. In the early nineties Microsoft looked at IBM, especially the bloated OS/2 team, as a case study of what not to do; somehow in the fifteen year period from 1991 - 2006 they became the bloated monster that takes five years to ship an incoherent upgrade to their flagship product.
Microsoft has been sliding downhill for a long time. The last good version of Word came out @ 1995, Windows 2000 was the last quality OS (XP is a Win2K derivative and a step backwards in some ways), Excel has been frozen in time (mercifully it's not deteriorating). Sure they mint money, but that's merely billions (and billions).

Lately the long decline seems to have accelerated. Microsoft "Live" is a chaotic mess (try installing Onfolio on the Live new toolbar in IE 6). IE 7 has delivered yawns and groans. Their vaunted webcam shipped with software that blue-screened many laptops. Vista is likely to be a bloated heap of trouble for years to come.

Microsoft is too powerful to be displaced by OS X or Linux, so we'll all suffer their failures for years to come. Fortunately, even if it won't displace Microsoft significantly, OS X is available for use ...

Why would Putin poison by Polonium?

A former KGB agent and enemy of Putin has apparently died of Polonium poisoning. The KGB and Putin are the obvious suspects. Why would they use Polonium?
A Rare Material and a Surprising Weapon - New York Times

... If substantial amounts of polonium 210 were used to poison Alexander V. Litvinenko, whoever did it presumably had access to a high-level nuclear laboratory and put himself at some risk carrying out the assassination, experts said yesterday.

Polonium 210 is highly radioactive and very toxic. By weight, it is about 250 million times as toxic as cyanide, so a particle smaller than a dust mote could be fatal. It would also, presumably, be too small to taste.

There is no antidote, and handling it in a laboratory requires special equipment. But to be fatal it must be swallowed, breathed in or injected; the alpha particles it produces cannot penetrate the skin. So it could theoretically be carried safely in a glass vial or paper envelope and sprinkled into food or drink by a killer willing to take the chance that he did not accidentally breathe it in or swallow it...

Putin, a nasty piece of work, must have a thousand ways to kill his enemies. Why use a method that points directly to him? Did the KGB think the poison couldn't be identified? Did they want their murder to be publicly known, while still preserving some shred of deniability? Did someone else do it to implicate the KGB? Was it an accident of some other scheme?

Every intelligence service in the west is working overtime now. This is bad news on many more levels than what appears to have been the murder of one of Putin's many enemies.

Will this be seen one day as the first shot in Cold War II?

Update 11/25/06: See the comment from Technologist. Polonium is not as hard to find as we've been told. I'm going to start reading Technologist's blog ...

Update 11/26/06: The NYT responds inside a column to the use of Polonium in antistatic devices:
A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.
The same article suggested one reason why someone would really want to kill Mr. Litvinenko:
In 2003, he wrote a book accusing the Russian secret service of orchestrating apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.
The idea that rogue KGB agents, or even non-rogue agents were behind the bombings that led to a terrible war, received serious consideration in an Economist book review. That surprised me then, I figured it was just another conspiracy theory.

Gwynne Dyer wrote about the bombing allegations last year (emphases mine). I wonder if anyone has tried to interview Alyona Morozova recently ....
The Russian-American relationship is not thriving, and the proof of it is the fact that the United States granted political asylum a month ago to Alyona Morozova, a Russian citizen who claims that her life is in danger because of her role in investigating a series of "terrorist" bombing attacks that killed 246 Russians in September 1999. The chief suspect in the bombings, according to her, is Vladimir Putin.

Three apartment blocks in Russian cities were destroyed by huge bombs that month, including one that left Alyona Morozova's mother and boyfriend dead under the rubble...

Boris Yeltsin was in the last year of his presidency then, and he was seeking a way to retire without facing prosecution for the fortunes he and his cronies had amassed in their years of power. Vladimir Putin, former head of the FSB secret police, had recently been appointed prime minister by Yeltsin but was still largely unknown to the Russian public.

The deal was that Yeltsin would pass the presidency to Putin at the end of the year, and Putin would then grant Yeltsin an amnesty for all crimes committed while he was in office. But there was still the tedious business of an election to get through, and Russians who scarcely knew Putin's name had to be persuaded to vote for him on short notice. How to boost his profile as Saviour of the Nation? Well, a war, obviously.

Alyona Morozova (and many others) claim that Putin's old friends at the FSB carried out the apartment bombings themselves, in order to give their man a pretext to declare war on Chechnya and make himself a national hero in time for the presidential elections. It would be just one more unfounded conspiracy theory -- except that only days after the big Moscow bomb, a resident at a similar apartment building in the city of Ryazan spotted three people acting suspiciously and called the local police.

The police founds sacks in the cellar that they initially said contained hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings, together with a timer set for 5.30 am. They also discovered that the three people who had planted the explosives were actually FSB agents. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, insisted that the sacks contained only sugar and that the whole thing was a training exercise, and the local police fell silent, but there was no proper investigation.

Alyona Morozova fears the Russian government's wrath because a number of other people who have tried to investigate the incident have been murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges of "espionage". So she asked for political asylum in the United States: nothing surprising in that. It's much more surprising that the US government actually granted her asylum, because it is implicitly acknowledging the possibility that President Vladimir Putin, in addition to being a mass murderer of Chechens, may also be a mass murderer of Russians.
Was Mr. Litvinenko close to learning something new about the bombing?

AI: the dialog edges towards the mainstream

An article in today's NYT fit well with a draft post from March 2006, so I'll put them together here.

What we see here is that Artificial Intelligence (AI), in the truest sense of emerging sentience, is becoming visible outside of the cognitive science, eccentric, and science fiction communities. We also feel the powerful currents that will drive us, one day, to abiologic sentience.

The economic advantages of cheap focused intellect are irresistible. From computer gaming to stock selection to military planning to anti-missile systems to advanced self-guided robotic planes to cheap mammogram interpretation -- on every front billions of dollars push an emergent agenda.

Unless al Qaeda wins its battle to restore the 14th century, we will have fundamentally (biologic subsystems may play a role in early systems) abiologic sentience that will outstrip our current wetware. One uncertainty is whether this is 20 years away or 100 years away. The other uncertainty is whether we should be hoping for the 14th century.

First from yesterday's NYT:
November 24, 2006, New York Times
A Smarter Computer to Pick Stocks By CHARLES DUHIGG

... For decades, Wall Street firms and hedge funds like D. E. Shaw have snapped up math and engineering Ph.D.s and assigned them to find hidden market patterns. When these analysts discover subtle relationships, like similarities in the price movements of Microsoft and I.B.M., investors seek profits by buying one stock and selling the other when their prices diverge, betting historical patterns will eventually push them back into synchronicity.

... New software programs, like the Apama Algorithmic Trading Platform, have made it possible for day traders to build complicated trading algorithms almost as easily as they drag an icon across a digital desktop.

“Five years ago it would have taken $500,000 and 12 people to do what today takes a few computers and co-workers,” said Louis Morgan, managing director of HG Trading, a three-person hedge fund in Wisconsin....

... “Now it’s an arms race,” said Andrew Lo, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Financial Engineering. “Everyone is building more sophisticated algorithms, and the more competition exists, the smaller the profits.”

... “neural networks” and “genetic algorithms” have become common in higher-level computer science. Neural networks permit computers to create new rules and automatically change underlying assumptions by experimenting with thousands of random sequences and processes. Genetic algorithms encourage software to “evolve” by letting different rules compete, and combining the most successful outcomes.

Wall Street has rushed to mimic the techniques. Because arbitrage opportunities disappear so quickly now, neural networks have emerged that can consider thousands of scenarios at once. It is unlikely, for instance, that Microsoft will begin selling ice-cream or I.B.M. will declare bankruptcy, but a nonlinear system can consider such possibilities, and thousands of others, without overtaxing computers that must be ready to react in milliseconds.

... In the pursuit of previously undetectable patterns, hedge funds are racing to quantify things — like newspaper headlines — that were previously immune from number-crunching.

Both Dow Jones Newswires and Reuters have transformed decades of news archives into numerical data for use in designing and testing algorithmic systems. The companies are beginning to structure news so it can be absorbed by quantitative models within milliseconds of release.

Moreover, companies like Progress Software are working with news agencies to create computer programs that instantly translate news — for example, a headline regarding Microsoft’s earnings — into data. M.I.T. is examining, among other things, evaluating companies by seeing how many positive versus negative words are used in a newspaper article.

Software in development could potentially respond automatically to almost anything; changes in weather forecasts on television news, shifting analyst sentiments or what a particular movie critic said about the new blockbuster...
This aticle suggests a new business model for journalism -- for better and for worse. Journalists now have a funding stream in which the buyers are computer programs, but the value of the commodity depends on it being consumed by humans as well. So the trading programs may replace the lost revenue from classified ads. There's a dark side (of course!). Imagine how much money will be made by manipulating the news stream to provide transient arbitrage opportunities. The article also suggests a rather substantial business model for natural language processing; this has implications for many domains.

Secondly, for another sign of the emergence of AI into the public mind, read this March 2006 blog posting: Marginal Revolution: AI, Consciousness and Robot Outsourcing. Alex clearly grew up without science fiction, so these ideas are new to him. The point is not that Alex, a bright person in general, has anything interesting to say, the point is that he's typical of the new wave of intellectuals who are contemplating the future. AI is going mainstream, gradually.

Incidentally, I've read a representative sample of the cognitive science literature arguing that we can't make a thinking abiologic entity. Chinese rooms, etc. The anti-AI group essentially argue that we have souls, or something like a soul, and things without souls can't think. We'll see. I rather doubt it.

This construction of abiologic sentience feels like a universal constant, an emergent property of any sentient organism with constrained resources and the ability to use technology. In a universe in which the three laws of thermodynamics apply, resources are always constrained. It seems plausible that all civilizations across space and time that survive long enough create abiologic sentience. I wonder if that has something to do with the great silence ...

Covering the retreat: GOP Senator Chuck Hagel

This is how GOP Senator Hagel tries to cover the retreat:
Chuck Hagel - Leaving Iraq, Honorably -

There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there. The future of Iraq was always going to be determined by the Iraqis -- not the Americans. Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost. It is part of the ongoing global struggle against instability, brutality, intolerance, extremism and terrorism. There will be no military victory or military solution for Iraq. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger made this point last weekend...
Riiiiggghhhht. I'm sure history will agree.

Hagel was a part of the GOP team that oversaw what now appears to be one of the greatest foreign policy debacles since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor (clarification: that was Japan's debacle). The US won't come out of this debacle as badly as Japan did, but our reasoning and execution was comparably flawed. The honorable thing for Hagel to do would be to admit that he screwed up and call for Bush and Cheney to turn their foreign policy responsibilities over to Bill Clinton -- or even Baker/Bush I.

Hagel struggles to put an "honorable" face on one of history's great blunders and to shift responsibility for a disastrous outcome to the Iraqis. In other words, he blames the victims. In this case they are not blameless, but the majority of the blame falls on the GOP and their supporters. At the same time he writes:
We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam....

... We are destroying our force structure, which took 30 years to build. We've been funding this war dishonestly, mainly through supplemental appropriations, which minimizes responsible congressional oversight and allows the administration to duck tough questions in defending its policies. Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibility in the past four years.
For Congress, read "the GOP"; they have been the Congress. Hagel calls for bipartisan support for a "phased retreat", a phrase that presumably means "no helicopters on the embassy roof". His essay could be summarized as "The GOP screwed up because the Iraqis weren't good enough, the Dems need to share the blame."

Disgusting. We may well end up with an orderly or disorderly retreat and a colossal defeat with dishonor, but the Dems should not shield the GOP from their incompetence. History will not judge Hegel or the Rovian-GOP kindly.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Outsourcing mainstream media jobs

Interesting variant on the ubiquitous outsourcing story...
Good Morning Silicon Valley: Not so much "thanks" as "whew!"

.... newspaper workers, including journalists, are seeing their jobs not just go away, but go overseas. Ad production jobs at our sister paper, the Contra Costa Times, are being outsourced to Express KCS, a firm that bills itself as “India’s leading media preparation business.” And the International Herald Tribune notes the growth in news organizations using inexpensive editorial help in India to write boilerplate Wall Street coverage... That's the way it goes when the giant semi of history get rolling; some people are going to get mowed down through no fault of their own. And if the truck misses you, you think about them as you count your blessings.
I'd love to outsource the presidency of the US. Surely there's a perfect candidate who could take on the real work. George could remain as the public face ...

Children's software: a dismal market in Windows, dead for the MacTel

I've just completed another of my recurrent surveys of the state of children's software for OS X and Windows. The best I could find was this Windows-only site: Software for Kids - Children Educational Software, Child / Kid Game.

The bottom line is that this market is comatose on the Windows' side and worse-than-extinct on the Mac side. The "OS X" software sold may simply fail to work on newer machines -- that's worse than nothing.

As my wife asks, "What happened to the long tail?". I don't really know, I suspect piracy, quality issues, channel problems (marketing) and branding all played a role. I'd say that the consoles were where this market moved, but I'm not sure that's true. I read recently that the gaming market is under threat because there's little available for novices or children.

Is this a market failure, or am I missing something big? In the meantime I think I'll have to, reluctantly, put BootCamp on my MacBook and see how it works. (Parallels won't do the trick, it failed my game tests.) Even in the XP world there aren't many choices, but some of our ancient children's games (many are no longer sold) may run under XP for a while.

(I think I'll need to upgrade my MacBook drive in a year or two -- using BootCamp will suck space.)

Update 11/26/06: I came across this recent related article. The Nintendo Wii is starting to look like the right move at the right time. Kudos to Nintendo if they've guessed right. Of course there was much more to children's software than just games; there's no replacement on the horizon for the rest. One way out of this conundrum would be for Apple to start funding bundled educational solutions and a production platform for third parties to expand on them. It would help sell Macs, and piracy would be less of an issue for Apple.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Populism and electronic guidance of electoral choices

Slashdot has an unusually good submission on populism and voting patterns in the Netherlands (emphases mine):
Slashdot | Web-Based Assistant Changes the Face of Dutch Politics

The elections held in The Netherlands on Wednesday have shaken the country. Almost 10 million votes were cast, and statistics show that a full half of those who voted used a popular web-based voter guide. This guide is operated by the independent institute for the public and politics. Advice is given to the visitor upon answering a number of multiple choice questions on some common political topics. Statistically, a number of people ended up scoring in support of populist parties both on the far left and far right. No bias was reported to exist in the test itself. However, these parties have ended up with an unforeseen amount of power as a result of the election. The voter participation was high, and the web-based advisories may have motivated people with little interest in politics to cast a vote anyway...
I took the test; I apparently fit best with D66, which is described (of course) in Wikipedia:
... D66 was founded on October 14, 1966 by 44 people. Its founders are described as "homines novi", only 25 of the 44 had previously been members of a political party. The initiators were Hans van Mierlo, a journalist for the Algemeen Handelsblad and Hans Gruijters, a municipal councillor in Amsterdam. Van Mierlo became the party's political leader and Gruijters the party's chair. The foundation of the party was preceded by the Appeal 1966 on October 10, in which the founders appealed to the people of the Netherlands to re-take their democratic institutions. The party renounced the 19th century political ideologies which dominated the political system and wanted to end pillarization. It called for radical democratization of the Dutch society and its political system and it called for pragmatic and scientific policy-making...
Ok, I'm impressed. D66 sounds like a reasonable fit for me. The test felt solid and thoughtful. I feel it would truly direct people's votes to a party that fit with their own inclinations. Which brings one to the poster's thesis -- that enabling persons with little participation in political dialogue to vote "intelligently" may predispose to unusual and possibly extreme political parties. I am inclined to believe the thesis; if this method caught on it could have a vast impact on the political process.

Historically when non-engaged persons vote, it's pretty mindless. They may vote based on ballot order, the sound of a name, the last ad they saw, etc. The net effect is a combination of "noise" and a wild-card bias. If non-engaged persons were to actually vote the party that best reflected their opinions using a tool like this one, the "noise" in the system would fall, but I think the distribution of candidates would widen.

Fascinating. I'm not sure whether this tool is a good thing or not, but it's well worth attending too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Playing dirty: the GOP's election

Salon has quite a catalog of GOP dirty electoral tricks from the past few months. Lest we forget ...
The GOP's dirty deeds of 2006 | Salon News

....In this year's biggest dirty trick, that's what happened to voters across the country, who were deluged with robo-calls that purportedly were coming from Democratic candidates. The calls started innocently enough, by offering information about the local Democrat. But if you hung up, the robot would call back. Hang up again and, like some character out of a Stephen King novel, the robot would call again. And again. And again, sometimes as many as seven times before it gave up. So the voters who had the temerity to want to enjoy their dinner unmolested were left with the impression of a Democratic candidate who simply would not leave them alone; those who stayed on the line were instead treated to a string of disinformation about the Democrat. The calls, which were paid for by the NRCC, hit many of the House races vital to Democrats' chances to take back the House. They ran in at least two key Illinois districts, including Duckworth's, and in Connecticut, where vulnerable Republican incumbent Chris Shays survived a stiff challenge from Democrat Diane Farrell, and in other races in states as diverse as Georgia, California, Pennsylvania and New York. In all, a total of 1 million calls were spread over 53 House races; this means that an average of 20,000 calls were made in each district, each of which contained about 200,000 votes. The calls could potentially have reached one out of every 10 voters in the targeted races.

The uproar that followed hasn't escaped the attention of politicians. Sen. Barack Obama has introduced a bill that would criminalize the practice, and on the local level several states are considering similar legislation.
It's not that the dirty tricks didn't work, it's rather than they couldn't overcome a large anti-GOP mood. In many elections they would have done the trick.

The GOP is a morally bankrupt institution.

The Needham question, 9/11 and the next fifty years

I've not much time to develop this thesis, so I'll go quickly here. Maybe I'll get to it later.

There are four parts to this:
The Needham question is basically: "Why didn't China sail a steamship bristling with canon into Manhattan @ 1750?".

The Falling Cost of Havoc is the observation that small groups of individuals can now afford some of the military capabilities (bioweapons, worldwide secure communication channels, advanced data mining, evolved terrorist techniques) that were once available only to nations.

The Next Fifty years is my post suggesting, somewhat to my own surprise, that the next fifty years may not be all that different from the last fifty years. (Speaking Mandarin and using low speed low energy vehicles is not that big a difference.)

The Innovator's Dilemma is a fascinating business book pointing out that well run dominant enterprises are appropriately good at stifling disruptive technologies.

The thesis is that these are connected.

The best current answer to the Needham question is that China was doing pretty well during the 14th through 18th centuries, and it had developed a governmental system that was very stable* and very good at eliminating disruptive interruptions. In other words, it behaved like a well run corporation. Innovation is disruptive, disruption is dangerous.

If the next fifty years is to resemble the last fifty years (by no means the worst outcome), then the world must become far better at stifling disruption and managing the falling cost of havoc. The world will rediscover China's answer to the Needham question. (Ironically, China will need to rediscover it too ....)

My guess is that the world will do this, whether geeks like me like it or not. I think the history of the counter-revolution has been greatly under appreciated.

Ok, that's all for now.

* The past 5 years of US history has dramatically diminished my faith in the stability of democracies.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New Scientist: The 50 year prediction

Marginal Revolution pointed me to New Scientist's the Next 50 Years. I'll spend some time reading it.

On the one hand, 50 years seems far too long to make sensible predictions about. On the other hand, imagine someone in 1950 predicting life in 2000. Any futurist worth their salt was predicting flying cars to Mars, but the right answer would have been 'sort of like 1950, but most people have more money and live ten years longer'. The shock for 1950 would not be computers (what? They're not sentient?), but rather gay marriage and gay adoption. Oh, oil prices would have been shocking too -- we were supposed to running on nuclear fusion by now.

So in the same vein, I'll predict that we don't get sentient AI, we don't boost human IQs substantially, and we don't prevent aging. Life in 2056 is rather like 2006, but we live 10 years longer and most people have more money. The shocking part is ....

Update 11/19/06: The authors are generally as cautious as one would expect. They are reputable sorts, and thus fearful of foolishness. There is, however, a clear trend. Several contributors speculate that we'll learn about extraterrestrial life. I suspect they mean sentience too, but that's too brash and idea. I suspect they toopuzzle over the Fermi Paradox.

Healthcare Reform: The Faughnan One Slide Presentation

I will never be invited to a public debate on healthcare reform. Bit of a shame -- I could make a case that I'm unusually well suited by experience, training, and employment to opine on the topic. I even have a one slide presentation, which I came up with in the shower this morning. Here it is (imagine the two visuals on the same slide).

and next to it

The top image is a new Lexus. It's a very fine car. There's a luxury premium to be sure, but perhaps not so much as with a Mercedes. You really do get a lot of quality when you buy a Lexus.

The bottom image is from a Manhattan subway. I think the subway is better now than when I strolled the then mean streets of Manhattan; in those days it was smelly, dirty, and very noisy. It delivered excellent value for the price, though it was not a pleasant ride.

If you lived in Manhattan, sometimes the subway was really a much better way to get from A to B than the Lexus. The Lexus, of course, would be most people's first choice if they could afford it.

That's all you need to know about Healthcare Reform in America.

I grew up in Quebec when socialized medicine was new. It was fabulous for us. Everyone got a Honda Accord and was more or less satisfied with that. Cost structures changed over time, and now everyone rides the subway. That doesn't work for those who can afford a Lexus, or even an Accord.

The mistake of socialized medicine was thinking that it was possible to provide an Accord forever, to everyone.

I live in America, where almost everyone insists on a Lexus and a heck of a lot of people are walking. Without shoes. In winter. Increasingly the walkers are newly underemployed and unemployed men and women aged 50 to 65.

The tragedy of American healthcare is obvious.

America will aways provide the Lexus, and the Mercedes, and the chauffeur driven Rolls-Royce to those who wish can afford them -- and choose them. It will also provide the Accord for a heck of a lot of people. Those who get the Accord and the Lexus will often, but not always, get better experiences and outcomes than those who ride the subway.

All Healthcare reform discussions in America are about the subway.

That would be the end of my presentation.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The meaning of Apple - will it always stand alone?

I sigh when I look upon my Samsung PalmOS phone. It's almost good, the last of a discontinued line that was within spitting distance of Apple elegance. Alas, Palm fumbled, Samsung floundered, and the moment passed. Every phone on the US market sucks. Spectacularly sucks.

I wait for the iPhone. It may not be what I want, but I know I will respect it. I may change my wants to suit it. It will not suck.

My toaster sucks. I've looked for its replacement for years. I figure I'll pick one up the next time I'm in Germany. I find myself wondering if Apple will make a toaster. I'd buy it ...

Then I read this Mark Morford SFGate column (I've added him to my bloglines collection)...
When Apple Rules The World / What does it mean when you really, really want to lick a new MacBook Pro, and swoon?

....I don't mean [Apple] they've solved world hunger or cured cancer or ended racism or muzzled Ashlee Simpson. But I do mean something that, in its way, is nearly as profound: They've managed to make the world just a bit more pleasurable, tasteful, beautiful. They've added a dash of that rarest of human qualities, especially when talking about factory-made tech crap: They have added a touch of grace.

You know it's true. Apple has done more than perhaps any other mass-market consumer line on the planet to affect the look and feel of nearly every gizmo made today. This cannot be underestimated. It's a George Bush world, after all, one that values sameness, mediocrity, intellectual and spiritual laziness. But merely rub your hand across the top of a MacBook or whip your thumb around the click wheel of an iPod and notice: Feel that throb? That's your id saying mmmmmmm.

What? What's that you say? Why yes, other tech companies have changed the world, too. Microsoft, for example. They invaded the global cube-farm and made everyone's workday a bit more bloated and annoying and sad and just a little uglier, buggy as hell, frustrating, virusy and lonely and numbing. Truly, it has been quite an impressive accomplishment...
Read the whole thing. It's a funny, slutty, paeon to Apple. It's over the top, and yet true. No other company, save Google on a good day, actually delivers elegance (Aperture excepted). Apple really is different. I can only pray it won't be alone forever; I could sure use a new toaster.

Microsoft? It's far less than the sum of its excellent people. Some corporations can do that.

PS. My new MacBook is due this week ...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Suzhou, China - Home of my MacBook

When I ordered by Core-2 Duo MacBook, I received a FedEx notice that it was being shipped from Suzhou, China. Google Earth provided a low-res picture. Note the massive urban landscape and what appears to be industrial smog and black some ominous looking black water.

On the one hand, this is a snapshot of 21st century life. On the other hand, the 'map view' has no geographic details and there are no embedded links to local pictures, webcams, etc. (Google Earth would have more, but it died with my laptop drive and has yet to be resurrected). In a year or two, the rest of the puzzle will be in place.

It's not that far from Suzhou to some impressive looking mountains and forests ...

Update 11/25/06: In another note on the changing technology of shipping, my MacBook arrived in a relatively compact box that would not have survived the shipping methods of old, or even travel in a conventional UPS truck. The shipping box was a fraction of the size of the box that held my iBook years ago. Even so, the external box looked flawless. I'd like to read a story about how FedEx does this kind of thing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Voting: just do what Minnesota does

Schneier gives a good rundowns of the ongoing electronic ongoing electronic voting machine debacles. Then he reveals his residence in my home state:
...In Minnesota, we use paper ballots counted by optical scanners, and we have some of the most well-run elections in the country. To anyone reading this who needs to buy new election equipment, this is what to buy...
I've heard only five states use optical scanners. Must be an IQ thing. When Caltech and MIT joined up (rare event) to review the Gore/Bush voting debacle, they concluded optical scanning was by far the best choice. Every review I've read since has come to the same conclusion. Come on guys, let the frozen north lead the way ...

The gravest threat we know of ...

Years ago, the Economist pointed out that based on risk assessment asteroid impact warranted as much attention as airplane crashes. That was then ...
Did an Asteroid Impact Cause an Ancient Tsunami? - New York Times

... Most astronomers doubt that any large comets or asteroids have crashed into the Earth in the last 10,000 years. But the self-described “band of misfits” that make up the two-year-old Holocene Impact Working Group say that astronomers simply have not known how or where to look for evidence of such impacts along the world’s shorelines and in the deep ocean.

Scientists in the working group say the evidence for such impacts during the last 10,000 years, known as the Holocene epoch, is strong enough to overturn current estimates of how often the Earth suffers a violent impact on the order of a 10-megaton explosion. Instead of once in 500,000 to one million years, as astronomers now calculate, catastrophic impacts could happen every few thousand years.

If the hypothesis is accepted, then the risk to life of a meteor impact will have increased about 500 fold. That would move it very high up the risk index, perhaps above thermonuclear war.

If that happens, and if humans were logical creatures, we would put a significant share of the world's GDP to surveilance and diversion research. Alas, humans are far from logical ...

PS. The 2807 BC rock landed on, of course, Atlantis. :-)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Neandertal is us: the meaning of species

We all know how confusing the terms race and ethnicity are. It turns out that things are equally messy when one tries to define was a species is.

John Hawks sifts the narrative, and basically decides that species is a semi-useful term that can be largely ignored -- particularly in the fossil records. His read is that Neandertals are probably members of the same species as us, but that the distinction is pedantic and misleading. He does strongly feel that our genome contains evidence of Neandertal descent, but that the discussion is missing the point (emphases mine):
... I think that evidence of introgression reinforces the hypothesis that modern humans emerged in an adaptive context, making use of adaptive variation from a widespread (possibly pan-Old-World) population of archaic Homo. It's one of the two main patterns in the evolution of modern humans.
We're all waiting to learn what the other pattern is, Hawks won't tell us yet. The fundamental shift is to stop thinking of Neadertals mating with "us", and to instead think of modern humans as something that evolved from a large number of "archaic Homo" populations. We are Neandertal, but we are also one of many old populations.

When the cliche is real: falling on the grenade

It's an old cliche. Falling on the grenade. I assume there isn't time to think. Cpl Jason Dunham has been awarded the medal of honor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The uncelebration: blinking in the light

Krugman feels (mostly) relieved, not giddy. Tom Tomorrow writes:
... It’s as if the biopsy results just came back and you don’t have cancer after all. You’re not giddy, exactly, but you can finally take a deep breath and maybe let some of the tension drain out of your shoulders...

...It’s time to have grownup conversations now. It goes without saying that the Democrats will to disappoint us, one way or another. So what? The test results came back, and it’s not terminal. We got a little breathing room, and isn’t that all you can really ever hope for in life?
I'm not hearing any Dem trash talk or braggadacio. My fellow commies aren't cackling with glea. We've been living in the shadow of Mordor for years, but now the smog is lifting. We find we're at the bottom of a deep pit surrounded by lions, tigers, and hyenas, but at least we've stopped sinking. The hard slog back may begin.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Conde Nast: An unusual spammer

CondeNast Publications puts out Gourmet, Wired, and many other periodicals. They are also a major league spam generator. This is rare with big vendors, SONY is the only other example that comes to mind. (SONY stopped spamming sometime around their rootkit fiasco, but even so no self-respecting geek will buy from SONY.)

Gourmet has been bad forever -- clicking on the 'remove me' link never did anything. Subscription solicitations kept rolling in. I blacklisted That worked for a while, but now the spam is coming from Recently, they started doing the same thing with Wired.

I guess it works for them, but it's really weird to have Wired be owned by a major spam producer. I get it for free somehow, but even if I really liked Wired I wouldn't pay for it. Their owner is too disreputable.

I've added to my blacklist, so that should do it for now -- until they come up with a new email address.

Thank you, Howard Dean

Many democrats have been praised in the past few days, but perhaps the most important one has not been mentioned at all. Until now ...
Howard Dean, vindicated |

...Despite all the complaints and demands directed at him over the past 18 months, Dean stuck to his principles. He and his supporters in the netroots movement believed that their party needed to rebuild from the ground up in every state, including many where the party existed in name only. These Democrats prefer to think of their party as one of inclusion and unity. They openly disdain the divisive strategies of the Republicans who have so often used racial, regional and cultural differences to polarize voters.

And they believe that relying on opportunistic attempts to grab a few selected states or districts as usual -- rather than establishing a real presence across the country -- conceded a permanent structural advantage to the Republicans that would only grow more durable with each election cycle.

Breaking that advantage would be costly and difficult, as Dean well realized, but it had to be done someday, or the Democrats would fulfill Karl Rove's dream of becoming a permanent minority party -- or fading away altogether. Against the counsel of party professionals, whose long losing streak has done little to diminish their influence, the new chairman began the process of re-creating the Democratic Party in 2005. And contrary to the gossip and subsequent press reports, he succeeded in raising $51 million last year, about 20 percent more than in 2003 and a party record for an off year...
Humanity owes a debt to Howard Dean.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election 2006: how pathetic are American newspapers?

Every newspaper in the nation and state is full of the same news, but to find out that my home state passed a silly constitutional amendment I have to personally track down the results on the Secretary of State web sitee. A friend may complain about the absurd lack of coverage of the Ohio voting machine debacle, but this is what I'll remember.

Journalism is really in crisis. We desperately need journalists, so I hope they come up with a new business model. Heck, if the Dems can win the Senate, anything can happen.

Are we neandertal?

John Hawks has numerous posts on a recent paper suggesting that a key gene regulating human brain development might have originated in neandertals living in what is now europe. John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2006 11 is one example.

Hawks says to expect quite a bit of Neandertal news this week. I think most laypersons, like myself, had come to believe there was no sapiens-neandertal interbreeding. Surprises indeed.

I'll be reading Hawks' blog closely this week.

Can it be?

I still do not believe the senate will go Democrat. That is so far outside the envelope of the possible. Could I have been that wrong in my pre-election expecations?

On the other hand, I was right about the October surprise. Sure, it wasn't Bush with an executive order impacting Roe v. Wade, but surely Mark Foley was a surprise? What, that doesn't count?

DeLong has pointed out that the Dems appear to have won by an enormous percentage of the popular vote (by modern standards). Now Bob Harris puts the results in a different context:
This Modern World: An historic blow-out

An historic blow-out

The good guys’ win is even more one-sided than it looks at first glance.

If the numbers stay as they are, here’s the final scoreboard, assuming I haven’t missed something:

• Not one Democratic incumbent lost in the Senate.
• Not one Democratic incumbent lost in the House of Representatives.
• Not one Democratic incumbent lost in any state Governorship.

All told, 504 major offices were at stake tonight.

Not one changed hands going Democrat to Republican.

I’ve looked, and while several past elections saw a greater number of seats changing hands, I can’t find a more one-sided repudiation of a ruling party in U.S. history. (Although I fully expect someone out there reading this will, about five seconds after I hit the “publish” button.)
I still think something will happen to take the Senate away. In fact, even to have written this has probably ensured that the GOP will pull out an upset in Virginia ...

It is too early to say that bleeding has stopped. Wait, Rumsfeld is gone?! Next you'll tell me Bush voted Democrat ...

Update 11/8: Still don't believe it ...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Udell recommends: Seminars on Longterm Thinking

Jon Udell likes the SALT talks. Sigh. Between 'In Our Time' and all the management podcasts Andrew wants me to listen to, not to mention all my audio CME, I need a way to fork my audio inputs. Poor NPR, it's being crushed. I hardly ever listen to the radio any more.

Something good: the Ramsey County Precinct Finder

I doubt I'll be happy with the election results (the Senate will stay Republican), but despite the grim political landscape there is a bright spot. I am very impressed with my home county's Ramsey County Elections Precinct Finder. All in one spot - sample ballot, the number of my city council representative, county commissioner, etc.

Now if I can only figure out who the soil and water commissioners are (no way should this be an elected office ...). I guess I'll vote for the ones who can put together a plausible web site.

Also, how the heck did a constitutional amendment to build highways get on the ballot? A constitutional amendment?!! This state is going downhill ...

Update: I found my instructions from the Kremli.... errr the DFL. Renstorf and Carlile for Soil and Water. There, that was easy ...

Judges are more problematic (another post that probably should not be elected), but this MN Bar Association plebiscite is very helpful.

I do have to vote for the school levy. A Republican governor means that public schools are increasingly funded through local taxes (aka, them that has gets), a criminal practice that, in a decent world, would be grounds for public pillory.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Amazon: ominous problems

I was one of Amazon's earliest customers -- back when they gave out coffee mugs to every customer. I've tracked their ups and downs, including when their customer service was in the basement (now it's excellent). I can smell when they're in trouble.

They're in trouble.

They're increasingly trying to be a broker for other vendors, a kind of meta-catalog. This gets them out of the nasty business of stocking inventory and managing customers and lets them cover the entire net. That would be fine - if there were a search option to limit all views and searches to only items Amazon stocks and distributes. There isn't.

Nowadays, when I search for things there, I'm weeding through junk from no-name vendors. I might as well be on eBay.

I don't have the time to mess with no-name vendors. I want a vendor I trust. I trust Amazon, I don't trust these guys. I don't want to deal with all the oddball shipping charges.

Amazon is making a bad strategic move. They need to pull out of this dive before then make ground contact.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Yellow Dog III: The Economist says "throw the bums out"

Shortly I diss the deteriorating Economist, I find they show signs of lingering intelligence. Like the NYTs they announce a blanket pox on the GOP:
Down with the Republicans | Democracy in America |

... The Economist’s advice for the mid-term elections is this: throw the Republicans out. The Democrats may be “incoherent”, it says, but they can scarcely do worse than the Republicans have done already. A few “independent-minded” Republicans deserve to keep their seats, it says, but in general, “sometimes ruling parties become so addled and incompetent that they need to be punished”.

Yellow Dog II: The NYT has no GOP endorsements

It's like I wrote yesterday, the Yellow Dog is barking (emphases mine):
The Difference Two Years Made - New York Times

On Tuesday, when this page runs the list of people it has endorsed for election, we will include no Republican Congressional candidates for the first time in our memory. Although Times editorials tend to agree with Democrats on national policy, we have proudly and consistently endorsed a long line of moderate Republicans, particularly for the House. Our only political loyalty is to making the two-party system as vital and responsible as possible.

That is why things are different this year.

To begin with, the Republican majority that has run the House — and for the most part, the Senate — during President Bush’s tenure has done a terrible job on the basics. Its tax-cutting-above-all-else has wrecked the budget, hobbled the middle class and endangered the long-term economy. It has refused to face up to global warming and done pathetically little about the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Republican leaders, particularly in the House, have developed toxic symptoms of an overconfident majority that has been too long in power. They methodically shut the opposition — and even the more moderate members of their own party — out of any role in the legislative process. Their only mission seems to be self-perpetuation.

The current Republican majority managed to achieve that burned-out, brain-dead status in record time, and with a shocking disregard for the most minimal ethical standards. It was bad enough that a party that used to believe in fiscal austerity blew billions on pork-barrel projects. It is worse that many of the most expensive boondoggles were not even directed at their constituents, but at lobbyists who financed their campaigns and high-end lifestyles.

That was already the situation in 2004, and even then this page endorsed Republicans who had shown a high commitment to ethics reform and a willingness to buck their party on important issues like the environment, civil liberties and women’s rights.

For us, the breaking point came over the Republicans’ attempt to undermine the fundamental checks and balances that have safeguarded American democracy since its inception. The fact that the White House, House and Senate are all controlled by one party is not a threat to the balance of powers, as long as everyone understands the roles assigned to each by the Constitution. But over the past two years, the White House has made it clear that it claims sweeping powers that go well beyond any acceptable limits. Rather than doing their duty to curb these excesses, the Congressional Republicans have dedicated themselves to removing restraints on the president’s ability to do whatever he wants. To paraphrase Tom DeLay, the Republicans feel you don’t need to have oversight hearings if your party is in control of everything.

An administration convinced of its own perpetual rightness and a partisan Congress determined to deflect all criticism of the chief executive has been the recipe for what we live with today.

Congress, in particular the House, has failed to ask probing questions about the war in Iraq or hold the president accountable for his catastrophic bungling of the occupation. It also has allowed Mr. Bush to avoid answering any questions about whether his administration cooked the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Then, it quietly agreed to close down the one agency that has been riding herd on crooked and inept American contractors who have botched everything from construction work to the security of weapons.

After the revelations about the abuse, torture and illegal detentions in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Congress shielded the Pentagon from any responsibility for the atrocities its policies allowed to happen. On the eve of the election, and without even a pretense at debate in the House, Congress granted the White House permission to hold hundreds of noncitizens in jail forever, without due process, even though many of them were clearly sent there in error.

In the Senate, the path for this bill was cleared by a handful of Republicans who used their personal prestige and reputation for moderation to paper over the fact that the bill violates the Constitution in fundamental ways. Having acquiesced in the president’s campaign to dilute their own authority, lawmakers used this bill to further Mr. Bush’s goal of stripping the powers of the only remaining independent branch, the judiciary.

This election is indeed about George W. Bush — and the Congressional majority’s insistence on protecting him from the consequences of his mistakes and misdeeds. Mr. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and proceeded to govern as if he had an enormous mandate. After he actually beat his opponent in 2004, he announced he now had real political capital and intended to spend it. We have seen the results. It is frightening to contemplate the new excesses he could concoct if he woke up next Wednesday and found that his party had maintained its hold on the House and Senate.

The Economist 1986-2006. RIP.

I gave up on the Economist this year. I signed up in residency; it was fabulous back then. Smart, cool, analytic. It weakened in the early 90s, then it took a sudden dive around 1996. Maybe it had something to do with the color photos.

The year 2000 issue was a marvel, and there have been other moments of brilliance, but the US coverage has been generally abysmal. In retrospect when a "Liberal" (19th century version) magazine piled on Clinton for an extramarital affair the end was nigh. They even endorsed Bush the first time, though, mercifully, not the 2nd time. Over the past 8 years Lexington column came to read like a slighly less sloshed version of the WSJ OpEd page, and even their astounding African correspondents couldn't offset the craven and brainless US coverage.

Even now, when I've at last ended my subscription, it's still probably, on balance, better than the competition. It's just that I remember when it was truly great. The slow grinding decline in quality (even as revenues have risen!) has been demoralizing. Really, I might have held on -- but they made the writer of 'Lexington' their Editor. That was a foul blow.

I will miss it, but coincidentally to my departure they've put a lot more of the magazine online, and they've just added a blog. The blog is very good. So I'll read the online version, and the Atlantic and Scientific American, and I'll see if they can manage a recovery. I doubt it however, they've made tons of money since they became stupid.

Update: alas, I should have read a bit more of the blog. It's dumb. I just happened to catch a couple of good posts by chance. Scratch that one, their downward spiral just sped up a bit.

LiON batteries: don't leave them fully charged

A SciAm review of LiON batteries mentions that leaving them fully charged shortens their lifespan:
... batteries degrade, but lithium-ion cells erode faster when highly charged and warm; an average notebook battery kept at full charge at 25 degrees Celsius will irreversibly lose about 20 percent of its capacity a year...
So it's better to let them cycle completely before recharging. Leaving the device continuously plugged in (like our Nano) will shorten its lifespan.

TBL on why blogs are wonderful and the net is NOT all junk and danger

A day ago I read a very odd BBC article about a new initiative that Tim Berners-Lee was leading. The article claimed TBL (father of the web) was warning of the disastrous and anti-democratic perils of the unrestricted web.

Huh?! I didn't bother noting the article because it didn't fit with anything I knew about TBL. Either the great man had become demented or the journalist was cracked (hint, it was the latter).

Happily, TBL replied. Since he has a blog he can point out that both the Guardian and the BBC were utterly wrongheaded. TBL doesn't buy the garbage about 'blogs are junk' because, oddly enough, he understands how links work.

It works because reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don't just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there. One's chosen starting page, and a nurtured set of bookmarks, are the entrance points, then, to a selected subweb of information which one is generally inclined to trust and find valuable.

A great example of course is the blogging world. Blogs provide a gently evolving network of pointers of interest. As do FOAF files. I've always thought that FOAF could be extended to provide a trust infrastructure for (e.g.) spam filtering and OpenID-style single sign-on and its good to see things happening in that space.

TBL loves blogs. He is not demented. The Guardian and the BBC need a time-out.

The Yellow Dog barks: it wouldn't matter if they ran Mother Teresa

In the row ahead of me a declared lifelong Republican was explaining to his seatmate why he voted (by mail) for the Democratic slate. "We need a change".

That's what it's about. It doesn't matter if a GOP candidate is a cross between Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein and the Dem is an obnoxious idiot -- vote the Dem. Bush did not act alone. He had the full collusion of a political organization that's as corrupt and decadent as any American political party in living memory. The GOP needs an internal purge, and that won't happen while they hold complete control of power. True Republicans know this. I can even, barely, imagine Gingrich voting Libertarian this election.

Molly Ivins provides one list:
WorkingForChange-Keeping our eyes on the ball

... May I remind you what this election is about? Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, unprecedented presidential powers, unmatched incompetence, unparalleled corruption, unwarranted eavesdropping, Katrina, Enron, Halliburton, global warming, Cheney's secret energy task force, record oil company profits, $3 gasoline, FEMA, the Supreme Court, Diebold, Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004, Terri Schiavo, stem cell research, golden parachutes, shrunken pensions, unavailable and expensive health care, habeas corpus, no weapons of mass destruction, sacrificed soldiers and Iraqi civilians, wasted billions, Taliban resurgence, expiration of the assault weapons ban, North Korea, Iran, intelligent design, swift boat hit squads, and on and on.

This election is about that, but much more -- it's about honor, dignity and comity in this country. It's about the Constitution, which gives us this great nation. Bush ran on a pledge of 'restoring honor and integrity' to the White House. Instead, he brought us Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt, Katherine Harris, John Doolittle, Jerry Lewis, Richard Pombo, Mark Foley, Dennis Hastert, David Safavian, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Karl Rove and an illegal and immoral war in Iraq...
I don't agree with all of Molly's list (mine would be more like Blumenthal's or Krugman's), but even 1/10th of this indictment is more than enough reason to vote for a Yellow Dog over a Republican. If you're a Republican and swore a blood oath to never vote for a Dem, try the Libertarians.

The roots of the anti-gay marriage movement

Quebec, my home nation/province, has a logical approach to state-approved marriage. It is a legal process run by the state. The blessings of a church, cult, coven, commune, tribe, union, club or other entity are optional.

The domains are distinct. The cult may approve polygamy and the state approve gay marriage, and each may disagree with the other. The state, mercifully, is far more powerful than the cult.

It is worth pointing out that Quebec was, until about 30 years ago, a true theocratic state -- somewhat like Iran. There was nothing in North America* the US and Canada like Quebec in 1950. Things changed quickly.

In the US marriage is a mess. One root of the gay marriage wars is a battle between state and religion about relative roles and power. That's a big and ancient battle, and the growing number of areligious and non-christian voters suggests how this will turn out.

The other root is of a personal nature:
Another GOP Sex Scandal - Yahoo! News

... Haggard, like his fellow Christian soldier James Dobson, also happens to be a leading opponent of gay marriage and an ardent critic of an amendment on the Colorado ballot November 7 that would give same-sex couples equal rights under the law and a supporter of another amendment that would prohibit gay marriage in the state. He's called gay marriage a 'sin' and 'devastating for the children of our nation.'

It's a routine that's won Haggard praise since as far back as 1993. 'During services at the New Life church,' the New York Times reported back then, 'Pastor Ted Haggard warns against the evils of homosexuality and adultery. His followers respond with exuberant clapping and shouts of 'Amen!' and 'That's right!''

In 2004, he led the push with Dobson and other religious right leaders for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Haggard's accuser, male escort Mike Jones, decided to finally speak up because 'I felt like I had to take a stand, and I cannot sit back anymore and hear [what] to me is an anti-gay message.'
Ted Haggard, like so many other homophobes, appears to have been battling his own personal "demon", namely homophilia. He's not the first to translate self-loathing into other-hatred. I wonder what the numbers are. My guess is that self-loathing, and in particular fear of one's own homophilia, is predominant among the virulent male opponents to gay marriage. Not every opponent mind you, mostly the ones who froth at the mouth.

* I caught this mistake myself. The land mass of NA currently includes, of course, the nations of the US, Canada, Mexico and a couple of French islands. Mexico in 1950 may have been like Quebec in 1950, I don't know much Mexican history.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Tangram: TIA by any other name

No surprise:
Schneier on Security: Total Information Awareness Is Back

None of us thought that meant the end of TIA, only that it would turn into a classified program and be renamed. Well, the program is now called Tangram, and it is classified...
Cool name. If I didn't have unlimited trust in the goodness of our Glorious Leaders I'd be worried ...

Aug 2008: Resveratrol increases cancer risk?

Yes, Red Wine Holds Answer. Check Dosage is a relatively sober summary of a study claiming a 20% increase in mouse longevity with megadoses of resveratrol - a substance found in Pinot Noir wine. I am reminded, however, of a recent study suggesting a genetic balancing act between cancer risk and aging rate. Humans that age more slowly seem more prone to cancer, humans that age more quickly are less prone. The two groups have about the same lifespan but die of different causes (cancer vs. heart disease perhaps).

So my suspicion would be that resveratrol tips the scales towards slower aging ... but leads to more cancer. Look for the headline in August 2008 ...

Update Jan 31, 2009: It's past August 2008 now, and I was wrong on this one. The academic literature is looking for anti-cancer benefits of resveratrol.