Sunday, December 31, 2006

The fatal flaw in distributing encrypted media

The new HD-DVD encryption scheme has been partially, but not completely, broken.
Studios’ DVDs Face a Crack in Security - New York Times

...If the person who identified himself as Muslix64 is able to create a complete version of a decryption program, or if others extend the software so that consumers without technical expertise can readily make copies of movies, that would create a crisis for the HD-DVD camp. That system contains a “revocation” mechanism for shutting down HD-DVD players whose encryption system has been compromised. But industry analysts say that taking such a step would give the HD-DVD system a tremendous black eye, angering consumers and shaking the confidence of Hollywood studios in the system.

Today’s DVDs are protected using an earlier encryption technique known as Content Scramble System, or C.S.S. That system was undermined in 1999 by a small group of programmers, and movie studios have said that the new A.A.C.S. would not fall victim to the same kind of technological attack...

Interesting story, but it's not the fatal flaw in DVD encryption. The fatal flaw is that the media is physical, and thus out of control of the rights holders. Sooner or later, sometime in the next 20 years, the "old" keys are released or broken, and shortly thereafter every movie on every physical DVD will become shareable.

The movie industry presumably knows this; they must truly hate the entire idea of HD-DVD and any form of persistent distribution of movies.

They deserved better leadership ...

The NYT today profiled a few of the American soldiers who've died recently in Iraq. Sergeant Fry was the last story of the article:
A Grim Milestone in Iraq: 3,000 American Deaths - New York Times:

... A team leader, Sergeant Fry, who shipped out to Iraq in September 2005, disarmed 73 bombs, including one of the biggest car bombs found in Falluja. Once he helped defuse a suicide vest that insurgents had belted to a mentally handicapped Iraqi teenage boy. The boy had been beaten and chained to a wall. Another time, he spotted a bomb from the roof of a house. A little boy popped into the yard, hovering dangerously close to it. Sergeant Fry won his confidence by playing peekaboo, then got him to move away.

He was in 'very high spirits' in March, calling his wife to say that his duties were done, his paperwork filed and his anticipation impossible to stifle. 'He had made it,' she said. Then a mission came down, and commanders were preparing to send a team of mostly inexperienced men to defuse bombs along a road in Al Anbar province. He volunteered for the job, instead. 'That is how he led,' Mrs. Fry said.

Sergeant Fry found three bombs that night and defused them. But the insurgents had hidden a fourth bomb under the third one, a booby-trap. It blew up and killed him. An Army team stayed with his body for six hours, fending off enemy fire in the dark until soldiers with mortuary affairs arrived to take his body away.
They deserved great leaders, they got the Bush/GOP team. I hope the leadership, at least, is improving ...

Convergence: HDTV LCDs and Computer LCDs

One day we figured computer displays and TV displays would converge. Jeff Atwood says the day is now. I agree about the UI issues with hi res computer displays, which is why both Vista and OS X are moving away from bitmaps to resolution-independent UIs. HDTV is 1920x1080 (another weird aspect ratio btw), the Apple 30" is 2560x1600.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Gulf War II: The critic's view summarized

The New York Review of Books: Iraq: The War of the Imagination summarizes the Woodward, Suskind and Risen on the Bush administration's path to perdition with additional commentary and footnotes. Mark Danner promises a future article on the "third act", namely what comes now.

Bush/Cheney et al combined bad data with bad judgment and terrible execution to produce a strategic blunder an order of magnitude worse than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. America dutifully reelected them, so their voters share the blame.

Despite all that has gone before, I am cautiously optimistic. There is so much at stake in Iraq that many powerful forces, and immense numbers of less powerful people, will conspire to try to salvage the situation; albeit at an immense cost in lives and economic productivity. Perhaps, if there are enough of these forces, the colossal and catastrophic incompetence of George Bush and Dick Cheney can be managed and redirected, and these two men can retire to give speeches we can all ignore.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The strange economics of PC Games: why are so many junk? Cars Radiator Springs Adventures (Win/Mac)
sells for $18. My son wants it, but the reviews on both Amazon and the Apple website are unusually dismal. It appears to be genuine junk.

Now, I admit it's not that unusual in the 21st century to buy stuff that's pure junk. The cost of ownership of this worthless junk is mind-boggling -- but it's everywhere. PC/Mac children's games, however, seem even junkier. Console games don't seem to have the same problem.

Why does this strategy, which is basically fraud, work for PC/Mac games vendors but not for console vendors? My guess is it has something to do with the absence of copy protection, naive buyers, and the collapse of the PC/Mac games market. In this environment, maybe fraud is the only successful strategy ...

Free Will RIP - The Economist on preemptive punishment

It has begun.

"Free Will" was a convenient fiction; the transmutation of the Soul into something that could live, for a time, with science. It was always doomed to folow the Soul into the exile of theology, the only question was when. I said my farewell in the early 1990s -- neurosciences and genomics had shrunk Free Will into a tiny remnant of its old self. In retrospect it didn't really matter, whether by the happenstance of circumstance or the tyranny of genetics we are the products of chance. The Calvinists covered this long ago.

It takes a while for something like this to sink in though. This editorial in The Economist tells us that the news has traveled from the heralds of science fiction to the realm of politics...
Liberalism and neurology | Free to choose? |

IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different...

...At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.
Yes. The Economist, slow as it is, is a bit quicker than the mainstream media. The others will follow over the next two to three years, with conversations in movies and the talk shows.

How will the realization dawn? Will there be a ferocious counter-attack, or will we discover that the edifice of resistance has been crumbling in the West? Hard to say, but I don't think this is much of an issue for most faiths. All functions of Free Will can readily revert to the Soul, and many Christian faiths have dropped Hell -- removing the most troublesome issue with a supposedly benevolent deity. Calvinists, of course, have never had a problem with those born to be damned. The going is even easier for Hindus and Buddhists, but I'd wonder about Islam...

The death of a Free Will is, however, a problem for "true (19th) liberalism" (i.e. The Economist) and, if they exist, compassionate Libertarians. The long feared embrace of 20th century Liberalism looms for both.

It will also be a significant challenge to modern American evangelical Protestantism, which has promoted the separation of Free Will from Soul and combines a "just" (but not merciful) God with eternal damnation. Something will have to give there.

Kudos to The Economist for launching the conversation, and for connecting it to the oncoming train of preemptive punishment.

Update 1/19/07: See also (all connected to The Economist, interestingly)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Levitating globes, calculators and $18 digital cameras

DeLong notes how cheap computing changes the economics of toy construction:
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Levitating Desktop Globes

...It's now cheaper to have a computer sense the position of the globe and increase or decrease the strength of the top magnet in order to pull the globe up or down than to have a cradle of magnets underneath...
Silicon is sand, and sand is cheap. In the same vein, my local gas station is selling a Philips digital camera/camcorder for $18.00. Sand and plastic; once the developments cost has been recouped there's no basement for the price.

Calculators took the same route 30 years ago. Like embedded chips and the low end digital camera they were just sand and plastic; eventually low end calculators became so cheap they could only be sold as add-ons and gimmicks.

Curiously, the personal computer has remained conspicuously expensive. Only recently has mainstream computing begun to approach to price point of the Commodore 64 ... Too many moving parts ....

Die smarter? Longevity genes, Alzheimer's and gambling with Faust

The 'related links' section of this SciAm summary are also of interest:
Science & Technology at Scientific Single Gene Could Lead to Long Life, Better Mental Function -- A variation of a gene that controls the size of cholesterol molecules in the bloodstream is common among elderly Ashkenazim who remain mentally sharp

... Those centenarians who passed were two to three times more likely to have a common variant of a particular gene, called the CETP gene, than those who did not. When the researchers studied another 124 Ashkenazi Jews between 75 and 85 years of age, those subjects who passed the test of mental function were five times more likely to have this gene variant than their counterparts.

The CETP gene variant makes cholesterol particles in the blood larger than normal. The researchers suggest smaller particles can more readily lodge in the lining of blood vessels, leading to fatty buildups, which are a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.

Whether or not this gene variant protects the brain by preventing this buildup, or through some other mechanism, remains uncertain, says Barzilai. Future research should also investigate whether this gene has an effect on dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease, says pathologist and human geneticist George Martin at the University of Washington.

Pharmaceutical companies are currently developing drugs that mimic the effect of this gene variant, says Barzilai. Unfortunately, one known as torcetrapib, manufactured by Pfizer, was pulled in December due to increased death and heart problems among study subjects, "but others in development aren't seeing that, so it might just have been a problem with that drug," says Barzilai. "If not, it's a question people might face--whether or not people want to prevent Alzheimer's even if there's a small risk of getting a heart attack.

Fascinating basic science, but like all good basic science it mostly raises questions. For all we know now this gene doesn't so much provide longer life, as kill off those who lack some other compensatory gene that provides benefits. It might, for example, be primarily an Alzheimer's reduction gene that also increases the risk of heart attacks, so if you sample elderly people with the gene you're finding those who have some other factor that offsets the heart attack effect.

Alas, many "beneficial" genes turn out to have a Faustian component -- such as trading slower aging and faster healing for more cancer. (Turns out mice do this big time -- if they're not killed they almost always die of cancer -- but they heal fast.)

Which brings us to Barzilai's comment. The promise of modern pharmacogenetics is really about optimizing the Faustian bargain. So you make a "deal with the devil", but the deck is stacked in your favor. If your MI risk is low but your dementia risk is high, then you might opt for an anti-dementia drug that increases the risk of MI. If your dementia risk is high, and your MI risk is average, you schedule bypass surgery in 8 years. Who needs recreational bingo when you can gamble on this scale?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Keeping up with the metagenome

Biology has changed a bit since the day -- and yet not so much. In my 1970s biology classes ecosystems and emergent interactions were very fashionable ...
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2006 12 0 The metagenome and obesity

...the introduction to the paper by Turnbaugh et al. (2006:1027) puts it well:

The human 'metagenome' is a composite of Homo sapiens genes and genes present in the genomes of the trillions of microbes that colonize our adult bodies. The latter genes are thought to outnumber the former by several orders of magnitude. 'Our' microbial genomes (the microbiome) encode metabolic capacities that we have not had to evolve wholly on our own but remain largely unexplored. These include degradation of otherwise indigestible components of our diet, and therefore may have an impact on our energy balance.
Hawks is highly recommended for anyone who wants to track the development of modern biology and, of course, anthropology.

Fertility and wealth: a paradox resolved?

The wealthier and more powerful women become, the fewer children they have.

I've heard dozens of explanations for this seemingly biologically insane behavior, but none of them made sense to me. It's been in the back of my mind for over twenty years.

Now the paradox may be heading towards resolution:
BBC NEWS | Health | Large families 'bad for parents' : "

...They add the findings also suggest why women now tend to have fewer children.

'If women have generally incurred greater fitness costs of reproduction, this could explain why they generally prefer fewer offspring than their husbands and reduce their fertility when they obtain more reproductive autonomy.'
The researchers assert a strong correlation between number of children and maternal mortality. If true this would help understand the apparent wealth paradox. A caveat however, I have little faith left in case control studies. The only reason this one has any persuasive power is that it fits with what we see in other animals.

It's probably not only the direct effect of bearing children -- the paternal mortality also rises ...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Racism is alive and public in Virginia's Republican representative

Of course racism never went away in American culture or politics, but for years it was at least disguised. Virgil Goode Jr, the GOP representative for Virginia, has done the nation a great service by ripping off the disguise. His racism, and perhaps that of his constituents, is now on international display. Emphases mine ...
Congressman Criticizes Election of Muslim - New York Times

In a letter sent to hundreds of voters this month, Representative Virgil H. Goode Jr., Republican of Virginia, warned that the recent election of the first Muslim to Congress posed a serious threat to the nation’s traditional values.

Mr. Goode was referring to Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat and criminal defense lawyer who converted to Islam as a college student and was elected to the House in November. Mr. Ellison’s plan to use the Koran during his private swearing-in ceremony in January had outraged some Virginia voters, prompting Mr. Goode to issue a written response to them, a spokesman for Mr. Goode said.

In his letter, which was dated Dec. 5, Mr. Goode said that Americans needed to “wake up” or else there would “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped,” said Mr. Goode, who vowed to use the Bible when taking his own oath of office.

... Mr. Ellison dismissed Mr. Goode’s comments, saying they seemed ill informed about his personal origins as well as about Constitutional protections of religious freedom. “I’m not an immigrant,” added Mr. Ellison, who traces his American ancestors back to 1742. “I’m an African-American.”...

... “I’m looking forward to making friends with Representative Goode, or at least getting to know him,” Mr. Ellison said, speaking by telephone from Minneapolis. “I want to let him know that there’s nothing to fear. The fact that there are many different faiths, many different colors and many different cultures in America is a great strength.”

... Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and radio host, condemned the decision as one that would undermine American civilization.

“Ellison’s doing so will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal — the Islamicization of America,” said Mr. Prager, who said the Bible was the only relevant religious text in the United States.

“If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress,” Mr. Prager said.

In his letter, Mr. Goode echoed that view, saying that he did not “subscribe to using the Koran in any way.” He also called for ending illegal immigration and reducing legal immigration.

Linwood Duncan, a spokesman for Mr. Goode, said the Virginia lawmaker had no intention of backing down, despite the furor.

“He stands by the letter,” Mr. Duncan said. “He has no intention of apologizing.”
Bravo Mr. Goode. Please don't retreat into some feigned mealy-mouthed faux apology. Your pretty blond face will give us a living symbol of the evil that lives at the heart of the GOP. I didn't get to vote for Mr. Ellison (neighboring district), but now I wish I could have. Mr. Ellison's reply, "making friends" is diabolical; guaranteed to drive Mr. Goode into a frothing rage that somebody will capture for YouTube.

I'm sure Mr. Goode and Mr. Prager would feel much the same way about, shudder, a Jew, Hindu, or ... horror of horrors ... no, I dare not mention it ... an atheist taking office.

John McCain -- this is your party ...

UK robotics report: why you should really read science fiction

As a proper geek-child, I was very fond of comic books and science fiction. I also took a typing class, which in my day was considered the province of secretaries. I never imagined both choices would prove to be so practical. A good lesson for our latest educational obsessions.

The value of my 1970s typing classes is, of course, now obvious. The value of my science fiction vice is having been long prepared for the latest news:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Robots could demand legal rights

.... Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, according to a study by the British government.

If granted, countries would be obligated to provide social benefits including housing and even 'robo-healthcare', the report says.

The predictions are contained in nearly 250 papers that look ahead at developments over the next 50 years.

.... The research was commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre.

The 246 summary papers, called the Sigma and Delta scans, were complied by futures researchers, Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF)....
Duh. Well, yes. If robots, or non-robots for that matter, become sentient they will acquire rights. The tricky part, which I wrote about in my Williams College ethics class in 1981, is how "rights" are afforded when one steps away from DNA. Does a severely retarded human child earn more "rights" than a genetically enhanced chimp? Does a super-sentient AI get more "rights" than the most brilliant, wise, handsome, rich, etc human? (My 1986 medical school ethics essay was about how those questions expose the degree to which morals and mores are a pragmatic compromise between ethical theory and the limits of human wisdom.)

Overall, I suspect the "Horizon Scanning Center" would have done as well to buy a copy of each the yearly "hard" SF anthologies printed since 1975, but it must have been great fun to work on the reports and I'd enjoy reading them. I hope they go online sometime.

I was struck, when I first heard this news on NPR, that the journalists were relatively sober. That's noteworthy. Ten years ago the chatter would have been flip, today there was only a hint of humor. These memes are infiltrating the human gestalt...

MS and sunlight

Twenty years ago I remember a medical school lecturer mentioning that MS had a peculiar latitudinal distribution based on where a person grew up. The further north one went, the more common it was. I'm sure I wasn't the first person hearing that to think that there was some connection to sunlight exposure in early life.

Maybe there is ...
Vitamin D may lower risk of multiple sclerosis, study finds -

Among whites, those with the highest blood levels of vitamin D had a 62% reduced risk of developing the disease. The protection was the strongest for people who were younger than 20 — a finding that suggests that to be effective, a protective agent might need to kick in very early in life, Ascherio says...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Laws that are universally disobeyed

How many people who bought two way radios for their children this Christmas have gotten their FCC licenses?
Motorola Talkabout FV200 AAA Radios - 2 Pack from

... FV200 radios operate on radio frequencies that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); license and fees required...."
I think someone should try to register just to see what the FCC does.

Note to Congress: a law that's never obeyed and never enforced is simply silly.

AOL and Yahoo: email down the tubes

AOL has been on a long slow death spiral for about 10 years, but I didn't realize Yahoo was in dire straits until I read this announcement from my ISP:
VISI | Announcements | Difficulty sending mail to or

Over the past weeks, it appears that Yahoo has begun grey-listing all (or most) incoming mail. This means that they are rejecting the first mail delivery attempts and telling sending servers to try again later. Yahoo also appears to be grey-listing with content filters. In this case, customers may see the error message: message text rejected by 451 This message indicates that suspicious content was detected, but that the sending server may try again.

For mail grey-listed automatically or by IP, users may see: : connect to[]: server refused mail service You may also see error code 421 in the error response.

Generally, this email is also being retried, however, if retried too soon, it will be rejected again. It may even be rejected permanently by Yahoo with no change in error message that we have found. Yahoo's documentation claims that they are not grey-listing, but instead are filtering mail based upon the sending server's compliance with standard mail practices. Our servers, however, are compliant, but we are still seeing significant deferrals. Yahoo is also testing DomainKeys verification, which we are reviewing to potentially mitigate the problem. There appears to be no way to contact Yahoo about this except via web forms that do not generate any response except confirmation of receipt. We recommend that any users forwarding email to addresses cease forwarding or redirect to another location.

Of course, this affects not only customers forwarding mail to Yahoo, but ANYONE attempting to send mail to Yahoo addresses.

AOL AOL uses an automated system to block mail from potential spam sources. When mail is reported as spam by users, the IP addresses for servers used to transmit the mail are recorded, and, once their limit has been reached, IP addresses are blocked from sending mail to AOL for 24 to 48 hours. This can be exacerbated by VISI customers forwarding email to their own AOL accounts and then reporting any forwarded spam, which can result in temporary blocks of VISI mail server IP addresses. The automated system is COMPLETELY automatic, and no intervention is possible in expediting removal of IP addresses. Unfortunately, this will affect ANY customer attempting to send to AOL addresses, not just forwards to AOL accounts. As with Yahoo, above, we recommend that any users forwarding email to addresses cease forwarding or redirect to another location.
I ran into a variant of this problem with Gmail. I was redirecting an unfiltered email stream to Gmail, and when I read the mail in Gmail I "marked" the spam. Alas, Gmail looks at the redirect as the source of the email, so the more I marked as spam the lower the reputation of the redirector fell. Over time Gmail marked more and more valid emails as spam, and missed more and more spam. I fixed it by filtering the mail stream, and never marking anything that was redirected as spam (I just delete it).

The Yahoo and AOL bizarre responses to the spam deluge tells us how dire their financial situations are, but I must also say that Visi should have figured out DomainKeys a year ago. Maybe Yahoo is doing this in part to force adoption of DomainKeys; too bad their execution is incompetent.

In the meantime, encourage anyone you know who's still using Yahoo or AOL to get out fast and switch to Gmail.

Update 12/21/06: There's a good defensive strategy for those of us still using SMTP services (non-webmail) btw. Get a Gmail account and configure your dedicated email client to use Gmail's smtp service. If Google is your sending service, I suspect Yahoo and AOL won't be blacklisting the sending domain.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Google is NOT slowing down

Google folk were rumored to be catching their breath. No. Rather than doing new products, they're extending existing products in innovative ways and discovering innovative, micro-NLP based, ways to do ad-hoc interoperability across Google and with non-Google products.

I have an embedded link one one of my blogs to a Custom Search Engine. Today when I used it, a dialog box appeared asking if I'd like to add this custom search to the button list that appears next to the search box in my Google Firefox 3.0 beta toolbar.

I said yes, and now it's there. When I get home and login to Google/Firefox, I would not be astonished to see the button migrate.

Today I noticed the addition of the 'call' link to Google local search, as well as a few other clever tweaks (though they need to do better about exposing links so one can send a link to recreate a local search context).

Google is not slowing down. If anything, they're ramping up. Scary and exciting.

Mankiw plays tricks, but is saved by a Dave Barry column

Greg Mankiw, a respectable Republican, claims that the study of economics makes students more "conservative". Of course he's playing semantic games; he knows his more naive readership will equate "conservative" with Republican. It's only at the end of his post that his conscience forces him to confess that he really means "classically liberal"; in other words the very antithesis of modern Rovian Republicanism. Classic liberalism (championed by The Economist in the 1980s and early 1990s, and parodied by The Economist ever since) is a respectable doctrine, albeit one that struggles with "the problem of the weak".

Despite this bit of weaselly trickery, the column is redeemed by a link to a classic Dave Barry column. I do miss Dave Barry's writing, but he seems to have decided to semi-retire. Dave Barry in his heyday was a rare public and populist intellectual, of a sort we most desperately need.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Car rental: enter gold number, price jumps $200

The 'arms race' of modern pricing continues apace. I priced a personal 5 day van rental twice on Travelocity - once with no loyalty number added and again with the loyalty number.

The price of loyalty, was a $200 increase. Yes, I would pay Avis for the joy of being a loyal customer.

To their credit Travelocity listed Avis twice after I entered my registration number, once at the disloyal price and again at the inflated loyal price.

These days it is increasingly foolish to do any price negotiation directly with a travel related vendor.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Against Stupidity: Citibank Visa security

I was a huge Asimov fan as a kid. He died young of AIDS (blood transfusion); one of his last books was probably his very best. The title was a winner - 'The Gods Themselves'. It was taken from a quote by Schiller 'Against stupidity, the gods themselves, contend in vain.

I thought of that quote when Citibank Visa asked me to provide answers to not one, not two, but three! (or four?) "security questions". Information only I am supposed to know. Top secret information, that will be firmly protected with all the customary security employed by banks and credit card companies to secure customer data.

Meaning I might as well publish the answers in my blog. Imagine how much easier these security questions are making identity theft. Add them all up, and there's no "thing only I know" that won't be known to a potential thief.

I did manage to keep my responses printable, though they're not at all memorable or useful. If Citibank ever requires me to answer them I'll switch to another Visa franchise.


Avian Influenza: A guide for the interested layperson

American Family Physician is a review journal for FPs. Unusually, all of the journal is freely available on the web. The quality is usually good; the best articles are written by family physicians. The very best are so clearly written that anyone with a basic interest in science can follow them.

Gregory Juckett's review of avian influenza (H5N1) is top notch, and is only a bit more technical than the Scientific American. Highly recommended for the curious. A few tidbits that I took away:
  • Like the 1919 (H1N1) pandemic death is most often from acute respiratory distress syndrome and is probably due to a hyperactive immune response. That's why mortality is high among young adults -- they have the most aggressive and twitchy immune responses. The most promising therapy involves 'statins' (drugs like Lipitor) that [surprise!] suppress the cytokine component of the immune response. [jf: Cytokine suppression is not always a 'feature'; one must wonder how many times statin-induced immune suppression is harmful or lethal. I'm sure we'll here more about this over the next year.]
  • The early returns suggest the lethality of the current H5N1 strain of Avian influenza is more comparable to the 1957 H2N2 or 1968 H3N2 lethalities, so not in the same league as the 'Spanish' flu.
  • The Swine flu of 1976 was an H1N1 strain. We still don't know why it didn't wipe the floor with us. President Ford ought to have earned accolades, not scorn, for the emergency vaccinaton proram later associated with an inflammatory polyneuropathy.
  • Ventilator availability is a major problem for Avian flu response. We can't make Tamiflu faster (Star Anise supplies have some production limit.), but we could make a lot more portable vents. If we don't need them, we could donate them to other nations.
The AAFP has launched a practice-oriented support web site. (Sadly, the URL was botched in the 9/1/06 editorial. You think that by now they'd have setup a redirect! I'll send them a note.)

A plea for Google: meta tags for dates

A plea to Google, inspired by the ancient pages on my legacy hobby site.
Google Groups: Crawling, indexing, and ranking

I still get emails of gratitude from visitors to my legacy personal web site, even for pages that haven't been updated in five or six years. Much of the material is of historic or special interest -- some of it goes back about 10 years -- but there's a place for such content.

Alas, it's noise for most searchers, especially since Google can't handle date constrained searches very well. Which leads to a plea for Google to support date range meta tags.

If Google supported a 'creation date', 'last revised date', and 'archival date' users could create searches that would either filter out, or focus on, old pages. Sure crooks and scammers would produce invalid dates, but the bias would probably be to create invalid new dates. The value of false archival dates would be much less, so Google's algorithms could make inferences about the utility of the date information and act on it. (Archival dates are more likely to be true, date information from unchanging pages more likely to be true, date information from higher ranked pages more likely to be true, etc, etc.)

Thus my plea.

Retail organs: not a slippery slope

The transfer of organs from the weak to the strong, from the poor to the richer, is not a slippery slope. No, not at all.

Slippery implies some possibility of friction. Slope implies the possibility of balance. We need a better metaphor. How about 'obvious cliff'?

Alas, the trade continues to expand exponentially, despite my screed of last April. The Economist is the latest champion.

Gee, you'd think nobody reads this thing. The egg-donation and kidney transfer trade is big these days, much bigger than the involuntary donations of Chinese "criminals". It's a true 21st century growth industry. Niven, alas, was spot on thirty years ago. If we come up with really good anti-rejection treaments the exponential growth curve will go vertical. Eye transplants anyone? After all, one can live well with one eye.


There is a darkly millenial bright side. Sooner or later, maybe after the eye donations and the hemi-hepatectomies are booming, this trade will tip us into reexamining the duties of the strong to the weak, the rich to the poor, and the limited adaptability of the human to a logically utilitarian ethos.

I'm sure I'll have similar comments in another 6-12 months.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Common Good Books: A place to visit in Saint Paul

Garrison Keillor, a wealthy celebrity and twin cities fixture, has decided to blow some cash on an independent bookstore called
Common Good Books. As best I can tell it doesn't have a web site or a marketing budget. It's downstairs from Nina's Coffee Shop, an upscale bohemian hangout in what was once a chancy neighborhood. Purely by coincidence, it's across from Representative Betty McCollum's office. (Keillor is a hard core democrat.)

Emily and I wandered in, and fell in love with both the bookstore and Nina's upstairs (there's a staircase from inside Nina's to the bookstore, Nina's has wifi). It's not a big place, but every book is remarkable. The reading nooks with the overhead skylight are irresistible. It reminds me of the much grander bookstores west of the University of Chicago, and of a much mourned East Lansing fixture that died after an ill-fated move. Odegard's of Saint Paul was like that, but perhaps a bit more commercial.

Keillor is wealthy enough to fund bookstore for decades -- if he wants to. There are worse ways to lose money. Oddly enough, the bookstore and the location are sufficiently appealing and unusual that, despite the negligible marketing budget, he might one day break even ...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Anti-war demonstrations: why we don't have them

This Slate article provided a sensible and analytic answer to the question about where all the anti-war demonstrations have gone. The biggest piece they missed, and it's quite big, is demographic. We're much, much, older than the society that demonstrated in 1972. I liked the last comment best, and I've excerpted it. The entire piece is brief and well worth reading ...
Why you're not demonstrating against the Iraq war. - By Jacob Weisberg - Slate Magazine:

... Lastly, there is the matter of the Iraq war protests themselves, such as they are. Have you been to one? Demonstrating in the '60s, I gather, was a lot of fun. You went for the politics but stayed for the party—or was it the other way around? Forty years later, antiwar rallies are politically and socially disagreeable. The organizers are inevitably moth-eaten left-wing sectarians, some of whom actually do favor the Iraq insurgents. The sane or rational are quickly routed by the first LaRouchie, anti-Semite, or "Free Mumia" ranter to grab hold of the microphone. The latest in protest music has much the same effect.
Weisberg points out that our mortality rates are much less than in Vietnam, and this reduces the emotional impact of the war (Iraqi casualties, alas, don't count. We are human that way.). I agree, but I wish Weisberg had pointed out that the public has been very uninterested in the number of veterans with traumatic head injuries who will suffer lifelong disabilities. That's a failing of both the media and the US public.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Panoramio and Google Earth

Panoramio is a Google earth geo-location photo mashup service. Upload photos, provide geo-location, and people view them via Google earth or as a Google Map mashup.

The Google Earth integration is particularly impressive.

Once cameras all integrate geo-location, and even target geo-location (trickier), this will all get easier, but the results are impressive even now. Try flying Google Earth around San Franciso with the Panoramio layer enabled...

If you're a photo hobbyist who enjoys landscape and city scenes, you can build karma by using Panoramio to show Google Earth passengers the world ...

Why college tuition continues to increase: Mankiw

This is what I've long thought, but Mankiw is a top flight economist:
Greg Mankiw's Blog: On College Tuition

.... One reason college tuition has risen was explained by economist William Baumol. Consider an industry that uses only labor in production and experiences no technological progress, assumptions that arguably approximate colleges and string quartets. The price of its output will have to grow with the price of labor. The price of labor (the real wage) will, in turn, grow with economy-wide technological progress. Using the numbers in the above table from the Times, one finds that Harvard tuition has grown at 2.8 percent per year (note that this is adjusted for overall inflation). Real GDP per capita grows about 2 percent per year--a rough measure of economy-wide technological change. Thus, much of the increase in tuition, but probably not all, can be explain by the Baumol effect.

3. Over the past thirty years, the college premium has risen substantially. That is, workers with college degrees have enjoyed stronger wage gains than those without--a phenomenon often attributed to skill-biased technological progress. This rising college premium has had two effects on college tuition. First, colleges use a lot of educated labor in producing their output, so their costs have risen faster than they otherwise would. Second, the rising college premium has increased the demand for the services of colleges. Supply shifts left, demand shifts right, and the price unambiguously rises.

4. Colleges have gotten increasingly good at price discriminating. (Recall the discussion of price discrimination in chapter 15 of my favorite economics textbook.) The list price is set high, and then many customers are offered a discount called "financial aid" based on their ability to pay. Here's the secret plan: In the future, Harvard will cost $1 billion a year, and only Bill Gates's children will pay full price. When anyone else walks through the door, the message will be "Special price, just for you.
The implication of #1 is that smart buyers can get a bargain courtesy of those who are unable to judge quality. My own experience is dated, but I have never seen evidence of a correlation between quality and price in the many educational institutions I've attended and the two that I've taught at.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Apple's feet of clay: OS X Simple Finder

You can't delete a file using OS X Simple Finder.

Yes, we all know that the Finder is flawed, that Apple broke their beautiful Classic OS file indirection system with OS X, that Apple's metadata management (file type, creator, etc) was screwed up in OS X compared to classic, and that OS X's smb network services are feeble -- but these are all minor flaws compared to Simple Finder. At first glance this looks like a great way to introduce a non-expert users to OS X, but the pretty face is deceiving. Simple Finder in Mac Classic (OS 8+) was a great piece of work, in OS X it's proof positive that Apple can be as incompetent as Microsoft.

Don't do what I did. Don't spend hours trying to make Simple Finder work as a user environment.


iTunes sales and the status of DRMd music: next steps

Infinite Loop: iPods, iTunes, and iDiots—Forrester says iPods don't drive iTunes sales is a good rant on a recent NYT article claiming iTunes sales are declining. It's a great rant, though I would not be surprised if a lot of people are realizing that even the relatively enlightened iTunes DRM strategy is a non-starter. Ok, a bit surprised. I didn't think people would figure the scam out this fast.

If it is a some great awakening, if enough people have run into DRM problems that they're soured on the whole idea, then the entire digital music industry will need to reboot. It's not a biggie for Apple -- they make their money on iPod hardware sales, but it's huge for everyone else. Note Yahoo is now selling non-DRMd music ...

I posted a comment about the rant and some of the comments. Excerpts below:
  • We also have 3 iPods in active use and may add a Shuffle. All from one music Library. Of course the interesting point here is that copyright holders HAVE NEVER APPROVED OF A FAMILY LIBRARY. So by sharing the music library with my spouse and children on separate iPods I'm probably 'stealing music' as far as the RIAA is concerned. They would say that each person should have their own library, irregardless of relationships.
  • ... the beauty of the iPod was making our hundreds (thousand?) CDs new again. It takes a long time to explore that much music, so many consumers may have a very long latency period before they start buying new music again -- whether classic CD or DRMd.
  • In terms of IP theft I wonder if the biggest methods now are merging iTunes Libraries (attach external drive, drag and drop, it's easy as pie) and ripping tracks from Library CDs and from purchased used CDs that are quickly resold to the dealer. I'm sure the RIAA knows that, but it's not something they talk about much. They prefer to think about file sharing.
  • Controlling all those non-DRMd CDs in the world is a tough task. The way to do it, of course, is rather like gun control. Buy up all the CDs on the market and then destroy them. In time the price of used CDs will rise to the level of new DRMd CDs. In fact, smart people should start hoarding used CDs now in anticipation of when the the prices will rise. The next step is to make it impossible to play non-DRMd digital tracks or CDs/DVDs. It's a big project, but I'm sure the RIAA is working on it.
  • Lastly, it's not really that hard to get real data on what's happening. Medical researchers study far more sensitive topics than this all the time. The issue is that only the vendors will pay for the research, and they won't share what we find. So we'll make do with rumor and anecdote.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Realm of wonders: Ocean census VI

The Independent has an excellent and concise summary of the results of Ocean census VI. The range of what is "possible" in terrestrial organisms continues to expand. If we are still making discoveries of this magnitude in 2006, it is overwhelmingly likely that many more astounding discoveries lie ahead. I am looking forward to the inevitable coffee table book companion to this research report.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Minnesota: what the heck are these people doing here?

Bruce Schneier may be the world's leading geek security expert. He lives in Minneapolis.

Neil Gaiman is a writer of witty fantasy novels, often set at least partly in London, and a hot Hollywood property besides. He lives on the nearby St Croix river. Backpackit, a hot web 2. company, is local. A number of OS X shops are local.

A number of the blogs I read turn out to be unexpectedly written by local folks. What are all these people doing here? For that matter, how the heck did I end up here anyway?

(The influx is likely to worsen. This weekend my son played baseball in shirt sleeves. Outdoors. In December. The ice rinks are all puddles. If word gets out that the Minnesota winter is gone, we'll go the way of Atlanta ...

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Schneier is on a roll, but of course he's got great material. I didn't have the heart comment on this when I first read it, but we now have statistical models that will predict the probability of violent crime based on indirect measures and past records. Sigh. Risk scores will lead to more and more hassles for the unfortunates, which is sure to make them feel and act more like outlaws, which will lead to realtime monitoring ...

Those who score too high will yearn for exile to old Australia.

Speeders will be strip searched ... reputation management II

I am so completely unsurprised by this. The US assigns risk scores to travelers, supposedly "international" only (includes Canada!). Emphases mine:
Schneier on Security: American Authorities Secretly Give International Travellers Terrorist "Risk" Score

The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records, including where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.
Have you had more than one speeding ticket in the past five years? Did you order a vegetarian meal for your flight? You should wear clothing that's easy to shed ...

If people ever figure this out, they'll fight every traffic ticket in court tooth and nail ...

Hacking your reputation: the wars begin

Reputation management is an ancient issue, familiar to all who live in small communities. The early digital age was anonymous, but increasingly everyone knows you're a dog. Anonymity is being replaced by its antithesis; the panoptical state of transparency.

Except, of course, the reputations can be hacked. And so the ancient battles restart on new terrain ...

American terrorism: Cuba and the Bush connection

The November issue of The Atlantic reviews thirty years of American terrorism, with a thread of once-removed Bush connections. Emphases mine. Bosh and Postada, anti-Castro cubans, are the alleged masterminds. The youths who blew up the plane were quickly arrested and served twenty years in Venezualan prisons...
Twilight of the Assassins

It was the first act of airline terrorism in the Americas: thirty years ago, seventy-three people died in the bombing of a Cuban passenger plane. Now, one alleged mastermind lives freely in Miami, while another awaits trial on other charges in Texas...

...why did the Reagan and Bush administrations hire Posada and grant Bosch U.S. residency, when the CIA believed they’d had a hand in blowing up the plane?...

he attention Posada garnered from the Times series was more than he had bargained for. His boasts of masterminding the bombings compromised his supporters in South Florida and New Jersey, some of whom he named as providing him with money. If the attorney general decides to try Posada for acts of terrorism, Exhibit A will be Posada’s own admissions. Two grand juries, one in El Paso and another in Union City, New Jersey, empaneled intermittently to investigate Posada’s activities, have subpoenaed several exile militants and detained one who refused to testify. What’s clear from the meandering investigation, however, is that the Bush Justice Department has been reluctant so far to prosecute this case....

George H. W. Bush became director of the CIA in January 1976 and served through January 1977. Bush succeeded William Colby... Colby had implemented major reforms, including a prohibition on political assassinations, and was the first director to give major public briefings to Congress on agency operations. These actions deeply alienated some of the CIA’s more committed Cold Warriors, many of whom backed the appointment of Bush.

When Bush took up his post, he offered Ted Shackley, the former head of JMWave, the CIA’s third most powerful job: associate deputy director. Bush appears to have had contacts with Cuban exiles as far back as the 1960s, when, according to a declassified memo by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI briefed him on their response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy...

Shackley was a divisive figure, and relations between Henry Kissinger’s State Department and George Bush’s CIA were painfully strained—so much so, according to William Rogers, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, that the State Department rarely relied on CIA intelligence. “The agency was controlled by hard-liners,” he said. “They had an agenda, and the intelligence was lousy.” Shackley later played a role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Bush’s tenure at the CIA coincided with the worst spate of bombings and assassinations by Cuban exile militants in Latin America and in the United States. At that time, bombs went off regularly in Miami; sometimes there were several explosions in one day. In December 1975, thirteen bombs went off in forty-eight hours, striking at the very heart of the city: the airport, the police department, the state attorney’s office, the Social Security building, the post office, and the FBI’s main office...

...In 1989, securing Bosch’s release was one of the cornerstones of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s congressional campaign in Miami. She praised Bosch as a hero and a patriot on exile radio stations and raised $265,000 for his legal defense fund. Her campaign manager was a political neophyte, but one who had the ear of the White House. His name was Jeb Bush.

On August 17, 1989, Jeb Bush attended a meeting he had arranged for Ros-Lehtinen with his father to discuss the matter. The following July, President Bush rejected his own Justice Department’s recommendation and authorized Bosch’s release... ... Two years later, the Bush administration granted Bosch U.S. residency.

...In 2002, Governor Jeb Bush appointed Raoul Cantero, Orlando Bosch’s attorney, to the Florida Supreme Court...

The Bush family has not always been unequivocally opposed to terrorists, even terrorists who've bombed American targets. (I'd forgotten about the Miami bombings -- back when Miami was a small town. That was around the time the FLQ was bombing and kidnapping in my home province of Quebec.) I am sure a similar story could be told about many American political families and the IRA. The Bushies and the Kennedys seem to have more than a passing resemblance in several respects.

The story adds another gloss to George W's Oedipal complex, and to the passionate hatred of "terrorism" that became his watchword. As has been pointed out many times, "terrorist" is a relatively meaningless term. It also suggests reasons why Jeb could never have run for the presidency -- even before 9/11.

Lastly, politically controlled and worse-than-worthless intelligence was not an invention of George Jr and Dick in Iraq. George Sr pioneered it when he ran the CIA ...

Friday, December 08, 2006

Humanity: we just can't decide what to do about them

When my fellow Zorgonians gather to discuss the state of humanity, we rend our clothes and tear our hair. And yet ... human civilization has not collapsed yet. There are random and seemingly inexplicable bursts of what almost passes for reason. It is non-linear, truly chaotic, but it cannot be ignored. This human frames it well: Are Humans Totally Stupid? / Either we're hell-bent on self-destruction, or we truly care about the planet. Or, you know, both. Both. Sigh. And so another Zorgonian summit adjourns without any decision on the human problem...

Phillip Carter on the Iraq study group recommendations: mediocre and disappointing

Phillip Carter, officer, veteran, lawyer, blogger, journalist and recent volunteer for Iraqi service, dissects the report the Iraq study group: The Iraq Study Group talked to generals when it should have talked to corporals. - By Phillip Carter - Slate Magazine. Briefly, the study group did a mediocre job. What they got right was obvious, what they missed was enormous. I can't summarize the article, Phil put a vast amount of thought into it. Read it and try to get your local representative to read it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Lundehund and the genomic plasticity of canines

Years ago few cared much about the biology of dogs. They are, after all, so common - and so "artificial". It was far more interesting to study wolves or sharks.

Times change. Dogs are weird. They are the among the most successful large terrestrial mammals in history based upon population, range, and their almost complete lack of predators (humans eat dogs in South Korea and in some parts of China). It is likely, given our longstanding commensal relationship, that they have altered human evolution. They have extraordinary variability in aging rates for a single species. They can read human faces and mimic human expressions and emotions. They're very hard to clone, and they have a weirdly plastic genome. Consider the Lundehund:
Damn Interesting � The Norwegian Puffin Dog

...To enhance traction on slippery rocks, and gripping in tight places, the Lundehund is a polydactyl (multi-toed) dog. Instead of the normal four toes a foot, the Lundehund has six toes, all fully formed, jointed and muscled. Polydactyl dogs are not terribly uncommon, but in most breeds the extra toes are dew-claws - non-functional vestigial toes, not the fully formed variety of the Lundehund. The dog uses these extra toes to gain purchase and haul itself along in positions where only the sides of its legs are touching the rock, a fairly common occurrence while wiggling through tight spots. They also help the dog gain additional traction while scrambling around on steep, often slippery cliffs...
The Lundehund is a weird animal, though much of its adaptations may come down to a connective tissue disorder which is also seen in humans (hyperelastic joints). Canine biology is fascinating indeed. The more we look at the history of human "breeds" 30,000 to 100,000 years ago the more interesting canine "breeds" becomes ...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hail to the volunteer firefighters of Antioch, Illinois

Not every search works. All too often the rescuers find nothing, or a body. This time, in the dark of a cold night, they struck gold.
Wisconsin boy missing from hunting party found alive

... Two Antioch, Ill. firefighters, who were part of a large search group, found Ben Maerzke of Kenosha laying in the snow at about 1:40 a.m. Sunday about a quarter of a mile from where rescuers stationed their command post, sheriff's Sgt. Horace Staples and Floeter said.

... Staples said the boy was coherent but about to fall asleep and in a deep hypothermic state when firefighters found him in the 1,000-acre New Munster Wildlife Area.

... He was taken to Memorial Hospital in Burlington, where he was recovering from frostbite to his feet on Sunday night, the television station reported. He was to be kept overnight in the hospital and possibly released as early as Monday afternoon, the station said.

It's about 16 miles from Antioch to Wheatland. The Antioch firefighters are volunteers:
...The Antioch fire department consists of volunteer firefighters and a volunteer rescue squad...
These men (and women) were joined by a "large" (I'd guess hundreds) group of fellow heroes and family in the dark cold night. Hail to them all. They shouldn't need to pay for their beer for a while.

Update 12/7/06: Across the nation, another story of search ended in a mixture of sorrow and rescue. A two state search is so difficult, it is a minor miracle that Mr Kim's family was found alive. Rest easy Mr. Kim, you did all a father could do.

Wisconsin: 10. Minnesota: 1. State health rankings

As a Minnesotan, I am obliged to point out that Wisconsin was barely in the top 10:
State health rankings: The best and the worst

TOP 10

1. Minnesota
2. Vermont
3. New Hampshire
4. Hawaii
5. Connecticut
6. Utah
7. Massachusetts
8. North Dakota
9. Maine
10. Wisconsin


41) Florida
42) Georgia
43) West Virginia
44) Oklahoma
45) Alabama
46) Arkansas
47) Tennessee
48) South Carolina
49) Mississippi
50) Louisiana
I must confess our ranking does not only reflect the smart living of Minnesotans. Yes, we do sweep the bicycle paths in January, and they do get used (I was once among the users, but now I have dependents). Yes smoking is less common every day. I must confess, however, that winter is hard on the infirm. They tend to die or move south.

Funny. Cruel. Apple and the Zune.

Daring Fireball: Conjectural Transcript of the Upcoming Negotiations Between Apple and Universal Music.

In which Jobs smiles.

MySpace debacle: virtual weapon or virtual parasite?

This is why evolved (vs. designed, ie bioweapons) organisms don't kill their hosts immediately:
MySpace worm uses QuickTime for exploit:

... The social networking site is under what one computer security analyst called an 'amazingly virulent' attack caused by a worm that steals log-in credentials and spreads spam that promotes adware sites.

The worm is infecting MySpace profiles with such efficiency that an informal scan of 150 found that close to a third were infected, said Christopher Boyd, security research manager at FaceTime Communications Inc.

MySpace, owned by News Corp., is estimated to have at least 73 million registered users.

The worm works by using a cross-scripting weakness found about two weeks ago in MySpace and a feature within Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime multimedia player....

....MySpace's "seemingly random tendency" to expire user sessions or log out users makes it less noticeable to victims that an attack is under way, according to a Nov. 16 advisory by the Computer Academic Underground....

...spam messages contain a file that appears to be a movie but instead is a link to a pornographic site that also hosts adware from Zango Inc., Boyd said. Zango, formerly 180 Solutions Inc., settled last month with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for $3 million over complaints that it didn't properly ask the consent of users before its adware was installed...
So, is this a (virtual) bioweapon aimed at Zango, with MySpace as a incidental casualty, a weapon aimed at MySpace with Zango as a red herring, or a very, very badly designed Zango-funded phishing scam?

If the latter, it's a great way to teach biology. Evolved parasites don't kill their hosts outright -- what's the point?

BTW, this is also technically interesting. The bug appears to be in MySpace, but there's a more subtle problem as well. QuickTime has a lot of embedded scripting power -- which can be used for good or ill. Flash does the same sort of thing. There's a tricky problem here with functional boundaries; features required for market success may become a part of emergent exploits. There must be biological equivalents; we should learn from how evolution manages compartmentalization. In the meantime, the advantages of adding functionality to software should be increasingly balanced against the likelihood of creating new exploits. One of the 2-3 buzzwords for the next 20 years will be 'complexity management'.

Neandertal: not gently into the night

Our primary ancestors, the skinnies, arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago. There they found the remnants of the Neandertal (var: Neanderthal), one of many variants (species? subspecies? "breeds"? races?) of human. Cold adapted they'd survived for what we'd call a "long time", seemingly changing little. Thousands of years before the coming of the skinnies, however, the Neandertal were already suffering greatly....
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Hungry ancients 'turned cannibal'

.... Starvation and cannibalism were part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain 43,000 years ago, a study suggests.

Bones and teeth from the underground cave system of El Sidron in Asturias bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival, researchers say.

Analysis of teeth showed signs of starvation or malnutrition in childhood and human bones have cut marks on them.

Details appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some bones appeared to have been dismembered and broken open, possibly to allow access to marrow and brains.

"Given the high level of developmental stress in the sample, some level of survival cannibalism would be reasonable," the scientists wrote in their research paper.

The team, led by Dr Antonio Rosas from the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, also found that the bones shared physical features with other European Neanderthals from the same period.

Dr Rosas and colleagues found a north-south variation in Neanderthal jaw bones, suggesting that populations from southern parts of Europe had wider, flatter faces.

The findings may help shed light on the life and death of the Neanderthals, which became extinct about 10,000 years after the arrival of modern humans in Europe around 40,000 years ago.

Many experts believe they were not able to compete with the moderns for food and shelter.
The Neandertal did not go gently, or slowly. For 13,000 years, about four times the length of our recorded history, they declined as the earth warmed and the techies flourished -- taking caves and food with adaptive technologies and techniques. The skinnies liked the warmer weather. The Neandertal probably did too ... until they realized it came with a price.

Thirteen thousands years is a lot of hardship, though there must have been centuries of better times ...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Oppenheimer and the falling cost of havoc

I've blogged tediously about the falling cost of havoc. I didn't know, though I might have guessed, that Oppenheimer was far ahead of me (genius does that)...
How to Get a Nuclear Bomb (The Atlantic, December 2006)

... In 1946 Robert Oppenheimer sketched the problem clearly. In an essay titled “The New Weapon,” he wrote: “Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy and the extent of the destruction.” Elaborating, he wrote,
None of these uncertainties can becloud the fact that it will cost enormously less to destroy a square mile with atomic weapons than with any weapons hitherto known to warfare. My own estimate is that the advent of such weapons will reduce the cost, certainly by more than a factor of ten, more probably by a factor of a hundred. In this respect only biological warfare would seem to offer competition for the evil that a dollar can do.
I suspct Oppenheimer would have been surprised by our continued survival. I think of that when I contemplate how much the cost of havoc has fallen since his day. Whether by angels, aliens, or some emergent property of humankind, we seem to have cheated the odds. I hope the angels aren't tiring ...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Life with Microsoft OneCare - why Vista is doomed

I decide to upgrade my Microsoft OneCare test subscription to a full subscription. This is what happens:
1. Click on link. Opens Firefox. Microsoft tells me I have to use IE. Interesting. I thought they weren't allowed to do that any more.
2. Start up IE 7. Cut and paste link from #1.
3. Enter credit card information.
4. Get to the page that's supposed to update OneCare. Click. Wait. Wait. Wait.
5. After a few minutes click 'retry' link.
6. Get message one can't retry. (The link, you see, was a test. I failed.)
7. Go to support.
8. Try their automated support path. It fails.
9. Follow link to chat.
10. Chat requires ActiveX install. I click to allow, using the latest version of Microsoft's fabled browser on the latest version of XP. Installation process terminates the chat session.
11. Restart chat using back button. Get error message that I need to wait 30 seconds.
12. Wait. Try back button again. Screen is blank. Refresh screen. Now it works.
13. Chat rep says I need to call Tech support.
14. Tech support answers (quickly!). Says I need to call the registration desk. 9am-6pm PT on Monday.
15. On a whim, I try hitting one of the pages from my history file. Now it says 'congratulations. Indeed OneCare now works. Visit their OneCare service page. Experience several major usability errors in a few mouse clicks.
Vista is going to be such a disaster. Thank you Apple. I'm so glad I have only one XP machine to maintain ... and if Parallels works out, one day there will be none.

The quiet demise of the CD

A little bit of Future Shock, or perhaps I should say Future Bite. I've used some nice archival quality Verbatim CDs for years and I wanted a refill. I couldn't find them; the only CD spindles for sale on Amazon seem to be lower quality.

I finally figured out why. The price of 'archival' DVDs has fallen below the current price of CDs, so low that packaging and shipping is probably a significant part of product cost. I ended up buying a spindle of DVDs instead.

CDs are quietly disappearing. Alas, I should upgraded my mother's new Mac Mini to a DVD burner! Blank CDs will become increasingly unreliable and costly.

I remember reading the book written by Bill Gate's father (yes, his father) called 'The New Papyrus'. It was all about the how the data CD would revolutionize the world. This was before the net became public. I was amazed by the CD back then, and I wrote a letter to a Canadian development organization on how it could dramatically change the delivery of knowledge to what was then called the 'third world'.

Good-bye CD. We barely knew you ...

Update 9/25/09: See also - UK University lectures and iTunes U.