Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Credit card scammers: the story continues

In late 1998 I was one of thousands defrauded in the $40 million Netfill credit card scam. I wrote up a web page, helped track down the baddies, was even on Japanese TV. My fame was very minimal and very fleeting, but the problem didn't go away. A system that was designed for person-present brick-and-mortar transactions has deep flaws on the web, but, absent legislation, banks have very good business reasons not to fix things.

Reading this Wired News story brings back old memories ...
Wired News: I Was a Cybercrook for the FBI

.... The full scope of the problem is hard to judge, but nonetheless staggering. U.S. banks lost $546 million to debit card fraud in 2004, according to banking research firm Dove Consulting, and credit card fraud losses were estimated to be about $3.8 billion globally in 2003 according to The Nilson Report. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 10 million Americans are victims of identity theft each year. The financial impact of identity theft remains untold."
That's a lot of losses, and I bet less than half of the losses are ever detected, so total unrecovered losses to consumers are probably about equal to this number. In addition, outside of North America, banks are notoriously bad at covering losses, so any number based on bank losses is really an underestimate. Speaking of unresponsive financial services ...

The Schwab [brokerage] case illustrates a running theme in Thomas' dealings with the FBI. Although Thomas says he provided his handlers at the Seattle FBI with logs depicting desertmack's scheme, the bureau apparently never acted on that information -- the Oregon FBI only learned of the theft because Campbell, the victim, reported it himself after it occurred. "If we had left it up to Schwab, they might never have gotten the FBI involved at all," Campbell says...

Schwab, too, was less than responsive. Campbell got his money back from the company only after several calls to the firm pointing out the obvious security flaws in a system that failed to flag a wire request made on an account a day after contact information on the account was changed. "Schwab was pretty bad with customer service," Campbell says. "For a long time they wouldn't tell me they were going to take responsibility for it and return (the money)." (Schwab had no comment).

The Terrifying Toothpick Fish - I'll take the hungry shark please

Damn Interesting: The Terrifying Toothpick Fish. A disaster for the fish of course, but not so good for the human either. Most of us would prefer to take our chances with a hungry shark.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Revolution Health: an onerous linking policy

If you sign up to try Revolution Health (AOL Case’s project), including it’s personal healthcare record (PHR), you are legally committing yourself to obey their linking policy. Emphases mine:

Terms of use and service - Revolution Health

... 4. Linking To This Website

Unless you have a written agreement with us that specifies how you may link to the Site, following are the rules for adding a link to the Site from your website:

* The link must be a text-only link clearly marked "www.revolutionhealth.com"
* The link must "point" to www.revolutionhealth.com and not to other pages within the Site
* The appearance, position and other aspects of the link may not be such as to damage or dilute the goodwill associated with Revolution Health good name and trademarks
* The appearance, position and other aspects of the link may not create the false impression that an entity is associated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by Revolution Health
* The link, when activated by a user, must display the Site full-screen and not within a "frame" on the linking website and linking may not trigger any interstitial or pop-up or pop-under windows
* The link may not be used in connection with or appear on a website that a reasonable person might consider offensive, obscene, defamatory or otherwise malicious
* We reserve the right to revoke consent to the link at any time in our sole discretion. If we revoke such consent, you agree to immediately remove and disable any and all of your links to the Site ...

I wonder how standard such a linking policy is, I think the middle four requirements are fine but the bolded ones, especially the last are onerous. It doesn’t mean you can’t say anything nasty about them of course, you just have to remove the link on their request.

The contract required to establish a "My" account is long and complex. A lawyer would tell you not to sign without an expensive legal evaluation ...

NY Mayor Bloomberg is an ass

New York's Mayor is an ass:

The City That Never Walks - New York Times

... In December, the police say, a bicyclist was killed on the Hudson River Greenway by a drunken driver speeding along a bike lane that was completely separated from the road. Asked what was being done to improve safety in light of the biker’s death, Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested that bikers “pay attention.”

“Even if they’re in the right, they are the lightweights,” he told a reporter.
A marvelously revealing statement.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lest we forget: how Microsoft used to do business

I've heard similar stories from others. Tim Bray is a respected source. In the days of its ruthless ascent to omnipotence Microsoft behaved like the modern GOP:
ongoing · Life Is Complicated

... in 1997, I was sitting on the XML Working Group and co-editing the spec, on a pro bono basis as an indie consultant. Netscape hired me to represent their interests, and when I announced this, controversy ensued. Which is a nice way of saying that Microsoft went berserk; tried unsuccessfully to get me fired as co-editor, and then launched a vicious, deeply personal extended attack in which they tried to destroy my career and took lethal action against a small struggling company because my wife worked there. It was a sideshow of a sideshow of the great campaign to bury Netscape and I’m sure the executives have forgotten; but I haven’t...

The blog is an incredible thing. Irrefutable evidence.

It's less common now, but once upon a time morons with column inches would rant about the vacuity of the blogosphere. This was invariably a sign of a journalist who'd earned their inches by chance, blackmail and flattery rather than skill and insight.

It's rare now, but, even so, it's handy to keep examples like this at hand. It will shut down even the dullest mouth:
Daniel | Cosmic Variance:

... I am delighted to announce the addition of another new member of the Cosmic Variance team. Daniel Holz is a Richard Feynman Fellow in the theoretical astrophysics and particle physics groups at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the interplay between general relativity, astrophysics, and cosmology. Dan is a particular expert on gravitational lensing and gravitational waves...
This is the golden age of journalism ...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Elbow pads and snowboarding

If you're over 45 and given the choice between a slow painful death and snowboarding lessons, I highly recommend elbow pads. I came up with this on my own, using a pair of $30 hockey pads. I am typing now only because of those pads.

True, it takes some serious geekiness and a rock solid ego to wear elbow pads over your snow jacket, but a hockey jersey makes it look even weirder. I recommend both.

The pads have not only saved my elbows, but they make it much easier for me to fall on my forearms and protect my wrists. They even reduce impact force transmitted to the humerus, thereby sparing my shoulders a bit.

I was proud of my own invention, until it occurred to me that someone else must have thought of this. Google revealed you can buy official snowboarding elbow pads. Hmmphh. These are puny compared to my hockey pads -- they do nothing to pad the forearm. Forget these and buy the hockey gear.

Update 1/28/07: After, or even before, the repetitive falls on icy snow produce disabling back pain, consider Crash Pads 2600 power underwear.

Friday, January 26, 2007


A particle physicist dares to speculate that his team has spotted the Higgs boson. Odds are this is a false alarm, but there's a decent chance its real. Readers of Cosmic Variance have a ringside seat. Either we'll see the pain of everyday science or the joy of a momentous discovery.

The comments are quite good.

How to hack a human: start with the insula

Say you want to hack a human. You want to alter what they love, what they hate, what they want. You probably start with the insula:

In Clue to Addiction, Brain Injury Halts Smoking - New York Times

... The patients’ desire to eat, by contrast, was intact. This suggests, the authors wrote, that the insula is critical for behaviors whose bodily effects become pleasurable because they are learned, like cigarette smoking.

The insula, for years a wallflower of brain anatomy, has emerged as a region of interest based in part on recent work by Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute. The insula has widely distributed connections, both in the thinking cortex above, and down below in subcortical areas, like the brain stem, that maintain heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, the body’s primal survival systems.

Based on his studies and others’, Dr. Damasio argues that the insula, in effect, maps these signals from the body’s physical plant, and integrates them so the conscious brain can interpret them as a coherent emotion.

The system works from the bottom up. First, the body senses cues in the outside world, and responds. The heart rate might elevate at the sight of a stranger’s angry face, for example; other muscles might relax in response to a pleasant whiff of smoke.

All of this happens instantaneously and unconsciously, Dr. Damasio said — until the insula integrates the information and makes it readable to the conscious regions of the brain.

“In a sense it’s not surprising that the insula is an important part of this circuit maintaining addiction, because we realized some years ago that it was going to be a critical platform for emotions,” Dr. Damasio said in a telephone interview. “It is on this platform that we first anticipate pain and pleasure, not just smoking but eating chocolate, drinking a glass of wine, all of it.”

This explains why cravings are so physical, and so hard to shake, he said: they have taken hold in the visceral reaches of the body well before they are even conscious. ...

Between the cortex and the subcortex, a processor that translates sensations into emotions, wants, feelings. Humans will do bad and good things with this.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The NeXT Years: Steve Job

Holy cow. The NeXT Years: Steve Jobs is not exactly the CEO story one reads in the Harvard Business Review. It's a raw mess of chaos, brilliance, randomness and mass delusion that somehow produced a vast amount of wealth -- for someone. Even Canon might have got a bit of their NeXT investment back.

The article is all about Jobs, who is both appalling and fascinating in roughly equal measures. It's obvious there are some other very important minds that are doing the real work under the radar, but their stories are probably less scandalous.

Despite himself, Jobs ends up being inspirational. He was despised, discarded and abandoned, but he kept coming back. It's a story worth remembering when misfortune strikes; it's truer and more useful than the usual fraudulent tales of CEO perfection.

I wonder what Jobs parents make of him ...

All DeLong all the time: Egregious Moderation

Can someone tie Brad DeLong down before he exhausts the rest of us? In addition to his personal blog and shrillblog, he's now launched ...
Egregious Moderation

...An egregiously moderate forum: for people who want one online source for punchy liberal analysis and evisceration; especially evisceration...
He reads voraciously, writes incessantly, and is widely believed to be a full-time professor and productive economist. One theory is that he's an early experiment in shared-consciousness clonal breeding.

I need to create a "DeLong" category in my bloglines feed...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why I didn't renew my Harvard Business Review subscription

HBR did one of their typical slavish portraits of Robert Nardelli a few months back...
101 Dumbest Moments in Business | 41 | Business 2.0:

... Dodging investors angry over the pay received by Home Depot chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli, who took home at least $120 million over five years as the company's stock price dropped 12 percent, Home Depot's board fails to show up at its annual shareholders meeting.

The session is presided over solely by Nardelli, who sidesteps all questions ('This is not the forum in which we would address your comment') and cuts the meeting short after half an hour. The event's negative fallout, highlighted by demonstrators wearing chicken costumes and orange Home Depot aprons, leads Nardelli to announce days later that, for next year's meeting, 'we will return to our traditional format ... with the board of directors in attendance.'

Nardelli resigns in early January, walking away with another $210 million in severance.
I dropped my HBR subscription last fall. HBR is the opiate of the powerful.

BTW. The CNN 101 Dumbest Moments in Business is quite good.

Even Robert Reich had something nice to say about Bush

I'm a Robert Reich fan. I know Reich is no more likely than I to say nice things about Bush. Like me, however, he was impressed by one Bush proposal...
Robert Reich's Blog

...the only halfway interesting thing about the President's underwhelmingly platitudinous State of the Union speech was his health care proposal. It deserves one cheer for the following reason: It potentially de-couples health care from employment.

Under his proposal, everyone would be eligible for a tax deduction for health insurance up to $15,000 per family, $7,500 for a single person – regardless of whether the insurance is provided by the employer or purchased elsewhere. And there would no longer be any advantage to getting it at work because employer-paid premiums would be included in taxable income.

Get it? With this plan, you can just about kiss employer-provided health insurance good-bye.
And good riddance. It’s the biggest tax break in the whole federal tax system, costing the Treasury some $130 billion a year. But you’re not eligible for it when you and your family are most likely to need it – when you lose your job, for example. And the biggest beneficiaries are upper-income employees. The lower your pay, the less likely you are to get any employer coverage at all.

The current employer-based system doesn’t cover the self-employed – the largest and fastest-growing category of worker. And it creates perverse incentives. It encourages employers to seek out young, healthy employees who are unlikely to have health problems; reject older ones; and push married employees onto their spouse’s employer’s plans...
I still think Bush and his minions would screw this up if they ever really tried to implement it, but I'm with Reich. Any healthcare reform plan that doesn't separate employment from health insurance should be abandoned.

Microwave sponges: two minutes on full

Health concerns aside, you can save money on sponges ...
Microwaves turn kitchen cloths into germ killers | the Daily Mail

...Two minutes of microwaving on full power mode killed or inactivated more than 99 per cent of all the living pathogens in the sponges and pads.

The Bacillus cereus spores required four minutes for total inactivation.

Professor Bitton said the heat, rather than the microwave radiation, was the most likely cause of death for the pathogens. As the microwave works by exciting water molecules, it is better to put wet rather than dry sponges or scrub pads into the oven.

... Cooks should microwave their sponges every other day, he suggested.

The warm, damp environment of kitchen cloths is the ideal breeding ground for microbes.

In the right conditions one bacterium can multiply to more than four million in just eight hours. This can make them up to 200 times more infested than a lavatory seat.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Spam: state of the art report

MSNBC's Rob Sullivan has a spam report. The numbers are indeed staggering. I wonder what percentage of net traffic is made up of "high grade" material -- excluding spam, porn, illegal file sharing etc. I'm guessing it's in the 20-30% range overall. A surprising amount of net traffic now is file sharing, and it's widely believed that almost all of that (by volume) is copyrighted material. Emphases mine.

... Not long ago, there seemed hope that spam had passed its prime. Just last December, the Federal Trade Commission published an optimistic state-of-spam report, citing research indicating spam had leveled off or even dropped during the previous year.

Instead, it now appears spammers had simply gone back to the drawing board. There's more spam now than ever before.

In fact, there's twice as much spam now as opposed to this time last year... About half of all spam sent now is "image spam," containing server-clogging pictures that are up to 10 times the size of traditional text spam. And most image spam is stock-related, pump-and-dump scams which can harm investors who don't even use e-mail. About one-third of all spam is stock spam now.

... There are 62 billion spam messages sent every day, IronPort says, up from 31 billion last year. Now, spam accounts for three of every four e-mails sent, according to another anti-spam firm, MessageLabs.

Image spam is a big part of the resurgence of unwanted e-mail. By using pictures instead of words in their messages, spammers are able to evade filters designed to detect traditional text-based ads. New computer viruses have contributed to the uptick, also, particularly a surprisingly prolific Trojan horse program called "SpamThru" that turns home computers into spam-churning "bots."

... Stock spam is effective because no Web link is required, Cluley said. In old-fashioned spam, criminals generally try to trick recipients into clicking on a link and buying something. Many e-mail programs now block direct Web links from e-mails, rendering click-dependent spam much less effective. But stock messages merely have to make the recipient curious enough about a company to motivate him or her to buy a few shares through a broker.

There is another element that helps perpetuate stock spam, Stark said – he believes speculators unrelated to the original spam sometimes try to “play the momentum” surrounding a spam campaign – either getting in early on a pump-and-dump campaign to profit as shares rise, or by “shorting” stocks, betting that they will fall after the spam campaign flames out.


Image spam, which seems not inseparable from stock spam, can arrive entirely devoid of text, but that’s not common. Most messages have what appears to be nonsense text pasted above and below the image. Experts call this "word salad," or "good word poisoning."..

... The word jumble is generally borrowed from news headlines or classic books like Charles Dickens' “David Copperfield,” the text of which are often available online. The seemingly random text actually serves and important purpose -- to foil or confuse word-based spam filtering.

... Spammers continually refine and combine their techniques, said Doug Bowers, senior director of anti-abuse engineering at Symantec. The firm recently found spam attached to legitimate newsletters that appear to be from big companies, including a Viagra ad atop a 1-800-Flowers e-mail newsletter and another on an NFL fantasy league letter. Such e-mails are simply spam masquerading as authentic, with real content borrowed from legitimate companies. They are similar to phishing e-mails, and so are much more likely to be opened by recipients than traditional spam, Bower said...

Natural selection is causing spam to evolve very quickly. We're recreating biological evolution at a frenetic pace. Defense requires more complex algorithms, which lead quickly to more complex attacks. Maybe every technological civilization succumbs when its spam becomes sentient ...

The stock tip churn process may work for quite a while. It will eventually become a contest between spammers and speculators, which each speculator hoping they can hop off fast enough before the "house" calls the game. Of course the spammers will always know more, so they'll always come out ahead. Some speculators will win too, so it will be a lot like going to the casino. In time the spammers will learn to keep the game interesting.

My favorite spam fighting technique, the reputation management of authenticated sending services, works even against spambots. I think this is what Google is doing now, even though they're very quiet about it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

John Edwards' blog

Anyone would be better than Bush, and any of the current Democrats running for president would be better than McCain. Of them all, however, I have a soft spot for Edwards. He seems the closest to Al Gore, who, after all, would have won cleanly if not for Nader.

The media, currently infatuated with Obama (smokes cigarettes?! I can't get my head past that), doesn't mention Edwards at all. Unsurprisingly, he has a blog. I'm going to read it for a while, and pass on anything interesting he might say. It's a change from Hilary/Obama anyway ...

Humans: 70,000 years old

When did humanity start? One marker is the time we upgraded the 1 million year old stone axe. DeLong excerpts Lapite who quotes Hawks:
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The Dawn of Humanity

[Lapite] ... Now, the question you have to ask yourself is just how "human" creatures incapable of bettering the simple stone handaxe over a million years could possibly be; they may have looked like us, but it's clear they didn't think like us, and the timespans under consideration rule out "culture" as the limitation here.

Indeed, as Hawks suggests, at this point it isn't even clear that such a thing as "culture" (and its attendant variation across time and space) existed in a meaningful sense until about 80,000 years ago...

There was a big wetware upgrade 80K years ago. Hawks and others have pointed out other likely upgrades 40K and maybe 15K years ago. The process is continuing; natural selection doesn't stop just because we our world is increasingly artificial and virtual.

I read Hawks and DeLong, therefore I shall sample Lapite for a time ...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Bush: something good?!!

Greg Mankiw's notes that Bush has a healthcare proposal
that moves us away from employer-purchased health insurance. I reply:
Hell has frozen. Someone is addressing the pathologic tie between employers and health insurance, and it's a man renowned for his incompetence and malign leadership -- GW Bush.

I'm certain whatever he really proposes will be a monstrous screw-up or a feint to cover for some malign measure, but the summary being circulated is right and good.
I know Bush will screw this up. There's a chance though, that with a democratic congress something good may come of this.

Any fix for American healthcare will displease a large portion of the middle-class. So any fundamental fix is political poison. It won't happen.

Fixing the employment-healthcare bond, however, is politically feasible. It would be a great leap forward.

1/25/07: I did say I knew Bush would screw this up.

Cultures We Really Evolved that are Stranger Than Any You can Think of

John Crowley Little and Big - The List is a non-fiction reading list of stranger than strange humanity. It was written in part to provide fodder for would be fantasy writers. Fascinating. Thanks Neil Gaiman for the pointer.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

We don't have Exxon to kick around any more ...

Crooked Timber reports Exxon has given up on the "no global warming" project. New CEO apparently. They've dumped their puppet pressure groups and will now focus on minimizing the impact on Exxon of remediation efforts.

The WSJ must be feeling very lonely.

There is real ongoing debate however -- about how much to do, how much to spend, what measures to take, who pays the price, etc.

I'll miss Exxon. They were evil in a particularly clumsy way.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox? Alas, probably not.

Personally, I think an answer to the Fermi Paradox belongs in Science, not New Scientist:

So much space, so little time: why aliens haven't found us yet | Science | Guardian Unlimited

... It ranks among the most enduring mysteries of the cosmos. Physicists call it the Fermi paradox after the Italian Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, who, in 1950, pointed out the glaring conflict between predictions that life was elsewhere in the universe - and the conspicuous lack of aliens who have come to visit.

Now a Danish researcher believes he may have solved the paradox. Extra-terrestrials have yet to find us because they haven't had enough time to look.

Using a computer simulation of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, Rasmus Bjork, a physicist at the Niels Bohr institute in Copenhagen, proposed that a single civilisation might build eight intergalactic probes and launch them on missions to search for life. Once on their way each probe would send out eight more mini-probes, which would head for the nearest stars and look for habitable planets.

Mr Bjork confined the probes to search only solar systems in what is called the "galactic habitable zone" of the Milky Way, where solar systems are close enough to the centre to have the right elements necessary to form rocky, life-sustaining planets, but are far enough out to avoid being struck by asteroids, seared by stars or frazzled by bursts of radiation.

He found that even if the alien ships could hurtle through space at a tenth of the speed of light, or 30,000km a second, - Nasa's current Cassini mission to Saturn is plodding along at 32km a second - it would take 10bn years, roughly half the age of the universe, to explore just 4% of the galaxy. His study is reported in New Scientist today.

Like humans, alien civilisations could shorten the time to find extra-terrestrials by picking up television and radio broadcasts that might leak from colonised planets. "Even then, unless they can develop an exotic form of transport that gets them across the galaxy in two weeks it's still going to take millions of years to find us," said Mr Bjork. "There are so many stars in the galaxy that probably life could exist elsewhere, but will we ever get in contact with them? Not in our lifetime," he added. ...

He gets a different answer from Fermi because there’s no exponential growth. The 8 probes have 8 subprobes, so it’s only 64 probes exploring the galaxy. Fermi assumed the travel of sentient organisms that then launched new exploration from each “residence”, so there were long residence times but there was exponential “probe” growth. Exponential growth conquers all.

Most modern formulations of the paradox assume self-replication of abiologic entities — the probes have the capability to construct copies of each other, so in a few generations there are trillions of probes.

If we find there’s some immense obstacle to self-replication then this result stands. If not the paradox stands. The most common resolution to the paradox is that technologic civilizations do not sustain an interest in travel, so Bjork’s answer is (to me) very enticing — it suggests a more optimistic answer. I’d describe Bjorks’ answer as “self-replicating machines cannot be created within the lifetime of technological civilizations”. So the difficulty of creation would set an upper bound on the lifetime.

The Guardian is misleading about where he published, btw. He published in an online repository, New Scientist just reported on it. This is interesting enough to merit updating my Fermi Paradox page however.

PS. This Slashdot comment is hilarious. The low rating is why I don't usually read Slashdot comments -- the raters are dysfunctional. (Comments are often good, it's the ratings system that's broken)

.. Negative. I find your argument untenable. I am in agreement with the Danish monkey-being. Probabilities of non-human life spreading through the Galaxy and discovering primitive monkey-beings in Sol System are minimal. Probability is on the same order of probability of a F'narthag slime-weasel evolving wings and taking flight. It is also highly improbable that extraterrestrial beings would colonize the pathetic planet Earth and blend into the primitive monkey-being society. They would be forced to hide in internet discussion groups and the tech sector so that they are mistaken for geeks when they display lack of monkey-being social skills....

The Slashdot commentators had the same response I did -- ignoring self-replication is nonsensical. The author came up with a silly reason why self-replication wouldn't work; he said the probes interfere with one another. Duh.

Sprint and Motrola conspire to sell me an AT&T (Cingular) iPhone

Sprint and Motorola must be conspiring to raise the share prices of AT&T (once Cingular) and Apple. I think the SEC should investigate.

How else can I explain the Motorola RAZR V3M? I bought this phone from pure necessity — an old phone had died and I needed a replacement. I don’t like any phone on the market today; this phone seemed to the best choice of a bad lot. A mixed bag of features, but the list price (which I paid, no contract extensions!) was about $200 or so.

Turns out, the phone is better than I’d expected. It took some significant effort, and lot of help from Google, but it’s possible to beat the Sprint out of it and make it a half-useful device with only a handful of atrocious usability flaws. True, Sprint’s high-speed network sucks the battery dry, but that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so difficult to recharge it. Alas, that’s where the worm turns.

There are two big problems with the phone. One is the battery drain with data use, compounded with a difficulty in recharging. Despite the min-USB cable connector, it won’t charge from a conventional USB charger or a car USB power outlet. It will charge from a computer USB port — but only if one installs the (semi-secret) XP-only modem enabling utility. The other problem is that it can’t be used to attach a computer to Sprint’s data network — unless one installs the XP-only modem enabling utility.

The inability to accept a charge from a standard USB charger is highly annoying (it should), but I could live with that that if the RAZR would charge from my MacBook, iBook, iMac, etc. I could especially live with it (albeit gritting my teeth) if the phone would put my MacBook on the net when I’m not on a WiFi connection.

Alas, it’s not to be. Sprint and Motorola are simply insisting that I move to Apple/AT&T. Did Apple secretly give the CEOs of Sprint and Motorola backdated Apple stock options?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Obama's smoking habit

Obama smokes cigarettes.

That was quick.

The trillion dollar war

Loenhardt estimates a cumulative cost of the Iraq war/occupation of $1.2 Trillion (New York Times). His estimate is on the low end, the high end is 2 trillion.

The list of what we could have done with that much money is pretty impressive, but it doesn't include things like funding the retirement of the boomers. I imagine that's even more expensive. In the meantime, we still don't have much inflation and our currency still hasn't cratered.

A trillion isn't what it used to be. The market apparently believes the future is rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Naturally we boomers can't help but think "why should the kids have all the money"? Which is why some economists argue we shouldn't sacrifice much to fix global warming, since the future can better afford the bill (and it's not so bad for the US anyway, compared to, say, Africa).

I think there was a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon about this. Calvin uses his time machine/transmogrifier to shift his work to future Calvin, but future Calvin is no more reliable than current Calvin. Things go downhill from there ...

PS. The Firefox online dictionary includes the word "transmogrifies", which was made up by Bill Watterson in his strip. It's not an english word. Good for them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Buy.com: why so much spam?

I get thousands of spams each month. It's extremely rare that any have a valid return address. The exceptions are politicians and Buy.com.

The politicians I understand. Mercifully they have consistent email addresses; a simple entry in my spamcop blacklist takes care of them.

Buy.com I don't get. I was getting one spam a week or so from them, so I clicked on the unsubscribe link. After that I got 3 spams a day - until I finally roused myself to blacklist them.

What the heck were they thinking?

Update 1/18/07: Looks like there were two spam streams, one direct and one through google checkout. My blacklist stopped the direct one, and google checkout supports disabling the mail address they used. So they had me twice. They're toast as far as I'm concerned.

The current manufacture and retail of custom assembled infants

No surprises here, we’ve seen this one coming for a long time …

The business logic of made-to-order babies. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

... Friday morning, an investigator from the Food and Drug Administration spent four hours questioning Jennalee Ryan of San Antonio, Texas, about her new line of business. That business, outlined a week ago by Washington Post reporter Rob Stein, is making and selling human embryos [jf: manufactured from eggs and sperm] from handpicked donors. The FDA says this doesn't appear to violate any rules within its purview. Embryo manufacture? Go right ahead. ...

Once it became apparent over 10 years ago that embryo donors were being paid well in excess of their “expenses” this was as sure as dusk and dawn. Ms. Ryan purchases eugenically optimized euro-only sperm and eggs, pays for the creation of embryos, and sells the embryos. If she doesn’t also provide surrogate mother services I’d be a bit surprised.

I see no reason why this won’t become substantially less costly than international adoption. It will also be less risky, as measured in terms of infant acquisition. The main limits to growth are probably the low costs of competitors entering the market, though the most genetically gifted embryos may remain expensive. (Ms. Ryan may also hold some important process patents.)

That’s capitalism. The market shall provide.

Incidentally, though it is perhaps not obvious from my writings, I do have a few selected domains of common cause with the catholic church …

An interesting Cato article?! Health insurance vs. health cost insulation

Hell must be colder than today’s Minnesota. There’s a Cato article I actually think has something interesting to say:

Cato Unbound » Blog Archive » Insulation vs. Insurance (Arnold Kling)

... How many American families have proper health insurance?

a) over 90 percent.
b) between 80 and 90 percent.
c) between 10 and 80 percent.
d) less than 10 percent.

Given that about 15 percent of American families do not have health insurance, the correct answer would appear to be (b). However, in my opinion, the correct answer is (d).

The health coverage most Americans have is what I call “insulation,” not insurance. Rather than insuring them against risk, most families’ health plans insulate them from paying for most health care bills, large and small. ...

It’s basically a call for health savings accounts and the like. Anything like this implemented by the GOP would be a catastrophe. We may see interesting experiments in states with GOP governors and democratic legislatures however.

Visualizing Information

(credit Bayesian Heresy). I’ve taught lectures on information and data visualization. Next time I’ll include this one:

New Economist: 98 ways to visualise data

... Let's start with the visualisation of data. Aleks Jakulins at the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog points us to a stunning periodic table of visualisation methods. The table provides 98 methods of visualising information. ...

Humanity: up from the sludge

Arnold Klink begins a review of humanity’s improvements with a Steven Pinker quote:

TCS Daily - Appreciating Our Moral and Mental Development

... "In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." ...


Elsewhere I recently read the claim that the male violent death rate in a hunter-gatherer society is 30%. Our violent death rates are rather lower.

Two thousand years ago a bizarre doctrine that called for the forgiveness of enemies actually almost got off the ground. Fragments of it remain today. So, it’s not linear progress, but it’s hard to deny that it’s progress.

But why? That’s the interesting question. Is it all cultural? Is there some biological component as well? I suspect there’s something biological. I wonder if we have “aggression set points” that we switch between based on early childhood experience and maternal prolactin secretion. I wonder if, on a longer timeframe, we have “backup-gene collections” (these apparently exist in many species) that allow a human population to effectively switch cooperation patterns in a few generations depending on changing environments …

Update 1/17/2007: We know that mammals are capable of insect-like social systems (naked mole rats) and of differential adult behaviors based on early experiences. We know humans are among the most socially integrated of all mammals, rivaling the social integration of the insects. We also have "Hellstrom's Hive", a 1970s science fiction short story series that compared human social organization to insect life. I believe many insect colonies alter colony behavior and the drone/warrior balance based on environmental conditions. Hmmm.

Google blogger and the problem of asymmetric relationships

Google’s blogger hosts about 10 of my blogs, including this one. It has been, by an order of magnitude, the most troublesome of the Google tools and services that I’ve used. Recently Google has been moving blogs from the old infrastructure, which had been fairly trouble free over the past six months, to a new “better” (now buggier) infrastructure. The transition has not been going well; my blogs are too large and complex to move and they currently live on the increasingly abandoned old servers.

All of which has led to some thought about why this relationship isn’t working out. I think it’s a slightly different class of problem form the one that I use to have with Gmail. From my post to a Google Group:

Google Groups : Blogger Help Group > Something Is Broken

... Blogger (and Google) illustrates the generic problem of an asymmetric relationship between customer and vendor. Blogger may produce income for Google, or help tune searches, but the vast majority of Blogger blogs individually produce a trivial amount of revenue….

That would be fine if we and Google held similar opinions of the value of our individual blogs. If we both felt they were of trivial importance our relationship would work. Alas, we may value the content we've produced far, far more than Google values it. The relationship is thus doubly asymmetric; we bring little individual value to Google but we value our work far more than Google does.

The lesson I've drawn from my Blogger experiences over the years is not that Google is particularly evil, it's rather than asymmetric relationships are highly problematic. (Obviously the issue is systemic and applies to personal as well as business relationships.) If and when I move from Google/Blogger, it won't be to another asymmetric relationship. I would only move to a vendor where my voice mattered. Since my blogs will never generate much revenue, this means I will be paying for services in cash. ...

One part of the solution is a level of indirection between URL and blog service — at the very least one must control the URL. The value equation may change, and that may require a change in blog service …

Smoking: now for the menthol

My wife and I held our most recent weekly family meeting in the pub (no, the kids were home). It had been a long week.

On the way home, we passed the smokers in an external wind shelter. It was 10 F or so; they wouldn't have looked good in an ad. That's when we remembered pubs, bars, even restaurants (classrooms once upon a time) used to have smokers in them. We've gotten quickly used to a smoke-free world in the Twin Cities; a state wide ban is on the way.

It's not just the “progressive states”. When I was studying french in rural Quebec, my host family would meet to roll cigarettes every night (a most pleasant meeting too). Quebec now has a provincial smoking ban.

What's next? I usually think about regulating nicotine content, but an Atlantic (paywall) "primary sources" post reminded me that menthol is an adjuvant agent of addiction -- it slows nicotine metabolism. Eliminating menthol may be the logical next step ...

Update 1/16/07: Simple regulation would be wasteful of course. The better approach would to first put a differential tax on mentholated cigarettes. After a few years, add differential taxes based on nicotine content. This is the equivalent of a progressive decrease in nicotine patch strength done on a nationwide basis.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dale Carnegie - the condensed version

After the Great War and before WW II, following a divorce and during the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie wrote an optimistic book - "How to win friends and influence people".

It's good bathroom reading, easiest to take a little bit at a time. On reading it I wonder if some of Carnegie's "friends" came to doubt the sincerity of his sentiments, but it's hard to argue with the general principles of the latter half of the book.

I figured it'd be useful to have an edited version of his "rules" at hand, and thanks to Wikipedia that's not hard. These are the "rules" I like the most ...
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
Begin in a friendly way.
Start with questions the other person will answer yes to.
Let the other person do the talking.
Let the other person feel the idea is his/hers.
Try honestly to see things from the other persons point of view.

Nine Ways to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
Call attention to other people's mistakes indirectly.
Talk about your own mistakes first.
Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
Let the other person save face.
Praise every improvement.
Give them a fine reputation to live up to.
Encourage them by making their faults seem easy to correct.
Now in the modern world, try doing all this over the phone, without ever seeing the other person!

PS. I want anyone who might know me to understand I'm not delusional -- I don't claim to practice these recommendations. Still, one must have aspirations...

How to crack a system

Cryptonomicon, a reasonably popular science fiction book, includes an excellent introduction to cryptography. So I actually knew most of what Schneier tells us about how passwords are cracked...
Schneier on Security: Choosing Secure Passwords

... AccessData sells another program, Forensic Toolkit, that, among other things, scans a hard drive for every printable character string. It looks in documents, in the Registry, in e-mail, in swap files, in deleted space on the hard drive ... everywhere. And it creates a dictionary from that, and feeds it into PRTK.

And PRTK breaks more than 50 percent of passwords from this dictionary alone.

What's happening is that the Windows operating system's memory management leaves data all over the place in the normal course of operations. You'll type your password into a program, and it gets stored in memory somewhere. Windows swaps the page out to disk, and it becomes the tail end of some file. It gets moved to some far out portion of your hard drive, and there it'll sit forever. Linux and Mac OS aren't any better in this regard...
It's somewhat reassuring to know Schneier isn't perfect. As others note in the comments (I looked) he's wrong about OS X -- both the user directory and the swap file can be optionally encrypted with modest performance impacts.

Personally, I store my passwords in an encrypted database and I generate the important ones from GRC's password generator. My answers to the "personal question" are long strings of angrily typed characters ...

XP, however, is kind of hopeless. Maybe Vista is different.

Seeking Dickens: mental illness and prisons

We really need a Charles Dickens for the 21st century. Emphases mine.
The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars - New York Times
Bernard E. Harcourt, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago, is the author of “Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age.”

... Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt — bed by bed — an enormous prison. During the 20th century we exhibited a schizophrenic relationship to deviance.

After more than 50 years of stability, federal and state prison populations skyrocketed from under 200,000 persons in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2002. That year, our imprisonment rate rose above 600 inmates per 100,000 adults. With the inclusion of an additional 700,000 inmates in jail, we now incarcerate more than two million people — resulting in the highest incarceration number and rate in the world, five times that of Britain and 12 times that of Japan.

What few people realize, though, is that in the 1940s and ’50s we institutionalized people at even higher rates — only it was in mental hospitals and asylums. Simply put, when the data on state and county mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on prison rates for 1928 through 2000, the imprisonment revolution of the late 20th century barely reaches the level we experienced at mid-century. Our current culture of control is by no means new.

... It should be clear why there is such a large proportion of mentally ill persons in our prisons: individuals who used to be tracked for mental health treatment are now getting a one-way ticket to jail.

Of course, there are important demographic differences between the two populations. In 1937, women represented 48 percent of residents in state mental hospitals. In contrast, new prison admissions have consistently been 95 percent male. Also, the mental health patients from the 1930s to the 1960s were older and whiter than prison inmates of the 1990s.

... One of the most reliable studies estimates that the increased prison population over the 1990s accounted for about a third of the overall drop in crime that decade.

However, prisons are not the only institutions that seem to have this effect. In a recent study, I demonstrated that the rate of institutionalization — including mental hospitals — was a far better predictor of serious violent crime from 1926 to 2000 than just prison populations. The data reveal a robust negative relationship between overall institutionalization (prisons and asylums) and homicide. Preliminary findings based on state-level panel data confirm these results...

Harcourt is careful to note that the prison/institution relationship is not a simple substitution, but I'd be surprised if there weren't a strong relationship. Humans are really not all that well put together. We're running a 15,000 yo cognitive system way out of its operational range. We do astoundingly well all things considered -- but, really, we're very buggy thinkers. We need to to rethink the "problem of the weak" on many levels.

Damn Interesting: The Woman with a Limp

Damn Interesting is a new pickup for me. I can't recall how I came across it. It's well named; it belongs on everyone's bloglist. Enjoy!

Domestic spying: thank heavens for the Dems

An old story, with a new twist. The Pentagon (you know, the military?) has been using "national security letters" to obtain banking records on "suspicious" US citizens. Cheney declares no patriot would object.

Once this would have been a bit shocking, but it's a yawn. The US military running its own domestic spy operations? Hardly a surprise! This time, however, there's a twist ...
Cheney Defends Efforts to Obtain Financial Records - New York Times

...Representative Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who is the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel would examine the matter. Mr. Reyes also indicated that he might renew efforts to pass a law requiring various agencies to get court approval before issuing national security letters.
We're much better off than we were a month ago ...

Dubai: Slate's well-traveled tales

Looking for mammon in the Muslim World (By Seth Stevenson) is the first in a series of travel essays on Dubai, a small nation with vast wealthy and curious ambitions. It's fun travel writing, and a great story -- five entries so far. Recommended, of course.

Pasteurized milk, gut ecology, and google scholar

I left the milk out a bit long yesterday. It's still good, but the wee ones are at work, we'd better drink it quickly.

Which led me to think about how the pasteurization or irradiation of milk has altered the ecology of the human gut. Now that we think of ourselves as a superorganism, a walking ecology, it's obvious that altering gut ecology is not necessarily a good thing. It could impact obesity rates, bowel disorders, etc.

Now, of course, whacky ideas like this can be quickly researched. I didn't see an obvious directly relevant article, but it looks like the domain is being reasonably well explored. I also see that Google has quietly done some nice work with Google Scholar...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Books about Minnesota: Why they annoy me

Virtually all books about Minnesota annoy me, and it's getting worse. Take this seemingly excellent book: Hiking Minnesota With Kids. What could be wrong with that?

For one thing, most Minnesotans live within a one hour drive of the Wisconsin border. I don't want a "Hiking Minnesota with Kids" book, I want a "Hiking Minnesota and Wisconsin with Kids" book, or a "Hiking within 300 miles of the Twin Cities book".

I'm going to start boycotting all MN or WI only books, and buy every MN/WI book I see.

I can't be the only TC resident in a snit about this ...

PS. Some of the best hiking and around the TCs is in western Wisconsin ...

Even the dimmest eyes are opening ... A right wing flack reneges

Shrillblog quotes Rob Dreher (no permalink, alas). I've never heard of him, he seems like a dim right wing pundit. Things are very bad for Bush, and, alas, for all of us, when someone like him wakes up...

Crunchy Con: My All Things Considered commentary - Rod Dreher, Conservative blog, Beliefnet conservative politics and religion blog:

... I talk about coming to terms with the end of an illusion. As someone who came of political age under Reagan, I've been a conservative for most of my life (for the sake of brevity, NPR edited out the part of the essay in which I explained that I'd had a high school and early-college dalliance with liberalism). I disdained the Vietnam-era "hippie" mentality with regard to national security. I took it for granted that those people were hung up on Vietnam, and ought not be listened to because they were blame-America-first liberals....

I formed my political views on national security in the confident glow of Reaganism. For me, it was a fact of life that Republicans were strong, capable and confident, and Democrats were weak, vacillating and incompetent.... When Bush led us into the Iraq War, I thought the liberals who predicted doom -- and, crucially, the conservatives (like Buchanan) who did as well -- were either fools, cowards or unpatriotic. But now I see that I was the fool. In the NPR piece, I wrote about how I sat there watching Bush's speech and thought that when they get old enough to understand these things, I have got to teach my children never, ever to take the word of presidents or generals at face value. To question authority, because the government will send you off to kill and die for noble-sounding rot (e.g., crusading for democracy in the Middle East). And it hit me that this is precisely the message that so many of those who lived through the Vietnam experience tried to tell my generation -- in my case, and in the case of so many other Gen X Reagan Youth, in vain.

I give him credit for speaking up now. It may yet do some good it if turns enough GOP senators to prevent a filibuster of moves to reduce Bush's power.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Blumenthal on the end-game of the "surge"

How it unfolded, and how Baker failed to turn the tide.

Salon.com | Shuttle without diplomacy

… Informed correspondents of the Washington Post and New York Times related in conversation that Bush furiously called the [Iraq Study Group] report "a flaming turd," but his colorful remark was not published. Perhaps it was apocryphal. Nonetheless, it conveyed the intensity of his hostile rejection....

... Donald Rumsfeld had been sacrificed as the secretary of defense, but his replacement, Robert Gates, a former director of the CIA and member of the ISG, turned from skeptic into team player. The Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command; and Gen. George Casey, commander in Iraq, all opposed the "surge" as no answer. Cheney and the neocons saw their opposition as the opening for purging and blaming them. The Joint Chiefs were ignored and sidelined, Abizaid was forced into retirement and Casey was removed (sent into internal exile as Army chief of staff). Their dissent, leaked to the Washington Post for appearance in the paper on the day of Bush's "surge" speech, was an extraordinary gesture by the senior military leaders to distance themselves from impending failure.,,

… The State Department has been completely sidelined in the making of Bush's latest and last policy on Iraq. Its experience in the Balkans remains thoroughly ignored. And Rice does nothing to call it to Bush's attention, for that would require her to point out his shortcomings. The State Department founders like a ghost ship. Rice meanders back and forth to and from the Middle East, the shuttle without the diplomacy.

After twice rejecting the job of deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, was implored to accept it. In exchanging a Cabinet post for a sub-Cabinet one, a position of policymaking for an administrative post, Negroponte excited rumors that he would only have decided to make the switch if he believed that Rice would eventually leave and he would ascend to her job. But, once again, the logic of that Washington gossip is merely rational. Rice the irrelevancy remains Bush's indispensable devotee.

Congress alone will need to stop this president.

Sarbanes-Oxley means no features in future software updates from publicly traded companies?

The claim is that Sarbanes-Oxley has the unintended consequence of making it illegal, or costly, to distribute ‘free’ software updates.

Oh, about that 802.11n card in your C2D Mac | iLounge

... I’m not going to claim to understand this next part, which really just makes no sense to me at all, but the claim Apple’s making is that it _can’t_ give you the 802.11n-unlocking software for free. The reason: the Core 2 Duo Macs weren’t advertised as 802.11n-ready, and a little law called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act supposedly prohibits Apple from giving away an unadvertised new feature for one of its products. Hence, said the Apple rep, the company’s not distributing new _features_ in Software Update any more, just _bug fixes._ Because of Sarbanes-Oxley. If this is an accurate statement of Apple’s position, which as an attorney (but not one with any Sarbanes background) I find at least plausible, this is really crazy. ...

Presumably this falls under the category of a publicly traded company cheating shareholders of revenue. It is certainly startling if true, but it does seem plausible. It may, of course, be something that vendors like. It would not apply to non-publicly traded companies, which produce most of the software I like.

Sarbanes-Oxley is due for a review by Congress. I’ll ask my Representative to take a look at this claim.

Update 1/18/07: It looks like this is genuine:
Apple's alleged 802.11n enabler fee: blame Enron etc. | Reg Hardware

... The reason: changing a product's functionality changes the timeframe in which the manufacturer can recognise revenue from the sale of that product.

If Apple begins selling a product at the start of, say, Q1 and then adds a previously unadvertised feature to it at the beginning of Q2, under Sarbanes-Oxley, it has to recognise revenues from the product from Q2 onwards. Revenues recognised in Q1 run contrary to the rules enshrined in the Act. Unless, of course, the extra feature is a 'new' product, attracting its own revenue stream.

Crazy, but that's accountancy for you. Had Apple actually said at their launch that its latest Macs would one day be upgradeable to 802.11n, it could have avoided the charge, it seems...

Microsoft Vista, it was announced today, will be installed with a comprehensive feature set which may be unlocked over time for a fee. I wonder if Sarbanes-Oxley determined that.

I'm not sure this is all bad. Companies now have a clear economic incentive to deliver incremental value to existing solutions. If and when I want 802.11n support I have no problem with paying $5.00 for a driver. Perhaps Apple will consider adding phone support to iSync for a similar fee; I'd be delighted to pay $5.00 for official iSync support of my Motorola V3M.

Update 3/10/07: I'd read some coverage that claimed Apple was interpreting Sarbanes-Oxley incorrectly. I'd written our representative to ask about this, and Betty McCollum's office replied "Apple has to account for the separate value of a software upgrade that allows for additional capabilities from the hardware.... a nominal fee ... establishes a reportable value for the upgrade." So Apple has interpreted the law as congress understands it. At least when it comes to enabling new hardware capabilities, SO means Apple must account for the value delivered. A nominal fee is one way to do that. I wonder if there's more wiggle room when no hardware capabilities change ...?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Amazon and the evil of cellphone companies

Tobacco companies are unequaled in the purity of their evil, but, in their defense, they have a certain dark style. American cell phone companies are evil in a sleazy, cowardly sort of way, a bit like Saruman's lackey Wormtongue.

I've been steeped in their vile juices as I balance my lust for the iPhone, my wife's need for a replacement for her beloved Samsung i500, and the vileness of Cingular. Amazon is a good weapon to expose Cingular's nature -- and Amazon's collusion. The Treo 680 seems a bargain at $50 with a $40/month plan, but watch what happens when one walks the billing trail at Amazon. The final shopping cart tells all ...

Amazon.com: palm Treo 680 Smartphone (Cingular): Cell Phones & Service


+ Cingular Nation 450 Rollover Minutes
(Monthly service charge of $39.99 billed by Cingular)


+ Cingular 2 Year Contract
(No Charge: Included with Cingular's Monthly Rate Plan)


+ PDA Connect Unlimited (Browse the web and access e-mail.)
(Monthly service charge of $39.99 billed by Cingular)


+ Regulatory Cost Recovery Fee
(Monthly service charge of $1.25 billed by Cingular)
The $40 mandatory "PDA plan" is where all the cost recovery occurs. Six months of this plan is exactly equal to the $250 Amazon chops off the phone price if you stay for 6 months ...

Oooooh, I hate the cell phone companies. My wife has commented on the resemblance to American auto manufacturers before Japan freed us from their rotting grasp. Who will save us from the cell companies? Not Apple, alas.

Update 1/11/07: Wow. My head spins. I spent about an hour today talking about phone price with 3 different Sprint business reps while also reviewing the web site. Here's the "secret sauce" to these discussion. Ask "What date does my contract expire?". When you learn that date, follow any question about rebates, credits, etc with the question "Does that change the date my contract expires?" The trick is that Sprint trains its reps to use different language, so they can answer "no" to questions for which any reasonable person would answer "yes".

The bottom line: If you don't want to change your contract expiry date, you go to a Sprint store and pay full price, or you buy a used phone on eBay or Craigslist. I'm told some Radio Shack stores will sell used phones, but I distrust the quality there. I have a visceral distrust for eBay, so it's Craigslist or list price.

Lastly, looking over the scam I first documented above, I'm thinking Amazon's a part of the deal too. In other words, they sold out. Well, it's not the first time.

The next time a politician hits me up for a donation, I won't ask them about healthcare reform or global warming, I'll ask them if they'll vote to require any cellphone vendor to accept a compatible unlocked phone.

The vengeance of the democrats

Many Republicans smoke. Few Democrats smoke. Nancy Pelosi demonstrates both good governance and mastery of the twisted knife...
Pelosi Bans Smoking Near House Floor

... House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a heavy smoker, often found at the center of a group puffing away in a corner of the lobby. He had little to say Wednesday about Pelosi's move. Questioned at a news conference, Boehner described it as 'fine.' He did not elaborate...
A picture accompanying the Google News summaries showed Pelosi holding an ornate chair that closely resembled a whip. Nice choice...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Searching a 100 million stars for something like us

A pair of astrophysicists want to divert a new radio telescope to identify radio-emitting civilizations:
Eavesdropping on the Universe

...The MWA-LFD is a radio telescope designed to detect and characterize highly redshifted 21-centimeter emission from hydrogen molecules in the early universe. Its key scientific goal is to create a three-dimensional map of ionized "bubbles" that formed as the first quasars and galaxies flooded space with ultraviolet light billions of years ago. ...

.... Loeb and Zaldarriaga calculate that by staring at the sky for a month, the MWA-LFD could detect Earth-like radio signals from a distance of up to 30 light-years, which would encompass approximately 1,000 stars. More powerful broadcasts could be detected to even greater distances. Future observatories like the Square Kilometer Array could detect Earth-like broadcasts from 10 times farther away, which would encompass 100 million stars.
I't's hard to get too excited about surveillance of 1000 stars. It seems unlikely that civilizations would radio-emit like us for long, the odds of catching a 100 year slice of radio emission in the 3 billion year slice of a habitable planet is pretty low. A hundred million stars though ... That would be about the right order of magnitude. So maybe in forty years ...

TIME releases their pre-arranged introduction to my new Apple iPhone

Apple's New Calling: The iPhone. A few minutes after the conclusion of the Keynote, the TIME magazine article is online.

…Apple's new iPhone could do to the cell phone market what the iPod did to the portable music player market: crush it pitilessly beneath the weight of its own superiority. This is unfortunate for anybody else who makes cell phones, but it's good news for those of us who use them…

My wife will really enjoy my old Samsung i500 phone ....

Cannot resist. Must get Apple phone …

Macworld 2007 Keynote Liveblog - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)

... . (Laurie notes: "I have a draw full of styluses.") It ignores unintended touches, multi-finger gestures and has patents. Or something like that. I think I jumbled things there a little bit. It is built on top of revolutionary interface with software that calls current mobile phones "baby software" and then mocks them. Yes, the iPhone runs OS X, children!!! W00t! ...

Who cares that it won’t work for two more revs. Who cares that I’ll have to dump Sprint (with a vengeance and bitter mocking laughter) for Cingular? Who cares that if I order it today it probably won’t show up for four months…

PS. The net appears to be combusting in some kind of nerd explosion. Blogger and Blogspot, in particular, have collapsed completely. Meanwhile Motorola is down .52%, Nokia is down 1.37% and Apple is up 2.21% (no, marke than 3.4%) and extremely volatile … Even Slashdot is laboring under the load, and they don’t allow non-subscribers to see the very latest articles …

Update 1/9/07: From Markoff in the NYT
One of the immediate questions that analysts and industry executives posed about Apple’s new product was why the designers eschewed the higher-speed Cingular digital cellular 3-G network. Mr. Jobs said later models would support additional networking standards.
Oh. Now the painful part. Cingular's EDGE network is very slow and their seems little hope that the phone can be upgraded to a 3-G network. There's a substantial risk the phone will become obsolete very quickly. OTOH, there is the WiFi support. Anyone buying this version of the phone should assume they'll use it primarily as a phone and messaging tool on Cingular's network, and as a computer only a WiFi network. Simple email may work on EDGE, but web browsing will be very painful.

Update 1/10/07: After the binge, the hangover sets in.

The Lord of the Rings and the Seige of Constantinople

My favorite radio/broadcast/podcast service is Sir Meyvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. It’s reason enough to buy an iPod all by itself, as well as being a scathing indictment of every other “talk” show in existence. The Seige of Constantinople is particularly good, and if one is a fan of a certain movie it comes with its own internal video stream … 

Telegraph | Entertainment | The day the world came to an end (Noel Malcolm)

... Even as a young schoolboy, I couldn't help noticing the uncanny resemblance between the siege of Minas Tirith in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the siege of Constantinople. On one side, the beautiful walled city with its ancient nobility and the few adventurers who had come to help in its defence; on the other, evil teeming hordes under a despotic ruler. You had only to look at the map in the end-papers, where the land of Mordor loomed to the east like Asia Minor, to get the point.

Tolkien even chose the name "Uruk-Hai" for some of his nastiest creations, fighting forces of Sauron who were a cross between orcs and goblins. This was surely borrowed from the "Yuruk", nomadic tribesmen used as auxiliary soldiers by the Ottomans. Few readers would have known that; but most would have got a whiff of something Asiatic here. For one thing Tolkien was outstandingly good at was tapping into the subconscious of our own, European, cultural history. ...

Alas, my working class education, though decent enough, was not the equal of Mr. Malcolm’s. On the other hand, it means there’s yet more to discover. The podcast is most highly recommended for those who, like myself, have a number of gaps in their cultural history. In addition to the terrible and wonderous story, it does give some valuable context to Cyprus, the European Union, Serbia, Turkey and Iraq. The thing about history, is that it isn’t.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

More Dyer

2006 has a flurry of about 7 new articles online. I swear he's avoiding RSS simply to torment me.

There is snow in Minnesota

Rumors to the contrary, there's snow in Minnesota in January!
Trail snow depth: Koochiching State Forest - Tilson Creek Ski Trail
Local snow depth is 6-8".
Wow. The trail is even open -- with a 2" depth. All you need to do is drive a few hundred miles north of the twin cities and go east of International Falls, once known as the ice box of the nation.

Otherwise the state's beautiful web site for snow conditions shows brown everywhere, and almost every Nordic ski trail is closed. None of the non-refrigerated ice rinks in the metro area are open.

I read that this is an El Nino year, so maybe there's hope for something 3 years from now -- but by then the net warming and drying trends may make this year the norm. The new Minnesota climate feels to the casual observer to be dry throughout the winter and winter weather that feels about 5-8 degrees warmer than most of the 20th century. Sure, the state web site says the average temp is only up 1 degrees F, but that's the entire state and the year-round average. For example, the MSP summers seem milder than they used to be, which would mask the dramatic winter changes.

I'd like to see a fifty year chart of average January temperatures in the Twin City metro area. I'll keep looking ...

Update 1/8/07: This UMN climatology page is just what I was looking for. MSP residents live in a Missouri climate nowadays, but there there were warm Januarys between 1890 and 1940 -- if you believe the old temperature records.

Update 1/8/07: Several stores are sold out of replacement basketball backboards in the TCs. BB is one of the few outdoor activities that still works around here now ...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Credit score - forget it. You want your Security Score ...

I wonder what my score is ...
Schneier on Security: Automated Targeting System

If you've traveled abroad recently, you've been investigated. You've been assigned a score indicating what kind of terrorist threat you pose. That score is used by the government to determine the treatment you receive when you return to the U.S. and for other purposes as well.

Curious about your score? You can't see it. Interested in what information was used? You can't know that. Want to clear your name if you've been wrongly categorized? You can't challenge it. Want to know what kind of rules the computer is using to judge you? That's secret, too. So is when and how the score will be used...
As anyone who's done any public health or medical school should know, the vast majority of "hits" from this system will be on completely innocent people.

Pelosi delivers: maybe things will get better ....

DeLong is Proud of Our Congress. I'd forgotten what it was like to have leaders who were not craven, corrupt and stupid. The House did noble work today.