Saturday, March 31, 2007

A clear flaw with closed source: longevity

For longevity, one needs unencumbered (no patent issues) file formats at a minimum, and probably open source code ...
MacInTouch 3/07: Archival Issues (reader contribution)

... One of my fondest treasures is a 32 disk CD-ROM set in a mahogany box, "The Complete National Geographic" magazine. It was a searchable collection of every page of every issue of National Geographic for 109 years. I bought it in system 7.5 days and used it up thru OS 9. But support for this collection met a tragic death

National Geo had farmed out the development to a chain of third party developers...Mindscape, The Leaning Center, and Broderbund (of PrintShop fame) whom for whatever reasons had "difficulties" in sustaining the project regardless of its merits. Each company's edition under the National Geo brand came with a proprietary Reader/Searcher. The various versions were not compatible, not even in consecutive years... The series died about 1999 and support for it didn't last much longer. Some of those companies still exist but avoid all talk of the Complete National Geo debacle. I've tried. Even National Geographic customer service is curiously mute.

It's exasperating to think that all that historical data, all those articles, all those photographs, are sitting on my shelf and cannot be viewed with today's operating system. ( The Reader/Searcher looked to my naive eye like a kissing cousin to Acrobat.)

If only the source code for the Complete National Geographic CD-ROM set were available and could be updated to run natively on OS-X and other contemporary platform...
Let's learn from this. Don't invest in products dependent on closed source solutions. Speaking of FairPlay and every other DRM solution ... What do you think the chances are you'll be able to read a FairPlay DRMd file in 10 years?

Shame on National Geographic, btw. The best explanation is they didn't negotiate their contracts properly ...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Apple TV ships, iTunes Store a smoldering crater

Is it coincidence that within a few days of Apple TV reaching consumers the iTunes Store is unusable? It's not quite dead, but it's too slow to buy from.

An ominous hint of what consumer video distribution will mean to the net? Not all bad news for Apple though ...

Kristof on how to turn lunch money into hope

Kristof, who never gives up, has an article on how micro-finance has become personal. He visits his business partners in Afghanistan...
The New York Times
March 27, 2007
You, Too, Can Be a Banker to the Poor

...From my laptop in New York, I lent $25 each to the owner of a TV repair shop in Afghanistan, a baker in Afghanistan, and a single mother running a clothing shop in the Dominican Republic. I did this through, a Web site that provides information about entrepreneurs in poor countries — their photos, loan proposals and credit history — and allows people to make direct loans to them...

... Mr. Abdul Satar said he didn’t know what the Internet was, and he had certainly never been online. But Kiva works with a local lender affiliated with Mercy Corps, and that group finds borrowers and vets them.

The local group, Ariana Financial Services, has only Afghan employees and is run by Storai Sadat, a dynamic young woman who was in her second year of medical school when the Taliban came to power and ended education for women...

...Web sites like Kiva are useful partly because they connect the donor directly to the beneficiary, without going through a bureaucratic and expensive layer of aid groups in between....

...A young American couple, Matthew and Jessica Flannery, founded Kiva after they worked in Africa and realized that a major impediment to economic development was the unavailability of credit at any reasonable cost....
Yes, it's a bit gimmicky, it would presumably be more efficient to give the money to CARE.ORG and let them donate to a microfinance organization. Still, the human angle might help draw in some extra funds. Going forward, the interesting possibility is going the next step, and becoming an active business partner. So make the loan, but also become involved in the enterprise. A bit like being an armchair peace corp person.

I'll give it a try.

Aminopterin update: likely thousands harmed

There's not much coverage now, but Google picks up this update. I will wager, based on the VIN reporting, that the number of animals harmed is in the mid to upper thousands.
ABC News: Group Says Pet Food Deaths Underreported

ALBANY, N.Y. - At least 471 cases of pet kidney failure have been reported in the 10 days since a nationwide recall of dog and cat food and about a fifth of those pets have died, a veterinarians' information service said Tuesday...

... Paul Pion, founder of the Veterinary Information Network, which counts 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students as members, said Tuesday the number of reported kidney failure cases had already grown higher than the 471, but he said he wouldn't have an updated tally for a few days.

Of the reported cases, he said, 104 animals have died. The network's survey results were earlier reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Pion, a California veterinarian, said only 10 percent to 20 percent of the people who belong to his Web site had responded to a request for information.

... Researchers at the New York food lab, Cornell University and other labs were still working Tuesday to pinpoint which individual ingredients were tainted with the poison, officials said. They also said there could still be undetected hazards in the food...

The labs are having trouble working with the gluten, so it will be some days before they can determine if gluten was really the source, and if the contaminated gluten is entirely Chinese. They are careful to note they cannot exclude other toxins. If we ever understand how the Aminopterin contamination occurred, we will have a better idea of the likelihood of secondary toxins.

A conservative extrapolation of Pion's numbers suggests a renal failure toll to date of about 4,000 pets, with a death rate still running at around 20%. It is likely the majority of the sick had more vulnerable kidneys, probably older cats. A larger number of animals will suffer significant kidney damage without symptoms. Their lives may be shortened. It is likely that significantly more than 4,000 animals will have been harmed.

When we learn how this happened, we will also be able to draw inferences about how often lesser problems may have occurred with pet food manufacturing and distribution over the past few years. It would be surprising if all the problems are being detected; error analysis in other domains always finds that these "sentinel events" represent the "tip of the iceberg".

We will continue to investigate if we can substitute human-regulated food for a significant portion of our dog's diet going forward.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fear in the blogosphere: Microsoft hunts again

I suspect there are a few young techies who do not fear Microsoft. They don't remember when Gates et al pillaged the landscape, sowing salt on the burning embers of resistant villages, conquering with ruthless power and endless treachery. I confess, I have contributed to a false sense of security by pointing out how incompetent Microsoft has been in the past few years.

It is time for me to right my wrong. Microsoft hunts again.

There is only one good tool on any platform for efficient blogging in both Google's Blogger and the open source Community Server (metaweblog API) environment, and it's Microsoft product - Windows Live Writer. I've tried all the rest, they don't compare. [See Update!]

Live Writer only works with IE. It only works with Windows. Yes, there's a Firefox plug-in for Live Writer. It broke long ago, and, oddly enough, it's never been updated.

BlogJet was very good in version 2.x, but version 3.x is a mess. Scribefire is very minimalist and just broke with Firefox 2.03. One the Mac side Mars Edit and Ecto aren't even in the race -- they assume that all writing is done from a single machine. They can't properly handle fetching and editing past posts. They are also updated slowly if at all -- I could go on. They are goners.

Google's integrated "BlogThis!" bookmarklet hasn't been updated to support Blogger 2.0's tags and it's slow, quirky, and underfeatured (Blogger 2.0, btw, is a vast improvement over Blogger 1.0).

So Microsoft has a free tool that is vastly better than anything else, it only works with IE/Windows, and it's smack in the middle of a strategic market. Wow, doesn't this feel familiar?

Is anyone awake out there? Have all the geeks been lulled to sleep by Microsoft's seeming incompetence over the past few years? Where's Google anyway? What happened to all those Firefox development efforts? Is Apple trying to ignore the blogging world? (Anyone remember the transient blogging tool once bundled with new Macs?)

All is not lost. Sharepoint 2007's blogging support is miserable, and Microsoft has invested a lot in Sharepoint. Maybe the Sharepoint team will end up destroying Live Writer. I know I'm rooting for them, because as much as I like Live Writer, I've seen this movie before ...

[1] Update 1/5/09: Thanks to very helpful comments on this post I have learned that Adobe Contribute for OS X and Windows (list $170) will work with Blogger and other standards compliant platforms. It's very expensive and suffers from being an Adobe product (they don't seem to understand how to install OS X software) but I'll try to get a look at it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Aminopterin update: isolating the source and it's not the FBI's job ...

Aminopterin poisoning of the feline and canine foodstream has fallen off the mainstream news radar, but Google has an answer to that. Here's today's update:
Helena Independent Record

... The laboratory that identified the poison believed to be responsible for the death of pets around the country has started testing individual components of the tainted pet food to determine which ingredient was contaminated, officials said Monday.

Scientists at the New York State Food Laboratory on Friday identified aminopterin as the likely culprit in a poisoning scare that prompted the recall of 95 brands of "cuts and gravy" style dog and cat food.

Department of Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman Jessica Chittenden did not know when the lab would have results from the new tests.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has said the investigation into the pet deaths was focused on wheat gluten. Stephen Sundlof, the federal agency's top veterinarian, said Friday it remains the suspected source of the contamination...

... Cornell University's veterinary school also is testing the food. Dr. Donald Smith, dean of the school, said the tests of the individual food components would likely take days.

"It's a very challenging set of procedures," he said. "We have to keep in mind there are other things out there that could potentially be hazardous. We are working very hard to confirm it was aminopterin."

... FBI spokesman Stephen Kodak said the agency is "not involved in any way, shape, or form." He said the FBI would likely only get involved if evidence pointed to the products being tampered with while on store shelves.

Chittenden said any criminal investigation would have to be initiated by the FDA...
Interesting that the FBI's responsibilities do not extend to products tampered with outside of store shelves. I wonder who handles those? Homeland security to be sure, but they don't launch criminal prosecutions ...

British government concedes the 650,000 death toll for Iraq is credible

The British government is not saying that Blair believes 650,000 Iraqis have died because of invasion that would otherwise have lived. The government is admitting that it's as good a number as any, and probably more reliable than most:
BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | Iraqi deaths survey 'was robust'

... The British government was advised against publicly criticising a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the war, the BBC has learnt.

Iraqi Health Ministry figures put the toll at less than 10% of the total in the survey, published in the Lancet.

But the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the survey's methods were "close to best practice" and the study design was "robust".

Another expert agreed the method was "tried and tested"....
I wrote this when the estimate was 100,000 and this about the 600,000+ estimate:
... If we adjusted the Iraqi toll to our population of 300 million, the conflict would claim 6 million Americans lives. Would we call that a civil war? The "conflict" in Iraq is now up to about 60% of the death total of a war that most of would consider "civil"...
In the US we consider our civil war to have had horrific casualty figures, though ours were concentrated among combatants (young men). Whether the "true" number is 200,000 or 650,000, the conflict in Iraq is within range of the carnage of the American civil war.

Phil Carter on the six year free fall of America

Phil (Intel Dump) Carter is my most trusted perspective on the American conquest/occupation/entrapment of/in Iraq. After Phil, things trail off rather sharply, due to my inverted trust in Cheney Bush (if they say it's sunny I pack my umbrella) and the extreme danger of in-country journalism.

Phil comments on a Zbignew Brzezinski editorial in WaPo: INTEL DUMP - The only thing we have to fear is . . . us. In brief, the choices of Cheney/Bush have been a disaster for the US and the world.

And yet ... I still think that we're extremely vulnerable as a society to attacks that would dwarf the destruction of the twin towers. Much of the reaction to 9/11 has been driven not only by what happened, but also by what imaginative people thought could and would happen next. Brzezinski wrote:
... The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation...
So is he saying the scenarios were and are not credible? Scanning the rest of the editorial he seems to be saying the threats are indeed credible, but that our responses to date are a panicked, ineffective and dangerous distraction for what we should be doing.

My position is that while Cheney/Bush are the most incompetent American leadership since the end of the 19th century, that the danger is real. That makes their failures all the worse. We have been digging holes instead of building dikes. [1]

[1] Note, invading Afghanistan is not an exception to the Cheney/Bush disaster. That was an automatic and valuable response -- not even Cheney/Bush can completely mess up everything.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Aminopterin update: more details from blogs

Obviously I'm interested in the aminopterin story, but mainstream media coverage has been slight. I decided to try search blogs, which is how I came to link to a conservative humor site. I think that's the first time I've linked to a conservative anything, except perhaps for conservapedia:
Conservative Cat: Menu Foods Recall and the 40 Parts Per Million

...We now have more information about the contamination in the Menu Foods products. The New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University and the New York State Food Laboratory tested three samples of the contaminated products. One sample was clean, but the others contained aminopterin at a level of 40 parts per million. According to Cornell lab director Bruce Akey, this is a sufficient concentration to cause kidney failure in dogs and cats.

The operating hypothesis at this point is that the aminopterin was sprayed on the wheat during shipping or storage in order to prevent rats from eating the crop. Because the normal method of creating gluten from wheat is by washing it, this had to have happened after the wheat had been converted.

Wheat gluten is high in protein and has a chewy texture. The so-called cuts and gravy pet foods use the gluten to to make the food bits feel meatier when they're being chewed. This is not necessary in your standard canned or dry pet foods. The safest protocol for buying pet food right now is to look at the ingredients, and if it does not say wheat gluten, you're safe no matter who makes the product. You'll end up passing over some good stuff that's not contaminated, but it's much easier than memorizing the long list of brand names. This is just until the crisis passes, by the way. There's nothing wrong with wheat gluten when it hasn't been poisoned.

Before the government does something drastic and saddles them with a lot of expensive testing procedure, Menu Foods and other manufacturers should consider getting their wheat locally and plastering 100% American Made on the can and pouch labels. It will mean a price increase, but it's nothing compared to the cost of a new Federal agency for pet food regulation...

The proposal is the appropriate Libertarian solution -- let the market decide. I'm not sure, but this might have worked for tuna and dolphin kills. It requires a credible threat of a consumer boycott to motivate manufacturers to take these measures. This will increase product costs, a manufacturer can't take this step unless the entire market moves at once. That requires either regulatory action or a very committed consumer based. Consumers can muster that focus for a few products, but not for all of them all the time. It's an unwinnable battle in the real world. Regulation is cost inefficient, but the alternative very, very, rarely works. It just doesn't scale across the range of an economy.

Update on the unfinished count of the human genome

I'm a big fan of Bill Clinton, but he did have a talent for useful hokum. It often served a greater cause, but it did have the disadvantage of being a bit ummm untrue. The Y2K "human genome sequenced" story was a bit like that. The real timeline of the project seems suspiciously close to how long the grumpy old skeptics thought it would take. We're still slogging away. Carl Zimmer brings us up to date. The original article has a fascinating link to "PANTHER", an academic project for assigning genes to functional categories. Don't miss Zimmer's ending sentence ...
The Loom : You Don't Miss Those 8,000 Genes, Do You?

... When Craig Venter and his colleagues published their rough draft of the human genome in 2001 they identified 26,588 human genes. They then broke those genes down by their functions. Some were involved in building DNA, some in relaying signals, and so on. Remarkably, though, they classified 12809 genes--almost half--as "molecular function unknown."

... There are web sites where you can observe works in progress, such as the human genome. One of those sites is called PANTHER. I contacted the top scientist behind it, Paul D. Thomas, with my question, and he sent me a link. When I clicked on the link, I got the pie chart I've posted here (click on the image to go to the original page if it's hard to read).

The pie shows that we're now down to just 18,308 genes. That's over 8,000 genes fewer than six years ago. Many sequences that once looked like full-fledged genes, capable of generating a protein, now don't make the grade. Some genes turned out to be pseudogenes--vestiges of genes that once worked but have been since wrecked by mutations. In other cases, DNA segments that appeared to be parts of separate genes have turned out to be part of the same gene.

Today scientists still don't know the function of 5898 genes in the human genome...For all the work that has poured into the genome, for all the grand announcements, we still don't know have the faintest idea of what about a third of our genes are for.

... few human genes have experimental evidence for their function in humans. In one study of 35329 proteins, scientists estimated that only 2784 met this gold standard.

... And then there's the whole matter of all the other DNA that doesn't encode proteins (98.5% of the genome all told). A lot of it is most likely a mishmash of broken genes and viral DNA. It's possible to cut huge swaths of it out of a mouse's genome with no apparent ill effect. But there are also a lot of important players hiding in that wilderness--switches that proteins can use to turn genes on and off, sequences that do not give rise to proteins but rather RNA molecules that create their own control system for a cell. In all of these complications, scientists will probably find the answer to the question, "How do roughly the same number of genes encode such different kinds of animals?" Complexity isn't purely a matter of the number of genes you have. It's also how you use them.

...few human genes have experimental evidence for their function in humans. In one study of 35329 proteins, scientists estimated that only 2784 met this gold standard...

... I would not have been able to have created this pie chart without Thomas's help. Perhaps some science writers will become more like investigative political reporters who know how to sift through Federal election databases for the real news...
I recall from Dickson's 1970s "Dorsai" cycle that much research in that "space opera" consisted of mining "the encyclopedia" (re: the web) for knowledge. Zimmer is quietly predicting "knowledge mining" will become a bit part of science description -- not just writing, but also doing science. In fact, I'm not sure there's a clear difference between knowledge mining and classic science, though I confess knowledge mining seems to have some resemblance to the medieval scholasticism.

We're now in the story of the 'incredibly shrinking genome'. Meanwhile we learn elsewhere in Zimmer (I think it was there) that humans and chimpanzees are much less alike than we'd thought. There are many ways to encode complexity, and evolved organisms have a rather baroque approach to solving such problems.

Update: If we extrapolate a bit, it would not be surprising to discover that we have about 16,000 genes that code for 35,000 proteins. So there's a 2:1 compression ratio from gene to expression, which is comparable to best lossless compression algorithms run against highly complex data. The 2:1 ratio presumably must have some implications for how natural selection can proceed. It's easy to imagine that a mutation in a gene that "improves" the function of one protein product might disable another protein coded by the same gene. So evolution would typically proceed "two steps forward and one step backwards", or at best with peculiar side-effects on a secondary protein arising from changes to the primary protein.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Elizabeth and John Edwards

The NYT interviewed the Edwards about their decision to continue John's presidential campaign despite Elizabeth's metastatic breast cancer:
Facing a New Battle, Mrs. Edwards Set Campaign’s Fate - New York Times:

...Mrs. Edwards — whose decision to push her husband to run for president in spite of her life-threatening illness provoked an intense discussion across the country about illness, ambition, child-rearing and death — said her husband’s candidacy was not only about his needs and desires, but also her own life and her wish to be something other than a woman best known for her life-threatening illness.

“I expect to live a long time,” Mrs. Edwards said. “I expect us to have lots and lots of years together. I do believe that. But if that’s not the case, I don’t want my legacy to be that I pulled somebody who ought to be president out of the race. It’s not fair to me, in a sense.”

Saying she hoped to be “heavily involved” in her husband’s campaign, she said: “My feeling is, if we gave up what we have committed to as our life’s work, wouldn’t I be getting ready to die? That’s what I’d be doing. This cause is not just John’s cause, it’s my cause.”...
The Edwards' know a bit about hard times. What I think is irrelevant, but in fact I'd have "approved" (like that matters!) whatever they decided. Bad things happen to even the luckiest of us mortals, we can't fall over every time tragedy whacks us -- though some tragedies will put most anyone down for a while. An early death of a parent and partner is a bad thing, but they've lived through worse.

Anyway, the odds are decent that Elizabeth will live a through at least part of a second term, and she knows how badly we need the leadership John and his team can deliver. This is her legacy. I hope we are wise enough to justify her gift.

In the absence of Al, I've been leaning towards John. I'm glad I'll have the opportunity to learn more about him.

A review of the pet food industry

Aside from globalization, factory food, homeland security, and personal tragedies, the aminopterin poisoning of 2007 has shed some light on the pet food industry. Emphases mine. I admit, I was surprised to learn that pet food is less rigorously regulated than cow feed -- because we don't eat pets ...
Pet Food - Pets - Menu Foods - Poisonings - Dogs - Cats - New York Times

.... Q. What’s in pet food then? Is it regulated?

A. Pet food is regulated by the F.D.A. through the same state agencies that regulate food for farm animals. But product excluded from animal feed can go into pet food — meat and bone meal, nervous system tissue — parts of animals not allowed for anything else. There were cases of mad-cow disease in cats in England. The opportunity for cheap byproducts is much greater in pet foods. The assumption is that better brands don’t do that, but it’s not verified.

Q. If a few companies are making many of the brands, are pet foods all the same then?

A. Nutritionally, they have to meet the same industry standards, though they’re priced very differently. You read the labels and they all look alike — corn is the first ingredient in a lot of dry food.

Q. Why are some brands more expensive?

A. The quality of the ingredients. Are you using human-grade food or food that humans wouldn’t care to eat? It doesn’t matter to animals but it matters to the people who own them.

Q. What about health claims?

A. When you see food claims on breakfast cereal — for instance, that it lowers cholesterol — there has to be some scientific substantiation behind them. Pet foods have claims on them, that they support a healthy immune system, reduce risk of whatever, but they don’t have to be supported by large amounts of science. They’re worded in such a way that doesn’t violate the F.D.A.’s labeling rules. I think the F.D.A. will have to take a much closer look at pet foods — this is the second recall in a short time.

Q. What do cats and dogs enjoy eating?

A. Cats don’t have a taste for sugar; they don’t taste sweet things. They have a particular taste for what is referred to in the industry as “animal extract” — God knows what’s in it. Dogs can taste sweet, but, dogs will eat anything. Cats are very fussy, as any cat owner will tell you. The one thing that’s never been studied is to find out how long it would take for a cat to eat something it doesn’t like — owners never wait it out. People are very attached to their pets, and it’s painful to watch a cat not eat.

Q. Should owners prepare their own food for pets or feed them table scraps?

A. There’s evidence that dogs can be fed table scraps and do quite well, provided they’re healthy table scraps — meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit. The problem is a lot of humans don’t eat that way.

A mixture of expensive "organic" pet food and healthy table scraps sounds good and perhaps relatively cost-effective. It's impressive how little we know about whether our "premium" pet food is really very premium at all.

Six "top 10" lists for software people

Coding Horror: Top 6 List of Programming Top 10 Lists is excellent. Read and study them all. I've copied the entire post to a "note" in my Palm [1] so I can periodically refer to them. So far they all feel familiar, but I love this kind of review. Nice job assembling them CH!

[1] The Palm OS Note or Memo is the simplest possible application. The Microsoft Outlook Note is barely more sophisticated (it has categories, but no scroll bar, so maybe they're even). The two sync almost perfectly (category problem). Thanks to full text search (Lookout for Outlook, native to the Palm) they are very powerful tools. Nobody uses them. Rock solid. Simple. Useful. Puzzling ....

Are you an engineer? (and a joke)

CH quotes from The Inmates Are Running the Aslum who quotes an old joke. Here's the joke:
Coding Horror: The Rise and Fall of Homo Logicus:

Three people are scheduled for execution: a priest, an attorney, and an engineer. First, the priest steps up to the gallows. The executioner pulls the lever to drop the hatch, but nothing happens. The priest claims divine intervention and demands his release, so he is set free. Next, the attorney takes a stand at the gallows. The executioner pulls the lever, but again nothing happens. The attorney claims another attempt would be double jeopardy and demands release, so he is set free. Finally, the engineer steps up to the gallows, and begins a careful examination of the scaffold. Before the executioner can pull the lever, he looks up and declares, 'Aha, here's your problem.
Yeah, I might do something like that. It's a good test to see if you're an engineer-type. The rest of the post is worth reading too, it's really a rant that "engineers" need to realize that their customers are usually not like them. That's very true, but it's not just engineers who fall into this trap. The single most important thing I was taught about product management was never to assume that I resembled the customer in any significant way. I had to be taught this, I didn't figure it out on my own -- but once I heard it I knew it was true.

My (few) readers may think that it's obvious that I don't resemble many people, but, to be honest, at some unconscious level, I thought I was pretty typical. I think this is a common misapprehension among engineering types -- it's probably related to having a touch of autism. My guess is that there are some neural configurations that are prone to this self/other error, and some aren't.

Border crossings: searching random laptops for porn

It seems some custom officials feel obliged to search some laptops for pornography. It's not clear if this is a work mandate or a personal mission. They may or may not have a "profile" to search; it seems that carrying a personal versus corporate laptop may be a red flag. Tom Kyte (via Schneier) tells the story:
The Tom Kyte Blog: Crossing the border...

... The person doing the search - they were afraid of the computer. They did not use one. They did not know what they were looking for. They did not know how to look for it. I felt like giving him POINTERS as we were going through this. I had to bite my tongue and refrain from giving him tips. The reason - the last person on the planet you want to annoy - the customs people at a border crossing. They can really ruin your day if they want to...
Customs officials have unlimited power in their domain, Kyte knows better than to annoy them in any way. I wonder what they do if they find a picture of the 3 yo standing in the tub. Probably seize the laptop at the least.

I suspect they're following some idiotic mandate arising from some incompetent legislative action from the past (GOP) congress. It will take a long time to undo the mountain of stupidity congress belched up between 2000 and 2006.

Cats, Canaries and Homeland security

Legend has it miners of old brought canaries with them. If the canary died the air was tainted. Homeland security must be having a lot of late nights now ... (emphases mine)
Rat Poison Found in Tainted Pet Food | World Latest | Guardian Unlimited

... The substance in the food was identified as aminopterin, a cancer drug that once was used to induce abortions in the United States and is still used to kill rats in some other countries, state Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker said.

The federal government prohibits using aminopterin for killing rodents in the U.S. State officials would not speculate on how the poison got into the pet food, but said no criminal investigations had been launched...

... The Food and Drug Administration has said the investigation into the pet deaths was focused on wheat gluten in the food. The gluten itself would not cause kidney failure, but it could have been contaminated, the FDA said.

Paul Henderson, chief executive of Menu Foods, confirmed Friday that the wheat gluten was purchased from China.

Bob Rosenberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Pest Management Association, said it would be unusual for the wheat to be tainted.

``It would make no sense to spray a crop itself with rodenticide,'' Rosenberg said, adding that grain shippers typically put bait stations around the perimeter of their storage facilities.

Scientists at the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University and at the New York State Food Laboratory tested three cat food samples provided by the manufacturer and found aminopterin in two of them. The two labs are part of a network created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep the nation's animals and food supply safe.

``Any amount of this product is too much in food,'' Hooker said.

Aminopterin is highly toxic in high doses. It inhibits the growth of malignant cells and suppresses the immune system. In dogs and cats, the amount of aminopterin found - 40 parts per million - can cause kidney failure, according to Bruce Akey, director of Cornell's diagnostic center.

``It's there in substantial amounts,'' Akey said.

Donald Smith, dean of Cornell's veterinary school, said he expected the number of pet deaths to increase. ``Based on what we've heard the last couple days, 16 is a low number,'' Smith said.

Aminopterin is no longer marketed as a cancer drug, but is still used in research, said Andre Rosowsky, a chemist with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Rosowsky speculated that the substance would not show up in pet food ``unless somebody put it there.''

Henderson said Menu Foods does not believe the food was tampered with because the recalled food came from two different plants, one in Kansas, one in New Jersey. Menu continues to produce food at the two plants.
I'm reading varying reports of how much of Menu Food's gluten is imported from China. Reports range from "some" to "all". Aminopterin is used in China, but not in North America. Another report says that Menu Foods has been looking for a toxin since February, but reference labs couldn't find anything. Even the U of Minnesota vet lab has been consulted, though I don't know when.

When Menu Foods says the "the food" was not tampered with, they mean the poison was introduced by a common ingredient supplier before it reached them.

If this was an industrial accident, then those cats and dogs in dying may yet save thousands and millions of lives by awakening our dysfunctional government. Now that the GOP no longer rules Congress, there's yet a chance the legislature will enact long delayed reforms. If this was a deliberate poisoning ...

Poisoned pets: Chinese gluten, rat poison and lessons for trade and regulation

[The original post was accidentally deleted during a blogging tool test. This is a repost]

The latest hypothesis is that a rat poison got into Chinese gluten:

Menu Foods president says as a pet owner he's angry over poisoned food

... New York state officials had found a toxic chemical used to kill rats and treat cancer in recalled dog and cat food produced by the company.

Traces of aminopterin were found in tests of food suspected of causing kidney failure in cats and dogs, the officials said...

...The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said the investigation into the pet deaths focused on wheat gluten imported from China. Wheat gluten itself would not cause kidney failure, but a common ingredient could have been contaminated, the FDA said.
These search results are interesting: China aminopterin.

It could be intentional (a form of industrial sabotage, a disgruntled worker, etc) or accidental. Either way, it reminds me of lead contamination in Chinese manufactured holiday lights, and the use of living animal fur in "fake fur" products. It also reminds me of the 1989 contaminated L-tryptophan induced eosinophila-myalgia syndrome "epidemic", thought to have been due to contamination with an industrial product during manufacture of a dietary supplement/alternative medicine.

The common thread in all these cases, and possibly in this one, are the risks of going outside the regulatory and judicial frameworks we are accustomed to. Another theme, of course, is the risk of industrial food -- and what could be more industrial than importing massive amounts of gluten from China? Wouldn't you like to know how the gluten is transported?

In the meantime I haven't been able to switch our mongrel completely off commercial dog food (Eukanaba gluten-free dry - Kateva has canine gluten enteropahthy). Our vet, for example, was quite unenthusiastic. It seems the standards for canine nutrition are hard to meet at the grocery store.

Assuming this is traced to poisoned Chinese gluten, what lessons can we draw? I think it starts with restoring the regulatory framework that, I am reasonably certain, Cheney et al have trashed. We need to take a very hard look at industrialized food for pets and humans alike. Our family now eats "organic" meats and largely "organic" produce, we need to do the same for our dog.

Outside of food, economists need to recognize that "regulatory compliance" and "judicial accountability" is not only a protectionist anti-globalization tactic, it's a legitimate social and public health concern.

Update 3/24/07: Rat Poison Found in Pet Food Linked to 14 Deaths: NY authorities don't know if the aminopterin is really in the gluten, and only some of the gluten was imported from China. They are now explicity saying they haven't ruled out "sabotage". The CDC has been notified. Nobody is talking yet about the all-nighters at the Department of Homeland Security ... (note: I'm just guessing about the Homeland Security part. If I were running it there would be some late nights now.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Surprise: AAC to CD to AAC produces awful results

I've never done much with Apple's iTunes store, but recently I realized the time had come to stop entirely. What should I do, however, with the 20 or so DRMd tunes that the children or I had collected over the years?

I figured I'd just burn them to a CD and then recode them as AAC. iTunes even creates a "Text CD", which passes the critical metadata to the CD. It took a few minutes, but I did all twenty. Then, as I was cleaning up, I decided to compare the orginal AAC (128 bit) to recycled new AAC (160 bit VBR).

The copy was bloody awful. It was the difference between a CD (or at least a good tape) and AM radio. I don't have any musical talent or abilities whatsoever -- this was not subtle. I knew there'd be some loss of quality, but I didn't expect it to be this bad. I deleted the bunch.

So now I have to choose between buying the CD for the music I own, or looking for pirated copies of key tunes that I've paid for. Hmmm.

One thing is for sure. I have to tell the relatives not to send any more iTunes gift certificates!

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Egregious Moderation: Sahar: The Number

A friend of mine called me to tell me the bad news. Her brother had been kidnapped, and the ransom set at $100,000...
Another terrible story.

Gopher lives

I was at some family medicine computer playground, back when email was still slightly novel and we were teaching our colleagues to use Grateful Med* to retrieve articles. (PubMed still isn't as good.) I think it was around 1991 or 1992, maybe in San Francisco. Paul Kleeberg, an old friend even then, showed me something called "Gopher" from his home state of Minnesota. We browsed the meeting minutes of some Australian city council meeting.

I was stunned. I felt the tidal wave of history crashing down. It made me think differently about the University of Minnesota. Gopher probably has something to do with why I did a health informatics fellowship at the U in 1994 -- though by then Mosaic (on NeXTstep boxes) was on the rise. I'm still in Minnesota, and I even teach at the U a bit. All thanks, in part, to Gopher.

I thought Gopher was completely gone, though a few years back I was giving away a PowerBook 165 and I fired up the Gopher client. I found a few old sites. I figured it would be a great way for hackers and bad guys to communicate -- who would ever know? Gopher, after all, was dead.

Only it wasn't quite ...
TidBITS: Down the Gopher Hole

... Back in 1991, Gopher sprang out of a University of Minnesota campus information service project aimed at building a 'friendly' method of accessing university documents and services. (The University of Minnesota's sports teams are the Golden Gophers.) In those days, most campuses and corporations maintained their own walled-garden services and access policies, and almost all of them operated in unique and sometimes wildly different manners.

In contrast, Gopher provided a unified, consistent hierarchical interface to access everything. The approach translated well to both text and graphical interfaces, and better still, it offered an easy way to connect a varied set of hosts using simple links. This beat the stuffing out of getting files via FTP, which usually required using a command line. Gopher's method was a large improvement over interacting with library and campus directory systems via Telnet and trying to remember how to compose searches from system to system. Thanks to Gopher, the public resources other servers offered weren't merely accessible - they were usable...
The article mentions GopherVR (remember any VR? I barely remember that one), but not HyperGopher (German I think). Turns out the protocol is kept alive by some contrarian hobbyists, including the author -- a country doctor and part-time hacker. It's a great read for geezer netizens.

* Damn, Grateful Med deserves a Wikipedia entry. I may have to author it if nobody else does!

Kashmir - tourists again

When I was a callow youth (vs. a callow gomer), I wandered not far from Kashmir. I thought in a few years I'd visit the famed lakes, and sleep on a house boat.

Then tourists began losing heads, and that was the end of sane tourism in Kashmir. Now, it's back, though these tourists are quite mad. Maybe I'll get there before I konk...

Spam with real addresses: another revolting development

Blacklists usually have limited value because spammers use bots, fake domains, etc. Lately, however, much of my spam has been coming from real companies and organizations with persistent email addresses. The good news is this spam is trivially easy to blacklist.

On the one tentatcle the legitimization of spam feels like another bit of bad news for our ailing email, but on the other tentacle ever since I figured out how I was making Gmail hate me I've been pleased with its spam filtering. Email is still alive, for now ...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The robotic ape: Morality and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex

Persons with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortext behave more like Mills and less like Kant (emphases mine):
Study Finds Brain Injury Changes Moral Judgment - New York Times

... findings, published online by the journal Nature, confirm the central role of the damaged region — the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is thought to generate social emotions, like compassion.

Previous studies showed that this region was active during moral decision-making, and that damage to it and neighboring areas from severe dementia affected moral judgments. The new study seals the case by demonstrating that a very specific kind of emotion-based judgment is altered when the region is offline. In extreme circumstances, people with the injury will even endorse suffocating an infant if that would save more lives.

“I think it’s very convincing now that there are at least two systems working when we make moral judgments,” said Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study. “There’s an emotional system that depends on this specific part of the brain, and another system that performs more utilitarian cost-benefit analyses which in these people is clearly intact.”...

...The new study focused on six patients who had suffered very specific damage to the ventromedial area from an aneurysm or a tumor. ...The area in adults is about the size of a child’s fist.

People with this injury can be lucid, easygoing, talkative and intelligent, but blind to subtle social cues, making them socially awkward. They also have some of the same moral instincts that others do.

... All three groups also strongly rejected doing harm to others in situations that were not a matter of trading one certain death for another. They would not send a daughter to work in the pornography industry to fend off crushing poverty, or kill an infant they felt they could not care for.

But a large difference in the participants’ decisions emerged when there was no switch to flip — when they had to choose between taking direct action to kill or harm someone (pushing him in front of the runaway boxcar, for example) and serving a greater good.

Those with ventromedial injuries were about twice as likely as the other participants to say they would push someone in front of the train (if that was the only option), or to poison someone with AIDS who was bent on infecting others, or suffocate a baby whose crying would reveal to enemy soldiers where the subject and family and friends were hiding...

...The ventromedial area is a primitive part of the cortex that appears to have evolved to help humans and other mammals navigate social interactions. The area has connections to deeper, unconscious regions like the brain stem, which transmit physical sensations of attraction or discomfort; and the amygdala, a gumdrop of neural tissue that registers threats, social and otherwise. The ventromedial area integrates these signals with others from the cortex, including emotional memories, to help generate familiar social reactions.

... This tension between cost-benefit calculations and instinctive emotion in part reflects the brain’s continuing adjustment to the vast social changes that have occurred since the ventromedial area first took shape. The ventromedial area most likely adapted to assist the brain in making snap moral decisions in small kin groups— to spare a valuable group member’s life after a fight, for instance. As human communities became larger and increasingly complex, so did the cortical structures involved in parsing ethical dilemmas. But the more primitive ventromedial area continued to anchor it with emotional insistence an ancient principle: respect for the life of another human being.
It's hard not to wonder what a similar study would find find on adult genetic relatives of children with autism. The study is too small to be persuasive on its own, but it's just another in a flurry of recent research that hammers home the reality that we are our brains, and that we have more in common with science fiction robots than we once fancied. Pull out our emotion chip and we switch to a relatively "cold-blooded" judgment system. Disable that, and you probably get a sociopath. I would wager that a successful sniper has a relatively inactive VPC.

Eventually we'll discard the illogical concept of 'individual responsibility'. I wonder if I'll live long enough to see what will replace it ...

Science and faith in the senate

Emphases mine.
BBC NEWS | Americas | Al Gore makes global warming plea:

...Representative Joe Barton, the leading Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, challenged global warming science as "uneven and evolving".

"You're not just off a little, you're totally wrong," he said of Mr Gore's conclusions that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming....
My understanding is that there's probably a 1/15-1/20 chance that we'll eventually discover that carbon dioxide emissions have been a relatively small contributor to global climate change to date. Even if the 20:1 odds paid off, Mr. Barton, of course, would still be operating on faith, not reason. There is nothing in the data to support his confidence, ergo it must arise from some sort of faith.

Had history played out a little differently, he would be chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Chairman. The thought chills the soul.

How can any reasoning person vote for the modern GOP? The party needs to be rebuilt from top to bottom.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Homo ergaster Turing test: a mind set in stone

The 8 yo and I were browsing the book companion to the excellent BBC series 'Walking with Cavemen' the other night. I was struck by a commentary on the peculiarity of the eternal stone tool. Modern humans appear to have gone from stone tools to quantum computers in about 30,000 years, but ancient hominids spent millions of years doing exactly the same thing. Even Neandertal seemed to create the same tools year in and year out -- though perhaps with a mechanical precision that modern humans cannot equal.

Paleontologists have tried to image what a mind would be like that showed such limited creativity. They speculate about a highly compartmentalized "intelligence", with nothing like the "general" intelligence we're alleged to have. Something, in other words, like a modern computer.

We can't yet build a non-organic sentient computer (we build millions of the organic variety every day), but we might be able to build one that would "pass" for Homo ergaster. That is, it would past the Turing-egaster test. All it needs then is a bit of evolution ...

PS. The new book costs about $35 or so. At, including shipping, the cost is about $9. Amazon's used book service must be having some impact on new book sales and the used book marketplace. I've not read anything about this though. We ordered a used copy.

Dementia: is it really a disease?

So is Alzheimer's-type dementia really a disease?
Prevalence of Alzheimer’s Rises 10% in 5 Years - New York Times:

... The updated estimates, based on the rising occurrences of the disease with age, not new disease research, were released yesterday by the Alzheimer’s Association, along with a compilation of other information about a progressive brain disease that afflicts 13 percent, or one in eight people 65 and over, and 42 percent of those past 85...

...Mary Mittelman, an Alzheimer’s researcher at New York University, had mixed feelings about disproportionate attention to early onset Alzheimer’s disease. On the one hand, Dr. Mittelman said, these cases are such a small minority that she fears will take focus and resources “from the majority who are much older.” On the other, she said, 'because of the ageism of this society” far too many people still believe dementia to be part of normal aging and attention to this younger group will clarify that it is a 'real disease'.”
When 42% of people over 85 have advanced features of a prolonged process, is this a "real disease" or an aging process? The boundary here is pretty fuzzy. Nobody has the brain or body at 85 that they had at 45, much less 25.

My personal bias is that the "Alzheimer's process" is a "normal" part of aging, right up there with getting weak, flabby, and shorter. What varies, of course, is how fast it progresses, and whether one dies before or after the process becomes disabling (disability also being a fuzzy term -- many persons who we consider "able" at 85 are unable to do the work they did at 45).

The distinction between an aging process and a disease has a practical implication. In general, diseases are treatable, but aging is much harder to stop. If we accpet the model of an Alzheimer's "Process" rather than Alzheimer's Disease, then we can better judge how great our challenge is. We need to do more than arrest a disease, we need to slow the aging process of the human brain. The bright side is that there's been a lot of research lately that suggests that might be possible.

Pet poisoning: 1/6 die in testing?!

Whatever the Menu Foods contaminant is, it is so lethal that it killed 7/45 animals in testing:
San Jose Mercury News - Pet food recall has owners searching for answers

... Menu Foods told the Food and Drug Administration it received the first complaints of kidney failure and deaths from pet owners Feb. 20. It began new tests Feb. 27 in which 40 to 50 dogs and cats were fed its product. During those tests seven animals died, according to the FDA's top veterinarian, Stephen F. Sundlof. The contamination appeared more deadly to cats than to dogs, he said, although the mix of species tests was not immediately known....
Other articles have added a bit more detail. The animals became ill about 5-6 days post-exposure and the chief suspect is contamination of a gluten based thickening agent at a Kansas plan..
FDA has sent inspectors to company plants in New Jersey and Kansas. Most complaints stem from products made at the latter factory, though both received shipments of wheat gluten, identified as a likely source of contamination, from the same supplier, said Stephen F. Sundlof, the FDA's chief veterinarian. The ingredient is a protein source used to thicken the pet food gravy. The FDA is screening pet food samples for substances known to be toxic to the kidneys, like toxins produced by molds.
It's impressive how little we are hearing about the testing. We're going to beef and rice at our house until we know more -- and our dog is on a dry fish based Gluten free diet (yeah, she has canine sprue - happily gluten free diets are easy for dogs). In theory we should be pretty safe, but to put it mildly we have zero trust at the moment.

Update: A Kansas source has more information. If the source is the Kansas plant, the Kansas City Star may be the best information source. This article says the contamination was detected incidentally in taste tests of an experimental product, the company wasn't looking for problems ...
... Menu Foods, according to one veterinary toxicologist, was working on some experimental products when it did some testing, and found that the food sickened or killed some animals. The company reportedly traced the problem back several weeks to when they started using a new wheat component in their foods. The company immediately stopped using that new wheat source, which it used in high concentration in the experimental food. To be safe they recalled every other brand that might contain the new wheat, even in tiny quantities.
I wonder if it will be aflatoxin again ...

Monday, March 19, 2007

The surgeon gene

FuturePundit: Sleep Gene Determines Performance Of Sleep Deprived. I bet most surgeons have the short version of the gene.

Flatland and the 248 dimensions of time

In the 19th century two dimensional world of Flatland the hero infers the existence of dimensions beyond those of his god-like 3 dimensional correspondent. He would be willing to image a 248 dimensional creature:
Is this the fabric of the universe? | Science News | Connected | Telegraph

Mathematicians have successfully scaled their equivalent of Mount Everest. Today they unveil the answer to a problem that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.

At the most basic level, the calculation is an arcane investigation of symmetry – in this case of an object that is 57 dimensional...

... What makes this group of symmetries so exciting is that Nature also seems to have embedded it at the heart of many bits of physics. One interpretation of why we have such a quirky list of fundamental particles is because they all result from different facets of the strange symmetries of E8. I find it rather extraordinary that of all the symmetries that mathematician’s have discovered, it is this exotic exceptional object that Nature has used to build the fabric of the universe...

... Today’s feat rests on the drive by mathematicians to study symmetries in higher dimensions. E8 is the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional. E8 itself is 248-dimensional...

....The ways that E8 manifests itself as a symmetry group are called representations. The goal is to describe all the possible representations of E8. These representations are extremely complicated, but mathematicians describe them in terms of basic building blocks. The new result is a complete list of these building blocks for the representations of E8, and a precise description of the relations between them, all encoded in a matrix, or grid, with 453,060 rows and columns. There are 205,263,363,600 entries in all, each a mathematical expression called a polynomial.

..."This is an impressive achievement," said Hermann Nicolai, Director of the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany. "While mathematicians have known for a long time about the beauty and the uniqueness of E8, we physicists have come to appreciate its exceptional role only more recently - yet, in our attempts to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces into a consistent theory of quantum gravity, we now encounter it at almost every corner...
I'd love to hear an explanation of how E8 might relate to non-local action and the seemingly bizarre nature of time. Are meaning-free instantaneous communications between entangled photons instances of higher dimensional structures protruding into 4 space? Is there really only one dimension of time, or is it simply that meaning can't exist in the others?

Oh, and did those last two sentences of mine make any sense at all?

It's a thin line between being an amateur commentator on math and physics and being a complete loon! :-)

Update: Another article explained that E8 has merely 57 dimensions, but 248 symmetric rotations. Whatever that means. Mathematics left the scope of mere mortals well over a hundred years ago, it's not surprising that non-specialists should struggle with this announcement.

Industrial food and pet poisoning - lessons?

A year ago it was aflatoxin contamination killing dogs (Diamond pet food is still in business btw, the web site proclaims their lack of connection to this episode). Now it's some poison still to be named...
Pet Food Is Recalled After Link to Animal Deaths - New York Times

More than 60 million cans and pouches of dog and cat food sold under dozens of brand names were recalled on Saturday after being linked to the deaths of 10 animals.

The food was manufactured by Menu Foods, of Streetsville, Ontario, which makes wet food sold as store brands for companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway.

The company also makes food on behalf of many brand-name pet food makers. Menu Foods said it had recalled some food made for the Iams unit of Procter & Gamble. Two other pet food companies — NestlĂ© Purina PetCare and Hills Pet Nutrition, the unit of Colgate-Palmolive that makes the Science Diet brand — recalled some of their products that were made by Menu Foods.

Menu Foods is recalling only certain gravy-style pet food in cans and pouches it made from Dec. 3 to March 6.

The company said in a statement that tests of its food had “failed to identify any issues with the products in question.” But it did associate the timing of the reported deaths with its use of a new supplier for wheat gluten, a source of protein. Sarah Tuite, a spokeswoman for Menu Foods, declined to name the supplier.

The reported deaths of cats and dogs have been from kidney disease, Ms. Tuite said. Symptoms vary but can include lethargy, jaundice and vomiting, she said...
The recall list on their web site is very long (there's another list for cats):
1. Americas Choice, Preferred Pets
2. Authority
3. Award
4. Best Choice
5. Big Bet
6. Big Red
7. Bloom
8. Wegmans Bruiser
9. Cadillac
10. Companion
11. Demoulas Market Basket
12. Eukanuba (ouch, that hit us)
13. Food Lion
14. Giant Companion
15. Great Choice
16. Hannaford
17. Hill Country Fare
18. Hy-Vee
19. Iams
20. Laura Lynn
21. Loving Meals
22. Meijers Main Choice
23. Mighty Dog Pouch
24. Mixables
25. Nutriplan
26. Nutro Max
27. Nutro Natural Choice
28. Nutro Ultra
29. Nutro
30. Ol'Roy Canada
31. Ol'Roy US
32. Paws
33. Pet Essentials
34. Pet Pride - Good n Meaty
35. Presidents Choice
36. Price Chopper
37. Priority Canada
38. Priority US
39. Publix
40. Roche Brothers
41. Save-A-Lot
42. Schnucks
43. Shep Dog
44. Springsfield Prize
45. Sprout
46. Stater Brothers
47. Weis Total Pet
48. Western Family US
49. White Rose
50. Winn Dixie
51. Your Pet
The pet care world is fundamentally Libertarian. So is there a lesson here about the limits of Libertarianism? Or is there a lesson about the risks of industrial food? It seems one plant fed a large portion of North American dogs and cats, so a major problem there will have a huge impact.

These episodes have further lowered my opinions of both Libertarian marketplaces and industrial food. Our family may need to look at the ridiculously expensive "organic" pet food market.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Vanguard has the security question sickness - big time

Vanguard has taken the "security question" sickness to a new level of absurdity.

If you log into Vanguard from an "unfamiliar computer" (meaning you clear your cookie cache) you have to answer a security question. This means I really have to enter critical information that "only I know".

Except these security questions are the same everywhere. If any site I answer them at is hacked, the hackers know my security question answer everywhere where they can establish my identity.

Since these questions are treated as though they were "secret", the fact that they cannot be "secret" means that they reduce rather than enhance security.

I'm tempted (only slightly) to post the answers to my "secure questions" on my public web site. I could file it under "identity theft made easy" and include my SSN, my birth date, and my favorite passwords ...

I bet Vanguard paid quite a bit for this "feature", probably from a big name consulting firm. Only smart people could possibly be so stupid.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Life in Web 2.0: just don't ask for reliability

I'd imagined that the most reliable service in the Web 2.0 world would be Google. This morning I tried to do some work with Google's industrial application deployment and domain registration service, mediated by their premier eCommerce solution (Google Checkout).

Of course, this is what I got:
Google Apps - Server error
Help | Sign out
Server error
We are unable to process your request at this time, please try again later.
Much has been made of the millennial generation's lack of concern about privacy. I think another remarkable generational difference is an expectation of unreliability, and a probabilistic strategy for managing unreliable systems.

Geezers like me, who remember when most performance was highly predictable, have more trouble with things that don't work -- especially when we're short of time.

Update: Later the process goes one step further along ...
Oops! An error occurred while processing your request.

Friday, March 16, 2007

TimesSelect: Free for a .edu address

Arrgghh. I just paid about $50 for TimeSelect:
TimesSelect University E-mail Verification

...We are pleased to offer a complimentary subscription to TimesSelect. You must be a student or faculty member with a valid college or university e-mail address to be eligible for this offer. You no longer need an access code to activate your TimesSelect University Subscription.

To start the process, please provide your school e-mail address below. If it is accepted, you will receive an e-mail from with a link to continue your sign up process...
How will they distinguish academics from those with alumni accounts? I qualify as faculty, so now I'm just grumpy. I wonder if the NYT prorates upon cancelation?

Foreign Policy: latest addition to my blogroll

FP Passport is the blog of Foreign Policy, a political science journal. It's excellent. I've added it to my blogroll. (I'm still using Bloglines, but if they keep updating feeds unpredictably I'll try Google Reader.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Measure of Things

A colleague forwarded me one of those "interesting emails" which always seem suspicious. This anonymous message was interesting, though mysterious. It consisted of a series of images beginning with the solar system and ending with the star Antares. Once I cracked the mysterious file format. I started looking around to see if I could validate the content.

My search took me to a 2006 web page, but a very interesting faculty page (worth a visit) was probably the origin for the last 3 images (they appear relatively "home grown"). I suspect the email is based on the faculty page. A reference there pointed a physics simulation site as the original source for the first 3 images. I've attached all the images below, you can click on them to see larger images.

First, some order of magnitudes examples to warm up with:
Planck Length: 10**-35 m
String Length: 10**-35m (I thought this would be a bit bigger than the Planck length actually)
Neutrino: 10**-24m (Much smaller than a quark!)
Electron and Quarks: ? (10**-15 to 10**-18 to 0 -- the concept of "diameter" may not apply)
Proton: 10**-15 m
Hydrogen Atom: 10**-10 m
Water molecule: 10**-9m
Bacteria: 10**-7 m
Red cell: 10**-6 m
White cell: 10**-5 m
Limit of human vision: 10**-4m
Human: 1 meter
Moon and Mercury: 10**6 m
Earth: 10**7 m
Sun: 10**9 m
Arcturus: 10**10 m
Betelgeuse: 10**11 m (varies)
Antares: 10**12 m
Solar system: 10**13 m
1 Light Year: 10**16 m
Milky way Galaxy: 10**21 m
Quasar: 10**26 m (distance at time light was first emitted from furthest detectable quasar)
Visible Universe: 10**26 m
Universe/Multiverse: Unknown. Around 2007 some said 10**27, but more recent speculations are vastly larger (or infinite).
The span from the Planck Length (smallest possible distance) to the Visible Universe is a factor of 10 **61. On a log scale the mid-point is somewhere around the limit of human vision. In other words, there are as many 'scales of 10' between the smallest thing you can see and the smallest thing that can exist as there are between that wee thing and the universe. As Feynman said, there's a lot of room at the bottom.

So if we treat Earth as the measure of all things, let's take a look at some of the stellar objects in the mid-range. First, though, we'll take a look at the 'string' to 'hand' scale from (Seed magazine 2007)

Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury and the Moon
Earth is only a bit larger than Venus, but Mars is a relative pipsqueak. It's roughly correct to say that Earth is to Mars as Mars is to the utterly barren Moon.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus Neptune and the rocky runts of the system.

The Sun and its leftovers

Sun, Sirius, Pollux and Arcturus
Arcturus is about 25 solar diameters across.

Arcturus, Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Antares
Ten Antares, laid side by side, would span our solar system. An individual human is to Antares as Antares is to our galaxy.

Update 2/4/11: The universe is much bigger than when I wrote this.

Update 5/3/12: Now what we used to call the Universe is merely the Visible Universe, which is some infinitesimal fraction of the multiverse. This Scale of the Universe app (Flash, damnit) is fun to play with. There's a lot of nothing between neutrino's and the quantum foam. I had made some egregious arithmetic errors in my original post and I just corrected them.

The mystery of the apple keyboard

I took the kids to the Apple Store tonight, and did some email on a beautiful 30" display attached to a very powerful desktop machine -- and a completely miserable keyboard.

Why are Apple's desktop keyboards so lousy? Their laptop keyboards are reasonable, it's only the desktop kbs that combine great looks with miserable performance.

Oh, yes, I know, keyboards are personal and Apple's kb gets four stars on Amazon. Bah. Show me just one geek who likes that kb (excepting Andrew)!

If Apple were to combine the cosmetics of their cheapo kb with the functionality of $9 PC kb, they'd dramatically increase the sales of their desktop machines. Trust me on this. I'm sure large numbers of XP users walk into an Apple store, type, and figure everything about Apple must be as bad as the keyboard.

Maybe it's all a plot to sell more laptops ...

Another longtime reader abandons the Economist: Crooked Timer

I abandoned The Economist last year because it seemed to been infected by the WSJ Editorial Page brainworm. It wasn't completely demented, but it was getting there. So this CT post caught my attention. I'd love to know what Fallows thinks of today's Economist. He was writing during their glory years! (Emphases mine)
Crooked Timber: Cringe and whinge

I came across James Fallows’ 1991 piece on The Economist (to which my subscription has just lapsed), The Economics of the Colonial Cringe, and thought it pretty interesting. On the one hand, this seems a little dated:

In functional terms, The Economist is more like the Wall Street Journal than like any other American publication. In each there’s a kind of war going on between the news articles and the editorial pages. The news articles are not overly biased and try to convey the complex reality of, well, the news. Meanwhile, the editorials and “leaders” push a consistent line, often at odds with the facts reported on the news pages of the same issue.

If there’s any marked difference these days between the line touted in the editorial pages line and the perspective of the news articles, I can’t detect it. The WSJ seems to still have a firewall between the two (although in fairness its editorial pages are also far loopier than those of the Economist)...

I agree. The WSJ editorial pages read like meth fueled ravings of brains debauched by mad cow disease, but their news pages are excellent. The Economist editorial pages are only moderately prion infested, but the disease has spread throughout the "newspaper" (their term).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Senator Tim Johnson is recovering

Tim Johnson's survival following a December stroke (SAH) gave the Democrats the senate. Talking Points directs us to some encouraging photos from his website.

Senator Johnson's survival and recovery must bring immense joy to his loved ones, but it has also brought immense relief to America and most of the globe. Rarely has mere survival, much less recovery, been so important to the world.

Karl Rove and the one party state

Is Karl Rove the greatest threat to American democracy since the civil war?
All roads lead to Rove |

...Two academics, Donald C. Shields of the University of Missouri and John F. Cragan of Illinois State University, studied the pattern of U.S. attorneys' prosecutions under the Bush administration. Their conclusions in their study, "The Political Profiling of Elected Democratic Officials," are that "across the nation from 2001 through 2006 the Bush Justice Department investigated Democratic office holders and candidates at a rate more than four times greater (nearly 80 percent to 18 percent) than they investigated Republican office holders and seekers." They also report, "Data indicate that the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops." Thus what the 85 U.S. attorneys who were not dismissed are doing is starkly detailed.

If the Democrats hadn't won the midterm elections last year there is no reason to believe that the plan to use the U.S. attorneys for political prosecutions -- as they have been used systematically under Bush -- wouldn't have gone forward completely unimpeded. Without the new Congress issuing subpoenas, there would be no exposure, no hearings, no press conferences -- no questions at all.

The replacement of the eight fired U.S. attorneys through a loophole in the Patriot Act that enables the administration to evade consultation with and confirmation by Congress is a convenient element in the well-laid scheme. But it was not ad hoc, erratic or aberrant. Rather, it was the logical outcome of a long effort to distort the constitutional framework for partisan consolidation of power into a de facto one-party state.
If his plan had succeeded, we'd have taken another large step towards a one party state, a state in which the GOP would transform the law into a means of suppressing dissent.

Rove. Cheney. Bush. There is nothing so dangerous as the righteous.

Friedman and the summer of war

Excerpted from a longer post, I particularly appreciated the zing on Friedman and the "summer of war" metaphor:
Egregious Moderation: Andrew Northrup on the Journamalism of Tom Friedman

... Of course, this is the same Tom Friedman who was telling us at the time that we needed to invade Iraq because we just had to kill some Arabs. We just had to, OK? Something about a bubble or something, too - you had to be there, man, it all made perfect sense. I know it seems weird now, man, but it was this magical time, like the Golden Age of Athens or some shit - The Summer of War! - when we all just knew we were going to change the world. All that stuff our parents told us about Vietnam and all that shit? We were just going to blow that away, man, just tear down their world and build it all up new, like better than ever, like nothing you’d ever seen before! Reynolds was the man, and den Beste was the brains, and everybody was in it together, for freedom and shit. It was great. And the music … well, the music kind of blew, actually. Nickelback was big. And the drugs were pretty crappy. No sex to speak of. But the blogs! Man, you shoulda seen the blogs! Outtasite!

And where are they now? Steven den Beste has stopped illuminating the great cycles of human history, and now writes exclusively about porny Japanese schoolgirl cartoons. Reynolds never got past that summer, never learned how to change with the times, and now he’s Kid Charlemagne. I don’t know what happened to Friedman - he’s behind the Times Select wall now, probably writing about globalization or whatever, or whatever anime den Beste was into 6 months ago. Funny how everyone grew up.

The past really is another country. I would like to bomb it.
The trajectory of some of these neo-con bloggers is noteworthy.

In a related post, a former neo-con invade-Iraq culture warrior blogger virtually flagellates himself and the world of the blogs. I'm ok with the his flagellation, but I think he should have limited his blog-attack to the ones he reads.

The "surge" turns into a prolonged commitment

The increased US troop presence has improved life in Baghdad (based on my reading of my relatively trusted sources). If it continues to do so, it will be sustained ...
WIRED Blogs: Danger Room:

...When the troop 'surge' in Iraq was initially being discussed, it was billed as a temporary increase in forces -- a matter of months. That never seemed all that credible to me. Now, 'the day-to-day commander of American forces in Iraq' is owning up, recommending 'that the heightened American troop levels there be maintained through February 2008,' the Times reports. Count on an admission, pretty soon, that the surge is going to take a lot more than 21,500 troops...
I'm sure the experts knew the "surge" would become a permanent fixture if it seemed to be working, and a "surge" if it was failing. I suspect if it starts to fail it will again be called a "surge". It there are positive results though, we'll need many, many more troops. I wonder where they'll come from.

Breaking a network: first kill the cadets

I think there are lessons here for corporate downsizing as well as for fighting insurgents. If you want to destroy a cooperative, don't focus on the leaders. Take out the communicators that cross boundaries:
WIRED Blogs: Danger Room

... "Networks are hard to break," Lieutenant Colonel John Graham announced. Then he smiled and said he was going to show us how.

... there are three major vulnerabilities in networks:

1) Density nodes: people with many immediate connections, e.g. leaders
2) Centrality nodes: people with fewer immediate connections but who serve as crossroads in many relationships, e.g. financiers
3) Boundary spanners: people with few (maybe just two) connections but who span long gaps between chunks of the network, e.g. liaisons or messengers

Assuming your resources for attacking a network are limited -- and in the real world, they always are -- who do you hit? Graham asked. Using his own department as an example, he advocated killing just three of the dozens of members. Surprisingly, none were examples of density or centrality, since those were all situated in the meaty middle of the network. The network had enough redundant connections to quickly repair itself after their demise. What Graham wanted to do was hit the network where there were no redundancies, so all of his targets were boundary spanners. By taking out three spanners, Graham showed how you could isolate relatively homogeneous chunks of the network, rendering it stupider and less adaptive than before.

Funny thing is, the spanners in Graham's department's network were mostly low-ranking members such as cadets...
When corporations downsize, I suspect they get rid of a lot of their "spanners". Not intentionally, but because they don't know who they are. They then founder, but never understand why ...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More Dyer articles online - and 9/11 conspiracies

Dyer has several new articles online. Still no RSS feed!
Gwynne Dyer 2007:

February 19 Peter Pace's Choice

February 22 A Quick Fix

February 26 Blame the Iraqis

March 1 What's Wrong with Italy?

March 8 Loose Screws

The last of these, Loose Screws is required reading. It's about "Loose Change", a "documentary" film alleging the WTC was destroyed by explosive charges, not an airplane collision. Dyer is no friend of Bush, but he has no patience for this whackiness:
I cannot absolutely refute the lesser conspiracy theory [jf: Dyer doesn't believe that one either], but I find it extremely implausible. The greater conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is just plain loony -- and yet more and more people are falling for it in the West, where it was once the exclusive domain of people with counter-rotating eyeballs and poor personal hygiene. You cannot overstate the impact of a well-made film.
It sounds like another degree beyond the "JFK" movie. On the one hand I empathize with the impression of vast, powerful and mysterious forces moving the world, but if one abandons logic and reason there's really no stopping point. Maybe invading nanites from Betelgeuse blew up the WTC, or perhaps it was Satan's minions.

I wonder if we'll see even more of this sort of thing as the world gets faster, stranger, and more complex ... I like Dyer's conclusion, and the half-serious comment that the film's biggest beneficiaries are probably Cheney/Bush.
... In normal times you wouldn't waste breath arguing with people who
fall for this kind of rubbish, but the makers of "Loose Change" claim that
their film has already been seen by over 100 million people, and looking at
my e-mail in-tray I believe them. It is a real problem, because by linking
their fantasies about 9/11 to the Bush administration's deliberate
deception of the American people in order to gain support for the invasion
of Iraq, they bring discredit on the truth and the nonsense alike.

You almost wonder if they are secretly working for the Bush

Gonzales is gone: another man who knows too much

Rove won't wait for an impeachment trial that would drag in people like Harriet Miers. Gonzales is another man who knows too much. They'll find something profitable for him to do. Emphases mine, and congratulations to Newsweek!
Overblown Personnel Matters - Krugman - New York Times

What is surprising is how fast the truth is emerging about what Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, dismissed just five days ago as an “overblown personnel matter.”

Sources told Newsweek that the list of prosecutors to be fired was drawn up by Mr. Gonzales’s chief of staff, “with input from the White House.” And Allen Weh, the chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, told McClatchy News that he twice sought Karl Rove’s help — the first time via a liaison, the second time in person — in getting David Iglesias, the state’s U.S. attorney, fired for failing to indict Democrats.

... One of the fired prosecutors was — as he saw it — threatened with retaliation by a senior Justice Department official if he discussed his dismissal in public. Another was rejected for a federal judgeship after administration officials, including then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, informed him that he had “mishandled” the 2004 governor’s race in Washington, won by a Democrat, by failing to pursue vote-fraud charges.

... We now know exactly why Mr. Iglesias was fired, but still have to speculate about some of the other cases — in particular, that of Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for Southern California.

Ms. Lam had already successfully prosecuted Representative Randy Cunningham, a Republican. Just two days before leaving office she got a grand jury to indict Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor, and Kyle (Dusty) Foggo, the former third-ranking official at the C.I.A. (Mr. Foggo was brought in just after the 2004 election, when, reports said, the administration was trying to purge the C.I.A. of liberals.) And she was investigating Representative Jerry Lewis, Republican of California, the former head of the House Appropriations Committee.

...What we really need — and it will take a lot of legwork — is a portrait of the actual behavior of prosecutors across the country. Did they launch spurious investigations of Democrats, as I suggested last week may have happened in New Jersey? Did they slow-walk investigations of Republican scandals, like the phone-jamming case in New Hampshire?...
Krugman is my hero. Now we all want to know what Carol Lam had on the Mr. Lewis, former head of the House Appropriations Commitee...

Exercise and cognition - I'm still skeptical

I've been skeptical of articles purporting to show a relationship between exercise and cognitive performance. It's not that I don't like exercise (I love it), but I just couldn't see the evolutionary physiology -- and I don't have much faith in case-control studies.

Now I'm moving from more to less skeptical, but I'm still skeptical
Study shows why exercise boosts brainpower -

... Tests on mice showed they grew new brain cells [in response to exercise] in a brain region called the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus that is known to be affected in the age-related memory decline that begins around age 30 for most humans.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging scans to help document the process in mice -- and then used MRIs to look at the brains of people before and after exercise.

... They recruited 11 healthy adults and made them undergo a three-month aerobic exercise regimen.

They did MRIs of their brains before and after. They also measured the fitness of each volunteer by measuring oxygen volume before and after the training program.

Exercise generated blood flow to the dentate gyrus of the people, and the more fit a person got, the more blood flow the MRI detected, the researchers found.

"The remarkable similarities between the exercise-induced cerebral blood volume changes in the hippocampal formation of mice and humans suggest that the effect is mediated by similar mechanisms," they wrote.

"Our next step is to identify the exercise regimen that is most beneficial to improve cognition and reduce normal memory loss, so that physicians may be able to prescribe specific types of exercise to improve memory," Small said.

I'm still skeptical, but a bit less so.

It was a pretty small study, and it would be hard to separate the effects of exercise and sleep (since sleep improves due to exercise). On the other hand, it's almost plausible that a mechanism that evolved for muscle learning might secondarily benefit other dependent processes (such as recall) ... but it still seems fishy to me.

It might turn out that the benefit is a one time plus for people going from unfit to fit, and then it's done. Or it might turn out that you need to learn new motor actions to benefit, so for most of us taking up snowboarding would help but bicycling wouldn't.

If there is any effect, I'm betting it's small and that sleeping 7+ hours a night is more important.

On the other hand, if my dementia progresses any more quickly every activity will represent new muscle learning opportunities.