Thursday, May 31, 2007

A commencement address, from Salon

Salon features a commencement address today:
Words in a time of war |

This commencement address was given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California at Berkeley, on May 10, 2007...
It's a brief review of the conquest of Iraq with a recurring theme of the relationship of power to reality. It's worth reading, though there's nothing there we don't know. Even so, it's useful to cover the territory every few months.

Cringely retrospective

My favorite tech writer reflects on 10 years of opining for (!) PBS. It's a weird gig, but it works for me. A quote explains why:
... As a former member of that [fourth] estate I have to tell you how consistently I have been disappointed over the last decade, not just by how poorly the press understands technology, but how easily manipulated they are by the technology industry. My friends in the press are not stupid, but they have bosses, and those bosses have commercial agendas, while I just write what I think should be written...
Cringely is more talented than most, but his other great strength is PBS. He's somewhat removed from the commercial influences that have made most of the trade press worthless.

Thanks PBS! Thanks Cringely! Keep on writing ...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What do climate change deniers have to do with Philip Morris and DDT?

Crooked Timber connects the GOP's tobacco stalwards with global warming denialists and an allegedly planted story that DDT bans increased malaria deaths. CT reports "the DDT campaign was pitched to the tobacco industry as a diversionary attack on the World Health Organization which was playing a leading role in campaigns against smoking. The leading figure in the exercise was Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute and its front organization, Africans Fighting Malaria.".

It's a great post with a nice aside about the relationship of global warming denialists to Philip Morris. The only catch for me is that I thought it was true that the WHO turned away from DDT for emotional and political rather than technical reasons. DDT has relatively safe uses, though it is true that any circulation of DDT means that it will also be misused. The WHO does favor some DDT use nowadays.

Bate's mission to distract the WHO from an anti-smoking campaign would, of course, be all the more effective if he had a point....

Industrial food part XVI: your melamine update

I'm in the small minority group that thinks we have significant issues with our food chain. So I'll keep posting about interesting discoveries, such as the use of melamine (melamime is a common but incorrect variant spelling) by a US company as a "binder" in animal food:
Problem Pet Food Ingredient in US Feed:

...The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration was the first indication that a U.S. company had used melamine as an animal feed ingredient. Agency officials said that melamine and related compounds were used to bind feed for cattle, sheep and goats, or fish and shrimp.

...The FDA alerted feed manufacturers that ingredients containing melamine and related compounds were found in products made by Tembec BTLSR Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, and used by Uniscope Inc. of Johnstown, Colo.

Tembec makes two products, AquaBond and Aqua-Tec II, which it distributes for Uniscope. The products are used in fish feed.

Uniscope also makes a product for livestock feed called Xtra-Bond, and it uses ingredients produced by Tembec. The FDA advised feed manufacturers and others not to use the products and to contact the two manufacturers...
I'm sure Tembec and Uniscope are unique. (joke)

Meanwhile Wikipedia has assembled two good articles on melamine and on the 2007 pet food crisis. The researchers think there's something lethal in the toxic stew other than melamine and cyanuric acid, but they can't identify it. The melamine/cyanuric acid combo is still a suspect though:
... a study by USSR researchers in the 1980s suggested melamine cyanurate (a salt formed between melamine and cyanuric acid, commonly used as a fire retardant ...) could be more toxic than either melamine or cyanuric acid alone...
Fragments of information, presumably coming from pet centric community sites continue to show up in obscure publications. The Catoosa County news, for example, reports on relatively stringent measures taken in South Africa.

I continue to look for pet food manufacturers who make measurable safety claims. Eukanuba doesn't certify their food as melanine free, but they are marketing their advantages including buying Google AdWords (emphasis mine, I'm surprised they don't use farmed fish.)
...* Eukanuba dog and cat dry foods DO NOT include wheat gluten, corn gluten or rice protein concentrate..
* All Eukanuba dog and cat dry foods are manufactured in our own facilities in Nebraska, Ohio and North Carolina...

... Eukanuba dog and cat foods are made with our own exclusive formulas, unique recipes and high-quality ingredients.

* Eukanuba diets are natural with added vitamins and minerals and DO NOT contain fillers or artificial preservatives.
* All Eukanuba dog and cat dry foods are made with natural chicken, lamb or ocean fish.
Not perfect of course, but better than average. Our mongrel has been on Eukanuba for over a year, so we're lazily stayed with them rather than preparing our own food.

Lastly, the ASPCA continues to disappoint. This was their big chance to identify manufacturers with better practices, but they chose to play it safe with their donors. Shame.

NYT has made "permalinks" official - another good sign

The New York Times has quietly made "permalinks" official. There's been a semi-approved way to do this since an odd agreement with UserLand software in 2003, but now there's a "share" dropdown (in IE anyway) next to most articles. One option is the permalink. It's a bit awkward to get at, Aaron Swart's permalink bookmarklet is still faster. Nonetheless, it's remarkable and commendable. The NYT is indeed on the way back from the brink.

Air travel is for the strong alone

Last week my return flight from Denver was delayed by 6 hours. If it had been cancelled I'd have had to fly to Chicago, get a hotel, and look for a flight to MSP the next day. There were no seats from Denver to MSP for over a day.

This is now the rule. Underpaid junior analysts attempt to quantify the chaotic and airlines have increased overbook rates. I suspect academic mathematicians will ultimately show that the system is non-linear, and that the consequences of overbooking cannot be predicted within reasonable bounds.

Eventually a few people will die from the stress of travel, there will be litigation, and the airlines will reform.

Air travel is now for the strong alone. I do not encourage my elderly parents to fly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gasoline prices: refining or secular trend - the 11 year chart

I was wondering the other day, how much gasoline costs in Europe. It's about $3.40 a gallon in the Twin Cities, and over $5.00 a gallon in Canada, but what about in France or Germany? Have gas prices reached the "magic" $7.00 a gallon mark? I'd long imagined that was a price point that would change consumer choices about where to work and live, and what to drive.

Is the effect entirely due to refining capacity, as some suppose? If so, wouldn't the effect differ between the US and Europe?

Once upon a time this would have been a hard question to answer. Tonight Google gave me the answer within a minute of asking the question: Weekly Retail PrPemium Motor Gasoline Prices (Including Taxes) - DOE)

I've graphed [1] the results, click the image below to see a more readable graph (Europeans, of course, have far more taxation on gasoline, that's the big gap in the chart):

In 12/2001 the US price was $1.25 and the French price was $3.24.
In 5/2007 the US price was $3.28 and the French price was $6.72.

The French price has doubled (2.07x) in a bit more than 6 years and the US prices have more than doubled (2.6x). (I assume the numbers are not corrected for inflation.)

Lately the US prices have risen somewhat faster than the European, that fits with part of the price increase being a refining capacity issue. Overall though there's a reasonably clear trend, albeit with more than a few reversals. If we accept the trend then French gasoline will be $13.50 @ 2013 and $27 @ 2019. I wonder how close this is to the "tipping point" where the ROI on petroleum storage starts to become persuasive.

Without adjusting for income in any way, it's noteworthy that US gasoline is now as expensive as French gasoline @ 2001 and French gasoline today is nearing the "magic" $7/gallon mark. I've long assumed that consumers will only change their behavior substantively when gas passes $7/gallon. It will be interesting to watch what European consumers do now.

[1] I tried to do this without resorting to Excel, but, really, non-Microsoft spreadsheets on the Mac are mediocre and Google's Spreadsheet app is really only a handy list manager. Excel still rules with an iron fist.

Reason: climate change knowledge by taxonomy of denial

Bless the net that brings us this sophisticated knowledge resource (via DeLong):
Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist

Below is a complete listing of the articles in 'How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic,' a series by Coby Beck containing responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming. There are four separate taxonomies; arguments are divided by:

* Stages of Denial,
* Scientific Topics,
* Types of Argument, and
* Levels of Sophistication.
In the ancient world we had nothing like this. Magazines and newspapers were never organized as a resource, and books were long, expensive, slow to emerge, static and inefficient.

This is the sort of thing that provides hope for humanity's feeble powers of reasoning.

The comet that depopulated the Americas

Archeologists are seriously considering the theory that a cometary impact about 11,000 BCE depopulated much of the Americas ( If true, one wonders what the Clovis people might have achieved but for that impact. Would they have "discovered" Europe?

Some animals survived, and perhaps a few humans. We should learn much more in the next year or two.

I wonder if the Chinese will start scanning space for incoming comets. Maybe this sort of thing is not so infrequent as once thought ...

American meat industry wants you to chew your melamine happily

Wouldn't you like to know where your food is coming from? The American Meat Institute (AMI) wants you to trust them ...
Country-of-origin labeling is anti-import, claims industry

... Calls to implement mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) are irresponsible, because the legislation is an anti-import law and not a food safety program, according to an influential US meat industry body.

The origin and safety of imports, especially from China, is under increasing scrutiny following the discovery of the banned chemical melamine in pet food and feed destined for US livestock.

The American Meat Institute (AMI), in a letter sent last week to Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Herb Kohl, who both chair Agriculture subcommittees at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said that US meat and poultry is safe.

J Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the AMI, and letter author, said that it was well known that all imported meat and poultry products are subject to re-inspection and every box of product is recorded and accounted for by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"Unfortunately, some groups have public policy positions supporting mandatory county-of-origin labeling for red meat that are solely for the purpose of erecting trade barriers, especially directed at Canada and Mexico - our two largest export markets for red meat
Ahh, don't you love these industry groups? Boyle, of course, is lying. Canada is not what we're worried about, and the public's concerns are not about import barriers.

I'll send a note to my representative and senator, maybe you should to. I want labeling on the food and the ingredients, though that might require putting a URL on the label.

Krugman on the resurrection of bin Laden

Credit to Paul for catching Bush's resurrection of the man who's name he'd forgotten:
Trust and Betrayal - New York Times

...To keep the war going, the administration has brought the original bogyman back out of the closet. At first, Mr. Bush said he would bring Osama bin Laden in, dead or alive. Within seven months after 9/11, however, he had lost interest: “I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure,” he said in March 2002. “I truly am not that concerned about him.”

In all of 2003, Mr. Bush, who had an unrelated war to sell, made public mention of the man behind 9/11 only seven times.

But Osama is back: last week Mr. Bush invoked his name 11 times in a single speech, warning that if we leave Iraq, Al Qaeda — which wasn’t there when we went in — will be the winner. And Democrats, still fearing that they will end up accused of being weak on terror and not supporting the troops, gave Mr. Bush another year’s war funding.

Democratic Party activists were furious, because polls show a public utterly disillusioned with Mr. Bush and anxious to see the war ended. But it’s not clear that the leadership was wrong to be cautious. The truth is that the nightmare of the Bush years won’t really be over until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s the way it ought to be: When Rudy Giuliani says that Iran, which had nothing to do with 9/11, is part of a “movement” that “has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he should be treated as a lunatic.

When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.

And when John McCain says that Osama, who isn’t in Iraq, will “follow us home” if we leave, he should be laughed at.

But they aren’t, at least not yet. And until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves, men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people’s children to graves at Arlington.
I'm with the congressional leadership on this. The American public has performed very badly over the past few years; I share Krugman's suspicion that denial is still commonplace. There's far too much at stake hear to fail for principal alone. Remember the Nader.

I suspect bin Laden is dead. French intelligence thought so over a year ago, and he's too much of a megalomaniac to remain this silent. Zawahiri, alas, is probably still alive.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Bias in science: not the gender, the children?

We recently had the opportunity to chat with some young academic scientists. They love their work and their world, but it's very different from the professional trades and corporate worlds I've known. The differences may be most obvious to an ancient outsider like myself.

I was left with the dawning recognition that the debates about gender bias in science may, like most passionate debates, be talking around the elephant in the room. The baby elephant, that is.

That's not to exclude a direct bias against the XX chromosome, but even there I wonder if the bias isn't opportunistic. The modern life sciences have been brutally competitive for decades, and globalization is increasing that competition. Any opportunity to eliminate a rival may be used, and XX might come in handy.

Even so, what I read and hear suggests the direct bias is against distractions, and parenting is a major distraction -- especially for women. The productive lifespan of a scientist is as short as the major league baseball career, and it coincides with peak fertility periods. Competition is severe and resources are tight -- it's logical that parenting should be recognized as a fatal weakness.

If parenting could be outsourced completely I think science might accept that, but scientists are trained to be realists. They know mothers are prone to fall in love with their dependents, and thus to become distracted.

In this matter science seems to have rationally abandoned the pro-parenting bias that is common in other worlds, such as primary care medicine and even corporations. I work for a very typical large publicly traded company, and our divisional leader is a mother (though her children are grown of course). The distinction, I think, is that executive skills don't deteriorate as quickly as scientific skills. There's a potentially longer productive career, and there are a larger number of intermediate slots. A corporation will be "happy" to pay a "CEO-capable" mother a relative pittance to take a mid-level management position that's compatible with childcare. The most senior people of both genders, however, are not distracted by children. Their children are grown, or managed by a (female) spouse, or they are childless (often by choice).

If I'm right, and this may be a testable hypothesis, then the prospects for change are very limited. We would need to change the global competitive imperative, shift fertility into the 40s and 50s, or extend the lifespan of the brain to escape this emergent trap.

The Economist is doing day passes now ...

The Economist is now doing Salon-style day passes. I gave up on them last year after 20+ years of dedicated reading, but even in their dotage they still have a few excellent articles in each issue. The ads are quick to click through, so I'll be catching up a bit now.

I can't image their readership is suffering; they've been successfully targeting fans of the WSJ editorial page. I wonder why they're bothering...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Iraq, the GOP, Memorial day and I don't have anything to say

Behind the NYT paywall Frank Rich adds the denial of Iraqi refugees to the usual list of GOP/Cheney/Bush crimes and the occasionally relevant Dowd points out yet again that Bush has no credibility and no plan.

A few weeks back Kristoff railed against inaction on Darfur. Bush/GOP/Cheney again.

All true. All relevant every day and especially Memorial day.

What's left to say? America is a troubled nation that reelected a man who'd have been a mediocre leader in normal times, but has been a historic catastrophe in our times. Maybe we'll teeter away from disaster in two years, but we'll still be on the brink.

How do we reach Americans? denial of service attack?

I read Doonesbury on the web daily. For the past two days has returned: could not be found. Please check the name and try again.
It's Memorial Day weekend, and it's likely that Trudeau Inc will be commenting on the GOP's war.

Coincidence or a denial of service attack?

One way to defeat a DOS attack is to redistribute the "offending" material to multiple distributed servers. This turns the attack into a promotion. Media syndicates, of course, don't want to do this. It dilutes their IP ownership.

Maybe it's time they thought this over ...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pursuing the evolution of the philosophy of quantum physics

This post is partly a pursuit of my ongoing interest in the philosophical interpretations of quantum reality, but it's mostly a story of how radically the world is changing. I still remember paging through volumes of the Index Medicus in our library -- a task as far removed from today's world as using a book to look up a logarithm (yes, I learned that too ...).

Recently, when searching for post of mine on a related topic, I came across one from 2004 about a research paper on the "emergence" of consensus reality as a result of multiple observations selecting for a "pointer" (stable) macro state. (Quantum Darwinism.)

It's interesting stuff, but how do I pursue it further? Turns out, it's not so hard.

My blog post pointed to the Nature article. That pointed to a PubMed (med?!) citation, and related articles, including one on quantum coherence in biological systems. (Is the human brain a quantum computer? It's fun to ask such questions, though I suspect it is not.) Note that these PubMed queries have an RSS feed, so I can track activity via Bloglines.

Next I took the title from the PubMed citation and plugged it into Google Scholar; this produces an interesting result set with links to yet more related articles.

Today most of the endpoints are dead-ends (pay-per-view journals), but more and more science is being published in open journals. We're not far from a world in which the queries I did (they took far less time to do than to describe) will end in readable journal articles, such as D Poulin's 2004 Physics thesis. (PDF btw, Google tries to render an HTML version, but it chokes on the equations).

Incidentally, it does appear that realism (observer-independent reality) has joined locality ("things" are bounded by space) in the dustbin of history. Our university is deeply quantum, and the seeming persistence of everyday reality is an emergent result ...

PS. There's a wee bit of whackiness in some of the results I found.

The Clinton's sleazy donor - InfoUSA

Ouch. Ouch.

Hilary and Bill Clinton trn out to have an old "friend" and multi-million dollar "donor" who runs a sleazy business. Vinod Gupta is the CEO of InfoUSA, a company known for the information they provide to the highest bidder:
... InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change.”..
Gupta's been gifting millions to the Clintons for years:

...Gupta has steadfastly believed that to get what you want done in America, you have to put your money where your mouth is.

He held a $1000-a-person fundraiser last March at his home in Omaha, Nebraska, for Hillary Clinton that raised $100,000 for her senate campaign.

He also raised $500,000 for a large party last May for Clinton and Al Gore. His political contributions put him in the company of entertainment moguls like Steven Spielberg and Haim Saban...

He's a big donor. I wonder what Hilary's real record is on consumer privacy detection, and the management of abuses by companies like InfoUSA.

Recently, the same newspaper that exposed InfoUSA's profitable relationship with international criminals preying the elderly had some more on InfoUSA's relationship with the Clintons (emphases mine)...
Suit Sheds Light on Clintons’ Ties to a Benefactor - New York Times
May 26, 2007 By MIKE McINTIRE

When former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton took a family vacation in January 2002 to Acapulco, Mexico, one of their longtime supporters, Vinod Gupta, provided his company’s private jet to fly them there.

The company, infoUSA, one of the nation’s largest brokers of information on consumers, paid $146,866 to ferry the Clintons, Mr. Gupta and others to Acapulco and back, court records show. During the next four years, infoUSA paid Mr. Clinton more than $2 million for consulting services, and spent almost $900,000 to fly him around the world for his presidential foundation work and to fly Mrs. Clinton to campaign events.

Those expenses are cited in a lawsuit filed late last year in a Delaware court by angry shareholders of infoUSA, who assert that Mr. Gupta wasted the company’s money trying “to ingratiate himself” with his high-profile guests.

The disclosure of the trips and the consulting fees is just a small part of a broader complaint about the way Mr. Gupta has managed his company. But for the former president, and for the senator who would become president, it offers significant new details about their relationship with an unusually generous benefactor whose business practices have lately come under scrutiny.

In addition to the shareholder accusations, The New York Times reported last Sunday that an investigation by the authorities in Iowa found that infoUSA sold consumer data several years ago to telemarketing criminals who used it to steal money from elderly Americans. It advertised call lists with titles like “Elderly Opportunity Seekers” or “Suffering Seniors,” a compilation of people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. The company called the episodes an aberration and pledged that it would not happen again.

Asked to describe Mr. Clinton’s consulting services, an infoUSA official said they were limited to making appearances at one or two company events each year. Jay Carson, a spokesman for Mr. Clinton, would not elaborate on what the former president does for infoUSA, but said that he shared the public’s concern about misuse of personal information.

“It goes without saying that any suggestion that seniors are being preyed upon should be fully investigated and addressed by the appropriate agencies,” Mr. Carson said.

Aides to Mrs. Clinton were at pains to distance her from infoUSA, pointing out that she had sponsored legislation that would strengthen privacy rights of consumers. As for the flights on infoUSA’s plane, Phil Singer, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, said the senator “complied with all the relevant ethics rules” on accepting private air travel.

Ethics rules for senators and candidates require only that the recipient of a flight make reimbursement at a rate equal to that of a first-class ticket, a long-derided loophole that allows special interests to provide de facto gifts of expensive private air travel, which generally costs far more than commercial fares. Mr. Singer would not say what Mrs. Clinton paid for her flights...

...“When the C.E.O. of a publicly traded company can say with a straight face that the shareholders benefit from having a yacht with an all-female crew stationed in the Virgin Islands, then you’ve got a problem,” Mr. Denton said...

...InfoUSA made $2.1 million in quarterly payments to Mr. Clinton from July 2003 to April 2005, and in October 2005 entered into a new three-year agreement to pay him $1.2 million. It also gave him an option to buy 100,000 shares of infoUSA stock, with no expiration date....

...Mr. Clinton normally commands $125,000 to $300,000 for the many speeches he gives each year, and has earned almost $40 million on the lecture circuit since leaving office...

Mr. Dean also said that the numerous flights infoUSA provided for Mr. Clinton’s nonprofit foundation activities constituted charitable donations, for which the company was entitled to a tax deduction. The flights included trips to European capitals, Alaska, Florida, Hawaii and Mr. Clinton’s home state of Arkansas...
The thought of Bill Clinton on all female yacht in the Virgin Islands is irresistible.

Edwards looks better all the time.

Prozac retrospective

The history of Prozac is recommended reading for any physician. I particularly liked the story of how the drug found an indication.

The promise of pharmacogenomics is that we'll be better able to tell who will benefit from Prozac and who won't.

Emergence, unanticipated consequences, and hidden inflation

I've been interested lately in emergence and natural selection in non-biologic systems. There are surprisingly common applications in every day life. In the corporate world technical accounting rules and cash flow incentives can cause an emergent attack on an entire product line -- without anyone realizing why they're making bad choices.

In academia certain kinds of results are highly grantable, so the research program is pursued even though many believe it's misdirected. In time papers spawn papers and a new, regrettably false, dogma is born.

In all these cases the behavior is a result of incentives changing the "ecosystem", and organisms (people) evolving (adapting) to the new environment.

Which brings me to our X-ACTO electric pencil sharpener. It never worked properly, and after months of chewed up pencils we came to our senses and tossed it out. Another defective product, broken by design. Just like our DVD/VCRs, toasters, etc.

If we were to replace the X-ACTO with a similar model, our yearly cost of pencil sharpening would double or triple. Gee, that sounds like inflation -- except, of course, the price of the sharpener is stable or falling. Hmm. Rising cost of pencil sharpening, falling costs of sharpeners ... So is inflation really 3.5%, or is it perhaps 7%?

Imagine a system in which all the economic pressures that once created inflation still exist, but we've figured out how to block the traditional expression of inflation. Pressure. No outlet. Where will it go? It will find a way out, an emergent solution. A solution like products that are cheap but have very short lifespans.

The Federal reserve, of course, is oblivious. Their instruments can't spot the problem, they're looking in the wrong direction. In the meantime the cost of sharpening keeps rising ...

Friday, May 25, 2007

MySpace and sex offenders -- can this get any more ridiculous?

I created a MySpace page once, just to see what the fuss was about. Hint, it's about a fundamental biological activity that's not eating, sleeping, or breathing. Most of the profiles are of people from ages 15 to 25.

Astonishingly some of the clientele tend to be ... on the prowl. I thought that was kind of the point, but some are nastier prowlers than others. Recently MySpace decided it was going to try to screen out members who've been convicted of "sex crimes". Now, how are they going to do that?

This is known in my day job as a problem in "patient matching". In the absence of a unique identifier, how can you tell two people are the same? Well, it's not easy -- even if your population is cooperating. Matching is statistical. If the gender, us-legal-names, address history, birth dates, etc more or less match, then you assume the two people are the same. A social security number is often (mis)used in healthcare matching, but a phone number can do almost as well. Sooner or later you do get a false match, but, if people aren't trying to hide their identity and you can ask for a SSN or phone number, you can do pretty well. All of these obvious matching algorithms, by the way, are patented.

Homeland security tries to do the same thing with less data. They probably severely inconvenience over a thousand innocent people for every bad actor they may deter. It's completely pointless.

So, what did MySpace do? They hired a company that tries to track felons based on a (probably patent violating) matching algorithm. MySpace doesn't have a SSN though, so the matches are highly problematic. Not to mention that any "predator" who ever entered correct data has now changed it. Oh, and do you think the birth dates on MySpace are accurate?

The company had to find some matches, so they relaxed their algorithm a tad ...
ABC News: MySpace Error: Woman No Sex Offender:

... 'The Jessica Davis in question is absolutely not a sex offender,' Cardillo told, explaining that beyond sharing a similar and common name, Jessica Davis the non-sex offender and Jessica Dawn Davis the sex offender also had birthdays two days off as well as two years off and had lived in Florida at roughly the same time.

Cardillo, who called the initial match an'unfortunate circumstance,' said that the database worked exactly as intended.

'It was so close,' Cardillo told 'It was one of those rare instances where there was nothing else we could have done but flag her. If we get an offender and I'm looking at a date of birth that's two days off, we're going to assume were dealing with the offender.'"
In other words, they deliberately err on the side of false positives. There's no appeal process, MySpace simply deletes the user's profile page and all their content. I'll bet, even considering that the MySpace user base almost certainly has a higher than average concentration of bad actors, that the majority of their matches are false positives. Wait until MySpace then turns over the names and addresses of their "matches" to the police.


The ancients on intellectual property and copyright

ML quotes Packbat interpeting Thomas Macauley's 1941 speeches to the British Parliament ...
Making Light: This is not about "intellectual property"
  1. The copyright is not an innate right, but a creation of human government.
  2. A copyright is a form of monopoly, and therefore effectively a tax on the public—thus, it should be restricted to precisely as long a term as would make equivalent the harm done to the public by monopoly and the good provided by encouraging the creation of new works.
  3. The prospect of income from a property a long time after one’s death is no incentive whatsoever to the creation of new works.
  4. The probability that the persons for whom the author might have concern will own the copyright a long time after one’s death is minute.
  5. The probability that the copyright owner might suppress the works, for whatever reason, is great.

See also a prescient short story on the topic. Recently the NYT published an editorial calling for even longer persistence of copyright. I didn't have the heart to read it.

The seas of Titan

 Click on the small JPG to see a larger image. Look at it and try to imagine how far away Titan is, and imagine our miniscule orbiter circling about, taking pictures of the seas of methane sloshing around a cold, cold coast ...

Catalog Page for PIA09211

On May 12, 2007, Cassini completed its 31st flyby of Saturn's moon Titan ... The radar instrument obtained this image showing the coastline and numerous island groups of a portion of a large sea, consistent with the larger sea seen by the Cassini imaging instrument...

Like other bodies of liquid seen on Titan, this feature reveals channels, islands, bays, and other features typical of terrestrial coastlines, and the liquid, most likely a combination of methane and ethane, appears very dark to the radar instrument. What is striking about this portion of the sea compared to other liquid bodies on Titan is the relative absence of brighter regions within it, suggesting that the depth of the liquid here exceeds tens of meters ..

Maybe we're only an eyeblink in the evolutionary history of the earth, a miniscule layer of contaminated sediment eons from now. Maybe we won't make it through the next 60 years. But by golly, we took pictures of the seas of Titan. We'll have gone out swinging ...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How the Bushies control the news

They reward their friends and they punish their critics ...
McClatchy's D.C. Bureau Claims It's Barred From Defense Secretary Plane:

... Bureau Chief John Walcott and current and former McClatchy Pentagon correspondents say they have not been allowed on the Defense Secretary's plane for at least three years, claiming the news company is being retaliated against for its reporting.

'It is because our coverage of Iraq policy has been quite critical,' Walcott told E&P. He added, 'I think the idea of public officials barring coverage by people they've decided they don't like is at best unprofessional, at worst undemocratic and petty.'

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called such assertions "absurd," adding, "There is no basis of fact for that allegation. It is not true. There are always more people who would like to travel with the secretary than seats available."...
Suurre. It's just a 3 year coincidence that Fox has a seat ...

Rewarding friends and punishing critics is a fine way to run a corporation or a dictatorship. It's no way to run a democracy. Bush has earned his place in history.

Climate Change and the Black Plague

I was in Denver recently, where a zoo primate recently died from bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis infection). The animal probably ate an infected squirrel. Bubonic plague is endemic in the American west, but it doesn't get much attention. Human cases are uncommon and usually treatable.

When I read the story I wondered about the intersection of climate and disease. Why does Yersinia pestis infection become epidemic? Why was it a recurrent catastrophe throughout medieval european history?

In the old days I'd wonder if this hypothesis had been studied much, then forget about it. Nowadays, of course, I simply presume someone's studied it and I ask Google. Here's an excerpt from a coincidentally recent review for the layperson (emphases mine):
Geotimes - May 2007 - The Plague: Could It Happen Again?

...The 14th through 19th centuries were challenging times in Europe. Winters were harsh, filled with heavy snowfalls that lasted late into spring and ice that perpetually covered mountaintops and pushed into settled valleys. Springs and summers were so cold and wet that crops would not grow, or became moldy before they could be consumed. People and livestock starved. Wars were fought over scant resources as people traveled farther than before, searching for food and better conditions and colliding with anyone who got in their way.

These desolate conditions forced people to leave their homes and rotting fields in the countryside and head for cities, where crowding and poor sanitation were the rule. Meanwhile, international trade greatly expanded, as ships and caravans brought goods from Asia into European cities. Trade brought more than just goods, however: It also brought diseases.

During these 500 years of cold, extreme and unpredictable weather in Europe, temperatures rose slightly for brief periods of time. But rather than providing a respite from the cold, the warmer temperatures actually promoted the proliferation of infectious diseases. Chief among them was plague. Estimates suggest that up to half of Europe’s already weakened population was wiped out by devastating epidemics, including the infamous Black Death that began in 1347 and the Great Plague of London in 1665, when people died so quickly that bodies piled up on the sidewalks...

... Bubonic plague is “a disease of nature,” Engelthaler says, meaning that climate and landscape play a vital role in the survival and spread of the bacterium that causes the disease. Rodent and flea population dynamics are driven by many factors, Gage adds, including food availability, disease and climate variables, namely precipitation and temperature. In studies published over the last five years, models and observations have shown that precipitation and temperature strongly influence the spread of plague.

The most important factor in the disease, besides the bacterium, Engelthaler says, is the flea that carries and transmits the disease. Not all species of flea will transfer or maintain the bacterium, and some transmit it better than others. The type of flea that lives on cats, for example, is not a good vector, he says. But the fleas that live on black rats and ground squirrels are great vectors. Furthermore, the fleas that carry Yersinia pestis can only survive for long periods in “optimal” conditions, including warm but not hot temperatures and wet environments. And they can only transmit the bacterium under even more specific conditions, he says. If temperatures get too hot, the biology of the bacterium stops it from spreading, by breaking down the bacterial blockages that have built up in the flea vector’s gut and are considered essential for efficient transmission.

In addition to needing the right type of flea, the right type of host needs to be present to keep the cycle of transfer from flea to host and back to flea going, Engelthaler says. Black rats and prairie dogs die within days of being infected, so they might not be the best hosts, he says. Although ground squirrels also often die from plague, they can carry the bacterium around for months, allowing fleas to transfer the plague bacterium from their dying host to another unsuspecting host.

To get widespread epidemics of the disease, the density of host rodents must first reach a threshold level in a region, Gage says. Then the weather has to cooperate to keep it going and to increase the number of human cases, he says.

In the American Southwest, where plague is prevalent in wild rodents and an average of five to 15 people contract the disease each year, increasing rainfall in late winter and early spring leads to a sizable increase in plague 15 months later, Gage says, as seen in models and observations over the past 50 years. It works in a sort of “trophic cascade,” he says: “Heavy precipitation in early spring leads to more plant growth and more insects, which means more food for the rodents, which leads to more hosts for the [plague-bearing] fleas, and thus more plague.” The other important factor, he says, is lower summer temperatures.

The story is similar in Central Asia, says Nils Chr. Stenseth of the University of Oslo. Infection rates and climate data from 1949 to 1995 in Kazakhstan showed that with just a 1 degree Celsius increase in spring temperatures, plague prevalence in gerbils more than doubled a year or two later, Stenseth says. Wetter summers also led to an increase in plague prevalence the following fall, he says.

Ongoing research in China and other parts of the world is finding a similar trend, Stenseth says, though the exact mechanisms may be slightly different, such as whether spring or summer precipitation or temperature is the driving factor. And models are agreeing with the data. “The general message we’re seeing all over the world is that climate is important,” he says. “Furthermore, climate is changing in a way that will affect human plague cases.”
We don't expect to see plague recur, but it now appears likely that it was an interconnected combination of socioeconomic and climate change that led to the plagues that killed up to half of Europe. Now would be a good time to invest in this research domain.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Gore: Reason and America

There is a large part of American culture that distrusts logic, reason, and empiricism. This is George Bush's natural home, and it's not compatible with the survival of our civilization. Al Gore:
The Assault on Reason - Al Gore - Book - Review - New York Times

...Mr. Gore’s central argument is that “reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions” and that the country’s public discourse has become “less focused and clear, less reasoned.” This “assault on reason,” he suggests, is personified by the way the Bush White House operates. Echoing many reporters and former administration insiders, Mr. Gore says that the administration tends to ignore expert advice (be it on troop levels, global warming or the deficit), to circumvent the usual policy-making machinery of analysis and debate, and frequently to suppress or disdain the best evidence available on a given subject so it can promote predetermined, ideologically driven policies...
There's an obvious political problem with this book. Fundamentalism, both ideological and religious, is the opposite of reason. Even the Jesuits struggle at times with their relationship to science. America is a very religious country. This book may be Gore's way of making perfectly clear to the public what they'll get if he runs for office. It's not politic.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Unable to find the Sachs Reith Lectures? Izmi has them

I have been impressed with Sachs Reith Lectures, but the Radio 4 Download policy was absurdly restrictive. Lectures were available as mp3 for only 7 days. I've been too busy to sync my iPod regularly, so I only caught two by Podcast. I caught two more through an RSS feed, but somehow I missed number five. I was ready to fire up Audio Hijack Pro and capture the stream to aac, but similar complaints on a forum pointed instead to: an izimi - search. I got number five that way.

Izimi is a UK peer-to-peer file sharing site, with the one distinction that anyone can search the site by a web browser. Whatever their business model, I must thank them for making this material available. The BBC's attitude towards making this material available is laughably contrary to Sachs call for a new enlightenment. It's as though Radio Four is working for the forces of evil ...

Gasoline and the rule of 72

Gasoline has hit $3.40 a gallon in Saint Paul, MN. It's $3.60 in Chicago. These numbers don't get all that much attention nowadays. It's much less than the price in most of the industrialized world of course (lower taxes here), and gas is probably still relatively cheap by historic standards. The price will doubtless decrease in the fall.

Still, it's an opportunity to reflect on the economics of oil and gasoline. Imagine that you were in the petroleum business and that your horizon for investment decisions was 10 years. Imagine (now don't faint!) that you were more than 90% confident that the price of gasoline in 9 years would be, assuming no changes in taxes, $28 a gallon.

That's a doubling every 3 years, and by the "rule of 72" that's a 24% rate of annual compounding (72/3=24). Wow. That's a fantastic rate of return. You could just borrow money at 8% to keep your business going, store the oil in the ground, and then sell it later. The 16% difference is a great way to run a business.

That's outrageous of course. Almost nobody expects gasoline to sell for almost $30 a gallon by 2016.

Still. There's some smaller rate of return that would make retaining rather than selling petroleum products the right way to invest. This is what all the "peak oil" crowd get excited about; but the term is a bit misleading. It's not that oil production needs to peak, it's simply that demand has to persistently outstrip supply. Prices, of course, don't wait for demand to outstrip supply, they begin rising as soon as a demand/supply gap can be reasonably anticipated within the time frame of investment decisions (10 years roughly).

This, by the way, is a very good thing. It means that prices rise long before we run out of oil, giving everyone time to adapt and adjust.

I do wonder what the sober experts calculate. They can look at supply curves and demand curves and the available substitutions within the next decade. Do they see a significant supply/demand gap opening up? If the price of gas will be $7/gallon in six years (well within the lifespan of your next Ford F-250), is that enough of rate of return to justify holding products now?

I wish Brad DeLong would say something about this.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Advice for Fraud 2.0

What rules should we follow in the age of Fraud 2.0? It's very difficult to protect your financial data and personal data, but there appear to be a few measures that may reduce the probability of a successful attack:
1. Never respond to an email or phone call initiated by a bank, governmental agency, financial entity, etc. These should all be assumed fraudulent. If a phone call demands urgent action and you believe it to be real, you may consider the option of hanging up and calling your bank at a known valid number. If you want to be truly safe, however, you probably have to go in person. (Who knows if the VOIP router has been hacked?)

2. Never, ever, enter any kind of sweepstake or contest. They now exist primarily to identify victims. As a general rule, never provide information about yourself through any avenue that suggests you are vulnerable, naive, or gullible. If you buy a lottery ticket, pay cash. You don't want to establish yourself as a mark.

3. Never, ever, respond to any telemarketers of any kind, including legitimate sounding charitable fund raisers. Always say - "I don't do anything by phone". Tell them to remove you from the call list. Tell them you have no money at all. It doesn't matter who they say they are, tell them "mail only". If you respond to a telemarketer you are marking yourself as vulnerable. If you deny them all then you establish yourself as a hard-case and the crooks will seek easier prey elsewhere.
My last bit of advice is more controversial. It's ironic because fifteen years ago I scoffed at those who claimed eCommerce was significantly more risky than regular credit card transactions. Now that we have ultra-effective phishing attacks and a decade of inaction by credit card companies my opinion has changed. So we have recommendation #4:
4. Commerce over the net, including internet banking, is a risky activity which should be avoided by all but the most technically savvy and well defended.
Number four is extreme. Our situation, however, is getting extreme.

InfoUSA and Wachovia Bank sell out the vulnerable elderly

I wrote three years ago about how VOIP technologies reduce the cost of preying on the weak and one year about how eFraud targets the weak, vulnerable and (especially) the elderly. The sophistication of attacks on the vulnerable continues to grow, as classic techniques incorporate new technologies.

As in all such attacks there are the direct criminals, and there are the arms dealers. The arms dealers exist in a twilight zone. Microsoft is clearly not responsible if Word is used to write a ransom note, but what if the market for a particular product is almost entirely criminal? If you sell radar detectors [1] that's a bit questionable. If you sell diethylene glycol to a glycerine manufacturer you belong in Hell.

The blessed New York Times (all is forgiven now) continues a smash season of superb journalism with an expose of arms dealers who sell the elderly, and other cognitively impaired people, to the jackels who prey upon them.

Note these names. No moral person should do business with either of them.
Wachovia Bank: (a once reputable company)
Now read the article. I bet the VOIP technologies I mentioned in 2004 were an integral part of this operation. Emphases mine. If you don't tear with outrage and start pounding the desk please send me your name so I can avoid you.

Send whatever portion of this story you think is appropriate to any vulnerable person in your life.
Bilking the Elderly, With a Corporate Assist - New York Times

The thieves operated from small offices in Toronto and hangar-size rooms in India. Every night, working from lists of names and phone numbers, they called World War II veterans, retired schoolteachers and thousands of other elderly Americans and posed as government and insurance workers updating their files.

Then, the criminals emptied their victims’ bank accounts.

Richard Guthrie, a 92-year-old Army veteran, was one of those victims. He ended up on scam artists’ lists because his name, like millions of others, was sold by large companies to telemarketing criminals, who then turned to major banks to steal his life’s savings.

Mr. Guthrie, who lives in Iowa, had entered a few sweepstakes that caused his name to appear in a database advertised by infoUSA, one of the largest compilers of consumer information. InfoUSA sold his name, and data on scores of other elderly Americans, to known lawbreakers, regulators say.

InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change.”

As Mr. Guthrie sat home alone — surrounded by his Purple Heart medal, photos of eight children and mementos of a wife who was buried nine years earlier — the telephone rang day and night. After criminals tricked him into revealing his banking information, they went to Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, and raided his account, according to banking records.

I loved getting those calls,” Mr. Guthrie said in an interview. “Since my wife passed away, I don’t have many people to talk with. I didn’t even know they were stealing from me until everything was gone.”

Telemarketing fraud, once limited to small-time thieves, has become a global criminal enterprise preying upon millions of elderly and other Americans every year, authorities say. Vast databases of names and personal information, sold to thieves by large publicly traded companies, have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers. And major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims’ accounts without their authorization, according to court records.

The banks and companies that sell such services often confront evidence that they are used for fraud, according to thousands of banking documents, court filings and e-mail messages reviewed by The New York Times.

Although some companies, including Wachovia, have made refunds to victims who have complained, neither that bank nor infoUSA stopped working with criminals even after executives were warned that they were aiding continuing crimes, according to government investigators. Instead, those companies collected millions of dollars in fees from scam artists. (Neither company has been formally accused of wrongdoing by the authorities.)

Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals,” said Sgt. Yves Leblanc of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “If someone advertises a list by saying it contains gullible or elderly people, it’s like putting out a sign saying ‘Thieves welcome here.’ ”

In recent years, despite the creation of a national “do not call” registry, the legitimate telemarketing industry has grown, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Callers pitching insurance plans, subscriptions and precooked meals collected more than $177 billion in 2006, an increase of $4.5 billion since the federal do-not-call restrictions were put in place three years ago.

That growth can be partly attributed to the industry’s renewed focus on the elderly. Older Americans are perfect telemarketing customers, analysts say, because they are often at home, rely on delivery services, and are lonely for the companionship that telephone callers provide. Some researchers estimate that the elderly account for 30 percent of telemarketing sales — another example of how companies and investors are profiting from the growing numbers of Americans in their final years.

While many telemarketing pitches are for legitimate products, the number of scams aimed at older Americans is on the rise, the authorities say. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that 11 percent of Americans over age 55 had been victims of consumer fraud. The following year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down one telemarketing ring that stole more than $1 billion, spanned seven countries and resulted in 565 arrests. Since the start of last year, federal agencies have filed lawsuits or injunctions against at least 68 telemarketing companies and individuals accused of stealing more than $622 million.

“Most people have no idea how widespread and sophisticated telemarketing fraud has become,” said James Davis, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer. “It shocks even us.”

Many of the victims are people like Mr. Guthrie, whose name was among the millions that infoUSA sold to companies under investigation for fraud, according to regulators. Scam artists stole more than $100,000 from Mr. Guthrie, his family says. How they took much of it is unclear, because Mr. Guthrie’s memory is faulty and many financial records are incomplete.

What is certain is that a large sum was withdrawn from his account by thieves relying on Wachovia and other banks, according to banking and court records. Though 20 percent of the total amount stolen was recovered, investigators say the rest has gone to schemes too complicated to untangle.

Senior executives at infoUSA were contacted by telephone and e-mail messages at least 30 times. They did not respond.

Wachovia, in a statement, said that it had honored all requests for refunds and that it was cooperating with authorities...

.... He had lived alone since his wife died. Five of his eight children had moved away from the farm. Mr. Guthrie survived on roughly $800 that he received from Social Security each month. Because painful arthritis kept him home, he spent many mornings organizing the mail, filling out sweepstakes entries and listening to big-band albums as he chatted with telemarketers.

“I really enjoyed those calls,” Mr. Guthrie said. “One gal in particular loved to hear stories about when I was younger.”

Some of those entries and calls, however, were intended solely to create databases of information on millions of elderly Americans. Many sweepstakes were fakes, investigators say, and existed only to ask entrants about shopping habits, religion or other personal details. Databases of such responses can be profitably sold, often via electronic download, through list brokers like Walter Karl Inc., a division of infoUSA.

The list brokering industry has existed for decades, primarily serving legitimate customers like magazine and catalog companies. InfoUSA, one of the nation’s largest list brokers and a publicly held company, matches buyers and sellers of data. The company maintains records on 210 million Americans, according to its Web site. In 2006, it collected more than $430 million from clients like Reader’s Digest, Publishers Clearinghouse and Condé Nast.

But infoUSA has also helped sell lists to companies that were under investigation or had been prosecuted for fraud, according to records collected by the Iowa attorney general. Those records stemmed from a now completed investigation of a suspected telemarketing criminal.

By 2004, Mr. Guthrie’s name was part of a list titled “Astroluck,” which included 19,000 other sweepstakes players, Iowa’s records show. InfoUSA sold the Astroluck list dozens of times, to companies including HMS Direct, which Canadian authorities had sued the previous year for deceptive mailings; Westport Enterprises, the subject of consumer complaints in Kansas, Connecticut and Missouri; and Arlimbow, a European company that Swiss authorities were prosecuting at the time for a lottery scam.

(In 2005, HMS’s director was found not guilty on a technicality. Arlimbow was shut down in 2004. Those companies did not return phone calls. Westport Enterprises said it has resolved all complaints, complies with all laws and engages only in direct-mail solicitations.)

Records also indicate that infoUSA sold thousands of other elderly Americans’ names to Windfall Investments after the F.B.I. had accused the company in 2002 of stealing $600,000 from a California woman.

Between 2001 and 2004, infoUSA also sold lists to World Marketing Service, a company that a judge shut down in 2003 for running a lottery scam; to Atlas Marketing, which a court closed in 2006 for selling $86 million of bogus business opportunities; and to Emerald Marketing Enterprises, a Canadian firm that was investigated multiple times but never charged with wrongdoing.

The investigation of Windfall Investments was closed after its owners could not be located. Representatives of Windfall Investments, World Marketing Services, Atlas Marketing and Emerald Marketing Enterprises could not be located or did not return calls.

The Federal Trade Commission’s rules prohibit list brokers from selling to companies engaged in obvious frauds. In 2004, the agency fined three brokers accused of knowingly, or purposely ignoring, that clients were breaking the law. The Direct Marketing Association, which infoUSA belongs to, requires brokers to screen buyers for suspicious activity.

But internal infoUSA e-mail messages indicate that employees did not abide by those standards. In 2003, two infoUSA employees traded e-mail messages discussing the fact that Nevada authorities were seeking Richard Panas, a frequent infoUSA client, in connection with a lottery scam.

“This kind of behavior does not surprise me, but it adds to my concerns about doing business with these people,” an infoUSA executive wrote to colleagues. Yet, over the next 10 months, infoUSA sold Mr. Panas an additional 155,000 names, even after he pleaded guilty to criminal charges in Nevada and was barred from operating in Iowa...

...“Red flags should have been waving,” said Steve St. Clair, an Iowa assistant attorney general who oversaw the infoUSA investigation. “But the attitude of these list brokers is that it’s not their responsibility if someone else breaks the law.”

... Within months of the sale of the Astroluck list, groups of scam artists in Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere had the names of Mr. Guthrie and millions of other Americans, authorities say. Such countries are popular among con artists because they are outside the jurisdiction of the United States.

The thieves would call and pose as government workers or pharmacy employees. They would contend that the Social Security Administration’s computers had crashed, or prescription records were incomplete. Payments and pills would be delayed, they warned, unless the older Americans provided their banking information.

Many people hung up. But Mr. Guthrie and hundreds of others gave the callers whatever they asked.

I was afraid if I didn’t give her my bank information, I wouldn’t have money for my heart medicine,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Criminals can use such banking data to create unsigned checks that withdraw funds from victims’ accounts. Such checks, once widely used by gyms and other businesses that collect monthly fees, are allowed under a provision of the banking code. The difficult part is finding a bank willing to accept them.

In the case of Mr. Guthrie, criminals turned to Wachovia.

Between 2003 and 2005, scam artists submitted at least seven unsigned checks to Wachovia that withdrew funds from Mr. Guthrie’s account, according to banking records. Wachovia accepted those checks and forwarded them to Mr. Guthrie’s bank in Iowa, which in turn sent back $1,603 for distribution to the checks’ creators that submitted them.

Within days, however, Mr. Guthrie’s bank, a branch of Wells Fargo, became concerned and told Wachovia that the checks had not been authorized. At Wells Fargo’s request, Wachovia returned the funds. But it failed to investigate whether Wachovia’s accounts were being used by criminals, according to prosecutors who studied the transactions.

In all, Wachovia accepted $142 million of unsigned checks from companies that made unauthorized withdrawals from thousands of accounts, federal prosecutors say. Wachovia collected millions of dollars in fees from those companies, even as it failed to act on warnings, according to records.

In 2006, after account holders at Citizens Bank were victimized by the same thieves that singled out Mr. Guthrie, an executive wrote to Wachovia that “the purpose of this message is to put your bank on notice of this situation and to ask for your assistance in trying to shut down this scam.”

But Wachovia, which declined to comment on that communication, did not shut down the accounts.

Banking rules required Wachovia to periodically screen companies submitting unsigned checks. Yet there is little evidence Wachovia screened most of the firms that profited from the withdrawals.

In a lawsuit filed last year, the United States attorney in Philadelphia said Wachovia received thousands of warnings that it was processing fraudulent checks, but ignored them. That suit, against the company that printed those unsigned checks, Payment Processing Center, or P.P.C., did not name Wachovia as a defendant, though at least one victim has filed a pending lawsuit against the bank.

During 2005, according to the United States attorney’s lawsuit, 59 percent of the unsigned checks that Wachovia accepted from P.P.C. and forwarded to other banks were ultimately refused by other financial institutions. Wachovia was informed each time a check was returned.

“When between 50 and 60 percent of transactions are returned, that tells you at gut level that something’s not right,” said the United States attorney in Philadelphia, Patrick L. Meehan.

Other banks, when confronted with similar evidence, have closed questionable accounts. But Wachovia continued accepting unsigned checks printed by P.P.C. until the government filed suit in 2006...

...Prosecutors argue that many elderly accountholders never realized Wachovia had processed checks that withdrew from their accounts, and so never requested refunds. Wachovia declined to respond.

... By 2005, Mr. Guthrie was in dire straits. When tellers at his bank noticed suspicious transactions, they helped him request refunds. But dozens of unauthorized withdrawals slipped through. Sometimes, he went to the grocery store and discovered that he could not buy food because his account was empty. He didn’t know why. And he was afraid to seek help.

I didn’t want to say anything that would cause my kids to take over my accounts,” he said. Such concerns play into thieves’ plans, investigators say.

“Criminals focus on the elderly because they know authorities will blame the victims or seniors will worry about their kids throwing them into nursing homes,” said C. Steven Baker, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission. “Frequently, the victims are too distracted from dementia or Alzheimer’s to figure out something’s wrong.”

... Today, just as he feared, Mr. Guthrie’s financial freedom is gone. He gets a weekly $50 allowance to buy food and gasoline. His children now own his home, and his grandson controls his bank account. He must ask permission for large or unusual purchases.

And because he can’t buy anything, many telemarketers have stopped calling.

“It’s lonelier now,” he said at his kitchen table, which is crowded with mail. “I really enjoy when those salespeople call. But when I tell them I can’t buy anything now, they hang up. I miss the good chats we used to have.”
I'm not furious with the criminals. They're just criminals. Wachovia, InfoUSA, and the like -- put their execs on a desert island and walk away. I learned, by the way, about the ambiguous relationship between banks and predators in 1998. Banks play in a lot of murky worlds.

InfoUSA's web site claims to have information on 210 million American consumers. You can search by age, income, geography, home value and other "great selections":
Our consumer data is continuously updated and processed against both the USPS National Change of Address (NCOA) and Delivery Sequence File (DSF), producing a database that is 93% deliverable. The information is also carrier route and ZIP+4 coded using the USPS certified Coding Accuracy Support System (CASS).
What to do? The Dems control the House and the Senate, but Bush controls the regulatory bodies. We won't see a lot of reform until 2008. One obvious reform is to prevent the use of "unsigned checks"; Wachovia is one of the relatively few shady banks that accept these checks. It's time to end that loophole.

Sweepstakes were always shady operations, but now it's obvious that their main function is to identify the gullible. We should either shut them down or severely limit their ability to traffic in the information gathered.

Lastly, stop targeting the crooks and start targeting the arms dealers. We need regulations that put the CEOs of Wachovia and InfoUSA behind bars for 10-20. One Wacovia CEO in an orange suit will go a long way towards cleaning up the industry.

Lastly, the article focuses on the elderly, but anyone with a non-adjusted IQ of less than 90 is natural prey for these people. That's millions of Americans of all ages, and as our population ages that number increases every day.

[1] I'm the only person I know who bought a radar detector so I'd get notice of hidden Wisconsin speed zones and decrease my speed. So I was using it as a way to reveal speed zones that I'd otherwise miss, and adjust my legal speed to the new legal speed. Northern Wisconsin has an interesting attitude towards local fund raising.

Poisoned Toothpaste from China: this would be a good time to start freaking out

A week ago I wrote:
I've written quite a bit about globalization lately, particularly in the context of toxic food, medicine, and consumer products. Not to mention the toaster problem, or those DVD/VCR combo units that last (at most) six months. Cheap goods from Walmart aren't cheap if you need to buy 3 times as many of them. (Incidentally, this shows up as increased productivity rather than increased inflation.)
Not to mention counterfeit surgical supplies and suspiciously murky globalized supply chains.

Today the NYT (bless them, they're on a roll now!) adds Diethylene glycol poisoned toothpaste to the list (emphases mine). Note that children, incidentally, often don't spit out toothpaste. Also note one significant difference from the other toxic products - diethylene glycol was an official ingredient of the product.
Poisoned Toothpaste in Panama Is Believed to Be From China - New York Times

Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.

“Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,” said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. “We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.”

Some of the toothpaste, which arrived several months ago in the free trade zone next to the Panama Canal, was re-exported to the Dominican Republic in seven shipments, customs officials said. A newspaper in Australia reported yesterday that one brand of the toothpaste had been found on supermarket shelves there and had been recalled.

Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian government inadvertently mixed into cold medicine last year, killing at least 100 people. Records show that in that episode the poison, falsely labeled as glycerin, a harmless syrup, also originated in China.

There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States, according to American government officials.

Panamanian health officials said diethylene glycol had been found in two brands of toothpaste, labeled in English as Excel and Mr. Cool. The tubes contained diethylene glycol concentrations of between 1.7 percent and 4.6 percent, said Luis Martínez, a prosecutor who is looking into the shipments.

Health officials say they do not believe the toothpaste is harmful, because users spit it out after brushing, but they nonetheless took it out of circulation.

Mr. Martínez said at a recent news conference that the toothpaste lacked the required health certificates and had entered the market mixed in with products intended for animal consumption.

He said laboratory tests had found up to 4.6 percent diethylene glycol in tubes of Mr. Cool toothpaste. The Excel brand had 2.5 percent...

,,,In Panama City, a consumer notified the pharmacy and drugs section of the Health Ministry after seeing that diethylene glycol was listed as an ingredient in toothpaste at a store...

...Over the years, counterfeiters have found it financially advantageous to substitute diethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting syrup, for its chemical cousin glycerin, which is usually much more expensive.
Is anyone so naive as to imagine we're detecting 100% of these incidents? This would be a very good time for the American public to, you know, freak out.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Comey, Gonzales, and Godfather IV

Oddly enough, I hadn't read the James Coney testimony until I read this excerpt: The Bayesian Heresy: Godfather IV.

Bush as Corleone. Yes, the metaphor works for me.

Ashcroft put on an impressive performance when Gonzales went after him, but don't forget Aher. On the other hand, much of what we blamed Ashcroft for now seem to have come directly from Bush.

The IQ of an ecosystem and other questions of emergence

What is "the IQ of an pond ecosystem"? How clever is Gaia? What kind of desires does a corporation have, as distinct from its stakeholders, owners and managers? These are emergence questions. Once upon a time they were posed in the domain of "Cybernetics", then later in systems theory and the study of complex systems. It's a Santa Fe kind of question and a favorite science fiction theme (explored in great depth by some writers of the past decade). I probably first came upon it reading Analog in my misspent youth. Ecology, game theory, and especially Economics have been the most established homes for studying emergent systems.

I don't know of a shared concept set for discussing these questions, though I'm sure there are many specialist languages. I think of an "emergent" space as quite different from the domain in which we experience and reason, though the two will obviously meet. Looking "down" into the micro our cells, hormones, ionic equilibria, fingers and consciousness clearly interact, but we are not all that conscious of our bladder lining and it's presumably quite unaware of us.

So what does a corporation "see" in economics space? I imagine a world of protozoans and worms, interacting in some n-dimensional world. The corporation has a "will" to live, and solves problems in its "space", to some extent distinct from the prosaic reality [1] in which we live.

So how smart is the American electorate in its "space"? I imagine something almost human, but with a 60-80 IQ. A wide but shallow thinker with vast knowledge but little imagination. It It learns slowly and unlearns slowly; it's fearful, sulky, and sullen with intermittent sunshine.

If we can raise the effective emotional and analytic "IQ" of the abstract entities living in our planet's "political space" from 80 to 120 we might survive the next 60 years. Here's hoping that better communication, connection, search, retrieval, storage and translation technologies will improve the de facto neural net of our political creatures!

[1] I'm being ironic of course. Reality is looking inadequately prosaic.

Edwards - why 615,000 hits on his hair?

Why are there over 615,000 hits on "john edwards" hair? Why has the gestalt shifted away from attacking Hilary and lauding Obama to attacking Edwards?

What is it about Edwards that's different?

I'll answer. Of course.

The serious presidential candidates fall into these flavors:
  • Clinton I/Ford: Hilary, Obama. Good conventional presidents who will not disrupt the established order.
  • Bush II/Nixon: Giuliani and Romney. Lousy presidents who will not disrupt the established order.
  • Bush I: McCain: Mediocre president who will not disrupt the established order.
  • Teddy Roosevelt: Edwards. An unpredictable and potentially very disruptive force.
The establishment is not afraid of Hilary, Obama, or McCain. It's not even as afraid as it should be of Bush II, probably because it can't believe anyone could ever again be so disastrously bad. Edwards is scary. Edwards must be destroyed.

But if Edwards is destroyed, then Gore will run. Then we'll see hellfire from all directions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Don’t Blame Bush, the enemy is us

Romney, Giuliani and every GOP candidate save McCain have come out in favor of torture, national surveillance, suspension of law and brutality. The GOP core is enthused.

Krugman points out the obvious, Bush is aligned with his base. He has been a disaster, but he accurately reflects the modern GOP. The GOP, of course, also reflects a chunk of America:
Don’t Blame Bush - New York Times

....What we need to realize is that the infamous “Bush bubble,” the administration’s no-reality zone, extends a long way beyond the White House. Millions of Americans believe that patriotic torturers are keeping us safe, that there’s a vast Islamic axis of evil, that victory in Iraq is just around the corner, that Bush appointees are doing a heckuva job — and that news reports contradicting these beliefs reflect liberal media bias.

And the Republican nomination will go either to someone who shares these beliefs, and would therefore run the country the same way Mr. Bush has, or to a very, very good liar...
No matter the name of the GOP candidate running in 2008 (it won't be McCain), the policies will be those of a sick party. More Bush, in other words.

The GOP needs 10 years in the wilderness to rebuild and reform.

Reframing history as life in a small town - the Peasant's Revolt

As I drive to work I'm listening to Melvyn Bragg's guests speak of the 14th century "Peasants Revolt". It's a fascinating story and period, and Melvyn is on game. He gets anxious and confused with modern physics, but history and culture are his home field advantage.

His professors are discussing the march on London, when, incidentally, a guest happens to mention that London at that time held perhaps 40,000 people. (This was 20 years after a spot of trouble known to us as the Black Death and around the time of the onset of the "Little Ice Age". London was a bit shrunken.)

Huh? So a few thousands (not 60,000 as was once reported) people march on a small town and history is made?

It's a framing problem. It's hard for us to imagine that almost all of human history occurred in what we now consider small communities. Boston was a village during most of the American Revolution -- everyone must have met Franklin personally.

In a town of 40,000 the "movers and shakers" all know one another, and the wealthy community can pretty much fit in an auditorium.

It's so hard for us to get our heads into this work that historians don't even bother to take much note of it themselves ...

PS. Liberate In Our Time!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

American fear and our shredded honor - two ringing voices against torture

American has stunk of fear since 9/11. From fear comes torture. Torturer-in-chief Bush will hopefully leave office in about two years, but would-be torturers-in-chief Guiliani and Romney strive to succeed him. Now two former military officials join in a brutal and necessary rebuttal of the GOP's spineless front runners and a body slam against the Office of the Torturer. In this matter they join General Petraeus. (Emphases mine).
Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar - It's Our Cage, Too -
Torture Betrays Us and Breeds New Enemies
By Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar
Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our custody.

Fear is the justification offered for this policy by former CIA director George Tenet as he promotes his new book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA interrogation program in which torture techniques euphemistically called "waterboarding," "sensory deprivation," "sleep deprivation" and "stress positions" -- conduct we used to call war crimes -- were used. In defending these abuses, Tenet revealed: "Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know."

We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their character.

The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like the one we sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday night's presidential debate in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the candidates, only John McCain demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation.

Tenet insists that the CIA program disrupted terrorist plots and saved lives. It is difficult to refute this claim -- not because it is self-evidently true, but because any evidence that might support it remains classified and unknown to all but those who defend the program.

These assertions that "torture works" may reassure a fearful public, but it is a false security. We don't know what's been gained through this fear-driven program. But we do know the consequences.

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

This has had disastrous consequences. Revelations of abuse feed what the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist enemy.

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered aloud whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency doctrine, that is precisely the right question. Victory in this kind of war comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it seeks recruits and thus loses its "recuperative power."

The torture methods that Tenet defends have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy. This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.

This is not just a lesson for history. Right now, White House lawyers are working up new rules that will govern what CIA interrogators can do to prisoners in secret. Those rules will set the standard not only for the CIA but also for what kind of treatment captured American soldiers can expect from their captors, now and in future wars. Before the president once again approves a policy of official cruelty, he should reflect on that.

It is time for us to remember who we are and approach this enemy with energy, judgment and confidence that we will prevail. That is the path to security, and back to ourselves.
They did not waste words. They did not mince words. What an astounding and exceptional work. We need fear, we have things to be afraid of. When we let fear rule us, however, we become mindless victims. I think military people understand that more deeply than we civilians.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fraud and global supply chains - unanticipated consequence

I've written about vulnerable global supply chains, melamine fraud, poisonous fake glycol and non-fake fur recently. Now I'll add a story from surgeon about a mesh used in a hernia repair in the US ... (emphases mine)
Meanwhile: Bad medicine, sneaking in - International Herald Tribune - Atul Gawande - May 15, 2007

... The mesh manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, was reporting that the mesh I'd put in was counterfeit. It was fake.

Someone had infiltrated the supply chain somewhere between Sherman, Texas, where the authentic mesh was manufactured, and Boston, where I'd operated on the patient. Apparently, mesh can travel through many hands. The original lot had gone to a Memphis, Tennessee, warehouse, and then through at least two hospital goods distributors, which sell and trade medical supplies on what turns out to be a worldwide market, like oil. Somewhere along the way, a counterfeiter replaced the lot with fake mesh packaged exactly like Johnson & Johnson's, right down to the lot number. It is believed this happened someplace in Asia. But no one really knows.

The material looked like ordinary mesh to me. But according to the alert from the Food and Drug Administration, it wasn't sterile. And although it seemed to be polypropylene, the fibers and weave were different from the manufacturer's...
I'd love to know why a shipment of mesh went from Memphis to Asia and back, and how the switch was made. Global supply chain management is an underrated topic. I suspect these long multinational supply chains make it possible to play quite a few games with taxes, revenue recognition, earnings, inventory, price manipulation, buy low/sell high strategies and more. We also know from the glycol story that traders are incented to conceal their partners (business secrets). This shadowy, anonymous, and amoral network likely creates many "dark alleys" where switches can be made.

I suspect even "honest" supply chain vendors may have arguably legal financial incentives to keep this world in the shadows.

At this rate we won't need terrorists to destroy the world economy, petty crooks and, perhaps, aggressive corporations will suffice ...