Friday, August 31, 2007

Apophis: mark your calendar for April 2029

If I live, I'll be almost 70 when Apophis flies by. I hope that our orbital calculations are as good as we think they are, I'm looking forward to the show. I recall reading about this in 2004, but I didn't remember that the passage will be so close ...
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | UK plan to track asteroid threat

.... The 300m-wide (980ft) rock, known as Apophis, will fly past Earth in April 2029 at a distance that is closer than many communications satellites.

Astrium, based in Stevenage, Herts, wants a probe to track the asteroid so its orbit can be better understood.

The concept will compete for a $50,000 (£25,000) Planetary Society prize, but a full mission would cost millions.

The British design calls for a small, remote-sensing spacecraft, dubbed Apex (Apophis Explorer), which could rendezvous with Apophis in January 2014.

It would then spend the next three years tracking the rock, sending data back to Earth about the object's size, shape, spin, composition and temperature.

From this information, orbit modelling would enable a more accurate prediction of the risk of any future collision.

Astrium says that if its concept won the prize, it would donate the money to charity...

... A full mission would be expected to cost about $500m (£250m) dollars to develop, launch and operate.

Apophis caused some consternation in 2004 when initial observations suggested there was an outside chance it might hit Earth in 2029.

Further study by ground-based telescopes indicated there was virtually no possibility of this happening, and the expectation is that the object will whiz past the Earth at a close but comfortable distance of just under 36,000km (22,400 miles).

However, there is always some uncertainty associated with an asteroid's orbit.

One reason is the Yarkovsky effect. This describes what happens when an asteroid radiates energy absorbed from the Sun back into space.

Releasing heat in one direction nudges the object in the opposite direction. The resulting acceleration is tiny, but over the centuries acts like a weak rocket and could make the difference between a hit or a miss in some circumstances.

The close encounter with Earth in 2029 will also perturb Apophis' orbit gravitationally.

A mission like Apex to track and study the rock would help reduce uncertainties and give solid predictions about the rock's course long into the future...

... were such a rock to hit the planet, it could cause devastation on a country-wide scale, leading possibly to the deaths of many millions of people.

An Apophis-like object striking at about 20km/s (45,000mph) would gouge a crater 5km (three miles) wide. Even standing 30km (18 miles) away from the impact site, a thermal blast would ignite your clothes and the ground would shudder with an earthquake measuring more than six on the Richter Scale.

Given sufficient warning, though, a potential impactor could be deflected out of Earth's path, scientists believe.

Some have suggested such a rock might be nudged on to a safe trajectory by hitting it with a small mass. Others have proposed flying a spacecraft next to the object, to use gravity to tug the asteroid clear of the planet....
See also the New York Times, March 2007 for a related discussion focusing on general impact management.

Nixon in China: Gay rights and the GOP

Only Nixon, it was said, could go to China. If a Democrat tried, the right wing would have cut him down.

So maybe it's time for the GOP to formally declare an end to the culture war. A Salon article makes a convincing case - the GOP at least as Gay as the general population -- if not more so. Really, it's as laughable to hear GOP candidates talk about "family values" (meaning anti-family values) as it is to hear Bush talk about ... well ... anything.

Obesity, exercise and MN's running of the bull

The CDC released state-specific obesity and exercise recently, and every state played it differently. The most interesting statistic for me was that that the thinnest state today (Colorado) is fatter than the fattest state of 15 years ago. That's largely demographics -- the median age has probably risen 10 years in the past 15 years -- but it's still a bit amazing.

Our local papers claimed Minnesotans are #1 in exercise and near the median for obesity. We're generally a good mirror of America, so median obesity is to be expected. The weird part is our relatively enthusiasm for activity -- it's not like we have a long bicycling season! On the other hand we have a heck of a lot of bicycle/skate/run trails, both in the metro area and throughout the state (more on that in a future post).

Coincidentally Minnesotans again demonstrated the fruits of fitness:

... An angry bull escaped Friday morning from his owner at the Minnesota State Fair, barreling past fairgoers for more than a block before headbutting a fire hydrant and dying at the scene.

No one else was injured...

... Pooch said the bull ran for nearly a block while stunned fairgoers jumped out of the way. "There were a lot of people on the grounds at that time because when I got to the scene there were about 250 people standing around the bull," Pooch said.

Were people afraid?

"I would be," Pooch said. "You have a 1,600- to 1,700-pound animal running at you, you don't want to get in its way."

The bull apparently set his sight on a fairgoer, but the man jumped out of the way, Pooch said. Then the bull turned and saw the fire hydrant. "I guess he decided to take it out on the fire hydrant," Pooch said.

A vet on the scene immediately checked for a heart beat and found none, Pooch said.

"I don't think he felt any pain," Pooch said...

It's a mildly funny story (though not for Mr. Pooch or his bull) only because a lot of people moved very quickly. We saw the same thing when our bridge fell; a lot of people swam out of the Mississippi.

It would be useful to know why we're exceptional exercisers. We're average enough that there ought to be some valuable lessons there -- for the day (if ever) that we start taking obesity seriously.

My MN congressman calls for a federal gas tax increase

This is why Exxon has been running a fake fear campaign in Minnesota papers. My congressman, Betty McCollum, has declared in favor of a gas tax. I probably need not mention that McCollum has one of the safest safe seats in America ... (emphases mine) - U.S. Rep. McCollum calls for gas tax hikes to pay for rebuilding nation's infrastructure

Citing America's crumbling roads and bridges, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum [jg: home area is Saint Paul, MN] today said she supports increasing both state and federal gas taxes to pay for a nationwide infrastructure rebuilding effort.

Before revisiting the site of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, the St. Paul Democrat said, "over the past 20 years, we have not been reinvesting in infrastructure... the way we need to support the common good of our country. The bill's coming due."

Asked how she would pay that bill, McCollum replied, "I believe we need to look at the gas tax."

She didn't say how large a gas tax increase she would support, deferring to the House Transportation Committee and its chairman, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., to determine the funding needs. Oberstar has proposed a temporary nickel-a-gallon gas tax increase to finance a bridge-rebuilding program...
If a carbon tax PAC existed, we'd be donating to a future McCollum senate run. (She doesn't need money for a House campaign, she basically runs unopposed). Minnesota's representatives get some cover on this gas tax stuff because we're a water-sucking corn fuel state; presumably the ethanol portion of gasoline would not be taxed, thereby creating price support for biofuels.

Infrastructure repair, of course, is only a cover story. The legitimate justification for a gasoline tax is that it's an essential first step towards greater carbon taxes.

Hmm, do you think I should start that carbon tax PAC?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Ganges and the lost plutonium cores

Indian agents and the CIA managed to lose a set of plutonium rods in the snows of the Himalayas:
Damn Interesting » Spies on the Roof of the World

...A quick survey of the scene suggested that the stone ledge had been sheared from the mountainside by an avalanche, presumably embedding the generator and its seven cigar-shaped plutonium rods deep into the ice fields below...

.... No one could be certain what would become of the core in the glacier's clutches, but there was cause for great concern. There were two equally alarming prospects: the nuclear fuel might fall into the wrong hands, leading to any number of diabolical designs; or the slab of migrating ice might slowly grind the plutonium into a paste and deposit it into the Sanctuary melt waters, shuttling the four pounds of radioactive material into the vital Ganges River...

...To the best of Dr. Schaller's knowledge, the Central Intelligence Agency never managed to reacquire their missing nuclear appliance. But a water sample from the Sanctuary in 2005 showed troubling hints of plutonium-239, an isotope which does not occur naturally. Years, decades, or centuries from now, the corpse of the rogue generator may yet rise from its icy grave and exact a radioactive revenge upon humanity. However, the CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of a disaster approximating the aforementioned depiction....
I wonder if anyone has finding the plutonium in their current job description.

Asperger's and the professions

Lisa Nowak, a fallen astronaut, probably has Asperger's syndrome. There are interesting implications for how psychiatry needs to evolve to manage high functioning adults with autism-spectrum disorders who begin to decompensate ...
Be the Best You can Be: An astronaut with Asperger's

...My personal sense is that individuals with Aperger's, and with high-IQ autism (the definition of both is famously inexact, they likely overlap) can do extremely well in some settings. They do, like all of us*, retain weaknesses they must continue to compensate for. I don't know how much of a role Lisa's Aperger's played in her tragedy, but I suspect the combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Asperger's and depression was just the 'right' wrong mix. As psychiatry continues its sluggish and difficult transformation into a scientific trade, there will be more of an emphasis on how persons with austism, Asperger's, attention-deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can leverage their strengths and offset their disabilities, and how decompensation can be recognized and individually managed...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Exxon's full page ads against conservation in Minnesota papes

Yesterday's twin cities' newspapers had two full page ads urging Americans to stop our government's plot to suck the gasoline out of our cars. One of the ads was "signed" by "Americans working in the energy sector", I believe the other wasn't. Exxon's history makes them the most likely source of the ads, so I'll skip the nonsense and re-sign them "Exxon".

One of the ads claims that "price controls" and "other thingamajigs" (I'm paraphrasing) will induce gasoline shortages. That's cute -- a classic conflation of a partial truth and an outright lie designed to advance a lie. Price controls, of course, would induce gasoline shortages -- but nobody is talking about price controls. The proposal that terrorizes Exxon is a gasoline tax, possibly including a preferential tax on premium gasoline. The reason the ads are running in Minnesota is that our (a smarter version of Bush, alas) republican governor has made noises about a gas tax to pay our bridge repair.

I presume Exxon's terror comes from an expected near-term reduction in their profit margins if American's were to reduce the growth of their gasoline consumption. It may even be that Exxon's competitors are better positioned to take advantage of such a transition, so that Exxon's loss may be greater than the industry average.

This is the most hopeful sign in some time. First comes denial, then comes the fight, then will come the carbon tax, starting with significant gasoline taxes. The fight will be very nasty, I'm pretty sure I know who will be making Karl Rove rich. We can expect a full Rove smear all the time.

Lefties, greens, realist-rationalists need to stop with the feel-good stuff and start funding a carbon tax PAC. Taxation first of gasoline, and then of other carbon sources, is the only way to reduce CO2 emissions, reduce the power of petroleum producing states, and drive a migration to extreme conservation and non-petroleum energy sources.

Thanks Exxon. You'd have done better to stay in the shadows, by showing your hand you're advancing the rationalist agenda.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rove and Philip Morris

Karl Rove did deals with Philip Morris during his rise to power, and after Bush took control Rove squashed the Federal prosecution of Philip Morris...
Why did Gonzales resign? |

...Typical of the political interference was the 2005 federal racketeering case against big tobacco companies in which government witnesses were suddenly withdrawn, suggested penalties lessened and lawyers ordered to read a weak closing statement prepared for them. Sharon Y. Eubanks, the 22-year veteran federal prosecutor in the case, revealed to the Washington Post in March 2007 that the chain of command ran directly through the attorney general's office. "The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said," Eubanks said. "And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public ... Political interference is happening at Justice across the department. When decisions are made now in the Bush attorney general's office, politics is the primary consideration ... The rule of law goes out the window."

Rove's interest in tobacco cases was hardly new. From 1991 through 1996, while guiding the ascent of Bush to the Texas governorship and during his early years in that office, Rove worked as a $3,000-a-month consultant to Philip Morris. In 1996, when Texas Attorney General Dan Morales filed a suit against tobacco companies seeking compensation for state Medicaid funds spent on workers who fell ill because of smoking, Rove conducted a dirty trick against him -- a push poll spreading smears about him....
I assume he also squashed the antitrust case against Microsoft, but I don't know what the deal there was. I'm puzzled the Rove/Philip Morris connection didn't come up more often.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Zelikow and the overthrow of Maliki: How Washington works

Glenn Greenwald, in a series of iterative updates, describes how our government works -- by giving us the details on the emerging overthrow of (the very nasty) Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. In the old days this type of story only emerged in books written decades after the event, but now we get to see 'em in real time. I love these blogging journalists, but full credit to CNN as well.

It's a long story, and so familiar to what we've read over the past six years that it's hard to stay awake all the way through. The most important outcome of this expose is probably yet more shame heaped on The Washington Post, which presumably traded OpEd space for future privileges (jobs? news? leaks?) -- a bad move on national security matters.

I look forward to reading about what's going on behind the corruption story. Is this really all about deposing Maliki, or is it about providing political coverage for abandoning Iraq, or is it some messy mixture of both?

As to our culture of corruption -- how do you beat these things back? It's up to the voters. If American voters decide they care, they can change who they vote for. I've yet to see much sign of caring American voters, but one can always hope ...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

You can't fly with your eyes closed - at all

I thought I new most everything, but I didn't know this ...
James Fallows (August 21, 2007) - Aerodynamics 101 (following JFK Jr crash discussion)

...No one who has received an instrument rating in an airplane doubts any of the above, because as part of the training everyone has been through this exercise: When the plane is safely several thousand feet in the air, the instructor will tell the trainee pilot to close his eyes and keep flying the plane. He is supposed to keep it level just by feel.

Within sixty seconds or so, the instructor crisply says "my airplane" and takes control again. The trainee pilot opens his eyes and is startled to see the ground coming up toward him, since the plane is spiraling* down. This always happens when the plane is flown blind, it usually happens very quickly, and generally the eyes-closed pilot had no physical sense that anything was wrong. This process is what tragically kills most pilots without instrument training when they unexpectedly enter a cloud; having no visual cue to what is up and down is the same as wearing a blindfold. It is also what is assumed to have happened to poor John Kennedy Jr and his passengers, in the dark and fog over the water.
It's the same reason you can pour tea more or less correctly in a plane flying upside down -- they're designed to keep the "floor" in place (meaning, of course, that you're losing altitude pretty fast ...)

Bane of the net: who maintains those pretty web sites?

You're a local official and you need a web site. You scrape up a budget, find someone who can put one together, and you're done.

Except things change. Thinks like, you know, schedules. Then you rediscover what everyone who's ever built anything learns.

Maintenance is a drag. It's not funded. It can be expensive. Pretty things may be much more expensive to maintain. That hand-crafted web site can't be updated without ... yes ... the original developer.

Not to pick on anyone, but this is typical:
Lake Wobegon Trails - Hiking, Biking, Walking, Blading, Skiing, Snowmobiling

We are working on an updated listing for 2007. Dates shown as 2006 dates will probably be very near the same dates for 2007....
It's August 2007 now. They're a bit behind.

Small businesses, schools and non-profits ought to choose for ease of maintenance, not for the initial product. The ideal solution should manageable by any high school graduate, but there's nothing like that on the market.

For MN Special Hockey I cobbled together a combination of Google Apps, Google Custom Domain, Google's Page Creator, Google Docs and Google/Blogger. It was very hard to setup, it's quarter-baked, and only a true geek is going to be able to tweak the overall configuration -- but I hope non-specialists will be able to post news (blogger), and even edit the main pages (Page Creator, note it requires admin access to do any page edits). If Google Apps ever get sorted out they could turn into a pretty good solution.

Content management systems try do something similar. They require experts to configure initially, but basic updates may require less expertise. In practice, however, these seem to run into considerable maintenance issues.

Another approach is to leverage "web 2.0" solutions. This is still emerging, but one way for the Lake Wobegon trail team to cost-effectively update their feeble map would be to replicate it in Google Maps and send out four bicyclists with cameras. Create the map as free custom content in Google Maps, upload photos to a free Picasa album, comment on the photos as needed, and lay them out on the trail map. Now link to the Google map and expect other users to add to it.

Lastly there's the combination of Apple's iWeb and Apple's dotMac (.mac) services (now support custom domains). Apple's can be an unreliable partner, but this might hit the usability requirement. The catch, other than Apple pulling an 'iMovie' (replacing a high end product with dumbed-down solution under the same brand), is that this requires OS X. On the other hand, if you can't afford website maintenance you definitely can't afford to maintain XP (bad) or Vista (worse). There are a few like solutions in the OS X world, I'm not aware of any in the XP world. (FrontPage once owned that space, but Microsoft abandoned it years ago.)

Google Maps: sort of display Picasa photos

Ooops. This was posted here by accident. The real one is here (Gordon's Tech).


Physicist bloggers getting cranky

I read a few physics blogs, and lately I think I'm seeing a bit of irritability. CV (Sean)'s post today hints at the trend ...
Ask a String Theorist! Or an Atomic Physicist. | Cosmic Variance.

..Aaron has begun to talk a little about the multiverse — here, here. He has thereby earned grumpy mutterings, rolled eyes, and “help” from some sensible physicists, some crackpots, some curmudgeons, his guest co-blogger, and even himself. I don’t quite understand what all the angst is about...
Bio-blogger crankiness is usually related to creationists. Creationists seem to leave physics alone (an interesting phenomena); the "crank" and the "crackpot" are the bane of physics bloggers. I think biologists have a legitimate complaint, but physicists protest too much. In the case of physics, the cranks have a case.

It's not that cranks are a good guide to physics, it's rather that physics is so weird that to an outsider the cranks are hardly less plausible than the science. Entanglement across the multiverse? Seems almost plausible.

It doesn't help that by nature and practice physicists are driven to contemplate the forbidden. Tests for "life in a simulation"? Answers to the Fermi Paradox? Rules for the least harmful use of the Bayesian anthropic principle (ok, so maybe the creationists do show up)? Physicists can't stay away -- but the very questions make even them irritable. Cranks like me only darken their mood.

Relax gang. Ignore your cranks and embrace your fundamental weirdness. It's a weird universe, and the crackpots are at home ...

Monday, August 20, 2007

A carbon tax PAC: the most effective form of greenery

I added this comment to Kristof's blog following his "conservation is good" NYT OpEd:

Energy Conservation - Nicholas D. Kristof - Opinion - TimesSelect

Conservation = Carbon Tax.

It's a fairly simple equation. I'm disappointed that you chose not to mention it. I understand it's probably wise to let people slowly draw their own conclusions, but it is a bit dishonest.

You know perfectly well that the only way to accelerate conservation is by an overt carbon tax or by a hidden tax (regulatory mandates).

To that end, I'd like to see a "carbon tax PAC" that we could all contribute to. It makes far more sense to send $25 to a "carbon tax PAC" than to spend $25 on a low energy light bulb.

Perhaps you're constitutionally opposed to taxation. That's where we can negotiate. I'm ok with shifting funds, so the revenue raised through a carbon tax is offset by cuts on capital gains, increasing personal exemptions, increasing EITCs, etc.

Suddenly Vista has no friends

First Coding Horror was down on Vista. Then James Fallows ripped it off his laptop. Then the editor of PC Magazine declared Vista a disaster -- even as he left his job.

The harshest blow, however, comes from Joel on Software: "I've been using Vista on my home laptop since it shipped, and can say with some conviction that nobody should be using it as their primary operating system -- it simply has no redeeming merits to overcome the compatibility headaches it causes. Whenever anyone asks, my advice is to stay with Windows XP (and to purchase new systems with XP preinstalled)."

Joel remembers his Microsoft days fondly, so his words sting. Vista is, apparently, a mess. We can expect others to pile on now. Given the current mess it may be another year before Vista is ready for use.

I share Joel's opinion on Office 2007, with the caveat that Word is probably better and Excel wasn't hurt too much. I've figured out the UI now but it was a pain to learn it.

Great news for OS X. BTW, I don't expect 10.5 to ship until next summer. With Vista tanking the pressure is off Apple, and 10.5 is not looking very solid yet. They'll quietly slip it from this October into next spring, and maybe roll some 10.5 features back into 10.4.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Easy primary care research project: good for fellowship, residency etc

I don't do clinical research any more, but occasionally I come across questions that might produce a cheap, interesting and publishable study.

Here's one.

What percentage of parents run out of their child's liquid antibiotic medication prior 24 hours early? My guess is that the percentage is over 70% due to normal loss, spillage, and over accurate dispensing.

Simple study, publishable unit.

For extra credit, what are the financial incentives for "precise" dispensation of liquid antibiotics?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Giuliani - time to go away. Please.

Really. It's time to quit. Actually, it's time to have never started.

Rudy Giuliani's loopy foreign-policy statement. - By Fred Kaplan - Slate Magazine

Rudy Giuliani's essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, laying out his ideas for a new U.S. foreign policy, is one of the shallowest articles of its kind I've ever read. Had it been written for a freshman course on international relations, it would deserve at best a C-minus (with a concerned note to come see the professor as soon as possible). That it was written by a man who wants to be president—and who recently said that he understands the terrorist threat "better than anyone else running"—is either the stuff of high satire or cause to consider moving to, or out of, the country...

...Two months ago, when Giuliani issued some of his first pronouncements on foreign policy, I wrote that he is "that most dangerous would-be world leader: a man who doesn't seem to know how much he doesn't know." Judging from his Foreign Affairs article, the breadth and depth of his cluelessness are vaster than even I had imagined.

Kaplan, in other words, is shrill. The GOP candidates are having that effect on a lot of people.

Gwynne Dyer - 9 essays - July through Aug 16 2007

Dyer has 9 new ones.

  1. Bangladesh: When Democracy Goes Bad
  2. The Turkish Election
  3. Libya, Bulgarians and Lockerbie
  4. Oil: $100 a Barrel -- or $200?
  5. Zimbabwe Meltdown
  6. Pakistan: Forecasts of Disaster
  7. Arctic Scramble
  8. Slow Forward
  9. "Boys Go To Baghdad..."

I'm convinced now he'll never add a syndication feed or otherwise update the web site. I think his may be the last site in the world serving "pages" as .txt files. I assume that's not a clever technique to prevent blogging/quoting, but you never know -- he may be curmudgeonly, but he's a very good writer.

Anyway, I've added a Dyer tag to Gordon's Notes -- if Blogger adds tag-specific RSS it will become a de facto Dyer feed.

The Apple iMovie debacle: Pogue smacks 'em

Pogue is a longtime Apple user, author, and informed fan. So this smackdown might get noticed in Cupertino (emphases mine) ...
Apple Takes a Step Back With iMovie ’08 - Pogue’s Posts - Technology - New York Times Blog

... To rephrase (and sanitize) the wailing on the discussion boards: What the [bleep]! What was Apple thinking?

Apple says that it was thinking: “It’s 1.0. We’ll bring it up to par with free software updates, like we always do.” Internally, I’m guessing that it was also thinking, “iMovie had gotten pretty old, and it was haunted by some intractable bugs.” And also, perhaps, “iMovie was getting so powerful, it was taking sales away from Final Cut.

But it must also have been thinking, “Then again, it is a little embarrassing to take so many steps backward.”

That’s why, with what I imagine is a certain degree of sheepishness, the company is offering a free download of the previous iMovie version to anyone who has iMovie ‘08. In that regard, all the wailing is a bit overblown; Apple is not actually taking away the older version. The only real raw part of the deal is that people who pay $80 for a new software rev expect an enhanced version—not another copy of the old one.

I can’t remember any software company pulling a stunt like this before: throwing away a fully developed, mature, popular program and substituting a bare-bones, differently focused program under the same name.

I’ve used the real iMovie to edit my Times videos for three years now. The results are perfectly convincing as professional video blog work. But the new version is totally unusable for that purpose. It’s unusable, in fact, for anyone doing professional work that requires any degree of precision...
Apple's historic danger is getting drunk with arrogance. That's why we Apple customers love them to feel the blistering heat of competition -- it keeps 'em sober. The iMovie story tells me they've fallen off the wagon again -- but the rapid release of the 'free version' (I've read anyone can get it) suggests they might be back in rehab. Maybe.

I don't buy the 'continual free upgrades' to iMovie_II 1.0 though -- Apple's been saying they can't do free function upgrades any more without charging for 'em (accounting rules).

My money is on the 'protect Final Cut' answer. I think that's the same reason Apple won't provide Library management (import/export Libraries) for iPhoto.

Thanks Pogue. Please kick Apple again for us. Harder.

Alas, what's really needed is more competition for iLife, and I'm afraid there's nobody likely to do that. Apple has pulled far enough ahead that they can do things like this and still have the best solutions for any platform.

Pigs teleport

Fallows finds a WSJ OpEd that's not stupid and David Brooks says something sane.

Ok, so maybe the hand of Sauron is behind the WSJ OpEd and maybe Brooks respectful comments on John Edwards are an attempt to sabotage the Dems. Even so, the pigs aren't just flying today...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The history of amphetamines in America

It's surprisingly hard to find the history of drugs in the medical literature -- Dexedrine, Benzedrine, Norodin and the like don't show up in today's reference books. So I appreciated this Salon book review summary, but I found it confusing -- on first reading I thought they were claiming that Benzedrine was methamphetamine! I've added some clarifications in square brackets.

The highs and lows of methamphetamines

... The synthetic methamphetamine has a horticultural analog in ephedra vulgaris, used for millennia by the Chinese as an herbal remedy for asthma and other breathing ailments. In 1887, a Japanese scientist identified ephedra's active ingredient, ephedrine, a chemical similar to adrenaline. The same year, the German L. Edeleano used ephedrine as the base to create phenylisopropylamine, now known as amphetamine.

But because the substance seemed to have no useful medical applications, the malign genie remained in the bottle until the 1920s, when ephedrine was first used to treat asthma in clinical trials in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist developed a more powerful synthetic version of the drug that came to be known as methamphetamine [d-desoxyephedrine]. In 1927, a British research chemist at UCLA named Gordon Alles resynthesized Edeleano's drug [amphetamine sulfate] for use as a bronchodilator, and subsequently sold the formula for use as an over-the-counter inhalant.

The new drug, christened Benzedrine [amphetamine sulfate], was initially marketed as a miracle cure, "used to treat obesity, epilepsy, schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, hypertension, 'irritable colon,' 'caffeine mania,' and even hiccups." By the 1950s, variations on its chemical theme included Dexedrine [dextroamphetamine sulfate], whose "gentle stimulation will provide the patient with a new cheerfulness, optimism, and feeling of well-being"; Norodin [?], "useful in reducing the desire for food"; Desoxyn [methamphetamine], for "When she's ushered by temptation"; and Syndrox [?], "For the patient who is all flesh and no will power."

All these testimonials originated in medical journals, and the drugs were targeted at women, mostly as "pick-me-ups" and diet aids. But even prior to the 1950s, amphetamine and methamphetamine had begun to leave their mark upon the American heartland. During World War II, factories at the San Diego naval base provided troops overseas with Benzedrine. Owen claims "GIs consumed an estimated 200 million pills," causing untold numbers of soldiers to return stateside with an amphetamine habit...

Methamphetamine was sold as Methedrine and Desoxyn in the US -- and administered to Japanese industrial workers to increase productivity, I can't figure out what Norodin and Syndrox were, but I'm willing to believe they were also methamphetamine.

While trying to figure this out I came across references like this one ...


Charles Bradley M. D. Am J Psychiatry 94:577-585, November 1937

The psychological reactions of 30 behavior problem children who received benzedrine sulfate for one week were observed. There was a spectacular improvement in school performance in half of the children. A large proportion of the patients became emotionally subdued without, however, losing interest in their surroundings...

Well, there had to be something before Ritalin. [Update 8/17: I'm a bit behind on my sleep. Adderall, which is in use today, is amphetamine-dextroamphetamine. So this was probably one of the first studies of what is now sold as Adderall. When I came across this out of context, I was shocked by the study. In my case, the reaction is noteworthy.]

I'm sure methamphetamine was very effective as a weight loss pill. It would be interesting to know the stories of the women who used Desoxyn for weight loss in the 1950s. Many should be living today. How did their stories compare to the meth addicts of the modern era?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Levitt on terrorism

Steven Levitt now blogs for the NYT. In a burst of misplaced enthusiasm he channeled Schneier and blogged on how to give terrorist great new ideas. I'm not sure this is a great idea when Schneier does it, but Levitt ought to leave this kind of thing to the pros.

Why am I a bit uneasy? After all, I've probably done the same sort of thing at one time or another. My unease comes because I worry that there's a reasonable number of fairly dull would-be terrorists out there. The pros (Hamas, the former IRA, etc) don't need ideas, but the dimwits probably appreciate 'em. I'm only a "bit" uneasy though, even the dimmest terrorist has an infinite amount of material to work from.

So why don't they do more, and can we really do much about it? In a better column Schneier digs deeper ...

Terrorism, Part II - Freakonomics - Opinion - New York Times Blog

... Like the British and Israelis have done, if faced with this situation, Americans would figure out how to live with it. The actual cost of this low-grade terrorism in terms of human lives is relatively small, compared to other causes of death like motor-vehicle crashes, heart attacks, homicide, and suicide. It is the fear that imposes the real cost.

But just as people in countries with runaway inflation learn relatively quickly to live with it, the same happens with terrorism. The actual risk of dying from an attack while riding a bus in Israel is low – and so, as Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein have shown, people who have a lot of experience riding Israeli buses don’t respond much to the threat of bombings. Similarly, there is little wage premium for being a bus driver in Israel.... strikes me that there are two possible interpretations of our current situation vis-à-vis terrorism.

One view is the following: the main reason we aren’t currently being decimated by terrorists is that the government’s anti-terror efforts have been successful.

The alternative interpretation is that the terror risk just isn’t that high and we are greatly overspending on fighting it, or at least appearing to fight it. For most government officials, there is much more pressure to look like you are trying to stop terrorism than there is to actually stop it. The head of the TSA can’t be blamed if a plane gets shot down by a shoulder-launched missile, but he is in serious trouble if a tube of explosive toothpaste takes down a plane. Consequently, we put much more effort into the toothpaste even though it is probably a much less important threat.

Likewise, an individual at the CIA isn’t in trouble if a terrorist attack happens; he or she is only in trouble if there is no written report that details the possibility of such an attack, which someone else should have followed up on, but never did because there are so many such reports written.

My guess is that the second scenario — the terrorism threat just isn’t that great — is the more likely one...

Preventive care - a marginal idea?

I've suspected this was true for about 18 years:
NYT Leonhardt - Free Lunch on Health Care ...

... Jay Bhattacharya, a doctor and economist at Stanford’s School of Medicine, estimates that to prevent one new case of diabetes, an antiobesity program must treat five people — “not cheaply,” he says. Along the same lines, Mr. Gruber found that when retirees in California began visiting their doctor less often and filling fewer prescriptions, overall medical spending fell. People did get sick more often, but treating their illnesses was still less costly than widespread basic care — in the form of doctors visits and drugs. Louise Russell, an economist at Rutgers, points out that programs that focus on at-risk patients cost the least, but even they are rarely free.

As Dr. Mark R. Chassin, a former New York state health commissioner, says, preventive care “reduces costs, yes, for the individual who didn’t get sick.”

“But that savings is overwhelmed by the cost of continuously treating everybody else.”

The actual savings are also not as large as might at first seem. Even if you don’t develop diabetes, your lifetime medical costs won’t drop to zero. You might live longer and better and yet still ultimately run up almost as big a lifetime medical bill, because you’ll eventually have other problems. That would be an undeniably better outcome, but it wouldn’t produce a financial windfall for society.
I don't know if it's an urban legend, but I read over a decade ago that Japan's finance ministry blocked anti-smoking programs because the led to high social security costs. The new addition is that preventive care is not economically efficient because it's not targeted. Presumably, if you could target preventive care more effectively (genomics, patient readiness to change) you'd get more value. Of course if a "pay for performance" program tracks preventive care metrics ...

It's often cheaper to cure than to prevent.

One caveat is that for the informed individual, preventive care makes LOTS of sense. It's only a marginal investment from a societal perspective. Another caveat is that this the research doesn't apply to immunization programs, it was looking at programs that advocate behavioral change.

How toy makers can save themselves

Toy makers are worried ....
Toy Makers Brace for a Chill in Sales - New York Times

...Meantime, toy makers are trying to prove to lawmakers that they can handle the matter themselves. Carter Keithley, the president of the Toy Industry Association, called tests at ports of entry “belt and suspenders checks,” arguing that such a measure would be overly cautious....
There's an easy way for toy makers to reassure the public. They can offer a $10 million prize to anyone who finds a problem that leads to a recall.

DeLong: China prior to WW I

DeLong has published a portion of what appears to be a textbook in process. He starts  by exploring the The Needham question, though he doesn't seem to know of Needham (I sent him a link). This paragraph is typical:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

...By the beginning of the twentieth century it looked like that Malthusian crisis had arrived. The more than 300 million people of late nineteenth-century China had no mechanized farm machinery and no industry-produced nitrogen fertilizers. They were crowded into the wet, arable eastern slice of what is "China" on today's maps, with the median family of 6 farming perhaps 4 acres at a time when the Radical Republicans were still hoping to somehow find 40 acres plus a mule for each family of American ex-slaves. Average adult height was, we think, significantly under five feet. There were enough landless and other desperate peasants that perhaps ten million joined the Taiping Rebellion of Hong Xiuquan--who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ after repeatedly failing the shengyan exam--which burned through the Yangtze valley for nearly fifteen years. Perhaps ten million, 3% of China's population, died in that war alone....

It's a fascinating essay. I'm looking forward to the book.

Reality, perception, Hume, the red pill - and John Tierney

There's no way I have time to do this post justice, but I'll put something up anyway. Maybe I'll fill it in later.

What do these things have in common?

As a hint, here's a little bit more on the In Our Time programme on Common Sense Philosophy

  • David Hume realized he couldn't "get out of his head". That is, he couldn't show that his "perceptions" were attached to an external truth, he had to simply assume there was an "out there". Thomas Reid responded with an 18th century version of "shut up and calculate", asserting that philosophy had to begin with the assumption of a physical reality and this could not be questioned. Reid was a deist, like Descartes he began with the assumption of a benign Principle Designer who wouldn't resort to trickery. Of course if one attributes more complex attributes to the PD then all bets are off ...

So, do we live in a simulation in a "real" world, or do we live in a simulation in a simulation?

Update 8/15/07: It must be something in the air. I just saw this: Tierney (NYT) interviews Nick Bostrum.
... The math and the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations...
Oh dear, it's getting harder to keep this blog on the fringes. I'll have to try harder. So, if we are (or I am) in a simulation run by ripples of space time in the infinite dying years of the endless universe, is this heaven, hell or are we (I) simply glitches in the software? Ok, now I'm back on the fringe ...

Or maybe not. Tierney, who was a miserable political columnist, is more imaginative than I could have imagined:

... My gut feeling is that the odds are better than 20 percent, maybe better than even. I think it’s highly likely that civilization could endure to produce those supercomputers. And if owners of the computers were anything like the millions of people immersed in virtual worlds like Second Life, SimCity and World of Warcraft, they’d be running simulations just to get a chance to control history — or maybe give themselves virtual roles as Cleopatra or Napoleon.

It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude...

Not bad really, though he's jumping to conclusions by assuming that whatever runs our purported simulation need have any similarity to us. This next bit I know Tierney got from a rather good science fiction story (I'll look it the story reference):
... There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it)...
...We’d start our simulation, expecting to observe a new virtual world, but instead our own world might end — not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a message on the Prime Designer’s computer...
Darn, he took that one from me. I have to check if I ever seeded the meme that quantum computers would make us all dumber, since they'd suck the cycles that drive our simulations (hmm, is that testable? Probably not, the clock speed would simply drop.)

Next thing you know, Tierney will be onto the Fermi Paradox connection -- maybe after he recovers from the beating that he's about to receive from the general public.

I guess I can't stay on the fringe forever.

Update 8/15/07b: I remembered Reid's name and revised the post accordingly.

Update 1/18/08: See this later post on the same topic.

INTEL DUMP's insider comments on the Bush-era military

 Hoisted from INTEL DUMP - Tone Deaf comments:

... I, like many others have frustrations with GEN Casey. That said, he is about as good as we could have hoped for (other than making Petraeus CSA). He's got a hell of a challenge on his hand: 1) his VCSA is a cretin; 2) the Sergeant Major of the Army he inherited is useless; 3) he assumed control of an Army already bleeding out in the officer ranks and reserve components; 4) he oversees an ideologically culled general officer corps that saw 25-30 of its 2, 3 and 4 stars unceremoniously sacked by Schoomaker/Cody/Rumsfeld. Kern, Cavin, Byrnes, Taguba ... the list is Looong...

It's always interesting to get the insider perspective. Blogs let us do that.

See What Rove left us... is another comment about what you get when you select first and foremost for loyalty to one political party. You get the same thing every government that's ever done this gets -- and it's a long and unhappy list. You get incompetence.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Update on Peter Hausmann post - family fund

A few days ago I was moved by the story of Peter Hausman, a father of four who escaped the fall of the 35W bridge then drowned trying to help other victims. With a bit of trepidation, since not everyone knows that geek is a term of praise, I wrote:
... One might wish Peter, father of four, had been less heroic, but he was. MPR has a small article about him. I'd have titled this post "A geek dies heroically" but I can't know if Peter would have approved...
I never think my posts are widely read, so I was a bit surprised to hear from Peter's family. They told me Peter would have appreciated my sentiments. I've updated the post with information on a memorial fund to support his four young children.
Peter Hausmann Memorial Fund
c/o Anchor Bank
66 Thomas Ave E
West St. Paul, MN 55118

What Rove left us: a broken government

Rove went after the quiet professionals that used to keep America running. He eliminated many of them ...
The rise and fall of Turd Blossom (Sidney Blumenthal, The Guardian)

.... Rove's merger of politics and policy was an effort to forge a total one-party state. While he is acclaimed as a political strategist, his true innovation was in governing. He sought to subordinate the entire federal government to his goal of creating a permanent Republican majority. Every department and agency has been subject to an intense and thorough politicization. Indeed, Rove's ambitious plan was tantamount to a nascent Stalinism. Even science has been suppressed in the name of the party line, recalling the flawed biology propagated in the Soviet Union by Trofim Lysenko. Cheney and Rove acted as the pincers of the unitary executive. While Cheney sought to concentrate unaccountable power in the presidency, Rove brought down the anvil of politics on the professional career staff.

Rove's radicalization of government was early described by the first member of the administration to quit in disgust, John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He discovered that "compassionate conservatism," Rove's slogan for Bush's 2000 campaign, was little more than a sham. "What you've got is everything - and I mean everything - being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis," said DiIulio....
Rove would have been most content in a totalitarian state.

Update 8/15/07: Fallows points out that the occupation of Iraq was staffed with young republican Rove clones. Good point.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Google strikes a mighty blow against DRM

Actions always count more than mere words. No vendor's actions have been as "loud" as Google's.

Google recently abandoned a video retail scheme. This means their customers have lost access to the videos they "bought".

Does anyone really imagine that their Microsoft or Apple DRMd materials will still be playable in 2015?

No. Way.

DRM'd material is never purchased, it is always leased. The lease holder can terminate support at any time, sooner or later the material will become unavailable.

Eventually the market is going to get this.

Or will it? Macrovision is not digital. Still it's a partial counter-example to consider. Why did it last until the videotape died? It was extremely effective over its commercial lifespan.

Google does not understand the web: exhibit A

Google's Picasa Web Albums show a user friendly string in the album URL. I think this might be new, but I can't see any notification of the change. I thought Google used to show some occult identifier, but maybe that's because I'm used to private albums that are not shared.

Google encourages links to albums and photos that embed that URL.

The URL is formed by the name of the album.

You can edit album names.

When you edit them, you change the URL.

The links then break.

Google did the same thing with Blogger for years, a few months ago they changed the behavior so the URL no longer changes even when one edits a blog title. That was a bad mistake that took Google far too long to correct, but one could come up with some perverse rationalization for the original blunder.

I can't rationalize this one at all. Google needs help.

Gordon's Tech: Google Earth and Picasa strange loops and the need for four dimensional coordinates in Google's image map layer

Google really needs to add image acquisition metadata to its Picasa web albums; three dimensions are so 20th century:
Gordon's Tech: Google Earth and Picasa strange loops and the need for four dimensional coordinates in Google's image map layer:

...This would, of course, be even more interesting if Google Earth added a fourth dimension (time). Then one could view sites over time, and these images might show up only for certain time slices. Alas, if Google adds this feature in 2037 my heir's will need to update the image metadata, Google 2007 does not allow user specification of the image acquisition date....

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cheney predicted the entire course of the Iraq war

It only takes a few minutes to watch the 1994 video clip. I don't think we have the technology to forge something like this. Dick Cheney, in a few minutes of rapid and detailed explanation, predicts exactly what would happen were the US to invade Iraq. He got everything right, including the disintegration of Iraq and the cost in American lives.

Really, we all need to watch this.

So, what happened? I used to think Cheney had developed some kind of organic brain syndrome in the 90s, but a recent WaPo series suggested a Machiavellian brilliance that belies any significant cognitive impairment. So I'm left with a rather dark conclusion.

He knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew Iraq would collapse into civil war and then disintegrate. This was what he, and Rumsfeld, intended from the start. I wonder if he ever told Bush.

Update 8/14/07: I've been playing this in my head for about two years now. If Rumsfeld and Cheney knew what they were doing, then what was their intent (assuming they're not KGB plants or space alien saboteurs)? My best guesses:
  1. To divide the arab world into a balanced pair of rival Sunni and Shiite fractions. Perhaps they'd decided that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the real enemies, and that the best way to balance them was to strengthen Iran and the Shiite world. Both these men would remember when Iran was the a core ally of US foreign policy.
  2. To dismantle Iraq and place Iraqi oil into the hands of nations that would reliably maximize outputs and oppose Saudi Arabian control.
Really, the 2nd is just an derivative of the first. My best guess is that they wanted to weaken Sunni power, and they figured strengthening Iran and Shiite power was the best way to do that. Since the Bush family is closely identified with Saudi Arabia, maybe they didn't remember to brief GWB on the entire plan -- which would explain his clue-free state.

Alternatively, they could both have been merely incompetent. I'm not sure which explanation I prefer.

Join us. Don't be afraid, there's nothing left for you on Windows ...

Coding Horror, a preeminent Windows-tech geek writer, struggles to keep security despair at bay. It's a sad story of failed antiviral defenses and the inevitable doom of the average user's XP environment. This is the main reason I bought my mother a Mac Mini last year -- I needed something that would be safe for a non-expert user.

Please don't tell CH he could escape his fate by switching to OS X. First of all, he knows that. He mentions OS X's superiority in this regard at least three times; if anything he overstates how robust OS X has been. Secondly, he's a Windows programmer. He's talking about the downfall of his vocation.

CH advocates running as a non-admin user, but then admits that's futile under XP and frustrating in Vista. Beyond that he dodges and weaves, but he can't avoid his doom.

CH can't switch, but his essay is an flashing red sign for any home user looking for their next machine. It's time to bite the fruit.

No Google Earth infrastructure layer: thoughts on the community model

A week or two ago I speculated that Google could move the infrastructure discussion along ....
Gordon's Notes: Bridges: 77,000 deficient, 750 have I-35W design

8/3/07 Update: I thought a bit more about how Google could accelerate the infrastructure review. A 'route around risky bridge' option for Google Map directions would concentrate minds wonderfully. One can readily imagine icons for bridges with the I-35W design and risk designation....
In the meantime, I was pretty sure the Google Earth community would put an infrastructure layer up that would attach federal infrastructure ratings to bridges like this one (Strib, Aug 11, 2007)...
Corroded strands of rebar jut from the sides and pillars of the cracked Hwy. 36 bridge near Stillwater, while jagged pieces of fallen concrete litter the ground below.

Every day, nearly 10,000 vehicles travel eastbound over the crumbling structure. Most of the people in the huge trucks, cars and school buses on the bridge are unaware that it has been listed federally as "basically intolerable."...

I still can't find such a layer, though problems with the OS X version of GE may be limiting my search (Is Google losing interest in GE in favor of Maps only?). Today I posted a comment on a GE blog to try to move things along. In a sad sign of the times the blog I commented to does point to a Google Maps mash-up that claims to do just what I want -- but that map is festooned with ad words, shows no data, and seems to be a splog. Yech. I'll withhold that URL, thank you.

All of which leads to two questions. Why do some community products take off and others don't? Are we seeing a community fatigue where the small minority of compulsive contributors are tapped out?

I'm fairy sure the latter is true -- it would be very odd if we didn't see a drop in participation after the usual early adopter surge -- followed by a resurgence a few years from now. The relentless onslaught of the fraudulent and parasitic "contributor" (e.g. splogs) doesn't help, but of course game theorists and evolutionary biologists know how inevitable that is. [Hint: If you're going to do a genuine community project, you probably can't do advertising at all.]

As to the former, I think that question is going to be discussed for many a year to come. It's easy to guess that the mathematical model for community project success will resemble the models used to forecast disease epidemics. I think this would be a nice little project for a class in mathematical modeling ...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gordon's Notes: check your feed

Gordon's Notes is going to move domains sometime in the next few weeks. When it does move, the old address ( will redirect, so if you read this via a web browser your old links will work. You can update the bookmarks any time you want after the move.

Feeds, however, can be a problem.

If your feed looks like this:
You'll be fine. This type of feed will redirect and most feed readers will automatically update to the new address.

If you have an older RSS style feed, however, your feed may break when the blog moves.

So, if you have a moment, please switch to the above feed address now.

We now return you to your regular show.

So that's what happened to my Chinese audience

Cosmic Variance writes about blog censorship from China:
...Any blog on Blogspot is definitely off-limits (so I can’t visit Preposterous Universe for old time’s sake). You can type in the address or click a link, and the browser will think for a minute, and then return a “Problem loading page: The connection has timed out” error. My impression is that that’s been true for a long time, although apparently it’s been on and off for a while now. Typepad blogs are also off-limits, so no Cocktail Party Physics for me, although that might be a recent development. Livejournal seems to be unavailable, and likewise Xanga, but blogs hosted on seem to be available...
I used to have some PRC readers, but they seemed to have stopped a year or two ago. It didn't really occur to me that China had blocked all of blogspot. I wonder how moving this blog to a custom domain will change that.

I image China must block the major web based feed readers as well, otherwise a block on blogspot would be easy to avoid.

iPhone: my demands

My hunch is that the iPhone is more successful than many phones, but perhaps not as successful (yet) as Motorola's (evil) RAZR. So perhaps there's a chance that Apple is feeling "receptive".

I'm sure Jobs reads my blog daily, so I'll trot out my personal lists of demands. The non-negotiable ones need to be fixed before I can justify buying the iPhone.

  1. Copy, Cut, Paste.
  2. Search.
  3. Tasks at least comparable to the 1994 PalmPilot tasks.
  4. Synchronization with Outlook at least comparable to the modern Palm OS (in other words, flawed, but useable). A 256 character limit on contact comments is not acceptable.
  5. Run FileMaker Remote.
  6. Synchronize notes.
  7. Multi select and process for email
  8. Apple needs to fix the "international problem". It's ridiculously easy to run up a $1000 phone bill unintentionally when outside the US. The phone needs to provides a permission-only control over non-US EDGE access. (added 8/14/07)
  9. Secure data wipe so you can sell or donate an iPhone (added 6/08, promised with iPhone 2.0)
Wishes, not demands:
  1. A real calculator.
  2. Flatten the recessed headphone socket. (promised with iPhone 2)
  3. Site-selective synchronization - so can sync at both work and home, but not send home data to a work machine.
  4. Support for a bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
  5. Video out - so I can use a larger display.
  6. Encrypted data stores.
  7. Third party app support (signed is ok)
  8. Flash support, but not from Adobe.
  9. GPS
  10. Custom ring and alert tones
  11. Allow file storage on the iPhone.
  12. Let the iPhone tether (bridge) a computer to the net. (added 9/5/07 in honor of Boingo, demoted to optional 6/08 in recognition that the phone companies hate this)

Lessons from my garage door remote

It's possible to be too geeky.

When the remote for our 1996 Sears Craftsman garage door opener failed I naturally entered the remote part number into Google. This led me to a forest of aftermarket "universal" remotes; after a few hours of research and with some trepidation I placed my order. The remote I got was three times the size of the old one, but it works quite well.

Today I decided our keypad needed to be replaced. Once again I started digging through Google and Amazon, but this time I happened to notice a "call 800-... for parts" notice on the opener.

It seemed unlikely, but a search on Craftsman parts led to the Sears Parts Store. There a search on the opener part number led through two menu options to a list of compatible accessories. The sites not perfect, as the part numbers have only a vague one line description. I ended up going to, searching on the part numbers, and ordering two devices. Not cheap, but I'm reasonably sure they'll work.

As an experiment I tried constraining my search by "" and googling on the part number. This time the search worked.

There are two lessons I draw from this:
  1. There's still a "deep web" of database tables Google can't track -- that's why starting with the parts site worked.
  2. is ranked relatively poorly by Google, so it didn't show up in my searches. I have to remember to scope by site more frequently.
  3. I might have done best of all to phone the Craftsman parts number on the side of the opener, but, really, that's unthinkable.
Update 8/19/07: I have a few clues as to why Sears may rank pretty low in Google searches:
  1. Despite my usual practice of turning off all opt-in spam invitations, Sears still sent spam to my email address (of course I only gave them my spam account, but still!)
  2. Their stated returns policy requires a shipping statement as well as a receipt?

This weekend, a virtual world teeters on the edge

The virtual world of finance, that is. The world where imaginary trillions flit about like moths in a storm ...
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal the monetary base in the North Atlantic economies is 7% higher than it was yesterday--an annualized growth rate of 2100% per year"...
This is when we find out how good our emergent financial systems really are. The S&P has wiped out the gains of the past four months, but that's really not so bad. If we're above the 12 month low next weekend we'll be doing fine.

Dockables: donation ware, clever!

I think TUAW pointed me to Dockables. These are donation ware applescripts with a full installer and excellent icons. I have "sleep", "screen saver", "screen capture", and "log off" in my Dock now. Since I don't use my Dock for much these are great to have, and of course LaunchBar (love it) can activate any of them easily.

I've always had trouble remembering the key combination for screen captures, and I don't like the TIFF format Grab uses (though I'm sure there's a way to change Grab to use PNG, I don't like those tweaks if I can avoid them). Now I use dockables, open the PNG in Preview, select, copy and then either pastse into a document or "create new from clipboard", then save with a useful name or paste. Ok, so it's not ultra efficient, but it works rather quickly.

These are also handy for the docks of my family members, who really don't know any key shortcuts or hot corner mouse actions.

NTY Business: replaying press releases?

"Jeff Leeds" wrote this for the NYT:
Universal Music Will Sell Songs Without Copy Protection - New York Times:

... the music will not be offered D.R.M.-free through Apple’s iTunes, the leading music service. The use of copy protection software has become a major bone of contention in the digital music business, where iTunes accounts for the vast majority of download sales. The record labels generally have required that retailers place electronic locks to limit copying of music files. But Apple’s proprietary D.R.M. does not work with most rivals’ devices or software — meaning that music sold by competing services cannot play on Apple’s popular iPod. Some record executives say they believe that the stalemate has capped the growth of digital music sales, which the industry is relying on more heavily as sales of plastic CDs slide...
Apple sells music with DRM and without DRM. Universal's refusal to sell through iTunes has no logical connection to Apple's DRM, though it may make business sense as a way to weaken Apple's dominant retail position and keep competitive channels open. A reasonably informed human being would have noticed that that Universal's press release made no sense, so "Jeff Leeds" must be an algorithm for repackaging press releases. (Either that or a very dim editor chopped some key sentences out of the article.)

Pollution has vitamins

Scott Adams sums up the GOP candidates in 3 panels
... terrorists will use your skulls for salad bowls ...
... take money from the people who don't vote for me and give it to the people who do ...
... pollution has vitamins ...
Ok, so the 2nd is somewhat bipartisan, though when I vote Dem I'm voting for less money for me (at least directly and in the near term).

I don't recall Scott Adams getting political before. Perhaps the GOP presidential slate is inducing an unprecedented sense of national terror among the few Americans still conscious. There may not be anything worse than Cheney, but the leading troika are arguably worse than than Bush, who's already among the worst Presidents in American history. Really, Romney, Giuliani et al are exhibit A for terminating the GOP and starting over.

Dying heroically - known for his coffee mugs

Dead heroes rarely receive the attention of heroes who live to tell their tales. This is the first I've read of a hero of a local disaster who died trying to save others.
State to get funds; death toll reaches 8

... The medical examiner also reported Friday that Peter Hausmann, 47, a father of four from Rosemount who survived the bridge collapse and escaped from his van only to perish while apparently trying to help others, died of drowning...
One might wish Peter, father of four, had been less heroic, but he was. MPR has a small article about him. I'd have titled this post "A geek dies heroically" but I can't know if Peter would have approved:
Peter Hausmann, 47, was a computer security specialist worked at Assurity River Group in St. Paul. The company's president says Hausmann was a quiet leader and a man of faith.

There's one in every office. The guy who's the diligent worker, nose to the grindstone. The one who mentors colleagues and whom everyone trusts. And the guy who's the first to make the coffee every morning...

..."One of the things that was very high on the priority list was to get the coffee machine in and running as fast as possible," says Olejnik. "Pete was very happy when we got that installed. He was the number one person who was going to be using it."

Olejnik says Hausmann often logged long hours at the company's small office of eight employees, sticking around until 6 or 7 p.m. Hausmann was, Olejnik says, a quiet leader, a devoted Catholic, and a man capable of explaining the most confounding aspects of information security....

...Hausmann resided in Rosemount, hailing originally from South Dakota. He spent time in Kenya, where, Olejnik says, he worked as a math and science teacher. Kenya is also where Hausmann met his wife, Helen.

The family has declined requests for interviews. They told a newspaper last week that the night of the bridge collapse, Hausmann was heading to St. Louis Park to pick up a friend for dinner when the bridge gave way.

He reportedly phoned his wife during rush hour traffic on the bridge and was not heard from again. His car has since been pulled from the Mississippi River...

...When that difficult time comes, says, they'll give the Hausmann family any of Peter's personal effects, including the cluster of coffee mugs sitting empty at his desk.
I wonder how well his co-workers knew him, and whether they'd have marked him for the heroic mold. Peter, I salute you. If I find a fund to help Peter's children's education (four) I'll post on it.

Update 8/12/07: See the comment below from a niece of Peter's.

Update 8/14/07: Family fund (taken from comments). I've sent my contribution on its way.
... My cousins ages are 16, 14, 10, and 7 and I can assure you that they have very promising futures. Their father has left them with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Thank you once again for your interest in my family. I told my mother, Pete's sister, about Pete being called "a geek who died heroically" and for the first time in almost two weeks I saw her laugh. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Anyone that would like to donate to the the memorial fund can send the donation to:

Peter Hausmann Memorial Fund
c/o Anchor Bank
66 Thomas Ave E
West St. Paul, MN 55118

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dear Salon and Dear Volkswagen: this will cost you

This is how my Salon Premium article looks today when viewed with Firefox:

An extremely obnoxious VW ad is covering a chunk of the article. VW, I am very annoyed. You are on my poop list.

Salon, one more time and I drop the Premium subscription.

I am not amused.

Should we preferentially tax premium gasoline? How evil would that be?

What fraction of premium gasoline sales are an evil exploitation of the weak minded?

Here's why the question matters. Most rationalists believe we need a carbon tax to keep our planet's climate within a familiar range, and we know we have a $1.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill coming due just as we boomers prepare to suck the young dry. So most rationalists would say a carbon tax now, starting with a gasoline tax increase, makes scientific, political and economic sense. On the other hand, many rationalists, due to ethical impulse, a desire to survive, or an aesthetic aversion to starving masses, prefer to avoid exploiting the weak and gullible. If we add up a carbon/gasoline tax, infrastructure repair, and the duty/wisdom of the strong aiding the weak, should we preferentially tax premium gasoline?

The answer depends in part on what percentage of premium gasoline sales are a scam perpetuated on the weak minded:

Fact or Fiction?: Premium Gasoline Delivers Premium Benefits to Your Car: Scientific American

....Most modern cars, however, are designed to employ a specific compression ratio, a measure of how much room is available to the fuel when the piston is at the bottom and the top of the cylinder. This compression ratio—somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to one—tolerates lower octane fuels (such as regular gasoline, good old 87 octane) without knocking. "The compression ratio is fixed by the designer of the engine," Green says. "The regular fuel will burn properly and the premium fuel will burn properly and therefore there is no reason you should pay the extra money." High-performance engines, such as those in some sports cars or older, heavier automobiles, often boast much higher compression ratios. These cars—for example, Shepherd's Subaru WRX—require premium gasoline and will definitely knock without it. "I have to put the 92 octane in," he says. "It has a turbocharger."...

...for standard cars on the road today, purchasing premium gasoline is simply paying a premium for a fuel that delivers no added benefits. "If you think you need it," Green says, "you're being very eccentric.

So collector cars and sports cars (and lawn mowers? motor cycles?) need premium gasoline. These are not requirements for modern economic survival -- they are luxury items. That would favor a preferential gasoline tax on premium gas. On the other hand, we know a significant fraction of premium gas sales are an exploitation of the naive, the gullible, and the weak. That seems to argue against a preferential tax -- but in fact I think it supports a preferential tax. I bet that within days of announcing such a tax, the vast majority of consumers who don't need premium gas will learn that they've been conned, and they'll stop using it. So a preferential tax won't raise all that much money (we have to tax all gasoline), but it will serve a social good anyway. It's worth doing.

Incidentally, there's another question I haven't asked. Would we be wiser to equip our cars with floatation devices and spend our carbon tax money on avoiding war with China, solar energy research, "rationalizing" the tax code, meteor impact prevention, biowar prophylaxis or any of a hundred other worthy causes? Ahh, well, I'll save that one for another day.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rome burns. Bush fiddles.

We have a 1.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill to pay.
MPR: Bush cool to federal gas tax increase

Just one week after the deadly I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, President Bush reacted coolly to a plan to raise the federal gas tax.

President Bush said Congress should reprioritize the way it spends highway money instead of raising taxes to pay for future bridge repair.

"Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities," said Bush. "If bridges are a priority, let's make sure that we set that priority before we raise taxes."

Bush made the comments one day after Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., announced a plan to increase the federal gas tax from 18 to 23 cents a gallon.

Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, says the money would go into a new trust fund for repairing and replacing bridges. He said the plan would raise about $25 billion over three years....

Cut out GOP senator Stevens bridge to nowhere and a few similar boondoggles, and you get maybe $3 billion. We don't need $3 billion. Bush is an idiot.

On the other hand, assume we need to raise $2 trillion over 25 years (cost plus interest), so we need an extra $80 billion a year for the next 25 years. That's more like a 15 cents a gallon price rise in the gas tax. So three times what Oberstar is saying now, but, still, he's at least on the right track.

[rewritten, because I was too sleepy to remember we don't need to raise all the money all at once.]

I think we're going to lose at least a dozen major bridges before we get real.

Ignatieff: I'm so glad I didn't bother ...

Michael Ignatieff, a pseudo-Canadian who emerged from Harvard to bring salvation to the barbarian backwaters of my birthplace, wrote an OpEd article for the NYT a week ago. I tried to read it, but I fell asleep half-way through. It was ponderous, pompous, vacuous, internally inconsistent insofar as it had any meaning, and, by the way, it made no sense. I vaguely wondered about commenting on it, but I don't have the skill to make that kind of commentary funny and I couldn't think of anything useful to say. (Other than, Oh Canada, you don't deserve this.).

Happily, others have done the job. Crooked Timber's "Ignatieff" has some good links and droll commentary, but the first comment links to ...

David Rees: Cormac Ignatieff's "The Road" - Politics on The Huffington Post

Hello everyone! Personal message to all the New Yorkers out there: Did you read Michael Ignatieff's essay in the the NY Times Magazine? If so, contact me ASAP to let me know you're OK. I put your flyer up at Grand Central Station, but have heard no response.

Myself, I'm just making my way out of the debilitating Level-Five Mind Fog that came from reading the thing. Even my "Second Life avatar" has a headache! (Hey young people, did I get that right? Hope so! See you in "Warcraft Worlds!")

The essay is called "Getting Iraq Wrong." And baby, if Michael Ignatieff got Iraq wrong, I don't want him to be right! Because this essay can MAKE LEMONADE IN YOUR MIND...

And so it goes.

Again, we ask, "where is the medium lobster", and what happened to him in July 2006?

The Apple iMovie story: An interesting lesson in modern software evolution

Apple's iMovie was a very good product for editing home videos. Apple decided, however, that they needed to provide a simpler product for managing small video fragments (phone, camera) including editing and organization (iPhoto also organizes video fragments, but even my fellow geeks don't know that.)

Apple decided to kill their original iLife product (iMovie 2006) and replace it with a new 1.0 product called, not coincidentally, iMovie 2008. iMovie 2006 and iMovie 2008 are very different products with some overlapping and some distinct features -- but 2008 is definitely not a superset of 2006. In some ways iMovie 2008 is a significant step backwards from iMovie 2006. If you don't like it, one imagines Jobs saying, you can buy Final Cut Pro and new Mac to run it.

This is arguably a rather arrogant move, but we Apple customers are accustomed to this sort of thing. Those of us who knowingly sold our souls to Mephistophejobs knew there'd be days like this. The iPhone doesn't have, cut and paste, tasks or search capabilities (ok, there's a long list of missing basic PIM functionality), Aperture can't modify image dates and the database is unbelievably slow, iPhoto can't import/merge iPhoto Libraries, etc, etc. Apple's software gets dumber and dumber, but that's what non-geeks want. Geeks just have to suck it in -- for us the pinnacle of software development on any platform was probably the mid-90s.

That's what I thought, until I read this: Buy iLife '08 and get iMovie '06 for free.  This is so unlike Apple I'm a bit stunned. It's almost as though Satan were say "John, I'm really sorry about that eternal hellfire bit, I'll drop the temperature". They're effectively apologizing for the kill/switch move, and providing the old functionality for those who want it. They barely waited for the screaming to start.

So what happened? Is Jobs grip weakening? Is some non-satanic force emerging within Apple?

Wow. Next thing you know they'll build an iPhone I can buy, or maybe even, dare I dream, fix Aperture?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

CV is hurting my head again: The anthropic principle and our peculiar relation to the arrow of time ...

Things were odd enough when we seemed to live peculiarly close the mid-life of the universe. But now it seems we live infinitesimally close to the birth of the universe ...

Unusual Features of Our Place In the Universe That Have Obvious Anthropic Explanations | Cosmic Variance


  • Most of the energy in the universe is dark energy. And yet, we are made of matter.
  • The post-Big-Bang lifespan of the universe is very plausibly infinite. And yet, we find ourselves living within the first few tens of billions of years (a finite interval) after the Bang.
  • which produced a motley range of comments varying from funny to thoughtful to eccentric. One of them was particularly hard to characterize ...

    Jonathan Vos Post on Aug 8th, 2007 at 11:52 am

    .... As to the far future, my article on this, which cited Freeman Dyson and others, which first published the idea that we are most likely simulations by a far future dilute electron positron plasma civilization, and which served as the extensively quoted basis (quotation marks accidently omitted) of some Greg Benford novels, is:

    “Human Destiny and the End of Time” [Quantum, No.39, Winter 1991/1992, Thrust Publications, 8217 Langport Terrace, Gaithersburg, MD 20877] ISSN 0198-6686

    In fairness to Benford, who I think is being criticized here [update 12/7/07: see comment by Vos Post -- this is not a criticism of Benford], science fiction writers have been talking about 'life in a simulation' at least since the early 1980s and I dimly recall Dyson as talking about it eons ago.

    For related discussions, see:

    Inattention taxes: overcharging on checkout

    Inattention taxes are the monies earned through overcharges. I'm fairly certain I pay a few hundred dollars of fraudulent or mistaken credit card and checkout transactions every year simply because I can't take the time to validate all my transactions. I just try to catch the thousand-dollar frauds that hit me very ten years or so.

    So I pay my "inattention tax" and hope others, like Scott Gruby: fight my battles for me:
    Target was issued a violation

    I just got a call from the San Diego County Agriculture/Weights & Measures department about my complaint of Target overcharging me. They inspected the items I indicated I was overcharged for and also found that they were overcharged. In addition, they performed a routine inspection of 50 items and were overcharged on 9 of them. If that wasn’t enough, they got cited for not having the required notices about being overcharged.

    I’ve never seen a public agency act so quickly on a complaint. While my overcharges were pennies, the inspector said that he was overcharged $5 on an item.
    I suspect these overcharges are not planned, they are merely emergent. If an organization focuses limited resources on preventing undercharging, they will necessarily diminish resources that prevent overcharging. So the balance will shift to err on the side of overcharging. Scott's intervention won't make the problem go away, but he's helping keep it in check. If he had a micropayment donation box (soon to come via Amazon) I'd send him a $1 for doing what I can't afford to do ...

    Information (and data) Visualization: The future always arrives late and unexpectedly

    I've intermittently taught data visualization to grad students. It's been the same old thing for years -- poor quality scans of examples from 20-30 year old experiments. Nothing seemed to make it out of the lab. So I was surprised when a colleague (Andrew) pointed me to an unexpected reference: 

    Data Visualization: Modern Approaches

    This article gives a nice overview of various visualization technologies that people are experimenting with.  Some seem like eye candy, some seem genuinely useful and could be applicable to clinical applications.  The articles and resources section gives some good links to other resources on the web, such as visual complexity which has hundreds of different ideas for visual representation of topics....

    Andrew also pointed me to the interactive Flash based BBC British History Timeline. Lovely, and a very handy reference to use with "In Our Time" podcasts. These kinds of visualizations do make me hope Apple is able to create a decent Flash client for OS X (and thus for the iPhone). (since Adobe can't).

    I expect the data visualization post will be widely used by anyone lecturing on information/ knowledge/ data visualization. It's also a golden example of how much power Blogs (Smashing Magazine is really a blog in drag) provide. Once upon a time, this would have had to be a book, with an enormous barrier to publication. Today this unattributed article has "Views: 70392 by 52501 users". As near as I can tell this is the author information:

    Smashing Magazine is maintained by Sven Lennartz, the owner of the Dr. Web Magazine and Marketing Tricks and Vitaly Friedman, the creator of The Web Developer’s Handbook - with a little help from Christiane Rosenberger.

    Of course I've added SM to my bloglines subscription list. Anyone who can do this must have more to offer in the archives and the future ...

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Hedge funds and private equity: a hedge fund manager's perspective

    Freakonomics gets some great responses from a hedge fund manager. No respectable senator can claim any longer (though really, they never could) that there's a good reason to exempt hedge fund managers from taxation.

    Excerpts below ...
    Freakonomics Blog � Your Hedge Fund Questions, Answered

    Q: (1) Do you think the Senate proposal [to raise taxes] really could cause a flight of the industry overseas, as Ben Bernanke hinted?

    A: First, let me state the obvious: there is no public policy reason for hedge fund and private equity managers to pay a lower tax rate than teachers, doctors, or lawyers. ..

    ... let’s not kid ourselves — the tax code is a gift to the industry...

    ... from a fairness perspective, it is a no-brainer. The notion that the most profitable industry in the history of mankind (I hyperbolize, but on a per-person basis, this might in fact be true) requires a lower tax rate to take risk and make investments, simply does not square with logic. I know of no manager who would stop working or stop investing as a result...

    Q: I’m curious as to what degree the emergence of hedge funds has changed business strategy....

    .... Often, companies go private when activists chase management into the arms of LBO shops willing to put a level of debt on corporate balance sheets that public investors would find imprudent. As the economy slows or credit markets tighten, these companies will have trouble making their debt payments, and — just as the LBO boom in the 1980s burst — lenders and possibly private equity investors will be left holding the bag...

    Q: Do you believe that hedge funds provide a social good? ...

    .... What specific benefits to society as a whole are provided by hedge funds? I do believe that, starting with the 1980s bull market, we have seen a society-wide reallocation of human resources. And it is unfortunate that the “best and the brightest” no longer seem to want to go into government or medicine or teaching (I did say I’d be generalizing here), and instead seem to gravitate to the best-paying professions. In other eras, I believe that was not the case to the degree it is today. Hedge funds didn’t make this happen — back in the 1980s and 1990s it was the investment banks that siphoned off the talent — but the industry has certainly made matters worse...
    I chose the quotes that I found most interesting, but our manager also says that hedge funds, once they become available to retail investors, will be competitive alternatives to conventional mutual funds.