Thursday, January 31, 2008

Obama and I are in 76% agreement.

FMH pointed to Glassbooth which told me: "Barack Obama shares a 76% similarity with your beliefs". Hilary wasn't far behind at 71%.

Oh, and who the heck is Mike Gravel?

I wish I'd done the quiz when Edwards was in the race. It's pretty sophisticated, and drills down by topic.

I discovered:
  • I support gay "marriage" [1] Obama, doesn't (!).
  • Obama was more willing to go along with the Patriot act than I would have been.
[1] Civil unions really. I think the state should do legal unions and religions can do what they like. Everyone who wants legal benefits would need a state sanctioned legal union, religious marriage alone should bring no legal privilege.

Wanted: examples of publicly traded companies with accounting solutions that support internal collaborative projects

It's an age-old problem for large publicly traded companies, regardless of industry.

Two groups want a new toolbox (for example)

They can each build their own to a local specification, or they can agree to build one toolbox:

Option I. Build a toolbox to local specification

Group A: $10
Group B: $10
Group A + B: $20

vs.

Option II: Build a toolbox to group specification

Group A: $14 (40% over budget)
Group B: $2 (80% cost reduction)
Group A + B: $16 (20% savings)

Options I works.

Option II saves the company 20%, but the manager of Group A is now unemployed and the manager of Group B is now a VP.

Back in Economics 101 we learned how markets solve this particular problem [1], but most publicly traded companies don't have internal markets [2].

I'm interested in examples of publicly traded companies, in any industry, that have made a go at mitigating this problem. If there are no minimally successful examples that's also important to know.

I'd be most grateful for examples of companies to look at, for comments or feedback, or for references to academic papers. Comments to this post or email to me are equally welcome!

(Brad, any thoughts?)

--

[1] See also: comparative advantage -- aka "I can do it better than you, but I have better things to do.").

[2] Apparently Czechoslovakia was relatively good at this sort of thing before the fall of the Soviet Union.

Update 2/4/08:

I now have run variations of the question: "Do you know of examples of publicly traded companies with accounting solutions that support internal collaborative projects by reducing the "cooperation penalty" problem?" by persons with knowledge of a reasonably large spectrum of public and privately held American corporations.

The answer, so far, is there is no answer. Here's my current summary:
  1. Go head and reinvent the wheel, synergy isn't worth it unless the rewards are very large.
  2. If there's enough money at stake do EBIT credits or some kind of internal accounting either formally or informally. This is rarely done however.
  3. If there's a deep corporate strategic interest assign the synergy task to a very senior exec who can bang heads together.
  4. In rare cases reorganize so the shared resource is under one cost center.
  5. Outsource the service to an outside group who might be able to turn the need into a product or service with a larger market. An interesting variation on this is to decided that these unmet synergies are opportunities for employees to launch their own businesses with an initial guaranteed customer. This does require a robust level of corporate confidence however.

Update 11/25/08: As I worked this problem I became increasingly convinced I was heading into rough territory.

Time and serendipity have revealed the depths of the problem. Those depths include understanding why, on the one hand, large corporations exist, and on the other hand, why we have more than one corporation.

They take one into the Nobel Prize winning Coase Theorem, wonderfully summarized by Bruce Schneier (emphases mine);
In 1937, Ronald Coase answered one of the most perplexing questions in economics: if markets are so great, why do organizations exist? Why don't people just buy and sell their own services in a market instead? Coase, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics, answered the question by noting a market's transaction costs: buyers and sellers need to find one another, then reach agreement, and so on. The Coase theorem implies that if these transaction costs are low enough, direct markets of individuals make a whole lot of sense. But if they are too high, it makes more sense to get the job done by an organization that hires people.

Economists have long understood the corollary concept of Coase's ceiling, a point above which organizations collapse under their own weight -- where hiring someone, however competent, means more work for everyone else than the new hire contributes. Software projects often bump their heads against Coase's ceiling: recall Frederick P. Brooks Jr.'s seminal study, The Mythical Man-Month (Addison-Wesley, 1975), which showed how adding another person onto a project can slow progress and increase errors. ...
In a related vein consider Coding Horror's discussion of the costs of software reuse.

The best reference on the Coase theorem I've found is from a 2007 Freakonomics article.

The synergy or collaboration tax in a large publicly traded corporation is a manifestation of the general scaling problem; it's one of the reasons corporations have effective size limits. To understand those limits though, we probably have to look beyond standard economics and consider the "military" aspects of corporate size -- the ways one can use size itself as a weapon.

At that point we move from economic theory to "nature red in tooth and claw". I suspect it's this reason that corporations can grow beyond what economic theory might suggest.

Microsoft's FeedSync: what the heck is it and why would anyone care about a trivial problem like data synchronization?

Jacob Reider, the master of the terse post, apparently likes Microsoft's FeedSync.

Of course, Jacob, you didn't bother to say why you liked it. Or even what it might be good for!

It turns out that FeedSync was originally a Ray (Lotus Notes -> Microsoft CTO) Ozzie project. I don't know what it started out as, but now claims to be an open source specification for enabling data synchronization.

Jacob is presumably interested for two reasons. One is general geekhood, the other healthcare related. First the geek stuff.

As a fellow-geek Jacob, like me, is constantly trying to synchronize data across platforms. Anyone who's been around the block with Outlook, Exchange, Palm, mobile phones, iPhones, Gmail, iSync, etc, etc, will have learned that this is a non-trivial problem even in the relatively trivial domain of synchronizing address books.

We geeks would like, for example, to move our images and metadata readily from Picasa to Flickr and back again. Good luck - even if Google claims they're opposed to Data Lock enabling synchronization between competitors is rather a difficult proposition -- particularly when the services define photo collections differently (include by reference or by copy?).

Heck, we'd like to move our metadata from iPhoto to Aperture -- two desktop apps Apple controls. We can't even do that. (ex: photo book annotations). Forget Aperture to Lightroom!

How hard is this problem? I have long claimed that data synchronization issues between Palm and Outlook/Exchange were one of the top three causes of the collapse of once promising Palm OS ecosystem. OS X geeks know that Apple has a long history of messed up synchronization even within the completely controlled OS X/.Mac environment. IBM has had several initiatives to manage this kind of issue (the last one I tracked was in the OS/2 era) -- all disasters. Anyone remember CORBA transaction standards? Same problem in a different form. The only experience I've had of synchronization working was with the original Palm devices synchronizing to the original Palm Desktop -- where everything was built to make synchronization work. Lotus Notes, of course, was into synchronization in a very big way -- that's how the different Notes repositories communicated with one another (hence Ozzie's interest). I don't know how well that really worked, but I'm told it took an army to make Notes work.

Personally, I think this problem gets fully solved about 10 milliseconds before Skynet takes over. There are too many nasty issues of semantics, of each system knowing what the other means by "place", to achieve perfect results between disparate systems. Even the imperfect results achieved by using language between mere humans requires a semblance of sentience, shared language, and even shared culture.

Reason two for Jacob's interest is, of course, his health care IT background. HL-7. SNOMED terminfo models. HITSP and Continuity of Care Records. Even Google's fuzzy Personal Health Record interchange services. Microsoft's various healthcare IT initiatives. Many HCIT vendor transaction solutions. They're really all about data synchronization on a grand scale -- even if the realities tend to be fairly modest.

Jacob, btw, is fond of those loosely-coupled mashup thingies.

So what's "FeedSync"? (emphases mine)

Windows Live Dev FeedSync Intro

The creation of FeedSync was catalyzed by the observation that RSS and Atom feeds were exploding on the web, and that by harnessing their inherent simplicity we might enable the creation of a “decentralized data bus” among the world’s web sites. Just like RSS and Atom, FeedSync feeds can be synchronized to any device or platform.

Previously known as Simple Sharing Extensions, FeedSync was originally designed by Ray Ozzie in 2005 and has been developed by Microsoft with input from the Web community. The initial specification, FeedSync for Atom and RSS, describes how to synchronize data through Atom and RSS feeds.

The FeedSync specification is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License and the Microsoft Open Specification Promise.

... FeedSync lays the foundation for a common synchronization infrastructure between any service and any application.

... Everyone has data that they want to share: contact lists, calendar entries, blog postings, and so on. This data must be up-to-date, real-time, across any of the programs, services, or devices you choose to use and share with.

Too often today data is “locked up” in proprietary applications and services or on various devices. As an open extension to RSS and Atom, FeedSync enables you to “unlock” your data—making it easy to synchronize the data you choose to any other authorized FeedSync-enabled service, computer, or mobile device. FeedSync enables many compelling scenarios:

  • Collaboration over the web using synchronized feeds
  • Roaming data to multiple client devices
  • Publishing reference data and updates in an open format that can be synchronized easily

... FeedSync enables multi-master topologies,

... publish a subset of his calendar more broadly using a FeedSync feed. Consumers of the publish-only feed can only see a subset of the calendar, and don’t have permission to make changes. Because of the FeedSync information in the feed, though, they are reliably notified of updates to Steve’s shared calendar. And unlike current feeds, when Steve deletes an item from the calendar, the item is deleted on everyone’s calendar.

... RSS and Atom were designed as notification mechanisms, to alert clients that some new resource is available on a server. This is a great fit for simple applications like blogging.

But those feed formats are not a natural fit for representing collections of resources that change, such as a contact list, or a collection of calendar items. Atom Publishing Protocol is designed for resource collections, but it is a client-server protocol and isn’t suitable (by itself) for multi-master scenarios. FeedSync extends RSS and Atom so that FeedSync-enabled RSS and Atom feeds can be used for reliable, efficient content replication and multi-master data synchronization.

One of the great benefits of FeedSync is that it doesn’t attempt to replace technologies like RSS, Atom, or Atom Publishing Protocol. Instead, FeedSync is a simple set of extensions that enhances the RSS or Atom feeds that people are already using today...

There you go. Nerdvana indeed.

Grumph.

Ok, I won't rain too hard on this parade. I said "perfect results" weren't feasible. We can't do synchronization for anything that's not trivial -- at least not without monstrous effort. The interesting question is whether there's some kind of "good enough" compromise that we can start with that, with a lot of time and evolution, might lead to some sort of emergent solution. Preferably without Skynet. Something that bears the same relationship to the original Palm synchronization that Google does to the original memex/xanadu vision...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dyer: six articles for 2008

Gwynne Dyer 2008 has new essays on Kenya, Thailand, the papacy, the Tata Motor Nano, the Middle East and, of course, the US.

As has been true for years, his are probably the most read pages on the net that are strictly .txt files with hard coded line wrap. Reminds me of Gopher. No feeds of course!

This year he's introduced tables (!) to hold his article links, which make it impossibly tedious to copy direct links to the set of recent articles articles.

He is a character, no doubt. All the same he's a very insightful writer. Alas the .txt format means it's tedious to quote directly from his writings.

Hmm. You don't suppose that's the point?

Games the media play: the race card

I've been thinking the same thing for a while, looking for an opportunity to say it.

FT.com | Clive Crook's blog: How the press played the race card

... I think the press played the race card, not the Clintons.

It's the same old game -- getting attention at any cost. The American public never learns ...

Florida's 90% better future means Edwards can be kingmaker

Months after he was written off, McCain is the GOP favorite. I assume the Trilateral Commission is at work, otherwise I can't explain this at all.

The GOP now has a choice between Mitt "thumbscrews" Romney and John McCain. Assuming continuation of bizarre trends, there's only a 1/3 chance of Romney winning. If Romney wins, I'm guessing, based on Florida numbers, that there's only a 1/3 chance of his getting the presidency.

So there's about a 90% [1] probability that America's next president will be Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John McCain.

Right wing talk radio hates McCain; it's hard to imagine a better endorsement. I would be disappointed if McCain won, but I would not be thinking about emigrating.

So today we have a 90% probability of a better future for America.

Wow, I didn't expect to be thinking that already.

So how does this change my thoughts my thoughts ahead of Minnesota's primary?

If Florida's Dem delegates had counted, Hilary Clinton would now be planning to wrap-up the primary contests. If Giuliani had won Florida I'd be wearing my Hilary button now.

Today, though, I feel freer.

I think she's still the best option for winning the presidency, but I still don't care for the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynastic progression. I still fear Obama can't win Florida, but if McCain is the nominee that might be a risk to consider.

Or maybe I should go with Edwards, and give him the power to choose both the President and the Vice-President.

Today I'm thinking I want John Edwards to be the kingmaker.

[1] 1 - (1/3*1/3) = 8/9 = 89%

Update: Ok, so much for that.

...top strategist Joe Trippi explained the timing of the decision like this: "It became increasingly clear on Sunday and Monday that we were totally blocked out of the news story. John Edwards didn't want to play politics. He didn't want to stay in the race to be a kingmaker or a spoiler. There was just not a clear shot at the nomination.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who mourns for the loss of Apple's unique file identifiers ...

One of the most innovative features of the early Macintosh machines were that each file had a unique identifier. The file "name" was a user convenience, the software used the identifier.

Move a file? No problem. The OS knew where it was.

That's been more and more broken in the past few years. I don't know if the move is deliberate, or if it's a sign that Apple's most brilliant developers have all retired.

Alas, Time Machine demonstrates how broken this feature is.

Exploring the sands of Time Machine

...Time Machine doesn't handle the ol' switcheroo very well; renamed files and folders get backed up right alongside their previous iterations. This means that if you have a 2GB folder of images in your Desktop called "Purty Pi'tures" one day, then do nothing but rename the folder to "Rilly Purty Pi'tures" the next day, you just ate up 4GB of space on your Time Machine drive. Going further, Murphy Mac discovered that Time Machine makes some odd (and potentially unfortunate) decisions when throwing out backups. When Time Machine decides to retain a single backup out of the previous day's hourly backups, it chooses the first one of the day (presumably beginning at 12:01am). This means that some files could still be slipping through the sands of time (c'mon, I had to), depending on your computing habits...

It will be a sad day when Vista's file system is clearly better in every way than the Mac's.

To sleep, perchance to run lossy compression algorithms

Another NYT article on theories about why humans sleep:
Sleep - Brain - Neurons - New York Times:

...So Dr. Tononi and a colleague, Chiara Cirelli, have hypothesized that during sleep, the synapses weaken. The downscaling is across the board, so that the synapses’ relative strength is maintained. Those that have been used (those involved in learning) stay stronger than those that haven’t....
Both autism and schizophrenia have, at various times, been connected with disorders of pruning neuronal networks. (Errors both ways -- too much and too little.)

Neural gardening is hard to get right, and, in fact, there can't be a "right" answer. The "right" answer will depend on environment, which is fungible.

I do wonder sometimes if the alleged benefit of exercise for dementia prevention is entirely related to the benefit exercise has for sleeping.

Incidentally, my recollection is that this original theory was found to be too simplistic. I recall that studies published @ 2011 showed that what's occuring in sleep is a refactoring of memories into a compressed formthat sacrifices accuracy for retrieval speed and lesser storage demands. I think the researchers found a curious correspondence to lossy fractal-based compression algorithms used in early 21st century computing ... [1]

[1] Sorry, sometimes it's hard for me to forget I'm not supposed to remember the future. I think I need more sleep.

Audio books for children: the list that's hard to find

Audio books are more effective than sleeping gas for quieting our kids in the car. Since I figured out how to use iTunes and Missing Sync for BlackBerry to put AAC files on my wife's Pearl I want to buy some more.

Of course I can't go to audible.com or the iTunes store or any of the obvious sources. The DRM makes these options unacceptable. I need a CD.

Surprisingly, Amazon doesn't have a unique collection. Google didn't help much either, though it pointed to a nice Kidsreads.com review.

Meaning, I had to actually think of a source rather than using Amazon and Google. I guessed a competing book seller might have taken a more thoughtful approach.

The great answer is the Barnes and Noble Children's Audio Collection. Today it shows 733 items, linking together the printed, CD and cassette versions.

So why'd Amazon miss this one? Is it because they have a growing business selling DRMd audio books? Is it because they rely too much on automated algorithms? Is it a sign that they've moved so far from their bookish origins that their original market is in play?

I clearly need to pay more attention to the B&N web site. Competition is good.

1/31/08: Amazon just bought Audible. I suspect their lack of an "audio book" CD catalog was not related to this acquisition, but it doesn't give them much incentive to push CD audio books.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Future shock: the Nexus 7000

I remember when putting 15 gigabits a second across a fiber optic connection was real research news. Rough Type points to today's NYT article about transmitting putting 15 terabits a second...

Cisco to Sell Faster Switch for Flood of Remote Data...

... the Nexus 7000, will provide a sharp increase in traffic capacity over the company’s current products, to 15 trillion bits of data a second.

Cisco, of San Jose, Calif., the world’s largest producer of network equipment, offered a range of examples to try to capture the significance of the increase in speed. It said the switch could transfer all 90,000 Netflix movies in 38.4 seconds or send a two-megapixel digital image to every human being on earth in 28 minutes...

... In marketing the new switch, Cisco will emphasize that it will cut the energy costs of large data centers. Changing the design of a data center, made possible by the need for fewer networking interfaces, could reduce a data center’s energy use by 8 percent...

john

Minnesota's caucus and Florida's 71 to 22 percent preference: Clinton wins.

If I had the only vote in America, I'd probably vote for John Edwards. Otherwise, If he passed much more study than I've bothered with to date, Barack Obama.

Alas, I don't have the only vote in America. So my "vote" in the oddball Minnesota caucuses next Tuesday will be for whoever is most likely to beat Romney and/or McCain. That means whoever is mostly likely to win Florida, because, yet again, Florida will decide who the next President will be.

So I searched for a reference to guide me, and I found this ...

American Research Group

January 27, 2008 - Florida Primary Preferences

... Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama among men 59% to 25%, with 13% for John Edwards, and she leads Obama 61% to 28% among women, with 6% for John Edwards. Clinton leads Obama among early voters 65% to 19% and she leads Obama among in-person voters 58% to 31%, with 8% for Edwards. Clinton leads among white voters with 64%, with Obama at 21% and Edwards at 11%. Obama leads Clinton among African American voters 71% to 21%. And Clinton leads among Hispanic voters with 71%, with Obama at 22% and Edwards at 1%.

My recollection is that, in Florida, it's the Hispanic voters that decide presidential contests.

So it's Clinton then. My personal preferences don't count.

Update: for a biting and darkly humorous perspective with a similar (implied) conclusion, read Jon Swift.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Boltzmann's brain hits the big Times

The New York Times that is.

In a reprise of John Tierney's NYT interview with Nick (we're in a simulation) Bostrum  Dennis Overbye writes about a topic featured in some of my favorite physics blogs - Boltzmann's brain ...

Big Brain Theory: Have Cosmologists Lost Theirs? - New York Times

...cosmologists try to square the predictions of their cherished theories with their convictions that we and the universe are real. The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

CV fills in some more background

... The point about Boltzmann’s Brains is not that they are a fascinating prediction of an exciting new picture of the multiverse. On the contrary, the point is that they constitute a reductio ad absurdum that is meant to show the silliness of a certain kind of cosmology — one in which the low-entropy universe we see is a statistical fluctuation around an equilibrium state of maximal entropy...

In other words, the silliness of the naked flying space brain demonstrates that we don't understand entropy and the arrow of time.

CV uses the same Bayesian logic used by Bostrum to point out that if our current model of entropy were correct then it would be overwhelmingly likely that you are a Boltzmann's Brain and I don't exist...

... In the set of all such fluctuations, some brains would be embedded in universes like ours, but an enormously larger number would be all by themselves. This theory, therefore, predicts that a typical conscious observer is overwhelmingly likely to be such a brain...

CV concludes today's essay with a, to me, tantalizing comment ...

...So what are we to conclude? That our observed universe is not a statistical fluctuation around a thermal equilibrium state. That’s very important to know, but doesn’t pin down the truth. If the universe is eternal, and has a maximum value for its entropy, then we it would (almost always) be in thermal equilibrium. Therefore, either it’s not eternal, or there is no state of maximum entropy. I personally believe the latter, but there’s plenty of work to be done before we have any of this pinned down..

That last link is to an 207 CV article on how it all began.

Undecided voter? You're in bad company

It's a little secret of national politics that, past the primaries, 99% of the electorate with any significant connection to reality has made up their mind.

So all the advertising, all the spin, all the media manipulation -- none of it is for you or me. We're just in the way.

It's all for the undecided voter and for the intermittent non-voter -- two groups that overlap.

Cosmic Variance has just learned the bad news. Sean is young I think, so no shame in being naive. For obvious reasons this isn't something politicians talk about. They may despise the chore of selling themselves to the arational and illogical, but that's what the game is all about.

There's a bright side. The next time you hear an astoundingly idiotic campaign statement, remember who it's aimed at. Politicians are not as a stupid as they sound, they're just profoundly cynical.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

John's head explodes: AT&T rebate paid with an AT&T debit card

My head just exploded.

Ok, so I knew when I did the deal with Satan's pond-sucking scum that I should expect a shaft or two, but this one is so audacious.

I just noticed, in a very fine print amongst all the paper work of a new cell phone contract, that AT&T pays its rebates with an AT&T debit card.

AT&T has been sued over this practice:
AT&T "Rebate" Case Going Forward - O'Reilly Emerging Telephony

...I also clearly remember my dismay at getting a VISA debit card as my “rebate” and the many hoops that I had to jump through to use it simply as a credit on my next Cingular bills...
More on the lawsuit -- so it went forward in 2007. There are a few web references to this topic, but I couldn't find anything new.

I'll see what the terms of use are on the cards we get and I'll update this post. It's likely I'll have the chance to fire off a letter to our state attorney general.

I so want Google to crush these leeches.

Update 3/24/2008: I get my cards, and consign the responsible exec to the eighth circle of Hell.

The BlackBerry Pearl is Android 0.8

So now I realize (see especially) what Google's been doing while they neglect Blogger, Google Apps, and most of their non-search properties.

They've been putting all their energy into mobile computing.

Yes, we all know about Google Android.

What I've not read is that the BlackBerry Pearl is a kind of Android 0.8 alpha. Interesting, since RIM is definitely not part of the Open Handset Alliance. Coopetition - at best.

I'd written elsewhere ....
Gordon's Tech: Nokia 6555b: the pleasant surprise, and its iSync Plug-in

...We've turned Emily's Blackberry Pearl into a proto-Android, and it works pretty well that way. So we have a data phone with Google Maps, Google Talk, Google Mail and some other odd Google things....
I've gone a bit further since doing that, including a visit to the Google BlackBerry mobile page and building a personal Google page for Emily's Blackberry. It all comes together in an interesting way.

Not that there aren't rough edges! Google has two parallel identity management systems -- one through Google App (like our family domain) and the well known Gmail network. In general the Google App services are one generation behind the Gmail services -- and poorly integrated at that. You can get the Gmail app for a family domain, but you can't get the personalized mobile search home page (google.com/ig). (I think it's also true that you can't embed a widget for the family domain Gmail app on a the personalized search page.)

My workaround for now has been to make my wife's family domain login the "email address" for a Gmail-suite account -- but without actually enabling a Gmail account! set. So she can use the mobile home page and a mixture of Gmail-class and Google-Apps class services on her BlackBerry.

Ok, so it's a bleedin' mess. Still, the result is the closest thing to Android available today. An interesting glimpse of what's ahead.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What planet am I on again?

Andrew Leonard sums it up.

Bill Gates feels businesses should seek profitable ways to improve "the poor". Lee Scott of Walmart wants to support international trade, address climate change and water shortages, and more.

I read the WSJ interview with Gates, and he comes across as a bit of a rube. On the other hand, he's a rather powerful rube. I'm glad he's trying. One day he may even take a look at the roots of American poverty, and the nature of disability in a post-industrial world.

The Walmart manifesto is odder; I think Scott may have OD'd on Ayn Rand. Still, no complaints from me.

It's likely coincidence, or a passing reaction to the bursting of our latest financial bubble. We can hope, however, that this is something better than charitable feelings.

We can hope this is the start of enlightened self-interest. If the wealthy and the powerful recognize that our world, physical and virtual, is much more fragile than it's seemed these past forty years, then we can start to make real progress towards "enlightenment 2.0".

Dog food blogging: CBC news story

Gee, before Google News I never read the Winnipeg StarPhoenix. Another story on the f/u to the melamine / cyanuric acid contaminated Chinese gluten episode:
Pets deserve better food standards: expert

To make a point about pet food, veterinarian Meg Smart brewed up a pot of leather boots, wood chips and motor oil.

"It would pass (Canadian) standards," she said about her concoction.

Smart, a nutrition expert from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, will be featured on a CBC documentary about the pet food industry on Thursday night.

"It's a complex system," said Smart about the industry. "Most diets aren't out there to harm animals. Most are adequate."

But many pet foods aren't adequate. In the spring of 2007, pet owners across North America watched as nearly 50,000 of their cats and dogs fell ill because of tainted food [1]. Menu Foods, a Toronto-based manufacturer, recalled all of their products containing contaminated wheat gluten, an ingredient the company imported from China.

Smart said these companies made a mistake and would never knowingly produce a dangerous product, but the ingredients used in the food may not be carefully monitored.

"I'd like to see a set of requirements, like for humans . . ." said Smart. "Or else, people have no way of knowing what they're feeding their pets."

Today, very few regulations exist for pet food. Leather boots contain enough nitrogen to pass Canadian standards. Wood chips contain enough fibre and carbohydrates. Motor oil contains enough fat.

Pet food ingredients are controlled and monitored by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, but they only monitor food manufactured in Canada. Most of the pet food Canadians purchase, around 85 per cent, is manufactured in the U.S.

So, what are you feeding your pet? Smart recommends people read food labels carefully because some pet food is well made.

Jason Skotheim has operated Horizon Pet Nutrition in Rosthern since the company started in 2004. He said his company is making sure the ingredients in their product are top quality and locally grown.

"We're trying to make this food like a Hundred Mile Diet for your dog," said Skotheim, referring to the popular diet book for humans.

His company sources all its ingredients and stays completely away from wheat gluten in favour of whole grains.

"Pets are part of the family unit," he said. "We want to make a premium pet food that people can trust."

Skotheim refers to small pet-food companies like Horizon as a cottage industry in Canada. Despite their competition from pet-food giants like Del Monte, Mars and Procter & Gamble, Horizon's business continues to grow.

Smart uses Horizon dry pet food for her dogs, but she says commercials are misleading when they say the food is recommended by veterinarians.

Small privately held companies can manage their services, and their reputations, in ways that large publicly held companies cannot. There's a lesson here that goes beyond my personal interest in Kateva's diet.

[1] I think that 50,000 number is suspect, though we'll never really know. The Wikipedia summary reports a US-only fatality rate in the hundreds, and I believe that was largely cats. Their urinary pH seemed to cause a greater formation of the melamine/cyanuric acid crystals and renal failure. Really though, there's no money to study this sort of thing.

Please stop the Vitamin E studies

Gee, this is so exciting ...
BBC NEWS | Health | Vitamin E 'may ward off decline': "Vitamin E may ward off physical decline in elderly people, research suggests."
Not.

I'm so tired of these case control studies fishing for results -- looks like they studied every possible vitamin in this one. Got a pub in JAMA and an article on the BBC and bloggers like me writing about it.

Just stop. There've been dozens (hundreds?) of these Vitamin E studies -- they never work out. On the other hand I recall some ominous results from studies of Vitamin E mega-dose therapy suggesting unexpected toxicity -- I liked that one.

I'm betting if there's any effect here that it's one or more of:
  1. Something else with which serum Vitamin E levels are correlated.
  2. Unrelated to diet; an expression of a genetic disposition associated with slower aging (but higher cancer rates).
  3. Completely spurious.
Whatever, taking Vitamin E supplements won't help.

Oh, and here's the really irksome part:
.... Lead researcher Dr Benedetta Bartali said... "Our results suggest that an appropriate dietary intake of vitamin E may help to reduce the decline in physical function among older persons."
Saying things like that should get a researcher banned from publication for two years. Heck, life. It's the academic equivalent of the "boiled frog" analogy. Just stupid.

Wake me up when there's a persuasive animal model experimental study.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The iTunes Store fails to impress

My 11 yo son has $30 in birthday credit at the iTunes Store -- and nothing to spend it on.

This ain't a good sign.

In the past we'd buy episodes of TV shows -- mostly for watching on plane trips or other travels. With NBC gone the pickings look slim.

Movies? Nah -- very few options in the family movie department.

We could get a game, but they only play on my aging fifth generation iPod; not my iPhone to come.

We can't get music! DRMd music (AAC is fine, just not FairPlay) won't play on the SONY car stereo -- it's a real pain. We avoid it.

The least bad option, despite the DRM, will probably be an audio book, and maybe a small game on the side. That's tolerable for burning to CD or even re-recording if we need to dump the DRM.

Still, not such a great showing. No wonder Apple's share price is tanking* ...

* I consider this a great thing really. They've loads of cash, and a lower share price will reduce Apple's tendency to delusional arrogance. Please, no more Air Books.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How humane can humans be? Primate lesssons.

Robert Sapolsky has written another essay in the vein of a Foreign Affairs article he published in 2006. The focus, again, is the balance between culture (character) and biology (temperament) in non-human primates.

When I read the essay I think of how much humans have apparently evolved in the past 40,000 years, and a series of studies over the past few years that have stripped us of claims to some unique form of cognition.

Emphases mine.

Greater Good Science Center

Peace Among Primates
by Robert M. Sapolsky

... as field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing.

Patterns emerged. In less aggressive species, such as gibbons or marmosets, groups tend to live in lush rain forests where food is plentiful and life is easy. Females and males tend to be the same size, and the males lack secondary sexual markers such as long, sharp canines or garish coloring. Couples mate for life, and males help substantially with child care. In violent species, such as baboons and rhesus monkeys, the opposite conditions prevail.

... although human males might not be inflexibly polygamous or outfitted with bright red butts and six–inch canines designed for tooth–to–tooth combat, it was clear that our species had at least as much in common with the violent primates as with the gentle ones. "In their nature" thus became "in our nature." This was the humans–as–killer–apes theory popularized by the writer Robert Ardrey, according to which humans have as much chance of becoming intrinsically peaceful as they have of growing prehensile tails.

...After decades' more work, the picture has become quite interesting. Some primate species, it turns out, are indeed simply violent or peaceful, with their behavior driven by their social structures and ecological settings. More importantly, however, some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures. The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick ourselves.

Two classic studies have shown that primates are somewhat independent from their "natures." In the early 1970s, a highly respected primatologist named Hans Kummer was working in a region of Ethiopia containing two species of baboons with markedly different social systems. Savanna baboons live in large troops, with plenty of adult females and males. Hamadryas baboons, in contrast, have a more complex and quite different multilevel society. When confronted with a threatening male, the females of the two species react differently: A hamadryas baboon placates the male by approaching him, whereas a savanna baboon can only run away if she wants to avoid injury.

Kummer conducted a simple experiment, trapping an adult female savanna baboon and releasing her into a hamadryas troop and trapping an adult female hamadryas and releasing her into a savanna troop. The females who were dropped in among a different species initially carried out their species–typical behavior, a major faux pas in the new neighborhood. But gradually, they absorbed the new rules. How long did this learning take? About an hour. In other words, millennia of genetic differences separating the two species, a lifetime of experience with a crucial social rule for each female—and a miniscule amount of time to reverse course completely...

The essay goes on to describe additional research demonstrating not only that aggressive primates can behave well, but that under some conditions the new behaviors can become established and communicated across generations.

Sapolsky seems to be in part responding to those who think humans are irredeemably prone to aggressive xenophobia. I don't think that belief is very credible, however -- and I'm no fan of humans! To that end then the essay is overkill.

On the other hand, for us to survive the next fifty years we will have to do far more than be civil. We will need "enlightenment 2.0", an unprecedented ability to get outside of our our personal world. Sapolsky is providing support for the desperate belief that humans can rise to the challenge.

The S&P is down 15%, back to Jan 2007

It's so annoying that reporters quote daily point drops in the Dow. What I want to know is how far the S&P is off a recent reasonable peak.

As of this AM the answers (by the Yahoo graph) are:
  • down 15% from November 2007
  • back roughly to Jan 2007
So it's given up about a year's growth. If it keeps falling I'll probably be obliged to start making regular purchases on the way down.

I wish these things would happen before my mutual funds charge me capital gains.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Atlantic and archives to be ad supported

A remarkable story in several ways.

One, James Fallows, who is a big name in The Atlantic, claims to have learned about the change in NYT. Secondly, the move will include the entire archives - a fabulous addition reminescent of the opening of the vast NYT archives.

High school civics, between Wikipedia and the archives, really should be getting very interesting.

Lastly, there's a lot of material here for students of modern media.

It seems the switch was driven by the circulation of The Atlantic's blogs, the advertising they might attract, and the turmoil at the journal:

NYT: “... The magazine is still in the red, in the $3-to-$5-million range,” he said, but he hopes to be in the black in five years.

The Atlantic seems to have stabilized after a period of turmoil. The previous editor in chief, Michael Kelly, stepped down in 2002, and the owner, David G. Bradley, left the post vacant for more than three years...

While the managing editor, Cullen Murphy, ran the magazine, it won numerous awards for excellence but circulation dropped sharply. In 2005, Mr. Bradley moved The Atlantic from Boston, where it was founded in 1857, to Washington, leading Mr. Murphy and many other staff members to leave.

For a few months, it seemed that no one was in charge, until Mr. Bennet was hired less than two years ago.

When I finally gave up on the doddering Economist about two years ago, I replaced it with Scientific American and The Atlantic. I've generally been very pleased by the magazine, I'm surprised it's losing money but encouraged by the apparent energy and direction.

Gordon's 4 laws of acquisition

Contemplation of Apple's time capsule has reminded me of Gordon's 4 rules of acquisition.

Well, actually, none of them are mine really. I'll just lay claim to this particular arrangement. Credit goes to the forgotten sources that gave us the memes, and life that proved them true.
  1. Never acquire anything until you really, really, want it -- three separate times.
  2. The real cost is the lifetime cost, from acquisition to disposal. Or, as per a recent NYT post, think subscription -- not ownership. In the modern world we don't own, we subscribe to something that's neither inert nor living. The purchase price is often the least of things.
  3. Don't buy on promises or potential. Acquire for real value now. Anything in the future is a plus (or, sometimes, a minus).
  4. Don't buy more than you can consume now. We all have fixed resources to acquire and adopt new things; acquisitions that sit on the shelf depreciate very quickly.
The rules work for acquiring a scanner or a corporation, though corporations may have more leeway with #3. I suppose, with a minimal tweak or two, they work for marriage too.

Rule #3 didn't used to be true of computers. In the days when our computers were open platforms, we could reasonably expect that the market would meet our needs. That's obviously not true for Apple's increasingly closed products; whether it's an Airport Extreme*, Time Capsule*, an iPod, an Air Book or an iPhone. It's also true for Windows however -- there will never be a real alternative to Microsoft Office on Microsoft's platform.

* Alas, how much better these things would be if Firewire had not been eliminated by the far inferior USB 2.0 interface. Another story though.

PS. Ever notice that no-one does a list of "four" things? Three, yes. Ten, yes. Never four. Until now ...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The puzzle of cetacean brains

When I was a child there was a lot of excitement about dolphin brains and dolphin language. It didn't seem to go anywhere, but the cognitive sciences have been moving onwards.

In an era where almost every aspect of thought that seemed purely human has been found to be commonplace, it's time to reexamine the cetacean brain.

Scientific American features a brief review of the science. In short, there's no obvious neuro-anatomic reason to suppose that cetaceans should be less "clever" than humans. Indeed, sperm whales ought to be prodigies of thought.

So why do they need such massive brains? Those calorie sucking engines require an immense amount of food; sperm whale brains ought to be doing something to justify their costly upkeep.

But what?

Canada wimps out

Sad. I'd expected better of Canada.
BBC NEWS | Americas | Canada FM regrets 'torture list'

...The Canadian foreign minister has apologised for including the US and Israel on a list of states where prisoners are at risk of torture.

Maxime Bernier said the list, which formed part of a manual on torture awareness given to diplomats, 'wrongly includes some of our closest allies'."...

Huckabee's constitutional amendment

I missed this during a few days in Manchester (UK).
Huckabee wants to change the US constitution

...but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view....
That makes sense. If one truly believes that one's particular deity desires a particular world order, then there's no choice but to enforce that order.

Jimmy Carter, who was and is deeply religious, believed that his deity didn't want to work that way, so he left the constitution alone.

George Bush is probably confused, some days thinking one way of his deity, and other days thinking another way. Introspection is not his strength.

Huckabee is not confused, he's a warm and fuzzy hard core fundamentalist theocrat.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Getting comfortable with harvesting your clone

Many science fiction stories and movies have featured clones created as backup organ donors.

Just saying (emphases mine) ...
Mature Human Embryos Created From Adult Skin Cells - washingtonpost.com

Scientists at a California company reported yesterday that they had created the first mature cloned human embryos from single skin cells taken from adults, a significant advance toward the goal of growing personalized stem cells for patients suffering from various diseases.

Creation of the embryos -- grown from cells taken from the company's chief executive and one of its investors -- also offered sobering evidence that few, if any, technical barriers may remain to the creation of cloned babies...

...Five of the new embryos grew in laboratory dishes to the stage that fertility doctors consider ready for transfer to a woman's womb: a degree of development that clones of adult humans have never achieved before.

No one knows whether those embryos were healthy enough to grow into babies. But the study leader, who is also the medical director of a fertility clinic, said they looked robust, even as he emphasized that he has no interest in cloning people.

"It's unethical and it's illegal, and we hope no one else does it either," said Samuel H. Wood, chief executive of Stemagen in La Jolla, whose skin cells were cloned and who led the study with Andrew J. French, the firm's chief scientific officer.

The closely held company hopes to make embryos that are clones, or genetic twins, of patients, then harvest stem cells from those embryos and grow them into replacement tissues. When transplanted into patients, the tissues would not be rejected because the immune system would see them as "self."...

...Asked what it was like to look at embryos that were replicas of himself, Wood said: "I have to admit, it's a very strange feeling. It is very difficult to look at an embryo and realize it is what you were a few decades ago. It is you, in a way.
We knew this was coming a few months ago.

Just tissues of course. We'd never let the clone develop any further -- say to a more advanced stage of tissue differentiation. That would be unethical ...

In a related article (no link, sorry) I read that a similar experiment went forward because a survey of the public showed they were quite comfortable with the protocol.

So where's the religious right when you want them? Well, I fear they were brought down by the appeal of modern eugenics. The elimination of Downs syndrome requires abortion -- and that was too great a temptation to be resisted. I think they've slunk away.

How do I know this will go all the way?

Well, if my 6 yo needed a heart tissue patch, I'm not all sure I wouldn't authorize a differentiated clone ...

The DNA content of locker room key pins

I wondered about this many years ago, but we didn't have blogs then.

We don't reuse needles in health care. When someone is accidentally stuck by a used needle, it's a big deal ...
Medical Staff Update - Chief of Staff

...When a needle stick occurs, the health-care worker should go to Employee Health if that office is open (usually between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.); otherwise, exposed staff members should report to the Emergency Department. The Emergency Department or Employee Health nurse will start the process of getting blood drawn from the source patient during the initial risk assessment. This will include completion of an employee-accident injury form.

Exposed staff members will be screened for HIV antibody, HBsAb, HCV antibody and HCV PCR qualitative...
Of course not all sticks are equal. A superficial scrape is not the same as a jab deep into muscle.

Which brings me to those pins that hang from swimming pool locker room keys. I just used one of those today, and, as has happened many times before, I managed to poke myself. I didn't draw blood, but I noticed.

Those pins have probably been around for over 10 years, each pin has probably stuck over a hundred people. I wonder what the DNA on the pins looks like. Wouldn't it be interesting to know what the Hepatitis C viral titer is?

How the music industry can regain control

If I were the music industry, this is how I'd regain control ...
Gordon's Tech: DRM, the new iPods and the unanticipated:

.... I'd be buying up used CDs and destroying them, while distributing new music by wire -- with full DRM support. Is anyone visiting used CD store looking for suspicious batch buyers?

What about the strategy of selling non-DRMd music on Amazon? Sure, it's good for beating up Apple, but I think it's really about destroying the CD. Buy up used CDs and destroy them, migrate consumers off CDs and onto the wire, then introduce robust watermarked identifiers so music can always be traced to the purchaser.

Not a bad strategy really, but it's sure to have unanticipated consequences. What will it mean when all thinks identify us? What will happen to the use and value of these identifiers? Will kidnappers force people to turn over their music collection? Will owners be able to 'repudiate' their data, so it becomes unplayable? How will all this data be mined?
I think it might work. (Originally on my tech blog, but in a post on the DRM technology of the newer iPods I slid over into opinion.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

What is the IQ of the American commentariat?

I'd guess about 105.

Exhibit A:
Reagan and revenue - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog:

... Is it really possible that all the triumphant declarations that the Reagan tax cuts led to a revenue boom — declarations that you see in highly respectable places — are based on nothing but a failure to make the most elementary corrections for inflation and population growth? Yes, it is. I know we’re supposed to pretend that we’re having a serious discussion in this country; but the truth is that we aren’t....

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Algebraist and the religion of the eternal simulation

Update 6/8/13: I've finished rereading this book. Enough time had passed that, given my memory, it was somewhat new again. Perhaps I remembered enough to make the twists easier to follow. I know I read it more slowly and carefully.

I liked this book when I first read it, but I didn't like it enough. The review I wrote that follows below is ... dumb. This is a brilliant book -- it just needs to be read slowly. Probably more than once.
--
Iain M Banks is well represented in my mind-expanding books collection. So I expected there would be more to The Algebraist than meets the eye.

And so there is.

Yes, it's not the equal of Feersum Endjinn. Yes, it can be read as a well done variant of the standard space opera; even the the little twist in the epilogue won't surprise Banks fans. And yes, I must admit, the plot doesn't hold together as well as it might (see update); the book needed one more painful rewrite review.

Only Banks, however, would embed an extended, serious and satirical, reply to Bostrum's simulation thesis in the midst of a space opera (see also a NYT article from last summer). [1]

First, a bit of background. Briefly, Bostrum uses routine statistical reasoning to assert that it is overwhelmingly likely that "we" (meaning at least you and I) exist in a form of computer simulation. David Brin has argued that the improbable success of George Bush suggests he's the alpha and omega of the simulation, but this theory is not universally accepted.

It's fun stuff. Variants of this thesis have been well explored by several authors in the mind-expanding books collection, but Banks has the most explicitly philosophical exposition.

Banks imagines that "the Simulation" thesis has become the basis for a pan-Galactic "faith", called The Truth. It's a relition with some resemblance to various millenialist cults and low brow Buddhist sects seeking salvation by chanting the name of the Buddah... (Emphases mine, the text below may not be completely accurate [2])
The Algebraist [1]

...The Truth was the presumptuous name of the religion, the faith that lay behind reality. It arose from the belief that what appeared to be real life must in fact - according to some piously invoked statistical certitudes - be a simulation being run within some prodigious computational substrate in a greater and more encompassing reality beyond. This was a thought that had, in some form, crossed the minds of most people and all civilisations. However, everybody quickly or eventually came round to the idea that a difference that made no difference wasn't a difference to be much bothered about, and one might as well get on with (what appeared to be) life.
The Truth went a stage further, holding that this was difference that could be made to make a difference. What was necessary was for people truly to believe in their hearts, in their souls, in their minds, that they really were in a vast simulation. They had to reflect upon this, to keep it at the forefront of their thoughts at all times and they had to gather together on occasion, with all due ceremony and solemnity, to express this belief. And they must evangelise, they must convert everybody they possibly could to this view, because - and this was the whole point - once a sufficient proportion of people within the simulation came to acknowledge that it was a simulation, the value of the simulation to those who had set it up would disappear and the whole thing would collapse.
If they were all part of some vast experiment, then the fact that those on whom the experiment was being conducted had guessed the truth would mean that its value would be lost. If they were some plaything, then again, that they had guessed this meant they ought to be acknowledged, even - perhaps - rewarded. If they were being tested in some way, then this was the test being passed, this was a positive result, again possibly deserving a reward. If they had been undergoing punishment for some transgression in the greater world, then this ought to constitute cause for rehabilitation.
It was not possible to know what proportion of the simulated population would be required to bring things to a halt (it might be fifty percent, it might be rather smaller or greater), but as long as the numbers of the enlightened kept increasing, the universe would be constantly coming closer to the epiphany, and the revelation could come at any point.
The Truth claimed with some degree of justification to be the ultimate religion, the final faith, the last of all churches...
...It could also claim a degree of universality that the others could not. All other major religions were either specific to their originating species, could be traced back to a single species - often a single subset of that species - or were consciously developed amalgams, syntheses, of a group of sufficiently similar religions of disparate origin...
... The Truth could even claim to be not a religion at all, where such a claim might endear it to those not naturally religious by nature. It could be seen more as a philosophy, even as a scientific postulate backed by unshakeably firm statistical likelihood.
There were some potentially unfortunate consequences implicit in a profound belief in the Truth. One was that there was a possibility that when the simulation ended, all the people being simulated would cease to exist entirely. The sim might be turned off and everybody within the substrate running it would die. There might be no promotion, no release, no return to a bigger and better and finer outside: there might just be the ultimate mass extinction...
Personally my experience with, and indirect knowledge of, mortal life makes the "punishment" thesis particularly plausible. On the other hand maybe we're just contaminants in the culture dish, or a forgotten version 0.7a of the simulation that's been left to to run on some obsolete hardware.

It's good fun to imagine variations of the theme of "what's the simulation being run for", though by now I think the topic has been pretty well explored. [3]

Oh, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that the simulation theory is one answer to the Fermi Paradox (see also); we are alone because the "purpose" of the simulation requires it. Not coincidentally Deism has the same answer to the Fermi Pardox (God only wanted us); an inexplicable omnipotent deity or an alien uber-geek are but two sides of the same coin. Indeed, one might even speculate that the Fermi Paradox is a bit of circumstantial evidence for the aforementioned coin.

Thanks Iain, please do keep up the good work.

[1] The ninth page of "Four: Events during Wartime" in my paperback edition.
[2] Perhaps you imagine I typed in that long excerpt. Of course not. I Googled on some key words and found it had been typed for me. Hmm. Seems a bit too easy. What other clues could be on that site .... (cue music).
[3] One of my favorite variations came in a book from, I think, Greg Egan (also on the list). In that book Egan pummeled the meme from several directions. In one exercise a simulation is created with an intentional inconsistency; the laws of physics of the simulation are so absurd that it is truly impossible to create a self-consistent "theory of everything". The inhabitants will be crushed by absurdity, and perhaps forced to recognize their universe cannot be "real". Alas, the simulants are smarter than expected, and through staggering brilliance they resolve the paradox. Their breakthrough makes their simulation self-consistent, severs the newly independent universe from the (recursive) simulation that it was hosted within, and condemns some of their uber-geek deities to eternal damnation. [Update 6/16/09: The book is Greg Egan's Permutation City.]

PS. The Amazon reviews say this book is outside of Banks "Culture" universe, but it could be read as the pre-history of something that might become a kin to "the Culture".

Update 1/18/07: On first posting I wrote that the plot didn't seem to hold together all that well. I was particularly thinking of certain aspects of the ending. On reflection, I think that's still true of the resolution of one subplot. On the main plot, however, I now think I'd underestimated Mr. Banks. I should have remembered from his prior work that there's always a hidden agenda to be uncovered. The peculiar course of Fassin Taak's condition does make sense in the context of the schemes that operate between the pages.

Use the name your enemies would give one of their causes

I liked Krugman's aside in a post written on a different topic:

Bush tax cut mythology - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog

...If we ever have legislation decreeing death of the first-born, it will be named MPAPRA, the Motherhood Patriotism and Apple Pie Reconcilation Act, or something like that...

I posted previously about the brilliant name given the organization that has quietly transformed the medical knowledge industry. The lesson is clear: when you want something to be accepted in the face of a powerful opposition, use the name that your opposition would choose for some cause they like (which need not be in any way related to your own cause).

Republicans pioneered this technique, but, at long last, naive Dems have at last caught on. Now the titles of most legislation are largely unrelated to the content, but they sound vaguely uplifting to all.

Want to build bicycle paths? Call your organization the Coalition for Automative Rights (CAR). Can't fail.

I don't think Orwell anticipated this. It's really post-Orwellian.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

MacFlop

My MacWorld predictions were far more interesting than what Apple produced.

Dull.

Blech.

Update 1/17: One of my favorite Mac sites, Daring Fireball, captures the mood of the OS X geekbase (slightly censored):

Daring Fireball: Keynote Roundup

...But so now Time Capsule is here, and there’s no word from Apple about backing up to hard drives attached to base stations. Which in turn is leading to the suspicion that perhaps the reason hard drive/base station Time Machine backups were pulled from Leopard was to make the feature exclusive to Apple’s own Time Capsule hardware. Check the comment thread on this article at Macworld to see some angry customers — people who bought hard drives and base stations in advance of Leopard specifically in anticipation of this feature.

Again, I think Time Capsule is a great idea and a great product. But if Apple has pulled support for hard drive/base station backups to eliminate Time Capsule competition, that’s ******, pure and simple. To be clear, though, it’s still an “if” at this point...

Personally I'd like to see Apple's share price fall about 20%. Very few companies can resist the intoxicating power of a constantly rising share price, just as few people can resist the effect of uninterrupted success. Arrogance is inevitable. It's a sign of Apple's new reputation that even supportive geeks like DF are ready to suspect the worst.

If we can amplify the "boring MacWorld" meme enough to drop the share price, we might end up with a chastened Apple. It's a much better company when it's been (temporarily) humbled ...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Duct tape and warts: how the HECK does it work?

Duct tape as a wart treatment is not alternative medicine.

Really. It's been studied a few times ... (emphasis mine):
Duct Tape More Effective than Cryotherapy for Warts - February 1, 2003 - American Family Physician (KARL E. MILLER, M.D.)

Focht DR III, et al. The efficacy of duct tape vs cryotherapy in the treatment of verruca vulgaris (the common wart). Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med October 2002;156:971-4.

Common warts (verruca vulgaris) are a common problem among patients who present in family physicians' offices. Although a significant number of warts will spontaneously resolve over two years, patients frequently request treatment to clear their skin of the lesions. Treatments such as cryotherapy, acid preparations, laser therapy, heat, and tape occlusion have been used in the management of warts, with cure rates ranging from 32 to 93 percent. However, most of these therapies are expensive, painful, or labor intensive. A few small, nonrandomized trials have studied the use of tape occlusion in wart treatment, with one study reporting cure rates of approximately 80 percent. Focht and associates compared the effectiveness of cryotherapy with duct tape applied to common warts.

The study was a prospective, randomized controlled trial with two treatment arms. Participants were patients three to 22 years of age who had viral warts and presented to a military clinic. Participants were randomized to receive cryotherapy or occlusive therapy with duct tape. Cryotherapy consisted of 10-second applications of liquid nitrogen to each wart every two to three weeks for a maximum of six treatments. The other group applied small pieces of duct tape to each wart. They were instructed to leave the tape in place for six days and were taught how to re-apply tape if it fell off. At the end of the sixth day, the patients removed the duct tape, soaked the wart in water, and gently debrided it with an emery board or pumice stone. The tape was left off overnight, then re-applied for another six days. This pattern was repeated for two months or until the wart resolved. Warts that did not resolve were measured. The main outcome measured was complete resolution of the wart.

In patients treated with duct tape, 85 percent of the warts completely resolved, compared with 60 percent in the cryotherapy group. These results were statistically significant. Resolution of warts treated with duct tape usually occurred within the first 28 days of therapy. If there was no response within the first two weeks, the warts were unlikely to respond to a longer course of therapy. The main adverse outcomes with duct-tape therapy were difficulty keeping the tape on the wart and minor skin irritation. The main adverse effect in the cryotherapy group was mild to severe pain at the freeze site during and after the treatment.

The authors conclude that duct tape occlusive therapy is more effective than cryotherapy in the treatment of common warts. They also state that duct tape therapy is less expensive and has fewer adverse effects than cryotherapy.
This business of treating warts in children with duct tape has been around for at least 16 years, but I've never really believed in it.

It's just so weird.

Then my 8yo developed a quite impressive toe wart. A flowering exuberant growth. It bugged him, but there was absolutely no way he was going to have it incinerated or freeze-burned. No friggin' way.

So we tried the weird duct tape treatment. An old silver roll.

Over the next few days, when we reapplied the tape, the wart started to look sickly. It's vessels appeared dusky, as though they were occluding. Then the entire toe started to appear mildly inflamed - swollen and red.

The next evening my son proudly displayed an impressive crater where the wart had been. It had fallen off. Within a few days the crater was gone, though I think there's some warty material remaining. (We're reapplying the tape.)

Ok, so there are skeptics, and if it does work then it's probably limited to children and adolescents with good immune systems. In these cases the immune system is perfectly capable of clobbering a wart, but first it has to recognize it as foreign.

So, how could it possibly work?

There, PubMed failed me. I couldn't find any interest in how this thing might work.

Doesn't that display a certain lack of imagination? Viral warts have many of the properties of tumors, and of course immune tolerance and rejection is important. Heck, apoptosis is still somewhat fashionable. Isn't anyone interested in how this treatment actually works?

I suspect this one runs into three problems:
  1. It's so weird that most researchers don't believe it works.
  2. If it works they figure this is some kind of "mind over immunology" thing, and there's no tenure in chasing that one.
  3. Duct tape is cheap.
We need a bored tenured faculty person with an animal lab to study this in animals. If we found that duct tape cured animal warts we'd then be able to figure out what it's doing.

Update 8/31/08: The comments are interesting. I particularly like the suggestion a few degree change in local temperature might be enough to impact the wart/body war, though it's fair to mention that plantar warts thrive in a pretty warm environment.

Can't check-in online? Try finding a codeshare.

I'm doing a four day round trip to Manchester, UK for a family obligation. Rough travel, but if my back holds out I should be ok.

I'm paying for the flight, so thanks to Kayak I'm on some obscure discount airline that cost less than half of what NWA wanted. bmi wouldn't let me check-in online however. Not only that, but I couldn't figure out how the heck to find them at my local airport. They're pretty low profile.

Google saved me, of course. I entered the flight number into Google, and flightstats.com told me the Chicaog hop is a United code share. Emily then suggested I try online check-in through United, and, unexpectedly, it worked.

In fact, United claims I'm checked-in to Manchester through the BMI flight; I won't rely on that however.

Two good techniques. First, in an era where airlines are increasingly virtual, Google can help figure out which desk to visit. Secondly, the online check-in may work better with the true carrier than with the name on the itinerary.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Stross dissects cell phone schemes: lessons in pricing strategy

In an ideal world, mobile phone contracts and pricing would be freely accessible. In that world a few people would figure out the best deals, and would publicize them on ad supported web sites.

In that utopia phone companies wouldn't be able to pay pricing games.

In the real world mobile phone contracts are top secret. I tried to get just one from Sprint a year ago -- not possible.

Cell phone companies also change their new plans and pricing schemes every few weeks, so anyone trying to decrypt them will be foiled.

This is what's known as an asymmetric business relationship. They have immense resources to game us, and we can't really play in their league. All we can do is save up our enmity for the phone companies, waiting for the day Google takes 'em down.

In the meantime, geeks like Charles Stross occasionally try to figure out today'sgame played by Vodafone in the UK (where handsets are more switchable than here):
Charlie's Diary: Marketing Musings

... the sweet spot on Vodafone's tariff curve (in the Anytime business packages) seems to be Anytime 500 on a 18 month contract. (By the time you hit Anytime 500 on 12 month contract, costs are beginning to rise; and anything less than Anytime 500 on the 18 month contract is in the "soak the trend-follower" category.)

And there's my second point: 12 month tariffs are weighted on the assumption that you're a trend-follower and may be part of the general customer churn. They invariably have a much higher total cost of ownership than the 18 month tariffs...

... the total cost of a twelve month contract costs nearly 90% of the price of an eighteen month contract. If you take the twelve month contract and stay on it for eighteen months, you'd be paying a whisker under £800. The mark-up for going for a short contract is huge; they're counting on your natural reluctance to be locked in for an extra six months to lead you to pay hugely over the odds.

(Want a twelve month contract? You might as well buy an eighteen month contract — if you decide to switch telco, the break-even point is thirteen months. At that point you might as well buy a new phone, set call divert on your old number, take the old sim out and cut it up so you can't run up any additional charges, and get going: you're still ahead of the game. The system is loaded insofar as it relies on customers fixating on the contract lock-in period and not realizing that they can "buy themselves out" at any point by cutting up a SIM and making a note on their calendar to remind them to close the account when the lock-in expires. And on most people not running the total cost of ownership through a spreasheet before they buy.)..

...The TCO per minute for a phone purchased on the superficially cheap-looking Talk 75 tariff turns out to be two and a half times higher than the TCO per minute for Talk 200, and a ridiculous seven times higher than on Talk 500...
I don't have anywhere near the patience to play this game here, but I think the mid-length contract and mid-range phone ideas might be a good rule of thumb to follow.

John's MacWorld predictions

The TUAW Macworld 2008 Keynote Predictions - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) collection is pretty good. Inspired by that list, here's mine:

  • Home server: Microsoft's Home Server is a very good idea. Apple can do the same thing incorporating backup (including remote backup), video downloads and media library, and using 10.5 remote access (so it's headless). It will include streaming wireless audio/hd video and come with matching peripherals. I might actually buy this. (After I wrote this I see Christina of TUAW had it too.)
  • iPhone 16 GB. Maybe they fix the headphone connector too. I am planning to buy this.
  • ultraportable laptop (of course)
  • video downloads (of course)
  • bluetooth peripherals for iPhone (keyboard, etc)
  • Aperture update: they could do this at the upcoming camera show. If Apple doesn't update Aperture in a big way it's toast.
  • Way out: Adobe acquisition (per Cringely). (Actually this is more under - weirdest possible surprise)

The only one on this list that's not been widely predicted is the Home media server and, of course, the Adobe acquisition.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Motorola ROKR and the Apple iPhone

Wired has a must-read summary of the birth of the iPhone.

The Untold Story: How the iPhone Blew Up the Wireless Industry

... It was a late morning in the fall of 2006. Almost a year earlier, Steve Jobs had tasked about 200 of Apple's top engineers with creating the iPhone. Yet here, in Apple's boardroom, it was clear that the prototype was still a disaster...

It's no surprise to read that months before the release date the iPhone was a disaster. My guess is that Apple's taking so long to add my "must have" features because the thing is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. It usually takes at least a year to dig out from a hole like that, so maybe they'll have a stable environment by this summer.

One of the most delicious parts is a sidebar comparing the Motorola ROKR vs. the iPhone

...Apple has created two music phones. The ROKR, made with Motorola in 2005, respected the traditional relationships between manufacturers and carriers. The iPhone, released last summer, completely overturned them....

Supposedly Jobs thought the RAZR was a sign that Motorola could build a good phone. As a RAZR owner, I'm surprised. I thought Jobs was smarter than that.

Anyway, he learned another lesson, and he must have staff who understood that the Motorola RAZR is very ugly software in a pretty shell.

China: the new driver with the 1.4 trillion dollar car

In this month's Atlantic James Fallows writes about China's 1.4 trillion US dollar financial reserves. The management of those reserves played a key role in his 2005 warning of American disaster.

It's a timely review, though he might have mentioned the parallels to Saudi Arabia's foreign reserve accumulations 1970s. The part that caught my attention came towards the end
The $1.4 Trillion Question

....The fair reason for concern is, again, the transparency problem. Twice in the past year, China has in nonfinancial ways demonstrated the ripples that a nontransparent policy creates. Last January, its military intentionally shot down one of its own satellites, filling orbital paths with debris. The exercise greatly alarmed the U.S. military, because of what seemed to be an implied threat to America’s crucial space sensors. For several days, the Chinese government said nothing at all about the test, and nearly a year later, foreign analysts still debate whether it was a deliberate provocation, the result of a misunderstanding, or a freelance effort by the military. In November, China denied a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, routine permission to dock in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving, even though many Navy families had gone there for a reunion. In each case, the most ominous aspect is that outsiders could not really be sure what the Chinese leadership had in mind. Were these deliberate taunts or shows of strength? The results of factional feuding within the leadership? Simple miscalculations? In the absence of clear official explanations no one really knew, and many assumed the worst...
Bush's America has not been a paragon of reasoned action. It's reasonable to assume that China, now newly in command of vast financial power, might be similarly impulsive and unpredictable.

No wonder Moody's, a disgraced financial rating agency, whines about the difficulty of assessing risk in the new world. They have a point, even though they're trying to distract attention from their internal corruption.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Bike boxes: if they work, we want them

Three children have hammered my bike commuting habits, but I'll be back one day. In the days when I did commute, I learned the hard way to beware the driver turning right. I was hit at least once in my youth; drivers simply don't see bicyclists waiting by the right curb at a stop light.

The trick was to get out in front. For me that was to the left side of the right lane - nudging into the pedestrian crosswalk. Cars could turn to my right, but I was blocking the front. When the light changed I pulled out fast and then went right, so they could pass me -- but they couldn't avoid seeing me and there was no way to turn right into me.

In Portland two bicyclists died recently, supposedly because they didn't follow that practice (though I find it hard to believe a racer wouldn't do that, so maybe there was more to that story). Now Portland has changed intersections to ensure bicyclists take a visible position:
Portland, Ore., Acts to Protect Cyclists - New York Times:

... By allowing cyclists to wait in front of motorized traffic, the bike boxes are intended chiefly to reduce the risk of “right hook” collisions, the kind most frequently reported in Portland, in which a driver makes a right turn without seeing a cyclist who is in his path. Drivers will not be allowed to pass through the bike box to turn right on a red light, although many right hooks now occur after the light has turned green, when traffic quickly accelerates.

Right hooks were what killed the two cyclists in October, a college student and a bike racer hit by large trucks. The drivers say they did not see them...
I'm not sure how that will work -- drivers will be irritated if they can't turn right. An irritated driver is a dangerous driver. If the experiment does work I hope we adopt it in the Twin Cities.

The two edged sword cuts Maureen Dowd

Ooooh. This is good.

Jon Swift: The Crying of Maureen Dowd

When New York Times reporters walked into their offices last night, people were clustering around one office to watch what they thought they would never see: Maureen Dowd with the unmistakable look of tears in her eyes...

Maureen Dowd long ago traded integrity for popularity; she's a sad demonstration of both wasted talent and the lowly state of the American "elite". Today's Dowd dump is a typically annoying, and intensely personal, rip on Hillary Clinton's ocular discharge.

I had nothing useful to say about the column, but the infamous conservative* writer Jon Swift did a lovely job of sword inversion. Read Dowd first, then read Swift.

* Ok. So with a pen name like "Swift" certain self-descriptions may be suspect.

Update: That was it?!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hilary is the new Al. I might become a fan ...

EJ Dionne, in praising Obama, makes Clinton more appealing ...
E. J. Dionne Jr. - A Candidacy's Prose and Cons - washingtonpost.com

...There is a certain melancholy in watching Clinton do battle. Obviously aware that the bottom is falling out from under her, she choked up Monday during her last day of campaigning here. By way of proving her tenacity and the depth of her policy knowledge, she has subjected herself to unremitting rounds of questions from voters about every issue from health care to global warming.

Clinton knows her stuff and would pass the most rigorous test available under any "No Policy Left Behind" program for politicians. If we chose a president by examination rather than election, she would win. In Hampton on Sunday night, Maggie Wood Hassan, a prominent state senator, said of Clinton's savvy on health care: "There isn't a single piece of the puzzle she hasn't figured out." True, but voters right now are not thinking about intricate puzzles....
We know Hilary has been been brought low because Gloria Steinem is saying her problems are gender related. (I couldn't make myself read the Steinem article. For Hilary I imagine it adds insult to injury.)

Obama entertains. Hilary is smart, passionate, ambitious, knowledgeable. America is bored. America wants someone fun. Gore Hilary is no fun.

Yes, Hilary is the new Al.

I like Al. I remember what happened the last time America had too many drinks and decided to go for a wild fling with the fun fighter pilot.

I'm starting to get over the pain of "Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton". Mind you, that's a huge hurdle, but Bill isn't being much of a factor these days. If Hilary were to change her name to Rodham I could be a supporter. (I liked President Bill Clinton, it's the hereditary aristocracy part I don't care for.)

Ah well, we have two very good Democratic candidates and one wild card who could be anything from disappointing to great. It could be a lot worse. America isn't about to go into rehab, so I'll support whichever Dem the process delivers.

PS. Emily senses the hidden hand of Karl Rove behind the cult of Obama ...

Update 1/9/08: James Fallows has a nice post expanding on this theme. I must be channeling the gestalt!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Irving Kristol and the NYT OpEd conspiracy

James Fallows reveals our plans...

James Fallows (January 07, 2008) - The NYT introduces a wordsmith

... Perhaps this is more proof of a cunning, leftist NYT master plot? Bringing in a conservative who will demonstrate that conservatives have little interesting to say? Inquiring minds want to know. But only time will tell...

We tested the waters with David Brooks. Could we really get away making an articulate but mockable propagandist the NYT spokesperson for the GOP?

It worked; even the GOP was pleased. Perfect. Now for Phase II. Compared to Kristol even Brooks is semi-sentient.

The Trilateral Commission is pleased. Our plan for the rehabilitation of the GOP is proceeding smoothly.

Mormonism in the GOP - a NYT Magazine discussion

Romney, alas, is going down. I really hoped he'd get the nomination, because he would give the GOP the time out of power needed for reform.

He is, after all, running for the party that, has a traditional Christian core. If you believe in a harsh God who gates Paradise, then you care about theological rigor. Mormonism is way beyond the theological tolerance range of conservative Protestantism -- or even less conservative Catholicism. (No-one has dared ask what Pope whatshisname thinks of Mormonism.) From their perspective a vote for Romney is vote for Hell -- only an atheist or Muslim could be worse.

This seems to be hard for many commentators to understand. They assume Romney's vulnerability is based in traditional bigotry. That may be so, but most pundits really don't spend enough time studying theology. I'm as agnostic as they get (functional atheist, philosophical agnostic), but I like studying religion. For religious conservatives, details matter.

Consider the Trinity. Compared to thousand year battles over the relationship of God to the Holy Spirit Mormonism is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

A sympathetic NYT Magazine article provides us with the an informed rationalist perspective that still sort of misses the point:
Mitt Romney - Mormonism - Mormons - Presidential Election of 2008 - Politics - Elections - New York Times

.... Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson...
Well, yes, to a secular humanist all of these revelations are equally respectable -- but to a fundamentalist believer there's a rather huge difference.

As in an eternity of Hellfire.

That's rather a meaningful distinction!