Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gwynne Dyer: four new essays

The historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer has four new essays online:
  • Pakistan: Bhutto's assassination voided any deals with Musharraff and thus ended his power. Dyer detects a faint ray of hope.
  • Tibet: China will crush the uprising just as they did in 1959, Olympics or no Olympics. China has been uncharacteristically restrained up to this point.
  • Iraq: Iraq's ethnic partitioning will aid recovery. Even Lebanon stopped fighting. Was it worth it? We'll never know.
  • Abkhazia: Dyer makes a peculiar argument that Russia actually likes International law and the UN, and therefore won't truly advance Abhkazian separation from Georgia. I have to admit it's a novel idea! That never would have occurred to me.

Bush's brilliant ploy, and why we should abolish the presidential pardon

The Presidential pardon (think Marc Rich) is an anachronism, a legacy of royalty.

The pardon system allows Bush to run illegal operations, and to guarantee protection to his minions. It incents Bush to run the clock until pardon time.

Bush's latest clock running gambit is to freeze the Office of Legal Counsel until the end of his term (emphases mine) ...

My Way or the Highway - New York Times

... In a lower job in that office, Mr. Bradbury signed off on two secret legal memos authorizing torture in American detention camps. The first approved waterboarding, among other things. When Congress outlawed waterboarding, the other memo assured Mr. Bush that he could ignore the law.

Mr. Bradbury is widely viewed on both sides of the aisle as such a toxic choice that he will never be confirmed. The Senate has already refused to do so twice...

...The head of the Office of Legal Counsel is one of the most important jobs in the Justice Department, charged with telling the executive branch whether it is acting legally. His advice is supposed to be based on the law, not the party line.

Mr. Bradbury, however, continues to defend his cynical memos, and the odious practices they blessed. In a Senate hearing, he tried to justify the way the Central Intelligence Agency does waterboarding by comparing it with the Japanese military’s World War II practice of forcing prisoners to drink huge amounts of water and then jumping on their stomachs.

Human rights experts say the Bush and Bradbury-approved method of waterboarding — strapping down a prisoner under gushing water to make him fear drowning — puts the United States in the company of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the French in Algeria and the security services of the Burmese dictatorship. There is certainly no comfort in that.

When Mr. Bush refused to withdraw the Bradbury nomination, the Senate’s Democratic leaders decided to stop processing other controversial nominations. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, twice offered to resume confirmations and compromise on candidates if Mr. Bush withdrew Mr. Bradbury — and forwarded the names of six Democrats chosen for bipartisan panels like the Federal Election Commission. The White House refused, and Mr. Reid took to keeping the Senate in pro forma sessions during vacations to prevent Mr. Bush from making a recess appointment of Mr. Bradbury and other objectionable choices.

At this point, according to a review by, the election commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the National Labor Relations Board do not have enough members to do their jobs. Scores of federal judgeships are vacant. The Council of Economic Advisers is down to one adviser...

This is brilliant, in a perfectly evil way. Bush needs to disable the Office of Legal Counsel, and by nominating a toxic figure he's done that. At the same time he's disabled a bunch of government services he'd prefer to eliminate forever: "the election commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the National Labor Relations Board".

The appropriate response to this behavior would be to impeach Bush, but that would put Cheney in power. There's not enough time or votes to impeach both Cheney and Bush, and any impeachment effort would probably help Bush's latest protege -- John McCain.

Diabolical. Bush and Cheney win, again. He ain't stupid, unfortunately.

So for now we resist as best we can, and work for whoever the Democratic nominee is. If McCain loses, however, we really ought to look at abolishing the presidential pardon. That would require a constitutional amendment, but if a Democratic president proposes the fix then Republican senators might go along ...

Google: creating the missing ecosystems

This simple statement is both emintently reasonable and quietly astonishing:
A Letter from Larry Page

...Sometimes you don't get a good answer to a search because the information simply isn't available on the web. So we are working hard to encourage ecosystems that can generate more content from more authors and creators....
Google Search has to work so that Google's advertising revenue grows. When content is missing, Google does not build the solution (can't scale), they build the ecosystem.

Blogger is one obvious example. I'm still amazed by how often what I write in my tech blog appears at the top of Google searches -- despite a very small subscription readership. I write things that fill content gaps, and Google finds them.

Google Books is a less obvious example that might yet have a big influence. On the other hand, Google gave up on Google Answers -- a ecosystem that failed.

I wonder how far Google will go to provide an ecosystem for content producers, and to open new knowledge fronts. They have very large levers! Google Scholar is being used to increase readership of open journals, and thus weaken the publishing empires that keep vast amounts of knowledge hidden from most of the world. Regular Google Search was used to crack open the New York Times and end their experiment with paid access.

Google could buy the Encyclopedia Britannica, but I suspect they're looking for ways to pressure them to run off Ad Words ...

I wish Google would try micropayments other than through advertising, but that's only a weak wish. So far humans have been really resistant to the idea.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

What is schizophrenia? Not what we thought.

Some recent results for a study of the genetics of schizophrenia got a lot of press attention. Among other things, the studies are one more indication that the term "schizophrenia", like the term "autism", is obsolete.

First, here's the best of the coverage I read. One came from a blog, the other from the Washington Post. The rest of the coverage, including the NYT and Scientific American, was pretty bad. (Unfortunately Science does not allow public access to articles, I really wish they'd go out of business):

Schizophrenia involves an increased rate of mutations (Ars Technica)

... schizophrenics displayed a high rate (three times the expected level) of genetic mutations at the chromosomal level, where individual genes were either absent, or present multiple times, leading to over-representation. In patients with early-onset schizophrenia, this rate of mutation was four times the expected level.

The genes involved turned out to be important in brain development including neuregulin and glutamatergic signalling, along with ERK/MAPK signaling and genes that are involved in adhesion and synaptic plasticity. Interestingly, the mutations were not common across the schizophrenic patients, instead differing along familial lines...

Schizophrenia Linked to Rare, Often Unique Genetic Glitches (Rick Weiss, Washington Post)

Patients with schizophrenia are three to four times as likely as healthy people to harbor large mutations in genes that control brain development, and many of those glitches are unique to each patient, researchers reported yesterday.

The findings are forcing scientists to rethink the reigning model of how genes and environment conspire to cause the debilitating disease, which affects about 1 percent of the population worldwide.

In part, scientists said, the new view is daunting because it suggests that many people with schizophrenia have their own particular genetic underpinnings.

At the same time, the study shows that new screening techniques can find and differentiate among those various mutations. In the long run that could help doctors choose the best medications for individual schizophrenics and speed the development of drugs tailored to certain patients' needs.

"If the genetics tells us that schizophrenia is really 10 different disorders, then let's have 10 treatments that optimize the outcomes for everyone and not just use the same drugs for everybody," said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund and conduct the study.

The work also offers evidence that autism shares some genetic roots with schizophrenia.

"Take away schizophrenia's hallucinations and delusions," said Jon McClellan, a child psychiatrist at the University of Washington and a leader of the study, published in yesterday's online issue of the journal Science, "and the symptoms that remain, the lack of social interest and withdrawal, are what we call autism. There is clearly an intersection of the brain systems involved."

... scientists [had concluded] that the mutations contributing to schizophrenia are probably common in the population but have little impact individually, and that only when several occur together is a critical mass of neurological trouble achieved.

The model emerging from the new study is quite different. It says most cases of schizophrenia may be caused by rare genetic glitches that are individually potent.

The turnaround is the result of sophisticated gene scans conducted on 233 schizophrenics, including 83 who got the disease in childhood, a more serious condition. The scans looked for rare stretches of DNA where more than 100,000 "letters" of genetic code were either missing or mistakenly present in duplicate.

About 15 percent of schizophrenics, and 20 percent of those affected in childhood, had such glitches, compared with 5 percent of healthy individuals who were also studied. Yet the glitches, including one previously associated with autism, were different in each person.

Unlike previous scans based on older technology, which could at best find general genomic "neighborhoods" where mutations associated with schizophrenia are present, the new scans pinpointed the individual genes affected...

...The genes implicated are diverse, but many are known to play crucial roles in how the brain gets wired early in life. Normally that process starts with a huge overproduction of neurons, followed by a controlled winnowing that leaves only those that have made proper connections.

"Changes in these genes could bias the way circuits get sculpted out and could perhaps lead to a brain in which signals that would normally get filtered out don't get filtered out," which could interfere with thinking and prompt hallucinations, Insel said.

The delayed onset of the disease can be explained by the fact that some genes and brain connections do not take on central roles until young adulthood, said Jonathan Sebat of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, one of the study leaders...

Rick Weiss of the Post did a far better job than anyone else on summarizing these results. The NYT coverage, in particular, was disappointing.

This feels big, but note that that only 15% percent of "schizophrenics" fit this pattern. This is not the whole story, but it's the biggest piece we've gotten so far.

I'll summarize the key implications:

  • Schizophrenia is not a disease. It's the name given a fairly large number of unique disorders of brain development that have, among their endpoints, social withdrawal, hallucinations, and fixed beliefs.
  • A good number of cases of "autism" and "schizophrenia" are different manifestations of overlapping sets of mutations.
  • There may be"no genes for most instances autism and schizophrenia". There are sets of large scale mutations that are similar between close genetic relatives, but similar appearances are resulting from disorders of quite different components of brain development.
  • One in twenty seemingly normal people have big, ugly looking mutations that ought to be messing up their brain development. Yet they seem "normal". Seventeen in twenty persons with "schizophrenia" do NOT have these nasty scattered "sledgehammer" mutations. (So called because it's as though something took a sledgehammer to the genome.)
  • The age onset of schizophrenia is determined by when the disordered developmental genes are activated. There's a lot of this going on in late teen years. The implication is that the same thing explains why "autism" presents around ages 2-3, and why it can seem to appear fairly suddenly. This may also explain why some conditions seem to improve at other ages. Schizophrenia syndromes often improves in middle age, for example.
  • If every person with autism has a somewhat unique disorder, then treatments and prognosis are also unique. This validates the age old practice of asking someone with a cognitive/psychiatric disorder what treatments have worked for relatives.

The puzzle is far from complete, but one part of it has been filled out. We don't know what's causing these scattershot mutations, though a viral infection in very early development is one obvious possibility. I think this picture is also consistent with my earlier speculation that schizophrenia and autism are evolutionary disorders (see also).

Incidentally, Emily reminds me that autism was once considered a childhood variety of schizophrenia.

To me one of the most amazing results of the study is that 1/20 randomly selected health individuals have major derangements of genes responsible for brain development -- yet their brains still work. That's a group I'd really like to study!

See also:

Friday, March 28, 2008

Juggling identities: Udell, Cameron and Identity Woman

I've written about identity and reputation management, including a call for identity management services ...

We need more identity management tools that let us rapidly switch our personae (visible identities) and facets, while tracking our associated reputations and providing a visual cue as to our current identity. These tools can also remind us what each identity is designed for; it's not hard to forget the purpose or a persona, and thus to misuse it.

Obviously such a tool should have a biometric component, though it would need to be optional at first. One way to generate a revenue for such a service would be to provide the service free, but charge for the associated token*, biometric authentication component, or personal VPN add-on...

I figured there had to be people thinking deeply on these topics, but I couldn't make a good connection. I finally found one in an older post of Jon Udell's that's been sitting in my reading queue for months:

A conversation with Dick Hardt about British Columbia’s digital identity initiative « Jon Udell

On this week’s ITConversations show I chatted with Dick Hardt about that project. According to Kim’s Information Card thermometer, 10 percent of desktops are now running CardSpace or an equivalent identity selector technology such as DigitalMe. I’m not sure where the tipping point will be, but even if you’re in that 10 percent it’s hard to find concrete examples of how the technology will simplify your life...

DigitalMe? CardSpace?

This if from the Wikipedia CardSpace article:

...Windows CardSpace (codenamed InfoCard), is Microsoft's client software for the Identity Metasystem. CardSpace is an instance of a class of identity client software called an Identity Selector. CardSpace stores references to users' digital identities for them, presenting them to users as visual Information Cards. CardSpace provides a consistent UI that enables people to easily use these identities in applications and web sites where they are accepted...

...Because CardSpace and the Identity Metasystem upon which it is based are token-format-agnostic, CardSpace does not compete directly with other Internet identity architectures like OpenID and SAML... Information Cards can be used today for signing into OpenID providers, Windows Live ID accounts, SAML identity providers, and other kinds of services...

Microsoft initially shipped Windows CardSpace with the .NET Framework 3.0, which runs on Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Vista. It is installed by default on Windows Vista and is available as a free download for XP and Server 2003 via Windows Update. An updated version of CardSpace shipped with the .NET Framework 3.5.

So. I think I've picked up the scent now. Then from Jon Udell to the Cameron blog he mentioned: "This blog is about building a multi-centered system of digital identity that its users control." The most recent post promotes a conference run by "Identity Woman Kaliya"...

User-centric identity is the ability:

  • To use one’s identifier(s) on more then one site
  • To control who sees what information about you
  • To selectively share presence and profile information
  • To maintain multiple identities and personas in the contexts you wish
  • To aggregate attention, navigation, and purchase history from the sites and communities you frequent
  • To move and share your personal data, relationships, documents, and other publications as you wish

Ok, that sure sounds like the "identity management services" I was asking for.

So I've found sources to track. Here's the odd part. Both Jon Udell and Kim Cameron work for the Borg.

I've read Udell since his BYTE days, and now I've added Identity Woman (not Microsoft) and Kim Cameron to my blogroll.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The American corporation and the centrally planned economies of the soviet empire

Once in a while two loose neurons bang together and I look at the world differently.

That happened earlier today.

I'm almost always sure somebody's explored the idea, but in the dark ages there was no easy way to find out. I'd write my thoughts down move on. Now I just have to toss a few terms at Google.

Which is how I came to discover that this morning's unoriginal insight was the subject of a Brad DeLong paper written in 1997 when he worked for the Clinton administration.

My version of this insight struck because I've recently been thinking about some of the things all corporations have trouble with. This is work related rather than my usual idle speculation, so I can't provide details here. Suffice to say that my topic started small and concrete, but soon became quite grand. In the end I needed to consider three different sorts of exchanges of goods and services:

  1. exchanges within a corporation
  2. currency-based exchanges within a market economy
  3. collaborative exchanges between academics at different institutions or departments.

Sometime in the midst of this review, the obvious smacked me in the face:

The best publicly traded companies are an almost exact analog to the most finely tuned centrally-planned "command economies" of the Soviet empire, particularly the Czechoslovakian command economies of the late 1970s.

No wonder so many Soviet  and Communist Chinese bureaucrats had smoothly shifted into running massive corporations. Everything must have seemed so familiar. Conversely, the designers of the Czechoslovakian central planning process must have based it on their knowledge of American corporations.

I knew this insight couldn't be original, so I went looking for affirmation. Using the terms "corporation" and "planned economy" Google gave me a good hit on the first page:

The Corporation as a Command Economy by J. Bradford DeLong

University of California at Berkeley, and National Bureau of Economic Research July 1997

Most of us spend more than one-third of our waking lives working for large, modern corporations: organizations where we do not know personally either those at the top or the bulk of those at the bottom of the organization's administrative hierarchy. This is a striking change from two centuries ago, when a productive organization of more than thirty was unusual, and one of more than three hundred an extreme oddity....

...I am going to focus on the issues of corporate control. A corporation is a hierarchical organization. It has a boss--today the he (almost always a he) called the CEO, whose theoretical power is autocratic throughout the scope of the corporation, and subject only to the periodic continued approval of the Board of Directors and the annual meeting of the shareholders. But we were all told a decade ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that hierarchical organizations simply did not work as modes of organizing economic life--that you needed a market in order to achieve anything better than low-productivity, bureaucracy-ridden economic stagnation.

What, then, are all these large corporations--ATT and IBM, General Motors and Toyota, Microsoft and USX--doing? What methods of corporate control have saved them from turning into smaller versions of the unproductive Soviet economy?

So my comparisons are not original, and yet, as I scanned Brad's article, I was left with the impression that he gave too much credit to the efficiencies of General Electric , and not enough credit to the remarkable persistence of the planned economies.

My own prejudice is that today's corporations struggle mightily with the same challenges that brought down the planned economies of the Soviet era, and that they succeed more from their impressive ability to hold critical resources and to eliminate weaker competition, than through a unique gift for channeling and distributing resources.

If a new entity were to arise that combined the brute power of the corporation with the intelligence of a true market I think the modern corporation would go the way of the Soviet planning bureau.

That's a large if however. I am not aware of any serious challenger to the corporation, and so the planned economies of the world shall continue into the 21st century ...

XPonlinescanner: malware attack or very nasty ad? Interesting, either way.

Last week I ran into Firefox attack while browsing a local website. I posted about Malware infection on Star Tribune and other news sites.

I figured I'd hear something more about this, but a Google search today only shows my original post. So maybe I was imagining things.

Except my original post continues to attract about one comment a day, along the lines of:

I've never heard of or been to the Star Tribune website, but this pop up has appeared on starting up firefox on both a Linux and a Mac computer. I don't use MS Windows.
It would appear that this is wider spread than just a rogue web site.

I just received it this morning. But I believe this one actually popped up while I was on Photobucket.
I closed it but it just opened into a window saying it was scanning and then I just closed it again. I'm hoping it didn't do anything else.

Started this weekend on the (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) site. Complaint has been filed with site owner.

I've seen several versions of the install file over the past week which is an indication that someone is up to no good.
The source was: hxxp://'
I submitted these files to TrendMicro and they all came back as malware containing a Trojan downloader.

This popup is a Trojan Horse malware, users should close the window and not use any buttons presented in main popup.

just got the same treatment from them via and I notice it didn't install anything. They have a script that just resizes the browser really small and then they put a confirmation dialog on top of it. I closed the confirmation window and it resized my browser to the height and width of my screen and claimed to be scanning my computer....

I do wonder what's going on. If this is indeed a malware attack, it's interesting that it's propagating without comment across multiple sites. If it's not a malware attack, then it says something about the state of web advertising and the desperation of news sites.

Update 10/2/09: I wonder if the NYT breach of 9/15/09 was something similar...

...According to security experts, groups that are often based in Russia and Ukraine create the fake antivirus software and then recruit people to help distribute it by giving them a cut of any money made by selling the software. These so-called affiliates can mimic the advertisements of legitimate companies, learn their techniques for submitting ads to networks and sites, meddle with ad servers and then go so far as to provide customer support for people who install the software, keeping the scam running as long as possible...

Did the Strib ever realize it had been hacked? I don't think they ever admitted it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Whimsley: a new addition to my bloglist

I came across a new-to-me blog today, via Nicholas Carr. I enjoyed the post on Mr. Google's Guidebook and a few others, so I added Whimsley to my bloglist.

I'd like to see a bloglist that could mix a random sample of old posts with a current feed (probably could do this with Yahoo Pipes), there's so much past material here that would be new to me. I did go to the very first post. The blog has survived the book mentioned below, but the original theme has persisted ...

Whimsley, Nov 2005:

This blog is a shameless attempt at promoting my forthcoming book, "No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart", which the fine people at Between the Lines are publishing next spring.

The book is an argument against a certain kind of thinking -- a very common way of thinking I call MarketThink. MarketThink is the belief that (in the absence of government action) the world really does work according to the rules of the idealized free-market. MarketThink is the claim that, as long as we can exercise individual choices, the invisible hand of the free market guarantees that we get what we want.

The title of the book comes from one particular phrasing of that claim. Wal-Mart has commonly been criticised for the damage its edge-of-town stores do to city centres. In response to these criticisms, one of the arguments that Wal-Mart's supporters make is that "no one makes you shop at Wal-Mart", and that if people really felt that Wal-Mart was bad for their cities, they would not patronize it.

An example of this kind of thinking comes from Ron Galloway, director of the new film "Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy", who said on CNN's Showbiz Tonight on October 31 that "138 million people vote with their feet to go to Wal-Mart. And Americans are pretty smart. And I think Wal-Mart, if Wal-Mart were really doing something genuinely wrong, the American people would be able to figure it out and not go."

What is wrong and why? Well, that's what this blog is about.

MarketThink has at least a nodding connection to the "folly of crowds", but I'm guessing he also discusses market failures, premature local minima traps. I wonder if he discusses future shock and fraud, and how they mislead the crowd.

I'm sure I'll have some more comments over time ...

The Market as a satisficing mechanism for finding local minima - where did I get this from?

A few months ago I fell into conversation with an exotic person -- someone young. This one had fallen into a familiar trap; he'd confused The Market with The Moral.

Bush and the GOP were, of course, lost down that rabbit hold eons ago.

Anyway, being pompous prone, I launched into a lecture about how markets are systems for developing "good enough" (satisficing) solutions to complex problems. They find "local minimal", not some magical optimal solution that's the best of all possible worlds.

This ability, of course, is miraculous. The Market is the best way we have to find the local minima. The role of society, and sometimes government, is to decide that the "minima" is not good enough, and to perturb the market into finding another, perhaps better, solution. Sometimes we even think we know where the perturbation should be directed.

There were two problems with my dissertation. One was that I'm pretty sure he didn't (care to?) understand a word of it. More importantly, I fear I was more-or-less making it up.

I say "more-or-less" because I think I read this sometime, but in the months since that conversation I've not come across a reasonable reference. This "more-or-less" business comes from reading a lot but having an average memory and a creative imagination -- I can't reliably separate what I've read from what I've invented.

I tried a search: market "local minima" "good enough" satisficing solution economics but only found some papers on AI problem solving.

Can someone point me to a reference?

Don't buy your iPhone this week -- iPhone order backlog

There are lots of possible reasons for an imbalance between iPhone demand and supply:

AppleInsider | Briefly: NYC iPhone sellout; new Jersey store; 2008 PC shipments

...AT&T retail stores in Manhattan aren't yet feeling the affects of the shortage, though Apple's online store is also reflecting an approximate 1 week delay for all new orders, suggesting that considerable backlog currently exists for whatever reason...

One of the possible explanations is that Apple is about to launch a new model.

I have been expecting a new model to be announced on June 31st and to be generally available around August, but I'm a pessimist. If you're considering buying an iPhone I'd wait a couple of weeks. If new models are coming out then the better Apple rumor sites expect the 16GB model to continue to be sold at a lower price point, and the 8GB model to be discontinued.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What if you lived in a world where nothing worked?

You know, like Bizarro world.

I think I've been slowly migrating into that world.

My MetLife experience today was typical. I have an ancient annuity with them (odd story), and I decided to try to update my online profile.

It went like this:

  1. Login with the default settings.
  2. Submit -- returns to login screen. No error message, just the login screen.
  3. Phone in, get password reset.
  4. Try again - get request to change password. Looks good.
  5. Login, oops, Back to #2.
  6. Do an online password reset. Notice button press doesn't seem to work with Firefox 2.
  7. Try it again with IE 7. It works.
  8. Now login again. back to #2.
  9. Wait -- what was that brief flicker of text? Something about a popup?
  10. Turn off IE 7 popup blocking.
  11. Try again.

The entire interaction with the MetLife web site occurs inside a popup window. The original login window remains behind, that's why I kept returning to the above step #2 when the popup was blocked.

Incidentally, if you ever want to hack into someone's account, I recommend MetLife. They implement the usual array of misguided security measures, including the laughable: "secret question". (Does any crook not know my mother's maiden name by now?)

I'm picking on MetLife, but these days I feel like a live in a great cloud of "stuff that doesn't work". Our world won't burn up or rust out, it'll just collapse in a great cascade of stuff that doesn't really work ...

PS. Most of the science fiction I've read assumed either a post-apocalyptic world or a world of uncanny reliability. Dysfunctional dystopias don't get their due. Terry Gilliam's (a famous Minnesotan!) Brazil and Twelve Monkeys are notable exceptions; Gilliam seems to have this niche to himself.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Head still exploding: The AT&T mobile phone rebate card scam

After I wrote this post I wondered if I was over-reacting:

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

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...

I received my two cards ($50 each, one for each line of the family account), which are accepted "anywhere Visa debit cards are accepted", except you have to "tell the cashier" to "process the card as a credit transaction, not a debit transaction".

You need to activate the cards before use, by entering the number they're assigned to. AT&T tells me the number ends in 8. For both cards. Because both our phone numbers end in 8.

The cards expire in July of 2008, about three to four months after they came to us.

There are lots of complex rules about how to spend them. The only reasonable way to use them is to spend MORE than the card amount, then arrange with a flustered and irritated cashier (and their manager too?) to pay the residual through some other means.

Ok, so now I go to to try to activate the cards. I'm redirected to -- they're probably outsourced the scam. I'm asked to enter the "first 10 digits of your account number from your AT&T card". Well, I don't have an AT&T card, but I'll try the first 10 digits of the first VISA rebate card number -- since that might be tied to my phone number.

It turns out my theory is correct, from there I get a login screen that requests the entire card number and the last four digits of each cell number. I guess right on those and my cards are "activated". [1]

I could spit nails if I didn't have so many other battles to fight. I signed up with AT&T because of the #$!$#! iPhone. Compared to similar services from Sprint our family costs have gone up about 70% a month. Sprint, for all their many sins, didn't make me jump through these hoops.

In a just world AT&T would have to pay out billions for this kind of scam, but in this world George Bush is President, we have a Republican governor in Minnesota, and our state Attorney General has been neutered.

I just know some mid-level AT&T exec made SVP and a golden handshake when s/he came up with this scam to reduce rebate payments. I suppose it's unbecoming for me to to imagine her/his pending appointment in the eighth circle of hell ...

... The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"), divided into ten bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches...

... Bolgia 10: Groups of various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impersonators) are afflicted with different types of diseases. (Cantos XXIX and XXX)

[1] It's not documented, but if you login this way you can see the record of card transactions and the residual balance.

Update 12/29/08: One commenter suggested using the AT&T card to buy a gift card at a reputable retailer. Then you can use it when it suits you.

Update 3/6/09: As per a most appreciated comment AT&T has settled with the New York attorney general's office ...
A $2.63 million agreement with AT&T Mobility over a misleading and deceptive sales promotion involving rebate offers that were fulfilled with onerous and condition-laden rebate cards by the New York's Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

AT&T is required to provide more than $2.63 million to consumers who received rebate cards from AT&T in fulfillment of its rebate offers on cellular phones and other wireless equipment and services.
I sincerely hope Minnesota climbs on board.

This isn't AT&T's only mobile services scam. They're also shafting their customers with EDGE phones, effectively eliminating data services people have paid for by contract and phone purchase.

Update 4/20/09: Dilbert on mobile phone rebates. "Dude, we spent it before you left the store."

Sad days for the American Academy of Family Physicians: AFP and FPM behind the paywall

The AAFP is putting American Family Physician and Family Practice Management behind a paywall. After April 1 new issues will only be available to members.

This is sad news. For years I've admired the academy's policy of public access to AFP, it's been a great patient and provider information resource. No more.

The academy is also restricting the default distribution of Family Practice Management to members in office practice; a good change overall but probably another indicator of diminishing advertising revenue. I suspect there are other economy measures going on that aren't being communicated to members.

What's going on?

I'm still a member, but I'm very removed from the AAFP these days. I don't really know. My guess is that advertising revenue, in particular, is down. I also wonder if membership is falling off; I suspect a lot of members were unhappy when the Academy failed to resist the peculiar board certification changes implemented by the American Board of Family Medicine [1].

It fits with a ten plus year trend of declining interest in primary care in general, and family medicine in particular. I think the crowd is wrong again, but I fear it will be another ten years before we rediscover that primary care physicians are a cost-effective way to deliver quality care. I also wonder if pharmaceutical advertising revenue is down across the board -- the pharmas are thought by many to be entering a period of grim economic news.

I hope the AAFP will reconsider. I'd be very surprised if removing AFP from public access is going to help finances and/or recruiting in any significant way. This is a bad economizing measure.

[1] Admirable in theory, in practice they're the equivalent of putting a patient with congestive heart failure on a high speed treadmill.

The emperor's clothes, Microsoft Word, and the folly of crowds

In the fairy tale version the impolitic child comments on the emperor's birthday suit. All the people who thought they were imaging the emperor's nakedness realize they're not crazy after all. The emperor is laughed out of town.

That's not how things work in the real world.

I thought of this recently as I revised my sister-in-law's Masters thesis*. Well, revised isn't quite the right word -- my job was to fix up a structured Microsoft Word document. In the old days in-laws typed up handwritten theses, now we repair Word documents. A much quicker job, but far more technical. Hmm. That about sums up the last 30 years of technological progress, doesn't it?

Anyway, as I adjusted styles, auto-generated lists of figures and tables from captions, set alignment styles for document objects, created section specific pagination rules, etc I recalled my 2003 rant against Microsoft Word. It's still pretty current, even though I've given up on my macro workarounds. Honestly, Word is broken**. It's been broken since 1995 or 1997, when some misguided Microsoft development team merged two different formatting models and produced the software equivalent of "the fly".

The Emperor is buck nekkid.

In the real world though, the crowd of hundreds of millions figures the child is deluded, and they must simply be doing something wrong. Surely a bazillion dollar company couldn't be producing junk - could it? Sharepoint must be a good document management system - because everyone uses it. Real estate must be a good investment - because everyone's buying houses. Global warming can't be a real problem, because our government would tell us if it were. Gmail's contact management and list functions can't be completely lousy -- because Google is full of geniuses. Crowds must be wise, because that's what the book says. Crowds re-elected George Bush, didn't they?


Either humanity has some serious loose screws, or I'm a loon.

Or both ...

PS. I don't believe in this "wisdom of crowds" stuff. Just to be clear. On the other hand, there's tons of money to be made betting on the folly of crowds.


* I think she's written a doctoral thesis, but that's another story. I hope she turns it into a book.

** Office 2007's XML based structured documents might be an improvement, but that requires a completely proprietary file format that none of my other applications can read.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Google goes to warp speed, oddly fond of me

This morning I wrote a post about worrisome behavior associated with At that time a search on the term led to the spammer's web site.

As of this evening a search on the same term leads to my blog post. This morning three people who ran into the same worrisome ad behavior left comments on my initial post -- they found it at the top of their searches within 15 minutes of the original posting.

This evening I posted about the frustrations of using iMovie '08 with a Flip Video camcorder. A few minutes after I posted it I decided to see if anyone else had discovered that Mike Ash's QTAmateur would translate the AVI files. I found exactly one post on the topic- mine.

Google indexed my blog post within 15 minutes of creation.

I then experimented with a post I made this evening to Apple's Discussion group. It too was indexed within 30 minutes of posting. That's nothing about me of course, Google is indexing that massive archive at an astounding speed.

This is unnerving on two levels. Personally it's unnerving that Google is so oddly fond of my blogs. They're not high readership blogs, though I do like to imagine my readership is unusually perceptive. Weird.

The personal focus is odd enough, but the indexing speed is even more uncanny. Google has quietly turned on a warp drive; how the heck are they able to index so quickly? What does this say about their bandwidth capacity -- that they're basically reading large portions of the net in almost real-time?

What oil price will radically change American life?

When does the price of oil change what Americans do?

I wrote in July of 2007 that a significant number of people would start to make different decisions at $5 a gallon. On the other hand I've read realtors claiming that the bubble popped when gas hit $3 a gallon, and people started worrying the cost of exurban commutes.

It's not just the absolute costs of course, it's the trend line. So if gas goes from $3 a gallon now to $5 a gallon in 2011, then people will react as much to the trend line as to the absolute value. If the price hits $5 a gallon in 2010 then the reaction will be even stronger.

On the other hand someone who does this sort of thing for a living things the price will have to hit $13 or so to force a "radical restructuring":
FuturePundit: Peak Oil By 2012?:

.... Energy analyst Charles T. Maxwell thinks gasoline prices in the US will need to more than triple to force Americans into a radical restructuring of how they live.

Maxwell said it will take $12 to $15 a gallon to get Americans to let go of what he called the “precious freedom of mobility.” As much as Maxwell laments the loss, he sees no other way for the U.S. to impose enough conservation to deal with the growing imbalance between oil demand and supply that he sees developing around 2010 and getting worse in 2012 or 2013, as the world hits a “peak” in conventional oil production...
I was thinking in terms of "start to change" when I picked $5 a gallon, radical change is a few steps beyond that.

Maxwell is elsewhere quoted as predicting "peak oil" in 2012-2013 resulting in a steady "rise starting in 2010, reaching $180 a barrel in 2015 and $300 a barrel in 2020". Since we're about $100 a barrel now, we wouldn't hit his "radical change" date until after 2025 or so.

I'd love to see an economist make some predictions here based on the historical record, though I have a hard time thinking of a precedent in an industrial economy outside of wartime.

As I've written previously our confusing situation may become clear within the next six months:
...If the price of oil is above $105 a barrel in August of 2008 then Peak Oil is on the sooner rather than later, and the world I grew up in is shuffling away -- sooner than I'd expected...
If we are at or above $105 in August I think we'll see a gradual and continuous change rather than a radical disruption. The price signals will be relatively clear with smooth trendlines.

This isn't, of course, good news for the survival of human civilization. Unless we put a very large carbon-tax-equivalent on coal, humanity will start burning massive amounts of coal to power our electric cars and to create various fuel products. Our carbon dioxide output will skyrocket -- even as our mobility and our gasoline consumption start to plateau. We'll push past the ancient maxima for CO2 and bake much of our habitat.

We need a technologic miracle, but in the meantime we need a carbon-tax-equivalent on coal.

Hacking encryption keys: quantum and otherwise

A non-specialist has written a review of quantum computer factoring that matches what I've been reading from my physics blogs. Quantum computing, alas, isn't as impressive as it used to be. Even if we can make it work, quantum computing is not necessarily a qualitative improvement over conventional computation -- though it will explore some (truly) mind-boggling quantum physics.

I wanted to call out one small part of the post though:

... I went over to a site that will tell you how long a key you need to use, uses estimates made by serious cryptographers for the life of keys. They make some reasonable assumptions and perhaps one slightly-unreasonable assumption: that Moore's Law will continue indefinitely. If we check there for how long a 4096-bit key will be good for, the conservative estimate is (drum roll, please) — the year 2060...

Most of us make do with AES 128 bit (Tiger disk image encryption) and AES 256 bit (Leopard disk image encryption) keys. I checked out the NIST 2007 recommendations on and found:

  • AES 128: > 2030
  • AES 256: >> 2030

Another table (ENCRYPT) described 256 symmetric key (ie. AES) as "good protection against quantum cryptography". So most of us don't need to worry about 4096 bit keys unless we're protecting information that will be very valuable in 2040.

I'll be 80 then -- if I'm alive. I'm not too worried.

Of course Schneier et all are usually reminding us that the key length is generally the least of our worries. Weak passwords, dictionary attacks, attacks on keys in memory, etc are all bigger threats. The biggest threat of all, though, is security that either destroys our data (that's really secure!) or that is too onerous to easily implement.

PS. I was in the "quantum will get us" crowd, so I'm a bit humbled by the new wave of "quantum reality". Malware infection on Star Tribune and other news sites

Preface: 3/24/2008.

I've retitled this post and added this preface due to a comment I received today:
I've seen several versions of the install file over the past week which is an indication that someone is up to no good. The source was: hxxp://
I submitted these files to TrendMicro and they all came back as malware containing a Trojan downloader.
So it looks like this was part of an attack of some sort. The Minneapolis Star Tribune site may have been compromised or it may be an unwitting attack vector. I couldn't find a good email address to notify them yesterday, but I did find a "feedback" form that looked like it might work. They really need to have a link to notify them of website issues in general and malware attacks in particular.
I click on the StarTribune National News link and my Firefox page vanishes. Instead I see:

I have to kill Firefox from the XP application list to get free. Talk about "erratic PC behavior, PC freezes and creahes".

There actually is a vendor selling this product. So this might not be a simple phishing attack; maybe the bot virus is embedded in a supposed commercial product instead. Maybe my XP box isn't really infected and this really was something the Strib's ad supplier tossed up.

Or not. [jf: see comments. Looks like a malware attack.]

I just can't tell. McAfee SiteAdvisor connects the vendor to spam, so I'm leaning towards my machine NOT being infected and being a shady enterprise with a good probability of a nasty "backdoor" in their "antiviral" "security" product.

I really do need to get rid of my last XP box. Using XP on the net is like waving a wad of bills in a port bar of old Bangkok.

Update 9/14/09: A similar attack hit the New York Times

Deliberations of the Zorgonian Commission on the Terran Problem

100011010101010: This human was exceedingly wrong about war #2545134 but publicly renounced his errors.

100101011010110: A cognitively disabled human was tortured for weeks by her housemates and her caretaker then murdered.

100011010101010: I see your point.

100101011010110: Then the deliberations may end?

100011010101010: It has been a long time, hasn't it?

010101010101010: Too long.

001101010101010: But who will take care of the dogs?...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Everything you need to understand about the neo-banking crisis of 2008

Everything you need to know, in 3 paragraphs (emphases mine)

What Created This Monster? - New York Times

...A milestone in the deregulation effort came in the fall of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like stocks, bonds and futures contracts.

Supported by Phil Gramm, then a Republican senator from Texas and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, the legislation was a 262-page amendment to a far larger appropriations bill. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton that December.

Mr. Gramm, now the vice chairman of UBS, the Swiss investment banking giant, was unavailable for comment. (UBS has recently seen its fortunes hammered by ill-considered derivative investments.)...

And now, to save the greater economy, we will all donate to save Mr. Gramm and his ilk.

Because, you see, we can't let the those companies go under. And they can't be run, you see, without the the people who led them into their current peril. So we need to save the companies, which means saving their leadership, which means they get to keep the money of old that makes them rich, plus extra money from us now, because they really don't need to work because of the money they got before when they made the bests that ...

Yeah, you get the picture.

I'm acquiring an unsavory fondness for the Japanese tradition of Seppuku. In those days a dishonored leader didn't demand a new set of fresh stock options ...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Mall of America security expells PZ Myers from creationist movie

PZ Myers, was expelled from AMC theater's pre-screening of EXPELLED! by Mall of America security staff.

His crime was being PZ Myers, a prosletizer for atheism. Ironically, Richard Dawkins did get in to the pre-screening, and confronted the producer.

I'll be over at the MOA Monday, I wonder if anything will mark the spot.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Economist obituary: the last French foot solder of World War I

I'd wondered if any were yet living.
Lazare Ponticelli |

... On March 17th he had his wish, or most of it: a state funeral for all the poilus at Les Invalides, and then a simple family burial. The government badly wanted this last foot-soldier to be memorialised; but he preferred to be uncelebrated and ordinary, even in some sense forgotten, and thus the more symbolic of all the rest.
There may be others, for a year or so, in Germany or England or elsewhere.

It's a good obituary.

I am grateful I've never been in a war. I hope my children avoid them.

Phorm - another eye in the sky

More of the same old stuff ...
A Company Promises the Deepest Data Mining Yet - New York Times:

...Amid debate over how much data companies like Google and Yahoo should gather about people who surf the Web, one new company is drawing attention — and controversy — by boasting that it will collect the most complete information of all.

The company, called Phorm, has created a tool that can track every single online action of a given consumer, based on data from that person’s Internet service provider. The trick for Phorm is to gain access to that data, and it is trying to negotiate deals with telephone and cable companies, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, that provide broadband service to millions...

...Phorm puts a cookie, a small bit of computer code, on a person’s computer to tie his or her Web-surfing to the random number and then saves only that number in advertising categories like types of cars or clothing...
In China the government tracks people's activities. In the US it's business. Funny.

Phorm assigns each computer-user-account-browser a unique ID and tracks the relatonship between unique ID and web page requests. I assume a Firefox extension would allow a browser to defeat Phorm. I assume they need ISP collaboration to track the web pages. A private VPN service would eliminate that possibility.

I've been using Witopia PPTP VPN when accessing public wifi, I wonder if it's time to start tunneling all my traffic through a trusted VPN.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mea culpas of rationalists who supported the conquest of Iraq

Slate has a series of essays on the mistakes rationalists made in supporting the American invasion of Iraq.

Personally I was initially persuaded by Saddam's posturing (turned out to be a mixture of mostly bluffing Iran and genuinely not knowing what weapons he didn't have), our apparent inability to sustain the embargo, the harmful effects of the embargo on Iraqis (sigh), and the fake smallpox immunization program. I reversed course when Cheney/Bush completely alienated Turkey and left us with zero allies - prior to the actual invasion.

Of all the commentaries, Richard Cohen most resembles my own recollections -- but he focuses on the Anthrax mystery rather than my smallpox memories ...
I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional. - By Richard Cohen - Slate Magazine

Anthrax. Remember anthrax? It seems no one does anymore—at least it's never mentioned. But right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, letters laced with anthrax were received at the New York Post and Tom Brokaw's office at NBC. In the following days, more anthrax-contaminated letters were received by other news organizations—CBS News and, presumably, ABC, where traces of anthrax were found in the newsroom. Weirdly, even the Sun, a supermarket tabloid, also got a letter, and a photo editor, Bob Stevens, was fatally infected. Other letters were sent to Sen. Tom Daschle's Capitol Hill office, and in Washington, D.C., a postal worker, Thomas L. Morris Jr., died. There was ample reason to be afraid.

The attacks were not entirely unexpected. I had been told soon after Sept. 11 to secure Cipro, the antidote to anthrax. The tip had come in a roundabout way from a high government official, and I immediately acted on it. I was carrying Cipro way before most people had ever heard of it.

For this and other reasons, the anthrax letters appeared linked to the awful events of Sept. 11. It all seemed one and the same....

Kaplan's story also runs parallel to my own. I would add that while I had some respect for Colin Powell, I was moved much more by Tony Blair's support for war. He had been a Clinton ally, at the time he had a terrific international reputation, and I didn't imagine he'd be a lackey of the Bush administration.

Nobody in the series mentioned Tony Blair. He's getting off far too easily.

The HIV genocide delusion

I think journalists do need to specifically ask Barack Obama about his perspective on the HIV genocide conspiracy theories. He didn't address this directly in his speech, in retrospect that's a noteworthy omission.
AIDS conspiracy theories: a field guide. - By Juliet Lapidos - Slate Magazine

... Barack Obama rebuked his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on Tuesday for giving sermons in which he blamed the government for creating a racist state and "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." Wright isn't the first to say that AIDS originated in the White House. Others have attributed the epidemic to a laboratory accident, malnutrition, or even God's divine will...

...According to a study released in 2005 by the Rand Corp., more than one-quarter of African-Americans believe the disease was engineered in a government lab, and 16 percent think it was created to control the black population...
I've read that this belief is also widely held in South Africa. Even if the US government were ten times as evil as Cheney/Bush, we don't have the technology to create a virus like HIV. We also don't have the power or technology to create a massive evolutionary and cross-species profile of the evolution and dissemination of HIV and its cousins.

One of my questions about Obama is how grounded is he in the world of logic and science. We already know McCain is arational, I'd like to know where Obama fits on the spectrum between Al Gore (reason) and George Bush (delusion).

The Slate article is quite well done; it's worth a full read.

Fake graduation rates and other predictable outcomes of no child left behind

Bush's educational program was said to be based on good outcomes in Texas. Of course it wasn't so. Turns out schools in Texas were cooking the books to get better numbers. Strong incentives, like "improve or die" reliably produce this kind of result.

The easiest way to cook the books for a particular school is to get the low performing students to move elsewhere. Then to make the overall district look better, don't invest in tracking where they "move" to. They did that in Texas too.

I'm picking on Texas, but the same thing will happen everywhere that these kinds of incentives are applied. It works for physicians too. If you pay us less for patients who don't keep their blood sugars tuned up, you'll find that those patients will "leave". There must be fifty ways to help a patient leave ...

Today the NYT tells the story for Mississippi, but I'm betting Minnesota and Vermont are playing the same game, albeit with more subtlety ...
States’ Data Obscure How Few Finish High School - New York Times
March 20, 2008l

JACKSON, Miss. — When it comes to high school graduation rates, Mississippi keeps two sets of books.

One team of statisticians working at the state education headquarters here recently calculated the official graduation rate at a respectable 87 percent, which Mississippi reported to Washington. But in another office piled with computer printouts, a second team of number crunchers came up with a different rate: a more sobering 63 percent...

...“We were losing about 13,000 dropouts a year, but publishing reports that said we had graduation rate percentages in the mid-80s,” Mr. Bounds said. “Mathematically, that just doesn’t work out.”

... federal figures obscure a dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the one million American students who start ninth grade each year graduate four years later.

California, for example, sends to Washington an official graduation rate of 83 percent but reports an estimated 67 percent on a state Web site.

... New Mexico defined its rate as the percentage of enrolled 12th graders who received a diploma. That method grossly undercounts dropouts by ignoring all students who leave before the 12th grade.

The law also allowed states to establish their own goals for improving graduation rates. Many set them low. Nevada, for instance, pledged to get just 50 percent of its students to graduate on time. And since the law required no annual measures of progress, California proposed that even a one-tenth of 1 percent annual improvement in its graduation rate should suffice.

.. Most troublesome to some experts was the way the No Child law’s mandate to bring students to proficiency on tests, coupled with its lack of a requirement that they graduate, created a perverse incentive to push students to drop out. If low-achieving students leave school early, a school’s performance can rise...

... In Mississippi, the official formula put the graduation rate for the state’s largest district, Jackson Public Schools, at 81 percent. Mr. Bounds, the state schools superintendent, said the true rate was 56 percent.

At Murrah High School, one of eight here, the official graduation rate is 99 percent, even though yearbooks show that half of Murrah’s freshmen disappear before becoming seniors...
The obvious story here is that you get what you pay for. There will always be a way to game the system though, which is why you can't replace professional culture with incentives, just as you can't create a civil society through police action. Obviously both incentives and policing can be pretty important, but they can't replace professional pride and culture or a basic culture of civil behavior.

The less obvious story is that about 30% of Americans don't complete High School.

So I'd like to know why so many don't finish High School, but I'd first like to know what the "optimal" graduation rate should be. That's the question that leads to the most interesting and important discussions.

Toxic heparin: fraud is looking likely

Two weeks ago I wrote: Gordon's Notes: Toxic heparin was fraud, not accident. A comment rightly corrected me -- I'd jumped the gun.

Today, however, it's looking like fraud. Chondroitin sulfate was manufactured in place of heparin, contaminating up to 10% of the nation's supply of a heavily used medication. The Chinese government is denying investigators access to the suspected source of the counterfeited medications...
Heparin Discovery May Point to Chinese Counterfeiting

Federal drug regulators, in announcing Wednesday that the mystery contaminant in heparin was an inexpensive, unapproved ingredient altered to mimic the real thing, moved closer to concluding that Americans might be the latest victims of lethal Chinese drug counterfeiting...

...The contaminant, the regulators said, is a chemically altered form of chondroitin sulfate, a dietary supplement made from animal cartilage that is widely used to treat joint pain...

Federal officials stopped short of saying that the contaminant — constituting as much as 50 percent of the active ingredient in heparin — was counterfeit...

... the authorities left little doubt that they believed that the contaminant was not an unintended byproduct of some manufacturing process.

In its natural state, chondroitin sulfate does not have anticlotting properties. But it mimics heparin when altered to form what is called oversulfated chondroitin sulfate. That is what made it difficult for Baxter International, the manufacturer of the heparin associated with the allergic reactions, to detect the impurity...

...“The base compound, chondroitin sulfate, is very abundant and an inexpensive compound,” said Moheb Nasr, director of the agency’s office of new drug quality and assessment. Chemically modifying it, Mr. Nasr added, “will not be that expensive either.”

The F.D.A. said it had found the contaminated heparin at Changzhou SPL, the Chinese plant that supplies the active ingredient to Baxter...

... Erin Gardiner, a spokeswoman for Baxter, said Wednesday that tests found the supplies were contaminated before they arrived at the Changzhou plant. “The consolidators and workshops handle the crude material, so that is where our focus is turning,” Ms. Gardiner said.

So far, Ms. Gardiner said Baxter’s investigators had been denied access to the consolidators and workshops. “We will continue to seek access.”

Last week, the F.D.A. said it had not yet visited the workshops.

Some heparin producers in China also sell chondroitin sulfate, which can be derived from pig cartilage. Traders and producers say it is far cheaper than heparin, as little as one-twentieth the cost. That could be an enticement for counterfeiters, especially in the wake of a virulent pig virus that swept across China last year, substantially reducing the availability of the starting materials needed to make the active ingredient in heparin.

Contaminated heparin sourced from China has also turned up recently in Germany, where about 80 allergic reactions have been reported. But investigators there have yet to identify the contaminant. F.D.A. officials said their discovery of chemically modified chondroitin sulfate came exactly one year after the discovery that a pet food ingredient shipped from China contained toxic levels of melamine, which was added to make it appear higher in protein. Many pets became ill, and some died.

Around the same time, The Times reported that an unlicensed Chinese chemical plant sold a cheap counterfeit ingredient, diethylene glycol, that was mixed into cold medicine in Panama, killing nearly 120 people and disabling hundreds more.

Diethylene glycol mimics its more expensive chemical cousin, glycerine, a safe ingredient used in medicine, food and toothpaste.

The F.D.A. said its search for answers in the heparin case had been made easier because of the cooperation it had received from China’s State Food and Drug Administration. That was not the case when United States officials inquired last year about the melamine and diethylene glycol.

The agency cited an accord signed in December by the governments of China and the United States as one reason for the cooperation they had received recently, which they said allowed American investigators to quickly begin their investigation of the additive...
So, does anyone really think that we happened to catch the very first instance of massive counterfeit in the American medication supply chain? If so, please contact me about a new financial instrument I've created just for you ...

People I love very much take medications every day. I suspect many of them are sourced from nations that have very weak regulatory and enforcement agencies, and a feeble justice system.*

Reading this article closely, I feel the journalists are quietly building a good case for panic. They are probably wondering what they need to do -- wander the streets banging drums?


PS. Bill Gates gets his medications from the same places we do. So does Warren Buffett. Maybe some people who own Senators will decide the turn up the heat a bit?

* The US now has weak regulation and enforcement, so we should all be very, very nice to our lawyers.

Memories of how badly Bush began ...

Krugman has linked back to an article he wrote five years ago. It reads as well today as it did then.

The part I'm quoting here reminds us how very badly Bush and company began:
Things to Come - New York Times:

...Victory in Iraq won't end the world's distrust of the United States because the Bush administration has made it clear, over and over again, that it doesn't play by the rules. Remember: this administration told Europe to take a hike on global warming, told Russia to take a hike on missile defense, told developing countries to take a hike on trade in lifesaving pharmaceuticals, told Mexico to take a hike on immigration, mortally insulted the Turks and pulled out of the International Criminal Court -- all in just two years...
They were so, so full of themselves. The crew that remains now is less obviously inept, mostly because they seem to be largely invisible. Fundamentally, however, I fear Bush and Cheney have are no more "ept" than when they started out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Twin Cities is a great place to live: bike trail plans

I really hope we get one or more of these plans:
River bike trail gains traction in Bloomington:
...Imagine being able to hop on a bike at Fort Snelling and pedal for hours on a quiet trail along the Minnesota River, winding all the way to Le Sueur, 72 miles upriver...
I thought Le Sueur was downriver, but I only live by the Mississippi, I wasn't born here.

This trail would have to get through a really big obstacle -- the old Air Force land south of the MSP airport. That few hundred meters of land has been the bane of bicyclists for eons.

There are several great projects listed in the article. As noted in a local paper:
Minneapolis—the nation’s No. 2 cycling city after Portland, Ore., according to the U.S. Census Bureau—Olson is among as many as 3,000 people who commute through the cold months, according to the City of Minneapolis Bicycle Program, a division of the Public Works Department.
When choosing great places to live, I'm a firm advocate of ignoring everything except the bicycle trail network. Trust me on this -- if you just look for great bike trails you won't go wrong.

Obama race speech - abbreviated version

I rarely listen to political speeches -- they bore me. I was able to get through Obama's "race speech" by listening while I edited the prepared text down to what follows below.
Barack Obama : : Change We Can Believe In | Sam Graham-Felsen's Blog: "A More Perfect Union

...Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy..

...The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years...

...words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time...

…I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren....

...I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.... has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

... the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam...

...The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS...

... As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years...

...For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.….. the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community... when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. ..

...Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.…

... I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black...

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper....

...For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together...
Obama is often accused of pretty sounding speeches with little content. I don't know if that's true -- this is the first speech of his I've paid attention to. I thought this one was meaty enough. It's not bad on audio either, though if I were the speechwriter I'd have added more outreach to Latinos. It's basically a white/black speech.

I hope it works.

I'd really like to see us divert from the usual script the media, and we ourselves, insist on replaying over and over again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Phishing traps via blog post comments - a newer variant

The other day I allowed a comment a bit like this one to be added to one of my blogs:
Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Smartphone, I hope you enjoy. The address is
The spelling and grammar was a bit better, but the form was similar (I removed part of the URL). I checked the site prior to approving the post and it seemed superficially legitimate.

Today I received two more pending comments, each with slightly different wording and different web topics.

Clearly, I got fooled. I shouldn't have allowed the first comment of this class. I'll have to hunt it down and delete it.

My guess is all the sites referenced in these comments are either compromised legitimate sites or they are trap sites. Maybe all they need is for someone reviewing the posts, like me, to check if the site is legitimate. The recent "breaking" of Google's CAPTCHA technology may be a part of the operation.

I just hope I used a Mac for my original site check, and not my XP machine! XP boxes are so vulnerable they really shouldn't be allowed on the web.

I'll be extra careful going forward.

Update 3/11/2010: I loved this comment I received today ...
So, you aproved one of the comments and received a few similar ones? What's bad about that? You don't have to approve the other ones if you don't want to. I don't see any trap here.
The author's name was linked. It didn't resolve to a person, it resolved to a spam blog (splog) article. It wasn't a direct phishing attack comment, but it was of the same genre of comment spam. In this case the desire is to increase pointers to a fraudulent web site, to do "search engine optimization".

Why do I love this example of comment spam? Because it's a fraudulent comment complaining that I'm dissing fraudulent comments. That's kind of funny.