Friday, October 31, 2008

The end of the personal check - what do we do now?

Donald Knuth, a famous programmer, writes about why he's stopped using checks:
eKnuth: Recent News

... due to an unfixable security flaw in the way funds are now transferred electronically, worldwide, it is no longer safe to write personal checks. A criminal who sees the numbers that are printed at the bottom of any check that you write can use that information to withdraw all the money from your account. He or she can do this in various ways, without even knowing your name --- for example by creating an ATM card, or by impersonating a bank in some country of the world where safeguards are minimal, or by printing a document that looks like a check. The account number and routing information are all that international financial institutions look at before deciding to transfer funds from one account to another...
... More and more criminals are learning about this easy way to acquire money, and devising new schemes to conceal their identities as they steal the assets of more victims...
So what's new about this? Check forgery is an ancient crime; after Emily's check book was stolen we stopped carrying checks. That's when we learned that people who lose checks are legally responsible for all losses against the account -- and closing the account is no protection. (In practice, of course, banks grumble but eat the losses. Otherwise, checks would have died a just death years ago.)

What's new is the same process that turned credit card fraud from a small time crime into a vastly profitable criminal enterprise. Yes, I was at ground zero for that transition too.

Sometimes I feel like a punching bag for history.

The fraud isn't new, and the security systems haven't become suddenly worse. What's new is globalization, accelerated knowledge diffusion, and facilitating technologies.

Globalization means that it's easy for the criminal to operate outside of legal boundaries. Knowledge diffusion and social networking, which work as well for bad as good, mean that effective techniques evolve rapidly and spread worldwide. Facilitating technologies support knowledge diffusion, automated attacks, and cheap forgeries.

The portable checkbook died at least ten years ago. Now we've moved to the next step, and it's good-bye to the baby sitter check.

So how shall we pay for services? For now we use a fair bit of cash, but it's a bit clumsy. PayPal is the obvious alternative, but I have no love for either eBay or PayPal. I know they're trying to clean up their act, but I'll hold my grudge a bit longer.

Google Checkout isn't as close to Microsoft Wallet (Remember that from IE 3? Almost nobody does, there isn't even a good Wikipedia entry) as I thought it was, but clearly both Google and Microsoft are ready to replace the check. They should be able to buy a lot of banks very cheaply right now.

I liked Amazon payments when it first came out. My confidence was shaken when they set me up with an identity confusion bug that they couldn't fix. Still broken, two months after I reported it.

See what I mean about the punching bag bit?

So I'm not that keen about Amazon payments.

So Amazon is showing a worrisome competence gap. Google has been holding back from this domain. PayPal has a shady past. Microsoft has Monopoly baked into their DNA.

So what do we need?

We need government and the market working together. We need law, regulatory frameworks, rules to prevent monopolies, and then we need Microsoft, Google, Amazon (please slap them a few times) and even PayPal to compete.

Of course to get that kind of government, we need to do something first.

Nature itself endorses Obama, reason, and the enlightenment

Nature the journal, perhaps the world's preeminent representative of knowledge and reason, has expressed their first presidential endorsement in over 100 years. Emphasis mine.
America's choice : Article : Nature

The values of scientific enquiry, rather than any particular policy positions on science, suggest a preference for one US presidential candidate over the other.

The election of a US president almost always seems like a crossroads, but the choice to be made on 4 November feels unusual, and daunting, in its national and global significance.

... science is bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values — values that have application to political questions. Placing a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible; appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part. Writ larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the least of which is the constitution of the United States.

On a range of topics, science included, Obama has surrounded himself with a wider and more able cadre of advisers than McCain. ... He tends to seek a range of opinions and analyses to ensure that his own opinion, when reached, has been well considered and exposed to alternatives. He also exhibits pragmatism — for example in his proposals for health-care reform — that suggests a keen sense for the tests reality can bring to bear on policy.

Some will find strengths in McCain that they value more highly than the commitment to reasoned assessment that appeals in Obama. But all the signs are that the former seeks a narrower range of advice. Equally worrying is that he fails to educate himself on crucial matters; the attitude he has taken to economic policy over many years is at issue here. Either as a result of poor advice, or of advice inadequately considered, he frequently makes decisions that seem capricious or erratic. The most notable of these is his ill-considered choice of Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, as running mate. Palin lacks the experience, and any outward sign of the capacity, to face the rigours of the presidency...

...This journal does not have a vote, and does not claim any particular standing from which to instruct those who do. But if it did, it would cast its vote for Barack Obama.

The human world will weep on November 5th when President-to-be Palin takes her oath of office.

What of the natural world? I can't imagine Gaia having an opinion, but if it did it might favor a planet with fewer humans. Gaia, I think, would vote for McCain/Palin.

Google is doing OCR on PDF wrapped document scans

The Google blog struggles to explain why their latest technical achievement is important...
Official Google Blog: A picture of a thousand words?

... We are now able to perform OCR on any scanned documents that we find stored in Adobe's PDF format... This is a small but important step forward in our mission of making all the world's information accessible and useful...
So why is this important, yet hard to appreciate?

The first problem is that most people think of PDF as a text container. Indexing a text container is nothing special. What's less appreciated is that PDF is the de facto standard way to package a scanned document [1].

So what's novel about doing character recognition on a scan? OCR on 600 dpi B&W document scans is no great trick. Adobe's PDF client has more or less done that for about 10 years [2], and Windows' (formerly Xerox) ancient and under-appreciated document imaging has had this ability since the dawn of time.

The trick is implementing this affordably on millions and billions of PDFs indexed on Google's servers.

That's impressive and it is going to open a vast amount of knowledge.

Good for you Google!

[1] I figured this would happen in the 90s before there was any clear answer to the scanned document representation question. There are bizarre technical issues with scanning into PDF, but it's a great format overall. (Hint: Ancient fax-style lossless compression of a "B&W" document scan is much more efficient than readable JPEG compression of a gray scale scan.)

[2] They sometimes hide or remove this feature depending on what else they're selling.

Firewalls and separation of powers: banking, government, medicine and pharmacy

When I wrote about firewalls a few weeks ago I focused on contagion ...
Gordon's Notes: Systemic failure and financial firewalls

... even if there are deeper economic and cultural failures, there are also more straightforward firewall failures in our current crisis. These are usually called "regulatory failures" but regulation can come in many forms. I think the most interesting forms are those that are designed to stop the spread of contagions.

Fires, seizures, epidemics, hurricanes and financial crises are all, famously, "chaotic". They have non-linear perturbation sensitivities, and they can roar up and die down in ways that are only loosely predictable.

Excepting hurricanes, we have firewalls for these things. In our brains are systems to dampen seizures should they arise, and, we think, to limit where they spread. In our buildings we have, well, firewalls. In public health we find immunization rings, targeted interventions, quarantine and the like...

... Firewalls don't show up, to my knowledge, in classical economics. I'm sure they show up in modern economic models of regulation and in studies of "complex adaptive systems" [1]. Maybe this latest crisis will bring models of financial system firewalls, like the mourned Glass-Steagall act, to the level of popular economics.
Glass-Steagall separated commercial and investment banking. One effect was to reduce the risk of contagion, but I think the intent was to reduce conflicts of interest.

Managing systemic conflicts of interest is one reason America's political system separates power between Congress, the Executive and the Courts. (One of the reasons Bush was able to fully leverage his incompetence was that the GOP controlled all three, and had near-control of the media as well.)

Conflict of interest is one reason, for example, that it's a very bad idea for orthopedic surgeons to own imaging facilities.

Speaking of which, there's yet another separation of powers that's waned over the past tweny years.

At one time American physicians dispensed medications and pharmacists prescribed. That's still true in many nations. Shockingly, the result was very high use of very inappropriate medications. The cure was separation of powers. Physicians would prescribe and pharmacists would dispense.

Time passed. Lessons were forgotten. Market deism and libertarian ideals joined forces. Now we have minute clinics owned by dispensing organizations, and oncologists who make a large share of their revenue by the margin on dispensed drugs.

I am very confident that we will rediscover that there was a good reason to separate prescribing and dispensing. We'll find, for example, that minute clinics dramatically increase the cost of "treating" self-limited conditions -- not to mention the sale of diet pills, supplements, and candy.

Firewalls to contain epidemic chaos. Separation of powers to manage fundamental conflicts of interest in an imperfect world of imperfect communication and incomplete knowledge. They both reduce efficiency. They are both essential. Sometimes they're the same thing.

I do wish our meta-memory wasn't so short.

Don't listen to Judith Warner. Worry.

Judith Warner tries to tell us not to worry, that things are getting better.

Of course on closer inspection she's really saying that that either Obama/Biden will win, in which case we should be happy now, or McCain/Palin will win, in which case we should celebrate Bush's end because soon we'll despair.

I admit, there's a deeper logic there. After all, relatively soon we'll all be dead, so we might as well be happy now.

In the meanwhile, don't believe the polls. The turnout of "young" (under 35) voters in early Florida voting has been lousy. Just like Kerry, who might have won if the under-35s had actually voted like they said they would.

If the "young" stay home, they will give us President Palin.

Punishment for the boomers? Well, I can understand that. Silly though, the young will live with the consequences longer than I will.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

George Will?!

George Will endorses Obama.

Who's left? 

Dick Cheney?


I can't possibly support somebody George Will has endorsed.

My head has exploded.


The Economist's endorsement: What's surprising about it.

The Economist has been running a world "electoral college" . Last I looked 80% of their US readers voted for Obama.


That's current readers of The Economist, a journal that used to be rationalist 19th century liberal but became a pale imitation of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages in the 90s. Even this readership, the very heart of McCain's former constituency, is massively pro-Obama.

So I figured the "paper" would endorse Obama. If 80% of the US readership of a WSJed-lite publication wants Obama, they aren't going to be stupid.

Still, in 2000 they endorsed Bush. They never adequately apologized.

In 2004, they weakly, half-heartedly, with poisoned pen, "endorsed" John Kerry as "the incoherent".

So I was expecting a grudging, muttered, meaningless endorsement.

Instead we got ...

Obama on the cover, striding along. Headline "It's time".

There's nothing poisonous about this endorsement (emphasis mine):
An endorsement of Barack Obama | It's time | The Economist
... all the shortcomings of the campaign, both John McCain and Barack Obama offer hope of national redemption. Now America has to choose between them. The Economist does not have a vote, but if it did, it would cast it for Mr Obama. We do so wholeheartedly ...
"Wholeheartedly". A carefully chosen word.

They are not forgiven. They will never be forgiven for their 2000 endorsement of GWB.


It's something.

Why Obama would be a great president – in two lines from Bill Clinton

This says it all …

Joan Walsh -

…Clinton shared the candidate's measured, investigative approach to the financial crisis in September: calling his advisors, calling Clintons' advisors, calling both Clintons and others. What Obama told everyone, Clinton said, was, "'Tell me what's right. Don't tell me what's popular, tell me what's right, and I'll figure out how to sell it.' That's what a president does. He will be a very fine decision maker, working for the American people."…

Not because he’s a very good writer. Not because he’s black or multi-ethnic. Not because he’s as smart as anyone you know. Not because of his lifetime worldwide experience. Not because he’s a “great communicator”. Not entirely because of his iron focus and calm discipline.

Those are good things, but they’re not why he’d be a great president.

He’d be a great president because he uses Reason to political ends.

Reason about problems. Reason about people. Reason about politics. Reason about what’s doable and how to do it.

Desperate times can sometimes lead a nation to wake up from a drunken stupor and make intelligent choices. Easy times produce George W Bush. Desperate times produced Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Churchill.

I don’t think we Americans, today, deserve a good president, much less a great one. As a people we’ve earned a President Palin. That would be just.

I’m not asking for justice.

I’m asking for mercy.

If the fates are merciful, we’ll get Barack Obama.

A lyrical essay on America and Obama

Like Roger Cohen I'm an American immigrant. Unlike Cohen, I'm not too positive about America's current culture. Ask me on November 5th.

Unlike me, Cohen is a very good writer ...

ROGER COHEN - American Stories -

Of the countless words Barack Obama has uttered since he opened his campaign for president on an icy Illinois morning in February 2007, a handful have kept reverberating in my mind:

“For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Perhaps the words echo because I’m a naturalized American, and I came here, like many others, seeking relief from Britain’s subtle barriers of religion and class, and possibility broader than in Europe’s confines....

... Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are. That has not changed.

But much has in the last eight years. This is a moment of anguish. The Bush presidency has engineered the unlikely double whammy of undermining free-market capitalism and essential freedoms, the nation’s twin badges.

American luster is gone. The American idea has, in Joyce Carol Oates’s words, become a “cruel joke.” Americans are worrying and hurting.

So it is important to step back, from the last machinations of this endless campaign, and think again about what America is.

It is renewal, the place where impossible stories get written.

It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the cruel gyre of memory.

It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.”

It is a place better than Bush’s land of shadows where a leader entrusted with the hopes of the earth cannot find within himself a solitary phrase to uplift the soul.

Multiple polls now show Obama with a clear lead. But nobody can know the outcome and nobody should underestimate the immense psychological leap that sending a black couple to the White House would represent.

What I am sure of is this: an ever more interconnected world, where financial chain reactions spread with the virulence of plagues, thirsts for American renewal and a form of American leadership sensitive to humanity’s tied fate...

...Watching the way he has allowed his opponents’ weaknesses to reveal themselves, the way he has enticed them into self-defeating exhaustion pounding against the wall of his equanimity, I have come to understand better what he meant.

Stories require restraint, too. Restraint engages the imagination, which has always been stirred by the American idea, and can be once again.

I feel that we're in free fall as a nation. There's a tree growing from the cliff, and if we can twist just right and get a bit of a breeze we might be able to stop in it. We'll still have a heck of a climb to the top, but it's not impossible.

Miss this tree, and there may not be another one. Not for us, and maybe not for humanity.

Yeah, I know, it sounds melodramatic.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Geeks for Obama: Tim O'Reilly's endorsement

Tim O'Reilly is a big name in the geek world. His eponymous publishing house has sold some of the best programming books for many years.

In a radical departure from his usual writing, he's published a stirring endorsement of Barack Obama.

Geeks tend to be libertarian to centrist sorts, though substantially less religious than the average American. (I'm far more concerned with the 'problem of the weak' than most American geeks.) My tribe should have been a natural constituency for McCain.

The old, pre-Palin, non-demented McCain.

Instead, donation reports from Google, Apple, Microsoft and my own employer show that 80% of geeks support Obama. Not coincidentally, the Economist's world-wide reader survey found that 80% of US registered Economist readers support Obama.

O'Reilly fits right into this picture.

Microsoft lessons from Target Trutech and my fancy JBL

Two years ago I spent far too much money on a fancy JBL iPod clock radio.

It was defective by design. My 3G b&w iPod wouldn't always start when the alarm went off. Later model iPods would always start, but they played a random tune (known defect of this device). The embedded OS crashed randomly, typically every few weeks. It's pain to reset when there's a 9V battery backup installed, so I gave up on the battery backup. The time and alarm configuration is cryptic to begin with, and there are many combinatorials to get wrong.

In the meantime I bought my 10 yo a $8 house brand Target Trutech clock radio. It's been very reliable, despite extreme abuse.

Tonight I threw in the towel. I bought another $8 "Trutech" for our room. It's very simple to program, the 9V battery backup works, the radio even makes some noise and the power adapter is quite compact.

I thought about paying more than $8, but my pre-JBL clock radio was a $90 SONY CD player/radio that died after about 10 months of gentle use.

In the 21st century there's no particular correlation between price and quality, and most brand names are meaningless. (Apple being the obvious exception.)

Today one can either buy the very cheapest device and save money, or buy a luxury brand (Apple, Bose, ?) and expect some support. The great middle is gone.

Speaking of which, Target is selling $300 ASUS "netbooks" that run Linux and bundle OpenOffice. They include a 4 GB solid state "drive" and 512MB of memory with embedded wireless. Within a year they'll sell for $200 and have 8 GB of storage and 1GB of memory.

Microsoft is not a luxury brand.

2009 will be an ugly year for Microsoft.

Mainstream media wearies of calling McCain on his lying

A not so good development.

McCain/Palin lying has been so regular and sustained it's no longer "news". It's "dog bits man" and thus not reported by big media.

ABC is an exception, but the 'Carved B' hoax is getting a complete pass. is routinely calling the lies, but they're running out of euphemisms and migrating to descriptions like "whopper". Alas, they're not mainstream.

I put Obama's chances at no more than 50%, so this is not a good time for the big buys to stop pointing out that Palin and McCain are non-stop liars.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Was Babbage's computer truly forgotten?

In Our Time 's Ada Lovelace program, by necessity, involved quite a bit of discussion of Charles Babbage. Babbage, with some help from Lovelace, imagined a good portion of the computing machine that Turing and others would later build.

Melvyn's guests felt that there wasn't a direct connection between Babbage (1830)  and Turing (1945), that Babbage's contributions were essentially lost to science.

This seems a bit odd, as the Wikipedia article on Babbage mentions that his son created six difference engines. To this I can add an additional note from my library. I have a copy of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (11th ed), which includes an article on Babbage and one on Calculating Machines. I've scanned all of the former and portions of the latter (PDF 8MB [1]). (See also the "love to know" 1911 project , but their article doesn't match my copy. Microsoft apparently republished the encyclopedia in 1995.)

Briefly, the article on Babbage focuses on his mathematical pursuits, including an essay deploring the decline of science in 19th century England (some things never change). The article describes both the Difference and Analytic engines much as we understand them now, though it misses the significance of the programming design. The article on Calculating Machines praises the Difference Engine as a real device with well understood principles, but states that the Analytical Engine did not progress beyond sketches. It does, however, refer interested readers to a comprehensive book by Babbage's son.

I'm left with the impression that Melvyn's guests understated the extent to which portions of Babbage's work survived into the 20th century.

[1] OS X Black and White PDFs are vastly larger than Adobe's B&W PDFs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Apple blocks Opera Mini from the iPhone

This is why we iPhone users must encourage everyone to buy a Google Android gPhone ...

Opera Sings an Ode to Browsers Everywhere - Bits Blog -

... For smartphones, Opera Mobile is a full-featured browser that can display most Web sites. Handset makers pay Opera about 50 cents to $1 per copy for each phone made with the browser on it.

For less sophisticated phones and slower networks, it offers Opera Mini, which takes advantage of a server computer, run by Opera, to handle the processing of Web pages. The server then sends a simplified version of each page to the phone in a compressed form.

Because that makes for much faster browsing no matter what the phone and network, Mr. von Tetzchner said, Opera Mini is increasingly popular on smartphones, even those that use the latest third-generation, or 3G, wireless data networks.

“3G isn’t really that fast,” he said. “We try to deal with the real world.”

Mr. von Tetzchner said that Opera’s engineers have developed a version of Opera Mini that can run on an Apple iPhone, but Apple won’t let the company release it because it competes with Apple’s own Safari browser...

Wouldn't you like to have the choice of a Opera Mobile? Google Android customers will have that choice.

Apple needs the lash of competition to be a barely tolerable companion.

Great news: brain speed increases to age 39

I figured brain speed peaked at 25, so 39 is great news ..
Slashdot | Brains Work Best At Age of 39

... Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles are reporting that while some people may think 'life begins at 40,' all it seems to do is slow down. According to recent research, at age 39 our brain reaches its peak speed, and it's all downhill after that...
Why the negative spin? This is kind of nice.

So now I have the brain of a 29 yo .... (assuming a normal curve decline, which is probably optimistic).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

If you're told you can't vote -- call 866-OUR-VOTE

The good guys are ready for the big fight. They've got a strike team standing by to fight GOP voter suppression attacks ...
Do you know what to do? (Scripting News)

... Call 866- OUR-VOTE or go to to get information on where to vote and the facts on your right to vote. A trained team of advisors is available to help you resolve your problem...

The Singularity University

It's easy to mock this group, not least because of the wealth and power of some of the attendees ...
Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: This post will self-destruct in five minutes

... On Saturday, September 20, 2008, a carefully selected group of the tech world's best and brightest assembled in a windowless conference room at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley - barely a mile from the Googleplex as the rocket flies - to discuss preparations for our impending post-human future. This was the founding meeting of Singularity University, an academic institution whose mission, as founder Dr. Peter Diamandis told the elite audience, would be 'to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies (bio, nano, info, etc); and to apply, focus and guide these to the best benefit of humanity and its environment.'...
The group is keeping a low profile, for obvious reasons. Neither Vernor Vinge nor Bill Joy attended.

When it comes to the "rapture of the nerds" I hold the middle ground. I fear the era of transcendent non-biological minds, but I think it's beyond 2060. Unlike Nicholas Carr, I'll avoid the easy sarcasm. I'm glad they're thinking about the problem. Maybe they'll figure out how we could create an artificial mind that wouldn't be, for example, insane or murderous.

Winning for the wrong reasons

If Obama/Biden win, which I still cannot believe, we will ask whether America saved itself for the right reasons or the wrong reasons.

The right reason would be that the American people cleared the cobwebs away. That we became serious. That we all recognized the corruption, the lies, the cruelty, the stupidity (oh the stupidity), the brutality and the greed of the 1996-2008 GOP.

The right reason would be that we became ashamed of our panicked response to the attacks of 9/11, that we saw all the blood and gold we've spilled like water.

The right reason would be that we wanted a new start, and to find out what the GOP has really done.

Then there's the wrong reason.

The wrong reason is that we're still pithed, but we're semi-blindly doing the right thing as a reaction to the news of the past weeks and the disastrous Sarah Palin.

Paul Krugman seems to think we'll make the right choice for the right reasons. Brad DeLong thinks we're making the right choice for the wrong reasons ...
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong:

.... I think voters would like to be serious, but don't know how. And the media doesn't provide them with a way to be serious--serving as trusted intermediaries to tell Americans about candidates' likely policies and their likely effects is the last thing from reporters' minds. Recall New York Times editor Jill Abramson's sorry excuse that the Times hadn't run stories about issues because the reporters competent to cover policy substance were all dragged off to write about the financial crisis.

Paul is optimistic about the future of the press corps. I am not. I think that the Republican slime machine and their friends the Heathers in the press corps will be back--that this year the normal rules of political-journalistic slime have been temporarily interrupted.

We do, I think, still live in Nixonland...
I'm with DeLong on this one. We have not come to terms with our mistakes. In fact, we could very easily elect Palin/McCain and continue the long descent.

I'm not proud. I gave up on that when Bush was re-elected. I'll accept doing the right thing for the wrong reasons -- but I'll go easy on celebrating America's recovery. That's years away at best, and it's no sure thing.

The thoughtful slime mold

So you think you understand thought?
the physics arXiv blog: Slime Mould intelligence points to a new model of AI

...Suddenly, you’ve got a new kind of AI on your hands and the origins of cellular intelligence don’t seem so obscure, after all...
No, you don't understand thought at all.

Now about the google-mind ...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Jay Cooke State Park - MN

We do well with road trips. Better than one might expect. Our latest 2 day road trip to Duluth Minnesota was another triumph, not the least because we couldn't get a room in Duluth.

Too many tourists.

Instead we ended up in Cloquet, a lumber town that reminds me of Williamsport, Pennsylvania -- where we did our residency. It's an interesting town in its own right, but our kids didn't allow us to explore the remarkable used book store we passed by (in the old town, up the hill, in a beautiful old building).

We got lucky on the drive from Cloquet to Duluth. We opted for the road less traveled, and that took us through Jay Cooke state park.

Wow. How did we miss this gem? Try following the river with Google Earth, and visit the photos you find. I want to try the suspension bridge over the Saint Louis River (lots of hydro power, so hardly pristine, but still fascinating). It's about 2-3 hours north of the Twin Cities, so easy to visit.

Looks like some superb cross country skiing there. If I'm very careful I might be able to turn my 6 yo daughter into a cross-country skier -- and then I'd have a case for a trip!

Frank Rich: white guys aren't all bad

I was reading in Politico that the last Democrat to win a majority of white non-Hispanic Americans was Lyndon Johnson.

Before the civil rights movement.

I'm melanin-deprived so that's one of my tribes. I can't even claim a Jewish-exemption (white non-Hispanic Jews do vote Democrat). Yeah, I'm sort of Korean by adoption, but I still get sun burn from incandescent lights.

No wonder, in my heart, I still believe Palin/McCain will win -- albeit at a hideous cost. It comes with my tribe.

Frank Rich, also a member of the inheritors of sin, tries to tell the world we're not all bad ...
Frank Rich - In Defense of White Americans -

... Nor is America’s remaining racism all that it once was, or that the McCain camp has been hoping for it to be. There are even “racists for Obama,” as Politico labels the phenomenon: White Americans whose distrust of black people in general crumbles when they actually get to know specific black people, including a presidential candidate who extends a genuine helping hand in a time of national crisis.

The original “racist for Obama,” after all, was none other than Obama’s own white, Kansas-raised grandmother, the gravely ill Madelyn Dunham, whom he visited in Hawaii on Friday. In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama wrote of how shaken he was when he learned of her overwhelming fear of black men on the street. But he weighed that reality against his unshakeable love for her and hers for him, and he got past it...
In a similar vein, it's instructive to google on "voting for the ni**er", but I wouldn't mark that as an entirely positive sign of euro-enlightenment.

It will be a good thing for civilization when my tribe becomes just another American minority. Not too long now ...

When John McCain became George Wallace

It hasn't been a good week for John McCain.

Sarah Palin spent more on new outfits than most of his voters make in two years. Her make-up artist earns many times what they earn.

He needed some good news. News that would help him get, say, Pennsylvania.

So when the head of is Pennsylvania campaign called with a miraculous gift, a woman attacked by a big black man who carved the letter B on her face, McCain jumped at it.

Palin phoned the young victim. McCain phoned her. His campaign manager called journalists with all the racy details.

On that day John McCain became George Wallace, the tactical race baiter. He'd abandoned the last shreds of honor in a lunge for the brass ring.

It might have worked. It still might work.

Problem is, 2008 Pennsylvania is not 1960 Alabama. The police were not duped. The public was obviously more skeptical than McCain. Within a day or so the "victim" confessed. She'd faked the whole thing.

McCain's Pennsylvania control went into desperate damage control spin. Their spin is even less convincing than the original story ...
Talking Points Memo | Time for Answers

... As Greg Sargent reported yesterday, McCain Pennsylvania communications director Peter Feldman pushed reporters on a highly incendiary version of Todd's hoax -- providing reporters with quotes from the fictitious attacker and telling them the the "B" scratched on Todd's face stood for "Barack." As the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson aptly put it, Feldman's actions showed "not just a willingness to believe it but an eagerness to incite a ... racial backlash against the Obama campaign."

Our reporting did not find any direct evidence that the McCain campaign's national headquarters played a role pushing the story.

However, the national campaign has now come forward and lied about what happened in Pennsylvania. McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers has now told NBC that alleged quotes from the McCain campaign in early reports of the story were actually the product of "sloppy reporting" and that they were actually quotes from the Pittsburgh police.

This is simply not credible.

Initial reports specifically quote the McCain campaign. And at least two sources involved in the contemporaneous reporting have come forward and said on the record that the quotes came directly from the McCain campaign. To believe that two separate local news organizations made the identical mistake with the same quotes and are now both covering it up is simply not credible. But that is what Rogers is now claiming....

... Gov. Palin did call Todd after the purported attack, as did Sen. McCain. And news of these calls was provided to the press.

The involvement of the candidates and specifically the release of such information -- which was clearly intended to bump up interest in the story -- shows some level of involvement by the national campaign...

I think I know how Obama will handle this.

He'll be gracious and dignified. He'll express his sympathy to the young woman and her family. He'll extend his forgiveness.

There's no better way to twist the knife.

I've said for weeks that I expected McCain to win this, and for Palin to become President within six months.

Now I'm not so sure. Now I'm ready to say it could go either way.

If McCain wins though, he'll have destroyed the village he wanted to save.

Only Shakespeare could do justice to the tragedy of John McCain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wassup 2008 - wonderful campaign fodder

I'd never seen the original beer commercial.

Sadly, I've now seen it. I had to figure out where the vastly better 2008 version came from: YouTube - Wassup 2008.

Diamonds from coal.

Lessons from the faked Todd attack

The unhappy young woman who claimed a big black man carved a 'B' on her face has admitted she made everything up.

She'll face charges from the Pittsburgh police, who were neither deceived nor amused.

We learned a few things however.

Matt Drudge was very keen on the story, he believed it immediately and deeply. Matt Drudge is a racist idiot.

Michelle Malkin is less stupid that Matt Drudge. Who knew? She wasn't fooled.

McCain and Palin both personally called Todd. They are desperate ... and credulous.

A Fox news exec said proof the story was false would doom McCain's bid -- because it would show he was so desperate he'd resort to race baiting.

He was right about playing into race baiting. In a rational nation this would indeed doom Palin/McCain, but that's not our world.

My revised iPhone demands: please buy a Google gPhone

Six months ago I updated my "iPhone demands" of August 2007. It's a good time for an update.

I'm now a bloodied and battered iPhone power user, with a cobbled together PDA suite roughly comparable to the Palm @ 1994. Comparable in functionality, but vastly harder to assemble and implement.

So I feel "ok" about my iPhone, but I ain't jumping up and down with joy. Apple isn't solving my problems.

I understand, I'm a tiny demographic. Really, I'm more the gPhone type -- which is probably bad news for Google. If I'm their customer then they're probably in trouble.

I'm invested in the iPhone though. So, in the interests of the tiny number of consumers somewhat like me, what is there to grouch about?

A lot. Here's the short list:
  1. Copy, Cut, Paste: This has been on the critical list for over a year. If Apple doesn't put this in with the next iPhone update I would recommend choosing a gPhone for this reason alone. It's not just the missing functionality, it's a sign of lunacy.
  2. Business focus: Truncated itineraries. There are other indicators, but that one's a classic. The iPhone is not ready for serious business use. This one example would send any non-geek exec screaming back to their BlackBerry.
  3. Search across app domains. Also missing for ever a year. Apple added search for contacts (grudgingly), but even there it's limited to name and business. Google, oddly, remembers search.
  4. Tasks at least comparable to the 1994 PalmPilot tasks: Appigo is a terrific company, but they don't have a desktop solution (see sync cable access, below) and they're dependent on relatively feeble cloud solutions (feeble, but still better than MobileMe).
  5. Synchronization with Outlook at least comparable to the modern Palm OS (in other words, flawed, but usable). See business, above.
  6. FileMaker Remote: Yes, Apple doesn't own FileMaker -- but they might as well.
  7. Synchronize notes. See Appigo, above.
  8. Tethering:Let the iPhone bridge a computer to its net connection. I'll give Apple a break here, it's most likely AT&T is afraid iPhone tethering will bring down their fragile data network.
  9. Calendar and Contacts API: MobileMe smells abandoned. The functionality is lousy, the documentation is worse. We need a cloud solution. The only real contender is Google Apps, but we can't do over-the-air sync without an app on the phone that can work with an application API.
  10. A competitive app marketplace: The absence of OTA sync with Google Apps is a worrying sign that Apple is blocking important competitors.
  11. Firewire charging: We know this isn't coming back, but it's a huge annoyance. Every automotive iPhone accessory I own is defunct. I've got a bunch of power adapters that are now of limited use. Big grudge here.
  12. External keyboard support.
  13. Third party access to the sync cable.
  14. Site-selective synchronization - so can sync at both work and home, but not send home data to a work machine.
There's a lot that works of course. The iPhone's iTunes lock-in/integration is a real plus, and the third party apps are great. (Apple's own apps range from quite good to pleasant but mediocre.)

Still, there's an impressive list of things that are still missing.

If you're a geek like me, and you don't need the iPod functionality, I suggest waiting a few months for the next version of the gPhone.

If you're in my tribe and you've already made the iPhone commitment, then you have my condolences. We have a bittersweet beverage, and not that much clout with Apple. The best we can do is urge our friends and colleagues to buy a gPhone; gPhone sales are the one thing that might stir Apple to just a wee bit of interest in our tiny market.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The New York Times is running out of money ...

This should cheer Rupert Murdoch and the GOP:
New York Times (NYT) Running On Fumes

... The company has only $46 million of cash. It appears to be burning more than it is taking in--and plugging the hole with debt. Specifically, it is funding operations by rolling over short-term loans--the kind that banks worldwide are cancelling or making prohibitively expensive to save their own skins...
I wonder if Google wants a newspaper ...

I'm astounded. I thought they were doing much better than this. Heck, I used to pay for their online services until they made that free ..,

A moon of Saturn is only sort of real ...

This reminds me of the start of Pratchett's "Moving Pictures" ...
Quantum Hyperion | Cosmic Variance

... Zurek and Paz calculate ... that if Hyperion were isolated from the rest of the universe, it would evolve into a non-localized quantum state over a period of about 20 years. It’s an impressive example of quantum uncertainty on a macroscopic scale...
Hyperion is one of Saturn's moons.

Read the entire article to learn how Hyperion decoheres. Meaning stays real (albeit with locality).

The NYT's giant Obama endorsement - highlights

I don't recall the NYT going to quite this length when they endorsed Kerry or Gore. I get the feeling that when Palin/McCain wins their despair will rival mine ...

Editorial - Barack Obama - Editorial Board - Endorsement -

October 24, 2008

Barack Obama for President

Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance...

... As tough as the times are, the selection of a new president is easy. After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States.

... Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

In the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

Given the particularly ugly nature of Mr. McCain’s campaign, the urge to choose on the basis of raw emotion is strong. But there is a greater value in looking closely at the facts of life in America today and at the prescriptions the candidates offer. The differences are profound. ...

.... Mr. McCain talks about reform a lot, but his vision is pinched. His answer to any economic question is to eliminate pork-barrel spending — about $18 billion in a $3 trillion budget — cut taxes and wait for unfettered markets to solve the problem.

Mr. Obama is clear that the nation’s tax structure must be changed to make it fairer. That means the well-off Americans who have benefited disproportionately from Mr. Bush’s tax cuts will have to pay some more. Working Americans, who have seen their standard of living fall and their children’s options narrow, will benefit. Mr. Obama wants to raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation, restore a climate in which workers are able to organize unions if they wish and expand educational opportunities.

Mr. McCain, who once opposed President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy as fiscally irresponsible, now wants to make them permanent. And while he talks about keeping taxes low for everyone, his proposed cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the top 1 percent of Americans while digging the country into a deeper fiscal hole.

... While Iraq’s leaders insist on a swift drawdown of American troops and a deadline for the end of the occupation, Mr. McCain is still taking about some ill-defined “victory.” As a result, he has offered no real plan for extracting American troops and limiting any further damage to Iraq and its neighbors.

Mr. Obama was an early and thoughtful opponent of the war in Iraq, and he has presented a military and diplomatic plan for withdrawing American forces. Mr. Obama also has correctly warned that until the Pentagon starts pulling troops out of Iraq, there will not be enough troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan...

... Mr. Obama would have a learning curve on foreign affairs, but he has already showed sounder judgment than his opponent on these critical issues. His choice of Senator Joseph Biden — who has deep foreign-policy expertise — as his running mate is another sign of that sound judgment. Mr. McCain’s long interest in foreign policy and the many dangers this country now faces make his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska more irresponsible...

... Mr. Obama wants to reform the United Nations, while Mr. McCain wants to create a new entity, the League of Democracies — a move that would incite even fiercer anti-American furies around the world.

Unfortunately, Mr. McCain, like Mr. Bush, sees the world as divided into friends (like Georgia) and adversaries (like Russia). He proposed kicking Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations even before the invasion of Georgia. We have no sympathy for Moscow’s bullying, but we also have no desire to replay the cold war. The United States must find a way to constrain the Russians’ worst impulses, while preserving the ability to work with them on arms control and other vital initiatives...

.. Under Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the justice system and the separation of powers have come under relentless attack. Mr. Bush chose to exploit the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the moment in which he looked like the president of a unified nation, to try to place himself above the law.

Mr. Bush has arrogated the power to imprison men without charges and browbeat Congress into granting an unfettered authority to spy on Americans. He has created untold numbers of “black” programs, including secret prisons and outsourced torture. The president has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of secret orders. We fear it will take years of forensic research to discover how many basic rights have been violated.

Both candidates have renounced torture and are committed to closing the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But Mr. Obama has gone beyond that, promising to identify and correct Mr. Bush’s attacks on the democratic system. Mr. McCain has been silent on the subject.

... [McCain] helped the White House push through the appalling Military Commissions Act of 2006, which denied detainees the right to a hearing in a real court and put Washington in conflict with the Geneva Conventions, greatly increasing the risk to American troops.

The next president will have the chance to appoint one or more justices to a Supreme Court that is on the brink of being dominated by a radical right wing. Mr. Obama may appoint less liberal judges than some of his followers might like, but Mr. McCain is certain to pick rigid ideologues. He has said he would never appoint a judge who believes in women’s reproductive rights...

.. It will be an enormous challenge just to get the nation back to where it was before Mr. Bush, to begin to mend its image in the world and to restore its self-confidence and its self-respect. Doing all of that, and leading America forward, will require strength of will, character and intellect, sober judgment and a cool, steady hand.

Mr. Obama has those qualities in abundance. Watching him being tested in the campaign has long since erased the reservations that led us to endorse Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. He has drawn in legions of new voters with powerful messages of hope and possibility and calls for shared sacrifice and social responsibility.

Mr. McCain, whom we chose as the best Republican nominee in the primaries, has spent the last coins of his reputation for principle and sound judgment to placate the limitless demands and narrow vision of the far-right wing. His righteous fury at being driven out of the 2000 primaries on a racist tide aimed at his adopted daughter has been replaced by a zealous embrace of those same win-at-all-costs tactics and tacticians.

He surrendered his standing as an independent thinker in his rush to embrace Mr. Bush’s misbegotten tax policies and to abandon his leadership position on climate change and immigration reform...

... Mr. Obama has withstood some of the toughest campaign attacks ever mounted against a candidate. He’s been called un-American and accused of hiding a secret Islamic faith. The Republicans have linked him to domestic terrorists and questioned his wife’s love of her country. Ms. Palin has also questioned millions of Americans’ patriotism, calling Republican-leaning states “pro-America.”

This politics of fear, division and character assassination helped Mr. Bush drive Mr. McCain from the 2000 Republican primaries and defeat Senator John Kerry in 2004. It has been the dominant theme of his failed presidency.

The nation’s problems are simply too grave to be reduced to slashing “robo-calls” and negative ads. This country needs sensible leadership, compassionate leadership, honest leadership and strong leadership. Barack Obama has shown that he has all of those qualities.

If/when Palin/McCain win, it will be because we don't deserve the opportunity Obama/Biden are offering us.

Arne Carlson endorses Obama

Excuse me. I'm struggling to beat back some tiny flickers of hope. This latest endorsement ...

Must repeat ..."President $150,000 Palin".

Phew. That was tough, but I'm back to feeling doomed.

This announcement really did surprise me ...
Talking Points Memo | Rumblings, Pt. 3

Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson (R) is endorsing Barack Obama.

Usually when you hear these sorts of stories it's someone who was governor for like one term in the 1970s or something, when party divisions were very different from today. Carlson, though, was Minnesota Governor for most of the 1990s. My recollection is that he basically got run out by the hard right faction of the GOP in the state. But he was a moderate, but a genuine Republican. He cited Bachmann's tirade as one thing that pushed him to endorse.
Carlson was despised by the Minnesota right. He never got a primary endorsement, but he won every time he ran. He'd still be governor but for term limits. Heck, I might even have voted for him once.

Carlson was one of the last of the old, responsible, sane, pre-Gingrich Republicans. He's remembered well in Minnesota.

His endorsement matters here.

We have another Minnesota Republican like Carlson -- Representative Jim Ramstad. I wouldn't vote for him, but he's definitely respectable. Nobody serious bothers to run against him, but he's quitting politics anyway.

I notice he doesn't seem to have done any campaigning for McCain/Palin, though technically he endorsed McCain in Congress. I wonder if he could turn.

If the GOP loses the presidency, and launches an internal reform, people like Carlson and Ramstad could help craft a respectable alternative.

Must beat back hope, must beat back hope ...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Our Time - Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems

The first two programmes of the 2008 season were a bit dull, but Melvyn has picked up the pace nicely with a piece on Godel’s incompleteness theorem …

BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems
…Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford
John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Gresham Professor of Geometry
Philip Welch, Professor of Mathematical Logic at the University of Bristol..

Terrific guests and Melvyn was in good form. He seemed genuinely interested, whereas in the prior two I thought he was pushing the topic along. He does very well with math and physics, perhaps because they aren’t his primary study.

I was a bit disappointed they never mentioned Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, but it has been about 30 years (!) since that was a best-seller. Yes, I not only read the entire thing thoroughly, I also took copious notes (since lost). I was one of four people who actually read it.

Towards the end of the show one of the guests mentions that geometry was not complex enough to trigger the incompleteness clause that one can state true things that cannot be proven true. Number systems of course are incomplete in the Godelian sense, and he thought that was somehow (lost me here) related to the role of prime numbers arising from arithmetic systems. In the same context he mentioned that Turing’s proof of the Halting Problem was equivalent to the incompleteness theorem.[1]

Naturally I immediately leapt to wondering if someday someone will prove that the relationship between the primes and Godel’s theorem means the unpredictability of prime numbers is a likewise provable. That would be reassuring to users of encryption systems!

[1] Everyone’s heard of Wikipedia, so why doesn’t h2g2 get more credit? Their discussion of the Halting Problem is much more sophisticated than the Wikipedia article.

Michele Bachmann – Minnesota’s loon jumps the shark

Sorry, I just love that title.

Five years ago Bachman might have had a quiet life as a barking mad loon (sorry, can’t stop) and talk radio favorite in very safe congressional seat, representing a mixed rural exurban district east of Saint Paul. In the YouTube era, however, a crazed interview with Chris Matthews has become a media classic.

When Bachman called for an investigation of anti-American members of Congress she elevated herself from the yipping dog in the corner to an international embarrassment for the GOP. Bachman is Sarah Palin without the brains, beauty, charm or glamour. She chose a bad moment to call attention to herself, because the GOP is getting reading for the night of the long knives. Even if Palin wins the presidency, the House will be Democrat. There’s no need for the GOP to worry about losing Bachman’s seat, they might as well get started on the purge now.

Starting with Michele Bachman.

So donations are flooding into Tinklenburg (love the name, gave $20), but the real story (emphasis mine) is how quickly the GOP has disowned her …

Bachmann finds herself in firestorm of criticism -

… Three days after telling a national television audience that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "may have anti-American views,'' the Republican from Minnesota's 6th District faced a re-energized and suddenly flush opponent and a firestorm of criticism from within and outside her party.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it would spend $1 million on challenger El Tinklenberg's bid to unseat her.

A nonpartisan political newsletter, the Cook Political Report, changed its assessment of the race from "Likely Republican'' to "Tossup.''

Campaign contributions to Tinklenberg in the 72 hours since her comments Friday reached $810,000. Before then, it had taken him a year to bring in $1 million.

Her Democratic congressional colleagues from Minnesota condemned her wish that the media investigate Congress to determine which members are anti-American and which aren't.

In Minnesota to campaign for another congressional candidate, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Bachmann's comments reflect poorly on her. "It dishonors the position that she holds and discredits her as a person,'' Pelosi said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., disowned her statements. "I don't think it's fair at all to suggest that Barack Obama is anti-American,'' Pawlenty said.

Even the Republican she defeated in the September primary was upset. He said he's launching a write-in effort aimed at people who don't want to vote for Bachmann but want to stick with the Republican ticket

… Just weeks ago, Bachmann had been considered a solid favorite to be re-elected to a second term and had emerged as a popular conservative spokeswoman on national cable television talk shows.

But there also were signs Tinklenberg's campaign was growing stronger. Just last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Tinklenberg to its Red to Blue program, which helps stronger candidates able to raise money and in a position to win….

… Aubrey Immelman, the St. John's and St. Benedict's college professor who lost the Republican primary to Bachmann in September, launched a write-in candidacy in the 6th District, which runs from the St. Croix River across the northern Twin Cities suburbs to beyond St. Cloud.

"I am putting my name forward as a write-in candidate for disillusioned Republicans who can no longer support Rep. Bachmann and who wish to voice their displeasure without having to vote for the candidate of another party,'' he wrote on his campaign Web site…

I bet Bachman will still win. This is an incredibly safe seat; they went for Bush over Kerry by about 15% in 2004 – and Kerry took Minnesota handily. I still think America will elect Sarah Palin, so getting rid of Bachman is very far fetched.

Still, it’s worth sending a few bucks to Tinklenberg just to tweak Bachman a bit more. Maybe a bit of media attention will remind voters of how much Sarah Palin resembles Michelle Bachman.

Update 10/23/08: The GOP wants her gone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Onion covers McCain's bus problem

The Onion goes where others fear to tread.

They have a satirical news story about John McCain Accidentally Left On Campaign Bus Overnight.

Fortunately passer-byes find Cindy's number in his pocket, and she rescues the confused senator.

Today there are 571,000 hits on "McCain dementia".

A vote for McCain is a vote for President Palin.

Update 5/11/10: McCain's political career seems to be ending, and his statements are increasingly erratic -- but there's really no mainstream media coverage of his cognitive state. We saw the same thing in Reagan's second term. He was clearly impaired, which seems pretty relevant, but the topic was forbidden.

John McCain has had quite a few head injuries, so dementia at his current age is extremely probable. Bob Vitray, writing in 2008, had a good summary ...
... His sport at Annapolis was boxing. He was knocked out at least twice in plane crashes. He probably suffered a concussion during his escape from the Forrestal fire. The North Vietnamese beat him and starved him ...
McCain has had an extremely eventful lPublish Postife, with more than his fair share of head trauma. He should retire now, and we should set aside his actions of the past few years as being a legacy of his dementia. The fault for those actions and statements falls on those who have encouraged him to continue in public life.

Crohn's disease: a bacterial component?

Crohn's is such a complex multi-system disease that it seems unlikely this is the entire story ...
BBC NEWS | Health | Bacterium 'to blame for Crohn's'

.... shortage of naturally-occurring bacteria is thought to trigger the inflammatory gastrointestinal disorder by over-stimulating the immune system.

Now a French team has highlighted the bug, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, which they show secretes biochemicals that reduce inflammation.

The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences....
I'd have believed this more of Ulcerative colitis than of Crohn's disease.

I'm still impressed with how well worm infection seemed to treat ulcerative colitis, but it hasn't gone mainstream.

Melamine is deeply embedded in China's food chain

Dogs in China are most often raised for fur or food.

The death of these 1500 dogs from melamine poisoning reminds us how compromised China's food chain is.
The Associated Press: 1,500 Chinese raccoon dogs die from tainted feed: "Some 1,500 dogs bred for their raccoon-like fur have died after eating feed tainted with melamine, a veterinarian said Monday, raising questions about how widespread the industrial chemical is in China's food chain.
The revelation comes amid a crisis over dairy products tainted with melamine that has caused kidney stones in tens of thousands of Chinese children and has been linked to the deaths of four infants.
The raccoon dogs — a breed native to east Asia whose fur is used to trim coats and other clothing — died of kidney failure after eating the tainted feed, said Zhang Wenkui, a veterinary professor at Shenyang Agriculture University.
'First, we found melamine in the dogs' feed, and second, I found that 25 percent of the stones in the dogs' kidneys were made up of melamine,' said Zhang, who performed a necropsy — an animal autopsy — on about a dozen dogs.
Zhang declined to say when the animals died, but a report Monday in the Southern Metropolis Daily said the deaths occurred over the past two months.
There are lessons for the pharmaceutical chain as well.

Also a few lessons for libertarians everywhere.

McCain and Obama basically tied

At our son's game a local politically savvy parent spoke confidently of Obama's victory.

Bad idea.

Polls this weekend give Obama only a 3% lead. That's as good as being behind in this race given what lies ahead ...
Talking Points Memo | Race to the Bottom

... the really corrupt and vicious part of McCain's effort only comes now because it's only in the last couple weeks that you can pull stuff that the press won't get to call you on before election day -- after which it doesn't matter. Will it take Obama down? So far McCain's gutter campaign has hurt him more than helped. But there's no reason to be sure it will continue that way. And many Obama supporters, sure the election is basically wrapped up, appear ready to slack in the stretch and let McCain smear and cheat his way into office.
I've said all along that I expect McCain/Palin to win. Within six months it will become apparent that McCain has a dementing condition, and we'll have President Palin.

Everyone who doesn't want President Palin has to fight mightily. Don't pretend it can't happen, it probably will. You'll want to say you did your best ...

Another stab at the Drake Equation – from the physics archives

The Drake Equation lies at the heart of one of my favorite hobbies – contemplation of the Fermi Paradox.

We presume, from the absence of Little Green Men in orbit, that there are very few expansionist or communicative technological civilizations in our galaxy. Maybe none.

So either there were exquisitely few to begin with, or they don’t last very long at all.

So we “know” the result of the Drake Equation – a number between 0 and 1. The number can be so small if there are very few technological civilizations like us, or if all technological civilizations are always very short lived.

I favor the always short lived explanation, which is why there’s an upside to President Palin. She would work to end civilization, and if our civilization more or less crumbled we might push world-ending events (sentient machines?) out a few hundred years. Yes, Vote for McCain/Palin – life may be brutish but humanity might last longer.

So it’s always fun to see new attempts to estimate Drake Equation parameters ….

the physics arXiv blog » Blog Archive » And the number of intelligent civilisations in our galaxy is…

Ref: A Numerical Testbed for Hypotheses of Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence… [from] Duncan Forgan at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh.

The Drake equation famously calculates the number of advanced civilisations that should populate our galaxy right now. The result is hugely sensitive to the assumptions you make about factors such as the number of planets that orbit a host star that are potentially habitable, how many of these actually develop life and what fraction of that goes onto become intelligent etc.

Disagreement (ie general ignorance) over these numbers leads to estimates of the number intelligent civilisations in our galaxy that range from 10^-5 to 10^6.  In other words, your best bet is to pick a number, double it….

So Forgan has attempted to inject a little more precision into the calculation. His idea is to actually simulate many times over, the number of civilisations that may have appeared in a galaxy like ours using reasonable, modern estimates for the values in the Drake equation.

With these statistics you can calculate an average value and a standard deviation for the number of advanced civilisations in our galaxy.

Better still, it allows you to compare the results of different models of civilisation creation.

Horgan has clearly had some fun comparing three models:

i. panspermia: if life forms on one planet, it can spread to others in a system

ii. the rare-life hypothesis: Earth-like planets are rare but life progresses pretty well on them when they occur

iii.  the tortoise and hare hypothesis: Earth-like plants are common but the steps towards civilisation are hard

And the results are:

i. panspermia predicts  37964.97 advanced civilisations in our galaxy with a standard deviation of 20.

ii. the rare life hypothesis predicts 361.2 advanced civilisations with an SD of 2

iii. the tortoise and hare hypothesis predicts 31573.52 with an SD of 20.

Those are fantastically precise numbers. But before you start broadcasting to your newfound friends with a flashlight, it’s worth considering their accuracy.

The results of simulations like this are no better than than the assumptions you make in developing them. And these, of course, are based on our manifestly imperfect but rapidly improving knowledge of the heavens.

The real question is whether we’ll ever have good enough data to plug in to a model like this to give us a decent answer, without actually discovering another intelligent civilisation. And the answer to that is almost certainly not.

I’ll cavil on the last paragraph. It depends on what you mean by “decent”. We will probably get pretty good at estimating the number of earth like planets in the next fifty years, and, assuming we don’t detect any interesting transmissions, we’ll get more confident that the number of extant civilizations is very low. Which should lead to some cheery predictions about our civilizational life expectancy …

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Google - please hire me to create a task list

I've been a Toodledo customer for months, but they're driving me a bit crazy. They don't grok search, their UI is web 1.0, and their web site has lots of advanced tools that aren't designed quite right.

Their multi-edit tool pushed me over the edge into madness this afternoon. When I tried to create a multi-edit search for items dated prior to today, the result included all undated items as well.

If I wanted NULL values, I'd have requested NULL values. #$!$!&*&^%

Toodledo seems to have been created by wrapping a web 1.0 tool around a very generic set of database tables. I love their commitment to data freedom and their Appigo integration, but there's a place for usability too.

So I went back to Remember The Milk to see if they'd improved. I took a special look at the way they handle notes and search.


Ok Google, here's my offer.

Donate $1,000 to CARE.ORG and I'll work for free. I'll tell you what you need to make a good, task list integrated with iCal. Clearly you've been waiting for me to crack and make this free offer, because otherwise you'd have added tasks ages ago.

You know where to reach me.

Ok, maybe Appigo will do their own server. Help!!

Update 11/7/08: Appigo hasn't done their own server yet, but they've added search done right to their iPhone Todo app. Lovely work.

Message to Yahoo (and Cloud) customers: Get Out Now!

I like to think of this as an honorable act:
Slashdot | Yahoo Changes User Profiles, To Massive Outrage

... Yahoo decided to massively screw up their entire userbase by changing all user profiles to blank. No warning, no automated way to get data back, and other unwanted changes....
Yahoo is a publicly owned corporation. They can't, legally, put up a giant red announcement on their home page saying...
We're going down the tubes. You need to leave Yahoo now. Remember all that stuff about the Cloud computing? Well, the Price of the Cloud is 90% data lock. Data Lock means we own your data, and you can't move it. If we go down the tubes, you go down with us.

We are entering the the tubes now. The time has come. Salvage what you can, and take to the boats...
So, instead, they wipe out all the user profiles. It's kind of a "dog whistle" message to any customers with brains from Yahoo's inside geeks -- a back channel way to scream "get out now"!

Alas, most geeks have little sympathy for the naive user. They'll get their messages after the fact.

What about Yahoo Flickr? It will be sold. It's worth too much to just vanish. The transition may be rocky though, kind of like having your bank nationalized.

Think of this as one of life's less expensive lessons. We're going to learn the Price of the Cloud. Better sooner than later ...

Shortest lived links: Local movie listings

We've had a local movie review link on our MSP Family Recreation page for years.

Most of the links are fairly stable -- they have a half-life of 2-5 years.

There's one big exception.

Local movie listings have a half-life of about 4 months. The current two links are broken today.

Since this has traditionally been a low margin local newspaper service the short-lived links are probably another, unneeded, indicator that our local papers have one foot in the ICU and one in the crematorium.

I figured, given the failure of newspaper associated listings, that there must be emerging alternatives.

I found two.

Google has a local movie listing service. Not new and I've probably seen it before, but now it will be a rec page link.

Fandango does listings and sells tickets online. Another rec page link.

I'll miss our local newspapers.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rick Santorum opens mouth, inserts pin

Funny sad ...
Obama hates America and burns flags: The proof is on the Internet

... Just last Thursday, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum told Fox News that Obama won't wear a flag pin because he is 'not in concert' with American values.

Santorum wasn't wearing a pin that day. Obama was...
Meanwhile the NYT Editorial column is decrying the latest covert Bush attack on our tattered civil liberties. It's another step in the transformation of the FBI into KGB-lite.

They end by saying that the next president will have to review the state of our post-Bush/Cheney civil rights.

I'd say there's a 50% chance that will happen and a 50% chance President Palin will finish off what's left of our liberty.

Fareed Zakaria on the bright side of the Crash of ’08

The lemon yellow Newsweek cover caught my eye. As intended.

Bright side of the Crash of '08?

I couldn't resist. Happily, Fareed Zakaria had some interesting things to say.

Some highlights (emphases mine):

There Is a Silver Lining |Fareed Zakaria |

... The average household owns 13 credit cards, and 40 percent of them carry a balance, up from 6 percent in 1970...

... Every city, every county and every state has wanted to preserve its many and proliferating operations and yet not raise taxes. How to square this circle? By borrowing, using ever more elaborate financial instruments. Revenue bonds were backed up by the prospect of future income from taxes or lotteries. "A growing trend is to securitize future federal funding for highways, housing and other items," says Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. The effect on the projects, he points out, is to make them more expensive, since they incur interest payments. Because they "insulate the taxpayer from the cost"—all that needs to be paid now is the interest—they also tend to produce cost overruns...

... Boykin Curry, managing director of Eagle Capital, says, "For 20 years, the DNA of nearly every financial institution had morphed dangerously. Each time someone at the table pressed for more leverage and more risk, the next few years proved them 'right.' These people were emboldened, they were promoted and they gained control of ever more capital. Meanwhile, anyone in power who hesitated, who argued for caution, was proved 'wrong.' The cautious types were increasingly intimidated, passed over for promotion. They lost their hold on capital. This happened every day in almost every financial institution over and over, until we ended up with a very specific kind of person running things. This year, the capital that remains is finally being reallocated to more careful, thoughtful executives and investors—the Warren Buffetts … of the world."

... Curry points out that "30 percent of S&P 500 profits last year were earned by financial firms, and U.S. consumers were spending $800 billion more than they earned every year. As a result, most of our top math Ph.D.s were being pulled into nonproductive financial engineering instead of biotech research and fuel technology. Capital expenditures went into retail construction instead of critical infrastructure." The crisis will stop the misallocation of human and financial resources and redirect them in more-productive ways. If some of the smart people now on Wall Street end up building better models of energy usage and efficiency, that would be a net gain for the economy...

How's the story go? India creates software, China creates hardware, and the US creates financial instruments?

The 13 credit cards/household is so high I wonder if it's really true. On the other hand, I buy the stories of state budget trickery. I wonder how long that will take to unwind.

For me the best part of the essay is Boykin Curry's description of how an economic bubble destroys the leadership of publicly traded companies living in the bubble. In a bubble irrational bets pay off, and rational behavior is a ticket down the org chart. Eventually only the crazies are left at the top.

I would like to read more about the people who are the winners of the financial carnage. I suspect some actors are doing rather well right now.

Update 10/19/08: See the comment from Cathy. The "13 cards" statistic may be true. I believe Cathy is right when she guesses many people collect cards for a transient 10% purchase discount, but then never intend to use them. Of course a number of people will end up using those extra cards when they run into financial trouble, which will lead to misfortune all around.

So are these 10% purchase discounts really a good idea for the stores? I suspect it's marginal, but the risk and incentives have been outsourced through a long and disconnected chain of commerce -- so the true cost is probably hidden. Accounting uber alles, again.

Nostalgia for the Soviets: they made us look good

DI reviews the history of a Soviet atomic weapon production facility: Damn Interesting: In Soviet Russia, Lake Contaminates You.

Millions poisoned. Everything secret. Mopping up plutonium.

The amazing part is that life expectancy fell by "only" 30% in the poisoned region. Humans are fairly radiation resistant.

Sigh. The Soviets made us look so good by comparison. China tries with its melamine poisoned infants, but, really, they don't have their heart in it.

Now, instead of feeling so much better than the Soviets, we contemplate the rule of President Palin.

One can almost feel a perverse nostalgia for the Soviets.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Note to the plumbing obsessed – do not confuse politics with reality

It’s (very) mildly entertaining to read about the “Joe the Plumber” reality vs. fantasy story …

Egregious Moderation: Ed Kilgore: John McCain: Dishonest, Dishonorable, and Incompetent

…A day after making Joseph Wurzelbacher famous, referencing him in the debate almost two dozen times as someone who would pay higher taxes under Barack Obama, McCain learned the fine print Thursday on the plumber’s not-so-tidy personal story: He owes back taxes. He is not a licensed plumber. And it turns out that Wurzelbacher makes less than $250,000 a year, which means he would receive a tax cut if Obama were elected president…

Problem is, this completely misses the point.

It wouldn’t matter if Joe the Plumber were a mass murderer or a visiting alien. This has nothing to do with reality, this is talking-to-the-undecided-voter end-of-the-game politics.

It’s a good thing Obama understands this. His response will be to the Joe-meme, not the Joe human. He won’t bother pointing out reality, because that’s not relevant.

The right response might be to say nice things about middle-class white men, and point out that they’ll do much better with Obama/Biden than they’d do with Bush III (McCain) or President Palin.

I say “might” because I know I don’t understand the “undecided” voter that all these discussions are aimed at.

I think Obama’s team does understand them … fortunately.

David Brooks – Is Obama more like FDR, or more like Ronald Reagan?

Flying pigs are slip-sliding on the frozen fires of Hell.

David Books has written an extended essay praising Barack Obama. He compares Obama to his personal hero (Reagan) and to a man usually placed in the top 3 of great American presidents …

David Brooks - Thinking About Obama -

… Some candidates are motivated by something they lack. For L.B.J., it was respect. For Bill Clinton, it was adoration. These politicians are motivated to fill that void. Their challenge once in office is self-regulation. How will they control the demons, insecurities and longings that fired their ambitions?

But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.

Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood,” he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.

But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day…

I was annoyed when Obama praised Reagan, but I didn’t write anything.

Obama is a brilliant political tactician. True, Palin/McCain will still win, but nobody could do better than he’s done.

Brooks appears to be nerving himself to endorse Obama. Even if he doesn’t, those pigs are still spinning.

The Acorn Conspiracy – The GOP’s war on civilization continues

The GOP is trotting out the FBI to investigate the fearsome Acorn Attack.

That’s a good reminder that reason #45254134 to donate money to Obama/Biden is so we can learn what the h*ll has been going on at the FBI. If, by some miracle, McCain/Palin are defeated, we’re going to find some juicy worms in that can.

The New York Times lead editorial provides some useful background on this latest GOP ploy (emphases mine):

Editorial - The Acorn Story -

In Wednesday night’s debate, John McCain warned that a group called Acorn is “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history” and “may be destroying the fabric of democracy.” Viewers may have been wondering what Mr. McCain was talking about. So were we.

Acorn is a nonprofit group that advocates for low- and moderate-income people and has mounted a major voter-registration drive this year. Acorn says that it has paid more than 8,000 canvassers who have registered about 1.3 million new voters, many of them poor people and members of racial minorities. [jf: ie, black]

In recent weeks, the McCain campaign has accused the group of perpetrating voter fraud by intentionally submitting invalid registration forms, including some with fictional names like Mickey Mouse and others for voters who are already registered.

Based on the information that has come to light so far, the charges appear to be wildly overblown — and intended to hobble Acorn’s efforts.

The group concedes that some of its hired canvassers have turned in tainted forms, although they say the ones with phony names constitute no more than 1 percent of the total turned in. The group also says it reviews all of the registration forms that come in. Before delivering the forms to elections offices, its supervisors flag any that appear to have problems.

According to Acorn, most of the forms that are now causing controversy are ones that it flagged and that unsympathetic election officials then publicized.

Acorn’s critics charge that it is creating phony registrations that ineligible voters could use to cast ballots or that a single voter could use to vote multiple times.

Acorn needs to provide more precise figures about problem forms and needs to do a better job of choosing its canvassers.

But for all of the McCain campaign’s manufactured fury about vote theft (and similar claims from the Republican Party over the years) there is virtually no evidence — anywhere in the country, going back many elections — of people showing up at the polls and voting when they are not entitled to.

Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t saying anything about another more serious voter-registration scandal: the fact that about one-third of eligible voters are not registered. The racial gaps are significant and particularly disturbing. According to a study by Project Vote, a voting-rights group, in 2006, 71 percent of eligible whites were registered, compared with 61 percent of blacks, 54 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of Asian-Americans.

Much of the blame for this lies with overly restrictive registration rules. Earlier this year, the League of Women Voters halted its registration drive in Florida after the state imposed onerous new requirements.

The answer is for government to a better job of registering people to vote. That way there would be less need to rely on private registration drives, largely being conducted by well-meaning private organizations that use low-paid workers. Federal and state governments should do their own large-scale registration drives staffed by experienced election officials. Even better, Congress and the states should adopt election-day registration, which would make such drives unnecessary.

The real threats to the fabric of democracy are the unreasonable barriers that stand in the way of eligible voters casting ballots.

Gee, why would low income workers compensated on a per form basis produce fake forms? Do you think they might have something in common with senior executives in publicly traded companies? Do you think they might have something in common with everyone who’s paid by commission? Maybe with the paid-by-commission $100 million/year wall street executives who repackaged toxic debt into slices pawned off on willing fools?

I’m amazed the fake data rate was as low as it’s been.

A conspiracy to destroy democracy? That’s what the John Birchers would say. That’s what the GOP says with their back to the wall.

The “Acorn Attack” will be pressed hard.

I’ve been given senior management (Emily) approval to donate another $200 to Obama. This donation was inspired by the Acorn Attack and the Virginia GOP’s lesson in evil. I recommend this general approach. Every time the GOP pulls out another dirty trick, donate another $100.

It’s the best way to fight back, because if, as I expect, Palin/McCain wins, you’ll regret not having fought harder for the soul of America and, hell, the future of civilization.