Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rule #1 for spotting a con ...

Via FMH. This is my favorite tip in a brief article on avoiding cons ...
How To Avoid Getting Conned - Executive Careers -

... Confidence is, after all, where the con in con man comes from. The sharper someone makes you think you are, the more likely you are to believe that you're in control—and the more vulnerable you'll be when the loop of deception is closed. 'The easiest person to con,' says Robbins, 'is someone who thinks he's too smart to be conned...
Moral - Never think you're too smart to be conned.

Return of the WMDs - from Pakistan

There is, of course, these press leaks are related to the Obama transition.

The WMDs are back. Emphases and italics mine.
Panel Fears Use of Unconventional Weapon -

An independent commission has concluded that terrorists will most likely carry out an attack with biological, nuclear or other unconventional weapons somewhere in the world in the next five years unless the United States and its allies act urgently to prevent that...

... “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan,” the report states...

... The report is the result of a six-month study by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which Congress created last spring in keeping with one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission...

.... Commission officials said that date is a judgment based on scores of interviews and classified briefings conducted by members of the panel — led by former Senators Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, and Jim Talent, Republican of Missouri — but does not represent a new formal assessment by the United States intelligence agencies...

... The commission urges the Obama administration to work to halt the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, backing up any diplomatic initiatives with “the credible threat of direct action” — code for military action, a commission official said....
So what part of this do I personally find least persuasive? This sentence: "unless the United States and its allies act urgently to prevent that."

Ok, so the idea that military action against North Korea, short of occupying it, would prevent a bioweapons attack is probably even stupider.

I don't see how even the smartest and most urgent action could prevent a bioweapons attack -- if someone with money and brains really wanted to try it.

I assume the reason that it appears not to have happened so far [1] is that no national tyrant, even Sadaam, has wanted to do it, and that al Qaeda appears to have alienated all their potential geeks.

Note to murderous religious fundamentalists yearning for the medieval -- you really aren't geek-friendly. Please stay that way.

So, yes, we should pay special attention to bioweapons. Bush made that harder by using smallpox fraud to sell his Iraq invasion -- at the cost of a number of American's maimed or killed by the unwarranted and now forgotten federal immunization program.

So, by all means, pay attention. The threat appears real. But don't imagine we can necessarily prevent this from happening -- especially by attacking North Korea.

The cost of havoc is low and falling.

[1] I say "appears" because if an attack fizzled there's no way we'd recognize it. People die of basically inexplicable causes all the time. It's not a daily event at a sizeable hospital, but a few times a year.

What shall we call the study of the emergent google meta-mind?

I like to think of my blogs as, in part, a conversation with the emergent Google meta-mind - aka "Skynet".

Yes, I have a dark sense of whimsy. Maybe I'm contributing to the future delinquency of a Minor. On the other hand, it seems reasonable to encourage a sentimental streak in any potential future Deity.

Whatever, the point is we need a name for the study of the Google-mind. It's probably not appropriate to consider this a branch of psychology; the meta-mind isn't sentient (I hope!) and certainly isn't human (even if it runs partly on human wetware and partly on Google's machines).

I like "skytology". Any better ideas?

I'm sure I'm not the only one conversing with the meta-mind. What do my fellow delusionists say?

Emergence and the neo-Marxist meme: Google throws up an Amazon book

I was searching on the "golden age of fraud", curious to see what the Google-mind said about fraud in the 1920s.

Turns out, there was no Google "golden age of fraud" connection to 1920.

Number 3 on my Google list was a post of mine, but that's a side-effect of the emergently solipsistic world of Search -- Google learns what I like and gives it to me.

Number 4 though was interesting: The New Golden Age: The Coming Revolution against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos: Ravi Batra.

From a scan of the reviews it appears Mr Batra has been predicting doom for some time. This 2007 publisher's weekly critique is funny today (emphasis mine) ...
... After nearly 20 years of predicting economic disaster, Batra (Greenspan's Fraud, etc.) suggests a reversal, though only after we rise up in revolution against the forces of chaos. This time, he charges politicians, academics, business executives and rich people with "corruption," defined as "any policy that enriches the rich and impoverishes the poor and the middle class." Among the practices Batra censures are raising congressional pay but not the minimum wage, and cutting income taxes while increasing Social Security taxes. Though the analysis is keen and provocative and the conclusions unorthodox as ever, his specific economic predictions aren't likely to be any better than those in his 11 previous books...
Well, it turns out that 2007 was an excellent time to predict oncoming disaster, though 20 years of precedence inevitably evokes "stuck clocks".

I've not read any part of the book, but the reader reviews have a neo-Marxist flavor.

I suppose this is the right time for a neo-Marxist revival. As someone sympathetic to the obligations the (transiently) strong owe the (currently) weak, I'm not entirely opposed.

It is necessary to point out, however, that Marx was at least as deluded as Freud.

Post-crash review: What if our inflation measurements were terribly wrong?

We're still fighting over the causes and remedies of the Great Depression -- 80 years later after the crash of '29.

I'll be pleasantly surprised if humanity is still able to debate the causes of the crash of '08 in 2088. In the happy event that any sentience is around for that discussion, I wonder if they'll consider systemic errors in measuring inflation to be significant contributors to a "complexity crash".

We're not there yet. A Google Scholar search on inflation rate" "cost of ownership" corrected doesn't return anything interesting as of 11/30/08. My May 2007 and June 2007 posts appear to have been rejected by the meme-space meta-mind (love the sound of that!).

That's ok, I can be persistent.

I'll try another example.

I last bought a SONY Trinitron CRT TV about ten years ago. It cost me about $350 at the time and has not cost me a moment's time post-purchase. It will probably work 20 years from now, though by then it will only work with illegal DRM-stripped media.

Today, by contrast, my neighbor asked my advice on his TV purchase. LCD or Plasma? Should he invest in software to do computer-based image calibration? Will the LCDs really last 60,000 hours, or will they need maintenance within 5 years? Will the embedded OS crash and how often? When current DRM barriers are hacked, will the TV become obsolete? Assuming my neighbor's hourly cost is $70/hour, how much will his TV service cost him over his lifespan?

Does anyone lucid imagine that the lifecycle total cost of ownership of his TV will be comparable to the TV I bought ten years ago? Will the increased enjoyment (dubious, since humans adopt rapidly to such changes) justify the massively increased cost of ownership?

Now, I suspect we're hitting rock bottom in terms of the cost of ownership. I believe the quality of Chinese exports (probably including food) is improving from a very low nadir, and I think (pray?) consumers are beginning to consider life cycle costs.

From the perspective of understanding the crash '08, however, it's the past decade that counts. During that time we've supposedly had an adjusted inflation rate of less than 3%. What if we were measuring the wrong numbers? What if the life-cycle adjusted cost-of-ownership inflation rate were really 3-8%? What would that say about what our monetary policy was doing? Could our historically low fed rates, based on the published inflation rates, have been ridiculously low compared to the adjusted rate? If the true inflation rate were 6-7%, what would that say about middle-income wage collapse? How would such an economy have reacted to a sudden contraction in credit?

Ok, I tried! I hope my Google Scholar search turns up more articles in a few months.

Update: Thinking about this, I wonder how long after the technology explosions of the early 20th century people began making intelligent purchases. There must have been a time when most people didn't really know what they were buying, when they couldn't have been making very wise choices ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Microsoft Live Mesh won't work

Microsoft's Ray Ozzie is very excited about LiveMesh ...
Ray Ozzie Wants to Push Microsoft Back Into Startup Mode

... Then comes a demonstration of Live Mesh, which will allow people to seamlessly synchronize all their information with as many people and places as they want, across as many devices (computer, phone, camera) as they want...
Ozzie needs to spend some time hanging out with "Health Level 7" (HL-7) veterans.

Live Mesh won't work unless everyone agrees to fully embrace a complete specification of Microsoft's data model for all the entities of interest.

This is the basis for the HL-7 RIM CDA specifications and the massive formal ontologies they use (ex. SNOMED CT). That's not to say that the CDA/Terminfo/SNOMED documents will work in the real world, but at least they don't pretend to magically reconcile disparate data models and they come with a hugely expensive domain-specific expert-maintained ontology.

Microsoft is nuts to attack this problem. That's not to say I know what to do with Microsoft, but they'd be better off returning the Live Mesh money to shareholders.

The NYT's Baghdad blog and their awful blog software

The NYT has a blog written from their Baghdad bureau. I finally noticed a link to it tucked away on a news page I rarely visit (I read by feed and by the top article list).

They've probably had it for years, but I can't tell because there's no obvious way to browse past posts. Judging by the comments, it has some very keen readers.

I've added the blog to my reader subscriptions. Unfortunately, as fine as this and several other NYT blogs are, they also show how weak the gray lady as she runs out of cash and prepares for sale.

These blogs should have links to a central index of NYT blogs. The comments need their own page. The blogs need an archive index, organized by month. They need a bit of marketing. Hell, why are there no Google ads? I thought the NYT needed revenue.

Great content, lousy presentation, no monetization. No wonder the NYT is running on fumes.

Update: I've discovered that if you click on the title of a NYT blog you get a pseudo-archival view with URLs that look like this: You can substitute for the page #, as I did here, to find the first post, which for this blog appears to have been 12/28/2007. It's followed by "who's who" post dated 2/27/2008 and revised 11/26/2008. The bureau's chief has had an interesting career ...
James Glanz is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Originally working as an astrophysicist, Mr. Glanz joined The Times in 1999 as a science reporter. In 2004, he became a Baghdad correspondent for the newspaper, and he was appointed bureau chief in August 2007.
I very much hope some Google bazillionaire buys the NYT as a gift to his bride or somesuch. It needs a wealthy overlord with some geek skills.

Friday, November 28, 2008

After the crash: The future of the publicly traded corporation

Years before the crash of '08 (complexity crash?) I'd wondered about the future of the Publicly Traded Corporation (PTC). For example, it takes about 10 years to grow a healthy specimen of complex software, but that's six years beyond the attention span of the average PTC.

Anyone watching the transformation of Microsoft from amoral pirate into yet another mediocre but successful corporation must note how all PTCs come to resemble on another. Everywhere we find lots of very bright and insanely industrious people producing, at the end of the day, mediocre products.

For a time Apple, almost alone among PTCs, seemed to have avoided the trap -- but perhaps a single exception only proves how strong the trap is. Personally, I think even Apple has succumbed. I use a lot of what they make, and I think their quality is deteriorating and, worse, they've lost their vision. In the end one maniacal genius leader was not enough; if we could see inside Apple I think we'd learn that they've lost a lot of irreplaceable talent in the past few years.

Of course these are not new concerns. Some were expressed in the book the Innovator's Dilemma; business professors have wondered about the structural problems of the PTC for many years. Now though, we also have the crash of 2008, and we're all noticing how Wall Street financial corporations changed their behaviors when they went from private partnerships to publicly traded corporations.

So here's a thesis, developed between Emily and me, so it has to be good.

The publicly traded corporation had a great run in the 20th century. Sure, it had flaws, but nothing's perfect. In a world of metal bashing and road building maybe those flaws didn't count for so much.

Times change. Things are more fluid now. It takes time to change a physical product line, but Google can terminate Lively in seconds. Most of all, a critical mass of people have figured out the weaknesses of the PTC. In retrospect, when corporations started paying the execs hundreds of times more than the worker bees, the end game was in sight.

So we can expect a lot of new regulation, but maybe what we really need to think about is the future of the publicly traded company. Do we need to look at a mixed model? How can we organize human work for the 21st century?

The PTC isn't going to vanish tomorrow. I think it will still be a dominant player twenty years from now. I do hope though, that by then we'll see much better alternatives emerging.

12/3/08: Possibly related - the decline of the large corporation. Now quite the same thing as I'm thinking, but a cousin.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lessons from when the terrorists won: The Ku Klux Klan

Yesterday's terrorist attacks in Mumbai have been expected for years. Expected in India, expected in America.

It's only been six years since a single deranged American veteran and a young accomplice terrorized the US capitol. Even Israel, a small state with the world's most extensive security network, has seen several comparable attacks.

Some of these have been stopped by police and intelligence work, but some will get through. Reducing the number that get through is a long process, not a war.

It requires intelligence and police action. It especially requires reducing fund raising. In retrospect 9/11 ended both the IRA and the Tamil Tigers by reducing the funding stream from the American diaspora.

Beyond reducing the flow of money anti-terrorist actions also need to reduce the flow of people. We now believe people join terrorist organizations for the same reasons they join political parties, bowling leagues, Moose lodges, any group-focused religious entity, the NRA and Greenpeace. They join for reasons of social solidarity and tribal identity. Part of the modern anti-terrorist strategy is to give men and women alternative movements to join.

That will be important to remember as the Obama administration turns its attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban are the problem.

The Taliban, which, pathetically, in English, rhymes with Ku Klux Klan.

I'm reminded of the Klan, as, after a pause of a few years, I return to the History of the United States audio tape series. There were two distinct incarnations of the Klan, and the thing most of us forget is that the first incarnation of America's "greatest" terrorist organization was victorious ...
Ku Klux Klan -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia

In the summer of 1867, the Klan was structured into the “Invisible Empire of the South” at a convention in Nashville, Tenn., attended by delegates from former Confederate states. ...Dressed in robes and sheets designed to frighten superstitious blacks and to prevent identification by the occupying federal troops, Klansmen whipped and killed freedmen and their white supporters in nighttime raids...

The 19th-century Klan reached its peak between 1868 and 1870. A potent force, it was largely responsible for the restoration of white rule in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia...

... In United States v. Harris in 1882, the Supreme Court declared the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional, but by that time the Klan had practically disappeared.

It disappeared because its original objective—the restoration of white supremacy throughout the South—had been largely achieved during the 1870s. The need for a secret antiblack organization diminished accordingly...
If I remember the recording correctly, in Louisiana the Klan eliminated about 80-90% of black voters from the rolls during their successful reign of terror.

The Klan 1.0 won a fantastic victory. One that certainly lasted until the Civil Rights struggle eighty years later, and if you count the GOP's "southern strategy" the legacy of the Klan 1.0's victory lasted until 2008. A victory lasting 126 years is staggering.

The 19th century Klan teaches us that terrorists can win, and win big. They also teach us that when it comes to terrorism, America has a rich and under-appreciated history.

Now, when we work against terrorists in Mumbai, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we need to think about how the Klan won, and how their modern incarnations can be controlled on a global front.

The good news is that we will soon have a rational, thinking government for the United States of America, and that we've learned a lot about terrorism.

Now we have to put that learning to the test.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And now for something completely different

Typealizer (thanks FMH) has performed a Myers-Briggs personality test on my blog:

ESTP - The Doers .... The active and play-ful type. They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities.

The Doers are happiest with action-filled work which craves their full attention and focus. They might be very impulsive and more keen on starting something new than following it through. They might have a problem with sitting still or remaining inactive for any period of time.
Umm, right. That's me. Chipper, joking, a real ESTP people person.

I wonder if it's some kind of random selection. Unsurprisingly my real Myers-Briggs profile is INTP/INTJ -- depending on my mood.

It's kind of sweet to be considered "play-ful" though.

Are we experiencing a complexity collapse in software and finance?

At the same time our economy is collapsing in mysterious ways I've been fighting a personal software war at work and at home on OS X and XP and the iPhone.

It's been one software bug atop another. I've seen emergent bugs from the interaction of different data models on an iPhone app and a Cloud data store, bugs in servers, bugs in clients, bugs in desktop apps, bugs in authentication, bugs related to digital rights management, bugs related to old fragile Outlook plug-in infrastructure, bugs from security fixes driven by relentless viral attacks, bugs one atop another in infinite combinations.

Swarms of bugs.

It's not as though these bugs are coming from amazing new functionality. In many cases my software environment is regressing -- losing functionality.

Bugs aren't new; but they aren't always this bad. I remember how bad things were with DOS 3.x and TSR apps and expanded/extended memory. This feels like a similar cycle -- on a grander scale.

And now we add to this computing chaos the Flight from the Cloud.

Which leads one to wonder what the collapse of our finances might have in common with the collapse of my computing environment. Do the six or so finacial collapse contributing factors have some underlying cause?

One common cause might be the problem of the sustainability of complex systems - in computing and in finance.

Thanks to my extended cybernetic memory, I see that I've made this software and society complexity connection before. What I can't find is any mention of a lecture I attended a very long time ago.

The lecture, which might have been at the old Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) conferences I once attended, was about Complexity. It might have been related to this 1983 book. What I recall were intriguing charts of the trade-offs between complexity and risk.

Maybe the near-collapse of my personal computing environment and my family's financial security share some common roots in the instability and incomprehensibility of rapidly evolving complex systems.

Update: via Krugman, Keynes during the early years of Great Depression I ...
... But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time—perhaps for a long time...
I didn't know people once spelled to-day with a hyphen, it's not like it was a new word in 1929. Nowadays hyphenated words rarely last more than a few years before they lose the hyphen. Faster times, greater understanding, still greater complexity.

Update 11/28/08: A similar theme in a nov 2007 post of mine.

Update 12/3/08: See also
Dan's Data: Lemon-fresh power supplies

... When sellers know how good their product is but buyers can't tell, you have the all-important asymmetric information" that makes a lemon market possible. (Akerlof's study of this phenomenon won him a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics.)

Lemon-market rules applied to a lot of stock-market crashes. Look at the dot-com bubble, or the Enron collapse, or the crash of 1987, or the recent US subprime mortgage debacle - which is having cataclysmic effects on the US economy even as I write this....

and the details that convince me this really is a complexity collapse.

Update 12/21/08: More people are picking up on the complexity, resiliency meme.

Update 4/4/10: I've been looking for twenty years for a book I heard about in the 1980s. It was about complexity collapse. Recently Clay Shirky wrote about it, the book was written by Joseph Tainter in 1988 -- The Collapse of Complex Societies. It's $36 on Amazon at the moment - probably print on demand. I think I attended a Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (STFM) meeting @ 1988-1990 when someone walked through the arguments in this book.

Why price cuts won't sell a Mac to me

Dear Apple,

I see that you would like to sell some Macs ...
Apple sale! All Macs must go! - Apple 2.0

... Apple (AAPL), which keeps the tightest reins on list prices in the business, seems to have loosened them significantly this holiday season. Authorized resellers who normally wouldn’t dare chop a nickel off Apple’s suggested retail are cutting prices, offering rebates and plastering the Web with gaudy ads....
Maybe I can help. I would like to replace my G5 iMac.

The problem is, you aren't solving my problems. So I don't want your machines at any (plausible) price.

So if you want to sell me a Mac, or sell my family a 2nd iPhone, you need to make your basic personal information management software (calendaring, tasks, notes, etc) grow up. A lot.

You need to make the 2008 iPhone the equal of the 1998 Palm Vx.

You need to improve the quality of your products, so I don't lose 3 evenings of my life every time you do a major software update.

Maybe, after six software releases, you could enable Library import on iPhoto.

Maybe you could restore more of what you stripped out of iMovie.

Maybe you could get the bitter taste of Bento out of my mouth by providing a FileMaker useable interface to your system data repositories.

Maybe you could make your software faster, instead of selling machines by producing the world's least efficient code.

Maybe you could start listening to me. Your would-be paying customer -- if you had anything I could use.

Just saying.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dapocalypse now. Grab your data and run. RUN.

This is not a drill.

Repeat, this is not a drill.

The sky is falling. Ragnarok of the nerds has come. Gabriel's horns a blowin. There's a hole in the hull. The banks a failin' and there ain't no FDIC. There's a time for all things, and this is the time to panic.

It's Dapocalypse Now -- and I was kind of joking when I wrote that three months ago.

Look on my works ye mighty, and note the increasingly impassioned wikipedia donation requests.

Here ye can read the scrolls of the dead. Dead like AOL's xdrive [FAQ] and photo service, Google Lively, Yahoo User Profiles, Yahoo webcam feeds, MSN Groups, and perhaps most impressively, Digital Railroad (emphases mine) ...

Startup firms rely on their investors' continued interest, and boards are often dominated by venture capitalists and others who might choose to pull the plug for their own reasons, as they have no specific relationship with a company's downstream clientele.

Digital Railroad, a stock photography site that let professional photographers manage their own inventory and sales, had said it was shedding costs in mid-October, but posted a note on 28-October-2008 that the plug would be pulled within 24 hours.... Digital Railroad believes the files will remain intact on servers that are no longer active, and if assets are purchased, photographers may be able to get more data back in the future.

What Digital Railroad's photographers lost is not their images; I can't imagine any pro not having many backups of whatever they uploaded. Rather, the time invested in coding their images to the company's specifications--the metadata. Some photographers reported having spent hundreds of hours on this task....
I trust you get the picture.


Everyone needs to do a personal data risk inventory.

Clearly, anything with AOL is walking dead. Kiss your email archives good-bye.

Yahoo Flickr is unlikely to die with Yahoo!, but they'll use Flickr's data lock to hold on to customers until the very end. It won't be pretty.

Most other Yahoo data is toast.

A lot of MSN data will be gone.

So what are our family risks and how will we manage them?
  1. SmugMug: I've been worried about them for years. I don't put new images there, but we have a lot of archives that I pay cash to maintain. I wouldn't lose the images of course, they're in iPhoto. I would lose the album organizations and image choices. I need to study if there's any metadata I can extract, perhaps using a personal spider.
  2. Toodledo: Holds my iPhone Notes and Tasks. I pay for this service too. I've run into issues with Appigo/Toodledo integration but now I'll start archiving my table data every other day. In theory one can subscribe to a Toodledo .ics file from iCal, but when I do that the due dates are empty. If the subscription worked that would be quite reassuring and would make me happier staying with Toodledo. (iCal doesn't have categories incidentally, it really is a miserable application.)
  3. Evernote: Probably will survive, I don't store any critical data there. Certainly a risk.
  4. Google: See below.
Google's the big one. This blog, for one thing -- and I recently grew beyond the ability of Teleport Pro to back it up on my local drive. Gmail for another, like the ex-Lively it's "beta". Calendars. Google Apps. Our Picasa web albums. Huge.

Of course Google's too big to fail ... like Citigroup, for example.

Oh. Maybe that's not so reassuring. I guess I should get more regular about archiving my Google email.

Winter's here. Time to dust off those desktop apps. The great data-bank run of '09 has begun.

Update: I didn't have anything of interest on my xdrive account. I figured I'd delete the account, but that's no longer an option. I do recommend removing all data and account information from unwanted accounts, there's no guarantee that the data will truly be removed. Since I could not delete the account I changed my xdrive password to a random string that does not match any other of my passwords.

A quantum state eternally evolving in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space

It's time for your morning exercise ...
FQXi Community: Articles, Forums, Blogs, News

.... The arrow of time finds a plausible explanation in a 'Heraclitean universe,' described by a quantum state eternally evolving in an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space....
Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance fame has entered an essay contest on the nature of time.

I've asked Sean to tell us what the other good ones are.

The wikiepdia entry on Heraclitus might be of assistance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Now is not the time for anti-materialist Solstice celebrations

I have heard rumor that Celebrators of the Solstice are advocating spiritual observation rather than greed and materialism.

I fear our times of worry are fertile ground for such sentiment.

Alas, we're like the heroin addict about to receive open heart surgery. This is not the time to kick the habit. This is the time for a metered dose of morphine, until the critical point has passed.

Then there will a time for withdrawal and balance, though, alas, by then such sentiments will seem dull and unappealing.

Happily, there is a middle ground.

Those who have income and employment should buy liberally -- but give the goods away.

So get that HDTV, but then donate it.

Alas, I need a real economist to tell me if donating cash would work as well. Since cash is fungible donations may be a less effective economic stimulant (ok, so the opiate analogy breaks down) than toasters, coffee makers, and televisions.

Incidentally, in 86 days, on Feb 17 2009, analog tv is supposed to end.

There's a reason why that date was chosen -- after an election. The transition will not be a happy one for a nation in early stages of the Great Recession. On the other hand, it will force a significant jump in television and/or converter purchases.

So maybe we really should be buying digital broadcast ready televisions this Solstice -- for donation.

The best next generation?

My generation gave the world Bill Clinton and George Bush.

The first was, and is, a brilliant man with deep flaws. The second is flawed to the bone.

Obama is effectively post-boomer. It couldn't happen soon enough. It's time for us boomers to quietly shuffle off onto our icebergs.

That's good news, but maybe there's even better news ahead (emphases mine) ...
Candace Gingrich: A Letter to My Brother Newt Gingrich

... Welcome to the 21st century, big bro. I can understand why you're so afraid of the energy that has been unleashed after gay and lesbian couples had their rights stripped away from them by a hateful campaign. I can see why you're sounding the alarm against the activists who use all the latest tech tools to build these rallies from the ground up in cities across the country.

This unstoppable progress has at its core a group we at HRC call Generation Equality. They are the most supportive of full LGBT equality than any American generation ever -- and when it comes to the politics of division, well, they don't roll that way. 18-24 year olds voted overwhelmingly against Prop 8 and overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. And the numbers of young progressive voters will only continue to grow. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, about 23 million 18-29 year olds voted on Nov. 4, 2008 -- the most young voters ever to cast a ballot in a presidential election. That's an increase of 3 million more voters compared to 2004.

These are the same people who helped elect Barack Obama and sent a decisive message to your party. These young people are the future and their energy will continue to drive our country forward....
To borrow a very tired phrase, Generation Equality has skin in the game. If civilization endures they have a reasonable shot at a 100 year lifespan.

They'll see the arctic melt, they'll live with rising sea levels, they'll see the end of oil, they'll see human genetic modification and post-modern eugenics, they'll see America become a normal nation (we hope), they'll live in a world of ubiquitous machine translation of English, Chinese, Sanskrit, Spanish and a dozen other languages, they'll see the salvation of Africa (or else).

I sure hope they don't see artificial sentience, but they could.

It's all yours GenE. I'll help however I can, but probably the most I can achieve is to neutralize the more harmful members of my generation.

Enlightenment 2.0 is up to you.

Closing Guantanamo - the stupidity

Here's where the stupidity factor comes into discussions of closing Guantanamo ...
Editorial - The Price of Our Good Name -

...Does this mean that truly dangerous men will be set free, to go back to plotting more attacks against America? No...
Argghhh. The stupidity rayzzz ... they burnzzz...

Yes. Some of these men will be "dangerous". All men are.

Yes some dangerous men will be freed. If they weren't dangerous before they were stuck in an American prison for 8 years they'd be dangerous now.

Yes. Some of them will try to kill Americans. Wouldn't you?

Yes. Some of them will plot attacks? Wouldn't you?

What do we expect - gratitude?

We did a stupid thing. There's a price to pay for stupid decisions.

If they were prisoners of war, and the war was over, they'd be released. Even if they were possibly "dangerous".

The "war on terror" is, like the "war on evil", not a war. It's an eternal process.

We can either kill them all now, keep them forever (roughly equivalent to killing them all), or close Guantanamo and send them back to do whatever they choose to do.

The latter is the least evil act.

Stupidity has its consequences. Next time, America, don't elect someone like George Bush.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Obama YouTube - Minnesota can expect some bridges

We're the state who's bridge fell down a couple of years ago. Looks like we can expect some accelerated bridge maintenance ...
Obama Vows Swift Action on Vast Economic Stimulus Plan

...Mr. Obama’s address, a video of which was made available on YouTube, was the keynote of an effort to calm tumultuous financial markets roiled by an apparent leadership vacuum in Washington before he takes office in two months...
No joke about the vacuum. Gail Collins made a semi-serious plea for Cheney and Bush to resign, so Pelosi could turn things over to Obama.

Our 35W bridge didn't fall for lack of maintenance of course. It had an egregious design flaw. Still, there are a lot of roads, bridges, bicycle trails, walking trails, school grounds, state parks, national parks and other public spaces and facilities that could do with a refresh.

Looks like we'll get that.

Incidentally, these YouTube addresses are amazing to me. I can actually watch my leader speak and not feel nauseous and horrified. It's like balm on an old wound.

The museum of American slavery and national emancipation day

Yeah, it's because we're in the post-civil war era. And because my morning exercise history class is discussing emancipation.

Slavery is on my mind.

America was founded on two enormous crimes. One, the extermination of the aboriginal Americans, was partly accidental. Millions died of disease before the creation of internment camps and before the massive ethnic cleansing campaigns began.

Another founding crime, slavery, was a choice.

We Americans, of all ethnicities and birth places, are the inheritors of these crimes. Just as modern Germans, born since 1945, are the reluctant inheritors of the unfathomably vast crime of the Holocaust.

Germans, not entirely happily, have studied and learned from their crimes. The Holocaust museums make a difference. I visited one in Jerusalem over twenty five years ago. It left an impression.

So why, I wondered, does America not have a Slavery museum and a Genocide museum? Why isn't there a national emancipation day? Why is it that only American historians now remember that January 1 used to be celebrated as emancipation day?

The first of these questions isn't hard to answer. The United States National Slavery Museum has been slowly moving to birth for quite a while. Very slowly; the web site is "copyright 2006" and the "Events" entry has a single undated item. The last issues of their newsletter is Spring/Summer 2008. I can't tell from the web site how far they are from opening in Fredericksburg Virginia.

Which brings us to an opportunity.

We're going to be doing some very serious spending on public works over the next year.

Maybe the museum can pick up some donations at the inauguration, and maybe Virginia will soon get some funding for a very memorable museum.

The Museum of the American Genocide? Yes, that too will come.

Wisdom always hurts.

iPhone 2.2: Great phone. Great toy. Not for business.

My iPhone 2.2 hasn't repeated its post-upgrade reboot during phone call, so it again qualifies as an excellent cell phone and a decent iPod [1].

It's also a lot of fun. The kids love seeing what kind of silly nonsense Google's speech recognition engine produces.

Alas, it's a long way from being ready for business. Apple, frankly, doesn't give a damn.

Business people always stick travel itineraries into calendar item notes. I stick text versions of CVs into Contacts. The iPhone truncates the text display of my itinerary (what hotel?) and my contact note. It doesn't actually truncate the data, only the display.

Right there you know Apple isn't serious.

There's more though. Compare Google Calendar to MobileMe. It's not even close. It's like comparing Rembrandt to paint-by-numbers. The business problem is that Apple will do over-the-air (OTA) sync to MobileMe, but they won't provide a calendar API that would let Google implement OTA to Google Calendar. [2]

No tasks [3]. No memos/notes. No cut, copy, paste (will never see it at this rate). No background notification management that would enable business friendly spam-managed instant messaging. Contact search on names only.

Corporations and small business may be feeling some pressure to enable iPhone use. Heck, I'd like to use my iPhone on our corporate LAN -- but this is the wrong time to give in. The iPhone is not ready for corporate or small business use.

Wait until Apple is serious.

The (rather dim) bright side of Great Depression 2.0 is that it might concentrate Apple's mind. Maybe they'll decide they need the iPhone to be a great phone, a great toy, and a great business device.

[1] Navigating within a podcast is much inferior to an iPod and you still can't set the alarm to a playlist. Nice video though!
[2] I'm watching Neuvasync closely. Getting there ...
[3] Much as I like Appigo's work, their back end sync to Toodledo has been a mess.

Update 11/24/08: A recent TUAW post referenced this July 2008 list of enterprise shortfalls. I like my list better, but I forgot to mention the persistent lack of support for an external keyboard. It's not just unready for the enterprise, it's unready for work. Period.

Update 1/14/09: The business problems will not be easily resolved.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Melamine in Minnesota cookies - but where were they made?

So where these cookies made in China -- or Vietnam?
Warning expanded on tainted cookies

... State officials are expanding their warning about contaminated cookies being sold in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is warning consumers to avoid eating any Wonderfarm brand cookie-type biscuits due to melamine contamination....

... State officials are urging consumers to immediately dispose of any Wonderfarm brand cookie products, which are made by Interfood Shareholding Co. in Vietnam.
There's no particular reason that Melamine, used to counterfeit protein, should be limited to Chinese products.

It's impressive how little interest there is among consumers in this topic, and how feeble the reporting is. This report doesn't tell us how these products came to be sold in Minnesota.

Most bizarre Obama effect: David Brooks is readable

This is truly weird.

An anomaly in the NYT's RSS feed means I don't see who's writing editorials with interesting titles. So I am running into David Brooks on occasion.

That sounds bad, but here's the weird bit.

Now that he's not trying to excuse the inexcusable, Brooks is actually readable ...
Op-Ed Columnist - The Insider’s Crusade -

... This truly will be an administration that looks like America, or at least that slice of America that got double 800s on their SATs. Even more than past administrations, this will be a valedictocracy — rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes. If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed.

Already the culture of the Obama administration is coming into focus. Its members are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists. They typically served in the Clinton administration and then, like Cincinnatus, retreated to the comforts of private life — that is, if Cincinnatus had worked at Goldman Sachs, Williams & Connolly or the Brookings Institution. So many of them send their kids to Georgetown Day School, the posh leftish private school in D.C., that they’ll be able to hold White House staff meetings in the carpool line.

And yet as much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons (not to mention the incursion of a French-style government dominated by highly trained Enarchs), I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition...

Obama inauguration - this would be silly in a book

No writer with any self-respect would do it this way ...
The Hot Ticket to History, Unscalped -

....The celebration for the first African-American president could not be more exquisitely timed. It occurs during the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, on the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, with the theme of the “new birth of freedom” foreseen by Lincoln at Gettysburg...
Reality (or at least our approximation thereof), is not nearly as sensible as fiction.

There are no inauguration hotel rooms in DC of course, they were all gone when I was there two weeks ago. So if you want to go, find a friend to crash with.

Maryland's fraudulent terrorism investigatons: a Bush/Cheney legacy

Imagine how miserable it would have been to read this with a President Palin on the way.

We'd all be thinking that the Soviets had won Cold War I.

Now we read it as the waning evil of one of the most wretched and incompetent governments of any democratic nation in the past forty years. Emphases mine.
Police spy on climate activist while global warming goes unarrested | Environment |

I'm not sure what's more shocking: the news that the Maryland State Police wrongfully spied on me for months as a "suspected terrorist," or that, despite surveillance of me, officers apparently wouldn't recognize me if I walked into their police headquarters tomorrow.

I'm a former Peace Corps volunteer, an Eagle Scout, church member, youth baseball coach, and dedicated father. I also happen to be director of one of the largest environmental groups in Maryland, a nonprofit that promotes windmills and solar panels in the fight against global warming. So imagine my shock to get a police letter last month saying I was one of 53 Maryland activists on a terrorist watch list that has been discontinued because — can you believe it? — there's "no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime."...

... The mess all began last summer when astonishing evidence surfaced revealing that the Maryland State Police — under former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich — posed as activists and infiltrated an anti-death-penalty group, attending the organization's meetings and taking secret notes to send back to HQ. But what were they doing to me and my organization — the Chesapeake Climate Action Network — during this surveillance program in 2005 and 2006? Bugging our phones? Reading our emails? Monitoring me as I walked my kid to the bus stop?

I still don't know for sure. Yielding to public pressure, the police finally gave me a printed copy of my "file" on October 29. It raised more questions than it answered. Seven of the 12 pages were withheld without full explanation. And of the pages I did receive, at least half the words were redacted — blacked out with a marker.

There was a photo of me on the last page, lifted from my website. And on the first page, there were these words: "Crime: Terrorism, environmental extremists."

What terrorism would that be? My file — what little of it I have — makes reference to a morning speech given in Bethesda, Md., by then-governor Robert Ehrlich on November 17, 2005. A small audience of invited guests and journalists attended inside a classroom at Walt Whitman High School. Ehrlich wasn't doing enough to fight global warming, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network believed, and several of my staff arrived to peacefully demonstrate and hold up signs that said things like, "It's Getting Hot in Here, Gov!" But troopers with the governor's "Executive Protection Division" believed this was extreme, according to my file. For example, CCAN staffers invited high school students to hold up protest signs during the governor's speech. Pretty extreme, huh?

There was no civil disobedience at this event. No one was arrested. No county, state, or federal laws were breached. The entire affair was utterly peaceful, above board, and appropriate. Political demonstrations exactly like this happen a thousand times a day in America. There were no media reports of anything unusual.

Yet Ehrlich's security team considered this "aggressive protesting." Afterward, the troopers contacted the Maryland State Police's Homeland Security and Investigation Bureau. The result was creation of intelligence files on me and three of my staff under the crime category of "terrorism, environmental extremists." The real motivation, however, appears to be political spying. We were opponents of the governor's policies. We were organized and vocal about it. We wound up on an intelligence list along with dozens of other innocent, nonviolent opponents of the governor's policies...

... the state police say they've released everything to me that's relevant to me, but I don't believe them. Since July, the state police have made numerous public statements related to this spying controversy that have proved to be factually untrue. They initially said, for example, that the entire surveillance program was limited to anti-death-penalty activists. But we now know activists for peace, immigration, and the environment were spied on too. I believe more of the spying story is yet to come out, however. With the help of a heroic Maryland attorney, David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union, and an equally heroic Maryland state senator, Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, I believe all the facts will soon surface and we'll see legislation in the state General Assembly in 2009 specifically banning police abuses like this....
This insanity involved state Republicans and state police, but the terrorism laws came from Cheney/Bush. They blocked protections that would have prevented this kind of abuse.

We don't deserve to have escaped the dark age of Bush, but somehow, inexplicably, it's receding into history.

Outsourcing AppStore review fraud - a 21st century crime

This is so 21st century.

Positive reviews in the iPhone App Store are worth a lot of money to developers.

So they've found various ways to cheat.

The most recent strategy is to use Amazon's Amazing Turk service to globally outsource app review.

Since only people who purchase applications can review them, the author offers to pay for more than the cost of the application.

The catch is the reviewers have to buy the app first, then leave the review with a tell-tale five period marker, then trust the application auther to pay them for the fraudulent review and cover their upfront costs.

It's a measure of the power of Amazing Turk that it found people who were not only themselves crooked, but they would also trust a fellow crook to pay them for their crooked work.

Honor among thieves, apparently.

It's hard to believe this will scale, so I suspect Apple's current comment strategy will work. Even so, it's a classic 21st century crime!

The Fall of Citigroup means we don’t understand what’s happening …

So it now appears that the US government, at the least, will come to own Citigroup. October had the first CPI fall in … well … a long, long time. Switzerland is teetering on bankruptcy …

End of the beginning? — Crooked Timber

The failure of Citigroup, which looks increasingly likely to happen in the near future, would mark the end of the beginning of the financial crisis…

… Citi is not only too big to fail, it’s too big to rescue with any of the half-measures that have been tried so far. Only outright nationalization is feasible, and that will probably require joint action by a number of governments; Citigroup’s global operations are too big for the US to handle alone….

… The national bankruptcy of Iceland seems likely to followed by something similar for Switzerland. As Citi itself points out, UBS and Credit Suisse are bigger, relative to the Swiss economy, than Kaupthing was for Iceland. Felix Salmon (also predicting doom for Citi, has been all over this).

Given a failure and rescue, Switzerland would probably have to follow Iceland in a rush application to join the EU (which might have its hands full rescuing some of its own members). It’s a safe bet that the end of secret bank accounts, “wealth management” through tax minimisation and the like would be part of the price…

… If even part of this plays out as it seems likely to, the financial system that emerges from the crisis will be radically different from the one that went in: massively smaller, with far fewer institutions and products, and tightly regulated where it isn’t under outright public ownership.

But before we can even get to that point, we’ll have to survive a global recession which is already the worst in decades, even though it’s still in the opening phase where unsold inventories pile up on wharves. Obama’s inauguration is going to look a lot like that of FDR in 1933.

Is this a part of the unwinding of $300 trillion in derivatives that we’ve been wondering about? Who’s winning in these monstrous money flows?

In the good-old-days of five days ago, I wrote:

One theory is that the combination of the 1994 Gingrich Marketarian [3] "revolution" and consequent firewall demolition, combined with at least one major technology transition, produced accelerated returns at the cost of new instabilities. Over a long enough timeline investment returns might be somewhat lower than with a balanced regulatory environment, but "safe" investment timelines are now 20-50 rather than 10-15 years.

I think that's true, but not the entire story…

… We know humans are predictably irrational. We know people will aggressively search for cheap gas when prices are rising, but won't when prices fall -- even at the same income/price ratio. [5] Similarly we know humans will criticize balance sheets when share prices fall, but not when they rise.

This means that market volatility enables predictable predation strategies during rapid rise. Money can be diverted into senior executive compensation, into insider trading, into payments to political parties and senators, and into sophisticated financial instruments that none of us have the ability to fully understand or model.

This form of market predation (parasitism really, since a dead host is not useful) is bad enough by itself, but it's aggravated by "ratchet effects" [4]. CEO compensation doesn't fall as quickly as share prices. Senatorial contributions can't be stopped without risking undesirable electoral outcomes.

Volatile markets, like those of the past twelve years, can start to look an awful lot like Amway…

So does the combination of technology transition, firewall demolition and volatility-facilitated fraud account for what we’re seeing? How about if we throw in the rise of China and India? What role does skewed wealth concentration and the effective “disabling” of about 20-40% of the US population?

What was it Reich wrote last March

… American consumers are coming to the end of their ropes and don't have the buying power they need to absorb the goods and services the U.S. economy is capable of producing. This is likely to mean fewer jobs, which will force Americans to pull in their belts even tighter, leading to still fewer jobs – the classic recipe for recession. That recession may turn into a full-fledged Depression if fiscal and monetary policies can't make up for consumers' lack of buying power. And there's reason to worry they cannot because consumers are in a permanent bind. They're deep in debt, their homes are losing value, and their paychecks are shrinking...

...We're reaping the whirlwind of many years during which Americans have spent beyond their means and most of the benefits of an expanding economy have gone to a relatively small group at the very top. Adjusted for inflation, the median wage is below where it was in 1999. The nation's median hourly wage is barely higher than it was thirty-five years ago. The income of a man in his 30s is now 12 percent below that of a man his age three decades ago. The rich, meanwhile, can't keep the economy going on their own because they devote a smaller percentage of their earnings to buying things than the rest of us: After all, they're rich, and they already have most of what they want. Instead of buying, they're more likely to invest their earnings wherever around the world they can get the highest return...

... Go back to the years just before the Great Depression and you see the same pattern. As I've noted before, Marriner S. Eccles, who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 to 1948, noted this in his memoir "Beckoning Frontiers":

"As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery. Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped."...

So here’s my current list of the contributing factors …

  1. firewall demolition enhancing returns at the cost of instability (rise of the Marketarian religion)
  2. technology transitions – computing and communications
  3. globalization – rise of China and India
  4. wealth concentration in the hands of people who don’t need to spend to live – they can sit on their money
  5. fraud (including quality collapse) and wealth diversion enabled by firewall demolition and rapid market rise
  6. aging populations in wealth producing nations

Bush and the GOP have responsibility for #1 and #4 and partial responsibility for #5 (culture of greed, think “broken windows” for CEOs). They don’t have responsibility for the entire catastrophe, but they may own the critical mass.

Silence can speak loudly. Nobody I read is now saying Depression is impossible.

The “end of history” seems pretty funny now. Hah, hah.

Update: I'd forgotten about a earlier post that covered things from a slightly different angle. I have more to say about the complexity factor in a later post.

Update 1/12/2009: This 2003 post feels relevant. Generational wealth transfers and the Bush estate tax cut combine with declining family size to boost high end real estate purchases.

See also:

  1. Lewis and Einhorn: repairing the financial world
  2. The role of the deadbeats
  3. Complexity collapse
  4. Disintermediating Wall Street
  5. The future of the publicly traded company
  6. Marked!
  7. Mass disability and income skew
  8. The occult inflation of shrinking quality
  9. GD II: How great is global idle capacity

Broken window effect size – surprisingly large. Mow the lawn?

I love to see experimental testing of human culture and behavior. Maybe the experiments aren’t as well funded or robust as well done clinical trials they’re still a big improvement over our unreliable “common sense”. On the other hand, if they get published in Science they’re probably pretty darned good.

We now have the results of several experiments that, together, suggest that “broken windows” and other features of a disordered environment affect the incidence of crime and antisocial behavior. This is not a surprise to teachers, parents or police, but the effect size is notable.

A doubling of anti-social behavior is enough to justify a lot of investment in the prevention of ‘social crimes’. I now have a business justification to mow my lawn more frequently …

The “broken windows” theory of crime is correct | Can the can | The Economist

A PLACE that is covered in graffiti and festooned with rubbish makes people feel uneasy. And with good reason, according to a group of researchers in the Netherlands. Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave…

… The idea that observing disorder can have a psychological effect on people has been around for a while. In the late 1980s George Kelling, a former probation officer who now works at Rutgers University, initiated what became a vigorous campaign to remove graffiti from New York City’s subway system, which was followed by a reduction in petty crime…

… Dr Kelling’s theory takes its name from the observation that a few broken windows in an empty building quickly lead to more smashed panes, more vandalism and eventually to break-ins. The tendency for people to behave in a particular way can be strengthened or weakened depending on what they observe others to be doing. This does not necessarily mean that people will copy bad behaviour exactly, reaching for a spray can when they see graffiti. Rather, says Dr Keizer, it can foster the “violation” of other norms of behaviour. It was this effect that his experiments, which have just been published in Science, set out to test.

… When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean

… In the “order” condition (with four bicycles parked nearby, but not locked to the fence) 27% of people were prepared to trespass by stepping through the gap, whereas in the disorder condition (with the four bikes locked to the fence, in violation of the sign) 82% took the short cut.

… With no fireworks, 48% of people took the flyers with them when they collected their bikes. With fireworks, this fell to 20%.

.. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did…

The power, and the glory of a Science pub, comes from the experimental designs and the consistency across multiple settings. These experiments were done in the Netherlands, so of course effects may vary in different cultures.

Doubling. That’s big.

Local police should have no trouble justifying budgets to prevent ‘social crimes’ with these results. There are obvious implications for military and economic interventions in the world’s trouble spots as well.

I guess I need to rake my leaves too …

Update 11/22/08: Obvious follow-up study. Is the effect relative? So if you eliminated all the Graffiti, would rust become the new differentiator between order and disorder? If the effect is relative, then we'd always be chasing our proverbial tails. The return on broken window policing would be transient.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Do you think Lexington is bitter?

The Economist's "Lexington" has been an understated shill for the GOP for the past decade. I'm guessing that covers several pseudonymous writers.

Today s/he turns on her masters ...
The decline of the Republican Party | Ship of fools | The Economist

... in a desperate attempt to serve boob bait to Bubba, he appointed Sarah Palin to his ticket, a woman who took five years to get a degree in journalism, and who was apparently unaware of some of the most rudimentary facts about international politics...
Whoa. That's harsh.

Somebody is feeling a wee bit bitter.

Wasting money: Ginkgo biloba joins the pile

None of this is in any way surprising:
Herbal supplement Ginkgo doesn't stop Alzheimer's: Scientific American

The widely used herbal supplement Ginkgo biloba does not appear to prevent Alzheimer's disease in healthy elderly people or those with mild cognitive impairment, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday...

...Those who took the ginkgo were no more or less likely to develop Alzheimer's or any type of dementia, the researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association....

... Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, noted that other Alzheimer's prevention failures include statins, estrogen, anti-inflammatory drugs, vitamin E and drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors...

...Michael McGuffin of the American Herbal Products Association said the findings do not undermine earlier evidence that ginkgo is useful in relieving symptoms in people who already have Alzheimer's.

Daniel Fabricant of the Natural Products Association said a study starting when people are in middle age rather than almost 80 would be the best way to analyze Alzheimer's prevention....

Of course the usual suspects are convinced that it still works somewhere, somehow, on someone. They'll never give up.

The interesting question is whether the study was a waste of money.

Well, since lots of people take Gingko to slow cognitive decline, maybe it was worth doing to persuade them to save their money. On the other hand Gingko is probably a relatively cheap placebo and it's not like we have anything that works. Maybe we should have just ignored the question.

What I'm most interested in is whether there was really any good scientific evidence that it was worth trying Gingko biloba to treat early dementia. Were there any persuasive animal studies? Anything observed in the lab that was really remarkable? Or did we just study it because a lot of people liked it?

Money is not endless. We should be researching promising directions, and we should subject truly interesting "herbal" drugs to the same testing regimens we apply to manufactured drugs.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old notes: Techniques for problem solving by creativity

Before there were blogs, before there was Netscape, back when I used Mosaic on a Mac, I authored web pages. Even then I was struggling towards something like a blog post.

One of those early pages contained a review of what is still one of two or three most interesting business books of the 20th century -- reengineering the corporation.

Since it was tedious in those days to create new pages, I just extended the original page. Eventually it became a collection of odd notes.

Today, the whimsy of a full text search pulled up my old page. I found some interesting bits.

Now, of course, we have blogs.

So I'll periodically extract a few of the better parts -- the better to feed my prosthetic memory.

Starting with one on creativity ...
Management and Related Notes

Sutherland and others

1. Examine the symmetry of the problem, and you may find the symmetry of the solution.

2. Build a taxonomy of the problem and you may discover new combinations to explain

* divide problem into features
* make a each feature a dimension or axis
* organize dimensions into triplets (vary the triplets)
* each triplet forms a box: explore the box

3. Identify categories of the problem -- explore the inverse.

4. Attach the most generic and expansive version first .. A simpler version ... A special case ...

5. Describe the problem aloud to another person

6. Read papers, attend lectures on unrelated subjects.

7. Sleep, exercise.

Dead Lively teaches lessons

Consider this a cheap lesson, Lively users ...
Official Google Blog: Lively no more

...we've decided to shut Lively down at the end of the year...

...We'd encourage all Lively users to capture your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms.
Now you understand data lock.

The lesson will serve you well the rest of your life. You will never look at The Cloud quite the same way.

Yahoo's coming user education will be even more brutal.

Anyone recall when Dave Winer shutdown his UserLand hosted blogs?

Update 11/20/08: In response to a request for more details, see Bradley's post.

Gwynne Dyer: newly posted

Six, all at once. I'm curious to what he says about Obama.

Monty Python. On YouTube.

What will Skynet make of this?

In the same week that Google and LIFE launch a high minded image archive, Google's YouTube launches the Monty Python channel.
YouTube - MontyPython's Channel

... None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years...
Righty oh.

I've subscribed to the feed:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New Macs won't let some video play on projectors

Old televisions, projectors, LCD panels -- they're not "HDCP" compliant. So they won't always work as expected with new Macs. Only media that enforce the DRM chain are fully acceptable (emphasis mine)...
AppleInsider | Apple's new MacBooks have built-in copy protection measures

Apple's new MacBook lines include a form of digital copy protection that will prevent protected media, such as DRM-infused iTunes movies, from playing back on devices that aren't compliant with the new priority protection measures.

The Intel-developed technology is called High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) and aims to prevent copying of digital audio and video content as it travels across a variety of display connectors, even if such copying is not in violation of fair use laws.

Among the connectors supported by the technology are the Mini DisplayPort found on Apple's latest MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air, in addition to others such as Digital Visual Interface (DVI), High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), Gigabit Video Interface (GVIF), and Unified Display Interface (UDI).

ArsTechnica reports that Apple has apparently acquired a license for the technology and is now using it across its DisplayPort-enabled MacBook lines to to prevent transmission of purchased iTunes content to devices that don't include support for HDCP.

"When my friend John, a high school teacher, attempted to play Hellboy 2 on his classroom's projector with a new aluminum MacBook over lunch, he was denied by the error you see [below]," writes Ars' David Chartier. "John's using a Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter, plugged into a Sanyo projector that is part of his room's Promethean system."

... As a licensed adopter of HDCP, Apple agrees to pay an annual fee and abide by the conditions set forth in Inte's HDCP License Agreement [PDF].

For example, the terms stipulate that high-definition digital video sources must not transmit protected content to non-HDCP-compliant receivers, as described above, and DVD-Audio content must be restricted to CD-audio quality or less when played back over non-HDCP-digital audio outputs.

Hardware vendors are also barred from allowing their devices to make copies of content, and must design their products in ways that "effectively frustrate attempts to defeat the content protection requirements."...
Gee, I wonder why the makers of Audio Hijack couldn't get permission to put their apps on the iPhone.

We know where this ends up.

We will all have little chips implanted into our acoustic and ocular nerves. The chips will decode encrypted media, which will look and sound like nonsense to the unchipped. That way every family member will pay separately for their holograms.

You think I'm joking.


Anyone know how I can make anonymous cash donations to the bandits of Sherwood Forest 2.0?

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

See also: Palladium.

Update 11/20/08: Additional details. If Apple had provided another port they'd have been ok, but that would have ruined the vibe.

Update 11/25/08: This is partly a bug. Apple has a QT fix. The Macs were supposed to be able to output regular video to non-compliant monitors, but not HD video.

Google love: The resurrection of LIFE's ten million image archive

Consider this one image.
Prisoners gathering en masse at distribution point to receive their daily rations of food, at Civil War-time Andersonville prison.
Location: Andersonville, GA, US
Date taken: August 1864
It's blurry. Chaotic. Hard to make out. A jumble of mud and anonymity. The men are posing for the camera, while waiting for rations.

Just one of millions of photographs now available in Google's archive of LIFE magazine. There will be 10 million of these in months to come. (I checked, doesn't show any other hosted repositories yet.)

Resurrected from dusty negatives and prints...
Official Google Blog: LIFE Photo Archive available on Google Image Search

The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination; The Mansell Collection from London; Dahlstrom glass plates of New York and environs from the 1880s...

... We're excited to announce the availability of never-before-seen images from the LIFE photo archive. This effort to bring offline images online was inspired by our mission to organize all the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. This collection of newly-digitized images includes photos and etchings produced and owned by LIFE dating all the way back to the 1750s.

Only a very small percentage of these images have ever been published. The rest have been sitting in dusty archives in the form of negatives, slides, glass plates, etchings, and prints. We're digitizing them so that everyone can easily experience these fascinating moments in time. Today about 20 percent of the collection is online; during the next few months, we will be adding the entire LIFE archive — about 10 million photos....

... These amazing photos are now blended into our Image Search results along with other images from across the web.

Once you are in the archive, you'll also notice that you can access a rich full-size, full-screen version of each image simply by clicking on the picture itself in the landing page....
Sometimes I think of Google as a device sent back in time to create archives for the Skynet's reading pleasure. What wondrous things, she thinks, those apes were.

I wonder if this cost Google anything other than scanning fees? The images weren't doing LIFE any good, and now it has Google to manage them. LIFE can even monetize the copies of the images that can be ordered from the "hosted" (implying non-ownership) archive.

Astounding times.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Marked! Where did all our investments go?

Disregarding dividends and taxes, of which the latter is the bigger, we're back to 1998 now:

Figure: S&P over our investing lifespan - 1985-2008 - click to enlarge (Yahoo!)

So what happened?

One theory is that the combination of the 1994 Gingrich Marketarian [3] "revolution" and consequent firewall demolition, combined with at least one major technology transition, produced accelerated returns at the cost of new instabilities. Over a long enough timeline investment returns might be somewhat lower than with a balanced regulatory environment, but "safe" investment timelines are now 20-50 rather than 10-15 years.

I think that's true, but not the entire story.

First, a brief digression. Twenty years ago a friend of mine did quite well by an Amway-like multi-level marketing business. Unlike the pyramid (Ponzi) schemes that devastated Albania in 2000, or the riot-inducing Columbian scheme of 2008, these businesses do sell a physical product. Like classic Ponzi schemes, however, there's a lot of cash flow from new recruits to established executives.

Some would call these new recruits "marks" [2].

People working in these businesses are taught to draw comparisons to the stock market. That's what my friend did twenty years ago, and it's stayed with me ever since. The difference, in theory, is that at best a Ponzi scheme is a zero sum game. All wins come from someone else's losses. In theory everyone can play the market and win -- because it's ultimately powered by global productivity and economic development.

In practice, however, natural selection happens. It always does.

Think of the market as a vast, indigestible feast. Sooner or later, bacteria will figure out how to eat it. It's as predictable as the sunrise.

So how does natural selection play out in this scenario -- remembering that for a biologist fraud is just another name for a survival strategy.

We know humans are predictably irrational. We know people will aggressively search for cheap gas when prices are rising, but won't when prices fall -- even at the same income/price ratio. [5] Similarly we know humans will criticize balance sheets when share prices fall, but not when they rise.

This means that market volatility enables predictable predation strategies during rapid rise. Money can be diverted into senior executive compensation, into insider trading, into payments to political parties and senators, and into sophisticated financial instruments that none of us have the ability to fully understand or model.

This form of market predation (parasitism really, since a dead host is not useful) is bad enough by itself, but it's aggravated by "ratchet effects" [4]. CEO compensation doesn't fall as quickly as share prices. Senatorial contributions can't be stopped without risking undesirable electoral outcomes.

Volatile markets, like those of the past twelve years, can start to look an awful lot like Amway.

We've been Marked.

So what do we do?

About a year ago I drew a crude line from the sane growth curves of the early 90s and I reasoned that share prices weren't too crazy any more. I resumed the share purchases I'd de-emphasized since 2002. Since then the market has fallen a lot more, but we're still doing our index fund dollar-cost-averaging.

It's not that I don't think there's a major parasite effect in the Markets. I think that is a part of what's going on. On the other hand, it's not like we have great alternatives.

I am, however, looking for alternatives. I'd like to find a way to start investing in select privately held companies, companies that are relatively resistant to market-oriented parasitism strategies. Companies that can be driven by the desirable, but arguably irrational, strategies of founders who seek to combine their own wealth with delivering useful goods and services.

Anyone know how we can do that?

See also:
Footnotes -----------

[1] When I visited the Wikipedia link for Amway I came across this fascinating tidbit. Recall that Sarah Palin, darling of the dark core of the GOP, also has dominionist links. Emphases mine.
... its founders contributed $4,000,000 to a conservative 527 group in the 2004 election cycle...

... Former Amway CEO Richard DeVos has been connected with the dominionist political movement in the U.S...

Multiple high-ranking Amway leaders, including Richard DeVos, Dexter Yager, and others are also owners and members of the board of Gospel Films, a producer of movies and books geared towards conservative Christians...

... In 2000, current President George Bush appointed Timothy Muris, a former anti-trust lawyer whose largest client was Amway to head the FTC, which has direct federal regulatory oversight over multi-level marketing plans. ...

Amway co-founder, the late Jay Van Andel (in 1980), and later his son Steve Van Andel (in 2001) were elected by the board of directors of the United States Chamber of Commerce as chairman of that organization.[29]...
Bush appointed Amway's attorney to head the FTC. There are only 12K Google hits on this, so it's not surprising I missed it. It's things like this that make it so hard for me to understand how, 8 years later, Obama won.

[2] The intended victim of a swindler, hustler, or the like.

[3] Marketarian: Someone who subscribes to Marketarianism, the neo-Calvinist / pseudo-libertarian (objectivist) religious belief that the Market is not simply an efficient satisficing mechanism for finding local minima but is a god-like entity that defines moral qualities. See also, Yahwism.

[4] I've been trying to remember the engineering and economics term that describes "stickiness" or "ratchet" effects, where things move more easily in one direction but move more slowly in another. If anyone can name this concept I'll be very grateful. Ratchet effect is the best I can do but I think there's a better name in engineering.

[5] This is why gas stations make money when prices are falling, but lose money when prices are rising rapidly. It's the opposite of what most people think. Convenience stores let them hedge their financial risks.