Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sir Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett, the brilliant satirist and writer, is now Sir Terry ...
Terry Pratchett knighted in Queen's new year honours list | The Australian

... Pratchett, 60, best known for his satirical Discworld fantasy series, becomes a knight, one of the queen's most important honours, and will now be addressed as a 'Sir'.

'There are times when phrases such as 'totally astonished' just don't do the job,' he said. 'I am of course delighted and honoured and needless to say, flabbergasted.'

In December 2007 Pratchett announced he had a rare form of early onset Alzheimer's disease, and earlier this year he donated $725,000 to research into the disorder...
Discworld news has the best coverage.

Tonight, if we ever get the children to bed, Emily and I will watch the second half of Hogfather (buy DVD signed by Pratchett) in honor of the season. Re-reading the book and watching the movie is our new holiday tradition. Death makes a very satisfying Santa. (The movie, incidentally, tracks the book too closely to work as cinema, but it's a joy for fans.)

I've read about between 35 to 37 of Terry Pratchett's books (including all 33 of the Discworld Series) - including those allegedly written for children. There's not a one that I didn't enjoy, or that I wouldn't read again and again. He is a genius and a gentleman.

Welcome to the Year of the Pensive Hare Sir Terry!

Monday, December 29, 2008

A thorough review of DRM 2008 - Gizmodo Australia

I came across this Gizmodo Australia review of DRM because it happened to link to a Gordon's Tech post I'd done on DRM issues with downloaded apps for the Wii, and a query turned up the connection.

It's an good reference review; we've come a long way since the days of products that allowed one to duplicated "copy-protected" floppy (yes, in those days they were floppy - 5.25") disks. I think oen product was called something like "Copy II PC"?

DRM is the reason that video games went form desktop machines to consoles. So DRM isn't fundamentally bad, but it becomes malign when too much power accrues to copyright owners. The key to a reasonably use of DRM technology is a healthy political process of negotiation and compromise ...

Price fixing investigations of SMS texting: also ask about instant messaging

In reign of the Dark Lord antitrust enforcement languished. The Marketarian religion did not admit to imperfections requiring government attention.

In the recovery new light is being cast where dark things have grown ...
Digital Domain - What Carriers Aren’t Eager to Tell You About Texting

... Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin and the chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, wanted to look behind the curtain. He was curious about the doubling of prices for text messages charged by the major American carriers from 2005 to 2008, during a time when the industry consolidated from six major companies to four...
A lot of things changed when the Democrats took the senate. (Thank you, thank you, Senator Tim Johnson). This was one of them.

I hope Senator Kohl will look beyond the price fixing of SMS messages into the more interesting questions of conspiracy to block instant messaging alternatives.

In particular, I think it will be interesting to ask Apple's management to discuss what happened to the Push notification that was supposed to come to the iPhone in August of 2008. That service would have enabled effective iPhone instant messaging, which would have devastated the iPhone SMS revenue that goes to both AT&T and Apple. Once slated for the OS 2.2 Push notification vanished without explanation.

Anyone have an in to Senator Kohl? I would really love to hear the answers to those questions ...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Amazon MP3 - how did they make such a mess of it?

I earned a $5 Amazon MP3 credit, so I figured I'd give their DRM free music a try.

The first artist I tried, a Jazz vocalist, had only a few albums available on Amazon.

So I figured I'd try the Dixie chicks.

Sure enough, Amazon had some tunes, but the layout is a mess and browsing is a slow and awkward experience. A piece of the left side of the screen is given over to advertising.

Huh? An ad next to the music listings? I thought they were trying to sell music.

It smells like they've given up. Well, at least prior purchases are DRM-free. Nothing will disappear when Amazon exits this business.

Update 1/6/09: iTunes music is almost all DRM free now. Amazon's experiment is done.

WaMu and the problem with index funds

Like everyone else, we've been wondering what we did wrong. What can we learn from the WaMu story?

We were, after all, WaMu investors, albeit indirectly. We own index funds that, at one time or another, probably owned shares of WaMu. The track record of the low expense index funds has been very good since John Bogle, an honorable man, pioneered them at Vanguard. The thesis has been that money managers, when their salaries and other overheads are included, can't beat index funds. Of course, there have been exceptions.

Hmm. Maybe any money manager who beats index funds should be immediately investigated by the SEC.

But I digress.

The problem with index funds is that they're only as smart as the market, and only as good as publicly traded companies. If the market's regulatory frameworks are broken, if corruption is on a historically seasonal upswing, if the world is too complex to detect theft, then index funds are just a way to get taken.

The problem is, obviously, that index funds are only as good as the publicly traded company.

So are there any alternatives to index funds for the retail investor?

See also:
  1. Complexity collapse
  2. Disintermediating Wall Street
  3. The future of the publicly traded company
  4. The role of the deadbeats
  5. Firewalls and separation of powers
  6. Marked!

Life imitates art - the WaMu story

Well, not exactly. Cliches are much more common in life than in art ...
The Reckoning - WaMu Built an Empire on Bad Loans - Series -

...While Mr. Parsons, whose incarceration is not related to his work for WaMu, oversaw a team screening mortgage applications, he was snorting methamphetamine daily, he said.

“In our world, it was tolerated,” said Sherri Zaback, who worked for Mr. Parsons and recalls seeing drug paraphernalia on his desk. “Everybody said, ‘He gets the job done.’ ”

At WaMu, getting the job done meant lending money to nearly anyone who asked for it — the force behind the bank’s meteoric rise and its precipitous collapse this year in the biggest bank failure in American history...
We really need to try a different sentient species. Personally I like dogs.

This was novel though ...
...WaMu turned real estate agents into a pipeline for loan applications by enabling them to collect “referral fees” for clients who became WaMu borrowers...
Dark humor aside, there's one interesting question about all this.

Why are we reading about this now?

It's not as though WaMu was subtle.

I would really like to know the story about why there was no story.

Update: Thinking more about why there was no story. A hypothesis -- that business journalists interact with the wrong level of a corporation. They interact with senior management, who are more fun and who can provide favors, tips, and ad revenue. The real story is further down the value chain, hence invisible.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Provigil enthusiam: I bet on accelerated aging

Judith Warner makes the case for putting Provigil in the water.

Synchronously, the NYT writes about the odd relationship between sleeplessness and heart disease, one of series of studies over the past few years showing relationships between limited sleep and disorders associated with aging.

Free lunches are exquisitely rare.

There's no way any studies done to date would be sensitive enough to detect a 10-20% acceleration of aging associated with long-term Provigil (modafinil) use. Animal models might show the relationship, but they'd have to use animals with a relatively long lifespan.

I bet we'll learn that regular Provigil use that reducing an individual's sleep needs from 8 to 6 hours a night also significantly accelerates aging.

Just a hunch.

Living well with less energy - lessons from tobacco

If we had the right price signals, we could live well with far less energy that we use now.

Consider the passively heated home. It's a marvel of efficient engineering and, in some climates, can operate without a dedicated furnace.

Of course we can't rebuild all our homes this way, but it's easy to imagine that, over the next twenty-five years, per capita US energy consumption could fall by 3-5% a year even as GDP rises.

Of course that won't happen with oil company ads urging energy conservation. Those remind me of tobacco ads urging health lifestyles. You know, the ads the tobacco companies ran when they were trying to fend off cigarette taxes.

The tobacco taxes came, and, shock, twenty years later public smoking is rare in Minnesota.

It's very hard to stop smoking, but people did it. It's easier never to start smoking, and people did that too. The campaign against smoking is a blueprint for transforming America's energy habit.

The campaign needs to start with price signals. Without them we're just pretending. Regulations are a feeble substitute for a serious carbon tax.

Today the NYT Editorial page called for a gasoline tax offset by other tax reductions. This is only the beginning of what will be a long and terrible political process that will need support from every friend of reason.

If we're lucky carbon and gas taxes will be a core campaign issue in 2008. It will be a tough campaign of course, we know the GOP will continue their war against civilization and reason, we know the GOP will do everything possible to leave the human world a smoldering ruin*.

I hope you've enjoyed your pre-inaugural rest, but that's over now.

* Which makes the GOP, ironically, a sort of Green party -- but that's another story.

12/28/08: Uh-Oh. Friedman agrees. Which reminds me that gasoline and carbon taxes are quite different. A gasoline tax that leads to electric cards powered by coal-fueled plants would be an absolute disaster. The primary argument for a gasoline tax is to reduce dependency on Saudi Arabia, but I suspect that's a misguided mission. The carbon tax is what we need; a gasoline tax is secondary.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Get ready to refinance your mortgage?

Krugman points out that there are relatively easy and benign ways for the treastury to lower mortgage interest rates. They are currently anomalously high compared to treasury interest rates (less than 0% currently).

For many people the safest investment these days is accelerating mortgage payments. Alas, that doesn't provide a lot of economic oomph; it's one of the reasons tax cuts don't yield much stimulus. People just use the tax cut to pay down their mortgages. That's what we'd do.

On the other hand, if we are able to refinance at a significantly lower rate, we have less incentive to pay down our mortgage and we have more cash to spend or invest. (It has to be pretty damned low though, our current rates are pretty low already.)

So this sounds like something an Obama administration might push. I'll watch for a refinancing opportunity come February.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Weather wimps of Minnesota

Humans are adaptable …

Welcome to the Coldest Town on Earth: Scientific American

… Oymyakon's natives have learned to adapt to the freezing conditions: the town's only school closes only when temperatures sink below minus 61.6 degrees Fahrenheit…

They’re looking forward to a –90 F day soon. That’s without the “wind chill”.

We Minnesotans get all worked up over –40 F.

We’re wimps.

Quick reminder: GDP and money turnover

Easy for the non-economist to forget. This comes from the Bush I administration ...
Bruce Bartlett - How to Get the Money Moving -

... When everyone in the economy suddenly stops spending, the number of times that money turns over falls. Since the gross domestic product equals the money supply times its rate of turnover — something economists call velocity — this means that if the money supply is unchanged then G.D.P. must fall.

Theoretically, the Federal Reserve can compensate for a decline in velocity by increasing the money supply. But in times like these it is very hard for it to do so because of something economists call a liquidity trap. When this occurs, the Fed cannot inject liquidity into the economy because its normal means of doing so no longer works. In a liquidity trap, trying to expand the money supply is like trying to push on a string.

Normally the Fed expands the money supply by buying Treasury bills and paying for them by creating money out of thin air. When it wants to contract the money supply it does the reverse, putting Treasury bills from its portfolio on the market and drawing money out of the economy when financial institutions pay for them.

But when interest rates on Treasury bills fall to zero this process doesn’t work because money is essentially nothing but a perpetual government bond that pays no interest. If the Fed creates money to buy a Treasury bill that pays zero interest, it accomplishes nothing, economically. All it does is trade one government security for another that is virtually identical. There is no net increase in liquidity.

Under these circumstances, when the normal rules don’t apply, the government must find more creative ways to ease credit conditions and get the economy moving again.

First, it needs to increase the budget deficit. This expands the amount of Treasury bills in circulation and is the same as expanding the money supply, which is necessary to keep G.D.P. from shrinking due to a fall in velocity.

Second, the Fed needs to revise its operating procedures. Instead of buying only T-bills it needs to buy securities with positive interest rates. These include longer-term Treasury bonds and securities issued by government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae. If necessary, the Fed could also buy corporate bonds, state and local government bonds, or even bonds issued by foreign governments.

Third, the government must try to raise velocity by stimulating aggregate spending in the economy. This is harder than it sounds. Buying bonds and securities may expand liquidity, but it doesn’t increase spending. And we know from experience that tax rebates don’t work because people save them...

Sounds Krugmanesque.

How Microsoft can use Google Blogger's missing backlinks

Microsoft may yet fall to the ghost of Netscape Constellation.

That would be a good thing if Microsoft is merely shattered, and returns as a dozen newly competititive enterprises. We don't want to replace one oppressive monopoly with another.

So, how can we help keep Microsoft in the game? They do have a few options to play -- in addition to a thermonuclear patent attack.

For example, Google won't give me the Blogger backlinks (possibly related posts) I want. This is bad news; those backlinks are a key part of my manical GordonGeek-Metamind interface strategy, aka Project Xanadu. So if Google won't give 'em to me, maybe Microsoft will. [1]

Happily, Microsoft has several ways to play here. I'll outline just one approach, one that leverages Windows Live Writer (my all-OS favorite desktop app) and ties it to Windows Live Search, Microsoft Passport (Live ID), and Microsoft Live Spaces while facilitating an incremental Blogger to Live Spaces migration.
  1. Introduce the concept of domain-scoped search to Live Search, just as Google Custom Search can be used to constrain search to multiple domains.
  2. Write a plugin for Windows Live Writer 2009 that emulates the WordPress Possibly Related service -- call it "WLW Related". When users go to use the new function they'll be asked to enter their Windows Live ID, then to specify groups of domains to search.
  3. Windows Live will store this configuration on Live servers.
  4. Users will then be invited to optionally replicate their posts to a Microsoft Live Space which they can then create (bound to the Live ID they just created). The advantage of the Live Space will be that the backlinks created there will be dynamic.
  5. After initial setup future posts in WLW will always display a dynamically updated set of possibly related posts based on shared labels, and lexical analysis of the post title and body. The possibly related list will be organized by the search domains defined above. All or parts of the list URLs can be appended to the end of a blog post.
  6. If users opt for the optional replication of the blog posts to Spaces, they'll benefit there an optional dynamically updating "show related" set of links.
  7. Lastly, add an import function to Spaces that works with Google's Blog export data format. This should include dynamic updating of links so that self-referential blogspot URLs are rewritten as needed.
In short, Microsoft can leverage their tremendous advantage in desktop applications (Windows Live Writer) to ease the migration path from Blogger to Spaces, and they can provide functionality geeks appreciate -- while thumbing their nose at Google.

Give it a try Microsoft. Maybe I'll switch ...

-- footnotes --

[1] There aren't a lot of alternatives. Apple is busy recreating the mistakes of the 1980s. They're creating a closed software world that's going to compete with Google's (relatively) open alternative. In other words, they're Apple 1984 and Google is Microsoft 1984 (ok, so Google is nowhere near as evil as Microsoft was in those days).

Yahoo can't help either. They're waiting to be acquired. Startups are nice, but they need to figure out a Dapocalypse solution.

Why Google loves Chrome: Netscape Constellation

Google is serious about Chrome. The Google Pack now include Chrome rather than Firefox. Google is paying vendors to put Chrome on new machines rather than IE or Firefox. Soon Google will pay for Chrome/Linux to go on sub-$250 Linux netbooks, and they'll begin moving the Target Trutech netbook purchase price to zero.

Why is Google so serious about yet another browser?

I still see pundits asking that question, even though I answered it four months ago.

Alas, that particular meme injection looks like a total fail. I tested today on Google, Windows Live, and AOL search [4]. I found my personal post and precisely one other hit -- a comment replicated across dozens of identical spam blog (splog) posts [1],[2] (no links since the source is a splog):
... Google is not the only think-tank pursuing the 'browser-as-desktop'-concept... and far from the first. Does anyone remember 'Netscape Constellation'? That is very likely the reason Gates and Balmer finally unleashed the hounds on Marc Andreessen & Company... and probably the primary reason why 'Netscape' (in name) has been relegated to foot-note status, in internet history...
So there are at least two living people who remember Constellation, and think Google is playing the same cards -- from a vastly stronger hand. As Machiavelli taught us, old strategies never die. They just wait to be played at the right time.

For a second try at a meme injection, I'll reference a fragment of the irreplaceable but forgotten BYTE magazine (1975-1998) written in 1997 by Tom (electric brain) Halfhill [3] (emphases and footnotes mine):
March 1997 / Cover Story / Net Applications: Will Netscape Set the Standard? / Constellation: The Network-Centric Desktop (Tom Halfhill, 1997)

Microsoft and Netscape both want to change how users interact with their computers in a wired world. But each company wants to steer those changes in a different direction. Whoever prevails will probably determine the face of computing for the next decade. [5]

Both companies are preparing for an age of ubiquitous networking in which users enjoy fast access to immense resources on LANs, WANs, and the Internet..

Microsoft's Active Platform -- manifested on a PC as Active Desktop -- leverages the market dominance of Windows by blending the user interfaces of Windows and the Web...

... Netscape's Constellation takes a less Windows-centric approach and puts more emphasis on location-independent computing, regardless of the platform. No matter what kind of system you're using or where you are, Constellation presents a universal desktop called the Homeport . Although the Homeport can appear in a browser window, Netscape usually demonstrates it as a full-screen layer that buries the native OS -- certainly one reason Microsoft is not embracing Constellation.

Constellation will work on about 18 different OSes because it's created entirely with HTML, JavaScript, and Java. Netscape envisions the Homeport as the new base for launching local or remote applications and for accessing the network. It's location-independent because Constellation can save the Homeport's state (including all data files cre ated or modified during a session) on a server... Constellation lets you save copies of your files on the local machine, encrypt the copies, or securely erase all local traces of your session.

Constellation can receive infostreams through Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Marimba Castanet, and the PointCast Network. HTTP and SMTP are the more conventional methods...

... Netscape sees more platform fragmentation. Users will access networks from Windows PCs, of course, but also from Macs, Unix systems, network computers, home videogame consoles, Web appliances, and mobile devices of every stripe. They won't all run Windows. Netscape also expects more users to borrow time on computers they don't own; for example, business travelers might answer e-mail on network computers in airports and hotels....
Where you read "Netscape Constellation", just insert "Google Chrome-stellation".

Chrome only makes sense as the foundation for Google's fundamental computing strategy, a strategy that will make full use of ultra-inexpensive (free?) netbooks, subsidized Android phones, massive network resources, and, incidentally, any Windows or OS X machine.

Chrome is where Google will start to deliver functionality that, until now, has required desktop clients.

Will Chrome-stellation succeed where Constellation failed? Microsoft now is vastly wealthier than it was in 1997.

I think there's a good chance it will work -- reason enough to consider purchasing Google stock. Microsoft is hobbled by antitrust restrictions, and the inevitable senescence [6] of the publicly traded company. Google has vastly more cash and talent than Netscape ever had, and they're not going to repeat Netscape's error of trash talking the Beast. Chrome is open source, which radically reduces the risk that Google will run into anti-trust or nationalist objections. Not least of all, those netbooks are going to wreak havoc on Microsoft's business strategy -- while only strengthening Google.

Phew. Now to check back in four more months and see if there are more than 3 relevant hits on "Google Chrome" "Netscape Constellation".

[1] Incidentally, Windows Live does a remarkably lousy job of filtering out splogs.
[2] The role of splogs in propagating memes is irresistibly reminiscent of viral propagation of gene fragments.
[3] Ironically, some suspect BYTE was collateral damage from Microsoft's scorched earth campaign against Netscape/Constellation.
[4] It occurred to me that if Google really was doing a Constellation play, they'd have learned enough from the obliteration of Netscape to keep very quiet. Maybe they'd even keep the meme from their search rankings. Now that would have been an interesting story, but it turns out that Google, as usual, had the best results by an order of magnitude.
[5] Microsoft prevailed of course, but they only got to rule unchallenged for about 6-7 years, then Google took the lead. Still, not far off.
[6] To which Apple has been the great exception, but I think they lost their way about 1-2 years ago. Google has a funny ownership structure that might give them a few more good years before the go under. Long enough, maybe, to implement "Chromestellation".

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Excellent Cheney take down

Dahlia Lithwick of Slate has written a methodical and esssential dismantling of Cheney's latest ravings. Our current VP is smart enough to qualify as evil rather than merely bad and delusional; he's Bush without the deniability.

If there's any kind of justice in the world Cheney will eventually find himself unable to travel without fear of arrest and prosecution. If there's true justice in America, he'll do time.

The evolutionary history of minds

Two years ago, responding to a post by John Hawks on unique evolutionary events and their relationship to the Drake Equation, I praised Stephen Baxter's 2004 book Evolution. The book never got the fame I thought it deserved, but I'm pleased to see it's still in print.

Baxter does a fantastic job imaging a language and tool using velociraptor-like animal in, I think, the late Cretaceous. Alas, these obligatory carnivores wipe out their primary food supplies -- an ominous precedent for later chapters.

Ever since Baxter I've wondered how many sentient species have preceded us. Certainly there are several alive today, perhaps including canids. How many were rich language users? Ahh, that's harder. We, by which I include our Neandertal brethren, are the only rich language users we know of. How many technocentric species? Again, we know of only one; if there'd been anything like us before we'd have found their signature in the ice cores.

So we do seem somewhat unique, though it's puzzling that we should be. Why not others in the eons of evolution before us?

It's a great puzzle, and Scientific American addresses it as a part of their homage to Darwin series ...
One World, Many Minds: Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom: Scientific American:

.... Beginning in the 1980s, the field of comparative neuroanatomy experienced a renaissance. In the intervening decades evolutionary biologists had learned a great deal about vertebrate evolutionary history, and they developed new and effective methods of applying Darwin’s concept of the tree of life to analyze and interpret their findings. It is now apparent that a simple linear hierarchy cannot adequately account for the evolution of brains or of intelligence. The oldest known multicellular animal fossils are about 700 million years old. By the Cambrian period, about 520 million years ago, the animal kingdom had branched into about 35 major groups, or phyla, each with its own distinctive body plan. As a separate branch of the tree of life, each lineage continued to evolve and diversify independently of the others. Complex brains evolved independently in multiple phyla, notably among the cephalopod mollusks of the phylum Mollusca and, of course, among various groups of vertebrates. Vertebrate evolution has likewise involved repeated branching, with complex brains evolving from simpler brains independently along numerous branches....
It's a long essay, but worth reading. See also a 2004 post on the rapid and ongoing changes to the human mind and brain. I particularly appreciate the cephalopod reference -- Sentient squids are a favorite topic of science fiction of course ...

Are fluorescent bulbs really more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs?

Well, of course they are …

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs : ENERGY STAR

  • ENERGY STAR qualified bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs
  • …Produce about 75 percent less heat…
  • Or are they?

    It’s been a cold December in Lake Wobegon. The heat is on all the time.

    Our incandescent bulbs are 100% efficient now. They give light and heat, and we need both. Our fluorescents are equally efficient of course, they also give light and a bit of heat. We need that heat too.

    True, we don’t need heat all year long. There are a few weeks during the summer when we run air conditioners, though not usually when the lights are on. For several months the heat is indeed a waste.

    So fluorescents are more energy efficient than incandescents – on average. In Minnesota though, that’s only true on average, and the benefit is much less than 75%. Maybe 25%.

    So maybe they only save us $10 in electricity costs over their lifetime, versus $30 in Florida. That means we don’t get much of a payback from switching, and given the hassles of dealing with broken fluorescents they’re probably not worthwhile for Minnesotans.

    Of course we’ll have to switch in 2012 with the rest of the nation, but there’s no reason to jump the gun …

    The Palm Nova – doomed from the start?

    The Palm Nova is getting a bit more news lately, with rumor of a CES showing in a few weeks. There’s not a lot of information out; Google suggests this May 2008 posting (emphases mine):

    Palm Nova OS Details - Treonauts

    Asked why Palm was still developing its own OS, Colligan stated that “We’re focused on executing our own system, mostly because we really believe that to create the most compelling solution it should be an integrated package much like we started with the Palm OS and doing the original Palm Pilots: we did the operating system, we did the hardware and we did the whole synching architecture and the desktop tie-in, which is equivalent to the Web these days

    … That ‘next generation’ Palm 2.0 OS will slot in between the Centro and Treo lines under a new ‘prosumer’ brand that’s yet to be decided, Colligan explains.  “We’re going to continue to look at those three line areas – consumer, prosumer and enterprise…

    Supposedly the Nova is going to aim at people who are shut out of the corporate Exchange Server environment (my whimsical guess -- 90% BlackBerry, 9% Windows Mobile, 1% iPhone) but are frustrated by the iPhone’s pathetic productivity offerings (weak to nonexistent home/work calendar sync solution, no tasks, truncated calendar and contact notes, no cut/copy/paste, etc).

    So what will Palm do for the desktop? Colligan is very clear that they need to own the end-to-end solution, and he’s 100% right about that. He also says “the desktop tie-in, which is equivalent to the Web these days”. That’s ominously clear – they’ll do a web service, not a desktop app.

    So here’s the killer problem – how are they going to get at corporate data? Corporations are even more possessive of their data than they were 10 years ago. On the other hand, what good is a prosumer solution without corporate data integration?

    Will Palm provide a tool for sucking data out of Outlook through the back door? Corporations aren’t going to be happy if it’s going from Outlook to a cloud store – even if the cloud store is theoretically more secure than a phone *. If it’s going via a cable from Outlook to a hardware device it’s easier for corporations to look the other way – but not if the ultimate destination has to be a cloud store.

    On the other hand, it seems that nobody remembers how to create significant desktop apps any more – so there’s no way Palm will deliver a desktop – especially when Colligan has said the modern desktop is the web.

    So the Palm Nova has a very big business problem – access to the corporate data store. Without it they don’t have a hope, but so far they seem to be shut out.

    I want the Nova to be a raging success. We Mac iPhone users are desperate for someone, anyone, to put the metallic taste of impending doom in Apple’s mouth.  Alas, it seems Apple will have nothing to fear from the Nova.

    * In reality of course most users choose pathetic passwords, and cloud stores are still password secured, so corporate fears are well-founded.

    Monday, December 22, 2008

    Technological singularity - the trans-Pacific submarine cable

    Submarine cables have to cross things like the Mariana Trench.

    If you asked most people when the first submarine communications cable crossed the Pacific, I suspect most would guess sometime in the 1970s, as a replacement for satellite links.

    They're much older than that ...
    Submarine communications cable - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The first attempt at laying a transatlantic telegraph cable was promoted by Cyrus West Field, who persuaded British industrialists to fund and lay one in 1858. However, the technology of the day was not capable of supporting the project, it was plagued with problems from the outset, and was in operation for only a month. Subsequent attempts in 1865 and 1866 with the world's largest steamship, the SS Great Eastern, used a more advanced technology and produced the first successful transatlantic cable...

    ... Submarine cable across the Pacific ... was completed in 1902–03, linking the US mainland to Hawaii in 1902 and Guam to the Philippines in 1903...
    The American civil war, ended in 1865. Forty years later there was a telegraph cable across the Pacific.

    It's hard for me to fathom how much the world was changing between 1845 and 1914. I suppose the closest thing today would have to be the rise of China, but that modern rise does not include any comparable technological transformations.

    I don't imagine our Future Shock could compare to theirs.

    Britannica Online's suicidal site redesign

    I'm fond of Britannica Online (example). We've subscribed for eons.

    Sometime in the past year, some misguided executive decided that they needed a site refresh.

    Now it's heavy on Flash and fancy layouts. Problem is, they don't seem to render properly anywhere. I have the most luck with Firefox, but IE 7 has serious problems.

    iPhone? Surely you jest.

    At the moment the main page shows me a dark navy blue square with Firefox 3+. Something Flashy, no doubt.

    I doubt they were in great shape before this happened. Maybe this was some kind of suicidal move, like torching a warehouse to get the insurance money.


    Krugman declares 2010 will be good. Markets rally.

    The tide has turned. Even as I write billions prepare to pour into the market, because Krugman has written ....
    Krugman - Life Without Bubbles -

    ... Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I’m fairly optimistic about 2010....
    Optimistic?! Krugman?!

    Oh yeah baby, let's get that bubble going ...

    Buy, buy, buy!

    Ok, so there's more in the column ...
    ... In fact, however, things can’t just go back to the way they were before the current crisis...

    The prosperity of a few years ago, such as it was — profits were terrific, wages not so much — depended on a huge bubble in housing, which replaced an earlier huge bubble in stocks. And since the housing bubble isn’t coming back, the spending that sustained the economy in the pre-crisis years isn’t coming back either...

    So what will support the economy if cautious consumers and humbled homebuilders aren’t up to the job?

    A few months ago a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion, on point as always, offered one possible answer: “Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble to Invest In.” Something new could come along to fuel private demand, perhaps by generating a boom in business investment...

    ... it may take a lot longer than many people think before the U.S. economy is ready to live without bubbles. And until then, the economy is going to need a lot of government help...
    Hmm. A boom in business investment? Does that mean my most favored recent meme might get traction?

    Amidst all the chaos, this is an oddly attractive time to be starting a small business -- if one can get health insurance (hint, hint).

    Just remember, we're not done with bubbles. We have a lot to work out* before the US, and even the world economy, is out of the ICU ...

    *See also ...
    1. Complexity collapse
    2. Disintermediating Wall Street
    3. The future of the publicly traded company
    4. The role of the deadbeats
    5. Marked!

    Why middle-aged habits form

    Not good habits, not bad habits, just the ones that grow, like parking spots, the home of the winter hat, and so on.

    These habits form because, especially if enjoys and endures a certain sort of family existence, by middle-middle age life can become significantly complicated.

    At the same time one's memory structure is not improving -- which is a polite way of saying something else.

    And thus one acquires the cage of habits that will, for better and worse, flourish and endure.

    I need more sunlight.

    Shallow thought of the moment

    It's never about one thing, it's always about everything*.

    * Everything that's causally connected that is.

    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    What can I do with Twitter, and is it CB Radio redux?

    I'm still trying to figure out the upside of Twitter for me. It looks potentially useful as a way to get availability/status information and to synchronize a loosely-coupled distributed entity, but mostly it seems like a oddly constrained form of entertainment.

    Being a proto-gomer, that reminded me of something ...
    ConnectMe Networks: Twitter vs CB Radio: What Makes These Mobile Services So Popular

    ... CB radio was a lot like Twitter: in the late 70s and early 80s, millions of people bought these radios initially because it allowed them to communicate with each other to locate cheap gas and to notify others of speed traps. But it fell victim to its own popularity: because of the millions of users jamming onto the grid, channels became incredibly noisy and communication became next to impossible. Once people started to use their radios less frequently, it opened the door for a competing technology: the mobile phone...
    CB radio lasted about 4-5 years as a popular movement and AOL chat rooms were good for 10 years, so I give Twitter 3-8 years as a recreational/social medium. Good for some, uninteresting for me.

    The useful part of Twitter has to do with the people synchronization problem, the ongoing limits of calendar integration, and the business quirks driving the SMS/IM wars. These things look like they may take years to sort out, during which time Twitter can morph as needed.

    CB Radio didn't have that morphing potential -- it ended as it started. So Twitter isn't CB radio, or at least the people synchronization broadcast/asynchronous receipt part of it isn't.

    So when might it be useful for me? That's hard to figure, given that so far SMS/IM is only useful between my wife and I, and even then we're limited by Apple's craven refusal to provide Google Talk/Chat or any other app with instant messaging push services.

    I think when our children have cell phones and are more independent, or when both my wife and I have phones with working push notification (iPhones if Apple ever caves), or if my work were to change dramatically, I'll have a real use for Twitter.

    Not just yet though.

    Saturday, December 20, 2008

    National Academies of Science survey -- very short

    The NAS wants to know what you'd like to learn about.

    What Matters Most to You? is a VERY short survey. Please take a moment to complete. I added a request for "autism and cognitive disorders" as a write-in category.

    Marriage and civil unions - American insularity is astounding

    Americans get endlessly agitated about Gay Marriage and Civil Unions. There are reams of editorials like this one ...
    Editorial - Separate and Not Equal -

    .... Civil unions are an inadequate substitute for marriage. Creating a separate, new legal structure to confer some benefits on same-sex couples neither honors American ideals of fairness, nor does it grant true equality. The results are clearly visible in New Jersey, which continues to deny same-sex couples some of the tangible civil benefits that come with marriage....
    So, amidst all the sturm und drang, does anyone ever bother to ask what other nations do?

    No. Of course not. That would be %$@% un-American.

    Sometimes I wonder why I ever became an American citizen.

    Emily and I were "married" in Quebec about 23 years ago. More importantly, we were civil-unioned.

    You see, in Quebec of 23 years ago, "marriage" was a religious thing. You could be married by the Catholic Church or the United Federation of Wombats; both were equally legally meaningless.

    The legal union was a civil agreement with the state. It was the civil agreement that got you rights, privileges and obligations.


    We need to make "marriage" the province of religions, and make "civil union" the contract with the state. We can grandfather in everyone who's currently "married", but then all future legally meaningful unions, including straight and gay unions, are civil unions.

    Marriage is then up to the religious orders, and it then has no significance beyond the religious domain. So the Church of the Endlessly Recreational can do marriages, and, heck, so can the Baptists. Who cares -- it has no legal importance.

    The answer to the Gay Marriage wars is to make all unions Civil, and separate Church and State.

    Damn obvious.

    A classification of Ponzi schemes

    The NYT has published a classification of Ponzi schemes.

    I have a few quibbles with the piece. While the 'Music Man' was a con man who meant to cut and run, he wasn't running a Ponzi scheme. Also, not all "cut and run" scams are small bit -- the Albanian, Philipino and Columbian, scams were massive. Lastly, the relationship between Ponzi schemes and multi-level marketing businesses deserves more mention.

    Oh, and I've one other quibble. I'll save that one for the end ...
    A Scheme With No Off Button -

    Mathematically speaking, Ponzi schemes are doomed. They work by bringing in new investors to pay off old ones. In pure form, there’s never any actual business activity; the money just rolls backward from ever-increasing numbers of investors to keep up the appearance of profits. This means the scheme requires an infinite supply of new suckers....

    ...Based on historical examples relayed by a few biographers, historians and finance experts, the exit strategies seem to fall into four general categories:

    CUT AND RUN These Ponzi schemers, a subset of the “Music Man” breed of professional swindler, are the small-time crooks, the snake-oil salesmen. They plan to rip off everyone in River City, hop on a train, change identity, and then start over, from the top, in the next town...

    If you’re well enough connected to create a large-scale Ponzi scheme, though, you’re probably too well-connected to be able to, or perhaps even want to, cut yourself loose. Charles Ponzi himself passed up chances early in the 20th century to sneak back to his Italian homeland unnoticed....

    TURN (OR RETURN) THE BUSINESS INTO SOMETHING LEGITIMATE This group is likely to have started out with some hope for legitimacy. They solicit seed money for a brilliant investment idea, but the idea falls through. Rather than declare failure, they recruit new investors to pay off the old ones.

    The fraud is just temporary, the swindlers tell themselves. They delude themselves into thinking they’ll come up with another, better idea some day.

    This appears to have been Mr. Ponzi’s strategy; he had grand plans for international postal arbitrage but couldn’t make the logistics work. “He truly thought he could eventually turn around and go legitimate,” Mr. Zuckoff said.

    This exit strategy pretty much always fails because the schemers are looking for the big scalp — and there’s never an investment profitable enough to fill that deepening pocket of debt.

    NO EXIT These schemers, usually from relatively humble backgrounds, are deeply insecure. They have felt like impostors their whole lives, whether in the country club or on the trading floor, says James Walsh, author of “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.” Expecting exposure for something, sometime, somewhere, they rationalize their fraudulent behavior. They delay the inevitable as long as they can — and live well until they get caught.

    GET ELECTED TO PARLIAMENT After scamming millions of Russians in the 1990s, Sergei Mavrodi promised his investors a taxpayer bailout if they elected him to the Duma. Upon election, he received parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

    Admittedly, this exit strategy has limited applicability. It didn’t even work very long for Mr. Mavrodi, who landed in prison when his immunity was revoked.

    The details of Mr. Madoff’s scheme are unclear, though he is accused, in court documents, of having described it as a Ponzi scheme. Some experts guess that, given his business’s longevity, he may have hoped to return to legitimacy one day.

    Most Ponzi schemes last a year at most, says Utpal Bhattacharya, an Indiana University finance professor. (Ponzi’s lasted just nine months.) So it seems likely that Mr. Madoff, an investment manager since 1960, started out legitimate or semi-legitimate. People in that position sometimes foolishly think they can hide a one-time loss with new investors’ money, and make up for it with a big gamble later.

    In other words, Ponzi schemers don’t necessarily start out as such, and as sophisticated as they are, they may not consciously recognize that they have created one. They delude themselves into thinking the ploy is just a stopgap measure, an attempt to hide a loss until they can — once again — dream up something brilliant.
    My last quibble is that the author is far too sanguine about the distinction between a scam and, say, a start-up company. Lots of start-ups stutter, and look for money from secondary investors. They're not expected to make money, so they don't have to lie about revenues. They just have find a way to transition from their original, failing, plan to a new one -- funded by new investors.

    In the real world these boundaries are labile ...

    Oddities of popular posts

    Based on comments, two of my most often appreciated posts:
    The first is interesting from an anecdotal medical perspective.

    The second is an aspect of one the most annoying problems with OS X -- device drivers are often very badly behaved. It comes up at the top of several Google searches on the topic, I get a comment every other day.

    I've no way of predicting what's going to be popular.

    WordPress's possibly related posts -- I want this from Blogger

    Last July I wrote that I really wanted Blogger to support backlinks.

    Well, Blogger still hasn't done anything. Meanwhile, I'm seeing more WordPress blogs using their "possibly related" feature.
    Possibly an Announcement --

    ... In a feature we’re calling possibly related posts we’ll now try to show posts related to yours a little section at the end. If we find any posts on your blog that are related, we’ll put those at the very top and in bold. Next we’ll show other posts from around, and finally we’ll check if there’s anything in the mainstream media.

    The result is a handful of links that should provide you and your visitors something interesting to check out. On blogs that cover the same topics frequently related posts could cause a 5-10% increase in traffic overnight. You could also start to see traffic from lots of other blogs. It’s a bit of an experiment, and we’ll be tweaking it a lot based on your feedback and the data that we collect once everything is live.

    Grrrrr. This feature is core to my memory extension strategy [1].

    I want a Google Blogger "possibly related posts" feature that follows links and tags and, heck, textual analysis to create entries -- and that lets me choose whether to restrict to my own domains or open it up.

    What do I need to do? I'm turning blue ...

    [1] If Blogger label views had feeds I'd be able to create meta-tags that spanned Gordon's Notes and Tech. By the way.

    Understanding the Collapse of '08 - the role of the deadbeats

    I keep coming across the meme that the root cause of the Collapse of '08 was that the banks made loans to people who couldn't afford to repay them. To deadbeats, in other words.

    Sometimes the implications is that this was because the banks were stupid, or evil but mistaken, and other times it's blamed on federal rules avowedly intended to end racist lending practices and to reduce poverty.

    I thought stories like Michael Lewis's would slow that meme, but they haven't. So even though I wrote (emphases mine) ...
    Gordon's Notes: Michael Lewis on the End of Wall Street. My God.
    1. We need to close the rating agencies down. Now.
    2. When you give 99% of the human race money and power, they cannot imagine that they don't deserve it. They are convinced they are brilliant. I know I would.
    3. The part where shorting the bad loans with credit-default swaps enabled the generation of 'virtual' bad loans involving real money is mind-boggling.
    4. I don't think this was caused by poor black people getting too many loans. Do you?...
    The meme persists. Funny about that.

    So let me try again.

    Imagine that someone had built a massive amplifier. Huge. It takes anything it hears and it boosts it a thousand times.

    Next to it, Yo-Yo Ma plays the Cello.

    Everyone is happy.

    Until the sound guy hits the wrong switch and the speakers connect to the microphone. The feedback loop blows the speakers, the audience, and the nationwide auditorium sky high.

    So who's to blame? The sound guy? The speakers? Or the idiots who built a system that was built to self-destruct?

    I guess you can tell what I think.

    We'd built the mother of all firewall-free feedback loops. All it took was one thing to go wrong, and the entire setup was going to blow. If it hadn't been the sound guy, it would have been a short in the wires. The explosion was going to come -- one way or another.

    Don't blame the sound guy. He's dead too.

    See also:
    1. Complexity collapse
    2. Disintermediating Wall Street
    3. The future of the publicly traded company
    4. The role of the deadbeats
    5. Marked!

    Bring down the Barons - the disintermediation of Wall Street

    I'm doing my Roman Chair back rehab exercises, listening to the Teaching Company's History of the United States*, and learning about how the railroads built fortunes from the deluded Scandinavians of early Minnesota.

    Those crazed farmers and woodsmen had only one way to get produce to market -- by rail. They couldn't leave the land, because they couldn't sell it until they owned it, and they only owned it by living on it for a time.

    Chumps, in other words.

    That feels ... familiar.

    Eventually the balance shifted. Roads contested with rail, small farms disappeared, and now a few massive corporations dominate America's food chain. Now they have the power. And so it goes.

    Today's Union and Southern Pacific are called Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, though the comparison is kind to the latter. There's no doubt the railways delivered a vast amount of value to many people, the modern equivalents have been a bit more ... focused.

    Still, there's no denying that our civilization depends on the flow of money and the funding of productive enterprise. The virtual railway of commerce is at least as important to us as the physical railway was to early 20th century America.

    So we need the railway of finance, but do we really need to be paying the conductors tens and hundreds of millions of dollars? After all they've just driven ten thousand express trains off a cliff. Forget texting, they've been snorting coke and shooting 'ludes -- and they ain't giving their money back.

    They're not worth what we've been paying, heck, they ain't worth nothin.

    So, we need finance, but do we really need Wall Street?

    Where's the brokering bottleneck that lets them siphon off so much value -- without competition? How can we break that de facto monopoly, and open them up to the bracing wind of competition?

    Yes, we need a non-Bush SEC. Yes, Christopher Cox should join the Bush/Cheney tar and feather party. Those are good Democratic responses. I'm for 'em.

    But we need good GOP responses too. True, there are few Republicans left who remember how those work, but we Dems can run a pre-Gingrich simulation of those forgotten voices.

    How can we redesign finance so that a great money manager makes, say, $300,000 or so -- and a mediocre one becomes, say, an architect? Maybe we can start by figuring out where the chokepoints are, and how to open those up to some vicious competition.

    It's time to break Wall Street, and make commoners of the Barons.

    * Incidentally, it's a bloody and horrible story - at least in my 1st edition. Maybe they spruced it up for the current edition.

    Friday, December 19, 2008

    A world gone Madoff

    Krugman is back, both barrels blazing. I really can't abbreviate much of what he wrote, every word counts. Emphases mine.

    Op-Ed Columnist - The Madoff Economy - Paul Krugman

    ...How different, really, is Mr. Madoff’s tale from the story of the investment industry as a whole?

    The financial services industry has claimed an ever-growing share of the nation’s income over the past generation, making the people who run the industry incredibly rich. Yet, at this point, it looks as if much of the industry has been destroying value, not creating it. And it’s not just a matter of money: the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people’s money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole.

    Let’s start with those paychecks. Last year, the average salary of employees in “securities, commodity contracts, and investments” was more than four times the average salary in the rest of the economy. Earning a million dollars was nothing special, and even incomes of $20 million or more were fairly common. The incomes of the richest Americans have exploded over the past generation, even as wages of ordinary workers have stagnated; high pay on Wall Street was a major cause of that divergence.

    But surely those financial superstars must have been earning their millions, right? No, not necessarily. The pay system on Wall Street lavishly rewards the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to have been an illusion.

    Consider the hypothetical example of a money manager who leverages up his clients’ money with lots of debt, then invests the bulked-up total in high-yielding but risky assets, such as dubious mortgage-backed securities. For a while — say, as long as a housing bubble continues to inflate — he (it’s almost always a he) will make big profits and receive big bonuses. Then, when the bubble bursts and his investments turn into toxic waste, his investors will lose big — but he’ll keep those bonuses.

    O.K., maybe my example wasn’t hypothetical after all.

    So, how different is what Wall Street in general did from the Madoff affair? Well, Mr. Madoff allegedly skipped a few steps, simply stealing his clients’ money rather than collecting big fees while exposing investors to risks they didn’t understand. And while Mr. Madoff was apparently a self-conscious fraud, many people on Wall Street believed their own hype. Still, the end result was the same (except for the house arrest): the money managers got rich; the investors saw their money disappear.

    We’re talking about a lot of money here. In recent years the finance sector accounted for 8 percent of America’s G.D.P., up from less than 5 percent a generation earlier. If that extra 3 percent was money for nothing — and it probably was — we’re talking about $400 billion a year in waste, fraud and abuse.

    But the costs of America’s Ponzi era surely went beyond the direct waste of dollars and cents.

    At the crudest level, Wall Street’s ill-gotten gains corrupted and continue to corrupt politics, in a nicely bipartisan way. From Bush administration officials like Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who looked the other way as evidence of financial fraud mounted, to Democrats who still haven’t closed the outrageous tax loophole that benefits executives at hedge funds and private equity firms (hello, Senator Schumer), politicians have walked when money talked.

    Meanwhile, how much has our nation’s future been damaged by the magnetic pull of quick personal wealth, which for years has drawn many of our best and brightest young people into investment banking, at the expense of science, public service and just about everything else?...

    ... Think of the way almost everyone important missed the warning signs of an impending crisis. How was that possible? How, for example, could Alan Greenspan have declared, just a few years ago, that “the financial system as a whole has become more resilient” — thanks to derivatives, no less? The answer, I believe, is that there’s an innate tendency on the part of even the elite to idolize men who are making a lot of money, and assume that they know what they’re doing...

    ... Now, as we survey the wreckage and try to understand how things can have gone so wrong, so fast, the answer is actually quite simple: What we’re looking at now are the consequences of a world gone Madoff.

    Go back and read the the "corrupting ... society" lede. We need to recognize how corrupted and degraded our culture has become over the past eight years. That will not be easy to undo.

    Elsewhere, Talking Points tells us more than a few people suspected Madoff was a con man ...

    ... a known reader passes on word from a hedge-fund analyst at one of the big (remaining) financial services powerhouses who says that Madoff was always on their short list of people he and his colleagues thought were crooks.

    A bit more concretely, let's go back to Harry Markopolos, the money manager and financial fraud investigator who'd been blowing whistles on Madoff for almost a decade. In the report he submitted to the SEC in 2005, in addition to complex mathematical analyses showing that Madoff's system couldn't work, he said that "I have also spoken to the heads of various Wall Street equity derivative trading desks and every single one of the senior managers I spoke with told me that Bernie Madoff was a fraud." ...

    I'd like to know who else is on this alleged "short list of ... crooks". Wouldn't you? Isn't that list worth a vast fortune -- since it predicts who will be next Madoff and thus enables various informed wagers?

    While we wait for the rest of the "short list", can we tar and feather Christopher Cox?

    Of course that's only going after a henchman, Cheney/Bush set out to destroy government, starting with the SEC. They get to own a good piece of this disaster, though I admit it's hard to find an open space for another pin. The SEC story strengthens Bush's case for being the worse president in history -- and that's a really tough contest.

    The return of Bush 1998?

    Years before Bush destroyed much of America and the world, he was a lucid speaker and even had a reputation as something of a "uniter" -- albeit in Texas, where he was "uniting" the moderate right with the extreme right.

    Molly Ivins used to remind us of this, and how amazed she was by the incoherent loon of 2000 onwards.

    I heard Bush this morning, and I had the same thought as Talking Points ...

    Talking Points Memo | Who Is This Guy?

    As one of my colleagues just remarked here, Bush is surprisingly lucid and cogent in explaining why bankruptcy is not a viable option for the automakers in the short run and why doing nothing is not viable in the short or long term.

    So, did some brain sucking earwig fall out? Has he been abandoned by his KGB controllers and reverted to a prior mind? Does he have a split personality?


    Thursday, December 18, 2008

    Annals of bizarre tripod ideas - the lampshade

    When I think of digital photo tricks, I think of setting the ISO high then pushing the exposure to blow out the highlights. Seems to give less noise with pushed images.

    Pogue thinks of weird tripod tricks ...
    Pogue's Photo tricks

    ... It turns out that the threads at the top of just about any lamp--the place where the lampshade screws on--are precisely the same diameter as a tripod mount! In a pinch, you can whip off the lampshade, screw on the camera, and presto: You've got a rock-steady indoor tripod...
    He's referring to a style of lamp where there's a fairly thick screw at the top of an elliptical loop that the lampshade hangs on.

    Speedcubers and the 6.6 billion person world

    Speebcubers compete to solve the Rubik's cube puzzle ...
    Jessica Fridrich Specializes in Problems That Only Seem Impossible to Solve

    ... She has been far surpassed by speedcubers with records of 14, 13 and 10 seconds, some of whom can solve the cube blindfolded after studying it for less than a minute. “Today I would probably be in 20th or 30th place,” she said...
    There are 6.6 billion people in the world. Even if only 1 in 10 million have the bizarre mix of talent and obsession needed to be a "speedcuber", that's 660 people.

    Colonoscopy: As trustworthy as the markets?

    A few months ago we learned that many cancers arise from flat lesions that can't be easily seen by colonoscopy. Two years ago we learned that gastroenterologists vary greatly in how many polyps they find, and that accuracy is inversely related to speed.

    Now we find that even good gastroenterologists can't find right sided cancers ...
    Colonoscopies Miss Many Cancers, Study Finds -

    .... In the new study, the test missed just about every cancer in the right side of the colon, where cancers are harder to detect but about 40 percent arise. And it also missed roughly a third of cancers in the left side of the colon.

    Instead of preventing 90 percent of cancers, as some doctors have told patients, colonoscopies might actually prevent more like 60 percent to 70 percent ...
    Of course it's possible right sided cancers are different from left sided cancers; maybe they don't have the same slow growth from polyps.

    I also suspect that, like most routine procedures, gastroenterologists do best in the first 1-3 years of scoping, then do worse as the procedure becomes easy and routine.

    In any event, it's been a bad few years for colonoscopy. The procedure now looks like a bit of a fraud.

    We don't have know of anything better, but clearly we ought to review our options. Since it's not as good a test as we thought it was maybe we should start paying less for the procedure.

    Greg Egan - strong drink for experienced readers

    Greg Egan leads my list of mind expanding authors. He's strong stuff though. You don't start with Greg Egan, unless you like your reality straight, no water.

    You start with Vinge, or Iain M. Banks. They're superficially benign. If an inattentive reader skips through the embedded essay on the relationship between the problem of evil and the Simulation Hypothesis in the midst of Bank's Matter the rest of the book is only mildly perturbing.

    Of course Banks is a masterful deceiver. There are lots of perturbing ideas beneath the superficial space opera. I'm a veteran reader, and I'm sure even I've missed some of the many levels of meaning in Matter. There's always another layer of player in Banks.

    Egan doesn't bother with mere accessibility. The first chapter of Diaspora outlines a persuasive model for the development of consciousness and self awareness, and a prescription for the creation of human-like minds within a digital world. In 27 pages. At the start of the book.

    Jon Evan's essay on the mysterious non-stardom of Egan explains why Egan is not for the novice ...
    ... I love his short story “Wang’s Carpets,” (also part of his novel Diaspora) which is sort of about Fourier-transformed aliens4—but would I have understood what the hell was going on if I didn’t have an electrical engineering degree, the acquisition of which required the calculation of far too many Fourier transforms before breakfast? Do readers without any technical background have any hope of getting Egan at all?
    Vinge, Stross and Banks do some deep dives, but their cover stories are accessible to the newcomer (Banks is especially good at this wonderful trick). Egan doesn't condescend -- he's strong drink, straight up.

    I like my coffee black, my whisky rough, and I like Egan. His ideas haunt me like no others. Egan is the ultimate mind expanding author.

    So don't start with Egan. But when you're ready, his books are waiting.

    Update 6/16/09: See also my later post on Egan's Permutation City.

    Bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler - opponents need a better case

    Well written, sober, and understated - Roger Cohen of the NYT on why bankruptcy is the right path for GM and Chrysler.

    His Pan Am and Alitalia comparisons are well chosen, but slightly misleading. When Pan Am went bankrupt it vanished. I've been flying on a bankrupt airline for months that's recently been acquired ("merged" technically) by another bankrupt airline. Bankruptcy has evolved.

    Modern bankruptcy is not what it was. It feels like the right choice for GM, Chrysler and America. If it's not, someone has to make a much better case than we're hearing so far.

    Madoff and how the victims con masters like best

    Two weeks before my obligatory Madoff post I admired an article on spotting a con man:
    Gordon's Notes: Rule #1 for spotting a con ...

    [] ... 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...
    One of the many astounding aspects of the Madoff con was that people had to go to him to be conned. Only the savviest, the smartest, the most wealthy and clever, those blessed by fortune and fame could be accepted.

    I wonder how long we'll all remember this lesson.

    Six months?

    No, we're not that smart.

    Update 1/6/09: A wonderful and insightful essay by a writer who lost a third of her assets, a child of Auschwitz fleeced by Madoff.

    Apple's quality problems continue ...

    As usual, an essential [1] but "minor" OS X update with no significant new features causes widespread issues, though most can be resolved ...

    Applers howl over Mac OS fix | Register Hardware

    ...Overall, the 10.5.6 rough spots are about par for the course for an Apple OS upgrade. However, we at The Reg still recommend that before you attempt the 10.5.6 update - or any update, for that matter - you should create a bootable backup of your entire system, including files and apps. Yes, doing so a time-consuming pain in the wazoo, but as your dear mum used to say, "Better safe than sorry."

    Things are bad when reasonable advice includes a full backup bootable backup rather than checking the integrity of routine data backups. Of course since the update addresses issues with corrupt Time Machine backups that can't be restored the backup needs to be done with some other application. Incidentally, it's true that many Apple users have an unhealthy tolerance of Apple's failings. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?

    Apple's due for a leadership change, so it's possible there will be a different approach going forward.

    PS. I don't do full system backups prior to these point releases. My procedure is:

    1. Wait two weeks from initial release.
    2. Check out any sync related products I use (Spanning Sync, etc) and any Preference Pane products. Those often break.
    3. Check Macintouch and Apple's discussion forums for any really bad news with products like mine. Especially check the PPC (legacy) discussions.
    4. Verify I can do a random file restore from my daily backup.
    5. Install first on our MacBook (MacTel machine).
    6. A week later install on the primary household machine (G5 iMac).
    7. When I install I first do a safe boot restart to clear out caches and test the machine. I then shutdown, and detach all peripherals. I then restart to an admin account and do the install. After install I do a regular restart, then a safe boot, then a regular restart. Tedious, but I attract nasty bugs.

    The return of mad cow disease and ideas for writing about science

    Fears raised over new vCJD wave tells us that the first wave of "mad cow" victims all shared a common (42% of the UK) gene variant called MM. New cases suggest a new wave in non-MM persons.

    We don't know if this '2nd wave' will be more common as well as later onset, but the current guesses are roughly the same frequency -- meaning rare for the population as a whole.

    I wonder why we don't see more retrospective reviews of the science of these historic disease outbreaks. We ought to have a tradition of five and ten year historic reviews of things like "Mac Cow" (variant CJD) and SARS-associated Coronavirus disesase.

    How about it science writers? Just look back in the NYT's archives and find out what mysterious diseases were big 10 years ago. Do it every January 1st, and then put out a retrospective with the best current science. Could be a career.

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    The "No Rick Warren" facebook site

    Well, that was a pretty short honeymoon.

    Rahm Emanuel may yet end up in big Blago trouble, and now we have a colossal blunder in the choice of minister for Obama's inauguration.

    From the Facebook activist group page:
    Facebook | No Rick Warren at Obama Inauguration

    ... Anti-gay pastor Rick Warren has been selected to give benediction at Obama inauguration, this is an utter nightmare and a total insult to the LGBT community and their straight allies.

    Send Obama a letter at

    And ask Rick Warren to be removed from the event!

    Please email Parag Mehta, Obama's LGBT liaison on the transition team at, to express your concern.
    I wonder when Parag Mehta will resign.

    Houston, we have a problem.

    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Lots of layoff tips

    The Complete Guide To Surviving Layoffs

    I, Cringely - now post-PBS

    Robert Cringely, a longtime tech pundit, has left his PBS home. Happily, he hasn't stopped writing.

    His new blog has its first post up: I, Cringely - Surviving 2009.

    I'm a subscriber.

    The Max Planck Institute's very funny cover ..

    I'd read of this fabulous blunder, but this story had more details ...

    Chinese 'classical poem' was brothel ad - News, TV & Radio - The Independent

    A respected research institute wanted Chinese classical texts to adorn its journal, something beautiful and elegant, to illustrate a special report on China. Instead, it got a racy flyer extolling the lusty details of stripping housewives in a brothel...

    ... There were red faces on the editorial board of one of Germany's top scientific institutions, the Max Planck Institute, after it ran the text of a handbill for a Macau strip club on the front page of its latest journal. Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming "Hot Housewives in action!" on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their "enchanting and coquettish performance" was highly recommended...

    They'd employed a "Sinologist" to review the text, but apparently they need a refresher course. Of course "enchanting and coquettish" seems a bit formal too ...

    Apparently some mainlanders thought they were being mocked, but, mercifully, most found it hilarious.

    A collector's item. Anyone who has this journal needs to preserve it for future sale.

    You know that trouble we're in?

    It's deep.

    ZIRP! - Paul Krugman Blog -

    That’s zero interest rate policy. And it has arrived. America has turned Japanese.

    This is the thing I’ve been afraid of ever since I realized that Japan really was in the dreaded, possibly mythical liquidity trap. You can read my 1998 Brookings Paper on the issue here.

    Incidentally, there were a bunch of us at Princeton worrying about the Japan problem in the early years of this decade. I was one; Lars Svensson, currently at Sweden’s Riksbank, was another; a third was a guy named Ben Bernanke. I wonder whatever happened to him?

    Seriously, we are in very deep trouble. Getting out of this will require a lot of creativity, and maybe some luck too.

    I encourage the Japanese people to indulge in some schadenfreude. Really, we deserve it. Many Americans (not me though) were quite obnoxious during Japan's long deflation.

    Pile it on, friends -- your scorn is the least of our injuries. I'm only sorry we're dragging Japan down to.

    As to the creativity bit, I like my plan. But I would, wouldn't I?

    The Peak Oil answer to collapsing oil prices: queuing chaos

    I waited 5 months after oil zoomed up before making my Peak Oil call.

    Shortly thereafter the price collapsed.

    You're welcome.

    So now I'm in the market for desperate validations of my opinion. Like this one ...

    The Oil Drum | Oil Prices Below $40 per Barrel

    ... This chaotic outcome with respect to commodities prices in face of scarce supply was studied by Ugo Bardi, who found interesting examples of it in the past. I first got to know his work soon after I read Kenneth Deffeyes' book and was especially impressed with the pattern Ugo identified in whale oil prices after the peak in sperm whale catches in 1850. The Whaling Industry was possibly the largest of its time, on a global scale that in many ways can be compared with the modern day Oil Industry. To me a most fascinating aspect about Peak Whale Oil is that in the book Moby Dick, published right about that time, Herman Melville lays down quite clearly the reasons for a coming decline of the Industry: in his view Easy Sperm Whale was over.

    With all this information I became convinced an increased volatility in oil prices would unfold, eventually leading to a series of "boom and bust" cycles, just like whale oil prices in the XIX century. Predictions of oil prices would become impossible, and I never attempted to forecast them.

    Another important aspect to my understanding of this issue was presented by Carlos Cramez and Jean Laherrère in 2006 at the seminar that kicked off ASPO-Portugal. They showed a chart with oil prices in terms of the number of working hours required to buy the oil in the US and France, and concluded that to return to 1980's levels, the last oil crisis, prices would have to reach something like 125$ per barrel (in 2006 dollars). This number stuck to my mind, and I assumed this would be about the level at which the "boom" would turn around into "bust"...

    I'd feel better if he'd linked to past posts where he, you know, actually wrote, for example, that oil prices would crash at $125 / barrel.

    I figured they'd go up and down, but not to $40 a barrel.

    Of course I didn't figure on the world economy going off a cliff and then splattering on the rocks below.

    I still don't know what's going on with oil prices. I really need Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong to speak up but they've been suspiciously quiet. Krugman in particular was very confident that the price rises did not represent speculation, so I think he has moral obligation to say something.

    PS. This would be a good time to start slapping a carbon tax onto oil, offsetting the economic burden by reducing some other tax.

    Sunday, December 14, 2008

    The Madoff story and trust in the market

    In a normal time, discovering that a highly respected financier was running a $50 billion con would get quite a bit of attention.

    These days, the story is almost a blip.

    One thing in particular impressed my household...
    Bernie Madoff: Wall Street titan who fell to earth | Business | The Guardian:

    ... Clients describe Madoff as pleasant and easygoing. He was chairman of the technology-focused Nasdaq exchange...
    Technically, he was a former chairman, I haven't been able to find out when.

    It's getting harder to reassure certain people that the entire American stock market isn't completely corrupt.
    Update: This doesn't help.

    ... There are also warnings from lawyers that practices such as these are more likely to unravel during tricky market conditions. Steven Philippsohn, chairman of the Commercial Fraud Lawyers Association, said: "This is the tip of the iceberg."..
    Update 12/18/08: Well, it's not a blip. No-one will remember this story in 10-15 years, but I must confess it's astounding enough that it does stand out.

    How to make money in the market - wait for the chumps

    It was only an experiment, but isn't it persuasive?
    Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist Brad DeLong: Monkeys Trade Assets I

    ... In fact, the people who make the most money in these experiments aren’t the ones who stick to fundamentals. They’re the speculators who buy a lot at the beginning and sell midway through, taking advantage of “momentum traders” who jump in when the market is going up, don’t sell until it’s going down, and wind up with the least money at the end. (“I have a lot of relatives and friends who are momentum traders,” comments Noussair.) Bubbles start to pop when the momentum traders run out of money and can no longer push prices up..."
    Good traders in these experiment pay attention to fundamentals, but the best traders play the chumps. They wait until "Joe Sixpack" decides to start buying shares. Then they bail.

    Incidentally, in my experience, "Joe Sixpack" is a physician. When surgeons start trading stock tips with the medical types, the chumps are in position. It's time to exit gracefully.

    Saturday, December 13, 2008

    Global warming: have we lost already?

    Imagine that we spot a dino-killer coming our way, 10km of space rock due to impact in 80 years.

    I think that would concentrate our minds.

    So how does a 10km meteor compare to this view of our climate future? (emphases mine)
    Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst of global warming | Environment | The Guardian

    At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert audience ...

    .... Anderson, an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University ... pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 have risen much faster than anyone thought possible, driven mainly by the coal-fuelled economic boom in the developing world...

    .... he said it was "improbable" that levels could now be restricted to 650 parts per million (ppm).

    The CO2 level is currently over 380ppm, up from 280ppm at the time of the industrial revolution, and it rises by more than 2ppm each year. The government's official position is that the world should aim to cap this rise at 450ppm.

    The science is fuzzy, but experts say that could offer an even-money chance of limiting the eventual temperature rise above pre-industrial times to 2C ...

    At 650ppm, the same fuzzy science says the world would face a catastrophic 4C average rise. And even that bleak future, Anderson said, could only be achieved if rich countries adopted "draconian emission reductions within a decade". Only an unprecedented "planned economic recession" might be enough. The current financial woes would not come close.

    ... Many scientists, politicians and campaigners privately admit that 2C is a lost cause. Ask for projections around the dinner table after a few bottles of wine and more vote for 650ppm than 450ppm as the more likely outcome.

    Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Environment Department and a former head of the IPCC, warned this year that the world needed to prepare for a 4C rise, which would wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause floods that would displace hundreds of millions of people. Warming would be much more severe towards the poles, which could accelerate melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets...

    ... Garnaut, a professorial fellow in economics at Melbourne University, said: "Achieving the objective of 450ppm would require tighter constraints on emissions than now seem likely in the period to 2020 ... The only alternative would be to impose even tighter constraints on developing countries from 2013...

    .... Earlier this year, Jim Hansen, senior climate scientist with Nasa, published a paper that said the world's carbon targets needed to be urgently revised because of the risk of feedbacks in the climate system. He used reconstructions of the Earth's past climate to show that a target of 350ppm, significantly below where we are today, is needed to "preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted". Hansen has suggested a joint review by Britain's Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences of all research findings since the IPCC report...
    There's not necessarily a lot that's new in this review, more a collection of bad news since the IPCC report. The situation is particularly confusing now because while many believe the island nations are doomed, it's thought that open declaration would sabotage agreements that would benefit everyone else.

    It makes sense. If you live on an island nation, you may not have much interest in supporting a 550 ppm target since you'll be under water anyway (or live elsewhere). You might push for 400 ppm, though that would require onerous changes in China, and thus we'd have no agreement at all.

    So how does 600 ppm, maybe with permafrost and ocean methane release feedback, compare to a 10km meteor impact?

    I think the hot earth is preferable, but I'd like to hear from an authority I trust.