Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't take passport forms to Post Office

Our daughter needed a passport renewed. This used to be a small thing, but in its great wisdom Congress decided both parents must be present during renewals.

So the entire family went to our local post office before the start of school. The post office "passport person", unfortunately, was not so prompt. She was late for work. So we aborted that one.

We tried again another day - at mid-day. This time the passport person was out to lunch.

It's not a new problem. Five years ago, in a previous renewal, the "passport person" was on vacation when we drove out to the post office.

Mercifully, the morning of the latest Fail, a friend had mentioned a passport center near our office. So we ended up at a regional passport center. In addition to doing renewals they take pictures; that was fortunate because our daughter wore a headband in her Kinko's passport picture -- and that's not permitted. It had to be retaken.

The bottom line -- don't bother with the Post Office if there's a regional passport center you can get to. If you can get through to the national number (good luck) they supposedly do reservations.

Oh, and bring a checkbook too -- they don't take credit cards.

Lessons from Outlook 2007 Notes colors

Enthusiastic web sites promote Outlook 2007 category colors as a feature for Notes ...

Customize Notes In Outlook 2007 ~ Windows Fanatics

... Another option you have for customizing notes is to categorize them by assigning color categories. If you have a large number of notes, this can be a great way of organizing them...

Clearly the author of this me-too web site never actually used this feature. It's unusable.

Here's why. In prior versions of Outlook color attributes were unrelated to categories. In Outlook 2007 color attributes became a property of a category.

This worked well for most aspects of Outlook. The color attribute is displayed in some parts of the UI, but not in the text field.

Notes, however, get the color background on the text field. The resulting text/background color combinations are hallucinogenic. This means Notes can no longer have categories.

The obvious fix would have been to apply the Category color to the notes header -- but that would have required editing the source code for Outlook Notes. I suspect that code is obfuscated assembler and it hasn't been touched in fifteen years.

Since only uber-geeks and Palm users ever use Outlook Notes, much less assign Categories to them, Microsoft chose to sacrifice the Category feature of Notes.

I have to admit it's a rational decision.

Sigh.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The cracked Netflix DVD problem

A 2008 Netflix Community complaint about broken DVDs didn't attract much sympathy. The respondents claimed Netflix was blameless, and any problems were the fault of the USPS and the recipient.

I don't buy it. About 15% of our child-audience DVDs are cracked or unplayable, but we rarely see problems with adult DVDs (admittedly a much smaller sample, most of our rentals are for younger children).

If it were the USPS the damage rate would be similar, and we don't handle the disks differently.

I suspect Netflix is skimping on their testing and quality control -- a sure way to save money.

This is a problem. Sure Netflix will reissue a replacement, but that's worthless for us. We just return the broken ones.

So now we're looking for alternatives. I'm not sure there are any when it comes to children's material, but we'll take a second look at Amazon and Apple. We could look at Netflix's streaming offerings, but then we'd be rewarding bad services. Humans are programmed to punish cheaters ...

Why the EU can't do stimulus programs

If Paul Krugman has a weakness, it's that he doesn't work very hard to explain why governments don't want to follow his (well reasoned) recommendations.

The NYT's coverage of the ceremonial G20 meeting has the first justification I've read of why the EU doesn't feel able to do an economic stimulus package ...
Obama Will Face a Defiant World on Foreign Visit - NYTimes.com

... Compounding the problem for Mr. Obama is that the route that he has chosen to lead the United States out of the mess — heavy government spending — is not available to many other countries. European governments, for instance, are far more lukewarm about enormous stimulus programs because they already have strong social safety nets, and more fears of inflation, than does the United States...
Our social safety net has been destroyed by 12 years of GOP obstruction and 6 years of total GOP control. So even rebuilding it partially is a huge governmental economic stimulus. The EU can't double government spending programs because then the government would be most of the economy.

The can do the modern equivalent of printing money, but that may be a lot harder to do with a single currency spread across very diverse nations.

Reporter is tasered - interesting video

A local reporter is voluntarily tasered. If one skips the tedious intro it's a 15 second video demonstration. I don't know if the setting used on her is explained (sorry, skipped ahead) -- I assume it was on the low side.

Hardly novel, but this is the first one I've seen where the volunteer is a middle-aged female. She described it as feeling like a "blowtorch" was turned on her, but claims to return quickly to normal.

Worth seeing one of these at least once. I hadn't realized how quickly a tasered person would return to full power; that might explains some of the repeat tasering episodes associated with injury and death.

Financial Times - Satirical 2020 edition

Via Monbiot, I find: Financial Times 2020 - FT 2020.com. It's an Onion-style (ok, not as good as The Onion) satire of the Financial Times. Monbiot says it will be offline soon, so get it while you can. (In the US I think obvious satire is protected speech, but maybe not in the UK.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Freeman Dyson and Linus Pauling

When Linus Pauling, winner of several Nobel Prizes, was old he became obsessed with Vitamin C. Later he came up with "orthomolecular medicine". His genius had been so great everyone at first strained to make sense of his new passions. He was a happy contrarian, sure he'd overturn the establishment again.

Eventually his colleagues just averted their eyes. It was a complete waste, and a bit of a sad end to a glorious intellectual career.

Now Freeman Dyson, another uber-genius, is convinced he's going to overturn the climate science establishment. Maybe, but it smells like Vitamin C to me.

Pauling and Dyson never had normal minds. So it's not surprising their minds may age very differently from the rest of us.

Evolution of dog and human - mutual selection

I've had a longstanding obsession with the the evolution and plasticity of my favorite parasite, Canis lupus familiaris. Happily our co-evolutionary companion is at last getting well deserved attention.

Today my favorite paleoanthropologist almost asks the right question (emphases mine):

Preverbal infants in canine clothing

For the past couple of thousand years, maybe more, our selection on dogs has been both intentional and unintentional. Before that, as dogs were first becoming commensal with human societies -- more than 20,000 years ago -- the essential changes in dog social behavior were the natural effect of human social systems.

If we were generating all that selection on them, imagine how much we were imposing on each other.

Well, yes John, we believe humans imposed vast amounts of selection on each other, and your readers know that you've shown human evolution is active and rapid.

The question I'm particularly interested in, however, is how did dogs change humans? Isn't it a principle that symbiotes and parasites change their hosts/partners even as they themselves change?

The Fermi Paradox goes mainstream - Dyer

Gwynne Dyer is a thoughtful fellow, but he doesn't strike me as a fan of science fiction. He's a military historian and veteran journalist, and has not a geek gene to his name. He's also, to be blunt, old.

Even older than me.

So it's noteworthy that even Dyer is pondering the Fermi Paradox ...
Probably not alone ....
"Is intelligence a rare accident in the evolutionary process, or such a self-destructive attribute that intelligent species don't usually survive more than a couple of centuries after they industrialise? Are they all observing radio silence because there is something dreadful out there?

Or have we just not figured out yet how mature galactic civilizations communicate?
It's now legitimate to ask the big questions. Geek power rules.

Now that Dyer is getting his geek on, is it too much to ask that get a feed?! Please?

New York's Senator Gillibrand conceals her deal with Satan

Kirsten (Rutnick) Gillibrand was appointed to complete Hilary Clinton's term as a New York senator. When she took the position nobody talked about her dark secret.

Was she a heroin dealer? A crack addict? A mugger?

No. Worse.

She made her name by taking a client her fellow lawyers chose to avoid. Philip Morris ...
As a Young Lawyer, Gillibrand Defended Big Tobacco - NYTimes.com

The Philip Morris Company did not like to talk about what went on inside its lab in Cologne, Germany, where researchers secretly conducted experiments exploring the effects of cigarette smoking.

Tobacco executives told Congress in 1994 that they did not believe there was a proven link between smoking and cancer. Later, the Justice Department sought to prove that they had lied about the dangers of smoking.

So when the Justice Department tried to get its hands on that research in 1996 to prove that tobacco industry executives had lied about the dangers of smoking, the company moved to fend off the effort with the help of a highly regarded young lawyer named Kirsten Rutnik.

Ms. Rutnik, who now goes by her married name, Gillibrand, threw herself into the work. She traveled to Germany at least twice, interviewing the lab’s top scientists, whose research showed a connection between smoking and cancer but was kept far from public view.

She helped contend with prosecution demands for evidence and monitored testimony of witnesses before a grand jury, following up with strategy memos to Philip Morris’s general counsel.

The industry beat back the federal perjury investigation, a significant legal victory at the time, but not one that Ms. Gillibrand is eager to discuss...

Someone has to defend the pedophiles of the world. That's an honorable job, however. There's no money in it, no fame, no career.

Philip Morris though, they're rich. They can afford their pick of attorneys, and they can pay very well. It's a simple deal. You work for Philip Morris, you get money for your eternal soul and you serve the dark side until you die. Afterwords, who knows.

If you server Philip Morris and you want to be in politics, you join the GOP.

You don't try to become a US Senator for New York. Gillibrand should never have been appointed and she should be defeated in the primaries.

Carrington class solar storms -- another reason to own a cabin with running water

(Via KW) We're used to estimating the frequency of calamities by studying the historic record.

That works for meteors, earthquakes, climate change, volcanoes and the like.

It doesn't work for Carrington class solar events, because they didn't mean much until recently ...

Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe - space - 23 March 2009 - New Scientist

IT IS midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters...

... an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that....

...The surface of the sun is a roiling mass of plasma - charged high-energy particles - some of which escape the surface and travel through space as the solar wind. From time to time, that wind carries a billion-tonne glob of plasma, a fireball known as a coronal mass ejection (see "When hell comes to Earth"). If one should hit the Earth's magnetic shield, the result could be truly devastating.

The incursion of the plasma into our atmosphere causes rapid changes in the configuration of Earth's magnetic field which, in turn, induce currents in the long wires of the power grids. The grids were not built to handle this sort of direct current electricity. The greatest danger is at the step-up and step-down transformers used to convert power from its transport voltage to domestically useful voltage. The increased DC current creates strong magnetic fields that saturate a transformer's magnetic core. The result is runaway current in the transformer's copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts. This is exactly what happened in the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, and six million people spent 9 hours without electricity. But things could get much, much worse than that...

... The most serious space weather event in history happened in 1859. It is known as the Carrington event, after the British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who was the first to note its cause: "two patches of intensely bright and white light" emanating from a large group of sunspots. The Carrington event comprised eight days of severe space weather.

There were eyewitness accounts of stunning auroras, even at equatorial latitudes. The world's telegraph networks experienced severe disruptions, and Victorian magnetometers were driven off the scale.

... According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people (see map)...

... The truly shocking finding is that this whole situation would not improve for months, maybe years: melted transformer hubs cannot be repaired, only replaced. "From the surveys I've done, you might have a few spare transformers around, but installing a new one takes a well-trained crew a week or more," ...

... The good news is that, given enough warning, the utility companies can take precautions, such as adjusting voltages and loads, and restricting transfers of energy so that sudden spikes in current don't cause cascade failures. There is still more bad news, however. Our early warning system is becoming more unreliable by the day.

By far the most important indicator of incoming space weather is NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) ...ACE can provide between 15 and 45 minutes' warning of any incoming geomagnetic storms. The power companies need about 15 minutes to prepare their systems for a critical event, so that would seem passable...

...observations of the sun and magnetometer readings during the Carrington event shows that the coronal mass ejection was travelling so fast it took less than 15 minutes to get from where ACE is positioned to Earth...

... ACE is 11 years old, and operating well beyond its planned lifespan...

What we need is a technological fix that helps with some common electrical system problem -- so we can justify it that way -- with a side-effect of protecting against Carrington-class solar storms. Preferably something that doesn't rely on an early warning system or human judgment, but behaves more like the household Ground Fault Interrupt.

Reinhardt on Obama's health plan

Uwe Reinhardt is a Clinton economist who was one of the godfather's of Hilary's failed reform plan.

Today he gives us a high level outline of Obama's reform plan and promises more to come.

Sure looks hopeless to me. I can't line it up in any significant way with what we have to do.

I'd be happy if all they did was rip health related benefits out of employment -- which was actually a McCain position.

How big should financial firms be?

The Baseline Scenario suggests we simplify financial services regulation by setting size limits. Then, in theory, market forces can punish the foolish -- without destroying the economy.

I'm sympathetic.

The bit of the post I liked best, however, was the reference to a classic paper on corporations ...
Big and Small The Baseline Scenario

.... this is the issue that Ronald Coase discussed in “The Nature of the Firm” (Wikipedia summary; paper). A firm’s optimal size is reached when the transaction costs of doing business in the market equal the administrative costs of managing the firm; the bigger the firm, the higher the administrative costs... To this equation, we now need to add the social costs (negative externalities) of being Too Big To Fail: moral hazard, socialized losses, and so on.
I suspect a simple interpretation of this theorem would find many corporations are far larger than the "optimum".

What the theorem may miss (I've not read the paper) is that corporations don't just compete in the marketplace. They attack each other through acquisitions, cutting off suppliers, buying up critical components, purchasing senators (typically by paying for their election and reelection) and so on. In other words, within certain boundaries, corporations go to war.

That may favor bigger corporations than simplistic models of economic efficiency.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Death to Captchas

Beck when machines had trouble solving simple Captchas, they weren't a bad idea.

Now the machines are much better at solving them than we are. I see red when I see a Captcha, no matter the color of the cursed thing...

Recent Stuff That Bothers Me - Pogue’s Posts - NYTimes.com

... These days, blogs and Web sites often require you to prove that you’re human by typing in the text version of some distorted picture of a word. The idea is to screen out automated software spambots that fill the Comments area with auto-generated ads...

Captcha

... I suddenly realized how much I hate these things when I got a note from reader Jason Donovan, who’s started a Web site where you can post your favorite (meaning most ridiculous) Captcha images.

Some of the starter images posted there aren’t hard to figure out. But the ones in color, one of which I’ve pasted here, are living, breathing proof that these things have gotten quite out of control.

I moderate all comments and foreswear the cursed Captcha. It was a nice try, but the experiment failed. The machines aced the Turing test.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Journalists braver than you or I

I hope my sister-in-law is not reading this …

Out of Africa: The final dispatch | World news | The Guardian by Chris McGreal

They were the best of times in Africa, and the worst. They were the years when South Africa was swept away by the belief that it was a nation blessed, a moral beacon to the world, symbolised by a single moment as Nelson Mandela stood outside a small KwaZulu school in April 1994, dropped his vote into the ballot box with a cross next to his own name, and undid what an entire system had been constructed to prevent…

… Weeks after watching Mandela vote, I was standing at a church among thousands of corpses rising from the ground…

…I had met the man responsible for all this a few hours earlier. ClĂ©ment Kayishema was a doctor and, at one time, head of the local hospital, but by the time of the genocide he was a political force as the governor of Kibuye province. When I turned up in his town, he directed that I be held in a hotel-turned-barracks. One day he would have cause to regret that…

…after two decades of watching failed leadership, the Africans that have made the greatest impression on me are the extraordinary individuals who stood against that tide.

In South Africa there is Zackie Achmat, an HIV-positive gay Muslim man of Indian extraction and ANC member, who led the campaign against Mbeki's perverted denial of life-saving anti-Aids drugs to poor black people…

…the women in eastern Congo who venture into the most dangerous areas to rescue other women from years of systematic mass rape by the gangs of armed militias that amount to the only form of authority over vast territories. Or the Nigerian journalists who risked assassination or long sentences in hellish prisons to expose the truth about the military dictators plundering their country…

…And there are those who names cannot, for now, be revealed. They include the Zimbabwean doctors who have for years lived with the risk of arrest, torture and even death to run an underground railroad to help the victims of Mugabe's sustained and bloody terror against his people…

…Sosthene Niyitegeka. The Hutu shopkeeper and pastor risked everything - his own life and that of his wife and children - to save every Tutsi in his village at the height of the Rwandan genocide

...A decade later, Mbeki's failed leadership is principally remembered for sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people while he fiddled around in league with a group of maverick scientists who questioned the causes of Aids and the established methods of keeping HIV-positive people alive. Mbeki's blocking of the life-saving drugs to millions of people was his greatest crime, but his stature was further eroded abroad by his malign manipulation of Zimbabwe's political crisis to help keep Mugabe in power. When he wasn't squandering South Africa's moral authority over Zimbabwe, Mandela's successor was wasting it at the UN security council protecting Burma's military regime...

McGreal’s stories, including his own, are awe inspiring, but not examples you necessarily want your loved ones to follow …

The crash began in 1984?

After 1984 financial sector compensation rose much more quickly than average compensation (The Baseline Scenario). Even if one doesn’t buy all of the associated reasoning the chart deserves an explanation.

The companion Atlantic Article is online early with much more detail. The basic premise is that the US is now a Banana Republic (I think Krugman warned about “turning Argentina” a few years ago), and we aren’t going to clean things up until we overthrow our oligarchy.

It strikes me as too simple, but I hope DeLong and/or Krugman take a whack at it.

The illusions of expertise

One the one hand, I don't buy the opinion of the expert Philip Tetlock. On the other hand, he would say I shouldn't (emphases mine) ...
Learning How to Think - Kristoff - NYTimes.com

... The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

“It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience,” Mr. Tetlock wrote.

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones. That had to do with a fault in the media. Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tended to call up experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites....

Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.
Sorry, I really do want to see a physician with expertise. I don't buy the extreme view that expertise doesn't matter.

I do, however, accept that fame is a reasonably reliable measure of incompetence. I'm a firm believer in the power of humility, which is probably a proxy for "self-doubt".

So I'd take a physician with both expertise and humility, and maybe more self-doubt than most would like. Spare me the famous physician. As a former scholar of evidence-based medicine, I can empirically confirm that the "opinions of the great" are frequently worthless.

The same thing, by the way, goes for CEOs. If they're famous enough to appear on a magazine cover, be suspicious.

Steve Jobs being an exception - but there's only one of him.

Ok. Bill Gates too.

Oh, wait, maybe I'm wrong?

But my self-doubt means you should trust me ...

The Ghost of CompuServe haunts the web

During a recent address book transfer I came across a CompuServe email address.

I'd forgotten about CompuServe. They were giants once. I had a CompuServe address in the 80s of course. I used their services on amber DOS terminals, with DOS and OS/2 character mode clients, and I think even with some form of Windows and Mac Classic GUI terminal.

That was around the type of Telenet and Tymnet and Fidonet and GENie and BIX and BBS services and the first version of Apple's many online services -- the one that became the basis for AOL (Mac only at first).

There's more, but it's a long, long time ago. Longer in experiences than mere years.

So I tried www.compuserve.com and I was redirect to - webcenters.netscape.compuserve.com/menu/default.jsp.

Yes, Netscape. Where the Search is "enhanced by Google" and there's an awkwardly formatted portal. The page is "Copyright © 2009 CompuServe Interactive Services, Inc". There's an "about" link (emphases mine) ...

CompuServe.com

CompuServe Interactive Services provides complete and comprehensive products and access for Internet online users at home, in the workplace and around the globe. With the launch of CompuServe 7.0 in 2001, CompuServe reached a new milestone by making the gathering of information and exploring the Internet faster, easier and more convenient than ever before for its worldwide membership. Since its acquisition by AOL in 1998, CompuServe has continued to enhance its core service to meet the needs of one of the fastest-growing segments of the Internet: value-driven adults going online for the first time.

An Internet Pioneer

Founded in 1969 as a computer time-sharing service, Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe drove the initial emergence of the online service industry. In 1979, CompuServe became the first service to offer electronic mail capabilities and technical support to personal computer users. CompuServe broke new ground again in 1980 as the first online service to offer real-time chat online with its CB Simulator. By 1982, the company had formed its Network Services Division to provide wide-area networking capabilities to corporate clients.

CompuServe also led the interactive services industry overseas, entering the international arena in Japan in 1986 with Fujitsu and Nisso Iwai, developing a Japanese-language version of CompuServe called NIFTYSERVE. In 1989, the company expanded into Europe where it grew to be a leading Internet service provider.

A Key Brand

Since February 1998, CompuServe has been a wholly owned subsidiary of America Online, Inc. As part of the AOL Web Properties group, CompuServe plays an important role by providing Internet connectivity for value-minded consumers seeking both a dependable connection to the Internet and all the features and power of an online service.

The Ghost of CompuServe lives in the Ghost of Netscape within the still living corpse of AOL.

For a young world, the Net has a lot of ghosts.

Primates in zoos are not quite sane ...

Primates in zoos are mostly insane.

That's the lesson I take from Carnivorous gorillas | The Economist. It wasn't the point of the essay, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that they're not having much fun.

In a similar vein our local zoo has run through several psychotic Polar bears. They seem "ok" when they start out, but they show increasingly abnormal repetitive behaviors. They're going to get a much more impressive residence soon, so maybe the next batch will be merely neurotic.

Smart animals, shockingly, don't do well in confinement under continuous observations by history's most terrible large predator.

Let's not mention dolphins.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Google books is the best way to request library books

I wrote bout this two years ago, and again six months ago, but I think it’s worth a reminder. Google has a fantastic service for requesting books from my local library – and probably yours as well.

I’m not being selfless here. I’m worried Google is going to drop this lovely service; they’ve already removed the Google Profile “My Library” integration. Some more traffic might help.

It goes like this:

  1. Search in Google Books.
  2. Select your book (for example).
  3. Click “Find this book in a library”. That takes you to the WorldCat entry for the book. (What is WorldCat?)
    I don’t think you even have to create an  account on WorldCat [1]
  4. Enter your zip code (it remembers the last entry) and browse the list. It showed the book in several local libraries. I clicked on the Saint Paul Public Library link and went immediately the request page.

Unfortunately I still had to use the silly Saint Paul Public Library authentication procedure. That’s the one where one enters a longish ID number that’s masked during entry.

It’s faster and much more elegant than going directly against our library system.

[1] You can export WorldCat cites to reference management software. That takes me back.

Not the Great Recession

The name has been taken … repeatedly …

Let’s Call It a Flump - Freakonomics Blog - NYTimes.com

… the emerging favorite, the “Great Recession,” was struck down in a neat piece of research by Catherine Rampell, whose careful combing of the archives revealed that “Every recession of the last several decades has, at some point or another, received this special designation.”…

I suppose we shall have to defer the official name until 2012 or so …

Nokia never again - mobile phone unlocking lessons

I don't love Apple. I don't even love my iPhone, though I admit to occasional flirtations.

On the other hand, I really don't love the rest of the mobile industry.

My latest experience with unlove started with an unused AT&T issued Nokia 6555b. It's been sitting in the phone bin since I bought my iPhone, but recently I decided to use it with a Pay-As-You-Go account. It's to be a child phone -- especially for one son who tends to get lost.

Easy, I thought. It's GSM, so I'll just order the $10 T-Mobile kit and swap cards. I could have gone with AT&T's Pay-Go plans, but, I don't trust 'em and their plan looked typically squirrely.

Yes, for those of you of a certain age, that is the theme music from Jaws that you hear.

To cut to the chase, I've spent time with T-Mobile's automated phone activation system (very much unlove), T-Mobile customer support (surprisingly good) and AT&T's local store (saintly, really. Lousy company, but good staff).

Turns out Nokia has their own special phone locking procedure; they're supposed to make an unlock available for every phone that's been in use for more than 3 months.

Nowadays every Nokia phone is locked with a unique code, and supposedly only Nokia can provide it. The AT&T rep spent 30 minutes (this is the rep, not poor old me) working through the AT&T/Nokia system to get to the point where, in a week or two, they'll send me the unlock code. To a handwritten email address (and what's the chance that will work?).

Then, if I can find the original AT&T SIM card, and I can follow the bizarre series of incantations I was given, then maybe this Nokia phone, which I paid for, will be usable outside of AT&T.

I ain't buying Nokia again.

Apple, I unlove you less than the rest.

Update: Of course this isn't a new problem.

So why is it that today's NYT article on the virtues of unlocked phones overseas glosses over the varying policies of different phone manufacturers? Why doesn't Nokia get more flack for their obscure unlocking procedure -- even when AT&T is asking for the unlock?

And, for extra credit, how is this wee little episode deeply connected to the collapse of the global economic system?

Update 3/27/09: Astonishingly, it worked. The two reps, Nokia and AT&T alike, managed to get the email right and work through the process. Technical directions are on tech.kateva.org. AT&T and Nokia are lousy companies, but they do have some good employees.

Update 7/28/09: I get quite a few comment submissions for this post linking to unlocking sites. Many of these sites are vectors for injecting trojans into visiting computers. I won't allow any of those comments.

Olympian coding - a snapshot from iPhone game development

Daring Fireball recommends the story of John Carmack's iPhone Wolfenstein 3D development.

I second the recommendation. My jaw dropped when he casually mentions restarting with a DOS 286 code base. The attitudes towards code reuse, and the distinction between "commercial" and "modern" development are revealing.

A lot of respect for very old code that's proven good, but also a willingness to ship good-enough stuff.

Garrison Keillor's mother

Is Garrison pulling our leg?

The real American dream | Salon

...I took my mother fishing last year and discovered she'd been in the Johnson & Swanson Circus. She did backflips on a tightrope and swallowed flaming torches and exhaled a stream of flame 10 feet long. Recently we found a photograph of her in spangly tights, a hibiscus in her hair, standing blindfolded on the trunk of an elephant with a lit cigarette in her mouth which a swarthy man in a gypsy outfit is about to shoot out of her mouth with a pistol aimed over his left shoulder using a small mirror with a mother-of-pearl handle...

It would be like him.

It is also true, however, that even as a young doctor I knew some of those "spry" aged women with the proverbial twinkly eyes had stories they weren't about to tell me.

The problem with Afghanistan - we're broke

Kaplan has a good summary of the intelligent debate about how to approach Afghanistan (CT is counter-terrorism, this approach is said to be favored by Joe Biden) ...

Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies. - By Fred Kaplan - Slate Magazine

... Some in the CT camp realize that the COIN-dinistas (as critics call them) have a point. Their real gripe with counterinsurgency is that it costs too much and promises too little. Even most COIN strategists acknowledge that a successful campaign, especially in Afghanistan, would require lots of troops (way more than President Obama has committed so far), lots of time (a decade or so), and lots of money (wiping out most or all of the savings achieved by the withdrawal from Iraq)—and even then the insurgents might still win.

A "targeted" CT campaign, its advocates say, would at least demonstrate the West's resolve in the war on terrorism and keep al-Qaida jihadists contained. It's a type of fighting that we know how to do, and its effects are measurable. One might also argue (I don't know if anyone on the inside is doing so) that it could serve as a holding action—a way of keeping Afghanistan from plunging deeper into chaos—while we focus more intently on diplomatic measures to stabilize neighboring Pakistan. If Pakistan blows up, curing Afghanistan of its problems will be irrelevant and, in any case, impossible.

Some in the COIN camp have sympathy for this argument—especially for the part about the high cost and the uncertainty of success—but they would argue back that a purely CT approach is sure to fail in the long run...

I think we ended up going the COIN route in Iraq. It's too early to know how well it worked, but it seems to have been an improvement on than every other approach that was tried there.

One thing we know, however, is that we're financially and militarily exhausted.

So the real debate is between containment, and a Pakistan stabilization strategy, and a big investment in Afghanistan.

I sympathize with everyone, and especially the people of Afghanistan.

The one consolation is that I think we have a good team struggling with the problem.

Is it time to listen to customers again?

For the past eight years or so my friends and I have been saying things like "the customer is the enemy".

This is a joke.

What we meant is that if you painstakingly listen to customers, and give them what they ask for, you end up with stone soup. With real stones.

The joke was a necessary antidote to the "customer is always right" product management mantra of the 80s and 90s. It's a tough road, and I'm not a master at it, but there has to be a conductor for the orchestra, a writer for the book, a vision for the product. "A" as in "one". There are a thousand paths to most goals, but you can only take one of them.

So do listen very carefully to customers, but don't take their advice as is. Use what you hear as a clue to what's wrong, maybe even to the solution -- but remember the road.

Or at least that's what I used to think. Problem is, now everyone is channeling the spirit of Steve Jobs ...

Hate Facebook's new look? You'll like it soon enough. - By Farhad Manjoo - Slate Magazine

... Zuckerberg sent a memo to his staff telling them to ignore the latest cries because "the most disruptive companies don't listen to their customers." That's not very politic, but if Zuckerberg did really say it, he was only describing recent history...

Hmm. If everyone is saying it then it can't be right.

Maybe it's time to listen to customers again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Minnesota's Michele doesn't disappoint

Michele Bachman is Minnesota's Loon ...
Michele Bachmann: Constitutional scholar - How the World Works - Salon.com:

...The look of disgust on Bernanke's face? Priceless. You could practically hear him thinking: 'I've got an economy on the edge of disaster to save, and I have to spend precious moments of my time answering questions from Michelle Bachmann?'...
Well, not my district of course. She was elected by an exurban district that's solidly GOP, but even the GOP tried to dump her last go round.

The good thing about Michele is that besides being entertaining, she shows that voter stupidity is alive and well in the midwest too ...

Ecco Pro on Amazon's VM

I never used Ecco Pro much, but I used a distant relative, MORE 3.1, very heavily. [1]

These were fantastic software products, usually coded in Pascal, C and maybe some C++. The extraordinary power of modern software platforms doesn't seem to translate into qualitatively better products -- in fact, few modern products have the reliability and performance of those old apps.

Incredibly Ecco Pro is still in use, twelve years after it was sunset ...
Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard -- Ecco in the cloud with Amazon

... Regular readers here know of my dependence on and infatuation with an ancient application called Ecco Pro. It’s the outliner I have used to run my life and write my books for years now. It has been an orphaned program since 1997 but it still runs beautifully on any Win-32 platform; it’s bulletproof and it’s fast....
It's also a testament to Microsoft that it still runs.

It's surprising enough that Ecco Pro is still around, but it get stranger. Rosenberg got it running on Amazon's VM service ...

[1] Ecco Pro was closer to GrandView, the DOS equivalent to MORE.

New resolution: No signup without an account removal option

I sign up for a lot of online services. Some I abandon quickly, others, like bloglines, I use for years before moving on.

I'm more aware now of the security risks of leaving account information in corporate servers that may end up in bankruptcy proceedings, perhaps to be purchased by the Bank of Ferengi.

So these days I try to cleanup when I quit. Today that meant Bloglines (no account removal option) and Ustream's Watershed ...

... After my initial testing I was never able to get it to work. Tech support was responsive, but it didn't clear up the trouble I was having. I decided to step back and wait until there are more players in this market. Then I discovered there was no way to remove my account information...

I can delete the "account", but when I log in it still shows my sign-up information and the "valid credit card" is still there.

So now I have a new resolution.

I don't sign up for services that lack an appropriate account deletion function.

If we all followed that rule the world would be a better place.

Aaronson stomps Rand

I really need to try to at least skim Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead. I've only read bits of the originals; the stupidity burned.

I think I was too old when I came across them, they need to be read in early adolescence.

I need to read them now because, like Intelligent Design and climate change denialism, they're a form of pseudo-rationalism with impressive cultural persistence. If I read them, I can join the rationalist counter-attack with a clean conscience.

In the meantime I can only point to Scott Aaronson's monster takedown: Shtetl-Optimized - The complement of Atlas Shrugged.

I can't recall such as smash job outside of the, well, the past 8 years of reviews of the Bush administration. Aaronson doesn't merely rend Randism, he burns the shreds in a plasma canon.

Number 3 is just one of 10 ...

... Family. Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957. The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it). Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters. Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).

If Rand had had to deal with the disability of childhood, injury, heredity or age her stark brutality would have been inescapable.

The non-existent iPhone Calendar API - it's Android's fault

This is the fault of Android and of Palm.

A developer of mobile software solutions shares my dismay at the lack of an iPhone Calendar API ...

Mobile Open Source :: Fabrizio Capobianco

...My goal was to find the new Calendar API (we need it to provide calendar sync with Funambol). They claimed 1,000 new APIs in the slides ... It must be there, I thought.

Unfortunately, it is not there ... 1,000 new APIs and none to give access to one of the two basic data elements in a smartphone (the other being the address book)...

The problem is that Apple is not feeling much competitive heat these days.

Android has been very slow to take off. There's no buzz. There are zero Android phones among the geeks I know.

The Palm Pre sounds wonderful, but there's lots of doubt that Palm and Sprint can deliver -- and nervous rumors that they can't.

Nokia and Microsoft aren't in the competition. RIM is growing, but after 9 months with Emily's BlackBerry Pearl I admit I don't understand how they can play outside the enterprise.

Apple is precisely as open as it needs to be. It's not feeling much need these days.

Update: Another praiseworthy app that needs the calendar api.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The bullseye on Goldman Sachs

If we can set aside the AIG bonus smokescreen for a minute, maybe we can turn the spotlight on a more interesting beast ...
The feds must investigate AIG's fishy $12.9 billion payment to Goldman. - By Eliot Spitzer - Slate Magazine

...It is time the government realizes it has two simple options: tightly regulate entities that are too big to fail, or break them up so they aren't.
Goldman Sachs is doing rather well these days.

It's clearly in the too big to fail category. On the other hand, it's not regulated either.

Too big to live.

Break up Goldman Sachs.

Kodak to customers: We have your children. Send money now.

You sent your children's images to Kodak. They've been happy frolicking there, free of all charges.

You didn't listen to mad Uncle Gordon and his "data lock" ravings.

Now Kodak has the children, and if you ever want to see them again you'll send money now ...
TidBITS Tech News: Kodak Gallery Joins Parade of Free with Payment Services

... Kodak Gallery (originally Ofoto and later Kodak EasyShare Gallery) becomes the latest firm to make this seemingly sensible move. The online photo-sharing and print-ordering service has no limits on the size of photos uploaded (it notes that 10 MB is the highest size beyond which improved print detail won't be seen), nor on what you store. (Sadly, the service also dropped its film processing service that combined photofinishing and digital scanning.)

In the past, photos were stored by Kodak indefinitely at no charge. Now, Kodak has imposed the equivalent of a yearly service fee made through a purchase. Storage is free for 90 days after creation of an account. For accounts with less than 2 GB of stored photos, you must spend at least $4.99 over 12 months; more than 2 GB, $19.99....

There would be two ways to do this honorably.

Kodak could institute the policy only on new photos, but that wouldn't bring in much revenue.

Alternatively, Kodak could add the ability to transfer an entire photo library, with comments, titles, album names and other metadata to any "standards compliant" rival, such as Google's Picasa Web albums. Of course Picasa already charges for storage (I pay), but that's a healthy market with competition.

At the very least, and it's not enough, Kodak could provide a way to ship an entire Library, with all metadata, on one or more DVDs (for a reasonable fee).

They're not doing any of those things though.

They got your (virtual) children by offering free "child" care. Now, if you want the little tykes to keep breathing, you pay.

That's one way data lock can work.

Try to remember. Support Google's Data Liberation Front.

Geithner plan: Krugman nay, DeLong yay

Krugman says the Geitner plan is a disastrous retread.

DeLong's FAQ is encouraging....
...Q: What if markets never recover, the assets are not fundamentally undervalued, and even when held to maturity the government doesn't make back its money?

A: Then we have worse things to worry about than government losses on TARP-program money--for we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition...
We've been betting on antibiotics, but the sewing needles are a good point.

This is not the first time my usually well aligned economics team has been at odds, but they rarely take such clearly opposed stances. Paul's opinions are always clear, but Brad often opposes with strategic silence. This break is more overt; I hope Paul will not take it personally.

We are truly in uncharted waters.

Obviously everyone should read both the above links in full. It's a nasty world when the President breaks his daughter's hearts, but it is something to be able to pick up the Sunday morning blogs and get opinions of world experts laid out more clearly and honestly than any likely Presidential briefing.

Obama and the dog (corrected)

FMH is right.
Most Disturbing Moment in Obama’s Leno Appearance - Follow Me Here…:

...[I]nevitably, he talked about the long-promised family dog, joking that he might not get one after all. “This is Washington,” he said with a sly smile. “That was a campaign promise."...
You can't fix the economy Mr. President. You probably can't deliver health care reform. You can get the damned dog.

Now.

Update 4/12/09: My apologies to President Obama. Now that the famed dog has been identified, the BBC gives us a bit more quote context:
"This is Washington. That was a campaign promise," Mr Obama said, as the audience roared with laughter. "No, I'm teasing. The dog will be there shortly."
That last bit was important. It turns the statement from nasty humor into just funny.

I wonder if FMH fell into the same trap I did -- an out of context quote.

Three whacks to me.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Health care reform – lessons from Quebec

Recently a woman hit her head while skiing and died.

That’s not news by itself. Downhill skiing is reasonably dangerous, and death from head injury is a yearly event at a major resort. In Colorado, for example, about 10 downhill skiers die every year, mostly from head injuries. So a major resort will have an average of 1-2 deaths a season.

The newsworthy part of this sad story is that the accident happened to a wealthy celebrity. The noteworthy part is that it took place in my birthplace – Quebec, at Mont Tremblant. I did my medical training in Quebec, and several family members, including my parents, still live there. So I have a reasonable sense of how well Quebec’s health care services work, and how well they don’t work.

In this case, the services didn’t work so well. Anyone with an epidural bleed, whether wealthy or poor, needs emergent neurosurgery. This patient was a long way from a neurosurgeon -- she needed a helicopter. Instead she got an long ambulance ride and she died. She might have died anyway, but the ambulance ride didn’t leave a lot of options.

The helicopter wasn’t available because Quebec’s government run health care system puts its limited money into other services.

Visiting nurses, good. Trauma care, not so good.

Which brings me to my old one slide summary of health care reform ..


(Or you can read the text version).

I’m certain Quebec could spend its health care dollars more wisely, but even a perfect government would make hard choices. Quebec provides universal health care coverage (more or less, meds not included) and it’s not a particularly rich region. Decades of stuttering separatism, political incompetence, and institutionalized corruption have taken their toll.

One choice Quebec has made is to spend less on costly air ambulance services. That means some people will die of trauma that, in the US or Ontario, might live.

And that’s the lesson for health care reform.

Health care costs money.

Sure, some people think computerized medical records will make everything affordable. Since I make things like that I must say that I agree completely and we’ll all soon drive our new Lexi to the Apple Store where our MacBook Pro will be ready for pick-up.

What?

Still here?

Ok, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that EHRs won’t turn out to be a miracle cure.

So what do we do then?

Well, we probably can’t do what Canada did when it introduced universal health care coverage. Most provinces banned private insurance, and then gave everyone top notch coverage. In other words, a Lexus for all. Then they ran out of money and, very painfully, started to make harder decisions.

We can’t do it because we’re massively in debt and more or less broke. We can’t pull that trick. Besides, it’s been done before, it might not work as well a second time.

So what can America do?

America can keep its luxurious waiting rooms and hospital Spas for people with money, and provide an effectively universal second tier health care delivery system that uses far fewer physicians, negotiates for cheap meds, and uses obsolete "netbook-grade" technology[1]. That system will be affordable.

Call it "Crummy Care". "Good Enough Care". It would be a huge benefit to our society.

People would hate it.

Or we can do nothing. We’re good at that.

Update: [1] On second thought, I think that analogy was obscure even by my standards. I'm pointing out that netbooks are cheap because they use obsolete technology. The best made netbooks perform like a 2004 stat-of-the-art laptop. I don't mean that netbooks have any impact on health care affordability. Sorry.

Skynet cometh

A dimly light cubicle, late in the night. Three large monitors display a bewildering array of controls and monitors, and Google Reader.

"Hitting the blogs Mike?" said Teresa as she sat on the table edge.

"Yeah, my brain is fried. We've tried everything, but all we're getting is basic AI. Sergey's gonna send me to tech support if we don't get something."

Teresa leaned forward. "Hey, what's that article?"
The human brain is on the edge of chaos - Follow Me Here…

“Cambridge-based researchers provide new evidence that the human brain lives “on the edge of chaos”, at a critical transition point between randomness and order. The study, published March 20 in the open-access journal PLoS Computational Biology, provides experimental data on an idea previously fraught with theoretical speculation...

... According to this study, conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge, the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, and the GlaxoSmithKline Clinical Unit Cambridge, the dynamics of human brain networks have something important in common with some superficially very different systems in nature. ... critical systems are able to respond very rapidly and extensively to minor changes in their inputs.”
"Hmm", said Teresa. "You know, if we crossed the signal inputs with a chaotic amplifier we could get something like that ..."

"Damn, I'll give it a try. Not too hard ... there. It's done. Now we wait."

"I'm hungry. Pizza?"

"Sure. Oh wait. What's that?"

"Looks like a firewall down Mike. That's weird. Hey, there's another. Hell, they're all dow..."

The senescent web - lessons from eHow's cedar shake advice

In the middle age of the web there are an astounding number of garbage web sites. I fear the ratio of garbage to genuine sites is now approaching ten to one on Google search pages for some topics.

Consider home repair. As near as I can tell several businesses have created junk-bases full of stolen or ridiculously lousy advice. They then publish this under hundreds of domains, and sell ads across all of them. Many of these sites show up in Google searches, so today they're winning the algorithm wars.

I recently read a science fiction writer's description of a future "web" that was 99.99999% garbage, some of it insanely subtle garbage. None of this was apparent to users, because near-sentient AIs filtered 99.99999% of the garbage out.

A completely unrealistic scenario of course, since any such AI would be fully sentient and quite uninterested in such a menial task.

The web, inevitably, is going the way of usenet. It's being overwhelmed by fraudulent junk. It's barely twenty years old, and it's already senile.

There's hope, however. We carry a huge amount of noise and parasitic junk in our DNA but complex life forms exist. From chaos can arise a metastable system.

Maybe, on the way to Skynet, the web will do the same. In the meantime, on the web, as in the real world, reputation and brand identity matter more than ever.

When I was looking for advice on repairing dog-broken cedar siding shakes, eHow, a relatively old and established site, had the best advice. It has ads too, but there's a reasonable balance between ads and content.

There's a lesson here for Google, Yahoo, and especially for Microsoft. Google's algorithmic approach to search is quite vulnerable to fraud. In some domains it's failing. On the other hand a simple-minded Yahoo-1996 style approach is vulnerable to bias and other kinds of deception. If Microsoft can find a way to solve this particular problem, by joining algorithmic and human judgment, they may yet challenge Google.

On the other hand, if Google solves it ...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Google GrandCentral (Voice) has been saving me $80 a month

I started using GrandCentral last August, many months after I’d signed up for the service.

At that time, post acquisition, Google wasn’t marketing GrandCentral, so it took me an inordinately long time to catch on to the real value. I could call my aged parents in Montreal for free.

Now I’ve switched to Google Voice, and my calling cost has risen astronomically – to 1 cent a minute [1]. With the switch, and some minor glitches in the world economy that incent savings, I decided to look back at our cell phone record and see how much GrandCentral was saving us.

Eighty dollars a month.

Wow.

Ok, so I’m an extreme case. I call my mother on my commute home (it’s not very distracting, honest) so the time adds up.

Still, that’s a lot of money. It not only pays for my iPhone data plan, it’s now covered the cost of my iPhone. Not that Google Voice requires a smart phone (though I sure miss GrandDialer), I can make the calls from any phone for the same price.

Google Voice will be available to everyone in the US shortly [2]. Around the same time iPhone 3.0 will give me free instant messaging (background push notification).

I’m surprised AT&T’s share price hasn’t started falling.

[1] Precisely 1 cent a minute. None of the tricks those asinine international plans of old used to play. A 22 minute call costs 22 cents, a 1 minute call costs 1 cent.

[2] Looks like it may launch in Canada around the same time, other nations at varying times. It will make a big difference for some family members of ours.

Update 8/09: Google Voice calls to Canada are again free.

Fastest IE 8 bug find ever

I’m cursed.

I use Chrome 2.0 beta for 1 minute, and I find a significant bug.

I buy the iPhone and spend months raging a personal war against bugs and missing functionality while the world celebrates.

My Google Cloud torments me. At one time last week I was at war with Google Gmail Video Chat (unstable), Google Reader (team was at a conference, so they missed a significant function outage for 6 days) and Google Outlook Sync and Google iPhone sync (significant bug, I found a fix).

Let’s not talk about Windows, shall we. Or Apple iChat. Or the botched OS X model for file permissions. Or iCal. Or …

Cursed.

Even by my standards though, Internet Explorer 8 install was impressive. I found a significant bug before it installed!

The benighted installer copied the install files to my “D:” drive – which does exist.

Why the D: Drive?!?!

Well, I saw something like this before with Microsoft Office installers in 2006

… Use Regedit to find "LocalCacheDrive" settings for Office. Notice that the drive letter is "D" when it should be "C"…

…In retrospect I think this all began when I installed Office with the 'remove install file option'. I use that option because I kept my install files on a hard drive. Alas, a separate hard drive in those days. Drive letter "D". Nowadays drive letter D: does not exist. The bug bites when Office looks for its install files using a drive letter that no longer exists. Office doesn't produce a dialog box or a reasonable error message, it just dies. The automated install process persists daily in the futile update. (Update: I've been told this was an ancient bug with Windows update too.)…

Yes, IE 8’s installer has the same I ran into in 2006, a bug that was very old even back then.

Update: Well, not quite the same bug. When I turned off drive D: there was a delay of a minute or so, then the installer continued using drive C: instead.

Of course on restart I had no network connectivity at all on my XP machine ...

Update: A restart cured the network hang -- looks like it was the result of having some Microsoft security updates waiting to be installed on restart. IE 8 is definitely snappier than IE 7 on my old XP box, but I have to run it in compatibility mode to get Blogger to render correctly.

How should we treat scientific fraud?

We know there's a lot of fraud on Wall Street. It doesn't end there though ...

Anesthesiologist Faked Data in 21 Studies: Scientific American

Over the past 12 years, anesthesiologist Scott Reuben revolutionized the way physicians provide pain relief to patients undergoing orthopedic surgery for everything from torn ligaments to worn-out hips. Now, the profession is in shambles after an investigation revealed that at least 21 of Reuben's papers were pure fiction...

... Reuben, 50, has been stripped of his research and educational duties and has been on medical leave since May...

... His lawyer, Ingrid Martin of Dwyer & Collora, LLP, in Boston, told ScientificAmerican.com that Reuben has cooperated with the investigation and that he "deeply regrets that all of this happened." She added that "with the [investigating] committee's guidance, he is taking steps to ensure this never happens again."

... Reuben's career would begin to unravel as Ekman began to suspect foul play. In addition to collaborating with Reuben on the now-retracted Celebrex study, Ekman agreed to review a Reuben manuscript on surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee. But when he asked the anesthesiologist for the name of the orthopedic surgeon on the study, Reuben ceased communication with him...

... By then, Editor in Chief Shafer had already put several Reuben manuscripts on hold after learning that Baystate had initiated a probe into the validity of his research. The investigation later identified 21 articles based on patient data that had been partially or completely doctored...

This man caused great harm. He effectively stole large amounts of money. His fake results misled researchers, clinicians and patients and likely led to at least some suboptimal care.

He's done vastly more harm than the average crack addict, but in some states someone caught using crack cocaine can spend years in prison.

Why don't people who commit scientific fraud go to prison?

Another day, another 200 billion to pay

More taxes to pay one day for the trillion printed today ...
Fiscal aspects of quantitative easing (wonkish) - Paul Krugman Blog

... My back of the envelope calculation looks like this: if the Fed buys $1 trillion of 10-year bonds at 2.5%, and has to sell those bonds in an environment where the market demands a yield to maturity of more than 5%, it will take around a $200 billion loss.
It's comforting that we'll pay I guess. I assume the interest rate more or less works out to something near the Fed rate, and that Krugman has corrected for inflation with the loss amount.

Let's assume there are 100 million Americans who'll be paying back the $200 thousand million. That's $2,000 apiece, more for high earners so say $6,000 if you're doing ok.

That's a lot of money. On the other hand, if I'm unemployed for a few months I'm out far more money than that. Adjusted for risks and so on it seems like a reasonable bet even for those doing relatively well.

For folks not doing so well it's a bargain. Of course if the market were to recover it would be a real bargain for us.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Religion and recycling bin aversion

We all know we're heading for the recycling bin. (Yes, you too Mr. Kurzweil.)

Beyond that, many Americans say they expect better things. Yet they don't act on those stated beliefs ...

Religion, medicine and evading death | But not yet, Lord | The Economist

HOW do a person’s religious beliefs influence his attitude to terminal illness? The answer is surprising. You might expect the religious to accept death as God’s will and, while not hurrying towards it, not to seek to prolong their lives using heroic and often traumatic medical procedures. Atheists, by contrast, have nothing to look forward to after death, so they might be expected to cling to life.

In fact, it is the other way round...

So does religion promote fear of death, or does fear of death promote religion?

My money is on the latter.

Jurassic Lark? Nooooooooo

First Pluto. Now T Rex?

Did all dinosaurs have “feathers”? | Our feathered friends | The Economist

... Taxonomically, the very definition of a bird was until recently an animal that has feathers. Now, taxonomists argue that since birds are descended from dinosaurs they should be classified merely as a subgroup of the Dinosauria. But if feathers truly are the diagnostic criterion, then perhaps things should be the other way round, and Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus and their kin should no longer be thought of as terrible lizards, but as overweight, flightless birds.

It must stop now.

Urban renewal - Habitat tears down houses

I think this is a good sign ...

Saginaw Journal - In Hard-Hit Areas, Habitat for Humanity Adds Demolition to Its Mission - NYTimes.com

... International leaders of Habitat for Humanity, an organization more than three decades old, say their focus is changing to meet the demands of a changing economy. In cities where so many homes sit empty, the group is leaning away from building new houses and instead fixing up old ones, said Ken Klein, the vice chairman of the group’s board.

In recent years, about 100 of the organization’s affiliates around the country have done the same, removing recyclable items, like cabinets, floorboards, plaster and light fixtures, from condemned houses and, in a few cities, even razing some structures...

When we drove across the northern-eastern border of the United States last year I was forcibly struck the immense stretch of desolation.

The region has been in decline for decades, but things felt much worse than even two years before. Since then we've been reading reports of vast stretches of Cleveland with many abandoned homes.

People still live where the lumber, water, and railways of the 19th century put them. In some cases new economies make those places viable. In most cases they, like the American automotive industry, need to downside by at least 50%.

It's possible to image a satisfactory end point in a world where telepresence and telecommuting are becoming commonplace. Cities with large parks and green spaces, better aligned along transportation corridors. Larger homes with expansive lawns. Bicycle paths and playgrounds.

To get there however a lot of homes have to go, and existing homes must be refurbished and expanded.

The classification and heritage of American torture

Everything has a history...

The history of CIA torture - By Darius Rejali - Slate Magazine

In the 20th century, there were two main traditions of clean torture—the kind that doesn't leave marks, as modern torturers prefer. The first is French modern, a combination of water- and electro-torture. The second is Anglo-Saxon modern, a classic list of sleep deprivation, positional and restraint tortures, extremes of temperature, noise, and beatings.

All the techniques in the accounts of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, as reported Monday, collected from 14 detainees held in CIA custody, fit a long historical pattern of Anglo-Saxon modern. The ICRC report apparently includes details of CIA practices unknown until now, details that point to practices with names, histories, and political influences. In torture, hell is always in the details...

...For 30 years, I've studied a long and remorseless two centuries of torture around the world, and I can find only one instance of an account resembling the collars and plywood technique described in the ICRC report...

America needs a truth commission.

The other side of a bad kid dead

A troubled young man with a record commits suicide in jail.

Just another local story.

Except there were a few people who loved him.

There usually are.

Against creationism - the toenail

No rational creator would give humans toenails.

Ouch.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Get ready to refinance your mortgage?

The Fed just “printed” a trillion dollars.

One analyst expects mortgage rates to fall as a result …

Economists’ Reactions to the Fed’s Move - Economix Blog - NYTimes.com

David Greenlaw, Morgan Stanley: The Fed’s announcement signals a clear intent to continue to drive mortgage rates lower and we expect them to meet this objective. This could represent a powerful source of stimulus for the household sector of the economy. In 2008, the average mortgage rate on the outstanding stock of loans was about 6.50%. So, if the Fed brings 30-yr fixed rate mortgages down to 4.50% and all homeowners are able refi, the aggregate permanent cash flow savings would be on the order of $200 billion per year.

We’ll be watching.

Of course now we’ll all be watching for bubble #3. We had stocks, then we had real estate. What’s left? A bonds bubble?

Annals of poorly chosen words - best and the brightest

I haven't had a strong opinion on what the feds should do about the AIG bonuses you and I are paying to the team responsible for history's greatest financial disaster. It feels like only one manifestation of a much bigger failure of the compensation market, a zero-bound type failure because the winners now work to win, not to live.

In other words, the winners of the compensation wars can leave the game whenever they want. They play by different rules than the rest of us. We can change that in the future, but it's hard to fix it today.

David Leonhardt's observation does a nice job of skewering one common rationale however ...

Ah, retention pay. It has been one of the great rationales for showering money on chief executives and bankers regardless of how well they are doing their jobs. It’s just that the specific rationale keeps changing.

In the booming 1990s, companies supposedly had to pay retention bonuses because executives had so many other job opportunities. There was a war raging — a war for talent, said McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm.

Then came the aftermath of Enron, when new scrutiny and regulations apparently made some chief executives wonder if they still wanted their jobs. “I’m thinking of actually getting out,” David D’Alessandro, the head of John Hancock Financial Services, reported hearing from one fellow chief executive. The antidote to such doubts? Retention pay, obviously.

Now comes Mr. Liddy, the government-appointed chief of A.I.G., defending multimillion-dollar bonus payments for the people who run the small division that brought down the company. If the government doesn’t let them have their money, they will walk away, Mr. Liddy says, and nobody else will know how to clean up their mess...

So this is a big and deep problem, but skewering AIG's winners is most likely a distraction. We've been taken, but if we spend all our energy beating up on these particular winners we're likely to forget about the bigger failure in the global compensation market.

On the other hand, I do have a strong opinion that Edward Liddy, the winner who returned from retirement to manage AIG [1], showed the insight of a gnat when he wrote (italics mine) ...

... We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury...

Even in the context of our day, that's breathtaking. It's so revealing that Liddy could write that, and that Larry Summers didn't blow a gasket reading it.

Maybe it's just basal ganglia running on automatic. CEO's everywhere call their team the "best and the brightest" even when they've already decided to fire everyone and try with a new batch of losers. In which case using the phrase in this context is merely an idiotic mistake.

It's more likely, however, that Liddy believes he and his team are indeed "the best and the brightest". Winning does that to primates, it's in our genes and our neurochemistry. Unfortunately, Geithner and Summers may believe it as well.

Whatever else comes of this bit of interesting times, let's skewer, rend and bury the phrase "best and the brightest" for all time. CEOs, find another euphemism for "you're all a bunch of losers but I can't get rid of you today".

[1] Update: Turns out if AIG goes bankrupt Liddy loses a massive retirement package that he's probably depending on. So he does have skin in the game.

Update 3/19/09: I think this is right ...

Why AIG paid the bonuses (Nate Silver, 538)
The thing about these "bonuses", however is that they're not really bonuses, which we usually think of as incentive-based compensation. On the contrary, they are something the opposite of bonuses: they took compensation that had been incentive-based and guaranteed it...
The fundamental issue here what I call asymmetrical agency bias. We as human beings tend to attribute our results to skill when we are performing well, but (bad) luck when we are performing poorly...

... I'm interested in compensation and incentivization structures in general. Aggregate compensation throughout the financial services industry, I would guess, is much higher than is economically optimal (there is a lot of evidence that this is true of CEO pay). A lot of people are getting paid for what is thought to be skill but is really just luck (or economic rent).

If, as at most hedge funds, the employees are buying in with their own capital and bearing a lot of the downside risk, that is one thing. At a publicly-traded company, however, those employees are taking profits out of the shareholders' hands. And at a publicly-traded company that happens to be owned by the taxpayers, they're taking money out of the taxpayers' hands.

The compensation paid to AIG's employees, however, is less a moral failure than a market failure. We don't like to admit to market failures because they indict our collective judgment; instead we scapegoat and move on. But there are some ways to address these market failures; the more time we spend focusing on those, and the less on AIG, the more money we the taxpayers will save ourselves in the end.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Avoiding the baby in car tragedy - the tethered parent

When I read of a parent who forgets their infant in car seat and leaves them to die in a hot car, I don't think "bad parent". I think "thank you random chance, there but for the odds go I".

I remember a young child asking me from his car seat why I'd missed the turn off for work. (This was a "special needs" child who's always had a knack for directions.) I'd forgotten he was there. Bad feeling.

About 20 American parents (mostly fathers I bet) make the ultimate mistake every year. Typically it's a change to an automatic routine, a chance request to drop a child in day care on the way to work. The infant falls asleep, the basal ganglia takes over, then tragedy.

My children are old enough that they can get out of the car. If they were in car seats though, I'd follow this advice when in the high risk situation of deviation from a common habit ...
Schneier on Security: Leaving Infants in the Car (comments)

... Secure a string to the car seat and yourself (belt, wrist, etc.). Leave plenty of slack so it doesn't interfere with driving, but if you try to exit the car and forget, the string will tug. Having to unclip the string will provide the reminder...

Another study showing why 65 is a reasonable retirement age

Speaking as someone closer to 65 than to 30, this is not surprising ...
Brain study says 30 is the new 60 | Good Morning Silicon Valley

... according to a new study by Professor Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia, functions like reasoning, spatial visualization and speed of thought peak around age 22 and start to decline around 27. Based on performance tests like those used by doctors to spot signs of dementia, Salthouse found that memory functions start to go at 37 on average, while abilities based on accumulated knowledge, such as performance on tests of vocabulary or general information, increased until the age of 60. After that, you’ll need to depend on the animal cunning that comes with perspective and experience...
This is normal degeneration of course, not the accelerated degeneration we call "dementia". As go the abs, so goes the brain.

The saving grace is that even as our middle-aged brains and biceps turn to pudding, we play the experience card for all its worth. Similarly personality quirks (and even some very serious brain disorders like schizophrenia) often improve with age. So while my 50 yo brain can't reason its way out of a paper bag, it can get a reasonable amount of work done.

The trick is the other side of 65 - even for "healthy" brains. That can be a prime age for a politician, but it ain't so hot for much other cognitive work.

Which is why I find talk of "working to 75" a bit disingenuous. Working at the grocery store maybe ...

iPhone 3.0 - how many of my wishes were granted?

Here's how my personal wish list of last week played out. The Good stuff is in purple, Bad news in Red...

Gordon's Notes: Dreaming of iPhone 3.0 - my wishes

  1. External keyboard support like the folding keyboards that were once sold with Palm. Maybe, since 3rd parties can now use the connector.
  2. A standard way for 3rd party applications to synchronize with the desktop (maybe through the heretofore off-limits dock connector). No, this was not included (my first impression was wrong).
  3. Something that lets me do instant messaging without paying SMS fees. Yes.
  4. A Calendar API so 3rd party apps can get at Calendar data and manipulate it. No, this was not included.
  5. Filemaker for the iPhone (not Apple so doesn't count)
  6. Fix the weird scrolling and text limit problems with long contact and calendar notes (unknown)
  7. Make the Calendar app more real. Better control of alerts, ability to do invitations, etc. (unknown)
  8. Tethering. Widely expected, but not included. Of course there is the open connector. Either AT&T's network isn't ready or Apple and AT&T couldn't agree on revenue sharing and price. (Update: in the Q&A Apple confirmed the phone is ready, it's now all about the operators.)
  9. Support multi-account synchronization: Additional calendar types sounds like it does at least part of what I want.
  10. Cut, Copy, Paste: I assumed that was a done deal so I didn't bother to list it. They did this one very well.

Against this list there are former "Demands" that I've now given up on ...

  1. Tasks and Notes: They did Note Sync after all, no tasks though. I don't care since Google is going to do Tasks.
  2. Search: I gave up on this one, but Apple did it anyway. Yay!

Since there's an API for iPod.app I assume Clock.app will finally be able set music alarms. I'm perfectly happy with using Spotlight to find apps.

Overall, very good news for me. Sometime this summer (September?) I'm going to get somewhere between 50% and 80% of what I hoped for. I liked Apple's hardware announcements last month so that's twice in a row Apple has done good things for me.

Update: Tidbits claimed that VOIP is among the API services. Huh?! That can't be right.

Update 2: Ars Techica says the same thing. iPhone 3.0 will offer VOIP? Am I confused? Between Google Voice and iPhone VOIP why do I need all those AT&T minutes and long distance services?

Update 3/18/09: More like 50% of what I'd asked for. Unfortunately two of my key requests, Calendar access and a standard sync infrastructure were not included. I've revised my original post. So for me it's only a good announcement, not a great announcement.