Saturday, October 31, 2009

Contribute your Google Data Liberation suggestions

Google's esteemed data freedom team accepts suggestions through the Google Data Liberation moderator forum.

Please vote on the items you like and add suggestions. This team is one of the reasons I serve the Lord Google.

My latest take on Twitter

A while ago a friend asked me to explain Twitter to him. I've been giving it some thought since, today I posted my most current thoughts in response to a blog post telling us that Robert Scoble's "Replacing Google Reader with Twitter is Nuts". I wrote (the following has been modified slightly from the original) ...
Twitter is a publisher and subscriber. As a publisher it broadcasts short SMS -compliant strings to any interested subscriber. It is a uniquely good fit to pre-2008 mobile phones technology.
I think of Twitter as a curious pub/sub (feed) technology that emerged because of the limitations of early 21st century mobile phones, the bizarre pricing of American SMS and MMS messaging, email spam, and the asymmetry of early PubSub technology (strong sub as in Google Reader, weak pub as in amazingly feeble blog authoring tools with one now ailing exception).

Most of those curious technological limitations are going away. Between technology change and Facebook, Twitter is very vulnerable to displacement (if Google ever got their status pub/chat/reader/Latitude/Chat strategies aligned the squeeze would double).

I can imagine Twitter changing to be more like an open version of Facebook (esp. if Google bought them), but I can't see it staying relevant in its current form.

Between Google Reader (esp. with the "Note in Reader" feature) and Facebook I've no personal use case for Twitter. There are few times I consider it, but either Reader or Facebook could seize that ground (esp. wrt Location Services, though that's bound up for me with Apple's voracious greed)...
Other than following a few Twitter feeds through Google Reader, I have no current use for Twitter.

Update 11/7/09: Incidentally, the SMS bit isn't free -- at least in the US. Much of the value proposition of Twitter is the SMS/almost-IM fusion -- with Twitter paying the bill. That particular value goes away when SMS gets cheaper or becomes irrelevant.

See also:

Friday, October 30, 2009

On vaccines

Via Daring Fireball, a superb essay on vaccines.

And that was "just" chickenpox.

Moderns have no idea of what diphtheria was like. Or, for that matter, tetanus. (I once knew a patient who'd survived "lockjaw" though -- it still happens rarely).

Update 10/31/09: Charlie Stross reminded me of a great post I read some time ago.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Midwest Skijorers Club

Fourteen years ago I authored one of the very first skijoring pages on the WWW.

Heck, it might have been the first in English. We didn't have Google back then, so it's hard to say.

My own wee bit of history.

Which is all by way of introducing another mark of the Twin Cities' greatness - the Midwest Skijorers Club.

Yes, we have our very own local skijoring club. As if our superb bicycle trails weren't evidence enough of our unequalled greatness.

Now if only it would stop $!$!%$ raining ...

Windows 7 pounds OS X: the screen scales

OS X was supposed to have had resolution independence 3 years ago. Apple failed.

I've been told by a real world user that Windows 7 resolution adjustment works pretty well. Apple's 27" iMac may look, to middle-aged eyes [1], quite a bit better running Windows 7 than running OS X 10.6.

Resolution independence. Vastly better remote control functionality. In what other domains does Windows 7 pound OS X?

[1] Note Google now scales their search screen for presbyopic eyes. On another front, in winter aging fingers don't work all that well on the iPhone touch screen either. Too dry. Jobs wears reading glasses and I bet his fingers aren't much better than mine. Denial?

The economics of modern military action

In the modern world, large scale human military operations are quite expensive (emphases mine) ...
Kristof - More Schools, Not Troops - NYTimes.com
... For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there ...
The 1 soldier/20 school ratio is a reflection of both the cost of the soldier and the low cost of Afghan construction. It does not include the cost of operating the schools but the point is well made. Our army of one is very expensive.

This is curious because other military actions are getting cheaper. The cost of destruction (aka "cost of havoc") has fallen dramatically over the past few centuries. Even very poor people can afford very effective weaponry, command and communications infrastructure, spy satellites, and even weapons of mass destruction (an interesting variant is the low cost of climate engineering blackmail).

The low cost of certain kinds of military action may dramatically increase the cost of occupation-class operations, particularly those where soldiers can make choices. Separately, soldiering is increasingly a high skills occupation -- and one that's very hard to outsource to a low wage nation. Non-outsourcable high skills occupations are increasingly costly.

Perhaps one of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan will be that no future nation will be able to afford the cost of occupation.

Interesting.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Will football go the way of boxing?

Football is insanely popular. It's America's top sport.

But boxing was popular once too. It peaked in the middle of the 20th century, but now it's insignificant. Even back then it was hard to ignore what happened to boxers. Mohammed Ali was the last straw.

Within twenty years, if the game doesn't change, football (that is, American football -- not "soccer") will go too ...
10 amazing truths you already suspected / Go ahead, pretend you didn't know. Pretend it wasn't obvious. (Volume II!)
... Witness Malcolm Gladwell's half-stunning, half-obvious piece in a recent New Yorker, summed up thusly: nearly every football player in America, from high school on up through the NFL -- especially there -- will suffer some level of brain damage and head trauma, from moderate to severe to early-onset dementia, even after just a year or two of play, even if he never turns pro at all...
Parents will start to discourage kids from playing high school football, and those with money will withdraw financial support for the high school game. Colleges will be successfully sued -- after all, they can hardly claim to be uninformed and they have a special responsibility to their students.

The game will have to be radically revised to lower the amount of head trauma involved.

Google’s consumption of the mapping industry

Wilson Rothman (Gizmodo) has a great essay on Google’s consumption of TomTom, Garmin, and the map data industry. It isn’t just the new Droid-only Google Maps Navigation (Apple’s App Store non-rejection is pending). It’s also that Google has built their own US (and Canada?) map database. Google no longer needs the data they were buying from “Tele Atlas” and “Navteq”.

Presumably Apple or someone else will buy up the remnants of the mapping industry.

Google is a disruptive company. Per Rothman …

… This is not an attack of Google's business practices, but an explanation of the sort of destructive innovation that has made them so huge so fast … Though predecessors like Microsoft experienced similar explosive growth, and grew a similar sudden global dependence, we've never seen the likes of Google. The GPS business isn't the only one that will be consumed by its mighty maw before it's had its run…

Rothman is a bit too confident about Google’s ability to take down Office (Google Apps aren’t that good), but he’s right about things like Google Voice.

Next up? Chrome OS beta is out already. I expect to see the Google branded netbook within the next few months. We’ll see if they hit my $150 predictive WiFi price point (free with a Verizon/Google 2 year bandwidth-adjusted data contract).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fermi Paradox: life is extremely rare

My preferred Fermi Paradox solution is that technological societies have only a short-lived interest in roaming the physical universe. A more common explanation, now that rocky planets seem ordinary, is that life is extremely rare. I liked the way this physics professor came to that conclusion ...
Information Processing: Evolution, Design and the Fermi Paradox - Stephen Hsu

... What is the time scale for evolution of complex organisms such as ourselves? On Earth complex life evolved in about 5 billion years (5 Gyr), but one can make an argument that we were probably lucky and that the typical time scale T under similar circumstances is much longer.

There is an interesting coincidence at work: 5 Gyr is remarkably close to the 10 Gyr lifetime of main sequence stars (and to the 14 Gyr age of the universe). This is unexpected, as evolution proceeds by molecular processes and natural selection among complex organisms, whereas stellar lifetimes are determined by nuclear physics.

If T were much smaller than 5 Gyr then it would be improbable for evolution to have been so slow on Earth...
Basic Bayesian reasoning, and a new perspective for me. Good one Dr. Hsu!

Update 10/29/09: Some nice comments, but, above all, Charlie Stross drops the hammer. It's an intellectual tour de force from someone who gets paid to think about these sorts of questions. Charlie flips the question around, and shows that waiting-time-for-stuff-like-us is actually very short. He doesn't fess up to his answer to the Fermi Paradox though.

Update 10/29/09b: Through some back and forth in Charlie's comments section, I end up searching on his treatment of the FP in Accelerando -- and one of the top hits is my 2006 Amazon review of his book. He's very much in the church of "post-singular societies don't go a wandering" (me too), but he explains why. According to Charlie Stross, life without bandwidth is intolerable ...

Progress is not guaranteed

With the past week I needed to put a personal web page and I had to work with a problem best managed by a cross between an Outline and a database.

For the first task I wanted the equivalent of Front Page, a powerful document centric wysiwyg authoring tool from the previous century. For the second task I needed GrandView, a DOS app from the 1980s (if I had a Mac at work I'd use today's OmniOutliner Pro).

It's not just old software tools that vanish; current tools are losing advanced functionality. iTunes Smart Playlists are withering and the smartest parts of OS X are falling away.

On the bright side, I'm not getting any smarter either. So maybe software is simply getting ready for my future self.

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That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable.

Despair, Inc: Adversity: "That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable."

Love 'em.

I'm with the ancient Greeks. Embrace tragedy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Apple does things differently

I've read this before. Apple has very small, very productive, engineering teams ...
/dev/why!?!: The loss of ZFS

...I recall having a discussion with the head of a university FS team who was discussing the FS he was working on. He was pitching it to a group of Apple engineers. It was some interesting work, but there were some unsolved problems. When he was asked about them he commented that they didn't have enough people to deal with them, but he had some ideas and it shouldn't be an issue for a company with a real FS team. It turned out his research team had about the same number of people working on their FS as Apple had working on HFS, HFS+, UFS, NFS, WebDAV, FAT, and NTFS combined. I think people don't appreciate how productive Apple is on a per-engineer basis. The downside of that is that sometimes it is hard to find the resources to do something large and time consuming, particularly when it is not something that most users will notice in a direct sense...
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AT&T surprise charges with added lines and phone switch

When we first switched from Sprint to AT&T I catalogued all the extra fees and surprises. Recently I switched Emily from a BlackBerry Pearl to an iPhone 3GS (very successful move) and added one child to our family plan ($10/month – in theory).

These were the surprise charges this time around:

  • $18: “one time charge for upgrade fee” for Emily’s BB to iPhone switch
  • $26: “activation fee” for my son’s added line

By AT&T standards these are minor hits. They annoy me, but I’m more annoyed that I have to pay for SMS and MMS messages I can’t block. (I’ve written my representative about those, every time I get these charges I send off another email to a federal legislator.)

We get a “national account discount” (many large companies negotiate these plans). I confirmed Emily is still receiving it after the switch, but I didn’t see it on my son’s plan. So I’ll follow-up on that with the AT&T corporate service number.

I also need to inquire if the “national account discount” should have covered the “upgrade fee” and “activation fee”.

Incidentally, when I reviewed our online account settings I discovered new options to opt out of AT&T’s despicable SMS spam.

See also:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

H1N1 - things new to me

I have an average physicians knowledge of H1N1, so most of what I read is uninteresting. This MinnPost article by a local physician, however, had some real gems. Osterholm is a national expert on pandemics living in MN. His predictive record is imperfect, but he has some interesting observations (emphases mine) ...
MinnPost - Tapping Minnesota’s top H1N1 expert: Michael Osterholm

... Osterholm chairs a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored panel that tracks emerging influenza infections. This year's meeting included a group of virologists and influenza experts that Osterholm considers to be the best in the world. "And every one of them said without a question that if this H1N1 acquires a certain PB2 gene, we're in big trouble," Osterholm recalled. "Well, it did it [acquire the PB2 gene] in the Friesian islands off of the Netherlands this August, and we didn't see that. Everyone was holding their breath, but at least, so far, nothing has happened with that. And so we don't understand in many instances what components of the mutt are really critical, which ones are important and which ones don't make any difference."

... I have been concerned from the beginning about over-promising and under-delivering on this issue. Just knowing this vaccine and what it takes, when they put the 140 million-dose estimate out that would be here in mid-October, I just knew that that was going to be a great overreach....

... I find it remarkable that we have as much as we do as early as we do, given the timeline..."

Long before the arrival of the novel H1N1 virus, Osterholm and other infectious disease specialists were lamenting our country's antiquated vaccine production system, which he points out relies on 1950s technology that's slow and unreliable. And even the way in which influenza vaccines work is a little bit murky.

"On Monday, I'm giving the keynote address to the NIH vaccine research meeting," he said. "I'm actually using H1N1 to highlight the many problems we have today with the vaccine industry. It's a simple as, 'You know, we don't have a clue what protects you in a flu vaccine.' So we measure hemagglutinin [the 'H' in H1N1] using outdated measures for antigen [a molecule on the surface of a virus that our immune system uses to key in on it], but we don't really know."

"When the CDC did their sero-survey looking for hemagglutinin antibody to novel H1N1 in the elderly, they found about 30 percent of them having pretty good titers to the H1 N1 virus," Osterholm recalled. "But the bottom line is, the protection we're seeing in the 65 and older age population far exceeds 30 percent, and the point of it is that there is probably a huge part of cellular immunity that's tied to protection with the flu vaccine, and that's something we don't even understand....
... The one thing I do feel pretty good about is the safety issue. It's not because we know it from this vaccine, but from the time-tested seasonal flu vaccines we've used over the last 30 years."

So the vaccine will get here when it gets here, but do you have a sense of when the peak of infections will be?

"You know, I don't. As I said at the flu summit six weeks ago, I thought that by mid-October we'd be seeing what I call 'peak activity,' which is what we're seeing right now. That's how I thought it would build. What I don't know is how long this is going to last. Is it basically going to go into retreat for a while and then come back again in, say, December or January? We're burning through a lot of central people right now, meaning the rate of new infections is growing at such a rate that I think that we're not going to have that many [unexposed] people left in November, December or January to get a second wave...

Friday, October 23, 2009

The iMac 27: missing resolution independent OS X

Resolution independence means pixel counts wouldn't matter; very high pixel density screens needn't create itty-bitty text problems.

Once upon a time OS X 10.4 was going to have a scalable UI like this. Didn't happen. Then it was to be 10.5.

Now nobody mentions it.

On the other shore Microsoft has had some RI since Windows 95, but it's never worked quite well enough to be truly useful. Windows 7 takes RI further, but it's still not quite ready to go all the way.

It looks like the iMac 27 inch may remind aging Americans why RI is important ...
Apple iMac Review: 27 Inches and Less Chin - Apple imac 27 inch - Gizmodo

... at this pixel density, which is sharper than my notebook, it's almost too sharp, requiring me to sit closer than I would ordinarily do with a 27 inch display. I like the feeling of crispness — 16% crisper than the last generation. But my eyes feel like the pictures are being delivered by a land shark holding a laser pointer straight into my corneas, and I can feel the strain within minutes. I would have to jack up as many font sizes as possible or sit as close as I do to my MacBook to make it work for long long periods of time.
I'm as presbyopic as the next GOMER, so this matters. I'm going to have to work with this screen in the store for a while before I decide it's manageable at home. Lack of RI might save me a few hundred bucks.

The African mobile phone revolution continues

A few millennia ago I read quite a bit about "appropriate technology" applications for what was then known as "the third world" or "less developed nations".

In those days the idea was to find or invent product designs that returned value, but that weren't dependent on a lot of supporting infrastructure. Sometimes this might be a type of plow, or a type of solar oven. In the past decade or so there was a wind-up radio, More recently, there was the well intended originally MIT based OLPC laptop project

I think some of these ideas worked out, but others, like the OLPC, have been at best indirectly influential. Today's world is, despite our recent economic maelstrom, far more prosperous than the world of my childhood. These days "appropriate technology" may emerge to meet the needs of rural China or from African manufacturing, but it can also emerge in somewhat surprising ways (emphases mine) ...
Africa calling: mobile phone usage sees record rise after huge investment The Guardian

Africans are buying mobile phones at a world record rate, with take-up soaring by 550% in five years, research shows.

"The mobile phone revolution continues," says a UN report charting the phenomenon that has transformed commerce, healthcare and social lives across the planet. Mobile subscriptions in Africa rose from 54m to almost 350m between 2003 and 2008, the quickest growth in the world. The global total reached 4bn at the end of last year and, although growth was down on the previous year, it remained close to 20%.

On average there are now 60 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people in the world. In developing countries, the figure stands at 48 – more than eight times the level of penetration in 2000.

In Africa, average penetration stands at more than a third of the population, and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds. Gabon, the Seychelles and South Africa now boast almost 100% penetration...

Uganda, the first African country to have more mobiles than fixed telephones, is cited as an example of cultural and economic transformation. Penetration has risen from 0.2% in 1995 to 23% in 2008, with operators making huge investments in infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Given their low incomes, only about a quarter of Ugandans have a mobile subscription, but street vendors offer mobile access on a per-call basis. They also invite those without access to electricity to charge their phones using car batteries.

Popular mobile services include money transfers, allowing people without bank accounts to send money by text message. Many farmers use mobiles to trade and check market prices.

... The share of the population covered by a mobile signal stood at 76% in developing countries in 2006, including 61% in rural areas. In sub-Saharan Africa, closer to half the population was covered, including 42% in rural areas...
This isn't new, the Economist and others have been covering mobile phone use in Africa for since the 1990s. It's a noteworthy and encouraging sign. It's "appropriate technology" that emerged somewhat unexpectedly, but has since received extensive support from governments and aid agencies, including Kenya's investment in new fiber optic connections.

Today these are fairly minimal phones, but Google has done some pretty ingenious things to provide voice and texting interfaces to Google services. In 3-4 years, today's simple phone users may have Android phones comparable to the iPhone of 2008.

We're gradually moving towards the Teledesic/One Laptop per Child vision, but along a less expected path.

Great news for humanity.

See also:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Use Get Satisfaction to talk to Google

Today's announcement of Google's mind reading technology (for example) tells us where the Google Reader team looks for feedback (emphases mine):
... we'd love to hear your feedback — share your thoughts on our help group, Twitter or the Reader section of Get Satisfaction, a third party support community.
Somehow I don't think my tweeting about a really obnoxious Reader bug is going to make much of an impression. On the other hand, the Get Satisfaction site is kind of neat. It's a startup that allows businesses to outsource their customer community.

It's free for customers of course, and, like all new startups, you can authenticate with Facebook, your Google ID or OpenID (without sharing your password of course).

Looks like Google is a paying customer -- they currently have 42 products on GetSatisfaction.


Google's Help Forums have always felt like a waste of time - both when they were on Google Groups and in their current incarnation. I'll give Get Satisfaction a try.

Update 10/23/09: It worked. Get Satisfaction is where Google lives now. Forget the official help forums.

Honda knows its customers

What if we paid the CEO of Honda and four of his picks $1 billion to take over GM?

Just wondering. Honda knows its customers very well ...

... The Dog Friendly components include a soft-sided cargo area kennel made from strong seat belt material netting, a cushioned pet bed in the cargo area, a 12-volt DC fan, second-row seat covers with a dog pattern, all-season rubber floor mats and a spill resistant water bowl. An extendable ramp will also store beneath the bed, so it can be accessed when the tailgate is open...
Incidentally, this post was not on my regular reading list. It was "suggested" to me by the Great God Google.

Google knows its customers even better than Honda.

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iMac Intel 27" Teardown: essential reading for would-be customers

Andy M has ordered his 27" Nehalem Blu-Ray and USB-3 free* iMac from (no tax) Amazon.

I'm tempted. My 10 yo has done his part, ranting to his mother about how slow the G5 is. On the other hand, I just know the Nehalem stuff will be hotter than hell, slower than expected, and buggy to boot.

The iMac Intel 27" Teardown from iFixit is helping me decide if I feel lucky. For example, the RAM is easy to upgrade, but the hard drive is untouchable. That means when the drive fails (mine have 2.5 year lifespans) the replacement will require a trip to an Apple Store.

* I suspect Blu-Ray licenses have some very evil aspects - not only on cost and complexity, but with IP and functionality implications as well. Those implications extend to the operating system
... Apple lacks software support for playing copy-protected Blu-ray movies, so if you install a Blu-ray drive, you'll have to boot into Windows to enjoy the show....
This machine is designed to take high quality video output from an copy-protected DRM compliant Blu-Ray.

More than Blu-Ray I'd love to see USB 3, but I remember the introduction of similar standards. The first versions rarely work properly, you usually need to wait a year after initial products before you get something that works. In the meanwhile the new tech displaces something that does work (like Firewire).

Update: Andy tells me the current Intel iMacs have the same hard drive configuration. I've been spoiled by the wonderfully serviceable G5 iMac.
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The Dinosaurs were tougher than we thought - Shiva

We knew the dinosaurs were tough. Turns out it may have taken a hell of a lot to kill the non-Avian dinosaurs ...
Mass extinctions: I am become Death, destroyer of worlds | The Economist

... The Chicxulub crater, as it is known, may have been a mere aperitif. According to Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University, the main course was served later. Dr Chatterjee has found a bigger crater—much bigger—in India. His is 500km across. The explosion that caused it may have been 100 times the size of the one that created Chicxulub. He calls it Shiva, after the Indian deity of destruction.

Dr Chatterjee presented his latest findings on Shiva to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon, on October 18th. He makes a compelling case, identifying an underwater mountain called Bombay High, off the coast of Mumbai, that formed right at the time of the dinosaur extinction. This mountain measures five kilometres from sea bed to peak, and is surrounded by Shiva’s crater rim. Dr Chatterjee’s analysis shows that it formed from a sudden upwelling of magma that destroyed the Earth’s crust in the area and pushed the mountain upwards in a hurry. He argues that no force other than the rebound from an impact could have produced this kind of vertical uplift so quickly. And the blow that caused it would surely have been powerful enough to smash ecosystems around the world...

... Extensive dating research at Chicxulub, however, now suggests that the object which created that crater actually struck 300,000 years earlier than the dinosaur extinction, meaning there really should be two ejecta layers. That there are not could be explained by the fact that the accumulation of sediment in most rocks is so slow that the two layers are, in effect, superimposed. Alternatively, it could be that no one has been looking for two layers, so they have not seen the double signature or have ignored its significance. Indeed, two iridium layers have been found in some places. Anjar, an Indian town north of the impact site, is one. That is leading Dr Chatterjee to suggest that the two big impacts did take place at different times.

The picture that is emerging, then, is of a strange set of coincidences. First, two of the biggest impacts in history happened within 300,000 years of each other—a geological eyeblink. Second, they coincided with one of the largest periods of vulcanicity in the past billion years. Third, one of them just happened to strike where these volcanoes were active. Or, to put it another way, what really killed the dinosaurs was a string of the most atrocious bad luck.
Dinosaurs were even tougher than we'd imagined Bayesian reasoning suggests the earth has also been more dangerous than we've thought.
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Corporations rot from the top - the GM story

This does not surprise me ...
Barack Obama to order salary cuts at bailed-out firms | guardian.co.uk

... Feinberg's move against top corporate pay came as Obama's former "car tsar" attacked the "stunningly poor management" he encountered at Detroit's carmakers as he worked to avert a collapse of the biggest US auto firms this year.

Steve Rattner, a former private equity executive, was the treasury secretary Timothy Geithner's top adviser on the car industry between February and July – when the US government acted to rescue both General Motors and Chrysler.

In an article for Fortune magazine, Rattner offered a savage verdict on the leadership culture at the industrial giants, singling out GM's former boss Rick Wagoner for his "friendly arrogance", and top executives' reluctance to mix with workers.

"Everyone knew Detroit's reputation for insular, slow-moving cultures," he said. "Even by that low standard, I was shocked by the stunningly poor management we found, particularly at GM, where we encountered, among other things, perhaps the weakest finance operation any of us had ever seen in a major company."

Rattner attacked GM's top executives for sequestering themselves on the top floor of the Renaissance Centre skyscraper in Detroit, with exclusive lifts, to avoid mixing with lower-ranking "drones"...
This is to be expected since ...
  1. If the management weren't fairly average GM wouldn't be in the mess it's in.
  2. No exceptional person would tolerate this kind of management style, so they wouldn't take a job at GM.
  3. Power is an amazing intoxicant. Only those with exceptional abilities can keep any kind of perspective while they enjoy the high. Given #1 and #2 though, we know GM executives can't have those abilities.
Corporations rot at the top. Off with their heads.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Google branded netbook is coming in early 2010

This rumor is mostly about the Google phone, but that's not the interesting part (emphases mine) ...
There Really Might Be a Google Phone. No Seriously!

... According to Kumar, Google will embed the same iteration of Android as the one currently being used in the Motorola Droid and the device will be based on Qualcomm baseband chips. Google will also introduce its own branded netbook, again embedding Qualcomm Snapdragon, early next year...
That's Google Chromestellation, a version of this netbook will probably be sold through Verizon -- "free" with a 2 year data services contract.

Update 10/23/09: By chance I came across a post I wrote in 2004:
InfoWorld: Wal-Mart breaks price barrier with Linspire Linux laptop

Wal-Mart is offering a laptop that dives below the $500 pricepoint, and it's no accident the machine, from Linspire, runs a Linux-based operating system.

The Balance laptop, at $498, enters a mass market at a price that will undoubtedly accelerate Linux adoption.

The laptop comes with the OS, Internet suite, and Microsoft-file compatible office suite and can be used with both dial-up modems and broadband connections. The machine comes with a VIA C3, 1.0 GHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, which is expandable up to 512 MB with SODIMM (Small Outline Dual In-line Memory Modules). It includes a CD-ROM drive and a 14.1-inch LCD screen...

... The laptop's included Mozilla Internet suite comes with a fast-functioning browser and email program that can display Web-based forms, PDF documents, images, and multimedia files. The suite's included instant messenger program works with AOL, MSN and Yahoo logins.

No-one makes money on desktop machines. I recall reading that if one excluded the kickbacks Microsoft provided Dell, that they lost money on their best selling desktop machines. Laptops were different -- they still had a solid margin.

Not any more. Only Apple will be able to demand a premium for their top selling entry-level laptops, and the iBook may drop to $900 or so. Updrade this thing to 512MB and hook it up to a monitor/mouse/kb and there's a very compact and virus-free machine for my mother to use -- with gmail for her email.
*Cough*.

So five years ago I predicted that only Apple would be able to demand a premium for laptops (sort of true, but I was thinking 1 year) and that the "iBook" would drop to $900 (MacBook is now $999 - but this isn't 2005).

I think I'd better temper my Netbook optimism a wee bit.

Update 11/20/09: It's late 2010 and it won't be cheap?! Wow. I sure missed this one!

Flu.gov -- all the flu all the time

For your educational enjoyment ...
With new content, tools, and resources added daily, Flu.gov provides information on H1N1 and seasonal flu, including symptoms and treatments, vaccines, tips for prevention, and live briefings. At this critical time, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) needs your help in informing the public about this valuable resource. Here are some simple things you can do to promote Flu.gov...
If you're a Minnesota native the U of MN H1N1 site has very current, very localized, information.

Boethius – the most important philosopher you’ve probably never heard of

The first I remember hearing of Boethius was this In Our Time programme on The Consolation of Philosophy

In the 6th century AD, a successful and intelligent Roman politician called Boethius found himself unjustly accused of treason. Trapped in his prison cell, awaiting a brutal execution, he found solace in philosophical ideas - about the true nature of reality, about injustice and evil and the meaning of living a moral life. His thoughts did not save him from death, but his ideas lived on because he wrote them into a book. He called it The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius, I learned, was a Christian influenced neo-Platonist scholar and man of the world who lived in the waning years of the Roman empire. Wikipedia has more

Anicius Manlius Severinus Bo√ęthius[1] (ca. 480–524 or 525) … was born in Rome to an ancient and important family which included emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius and many consuls. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487 after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. Boethius himself was consul in 510 in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. In 522 he saw his two sons become consuls. Boethius was executed by King Theodoric the Great

It is unknown where Boethius received his formidable education in Greek. Historical documents are ambiguous on the subject, but Boethius may have studied in Athens, and perhaps Alexandria…

As a result of his education and experience, Boethius entered the service of Theodoric the Great, who in 506 had written him a graceful and complimentary letter about his studies…

…By 520, at the age of about forty, Boethius had risen to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services…

… Boethius's best known work is the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote most likely while in exile under house arrest or in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin

…it is his final work, the Consolation of Philosophy, that assured his legacy… the work was translated into Old English by King Alfred, and into later English byChaucer and Queen Elizabeth; many manuscripts survive and it was extensively edited, translated and printed throughout Europe from the 14th century onwards.[5] Many commentaries on it were compiled and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture…

From our perspective it’s not clear how Christian Boethius was by the time he died, but he’s a Catholic saint anyway, and supposedly a favorite of Benedict. He was immensely influential in many ways, but I suspect most of us have never come across his name.

I do like In Our Time, it’s so sad that the BBC doesn’t sell past programmes on iTunes. (You can subscribe easily to the podcasts, but you can’t turn the available streaming archives into mp3/aac unless you’re a serious geek.)

See also:

Update 11/5/09: When I listen to the best of IOT I take it in sips. A bit of listening, a bit of contemplation. The very best I'll do twice. Since I first wrote this I'm about three quarters done with the Consolation of Philosophy, and it is among the best. Great guests, and for once Melvyn didn't run out of time. They fit Boethius into the chain from the Stoics through Schopenhauer to Camus and Nietzsche (but not Hume and they didn't trace back to the Greek religious tradition of the futile but heroic response to inevitable tragedy).

I'm going to have to go back to past discussions of the Stoics, and I'm looking forward to the new episode on Schopenhauer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An abundance of earth-class planets

We're filling in a key variable in the Drake equation. Smaller rocky planets are now believed to be common ...
BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Scientists announce planet bounty

... The 32 "exoplanets" ranged in size from five times the mass of Earth to 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter, the researchers said.
They were found using a very sensitive instrument on a 3.6m telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile.
The discovery is exciting because it suggests that low-mass planets could be numerous in our galaxy.
"From [our] results, we know now that at least 40% of solar-type stars have low-mass planets. This is really important because it means that low-mass planets are everywhere, basically," explained Stephane Udry from Geneva University, Switzerland.
"What's very interesting is that models are predicting them, and we are finding them; and furthermore the models are predicting even more lower-mass planets like the Earth."...
This is consistent with the fun calculation I ran 8 months ago, the one predicting several hundred technological civilizations operating in the galaxy at this "moment".

The data continues to point to a "go no more a wanderin" solution to the Fermi paradox.

Snowe has defenders in Maine

I don't know how strong Snowe's home base is, but this physician executive editorial seems encouraging ...
Snowe’s chutzpa needed to reform U.S. health care - Bangor Daily News
... when the hounds come looking for Sen. Snowe’s hide, they should find us circled around her, protecting the black mane of Maine’s senior senator. We should tell them we are doing so not because we always agree with her, or because we think the Senate’s health reform bill is everything we want, but because last Tuesday she stood up for us and to us and did the tough thing, the right thing, and we are now doing the same for her.

The triumph of the Yes Men – Chamber of Commerce endorses climate change legislation

The YES MEN have triumphed

The Chamber of Commerce hoax was perpetrated by the Yes Men, in tandem with a group of activists known as the Avaaz Action Factory.

Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum showed up at the 11am press conference that had earlier been announced by a "Chamber of Commerce" press release, and, impersonating a Chamber executive, declared:

We at the Chamber have tried to keep climate science from interfering with business. But without a stable climate, there will be no business.

At some point, reports Mother Jones, an actual Chamber spokesman showed up and yelled: "This is fraudulent!"…

Reuters fell for it, and the NY Times picked it up …

Reuters is now admitting that their epic screw-up today — it fell for a hoax press release and ran a story about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supposedly changing its opposition to climate change legislation — could actually have moved financial markets…

… The Reuters story was picked up by the New York Times and the Washington Post and rocketed around the political world today.

In case you missed it, Reuters ran a story today claiming the Chamber’s shift, basing it on a fradulent press release claiming the Chamber “is throwing its weight behind strong climate legislation.”…

We’re all hoping the Chamber of Commerce will try to sue the YES MEN. If they do, the YES MEN’s coffers will swell …

See also … The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs- Dear U.S. Chamber of Commerce- You are totally full of shit, now please sit down and shut the **** up.

Update 10/27/09: Salon on the Yes Men win.

Update 11/18/09: The Chamber is a GOP front.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why I dropped the Freakonomics blog

I didn’t drop the Freakonomics blog (Levitt and Dubner) just because of their anti-rational climate change ploy.

I admit, the thorough evisceration by (via DeLong) Last Post on Superfreakonomics, SuperFreakonomics- Global Cooling, Superfreakonomics on climate, RealClimate- Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering, Does -Superfreakonomics- Need A Do-Over and so many others did take a toll.

In the end though, it took a lethal blow from CT to do them in. There’s a world of difference between original thought and faux contrarianism. As fun as Levitt and Dubner have sometimes been, they’ve hit the media bottle too many times. They can no longer distinguish between skeptical thinking and the intellectual vice of fashionable thought.

Velikovsky was a contrarian. I doubt Levitt and Dubner aspired to his company, but that’s where they’ve ended up.

Not to worry though, I’m sure their book earnings will ease the pain of my departure.

Obama and the Laser – stop the stupidity.

Alan Blinder likes Obama’s economic accomplishments, but he concludes they’d be better if (emphases mine) …

… Mr. Obama’s accomplishments in just nine months are palpable and were very much needed. If he seems to have achieved little, it’s partly because he set out to do too much. Too bad he didn’t just “focus like a laser beam on the economy.”

I read the same thing from pundits wishing Obama had been a “laser beam” on Health Care, or Climate Change, or American honor, or Afghanistan (I’m sure there are other recommended targets, but you get the idea).

I know Americans have a memory of about 3 weeks, but this is the so-called punditocracy we’re talking about. Pundits are supposed to have a memory of at least 3 months.

Ok, I see the problem.

Well, for the sake of ventilation, if for no other benefit, let me put this plainly.

Bush, Cheney, Greenspan and the GOP just about trashed America and pushed the world to the edge. They were blunderers at a moment in American history where blundering was particularly dangerous.

Obama inherited a nation in critical care. We’re still there. It’s going to take 10 years to crawl out into a changed world. We aren’t going back to the 1990s, because that path is gone.

Obama can’t “focus like a laser beam”. He’s got to deploy his team on a wide front – holding in some places (economy), strategically retreating in others (climate), pressing the advantage in a few (health care). Obama is not Putin – he has to respond to the chaotic fluctuations of the political environment.

Stuff the laser beams.

The NYT does not like the Taliban

The NYT has recently published at least 3 articles that deliver pretty much the same message …

The message is that the modern Taliban have become inextricably linked to al Qaeda and Pakistan. There’s a less clear attempt to argue that Afghanistan is not a hopeless case.

I remember a similar NYT consensus in the build up to the invasion of Iraq, when the NYT jumped on the WMB and especially bioweapon bandwagon. In retrospect the Times was being played by their sources.

That’s not to say this consensus is wrong, but we’d be foolish to forget how this game is played.

I’m very glad Obama is doing his strategic review.

--

* My recollection is that in the early 80s Afghanistan was a poster child for impending ecological collapse. It’s a very fragile ecosystem, and the rapid development of the 1970s combined with severe oppression of women had led to extreme population growth and environmental degradation. Climate variation may have also played a role. By the late 1980s and early 1990s Afghanistan was in economic and ecological collapse.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any references that agree with my memory!

This is important. If the Afghan agricultural infrastructure is gone, then it has a very long road ahead.

See also Gordon's Notes- Lester Brown, Julian Simon, the UNFPA, Malthus, and, again, the Food.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Simultaneous infections with multiple viruses - why are there so few studies?

For the past several years I’ve wondered about the clinical presentation of patients with multiple simultaneous infections.

The H1N1 outbreaks has brought this to mind again. We assume bad outcomes are the result of some odd combination of immune system and viral mutation, but what about the impacts of co-infection?

I’ve asked academic physicians about this question. I usually get a started look, then a statement that “common wisdom” is that the enhanced immune response to one infection makes a co-infection less likely*.

Turns out, though, that this question was researched 21 years ago ...

Am J Dis Child -- Abstract: Simultaneous Infection With Respiratory Syncytial Virus and Other Respiratory Pathogens, August 1988, Tristram et al. 142 (8): 834

… The presentation and subsequent course of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) bronchiolitis may be atypical and unusually severe when simultaneous infection due to other pathogenic agents is present. During the past two years, nine of the 189 pediatric patients hospitalized with documented RSV infection were found to have the following simultaneous isolates from initial respiratory tract specimens: four adenovirus, four pneumococcus, one cytomegalovirus, and one Pneumocystis carinii. Noted complications attributable to the second pathogen included thrombocytopenia and anemia (cytomegalovirus), hepatitis and disseminated intravascular coagulation (adenovirus), and sepsis and osteomyelitis (pneumococcus). Three of the four patients with RSV and adenovirus died of severe respiratory failure despite mechanical ventilation; two of these patients received ribavirin therapy…

So 21 years ago it was shown that children with co-occurrent viral infections, such as adenovirus and RSV, could have more severe disease progression.

You’d think this study would have been widely cited, but you’d be wrong. A pubmed search on “simultaneous infection virus” returned no strong hits.

I’d love for someone who knows this area to explain why this hasn’t been studied further.

See also: Defining a disease: how often are atypical presentations due to multiple agents? (Feb 2006)

* When smart people say this they immediately get a worried look. In medicine “conventional wisdom” is often shorthand for “something that got into textbooks in the 1960s but, really, on inspection, has never been studied”.

Update 11/1/09: If one viral infection really prevented another, one could manage dangerous epidemics by giving everyone a cold.

The paradoxical power of the Snowe effect

In an ideal world, smart, rational Republicans would balance the worst instincts of my team.

These mythical Republicans would know that government has its own flaws, that my team’s backers can be misled by self-interest and constituency politics. They’d remind us that markets can solve optimization problems better than any planner.

Unfortunately, in this world, the GOP is the Party of Torture, Cheney, Palin, Beck and Limbaugh.

Except … for two senators from Maine – Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Chance, and the complete abdication of the Party of Beck, has made Olympia Snowe immensely powerful in this particular debate. She has the same impact as would, in better times, 20 sane GOP senators …

Why One Vote Matters in the Senate - Room for Debate Blog - NYTimes.com

… The country, frankly, is fortunate that the one holding the most cards is Olympia Snowe. Few public officials are as honest, principled, independent and smart as she is. The bargains she is striking to enable a bill to pass are almost all aimed at improving the quality of the health reform bill and helping more people to get health insurance coverage and health care. It may be unfortunate that one person, representing a tiny sliver of Americans, has so much power. We could do a lot worse…

Snowe is best known, to my team, as the enemy of the public option that’s favored by two of our top leaders – Reich and Krugman. 

Maybe that’s not all bad. I could believe that while the public option might be a very good theoretical idea, it might also be politically disastrous. Maybe we need to find a 2nd best option, knowing that we’re going to have to revisit health care reform many times in the decades to come.

It’s a sad day for America that the GOP is shattered, but, at least for the moment, we have a reasonable proxy to the mythical GOP we never had. Maine, you rate.

When it's as good as it gets

A lot of the comments on this post of Judith Warner's post imply she's melodramatic...
I Feel It Coming Together - Judith Warner Blog - NYTimes.com

... This is the cruelty of middle age, I find: just when things have gotten good — really, really, consistently good — I have become aware that they will end...

... I now see the passage of time more as a kind of bell curve. Years of ascension, soaring anticipation, followed by a plateau — which is not so bad, really — and then, no way to sugar coat this: a rather precipitous decline.

You are not supposed to think this, much less say it. A decline? Never!

Fifty is the new 30, after all; and 70 is the new 15, and 40 — well, the forties are just so fabulous that they can’t even be considered middle age. Even if they do happen to fall right smack in the middle of what, despite our best efforts, is still a limited human lifespan.

Susan Jacoby, the author of “The Age of American Unreason,” among other books, found herself, a year or so ago, attending a panel at the World Science Festival in New York City called “Ninety is the new Fifty,” and is now writing a book on the “delusion” she says we all have “that age is something that can be defied.”...
Ok, maybe a bit melodramatic - but not entirely. I'm six years older than Ms Warner, and I'm sympathetic.

Yes, there are those who might remember that I felt the pressure of mortality at 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, and so on.

Well, in retrospect, I was damned right every time. Sure, there have been 80 year olds exploring Kashmir -- but there are more 80 year olds that Nature's tortured with a rigor that Dick Cheney might envy. Not to mention the quieter cohort.

My life is good, in many ways the best it's been. Even so, we all have a right to complain. Mortality sucks, 92* years is not nearly enough.

I'm with you Judith! I'll take my mortal life, but I reserve the right to bitch.

* My current projection - but it's not a promise and if we don't get an Alzheimer's breakthrough soon I'd discount the last 10.

The Jackson movie - not my problem

Our family movie (Cloudy with a chance of meatballs ... not bad) was preceded by a preview of a movie featuring a great cultural icon -- Michael Jackson.

Right.

I grew up in the disco era. I've always felt bad about that, though, and I realize this is hard to imagine, I did enjoy the dancing.

Jackson the superstar was after me. My generation is not responsible. It's a Gen X thing.

That makes me feel better.

The NY Times has about 70 blogs

My rough guesstimate is that the NYTimes has about 70 blogs.

This at a time that the classic feed reader is supposed to be defunct.

I already subscribe to about half a dozen (Krugman, Blow, Kristoff, Economix, Freakonomics* and more). I've now added Floyd Norris, Idea of the Day, Judith Warner, Olivia Judson, Stanley Fish and "The Lede".

I used to pay for the NY Times online. I wouldn't mind paying again. I just don't want newspaper.

PS. As long as I'm media topics, I should mention that a formerly great news journal has resurrected their paywall. They offered a $12 subscription of some kind to registered online readers. Alas, I don't want the paper. Oddly enough the feeds appear to still be free, so I continue to follow the remaining good bits of The Economist - Science, Technology, Africa, and, above all, the Obit.

The fears of the GOP base - last defenders of America

A Dem consulting group has tried to capture the worldview of the GOP base by focusing on samples of Georgia GOP voters. They're not that far from my own thoughts on the rise of Klan 2.0, but the consultants take their subjects relative lack of explicit racism at face value. Amateurs! These guys need to do some Anthro 101 course work.

Even so, I think it's a useful portrait. We're looking at tens of millions of euro-Americans who are both terrified and completely disconnected from reality. These are the Palin people Peggy Noonan dog whistles to. Obama needs to manage their fears, to walk them back from the edge. They'll never vote for a rationalist, but we don't want them panicking.

Welcome to the Beckians ...
Democracy Corps: Republican Base Voters Living In Another World | TPMDC

... "They believe Obama is ruthlessly advancing a 'secret agenda' to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism," the analysis said." While these voters are disdainful of a Republican Party they view to have failed in its mission, they overwhelmingly view a successful Obama presidency as the destruction of this country's founding principles and are committed to seeing the president fail."

The analysis argues that Obama's unpopularity among conservative Republicans is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from liberal Democratic ire against George W. Bush -- that the GOP is more heavily conservative than the Democrats are heavily liberal, and that the hatred of Obama is more intense than Dem hatred of Bush was...

... The voters in these focus groups saw Obama as being deliberately out to destroy the American economy in order to undermine personal freedoms, and that the speed of his agenda was a part of this strategy...

... Conservatives see themselves as an oppressed minority, holding on to knowledge that isn't represented in the wider media and culture: "Conservative Republicans passionately believe that they represent a group of people who have been targeted by a popular culture and set of liberal elites - embodied in the liberal mainstream media - that mock their values and are actively working to advance the downfall of the things that matter most to them in their lives - their faith, their families, their country, and their freedom."

So who are the protectors of this knowledge, the sources of information they trust. Obviously, Rush Limbaugh is widely admired -- but at the same time, he's seen as being overly abrasive at times.

The real unblemished champion, the one they most identify with on a personal level, is Glenn Beck: "Two aspects of the discussion on Beck among conservative Republicans were particularly noteworthy. One was a common fear among the women for his personal safety, a belief that his willingness to stand up to powerful liberal interests was putting his life, as well as the lives of those working with him, in danger. Of course, his willingness to face this danger head on only adds to his legend."

And the base sees themselves as an emerging, growing movement -- manifested in the Tea Parties -- that will restore the country to its proper roots, but that is dismissed by the media ...
--
See also:

Planning for the collapse of Goldman Sachs

Goldman Sachs is prospering using the strategies that gave us the Great Recession.

I suppose they would say that they know how to use these innovations safely. Their rivals were simply too dull, too weak, to use such powerful tools.

If Goldman is lucky their leaders will rule like kings. If they are unlucky their leaders will rule like barons -- and we'll be picking up the pieces.

If we still can.

If I were running the Treasury I'd be setting up a plan to respond to the collapse of Goldman Sachs.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The evolutionary wonder of reading – hints from intracranial electrophysiology

I don’t know why creationists get hung up with the Platypus or the retina. I think it’s much more interesting that humans can read, despite it only being around for a few hundred years. For example …

Rare Procedure Pinpoints the Location, Speed and Sequence of the Brain's Language Processes: Scientific American

As part of preparation for their [epilepsy] surgery, three adults had electrodes implanted in Broca's area and anterior temporal cortex to allow doctors to pinpoint which areas of the brain would be best to remove. During the procedure, known as intracranial electrophysiology, researchers asked the patients to silently sound-out words they saw on a screen and to fill in the missing verb in the proper tense or the proper form of a missing noun. Meanwhile, the researchers were recording the local electric field potentials from the wired areas of subjects' brains to the nearest millisecond—and millimeter.

After studying the readouts, the researchers found that in these normally reading adults, word identification, grammar and pronunciation all activated parts of Broca's area—and in a very neatly defined sequence. Like clockwork, it took about 200 milliseconds to identify a word, 320 milliseconds for grammatical composition and 450 milliseconds for phonological encoding

… Previous studies had shown that the brain takes about 600 milliseconds to form vocal speech. So the speed with which each of these processes occurred was not as big of a surprise to Sahin and his colleagues as the fact that these three distinct tasks were done separately, in a tightly timed sequence, and within millimeters of each other in the brain

… The electrical readouts … help to dispel the theory that another part of the brain, Wernicke's area, is primarily responsible for reading and hearing language. Their data show that, in fact, Broca's area also activated during the reading and identification phases. These findings, "indicate that the role of Broca's area…should be characterized in more general terms," Hagoort and Levelt wrote…

Everyone wants to see this study repeated in persons with reading disorders, but this kind of opportunity is rare. We all owe thanks to these patients who helped out with this study while awaiting some pretty scary surgery.

See also:

Google reader micro-blogging and changes to Gordon Notes

Twitter is the most famous form of micro-blogging, but it doesn't fit into my memory management strategy and it doesn't help me communicate. So I don't do Twitter.

I do, however, love Google Reader. Many of the smaller blog posts I used to do are now iPhone authored comments on Google Reader articles I've shared and annotated.

So if you read this blog, you might like the Google Reader shared item stream. I've added a link to my GR share/annotation feed to my blogger template -- so it should show below each post.
 
For more of the tech details, hop over to Gordon’s Tech.
 
(Note: The first version of this post was removed due to apparent Google bugs with my shared item feed. These seem to have remitted for the moment, so I’m restoring the post)
 
--

My Google Reader Shared items (feed)

Jim Carrey - enemy of the enlightenment

A recent NYT article about a non-rational attack on H1N1 immunization mentioned this group is now active against immunization, because of a faith-based belief that autism arises from immunization ...

...“Green Our Vaccines” rally, led by the celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey and organized and funded by Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), Generation Rescue (upon whose board McCarthy now sits)...
Carrey joins Oprah in the class of people who combine non-rational and harmful beliefs with the power of wealth and celebrity.

Anyone know of a rogues gallery of these enemies of enlightenment 2.0? We need an annual award ceremony where these sad fools receive appropriate recognition. Maybe SEFORA could launch one? Brad, you're good at this sort of thing ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The epidemiology of suicide – human only?

Olivia Judson claims no other animal commits suicide. I wonder about cetaceans …

A Long, Melancholy Roar - Olivia Judson Blog - NYTimes.com

… Suicide rates have risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Worldwide, deaths from suicide now outnumber deaths from war and homicide together: the World Health Organization estimates that each year around one million people — predominantly men — kill themselves. The true number is probably higher, because for many countries there is no data. In some countries, suicide is now among the top ten causes of death. For the young, worldwide, it’s in the top five.

A huge effort has rightly been devoted to trying to understand the particular causes of suicide in different places — unemployment, drug addiction, relationship breakdown, intelligence, predisposing genes, what your mother ate while you were in the womb and so on.

But here’s another way to look at it. No other animal does this. Chimpanzees don’t hang themselves from trees, slit their wrists, set themselves alight, or otherwise destroy themselves. Suicide is an essentially human behavior. And it has reached unprecedented levels, especially among the young.

I’m not sure what this means. But it has made me think. We live in a way that no other animal has ever lived: our lifestyle is unprecedented in the history of the planet. Often, we like to congratulate ourselves on the cities we have built, the gadgets we can buy, the rockets we send to the moon. But perhaps we should not be so proud. Something about the way we live means that, for many of us, life comes to seem unbearable, a long, melancholy ache of despair.

Bite the apple, know despair.

I think of the human brain as a great pile of frantic evolutionary hacks, barely holding together at the best of times, a million years from getting sorted out. It’s a matter/antimatter drive bolted on to a goat cart. So it’s not surprising that it breaks in all kinds of ways.

The more surprising assertion is that rates are rising. I wonder first if that’s really true – historic data must be very hard to find. I also suspect that many suicide prone persons would die young in times of high external mortality, and that we’d expect suicide rates to rise as a population lives longer (suicide is much more common in the elderly).

One might speculate about growing awareness of the bleak realities of the material universe and suicide rates but I honestly don’t see any connection. Few people are as fond of bleak realities as I am.

How politics works ..

Yesterday was about employees perspective on PAC donations.

Today is about how to purchase a 21st century American Senator.

Scott Adams is on a roll.


(Click to go to the readable original)

Worse than 1981

I don’t remember the 1981-82 recession. I’d finished college, and I was off on a grand adventure (thank you Thomas J Watson).  I returned and started medical school.

Whatever that recession was like, this one is considerably worse …

Along With Layoffs, Recession’s Cost Can Be Seen in Pay Cuts - NYTimes.com

… The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track pay cuts, but it suggests they are reflected in the steep decline of another statistic: total weekly pay for production workers, pilots among them, representing 80 percent of the work force. That index has fallen for nine consecutive months, an unprecedented string over the 44 years the bureau has calculated weekly pay, capturing the large number of people out of work, those working fewer hours and those whose wages have been cut. The old record was a two-month decline, during the 1981-1982 recession

Compensate Saudi Arabia for CO2 reductions?

Wow. I didn’t see this one coming….

Saudis Seek Compensation if Oil Exports Fall - NYTimes.com

Saudi Arabia is trying to enlist other oil-producing countries to support a provocative idea: if wealthy countries reduce their oil consumption to combat global warming, they should pay compensation to oil producers…

The tactic has a familial resemblance to calls for wealthy nations to compensate less industrialized nations for the economic impacts of shifting away from low cost fuels.

I doubt even the Saudis really expect direct compensation, it’s much more likely to be a negotiating maneuver.

I’ll take this one as an encouraging sign that CO2 negotiations are getting real.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The treacherous heart of the BlackBerry

This is why carriers like the BlackBerry -- and why you won't (emphases mine)...
BlackBerry Aims to Suit Every User - NYTimes.com

... The company has also cut the manufacturing cost of BlackBerrys by using variations on its existing designs that have allowed retailers to sell the devices at prices matching much simpler phones. For example, the BlackBerry Curve, R.I.M.’s most popular phone, is offered at Wal-Mart for about $50 with a contract. About 80 percent of R.I.M.’s sales this year have been to consumers, not to employers.

Mike Lazaridis, R.I.M’s other co-chief executive, says that the low cost of BlackBerrys allows cellular carriers to make more profit from the BlackBerrys than from other touch-screen handsets.

“We help carriers be profitable,” he said. “We gave them a way to get into the data business. Now we are giving them a way to manage their costs when they are worried that all they have to sell is highly subsidized smartphones.”
The BB is very profitable for carriers, because it costs very little to produce, it comes with a mandatory data services account and a 2 year contract, and it's such a crummy net device that it makes no demands on carrier capacity.

So consumers get a "free" phone that costs a bundle and delivers very little value.

Great stuff for the carriers, but eventually consumers will catch on.
 
Update 10/14/09: On the other hand, when AT&T moves to bandwidth adjusted pricing, the BlackBerry will be rehabilitated. It’s costs will move inline with value delivered – a productivity oriented low-bandwidth consumption platform. At that point, however, it won’t be nearly as appealing to the carriers.

When galaxies collide

This msnbc blog post has links to other spectacular Hubble images. I've downloaded them all and added them to iPhoto and my slideshow folder:
A smashing view from Hubble - Cosmic Log - msnbc.com
Long ago, a galaxy far away smashed into another galaxy - creating a beautiful, terrible knot of cosmic chaos. The view of that galactic collision, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, serves as a preview of what might well happen when the Andromeda Galaxy slams into our Milky Way galaxy billions of years from now....

Natural selection and H1N1 immunization

Funny ...
Why the far left and the far right both oppose swine flu vaccinations. - By Christopher Beam - Slate Magazine

....Perhaps there's a simpler, more elegant explanation for why members of both political extremes refuse to get vaccinated: natural selection.
Fortunately for this vaccine campaign, few remember the Cheney/Bush smallpox fraud. That Iraq war ploy injured and killed some volunteers.

My family will be vaccinated of course. We're not seeking a Darwin award.

The problem with the corporate PAC

Dilbert - 10/13/2009

Downside of Rush's race baiting career

A downside to Rush's wealth creating formula. You might not be able to do business with the people you've been insulting ...
guardian.co.uk

... Some players have said they would not want to play for the Rams if Limbaugh succeeds. "I don't want anything to do with a team that he has any part of," the New York Giants footballer Mathias Kiwanuka told the New York Daily News...
I wouldn't bet against this deal though. The NFL is as bottom line as any other megacorp.

Nokia netbook exposes future AT&T wireless data plans

AT&T has added Nokia's Win 7 "netbook" (a $600 mini-laptop with a very slow CPU) to its lineup. The 2 year contract price is $200, but they really don't intend to sell many ...
Nokia’s Netbook Comes With Marathon Battery Life - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com
... At the event, Glenn Lurie, the president of AT&T’s emerging device unit, said he understood that a $60-a-month data plan puts the device out of the range of many potential consumers. He said that AT&T will introduce other data plans with lower prices before the end of the year, possibly including prepaid plans and those that charge users only for the days they are actually online...
At $60/month AT&T is basically saying "don't buy this, you fool!". Their iPhone demolished network can't handle widespread netbook adoption.

I wonder if they had some kind of contractual launch agreement they couldn't dodge. This is really a silly launch.

The real news here, other than confirmation that Nokia is doomed, is that AT&T is going to give up on "all you can eat pricing".

That's a good thing - assuming we continue to real competition between Verizon, AT&T and Sprint/T-mobile. Flat rate pricing for a capacity constrained service is economic lunacy -- a lose-lose formula for AT&T and customers alike.

Meanwhile, we all wait for the launch of the Verizon-Google Chrome OS netbook -- the day the roof comes down.

Monday, October 12, 2009

This is why I don't do early OS X updates

Some people soar over the battlefield of life. They ride the soft thermals ... until they crash and die.

But we won't go there.

That's not me. On the field of life I'm infantry. It's ok, I've got lots of company.

So I just know that this 10.6 bug would have whacked me ...
More on Snow Leopard deleting user accounts after guest login | MacFixIt - CNET Reviews
... The problem seems to happen only when guest accounts were enabled for login under Leopard before updating to Snow Leopard...
It's quite a bug. It's a bit like a personal version of the Danger Microsoft Sidekick --log out and your data is gone. (Though it's perhaps possible to resurrect it, and everyone has backups ... Right?)

Good thing I still remember my scars from 10.4 and 10.5. So while we do use guest accounts on 10.5, we weren't affected because... we're still on 10.5.

There are some good things about 10.6. I'm looking forward to updating my MacBook around March 2010.

Apple needs to start doing open beta testing and give up on making their OS X releases great big secrets.

Update 10/13/09

Regarding the "Guest" account data loss issue, the symptoms sound very similar to those affecting Leopard users until the release of 10.5.5. Given the similarities, one might suspect the reuse of buggy code.

The 10.5 flaw actually had two facets - one is that the wrong home folder may be deleted. The other is that the same flaw permits login to non-Guest accounts without a password. See CVE-2008-3610 here:

About the security content of Mac OS X v10.5.5 and Security Update 2008-006
Description: A race condition exists in Login Window. To trigger this issue, the system must have the Guest account enabled or another account with no password. In a small proportion of attempts, an attempt to log in to such an account will not complete. The user list would then be presented again, and the person would be able to log in as any user without providing a password. If the original account were the Guest account, the contents of the new account will be deleted on logout. This update addresses the issue by properly clearing Login Window state when the login does not complete. This issue does not affect systems prior to Mac OS X v10.5.

Based on reports on the web, it appears that both aspects are present in Snow Leopard, and some users claim to have established the requirements for reproducibility. I don't have Snow Leopard so unfortunately can't test things for myself, but because of the implications, will refrain from posting a link to instructions. If confirmed, the key point would be that unlike Apple's assurances that it is something that occurs only in extremely rare cases, it may well be something that is guaranteed to be triggered based on a specific sequence of events, the likelihood of which may not be so "extremely rare" depending on an individual's habits.

Regardless, since the file deletion appears to be directly tied to the resetting feature of the "Guest" account, disabling GUI login for "Guest" should prevent that aspect from being triggered, and not having any passwordless accounts enabled (including "Guest") should take care of the other

I'd disabled the Guest account on my 10.5 machine, but based on this post I didn't have too. This was fixed for 10.5. Interesting that it could also hit accounts that have no password (eg. my mother's).

Pretty depressing if Apple restored a 10.5 bug of this magnitude in 10.6.