Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Saka (Indian civil calendar) year is it?

In 1752 America September 2nd was followed by September 14th. That's when the Britain and her colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar.

India still uses the Gregorian calendar, but, not surprisingly, they have many other calendars. The most official one is the "National Calendar of India, sometimes called the Saki calendar.

So what year will on the Saki Calendar when it's 2010 in America?
Calendar Converter

... A bewildering variety of calendars have been and continue to be used in the Indian subcontinent. In 1957 the Indian government's Calendar Reform Committee adopted the National Calendar of India for civil purposes and, in addition, defined guidelines to standardise computation of the religious calendar, which is based on astronomical observations. The civil calendar is used throughout India today for administrative purposes, but a variety of religious calendars remain in use. We present the civil calendar here...
This Fourmilab calendar page claims it's 1931, but elsewhere I've seen 1932. I hope the page is correct, because it has an awesome list of calendars including Julian, Hebrew, Islamic, Persian, Mayan, Bahai, French Republican and ISO-8601 (Y9K but not Y10K compliant):
ISO 8601 permits us to jettison the historical and cultural baggage of weeks and months and express a date simply by the year and day number within that year, ranging from 001 for January 1st through 365 (366 in a leap year) for December 31st. ... ISO dates in this form are written as “YYYY-DDD”, for example 2000-060 for February 29th, 2000; leading zeroes are always written in the day number, but the hyphen may be omitted for brevity.

All ISO 8601 date formats have the advantages of being fixed length (at least until the Y10K crisis rolls around) and, when stored in a computer, of being sorted in date order by an alphanumeric sort of their textual representations. The ISO week and day and day of year calendars are derivative of the Gregorian calendar and share its accuracy.
The Fourmilab calendar page is a very cool, very old fashioned web 1.0 page -- really a historic document.

So what, you might wonder, is Fourmilab?

Glad you asked ...
... This site is developed and maintained by John Walker, founder of Autodesk, Inc. and co-author of AutoCAD. A variety of documents, images, software for various machines, and interactive Web resources are available here; click on entries in the frame to the left to display a table of contents for that topic. Items which span more than one category are listed in all...
John Walker. A wealthy and eccentric geek of the first golden age of computing. Wow.

His personal web site is a blast from the past -- frames! There are links like "nanotechnology and eschatology", "consciousness studies" (including retrospychokinesis - martial arts students change past) and "Palm utilities".

Despite the charming HTML 1.0 feel, the site is not dead. He has a blog.

Funny world.

Healthcare standards: how you know they blew it

You only need to know one thing to know that the frenetic healthcare standards efforts failed ...
Life as a Healthcare CIO: The Interim Final Rule on Standards
... The adopted vocabulary standards for procedures are the applicable HIPAA code set required by law (i.e.,ICD-9-CM) or CPT-4. The candidate standards are the applicable HIPAA code set required by law (e.g.,ICD-10-CM) or CPT-4...
CPT. Fully owned by the AMA, CPT is a rough collection of work descriptions sometimes loosely related to procedures. It's not a vocabulary, it's not a classification, and it has no stable semantics.

The adoption of CPT as a healthcare "standard" is not the only sign of failure, but it is the most telling sign.

Thank you Mr President.

John Scalzi and Andrew Sullivan agree. President Obama has been a giant.

I say he's much more than American deserves. The roots of GOP rage are many, but one of them is that this man is so much better than they are.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CARE.ORG for charity: four stars, never bugs us

We were very late with our 2009 donation to CARE.ORG. I just got it done.

We donate to CARE, and very little to anywhere else, for four main reasons:
  1. Since they work with the most impoverished populations the reduction of human suffering per dollar donated is immense.
  2. They have a four star Charity Navigator Rating - CARE.
  3. Consolidating our donations to one organizations means less tax hassles and paper work.
  4. CARE doesn't bother us.
The last is critical. Most of the places we've donated to in the past plagued us with spam, mailings, unwanted calendars, stickers, etc. With a very few exceptions, CARE does not. Once a year or so, often after our major annual donation, we may get an email. I respond by saying our annual donation is contingent on never hearing from them. That's been the end of it.

Strongly recommended.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cloud Lesson #72: The risk of letting Google own your web site

Google finally migrated our Page Creator site to Google Sites - six months late.

It's a train wreck.

Remind me again why we're supposed to trust the Cloud?

America, please grow a spine

Another mentally ill al Qaeda cannon fodder has tried to blow up an airplane. It's encouraging that they're still scraping the barrel to recruit suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, in America, there are rumors that we'll have to forsake electronics and all motion or access to personal goods for the last hour of flight. At one point it was rumored that we'd have to go without a book for the "last hour". We might as well scratch all children and many adults with medical, cognitive or psychiatric disorders from flying.

Oh, and I love they way they say "last hour" as though planes never spend 1-2 hours circling the airport or waiting for a gate.

Meanwhile anyone who's seen a movie or read a book about smuggling or prisons is waiting for the first bomb smuggled in by body cavity - or surgically embedded into the abdomen. The next generation of scanners will have to incorporate a rectal probe.

The TSA administrators can't be as stupid as they look. They must know there's really no practical way to secure an airplane (train, bus, public space) against a truly competent and determined attacker. The best we can do is balanced risk mitigation. As Schneier has told us so many times, the big changes post 9/11 were to secure the cockpit door and look to the courage of passengers.

So if the TSA administrators aren't stupid, where do these regs come from? They come from legislative pressure. Now, many of our legislators are stupid, but not all of them. So why do they do this?

Because they know if a plane blows up and they didn't max out on security theater they'll be out of office - because we American voters are who we are.

We gotta stop this. Voters and legislators alike need to grow an American spine -- before our fear and stupidity drives us off the deep end of history.

Update 12/29/09: Signs of vertebral development. The absurd early responses have been dropped. Also, rectal bombs have already been used in Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

In praise of cardiac risk calculators

I've always had annoyingly high cholesterol levels, but I recently hit both age 50 and a new high cholesterol (though also a new high HDL). I figured it was time to bite the Statins.

First, though, I made the rounds of the risk calculators. I stuck with those on US and Canadian government and educational sites. The results varied depending on where the modeling data was taken from, but I generally fell between a 5% and 7% 10 year risk of a cardiac event (Said even is not necessarily fatal, but certainly unpleasant).

Even more significantly the only thing that really shifted my risk was to change gender. Even a fantastic statin effect, such as taking my cholesterol below 190, didn't change my risk much (from 6% to 4%, for a 33% relative risk reduction but a mediocre absolute risk reduction).

Considering that the statins are unlikely to be risk free [1] I decided to wait until my personal risk tops an arbitrary 10% threshold. In the meantime I'll continue to focus on diet and (especially) exercise.

The key lesson here is the value of these dynamic, personalized, risk calculators. They drive home the lessons we were taught in the 90s about the difference between statistical and clinical significance and they are an early and practical application of the principals of "personalized medicine".

Now if we could only apply these basic principles to airplane security planning...

See also:
[1] We have good reason to believe that the published literature has a systematic bias understating the risks of high value medications. We also know these are powerful medications that act on a wide variety of lipid receptors. On the other hand studies of absolute mortality risk in the last decade have been encouraging -- but those studies were done on persons with much higher risks of cardiac disease than mine.
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Google Health and my Google password

Google is infamous for not providing direct customer service. If you lose control of your Google Account you can be in deep trouble very quickly.

I thought of that as I experimented with entering my recent (yechy) lipid results into Google Health. Google Health is a part of my suite of Google services; if I lose control of my Google Account I also lose control of my personal health record (PHR).

How long will Google be able to provide a "PHR" without support services? Will they run into regulatory issues now that legislators threaten to extend HIPAA rules into the PHR domain?
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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tech Churn: OS X Server, MobileMe and the Cloud

I've been gradually working through all the expected and unexpected* consequences of moving in a new machine and sunsetting my 6+ year old XP box.

Along the way I've run into another example of technology churn.

In our home we have 5 users and a guest account that are distributed across four Macs - an iMac i5, MacBook dual core, iMac G5, and a surprisingly functional though immobile iBook G3 running Camino. Each machine has its own uses, and most have six accounts.

It's a furball. It doesn't work well, for example, to put all personal files on an AFP share (Spotlight doesn't readily index shares, Mail and Aperture have issues with shares, there's no trash recovery post delete, etc). It's a pain to distribute passwords (keychain), credentials, desktops, etc. Let's not discuss our modern backup mess, shall we?

Once upon a time the answer would have been reasonably straightforward. I'd buy a used Mac Mini, stick OS X server and two 2TB firewire drives (one backup and one local) and do manage desktops.

Except Apple's iCal server fiasco tells me their server team is in disarray. There's also a relatively modern alternative to consider; at one time this is what MobileMe was marketed for. It was have been kind of OS X server in the Cloud, accessible both from the home firewall and from remote clients. (As of 10.6, incidentally, I think a MobileMe user name/pw associated with a user account in the Accounts Preference Pane acts like a kind of (undocumented) alternative global user identifier.)

So should I make good user of our family MobileMe account? Well, I'm kind of doing that, but there's churn there too. MobileMe has been caught in the iPhone, photo sharing, Google Apps and Facebook swhirlpool. Nobody, not even Steve Jobs, seems to know what the heck to do with it.

Or maybe we could extend what we've been doing for 3 years, and move more of our family functions into the gCloud? If Google does deliver a $150 Chrome OS netbook then each child will have one. Maybe we should start now.

Or maybe, because there's so much technological uncertainty, we should stall for time.

I think we're going to stall for time -- which means some combination of an AFP share, a backup server, MobileMe synchronization and continued use of our successful family Google Apps domain. That means OS X Server stays on the shelf for at least another six months.

Tech churn is a pain.

See also:
Update 10/4/09: A positive review of OS X 10.6 server convinced me that I really don't want to go that route! If Apple does make MobileMe a sort of "OS X Server Lite" for that masses, however, I'd find value there.

Amazon holiday

It's getting hard for me to remember pre-Amazon. I know I bought books in the first few months of operation, when that was all they sold.

For our children, Amazon is eternal.

This holiday the Amazon boxes made one heck of a pile. Between the things we bought and Amazon gift certs from aunts and uncles the store in the cloud provided over 80% of the kid stuff (including things like the scope that came from Orion via the Amazon storefront).

We're clearly not typical of anything, but I'm looking forward to seeing how they did against the competition (though I expect nobody did great this year).

Incidentally, one fringe benefit of Amazon is that the gifts are concealed. Prying eyes are much less of a problem.

PS. Not that Amazon is perfect. In theory you can cancel mistaken orders even after they've been placed. In practice that doesn't work for affiliates, the orders still get processed. I didn't say I loved Amazon.
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The health care bill

Odds are something like the Senate bill passed today will become law.

I didn't hope for much, but I did have one selfish desire. I hoped we'd get alternatives to employment based healthcare. I hoped individuals would be able to purchase insurance with large group pricing. It looks like we won't even get that. Instead the cost of open market insurance is expected to increase. Subsidies will offset those costs, but they will have an income cap.

Oh, and we'll be paying for the benefit expansion too - since costs won't be significantly contained.


On the other hand the current debauched system will be shaken up. I think, on balance, we'll move closer to what we need, even though that won't be the fantasy most Americans expect. We'll take two steps backward, 3 steps laterally, and 2 steps forward and we'll make progress. Given how stunned and confused Americans are and the state of the GOP this is probably the best we can do.

We need a better American citizen.

Update: Joe Paduda is even bleaker than I, but still thinks this bill is worth doing.
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Coldest major cities?

A biking book I was reading claimed Minneapolis (meaning St Paul) was the coldest major city on earth. That might be true of the US if you exclude cities with metro areas under 1 million ...

... The coldest major city in the USA is Minneapolis, which has an annual average temperature of 45.2 F. However, several other smaller cities are much colder, including Fairbanks, Alaska (26.7 F), Anchorage (36.2 F), International Falls, Minn. (37.4 F), Duluth, Minn., (39.1 F), and Caribou, Maine (39.2 F)...
There's no way it's true of the world however. Edmonton is insanely colder, and their metro population is now over 1 million very tough people. Montreal is slightly warmer than us -- though the weather there is far more miserable (gloomy, slushy, thaw, freeze - yech). Winnipeg is colder than Minneapolis, but it doesn't make the 1 million cut (they claim to the coldest western hemisphere city over 600,000 people).

Google has only one list and it omits Edmonton (but includes Minneapolis) ...
harbin: -13 C/ 8 F (the 10th largest city in China with 9.8 million residents)
qiqihar: -13 C/9 F
urumqi: -8 C/18 F
changchun: -10 C/14 F
minneapolis: -6 C/22 F
montreal: -6 C/22 F
moscow: -6 C/22 F
shenyang: -6 C/22 F
So even on this list, we tie for 5th place with 3 others -- and this informal list omits Edmonton. I suspect if we use St Paul's post global warming temperatures (1990 on) we might fall out of the top 10.

We're definitely not the coldest "major" city on earth -- though we might make the top 3 of coldest wealthy city.

Incidentally, Harbin once had a Jewish population of 20,000 - in the 1920s.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alzheimer's, cancer and aging

Alzheimer's syndrome is associated with reduced risk of cancer. I'm not surprised, I wrote about this sort of thing back in 2006.

What we call "Alzheimer's" is probably a variety of disparate processes that lead, over time, to brain failure. The most common of these processes is probably above average aging of the brain. In other words, "Alzheimer's" is what you find in aged brains, it's where we're all going. Some get it sooner, others later.

Those whose brains age faster, or who start with less capacity, get demented sooner. Since accelerated aging seems to be inversely associated with malignancy risk, those who get demented earlier are less likely to get cancer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Scylla and Charybdis: Corruption, health care reform and climate change.

A combination of flawed institutional practices, the nihilistic devastation of the Party of Beck and Limbaugh, and the political, economic and social importance of health care reform have made corrupt Democratic party senators immensely powerful.

Since these people care about nothing but their own power and privilege, and because they hold millions of Americans hostage, they can extort a heavy price from far more honorable people. They make the Beckians seem almost respectable.

It’s a tooth grinding time for compassionate rationalists. We know the historic price of failure. We know the GOP is ever more the party of unreason. We know too, the deep cost of social and institutional corruption.

Knowing all this, for the sake of health care “reform” we’ve eroded our enamel. Do we go to dentures for the sake of senate action on climate change?

I don’t think we can afford it, and I don’t think it will work. American support for climate policy is as fickle as the weather – by comparison support for health care action is relatively strong. Even if we continue to feed the leeches we still won’t get meaningful senatorial action.

We’re going to have to find ways to act on climate change through a combination of Presidential powers, EPA regulatory authority, and state policy (California still matters – just as in the days of Silent Spring). Perhaps international CO2-based trade tariffs will cause enough American corporate pressure to bring pet Senators into line.

No, it’s time to stop feeding the leeches. We’ve given up a lot, and the price continues to rise.

This is the time to change course. The midterm elections are ahead, and the party of relative reason is almost certain to lose its Senatorial supermajority. Even if nothing else happens, Robert Byrd will expire.

Losing the supermajority means we can now open yet another front against political corruption in America. No, not against Lieberman – that corrupt sod is safe until 2012 and will be well rewarded thereafter. Forget mere justice, this is about survival.

We need to resurrect old ideas about campaign finance reform and start the long, hard fight against a culture of corruption that has grown up in so many aspects of American life – in politics, professional societies, physicians, the judiciary, corporate governance, the media, and in finance and regulatory authorities.

Personally, I’ll be writing more on this topic in the months to come under a new tag of “corruption”. To start with I’ve asked the Center for Public Integrity to make it easier to find the feed for their latest from the center page. I’ve also become a Facebook fan of the CPI (yeah, there’s irony in using FB to fight corruption).

I’ll be pointing to similar organizations and making some donations*. I’ll even be consorting with the enemy; although the GOP is merely seeking to advance their own immense corruption their attacks on corrupt Dems do provide valuable intelligence we can use.

We’ve given a lot of ground for the millions of Americans held hostage to health care reform. We’re at the cliff’s edge now, we’ve got no more ground to give. We need to push back.

Take your anger against Lieberman, Nelson, and the like – and use it. Not against them – forget ‘em. They’re history. Use your anger against their kin everywhere.


* If you donate to any of these groups, you will be spammed mercilessly. Yeah, that’s kind of corrupt too. It ain’t a sweet world out there. Don’t give them a phone number, do give them your spam-only Yahoo email account.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Google vs. Apple - Stross on the phone wars

Charlie Stross is a literate geek who makes a living inventing plausible worlds. That's why he can write one of the best tech posts of 2009 ...
Charlie's Diary: Gadget Patrol: 21st century phone

... I think Google is pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco's entire business model — of positioning themselves as value-added gatekeepers providing metered access to content — and their second-string model of locking users in by selling them premium handsets (such as the iPhone) on a rolling contract.

They intend to turn 3G data service (and subsequently, LTE) into a commodity, like wifi hotspot service only more widespread and cheaper to get at. They want to get consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets and pick cheap data SIMs. They'd love to move everyone to cheap data SIMs rather than the hideously convoluted legacy voice stacks maintained by the telcos; then they could piggyback Google Voice on it, and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages as well as your email and web access...
Please go now and read the entire essay ...

... Fun, isn't it? Charlie can write.

Charlie compares Apple to high end and luxury auto companies. It's an old metaphor, but it works. Extending that metaphor, what Google wants to do is deliver the Model T platform -- a super-cheap internet-connected phone and netbook for use in Detroit, Seoul, Kabul and Kampala.

2010 will be a very interesting tech year.
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Copenhagen - Better than I'd expected

If the UN's 2009 Climate Change Conference (Copenhagen) had reaffirmed the Kyoto Accord, or committed the world to saving Tuvalu, or promised to limit temperature rises to 1-2 degrees C, it would have been a disaster for humanity.

Instead we saw desperate back stabbing, dodging and weaving. That's a good thing.

No, I haven't turned into a Republican. The rise of China made the Kyoto accord absurd; affirming it would have a been a form of mockery. Similarly saving Tuvalu would require Americans to make radical lifestyle changes this month, and China to shut down its development. Not going to happen, so that kind of commitment would be a promise to do nothing.

We can't save Tuvalu.

A trillion dollars to offset the harm global warming causes developing nations? From the country that reelected George Bush? Puh-lease.

We've gotten about as much as humanity can produce. Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist writing for The Guardian, put it well (emphases mine) ...
Copenhagen summit: This marked a turning point in human nature | Colin Blakemore | The Observer
.... Copenhagen may mark a turning point in human nature, when the global village acquired a global mind.

What we have just witnessed is delegates from 192 countries talking about making sacrifices, slowing their development, constraining their industry, taxing their citizens, in a collective bid to stifle climate change. Those nations included virtually every race, every religion, every style of government – from monarchy to dictatorship, from constitutional democracy to communism.

For the past 5,000 years, agreements between nations have been determined by military or economic power, by political ideology or religious dogma. What Copenhagen has established, even if the final agreement fudges and procrastinates, is that a new force is at work in international diplomacy. A force that does not speak in terms of faith and conviction, that is not even absolutely certain about what it has to say. That force is science....

... In his first major speech after winning the presidential election, Barack Obama said of the value of science: "It's about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it's inconvenient – especially when it's inconvenient." And in his inaugural address, he promised "to restore science to its rightful place". Even with its flaws, what Copenhagen suggests is that the rightful place of science is at the heart of policy for a threatened world. The oceans are already rising. Either we sink, separately, or swim, together.
The leaders at Copenhagen, by and large, took the science of climate change seriously -- even though it's saying things they don't want to hear, and that their citizens often disbelieve.

That won't be enough to save Tuvalu, but it's more than I expected. The game is far from done.

Update 12/22/09: A relatively neutral observer tells us that China's goal was to sabotage the meeting and that Obama did yeoman's work: "I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying "no", over and over again..."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Prague as seen by superman

In addition to his well known x-ray vision, Superman could use his super-vision to zoom into small details. Details such as this teeny-tiny spot on a monstrous 360 degree panorama of Prague ...

The Panoramic photo site (w/ blog) describes the photo ...
... This is a super high resolution photo. Use your mouse to zoom in and see a startling level of detail. This image is currently (as of 12/2009) the largest spherical panoramic photo in the world. ... When it’s printed, it will be 16 meters (53 feet) long at regular photographic quality (300dpi). It was shot in early October 2009 from the top of the Zizkov TV Tower in Prague, Czech Republic. A digital SLR camera [jf: Canon 5D] and a 200mm lens were used. Hundreds of shots were shot over a few hours; these shots were then stitched together on a computer over the following few weeks...
It seems inevitable that one day, when we look something up on our phone, we'll be able to pan these photos as quickly as my relatively modern (new) machine does today. It's mind-boggling to zoom around Prague on a 27" monitor.'

The image creation used surprisingly average technology ...
...Canon 5d mark 2 and a 70-200mm lens, set to 200mm. The camera was mounted on a robotic device which turned the camera in tiny, precise increments, in every direction....a four year-old windows PC with two single-core 3ghz xeon processors and 8GB of RAM... .... The final image exists as a 120 gigabyte photoshop large (PSB) file. It cannot exist as a TIFF or JPEG file because of their size constraints. The panorama online exists as a few hundred thousand small tiles (in JPEG format), and they take up about 1 gigabyte of disk space.....
The tiled JPGs sum to only 1GB. That would fit on an iPhone.

I'm going to be following the site blog from now on.

Why mad cow? Against cannibalism.

It's not yet freely available online, but the Scientific American Origins issue has a nice short summary of the origins of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka "Mad Cow disease".

Turns out Mad Cow is now thought to be related to President Jimmy Carter's sweater. The first (prodromic) energy crisis led President Carter to wear a sweater in the chillier White House, and changed animal rendering from boiling to centrifugal separation. The centrifuges were kind to prions, so millions of cattle, uncounted small animals, and about 200 humans died a miserable death.

The true root cause, however, was cannibalism. Rendered cows were largely fed to non-rendered cows.

Eating one's own species turns out to be quite unhealthy - despite the compatible food stock. Prions are therefore a de facto form of species-specific poison, and they would contribute to natural selection against conspecific cannibalism.

Prions are presumably a relatively small contributor to the contra-cannibalism trend, but this is an odd upside to the otherwise blameworthy prion.

Update: The 200 dead number will grow. Sadly.
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The ChromeBook rumors grow

We've been expecting this, though we thought it would be earlier ...
Get Ready For The Google Branded Chrome OS Netbook

... Google has, according to multiple sources, been talking to at least one hardware manufacturer about building a netbook for Google directly. As in Google gave the company a RFP with quite detailed technical specifications and has begun discussions on building it.

They’re not in any particular hurry and seem to be aiming for the 2010 holiday season, a full year from now. Our understanding is that Google intends to have the devices built, branded with Google, and then sell them directly to consumers. The only firm tech spec we’ve heard is that they’ll be mobile enabled, and likely tied to one or more carriers with a subsidy.

... I’d even go out on a limb and suggest that they may very well be targeting Nvidia’s Tegra line. Those chips are outperforming Atom in every way, say some of the hardware guys we know. HD Flash video no problem (something the Atom can’t do), and at a fraction of the power usage.

What does that mean? It means next Christmas you may be getting a high performance Google branded netbook running Chrome OS for next to nothing. And if it’s running ARM, Intel is going to be freaking the hell out about it...
I speculated last February that Google would eventually have to split the company if this takes off. I think it will be huge.
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Google's IQ boost is only beginning

AltaVista was really pretty useful (it's still around - owned by Yahoo! now), but the first time I used Google, in early 1999, I knew AltaVista was history.

It's been almost 11 years since that day, and my brain's been following the usual middle aged fail. On the other hand, Google keeps getting smarter. So my brain + Google isn't doing as badly as my brain alone.

Take yesterday, for example. I asked Google for help with an esoteric Excel problem, and it told me how to use matrix operations to sum a range of inverted numbers. I didn't even know Excel had matrix operators.

It took minutes to answer that problem, and to acquire a new set of skills. There's no way I could have answered the problem 10 years ago.

Even though Google has its weaknesses (see also), it's only begun to get smart. Imagine what search will be like in 10 years.

Vinge's Rainbow's End classroom is feeling familiar, even as more of my brain is outsourced to the House of Google.

See also:
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Lieberman explained: He's a lot like Bush

This explains a lot.

... my favorite explanation comes from Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, who theorized that Lieberman was able to go from Guy Who Wants to Expand Medicare to Guy Who Would Rather Kill Health Care Than Expand Medicare because he “isn’t actually all that smart.”

It’s certainly easier to leap from one position to its total opposite if you never understood your original stance in the first place, and I am thinking Chait’s theory could get some traction. “When I sat next to him in the State Senate, he always surprised me by how little he’d learned about the bill at the time of the vote,” said Bill Curry, a former Connecticut comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial nominee."...
Lieberman is a dull man who's not that interested in understanding the world. He's dull enough to be profoundly corrupted by his insurance company donors, yet still imagine that he's an honest man.

A lot like George Bush Jr.

Post-HIV America

A celebrity is found to have been cheating on his wife. That's unsurprising.

He's believed to have been cheating with a large number of women of professional and easy virtue. That's minimally interesting.

Nobody mentions HIV. That's truly noteworthy. My medical school career began with what we later called HIV, and now it's all but forgotten.

We're in post-HIV America.

Update 12/19/09: NYT article on remembering a lost era - and lost people. HIV really has been forgotten.

Responding to Facebook’s lions: Stop friends using the apps

Facebook has made changes to their privacy settings that have two major consequences. The first is that the default settings now share much more information. The second is that users can no longer protect their social network from Facebook’s “Applications”.

Most of the media attention has been on how information is exposed to search engines such as Bing and Google. This is important, but there are complex workarounds. It’s not the most interesting or important consequence anyway.

The more important consequence is that Facebook’s shady App vendors (see: Scamville Furor, Facebook and the eBay disease) can no longer be blocked from accessing a player’s social network. So every App vendor has access to all player “friends” and all of the information they in turn make available in their public profiles. Remember that most of those public profiles now contain a great deal of personal data.

The Facebook Apps are “free”, but these vendors are not charities. They earn money by selling game goods, marketing extra-game services and products (some fraudulent), and by selling information. They will sell the social network information they harvest. They will also use that social network to find new “players” (aka “victims”).

To understand this it helps to think of Facebook as the African plains. In this metaphor Facebook users are rhinos and zebras and Facebook App vendors are lions.

Both rhinos and zebras graze on Facebook grass (photo sharing, social stories, contact information). They get along. So how are they different?

The rhinos don’t do Apps and they restrict access to their personal information. They’re tough and nasty; they don’t directly feed lions. The zebras, however, do Apps, and they travel in herds. They’re sleek, soft and vulnerable. Find one, you can find more. Lions eat zebras.

It’s messy for the zebras, but that’s how the market works. The Facebook ecosystem is a rich feeding ground, and lions have to eat.

Of course the Facebook ecosystem is more complex. Facebook rhinos and zebras are often friends and family. Even though lions don’t eat rhinos, FB lions find rhinos through their zebra friends. They then sell Rhino locations (information) to big game hunters (banks?) who sell Rhino horns for fertility potions (risk profiles).

The market world is different because rhinos and zebras can fight back. Not every vendor scores a 10 on Gordon’s scale of corporate evil; Google’s a mere 3 at the moment. There’s more than one way to make money – though the alternatives may mean a smaller IPO. On the other hand, Facebook’s current strategy runs the risk that IPO buyers will remember eBay.

It’s not clear that there’s anything to be done about Facebook. The corporate culture there is probably too much like 1990s Microsoft or 2010 Goldman Sachs for them to find another road. I’ve stopped encouraging my friends to join up with Facebook.

If you want to continue grazing Facebook’s grasslands however, and you don’t want to be lion fodder, there’s now only one possible response.

Convert your zebra friends to rhinos. Get them to stop using Apps. If they persist in using Apps, unfriend them. They’re leading the lions to you.

As of today, Facebook apps are the enemy.

Update: Great comment from Nettie. She refers us to Brad Stone's announcement of the EFF's complaint to the FTC - cosigned by ten other privacy organizations ...

... Ten other privacy organizations signed the complaint, including the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the American Library Association and the Consumer Federation of America. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada has also been looking into Facebook’s privacy guidelines...

I think it's fair to say that the fan has been hit. Like Nettie, I've noticed people drifting away from FB ...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another world - this one watery

Another week, another world. This one is wet (emphases mine) ...
.... The alien world known as GJ 1214b orbits a red dwarf star one-fifth the size of our own sun, 40 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus, the astronomers reported in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Super-Earths - planets that are roughly two to 10 times Earth's mass - represent the hottest frontier in the years-long search for worlds beyond our solar system...

... Those planets orbit stars like our own sun, but the brightness of GJ 1214b's parent star is hundreds of times dimmer. The planet is also much closer to the star than any of our own solar system's planets, orbiting at a distance of only 1.3 million miles (2 million kilometers). That combination suggests that the planet's surface temperature would be about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius), Charbonneau's research team reported.

... GJ 1214b was detected thanks to an innovative telescope system, a cleverly focused observation campaign - and perhaps a little bit of luck. The eight-telescope array, dubbed the MEarth Project, was set up at the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins in Arizona. The telescopes were programmed to gaze at 2,000 low-mass stars and check for slight, regular dips in light that could be caused by a dark planet's transit across the star's disk.

Relatively dim, relatively close stars were favored because the planet's dimming effect would be more noticeable than it would be with brighter, bigger, farther-out stars.

Just a few months after the MEarth Project began, graduate student Zachory Berta spotted the signature of GJ 1214b's 38-hour orbit. Based on the pattern of the dimming, the team figured out that the planet was 2.7 times as wide as Earth.

The astronomers then turned to another instrument, the HARPS spectrometer on the European Southern Observatory's La Silla telescope in Chile, to figure out the planet's mass. Such mass calculations depend on another technique that checks for the slight wobble in a star's motion caused by a planet's gravitational pull. The HARPS observations indicated that the planet was 6.55 times as massive as Earth.

Putting those measurements together, the team was able to model the planet's density and composition. The best fit for the data was a mixture consisting of about three-quarters water and other ices, one-quarter rock and a gaseous atmosphere.

... Although the surface temperature on GJ 1214b would be well above water's boiling point on Earth's surface, Charbonneau said the planet could nonetheless possess an exotic form of liquid water due to extreme atmospheric pressure at the surface. In today's news release, Berta said the pressure may turn at least some of the water into a rare crystalline form known as ice-seven.

"Despite its hot temperature, this appears to be a water world," Berta said.

On Earth, organisms have been found living near deep-sea hydrothermal vents, where superheated water is held under high pressure. But Charbonneau said he wouldn't want to bet that life could endure under GJ 1214b's crushing conditions.

In fact, it's too early to bet heavily on any detailed description of GJ 1214b. Fortunately, Charbonneau said, the star is close enough that the Hubble Space Telescope could someday analyze the composition of the planet's atmosphere. "That will make it the first super-Earth with a confirmed atmosphere - even though that atmosphere probably won't be hospitable to life as we know it," he said...

... The larger implication of the Nature study is that other super-Earths may be waiting out there with just the right conditions for life. "We found this planet in the first six months," Charbonneau noted. "We had only looked at a small fraction of the stars that we planned to look at through the entire project. That means that either we got really lucky - which is possible - or these planets are common."
Red dwarf planets are tidally locked, so one side would be very hot and another side very cold. In between?

The next two years are expected to bring news of hundreds of planets - maybe thousands. We're filling in terms in the Drake equation, and making the "great quiet" ever more unsettling.
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Alzheimer's and obesity: it's not the fat, it's the leptin?

It's puzzled me that obesity was associated with earlier onset of Alzheimer's. It makes sense that both the obesity and the dementia might arise from a common cause ...
BBC News - Alzheimer's risk linked to level of appetite hormone

High levels of a hormone that controls appetite appear to be linked to a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, US research suggests.
The 12-year-study of 200 volunteers found those with the lowest levels of leptin were more likely to develop the disease than those with the highest.
The JAMA study builds on work that links low leptin levels to the brain plaques found in Alzheimer's patients....
... Research on mice - conducted to establish why obese patients with diabetes often have long-term memory problems - found those who received doses of leptin were far more adept at negotiating their way through a maze.
The latest research, carried out at Boston University Medical Center, involved regular brain scans on 198 older volunteers over a 12-year period.
A quarter of those with the lowest levels of leptin went on to develop Alzheimer's disease, compared with 6% of those with the highest levels.
"If our findings our confirmed by others, leptin levels in older adults may serve as one of several possible biomarkers for healthy brain ageing and, more importantly, may open new pathways for possible preventive and therapeutic intervention."...
That's a huge relative risk - a 4 times higher incidence of dementia. Note that the mouse did better when given leptin (though mice seem to do better with just about anything). There's some interest in using leptin to prevent and treat Alzheimer's.

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15 cigarettes yields 1 mutation - the new world of cancer genetics

I remember when "oncogenes" were on the cover of TIME. They were the key to understanding malignancy, and would change the ballgame. That was about 30 years ago.

Now that handful of oncogenes have become tens of thousands of mutations ...
BBC News - Scientists crack 'entire genetic code' of cancer

... scientists found the DNA code for a skin cancer called melanoma contained more than 30,000 errors almost entirely caused by too much sun exposure.

The lung cancer DNA code had more than 23,000 errors largely triggered by cigarette smoke exposure.

From this, the experts estimate a typical smoker acquires one new mutation for every 15 cigarettes they smoke.

Although many of these mutations will be harmless, some will trigger cancer...
We used to think a cancer involved a few mutations. Maybe two or three. Not 23,000.

It takes an astounding number of mutations to knock off the systems that prevent cancer -- while managing not to kill the cell.

Among other things we now have a good explanation of why cancer risk falls after someone stops smoking. It appears that the mutated cells are replaced by healthy cells. If they're lucky the bad ones die off before one goes rogue.

So it's never too late to stop - or to get out of the sun.

The most marvelous world of the virus

A superb essay on the virus ...
A Gazillion Tiny Avatars - Olivia Judson -

.... whether you count viruses as living or not, there’s an awfully large number of them: a single drop of seawater may contain more than 10 million viral particles. That’s more than 10 billion in a liter (two-and-a-bit pints) of ocean. Some people have estimated that, in the oceans, there’s more carbon stashed away in viruses than there would be in 75 million blue whales.

Moreover, viruses are extremely diverse; there are zillions of different kinds. Some, such as MS2, a virus that attacks bacteria like Escherichia coli, have as few as four genes. Others, such as the gargantuan Mimivirus, have more than 900. (Mimivirus mostly attacks amoebae, although it is also suspected of occasionally causing pneumonia in humans.) And each time we look in a new place, we find more and more viruses that are different from those we have known before.

Fortunately for us, most viruses don’t attack humans; they attack bacteria and other microbes, which they kill on a colossal scale. In the oceans alone, viruses are reckoned to kill about 100 million metric-tons’-worth of microbes every minute.
.... viruses play a fundamental role in regulating the food chain. This is because death-by-virus is different from death-by-predator. When a predator kills a microbe, it consumes it: the microbe’s cell is incorporated into the predator’s body. In contrast, when a virus kills a microbe, the microbe’s cell bursts open, or “lyses,” releasing new viruses and a lot of cellular debris back into the environment. This debris can then be consumed by other microbes. In other words, by lysing their victims, viruses are constantly making food available to other life forms...
So do bacteria have a fundamentally different relationship to viruses than multicellular organisms? Why are they so much more lethal to bacteria than to us? Did the way our DNA propagates facilitate a "truce" with viruses?
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Never a good feeling – an attack on my Google account

Someone just made 3 attempts to reset my Google Password. The reset notice I received includes this statement …

… If you've received this mail in error, it's likely that another user entered
your email address by mistake while trying to reset a password. If you didn't
initiate the request, you don't need to take any further action and can safely
disregard this email….

A mistake. Suurre it’s a mistake.

I have a robust Google password, but the risk here is that someone has access to a secondary account that receives my Google password reset requests. Those have robust passwords too, but there are always weaknesses.

Just to be on the safe side I’ve reviewed my Google accounts password recovery options and they look good.

Brrr. I hate passwords. I’d have bet good money in 1996 that we’d have robust biometric authentication by now. I’d have lost every penny. A good lesson about predicting the future.

Update 11/18/09: Amit Agarwal was hacked around the same time I was attacked. It's not clear how they hacked in.

The ultimate climate conspiracy …

If I were an alien entity observing the earth, and I wanted to test humanity to the breaking point, I’d come up with a scheme that required China, India, America, Canada, Australia and the rest of the world to come together to solve a huge problem with uncertain consequences that unfolds relatively slowly and requires painful action from everyone on a time scale of years.

A trans-galactic gambling scheme? An alien art form?

Cue twilight zone music.

The common core of human language – as shown in speech recognition systems

Just one phrase in a wonder filled post on Google’s new Japanese speech recognition system

…speech recognition systems are surprisingly similar across different languages…

I bet some Google researcher has a multi-axial plot of the speech recognition attributes of the languages they work with. That will be a great graphic one day soon.

The essay is required reading. How the hell does anyone learn to write Japanese? Yes, I know people do it, but, really, how?

Most of all, this essay is a small measure of what Google does, and why I swear allegiance to the House of Google (3 on Gordon’s scale of evil). These are gray days in America, but we will return …

Understanding secure systems: The Chromium extension example

This very brief Google Chromium blog posting gives a lovely view into modern secure system design ...
Chromium Blog: Security in Depth: The Extension System
... To help protect against vulnerabilities in benign-but-buggy extensions, we employ the time-tested principles of least privilege and privilege separation...
The original has wikipedia* links to relevant articles. These principles are broader than computer security. Think of them when you provide access to your Facebook information.

"Least privilege" and "Privilege Separation" should be a part of grade school and high school curriculum.

If you want lots more detail, the authors refer us to their academic treatise on securing browser extensions.

I love blogs.

*Yeah, Knol was a bad idea.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Lazy journalism and the both sides fallacy – Ed Lotterman edition

A classic example of the lazy journalism of false equivalency …

Edward Lotterman – Real World Economics – Pioneer Press (

… Unlike in most other industrialized nations, U.S. citizens remain divided on whether climate change is really occurring. Indeed, the proportion that is skeptical is growing rather than shrinking…

…This is not a lack of consensus, but rather a fundamental division that is not likely to be solved in the foreseeable future. For significant portions of both camps, it has become a matter of faith rather than reason

When one camp is aligned with the overwhelming majority of the peer reviewed and respected scientific literature, and the other camp is not, this is not a “matter of faith rather than reason”.

One camp is on the side of reason, the other camp is faith-based.

This is, at best, a lazy invocation of the easy cliché. Most likely, it’s intellectual cowardice.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The historic pricing of an Ella Fitzgerald CD set

This range of prices for Twelve Nights In Hollywood: Ella Fitzgerald feels historic ...
List price CD: $70
Amazon CD: $56
iTunes AAC (256 kpbs, AAC encoded*): $40
Amazon MP3 (256 kpbs, LAME encoded): $34.31 (why the 31 cents?)
The Amazon MP3 is less than half the cost of list price CD.

I'd like a physical CD for Emily's gift, but at this price I'll burn a single representative sample from 50 song collection and put the entire set on her iPhone Christmas eve.

Oh, and the Amazon CD is "temporarily out of stock" anyway.

Gordon's scale of corporate evil - 1st edition

Top end of the scale is 15. It's a linear scale.
  1. Philip Morris: 15
  2. Exxon: 13 (see link to #1)
  3. Goldman Sachs: 12
  4. Facebook: 12
  5. For profit health insurance companies: 11
  6. AT&T and Verizon (tied): 10
  7. Microsoft: 10
  8. Average publicly traded company: 8
  9. Google: 6 (revised up after the Google Buzz fiasco, then down when they showed some wisdom)
  10. Apple: 5
  11. CARE International: 1 (They're not a PTC, so this is merely a non-evil reference point)
What's your ranking?

Update 12/15/09: I added Exxon thanks to a comment and because of the Philip Morris synergy. Exxon's astroturf climate change denialism (see also) campaign puts them in contention for the most evil publicly traded company of the modern era.

Update 1/6/10: Both Google and Facebook moved one notch up the evil scale. Google because of their arrogant, haphazard and uncaring Pages to Sites migration and Facebook because they sold their users out to their often crooked "Apps" vendors. Facebook is now more evil than Microsoft, and Google is tied with Apple.

Update 2/16/10: Google had dropped to '3' after unblocking China, but then leaps to '8' after the Google Buzz fiasco.

It's not AT&T's fault, it's the iPhone?

My gut finds this persuasive ...
Digital Domain - AT&T Takes the Fall for the iPhone’s Glitches -

... When I set about looking for independent data, however, to confirm the superior performance of Verizon’s network, I was astonished to discover that I had managed to get things exactly wrong. Despite the well-publicized problems in New York and San Francisco, AT&T seems to have the superior network nationwide.

And the iPhone itself may not be so great after all. Its design is contributing to performance problems.

Roger Entner, senior vice president for telecommunications research at Nielsen, said the iPhone’s “air interface,” the electronics in the phone that connect it to the cell towers, had shortcomings that “affect both voice and data.” He said that in the eyes of the consumer, “the iPhone has the nimbus of infallibility, ergo, it’s AT&T’s fault.” AT&T does not publicly defend itself because it will not criticize Apple under any circumstances, he said. AT&T and Apple both declined to comment on Mr. Entner’s assessments.

Neither AT&T nor Verizon was willing to reveal its internal data on performance. But Global Wireless Solutions, one of the third-party services that run network tests for the major carriers, shared some of its current findings. The service dispatches drivers across the country with phones and laptops equipped with data cards. They have covered more than three million miles of roads this year, while running almost two million wireless data sessions and placing more than three million voice calls, said Paul Carter, the president.

The results place AT&T’s data network not just on top, but well ahead of everyone else. “AT&T’s data throughput is 40 to 50 percent higher than the competition, including Verizon,” Mr. Carter said. AT&T is a client and Verizon is not, he added.
Why do I find this persuasive, even though one of the sources gets AT&T money?
  1. We only hear my fellow iPhone users screaming about AT&T quality.
  2. Remember Apple's rivals saying Apple didn't have the engineering background to make a quality cell phone? I suspect this is what they were talking about. Apple did amazingly well, but perfection is not human.
  3. Quality and reliability are not Apple's top priority (most recent example: my 2 day old flickering, stuttering, $2K iMac i5). It's not in their DNA.
Mind you, I despise AT&T. I think they'll shaft their customers whenever they can get away with it. Apple is flawed, but they're still better than everybody else. It's just that this time, when it comes to phone service, I suspect Apple is at least as flawed as AT&T.

Update 12/13/09: If the iPhone does have technical limitations that cause connection issues, is this why AT&T has not allowed tethering?

Update 12/14/09: Two rebuttals from Gruber: One, Two. The second points to Pete Mortensen, who shows the form of the question changes the answers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A really tough cop ...

This is impressive ...
In Holiday Crush, a Fatal Shootout in Times Sq. -
... The video showed Mr. Martinez turning, the police said, but he moved out of camera range. Police officials, who did not immediately release the video, said it also showed the sergeant reaching for his weapon and raising it.
It also showed Sergeant Newsom, who has been on the force for 17 years, raising his left arm over his chest in hopes of protecting his heart. It is a defensive move rookies are taught in the Police Academy. Police officials were astonished that the sergeant, less than 15 feet from the stubby barrel of a semiautomatic weapon with no hope of taking cover, was cool-headed enough to remember to do so.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Mr. Martinez fired first, getting off two shots. Then his gun jammed.

Mr. Kelly said the sergeant fired four shots. All four hit Mr. Martinez: in the chest, below the neck and in the left arm; he also suffered a graze wound to the right arm...
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Kurzweil and homeopathy: now crackpot certified

Ray Kurzweil made a bundle on speech recognition and speech related software. He's also done some good work with assistive technologies.

In later life he wandered off into the cultish fringes of the Singularity. He's seemed less anchored to reality in recent years, and now he's nuked the fridge (emphases mine) ... Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (9781605299563): Ray Kurzweil Ph.D., Terry Grossman M.D.: Books

According to futurist Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) and homeopathic medical doctor Grossman (The Baby Boomer's Guide to Living Forever), medicine is transforming into an information technology, which by its nature advances at an exponential rate..
Homeopathy is fundamentalist crackpottery (and "homeopathic medical" is an oxymoron). Kurzweil has really lost it.
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The state of social networks: Facebook, Twitter and one other

I’ve interacted with three social network systems. Two get a lot of media attention, but the most interesting one is currently invisible. Here’s how they look to me in December 2009.

Facebook is currently useful, but worrisome. It's useful because it’s been a useful way for me to share family news that (very) close friends may enjoy seeing. Facebook is where I announce that my 12 yo scored a goal in a hockey game, and where my readers would understand that a goal is not always just a goal. Facebook is worrisome because their business model is currently based on exploiting the weakest members of a social graph, and then on selling information and marketing access to the entire graph. It’s remarkable how uninteresting Facebook’s ads are. That’s a bad sign, even thought it says something interesting about the limited predictive value of one's friendships.

Twitter would be more interesting if I had an archaic cell phone with unlimited text messaging, or if I had an interest in the domestic disturbances of celebrities. Twitter’s usage is on the same track as Friendster and MySpace. I don’t think it will last very much longer.

The most interesting social network I know of, however, is one that has very few members, no media coverage, no books, little documentation, no clear strategy, and mysterious privacy and revenue models. This is the Google Reader share and comment graph including the (currently) “like-based” discovery model.

Through the Google Reader (GR) “like” link I’ve identified about six English-language writers around the world who share an interest in topics I want to know about. When I find one who is sharing interesting items I don’t see or know about, I add them to my GR graph. They may choose to follow me or not – that’s not relevant to me. The value is that I can follow what they do.

I add one such meta-feed to my knowledge stream every few weeks. The stream volume does not increase much, because I can in turn drop direct reads of streams my experts cover. Given the uber-geekiness of the GR graph membership the quality of shared items is currently very high, but I don’t see why this approach won’t scale even in the event that the GR graph gets market attention.

The primary risk to this model, of course, is that Google will lose interest. I suspect, however, that this experiment will provide Google with interesting ways to explore and classify the world’s information stream – a mission very dear to their revenue model.

Google’s machine translation is improving every month – I’m looking for my first Chinese-language source. That will be interesting.

The GR graph means Google wins and I win. Maybe, if this increases the value of the world’s knowledge stream, we all win.

I like that model.

See also

Update: Of course the day I post this is the day it seems to stop working. I am following about 17 people, but nothing happens if I try to add someone new. Google has been doing something funky with sharing permissions; it's possible that when I "follow" someone they have to approve before anything happens. So it's now more of a "request to follow".

Friday, December 04, 2009

Financial Times – the feeds and the Fail

I’ve finally given in to DeLong’s imprecations and added some Financial Times sources to my feeds. The FT sources ought to complement my much appreciated Guardian feeds.

I do get one feed from the Murdoch paper – the WSJ’s Health blog is actually pretty good. Otherwise, unlike Brad who seems unable to stay away, I ignore the WSJ.

Here’s the set I’m starting with, I’ll tweak it up and down over time.

So what will I drop? Probably some of the Economist’s feeds – that mag seems to be continuing its downward course. I expect Murdoch to buy it any time now.

PS. Google Reader's "Add to Folder" select menu doesn't scale. At least give it a scroll bar! As an interim measure I've deleted all my "Google Reader" tags. The Reader team really messed up the folder/tag metaphor.

Update 12/5/09: Ok, that was a Fail. The FT allows only a small number of free article views a month and the subscription fees I was shown when registering was about $200 a year - for electronic access alone. That was bad, but I might have considered it -- except a feed link takes me to a view that's incompatible with a mobile client. Delete all.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Singular fun with Fermi

I'm a geek. So I love to puzzle with the Fermi Paradox, and, like many fellow geeks, I'm tempted to connect the Great Silence to the "Singularity" (aka, the rapture of the geeks). That puts me on the pessimistic side of the Singularity cult -- as in "Hello Hal, Goodbye humanity".

Now since we're talking about the extinction of humanity within 40 - 300 years (I go for about 80-100 myself) you might think this would be a bit depressing. Well, it might be, except I've long known I'll be dead before 2070 and probably before 2050. Everyone I care about will be dead within about 110 years. These are the things we secular humanist types know, and yet we can be quite cheerful. Ok, not in my case. Less dour maybe.

The peri-Singular death of humanity is a serious matter for humans, but it's less inevitable than our personal exits, so by comparison the Fermi Paradox/Singularity schtick is more entertaining than grim. That's why I appreciated this comment on a recent post (edits and emphases mine, follow link for full text) ...
Comment by Augustine 11/29/09
... I don't trust predictions that are based on extrapolations from current rates of growth. These predictions are, and will be, correct, but only for limited time frames. Extend them out too far and they become absurd. Moore's Law works fine, and will continue to work fine for a while I’m sure, but basing predictions on ever accelerating computing power is about as useful as imagining accelerating a given mass to the speed of light.

The greater problem, however, with the argument lies in the fact that we are at best imperfect predictors ... You cannot accurately infer a future singularity when you cannot know what will change the game before it happens, if you get my drift...
There's more to the post, but I'll stick with these two questions. The "limits to exponential growth" argument is even stronger than stated here since, in fact, Moore's Law itself has already failed. We have some more doublings to go, but each one is taking longer than the last.

So maybe we'll never have the technology to make a super-human AI. I think we'll make at least a human-class AI, if only because we've made billions of human-level DI (DNA-Intelligences). Even if computers only get five more doublings in, I think we'll figure a way to cobble something together that merits legal protection, a vote, and universal healthcare. (Ok, so the AI will come sooner than universal healthcare.)

So we get our AI, and IT's very smart, but it's comprehensible (Aaronson put this well). So this is certainly disruptive, but it's no singularity. On the other circuit, it does seem odd that today's average human would represent the pinnacle of cognition. Our brains are really crappy. Sure the associative cortices are neat, but the I/O channels are pathetic. A vast torrent of data washes out of our retina -- and turns into hugely compressed lossy throughput along a clogged input channel. We can barely juggle five disparate concepts in working memory. Surely we can improve on that!

So I'm afraid that Newton/Einstein/Feynman class minds do not represent a physical pinnacle of cognition. We'll most likely get something at least 10 times smarter. Something that makes things even smarter and faster, than can continuously improve and extend cognitive abilities until we start to approach physical limits of computation. Before that though, the earth has been turned into "computronium" -- and my atoms are somewhere in orbit.

As to the second objection, that we can't imagine a singularity because we can only reason within the system we know, I think that's actually the point. We can't imagine what comes after the world of the super-human minds because -- well, we don't have the words for that world. We can reason within the system we know until sometime close to when these critters come online, then we can't.

That doesn't mean humanity necessarily kicks off. Lots of geeks imagine we'll upload our minds into unoccupied (!) processing environments, or that the AIs will be sentimental. Not everyone is as cheerily pessimistic as me. It's not called a "Singularity" because it's the "end", it's because we can't make predications about it. Super-AI is death to prediction.

The siege of Munster – Yikes.

I thought Melvyn was pushing a bit hard during In Our Time’s program on The Siege of Münster, but by the end I could see how much he had to cover. This 16th century nightmare is a cross between the “Killing Fields” and Jim Jones Kool-Aid in Guyana with the “Tailor King”, Jan (Bockelson) van Leyden, in the starring role as a brutal theocratic polygamist*.

In the early 20th century van Leyden was considered a precursor to Hitler, and although IOT’s academic rejected the comparison I find it more persuasive. There are even some similarities in the reaction. The Munster horror made the Anabaptists radical pacifists and made some common cause between European Catholics and Protestants. The Holocaust made post-war Germany a peaceful state, and led to the creation of the European Union.

van Leyden introduced polygamy into his besieged cult. I wonder if memories of Munster played a role in the early 19th century response to Joseph Smith, then mayor of Nauvoo, and his polygamous theocracy.

It’s horrifically fascinating, and overdue for a cinematic interpretation.

* There are curious attempts to sanitize van Leyden, including, at this time, the wikipedia article I link to. I’d go with the trio of IOT’s academic historians over the Wikipedia article on this one; he was a  Monster in a monstrous time.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

It's not over. The rise of second generation spam.

First generation spam was pretty bad, but it's more or less under control now. Between sharpening spam recognition algorithms, crowd sourcing, and managing the reputation of authenticated sending services Google has beaten back the tide.

So that's it for spam?

Heh. Of course not. Now we have second generation spam.

Second generation spam does not use forged headers -- though the headers do seem to change a fair bit. This spam is not anonymous, it markets real goods, services - and politicians.

The goods and services aren't too hard to manage. I created a filter that sends anything from "" to the trash -- that took care of 80% of it.

The politicians are much worse. I get daily spam from fund raising politicos, PACs and other accessories to the political process. I now have about 25 Gmail filters that do nothing but delete all incoming email from their domains. The domains typically last a few months, and then there's a new crop. At this rate I'll have 200+ Gmail filters that delete email from largely defunct domains.

What? Ask to be removed from the lists? Clearly you're just toying with me. I tried that of course, but it doesn't work. I just get added back in they next time some politico buys a list. (Maybe I should start forwarding to as well?)

It's hard for any ISP to block this kind of spam. Politicians generally exempt themselves from laws that slow fundraising; if Google blocked their spam they'd be asking for a world of hurt. Better to get between a Grizzly and her cub than between a politician and your wallet.

We need a different approach to political spam. Sorry, I have to vote for some these dorks -- better spam than Palin and her ilk! So changing my vote's not enough. Any ideas?

I do have one quick fix. Google could add a "blacklist all from this domain" to the message action select menu. Choose it and the message is deleted and the blacklist entry created in a one move.

Another related fix -- allow Gmail users to share their blacklists. So Google wouldn't get in trouble, because we'd be choosing what block.

Any other ideas?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Climategate: Gordon Speaks


I've been reading my always excellent blog sources, so I'm ready to comment on Climategate ....
Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident - Wikipedia
... Unidentified persons allegedly hacked a server used by the Climatic Research Unit, posting online copies of e-mails and documents that they found.[5] The incident is being investigated by Norfolk police[18] and involved the theft of more than 1,000 e-mails and 3,000 other documents,[9] consisting of 160 MB of data in total.[12] ...
For my own record, here's my take:
  1. UK researchers have a very innocent approach to email. In the corporate world we write email the way I used to write my medical notes -- to be read in a courtroom. Remember Lomasney chaps.
  2. If the released emails are the worst the hackers found, there's not much of a story here.
  3. I'd make a solid wager that five years from now the climate consensus will not have materially changed. The science will stand. (I would love to be able to invest in a Climate Futures Market. I hope we get one.)
  4. Scientific fraud is not rare. So it must always be considered. There is, however, stronger evidence of fraud among the solar forcing research community and among the denialist astroturfers.
  5. Research data is money, power, tenure, fame, grants, hot babes (ok, 5/6) -- it is the currency of science. I sympathize with scientists who want to hold on to their data, though not with the Journals that may impede open sharing. In this case, however, we are talking about research with inestimable implications. In the case of Climate Science, we must insist on an unusual degree of access to research data. There's already progress but sharing is not natural for most scientists. Encouragement will be needed.
  6. I'm looking forward to learning who the hackers are, and what their motivations were.
  7. There's room for rational disagreement about the risks and approaches to global climate change. The denialist community is making it hard to engage in that dialog. That may be one of the more pernicious effects of their quest for fame.
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