Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tea is the gateway drug to Militia movement

The Sepoy mutiny (IOT) is traditionally said to have begun with a rumor that new rifle cartridges, which soldiers had to bite to use, were greased with pig and cow fat.

The rumor spread quickly, and enraged many. It sounds plausible to me, but Melvyn Bragg's 3 guests all agreed that the truth was irrelevant. The rumor was a spark on dry kindling. It didn't have to be true, and refutation was irrelevant.

When a people are prepared to believe, beliefs are powerful and fungible.

I thought of that story when I read David Barstow's epic study of the all-white Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement is rife with fear and rumor, and it is ready to believe.

The Tea Party had its roots in the GOP, but now it's largely lead by Glenn Beck. Wildly popular with a part of the GOP base the Tea Party is a threat to the corporate heart of the GOP - and Beck's Mormonism is an issue for GOP evangelicals.

So the Tea Party is mixed blessing for the GOP. That's a problem, but it's not the big problem.

The real problem is that the Tea Party is proving to be a "gateway drug" to the pro-terrorist Militia movement and a wide range of the far right fringe parties. Timothy McVeigh wannabes are warming up, just as they did for Clinton.

Challenging times.

See also:

Snitty Apple Console message

I've been having OS X issues lately, so I've spent time in the Console (yes, the days of full function OSs are limited).

I liked this particular message:
2/28/10 10:32:19 AM [0x0-0x294294][6407] Sun Feb 28 10:32:19 Stanford-MacBook-2.local Microsoft Excel[6407] : The function `CGPDFDocumentGetMediaBox' is obsolete and will be removed in an upcoming update. Unfortunately, this application, or a library it uses, is using this obsolete function, and is thereby contributing to an overall degradation of system performance. Please use `CGPDFPageGetBoxRect' instead.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reflections on friends who vote GOP

I have not been a fan of the modern GOP. I see today's GOP as the party of torture, corruption, thoughtless bellicosity, cynical manipulation of American fears and hatreds, bad policy, anti-science, anti-reason, and so on. I also disagree with most GOP values, though my support for abortion rights is unenthusiastic.

And so, when a good person and a friend writes asking when I might join the "sane" party, I am taken aback. My Dems are often (mostly?) corrupt, pompous and venal - but I do think of them as the saner party. How can good people feel the GOP is the sane alternative? It is suspiciously convenient to say these people are delusional. Instead I'll try to examine their beliefs along four chasms - Facts, Values, Faith and Tribe. I think I can understand their beliefs best in those terms.


Not everyone obsessively follows hundreds of blogs and uses selected super-readers as fact filters. More reasonably, but unfortunately, not everyone reads If you live in some parts of the country, and if you don't read online news or the New York Times, you will be told many things that are not true. More perniciously, you won't hear of anything that might change your perceptions.

If you believe the chain letters, or the WSJ OpEd page, or Murdoch's newspapers, you may well believe the Democrats are insane.

This seems like the easiest canyon to bridge. Facts, after all, can be tested. Predictions can be falsified. In reality, however, Vulcans are few. People may be attracted false facts because they support three other chasms.

Values and culture

What do the strong owe the weak? When do the ends justify the means? What are the limits to tolerance? What far can Americans move from a cultural mean?

These are fundamental differences. A good and generous person may feel they owe nothing to the weak save what they choose to give. That person is a natural supporter of the GOP. These are legitimate distinctions


We usually think of Faith in terms of Deities, but there can also be a Faith in Markets. Faith, by definition, is not amenable to discussion. If you believe the true duty of all men is to serve a particular deity, then your first political choice must be to support the Party closest to your deity. If you believe that Markets are infallible, then you must support a Party that shares your belief.

The chasm of Faith is a legitimate distinction between the GOP and the Democrats. Even religious Democrats tend to accept theological tolerance -- even when that tolerance is theologically inconsistent. The GOP has a much stronger claim to the Christian fundamentalist vote.


Humans support their Tribe. It is especially hard for a member of a powerful Tribe to see its time is passing. The GOP is the Party of the White Tribe, and in particular of the White Male Tribe. The Democratic Party has a much blurrier Tribal identity, but if you're non-White or Gay or Lesbian it's a natural home.

The GOP and Dems are separated by chasms of Fact, Faith, Values and Tribe. The chasm of Fact seems easiest to cross, but often choices of Fact serve needs of Faith, Values and Tribe. Good persons, by reasons especially of Faith, Values and Tribe, may feel my party is less than sane.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Surviving corporate life - stand or sleep

Pity the American office drone. This week we see our premature demise from multiple angles ...
Stand Up While You Read This! - Olivia Judson -
...It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting ... you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you...

... Several strands of evidence suggest that there’s a “physiology of inactivity”: that when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you....

... consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.
So you can't sit -- but you can't just stand all day either ...
How siestas help memory: Sleepy heads | The Economist
... It has already been established that those who siesta are less likely to die of heart disease. Now, Matthew Walker and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that they probably have better memory, too. A post-prandial snooze, Dr Walker has discovered, sets the brain up for learning....
... The ideal nap, then, follows a cycle of between 90 and 100 minutes. The first 30 minutes is a light sleep that helps improve motor performance. Then comes 30 minutes of stage 2 sleep, which refreshes the hippocampus. After this, between 60 and 90 minutes into the nap, comes rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep, during which dreaming happens. This, research suggests, is the time when the brain makes connections between the new memories that have just been “downloaded” from the hippocampus and those that already exist—thus making new experiences relevant in a wider context.

The benefits to memory of a nap, says Dr Walker, are so great that they can equal an entire night’s sleep. He warns, however, that napping must not be done too late in the day or it will interfere with night-time sleep. Moreover, not everyone awakens refreshed from a siesta.

The grogginess that results from an unrefreshing siesta is termed “sleep inertia”. This happens when the brain is woken from a deep sleep with its cells still firing at a slow rhythm and its temperature and blood flow decreased. Sara Mednick, from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that non-habitual nappers suffer from this more often than those who siesta regularly. It may be that those who have a tendency to wake up groggy are choosing not to siesta in the first place. Perhaps, though, as in so many things, it is practice that makes perfect.
Wireless headsets mean we can do calls easily while standing, pacing, even doing some light weight lifting -- or perhaps while going for a walk (though not with an AT&T iPhone - the connection will drop). Siestas are tougher. There's much to be said for working remotely ...
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Fallows on the Nexus One - feel the fear Apple

James Fallows is a senior editor at the The Atlantic, and an adventurous man with a first rate mind. He's not a tech guy by profession, but at heart he's a geek.

I put a lot of weight on his incidental tech opinions, such as his review of the Nexus One.

Briefly - he likes it. A lot. He's abandoned his beloved BB like yesterday's fish.

Feel the fear Apple. Banning Google products from the iPhone was a cowardly and desperate move. You may yet regret infuriating your geek customers.

You know how to reach me Apple. I have suggestions.

Nikon and Canon. Apple and Google. Competition is good.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Canada v USA - bring it on

I couldn't watch the first USA v Canada game. But now ...
Team Canada brings down Russia (Montreal Gazette)

... At the Olympics, Canada hadn’t defeated the Russians in any form -- as Russia, the Soviet Union or United teams since 1960, that black-and-white TV era when Canada was represented by Harry Sinden and his fellow Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen. Canada’s overall Olympic record against Russia just improved to 2-9.

Yes, it’s been 50 years since Canada celebrated an Olympic win over this nation, and if that number rings a bell, it should. It was also 50 years between Olympic gold hockey medals when Canada won at Salt Lake City in 2002.
Canada next faces the winner of the Sweden-Slovakia game. The US beat Switzerland so they play the Czech-Finland winner.

At this point both the US and Canada are favored to win their next games.

If they do, we're set for one hell of a showdown.

Update 3/4/2010: It was all we could have hoped for. Fabulous game. Just fantastic.

The rise of software rental (aka software as service)

I'm evaluating the combination of Notational Velocity and Simplenote (iPhone) to manage my "notes" [1], including those related to home and work. I'll have more on that in my tech blog when I've got some personal experience, but it's interesting now to look at how software pricing is changing.

For years we've "leased" software, but we've had effectively unlimited licenses. After a vendor reaches their core market (revenue), they have little incentive to continue supporting the product (costs). Few vendors have Microsoft's power to force upgrades [2]. Some very fine software has died of this "natural cause".

On the other hand "cloud" services like SmugMug have a sweet recurring revenue model. They sell their service at a yearly price, and they can be the envy of desktop vendors (SmugMug benefits from a wicked lock-in, but that's another post.)

Over the past few years, however, I've seem more vendors experiment with 1 year licenses. This is an easier sale if there's a server-side dependency. For example, after a 1 year hiatus I again pay about $20 a year for Spanning Sync, primarily so I can sync my OS X Address Book with Google Contacts.

Simplenote is floundering about with pricing, but I gather they've suffered the usual iPhone app fate - initial growth then no revenues. Judging from their recent customer reviews they've been flamed for obscuring their current sales model [3]. As of today the base application is "free", but if you look very closely at their web site you might see mention of the "premium" service. The premium service is $9/year and includes:
  • no ads
  • automatic backup of older notes
  • create notes by email
  • RSS feed
  • Unlimited API Usage (free limit is 2,000 API requests/day)
This seems like a very nice set of services and well worth the price -- especially since Notational Velocity (open source, free) means there's no data lock.

The last is an essential requirement for the new model of subscription software. There can't be any data lock. You have to able to move to alternatives easily, or just walk away and be none the worse off. Both Spanning Sync and Simplenote (with Notational Velocity) meet this test.

I like this new model, as long as it's tied to data freedom. It gives me hope that the sofware I love will stick around for a while.

[1] See below. My current solution (Tooldedo Notes + Appigo Notebook) isn't bad, but I'd like to free my notes from the limitations of proprietary formats and I'd like to find a solution that will enable easier integration with Outlook/Exchange note-type functions.
[2] Corporate customers pay for the latest version of Office even if they choose to deploy older versions.

[3] Their pricing model seems entirely reasonable. So why the heck can't they make it more obvious? I wonder if there's a language problem here ...

Update 2/25/2010: I'm still evaluating Simplenote + Notational Velocity + Simplenote Chrome extension (aka simplenote ecosystem), but that tech blog post isn't ready to publish. It is interesting, however, to note the international background:
It's a creative world. The dominance of the US in software development was always unnatural; that time has passed. US Patent laws will accelerate the migration of software creativity to more rational nations.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics - explained

Eons ago my peers used to puzzle over the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Back in the 1960s an essay on the topic by Merci Cooper ended with this conclusion …

… The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve….

Why is it that the “the great book of the universe is written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo Galilei)?

In a recent In Our Time programme on Mathematics' Unintended Consequences I heard, from one guest, a personally persuasive explanation. It’s a fundamentally anthropic explanation that goes something like this:

  1. Entities that can do mathematics arise as a consequence of natural selection.
  2. Natural selection can only occur in regions of a universe that have interacting and persistent patterns (perhaps including recursion).
  3. So a universe containing mathematicians will also be a pattern-based universe.
  4. Mathematics is a process for describing and manipulating patterns.
  5. Therefore mathematics is a language that can describe pattern-based universes, including our own.

I’m good with that.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

OS X defect: The missing uninstaller

I strongly prefer OS X and Macs to running XP or Windows 7. (I've no experience with Vista, I know XP extremely well and Win 7 well).

Even so, there are several domains in which Windows crushes OS X -- and has for many years.

One example is Windows terminal services/remote desktop. It's fabulous technology; Apple's VNC variation is relatively pathetic. Another is Parental Controls. A third is the file security model. There are about a half-dozen of these persistent, significant, but little noted Windows advantages.

One of the most peculiar Windows advantages arises from Apple's approach to product uninstallation. Take CrashPlan for example:
FAQ: Installing and Uninstalling [CrashPlan Support Site]
...Mac OSX: Open the installer.dmg file and run the uninstaller.
Windows: Use Add/remove programs.
Windows -- Use Add/Remove. Mac - go to the product website (if it still exists), find an installer, download it, run it.

One of the painful memories of my OS/2 days was learning that installation was irreversible. Many applications could not be uninstalled from the WorkSpace environment. Things are only a little better in OS X.

Yes, many apps can be uninstalled by dragging them to the trash. Many, however, cannot.

This is an ancient problem, and Apple has never shown an interest in fixing it. It's one of those lacunae that makes OS X feel old and forgotten.

PS. Incidentally, the CrashPlan uninstaller is a very unfriendly unix shell script that, at one point, asks for your admin password in a fairly cryptic manner. It fits with my suspicion that CrashPlan has been causing my MacBook to lockup on awakening from sleep.

AIDS, South Africa, Lysenko and Climate Change Denial - when ideology trumps science

In an article talking on the hopeful prospect of controlling HIV through a combination of screening and treatment, we are reminded of one of the great tragedies of the 20th century -- how the ideology of Mandela's African National Congress tarnished his personal legacy and, far more importantly, led the premature death of millions ...

Blanket HIV testing 'could see Aids dying out in 40 years' | World news |

... More than 30 million people are infected with HIV globally and two million die of the disease each year...

... The disease is overwhelmingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for a quarter of all HIV/Aids cases globally. Half of these are in South Africa....

The ANC in general, and Thabo Mbeki in particular, chose ideology over science. Mandela, by then an old man, did not object. Millions will die, even with the best current treatment millions will suffer and many will die prematurely.

Stalin made a similar mistake, choosing Lysenkoism over Darwinism, in part because Lysenko suited Stalin's ideology. Millions died of the famines that arose in part from following Lysenko's practices.

In modern America the GOP is today following the grim path of the African ANC and the Soviet Communist Party. Again, ideology is preferred to science. Again millions of lives are at stake.

There is hope. Most of the GOP disagrees with me about the responsibility of the strong for the weak, and much of the GOP doesn't share my thoughts on the role of fundamentalist Christian theology in American governance. Those differences are fundamental, and not directly amenable to logic or scientific resolution. On the other hand, the GOP's opposition to climate science seems more opportunistic and tribal. There is room for negotiation, including creation of a Grand Jury of Science to help move the cultural debate.

This is not the time to give up. GOP -- don't become the ANC.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

IOT Radiation: Gamma and X-rays

In Our Time, Radiation is a superb 50 minute review of 19th century physics -- with bits before and beyond. This is the physics that brought us much of the modern world - though for GPS we needed Einstein.

Listening again to how physics became ether-free I couldn't help but recall the old McCluhan meme --"The medium is the message". Deep, man.

I also finally learned the relationship between Gamma Rays (Hulk) and X-Rays (Superman). In retrospect, I've been forever confused by the alpha, beta, gamma particle nomenclature.

For the few who might be as unknowingly confused as I've been all my life, X-rays are forms of light (EM radiation) associated with electron transitions. Gamma rays are forms of light (EM radiation) associated with processes in the atomic nucleus. (A wikipedia article on Gamma Rays suggests my confusion arose in part due to the redefinition of Gamma and X-rays over the past thirty years.)

Alpha and beta "radiation", on the other hand, isn't electromagnetic (light) radiation -- it's particle emission. The confusion between alpha, beta and gamma "radiation" arose when they were discovered and named together.

Of course I'm sure I've got something wrong in this summary, but it does feel like progress.
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The Houben story - things that are too good to be true

Too often, miracles aren't.

The Guardian - Nov 23, 2009 ...
Trapped in his own body for 23 years - the coma victim who screamed unheard | World news | The Guardian

For 23 years Rom Houben was imprisoned in his own body. He saw his doctors and nurses as they visited him during their daily rounds; he listened to the conversations of his carers; he heard his mother deliver the news to him that his father had died. But he could do nothing. He was unable to communicate with his doctors or family. He could not move his head or weep, he could only listen.

Doctors presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. They believed he could feel nothing and hear nothing. For 23 years...
The article refers to the results of a new brain scan that showed normal activity. Houben had been "locked in", but conscious. The story received international attention. It seemed plausible to me, though horrifying. The implications were obvious for the care of other persons in a vegetative state.

Except ... Looking at it on the original Guradian article one can see an aide holding Rom Houben's hand. It's the only clue that his communications were "facilitated". I never saw that picture. Had I seen it I'd have been very skeptical. Facilitated communication is a tragic deception.

Today, Feb 20, 2010, the Guardian reports ...
No miracle as brain-damaged patient proved unable to communicate | Science | The Guardian
It seemed to be a medical miracle: the car crash victim assumed for 23 years to be in a coma who was suddenly found to be conscious and able to communicate by tapping on a computer.

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was. The story of Rom Houben of Belgium, which made headlines worldwide last November when he was shown to be "talking", was today revealed to have been nothing of the sort.

Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben's apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared...
It's a terribly sad story for Rom Houben's loved ones and for all the families and friends of persons in vegetative states. Many hopes have been falsely raised.

Miracles, by their very nature, require skepticism. The Guardian should been far more cautious last November. They're an interesting news organization, but they're not the New York Times.

A Google Reader snapshot of the coverage is interesting (click for full size) ...

Despair and climate change - a Grand Jury of Science

Despair is easy.

Sometimes it is justified. Other times, humanity surprises.

Dramatic change happens. It usually takes at least 20 years, and there are usually reversals along the way. In my lifetime I can easily think of smoking cessation, the end of littering, women's rights, gay rights, civil rights, cleansing of wealthy nation water and air, the fall of the Soviet Empire, dramatic reductions in family size, the creation of the EU, the Y2K resolution, the international Ozone agreement, and the dramatic reduction of poverty and suffering in China and India.

I thought 9/11 would be the start of a long series of mega-terrorist actions around the world, including bioweapons and dirty bombs. It wasn't.

It's these kinds of slow moving but radical changes that make elderly people say things like "it will all work out in the end". It's not true of course; history tells us it often doesn't work out. Anyway, in the end we're all dead. Still, the sentiment is understandable. If you're 80 you've seen a lot of intractable problems solved.

So, no matter how easy it feels, despair about American politics, global climate change response, institutional corruption, healthcare costs, US healthcare coverage, world food supplies, the end of cheap oil, the collapse of mainstream journalism, the Great Recession and rich world debt is an unaffordable indulgence.

Consider the response to climate change. We know we need a carbon tax equivalent and more, but America has moved backwards on this one. There's widespread American doubt about where the Earth's climate is going and what we can do about it.

So how do we start to turn this around? We can't expect leadership from the cognitively impaired and corrupt US Senate. We need to turn the American people. Hollywood won't do it.

So how about a Grand Jury of Science? Greybeards remember Richard Feynman's role on the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger disaster. That committee, led by a genius with a robust ego and a showman's flair, produced a robust and widely trusted report on a complex technical and social issue.

We need something like that today. We don't have big popular names like Feynman or Einstein at the moment, but we've got great scientists and communicators all the same. Obama could put together a Grand Jury of Science led by a team of scientific communicators and working (ie. under 65) non-climate scientists.

The panel would call witnesses from the world of Climate Science and cross-examine them. Under the committee's auspices climate scientists, economists, and technical consultants would prepare an American (has to be American to be plausible) rigorous report on what the science tells us, what the uncertainties are, and what we should do (ie. Carbon Tax).

Yes, Americans pay far more attention to Glenn Beck than to mere logic and science, but remember the 1964 Surgeon Generals Report on Smoking and Health. Even though it really didn't say anything new, it still became the foundation for a discussion that took (yes) 20 years to conclude. At the time it came out smoking was routine, even expected. The report played a vital role in a major social change.

Victory is far from guaranteed. Failure is an option. Despair, however, is not permitted.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Google has Aspergers

The geek world has been debating whether Google's Buzz debacle arose from incompetence or malevolence. Did Google think they were doing something genuinely delightful, or is Buzz simple a cynical emulation of Facebook's "be evil" strategy?

I've been learning to the cynical and evil explanation, but a comment by Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, has changed my mind ...

...talking to phone industry executives at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Schmidt said that nobody had been harmed by Buzz and that the problems were merely the result of poor communication...
This is an outrageous statement. Schmidt cannot know that nobody was harmed, either directly through the bonding of Buzz streams to public profiles or indirectly through inevitable misunderstanding. Even if he were omniscient, since many people have felt harm, it's a stupid thing for a CEO to say.

So why does this make me feel that Google is more incompetent than evil?

Because in my experience someone who says something that's obviously wrong most often believes what they are saying.

Which brings me to my corporate diagnosis. We can do that now that our courts have decided that corporations are people. I am a physician after all.

Google has Asperger(s) syndrome. For Google, people are an slippery and elusive concept. It explains a lot.

PS. I don't care what the DSM V says about Aspergers, it's a useful concept.

Update 2/22/2010: I think the person responsible for Buzz is also responsible for the obstinate Gmail message thread-by-subject-line model. Same sort of stubborn certainty.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Google's latest inadequate Buzz patch - Profile deletion

Google claims to be trying to fix the Buzz Problem, but they're refusing to reduce the link between a public Google Profile and any Buzz activity.

For Google the public Profile is the great search prize. They won't give this one up easily.

So at the moment the only way to truly remove your public Buzz trail is to delete your Google Profile:
Edit your (Google) profile - delete profile:

... This will disable Google Buzz integration in Gmail and delete your Google profile and Buzz posts. It will also disconnect any connected sites and unfollow you from anyone you are following...
You can now do this from your Google Dashboard, from Profile settings, and possibly from the Buzz tab displayed in Gmail (which I no longer see).

There are side-effects to Profile deletion. It appears it will not only remove your Buzz followers, it will also remove your Google Reader followers. It may also remove your authentication with various connected sites and your Gmail OpenID credentials. It also removes any value attached to your Profile before Google attached the Buzz stream to it.

Google needs to do two things that they are extremely reluctant to do:
  • Near term: allow users to remove Buzz streams from the public profile.
  • Longer term: allow users to associate multiple Google Profiles with a single Google account and to control which ones ares associated with various Google properties, authentication and sharing services, etc.
Until they do these things, they have earned their new Gordon's Corporate Evil Scale score of '8' - average for a publicly traded company and in spitting distance of Microsoft's '10'.

Update 2/20/10: A week after I removed my full name from my Google Profile a search on my name still retrieves the profile and the few Buzz posts I've left undeleted. Quite a screw-up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

American crisis – imagining a way out

This betrays a certain lack of historical perspective. We’ve been through worse, other nations have been through much worse. Compared to the American Civil War, the Black Death, or even the many versions of “great” Depressions we’re in pretty good shape.
Not that success is guaranteed, but it’s quite easy to imagine.
As a starting point, I’d suggest some subset of this list would suffice:
  1. Political reform. I’ve got another post brewing on this. Fourteen years ago I satirized “public incorporation” of representatives, but now we have corporate persons with political rights. We’re in trouble. Many current Senators appear to have early dementia, and our political candidates are often lousy. We need to rethink who we elect, how we elect them, and how old they can be. We should draw on ideas from professional training and licensing and from jury selection.
  2. Taxes. We’re going to raise taxes – a lot. We should do a Carbon Tax. We will do a VAT equivalent. We’ll do “death” taxes – again.
  3. Immigration - Oh Canada: Canada figured this one out years ago. We have too many decrepit boomers. We  need to balance my generation with vigorous, energetic highly talented youth. So let them in based on professional and academic qualifications and business guarantees.
  4. Inflation: 3% should help whittle down those foreign debts. Don’t say you weren’t warned China.
  5. Give up on the Empire. The Soviets couldn’t afford their empire. Guess what? We can’t either.
  6. Delay Dementia: We’re all going to have to work longer, but we can’t all bag groceries. For one thing, that job’s going to a robot someday. Unfortunately, normal brain aging means most of us won’t be good for much more by the time we’re 72. We need a ton of research into slowing the inevitable onset of dementia. (Ok, so if you die it’s not inevitable.)

Note that my list doesn’t include “controlling health care costs”. That one’s simply inevitable, so I don’t bother with it.

In Our Time archives - EVERY EPISODE from Oct 15 1998 onwards


You know, this really did deserve more than just a small aside on the recently redesigned IOT web site...
BBC - Radio 4 Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time
...For the first time, listen online to every episode ever broadcast, from Aristotle to the History of Zero...
The list includes many, perhaps all, of the legendary lost episodes...
... These ‘lost editions’ include topics such as Science and Religion, Childhood, Consciousness, The End of History and Quantum Gravity, and they’re discussed by guests including Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen and the sadly deceased Stephen Jay Gould. The term ‘treasure trove’ is bandied around quite casually these days, but for anyone who enjoys In Our Time, these transcripts are very valuable...
I found Quantum Gravity (RealMedia only) from Feb 22, 2001 - but they "by year" list currently only goes back to 2004. So they've got some bugs to work out.

Sometime around 1999 the format drops to 30 minutes and the theme becomes "the 20th century". Then we come to the very first episode (Oct 15, 1998):
... In the first programme of a new series examining ideas and events which have shaped thinking in philosophy, religion, science and the arts, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss warfare and human rights in the 20th century. He talks to Michael Ignatieff about the life of one of the 20th century’s leading philosophers, Isaiah Berlin, and to Sir Michael Howard about the 20th century will be remembered; as a century of progress or as one of the most murderous in history.
When we see pictures on television of starving people in war torn areas most of us feel we must ‘do’ something. Where does the feeling that we are in some way responsible for our fellow human beings originate historically? How has technology affected the concept of the Just War? And what are the prospects for world peace as we enter the next century?
With Michael Ignatieff, writer, broadcaster and biographer of Isaiah Berlin; Sir Michael Howard, formerly Regius Professor of History, Oxford University and joint editor of the new Oxford History of the Twentieth Century.
Ignatieff now leads the Liberal Party of Canada.

Thank you BBC and thank you Lord Bragg and brave guests. There is still hope for humanity.

Update 3/4/2010: The handful that weren't online have since been added. It appears to now be complete!

Update 3/17/2010: The older material mostly uses RealAudio. That's easy to capture using AudioHijack Pro (you do need to read the manual, see also my old directions). Some of the very oldest material, however, is now rendered with the newish BBC iPlayer. To capture that I had to change the AudioHijack source to "Safari"; AHP switches Safari to 32 bit mode to Hijack the stream. I think I would have to change it back to 64bit myself, but I'm inclined to leave it in 32 bit mode for a while. Quite a bit of software doesn't like 64bit.

Update 5/21/2010: I gave up half way through the 30 minute 1999 (year two) Utopia program. It wasn't exactly bad, but the newer material is much better. I suspect today's guests rise to greater expectations than those of early days, and Melvyn is better at keeping people, including Melvyn, on track. It's also likely that ten years of intense study have moved Melvyn into a different world of background expertise. Incidentally, there's a painful point in the Utopia program where the guests expound on a cheesy essay about a posthuman utopia of the genetically enhanced. Melvyn's guests have almost no science fiction background; their futurist dialogs are pathetically naive. We ought to make post-1980 science fiction reading a requirement for a liberal arts degree.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Good-bye Buzz – for now.

I’ve clicked the link at the bottom of my Gmail account to discontinue Google Buzz.

I was initially enthusiastic because of the value of Google Reader notes – a precursor to Buzz. I hoped Google would fix the notes confusion/neglect while also giving me a better version of Twitter.

Instead, Google’s most senior leadership, the people leading and testing Buzz, blew it big time. They failed to understand the multiplicity of adult identities. All I can guess is that Brin et al are so wealthy and powerful that they have become fundamentally disconnected from mainstream reality.

I gave Google some time to recover, but they’re only playing around the edges. Google remains determined to tie all Buzz discussions directly to a user’s public Google Profile, perhaps as a way to manage spam and to drive search/marketing revenue.

Disappointing, but I’ll be back if they fix it.

Update: Even though I've removed Buzz via Gmail, my Buzz posts still appear on my Google Profile. Not funny Google.

Update 2: I've reversed the procedure that made my Profile searchable. It's non-intuitive, but the "Display my full name..." setting in "edit profile" toggles searchability. When unchecked a Google Search on a my name no longer returns my profile. The profile URL has not changed and prior links still show the public view. That public view still includes Buzz posts even though I've disabled Buzz support in Gmail. I've removed other information from my Google Profile and I expect I'll continue to trim the profile unless Google has a dramatic conversion.

Update 2/17/2010: In depth critique - with cartoon. Credit for focus on the Profile.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Buzz profile problem: I am Legion

My name is Legion; for we are many many (Mark 5-9).

I am father, brother, in-law, son, and spouse. I am coach. I am volunteer. I am citizen and activist. I am a physician. I am an (adjunct) professor. I am an oddity in a large, conservative, publicly traded corporation. In the corporation I am a team member, known to some customers, occasionally publicly facing, known in various ways and various places. I have other roles and have had many more over time.

I am Legion. So are most middle-aged persons.

Only one person knows all the roles and all of the stories that are not excruciatingly boring (hi Emily).

That’s the problem with Google Buzz, and why my Google Profile doesn’t include my pseudonymous (John Gordon) blog postings or my Google Shared items.

Buzz is tightly linked to my Google Profile, and my Profile is trivially discoverable. I don’t want corporate HR or a customer or business partner to instantly know that I’m a commie pinko Obamafanboy with a dysfunctional Steve Jobs relationship.

I have LinkedIn as my bland corporate face, and, despite Facebook’s innate evilness, a FB profile for friends and family. Inside the corporation I’ve a blog that serves as a limited persona.

We all have many roles, identities, avatars, personae, limited liability personae, characters, facets and so on. The problem with Buzz today is that it’s tied to the Google Profile, and that profile is the closest thing to my unified public face. It crosses boundaries. So it can only hold the limited information channels that are available to all.

Google gets some things right, and a ton of things wrong. They take a statistical, loosely-coupled, evolutionary approach to technology development (the exact inverse of Jobs the Intelligent Designer). I’m looking forward to where Buzz goes, but I’ll be cautious for a time. They can start by giving us more control over what aspects of the overall Buzz connection stream appear on our public profiles.

Update 2/11/10: More on the mess-up. Google really didn't think this through very well. They may end up feeding the families of a number of lawyers. I'm sure they weren't dumb enough to roll this out in the EU, but if they did the fines may be significant.

Monday, February 08, 2010

John Wooden - Pyramid of Success

I'd never heard of John Wooden before I came across this drawing on the wall of an old arena in Northeast Minneapolis (click for full size) ...

Wooden was a basketball coach at UCLA, and he is said to have spent 14 years polishing versions of this drawing (see pdf version). He's 99, so we should here more about him in a year or so.

As a guide to competition one could do worse. There's nothing there about curiosity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, imagination, empathy, creativity, love or questioning authority - it's a guide to battle, not to life.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Clampi Trojan says …. Get a Mac

A Windows 2003 server machine I use may, or may not, have been infected with the Clampi trojan (ilomi.b or ilomo.c, which depending on your font, may look a lot like llomi or IIlomi or ILomi).

I say “may not”, because the combination of “Windows 2003” and "antivirus” has a high rate of false positive claims that can wreak as much destruction as the antiviral software.

In researching the Clampi trojan Google suggested I read this summary (emphases mine) …

Clampi/Ligats/Ilomo Trojan - Research - SecureWorks

… Clampi’s recent success in infecting victims is accomplished by using domain administrator credentials (either stolen by the Trojan or re-used, or by virtue of the fact that a domain administrator has logged into an already infected system). Once domain administrator privileges are granted, the Trojan uses the SysInternals tool "psexec" to copy itself to all computers on the domain.

Clampi also serves as a proxy server used by criminals to anonymize their activity when logging into stolen accounts…

… Clampi is operated by a serious and sophisticated organized crime group from Eastern Europe and has been implicated in numerous high-dollar thefts from banking institutions. Any user whose system has been infected by Clampi should immediately change any and all passwords used on that system for any websites, but especially financial credentials.

… Most major anti-virus engines should be able to detect Clampi variants; however there is always a delay between a new Trojan release and the detection time.  Given the prevalence and seriousness of the Clampi Trojan, it is recommended that businesses that carry out online banking/financial transactions adopt a strategy to isolate workstations where these activities are carried out from possible Clampi or other data-stealing Trojan infections.

This may include using a dedicated workstation for accessing financial accounts which is isolated from the rest of the local network and the Internet except for the specific financial sites required to be accessed. Since Trojans can also be spread using removable drives, systems should be hardened against auto run-type threats. Businesses may even consider using an alternative operating system for workstations accessing sensitive or financial accounts.

Home Computer User Protection
SecureWorks CTU recommends that home computer users use a computer dedicated only to doing their online banking and bill pay.  They should not use that computer to surf the web and send and receive email, since web exploits and malicious email are two of the key malware infection vectors. 

As an alternative to operating a secure home PC for all important work, home users could, you know, buy a Mac. They would then have one machine to use for everything.[1]

Maybe Apple is funding Clampi development?


[1] The Mac’s vast security advantage comes from the “faster friend” security philosophy. When you and a friend are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you have be faster than your friend. OS X 10.6 is, in practical terms, fundamentally more secure than XP, but not necessarily theoretically more secure than Microsoft’s very latest foul demon. The big Mac advantage is that the world’s criminals don’t own Apple machines, and have very little interest in targeting Macs as long as the vast majority of banks and corporations run some flavor of Windows. I’ve often wondered, incidentally, if Windows 98 isn’t now a very secure environment. I doubt many Trojans would infect it any more.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

How common is Job?

Job was remarkably unlucky.

He was either the victim of serial disasters through random chance, or a pawn in an obscure debate between Lucifer and Yahweh.

Unfortunate either way.

Kind of like me with tech ware. Which is why tomorrow I'll try to figure out why my backup drive has no data on it. (I'm bringing my MacBook into the office. It's relatively trustworthy.)

My tech misfortunes are nuisance rather than tragedy, but they make me wonder how many modern Jobs are out there.

Let us assume that, in middle age, one encounters a reasonable tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one or a major disability about once a year. Less often in a wealthy nation like ours, more often in, say, Haiti. Average, say, 1 week in 50 if we distribute over enough people.

So how many people on earth can we expect to have an uncorrelated tragedy (discounts plagues, etc) once a week for the next 5 weeks in a row?

The answer is (1/50**5) * 8,000,000,000 or 25 people. Over the course of a year the number of people experiencing this is much higher of course (alas, my combinatorial knowledge is too old to calculate this without some study).

There must be a few people, over the course of a lifetime, who will encounter up to 10 uncorrelated tragedies over a 10 week interval. Beyond Job.

It's a big world.

Lessons from my external drive purchase

I needed a SATA drive enclosure in a hurry for a work machine, and a 1TB external drive wouldn't be a bad thing either.

So I ran out to Best Buy and bought an Iomega Prestige 1 TB USB 2.0 Desktop External Hard Drive for only $10 + taxes more than Amazon.

It's only after I make my purchase that a friend asks "are you sure it's not soldered in"? WTF? Soldered?

Turns out these low end drive/enclosure bundles save pennies on connectors by soldering drives in.

No, this one isn't soldered in. And it's easier to open than the LaCie enclosure I have at home, though it's a bit of tight fit. It's also, of course, an IDE drive (the drive is Samsung, the case fanless, with a metal case that hopefully radiates nicely).

Sigh. Makes sense. Why use a SATA drive when there are still lots of cheap IDE drives around? The USB connection is much slower than the drive anyway. It just didn't occur to me that IDE drives were still sold. I thought they were extinct!.

So now I have my backup drive, but I still need my SATA connector.

I learned two lessons.

The first lesson is that there are no quick purchases in tech. Unless it's something you have direct knowledge of, you can't duck the research chore.

The second lesson is that life with Macs has made me unsuited for the intricacies of PC hardware management. I just don't get the practice I used to get!

Monday, February 01, 2010

My apology to the political press

In July of 2007 I wrote this around a quote by Ambinder Digby ...
Gordon's Notes: John Edwards: Another man the media dislikes
It's increasingly clear that the US media dislikes John Edwards almost as much as they disliked Al Gore. Digby draws some conclusions ...
"...Ambinder says right out that "fairly or unfairly" the press can't stand John Edwards and so they are going to bury him. This is, of course, not unprecedented, since we saw what they did to Al Gore for the same reason... (And there is no question about whether it's fair. It most certainly isn't.)
Now, I am not especially surprised that the press corps doesn't like John Edwards. Many of these people probably didn't like guys like him in high school either and one thing we know about the political press corps is that they have never matured beyond the 11th grade.... I have to ask, once again, just who in the hell these people think they are and why they think they are allowed to pick our candidates for us based upon their own "feelings" about them? ...
Each time they've pulled this puerile nonsense in the last few years, it's resulted in a mess that's going to take even more years to unravel. And they learned nothing, apparently, since they are doing exactly the same thing in this election. If the press really wants to know why they are held in lower esteem than hitmen and health insurance claims adjusters, this is it..."
Krugman had a similar rant a while back. I don't think the '11th grade' is the full story; we need an insider to figure this one out. I do agree that the US media have about as much right as the GOP to be sanctimonious. Their star hangs low.
In Slate on Jan 29 Christopher Beam tells us the tricks of Edwards affair(s).

Dear Edwards-tracking press corp. You were right. Thank you for saving us. I'm sorry I was mean.

Know when to fold 'em. Calvin and Hobbes.

Very short, no personal revelations ...
Bill Watterson, creator of beloved 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic strip looks back ...

... It's always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now "grieving" for "Calvin and Hobbes" would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them.
I think some of the reason "Calvin and Hobbes" still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.
I've never regretted stopping when I did...
Makes one miss his voice all the more. Of course, never return to Calvin and Hobbes, but does he really have nothing to say that we would like to hear?

What would it take to get a public speech? Presidential Medal of Honor? The Nobel Prize in Literature?

It would be cruel to wish such fates upon him, so I won't.

He is, and will forever be, perhaps the greatest master of the short graphic story.

Apple and Amazon – Be nice to your science fiction writers

This Friday, when the traditional media was going to sleep, Amazon removed all Macmillan books from its online store. Not just eBooks, everything.

It was a bold move in a price-and-control technology-transition-type war with book publishers. Superficially, it looks like the kind of thing Apple did to the music labels. Corporate warfare – who cares?

Except there’s always collateral damage. In this case, including science fiction writers.

Who are, often, geeks. Geeks who write. Geeks who write well for money. Geeks with printing presses and readers.

By Friday night, the hellfire had begun …

It kept coming through the weekend. By Sunday Amazon surrendered unconditionally …

I never even got to write the blog post I was mentally composing.

I wonder how long it took Amazon’s executive team to recognize they had to bail. Six hours?

They never even got to face the wrath of the mystery fans, much less the romance readership. For both of those readerships, however, the news and response would have had to go through ailing newspaper channels. The response cycle would have taken weeks, and Amazon’s ploy might have worked.

Science fiction writers have a far more connected, and more vicious, readership.

I trust Amazon and Apple have learned something. If they want to crush book publishers, they must first win over the science fiction writers. They are, however, a very suspicious and imaginative bunch …

PS. Amazon just killed the Kindle. Smart move guys.

Computers, viruses, intelligent design, natural selection, memes, mitochondria and, of course, the Fermi Paradox

Once upon a time it was every computer virus for itself. In those days there wasn’t much competition, and there wasn’t much of a business model.

Now there are business models for viruses, all based on variations of fraud and theft. Computers are important resources – they provide access to vulnerable wetware and replication facilities.

We know how this sort of thing works in the wet world. A dead host is a dead end. If a computer is so disabled that it become intolerably annoying, the wetware will turn it off. The optimal infection would make the computer more attractive, increasing the return on fraud and the replication rate.

So we would expect computer viruses to start fighting one another, each struggling to create the optimal infection. In time, some would start collaborating, creating de facto alliances. Synergies. Communities. Ecologies.

Except computer viruses don’t, yet, mostly, mutate and evolve in the traditional sense. They develop through vaguely-intelligent design. Still, this is the path they’re following. Modern computer infections include routines to disable rivals.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Well, it doesn’t exactly, but close enough. It’s such a cool meme, one can’t avoid replicating it.

In this instance, though, it’s cybology that recapitulates immunogenesis. We’ve long noted that the human immune system seemed to have quite a bit in common with the viruses and other infections it more or less opposes – when it’s not turning on us that is. Now we know that animals are, in large part, holobiontic ecologies of coopetiting viri.

Which makes it easier to understand how bacterial life ever developed in a sea of seething viri, and then became intracellular things like mitochondria and chloroplasts. Not only understandable, but perhaps inevitable. Inevitable that viruses should emergently collaborate to create bacteria, and thus cells and animals that should have minds and memes and computers and thus to other things too.

Which also explains the eerie silence.