Saturday, December 31, 2011

Finance 2.0, Oil and Project Syndicate - entertainment 2012!

My, oh, my, it's still a whitewater world.

Ezra Klein tells us ...

America’s top export in 2011 is refined fuel ...

... UC San Diego economist James Hamilton ...  the glut of new shale oil in North Dakota. Since there’s not enough pipeline infrastructure to get all that oil down to the Gulf of Mexico for export, it’s been piling up in Cushing, Okla. That makes it cheap for refineries in the Midwest to refine it and ship it out than to simply ship the oil directly...

Brad Delong tells us that the business of America is Finance (8.4%, healthcare is about 17%, emphases mine) ...

America’s Financial Leviathan - J. Bradford DeLong - Project Syndicate

... In 1950, finance and insurance in the United States accounted for 2.8% of GDP, according to US Department of Commerce estimates. By 1960, that share had grown to 3.8% of GDP, and reached 6% of GDP in 1990. Today, it is 8.4% of GDP, and it is not shrinking. The Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart reports that the 2010 share was higher than the previous peak share in 2006....

... it remains disturbing that we do not see the obvious large benefits, at either the micro or macro level, in the US economy’s efficiency that would justify spending an extra 5.6% of GDP every year on finance and insurance. Lahart cites the conclusion of New York University’s Thomas Philippon that today’s US financial sector is outsized by two percentage points of GDP. And it is very possible that Philippon’s estimate of the size of the US financial sector’s hypertrophy is too small.

Why has the devotion of a great deal of skill and enterprise to finance and insurance sector not paid obvious economic dividends? There are two sustainable ways to make money in finance: find people with risks that need to be carried and match them with people with unused risk-bearing capacity, or find people with such risks and match them with people who are clueless but who have money. Are we sure that most of the growth in finance stems from a rising share of financial professionals who undertake the former rather than the latter?

Perhaps, then, what we need are 'heroes' who can separate foolish rich people from their money?

Saudi America and Finance still amuck; this world would be more entertaining if we didn't live in it.

Speaking of entertainment, Brad's post was the first I'd heard of Project Syndicate ...

Project Syndicate - the highest quality op-ed articles, analysis and commentaries

... Project Syndicate: the world's pre-eminent source of original op-ed commentaries. A unique collaboration of distinguished opinion makers from every corner of the globe, Project Syndicate provides incisive perspectives on our changing world by those who are shaping its politics, economics, science, and culture. Exclusive, trenchant, unparalleled in scope and depth: Project Syndicate is truly A World of Ideas. As of December 2011, Project Syndicate membership included 477 leading newspapers in 151 countries. Financial contributions from member papers in advanced countries support the services provided by Project Syndicate free of charge or at reduced rates to members in developing countries. Additional support comes from the Open Society Institute...

Lots of the usual suspects there .... Bhagwati, DeLong, Rogoff, Robini, Stiglitz, Joseph Nye, Jeffrey Sachs, and many more names I should probably know. It's not new, Google Reader went back to 10/2010, and there are series posts from 2008. They don't seem to be marketing very seriously.

I don't see any way to explore their archives by date. It's darkly amusing to read Nouriel Roubini's predictions on the Great Recession at the end of 2008 ...

Will Banks and Financial Markets Recover in 2009? - Nouriel Roubini - Project Syndicate

The United States will certainly experience its worst recession in decades, a deep and protracted contraction lasting about 24 months through the end of 2009. Moreover, the entire global economy will contract. There will be recession in the euro zone, the United Kingdom, Continental Europe, Canada, Japan, and the other advanced economies. There is also a risk of a hard landing for emerging-market economies, as trade, financial, and currency links transmit real and financial shocks to them...

... 2009 will be a painful year of global recession and further financial stresses, losses, and bankruptcies. Only aggressive, coordinated, and effective policy actions by advanced and emerging-market countries can ensure that the global economy recovers in 2010, rather than entering a more protracted period of economic stagnation.

The NBER tells us the US left recession in June 2009, though this is a technical determination. I suspect most Americans feel we're still in a recession.

Good thing I don't have enough to read.

Update: Browsing Project Syndicate, I'm finding a fair bit of pompous nonsense (Naomi Wolf?!). I'll probably have to subscribe to individual contributors.

Friday, December 30, 2011

I win Apple's Nano recall lottery

LiOn battery issues (burst into flame!) have led to an Apple recall of the 1st generation iPod Nano. I dug out my neglected Nano and sent it to Apple in early November. I wasn't using it, but it is a good match to the gym. I figured I'd at least get a new battery. Apple announced they weren't going to replace them with new devices, just replace the battery.

Weeks went by. I began to wonder what was up; past recalls were processed very quickly.

Today it showed up -- but it was now an 8GB $130 6th generation Nano. It is a sweet device, even though it's an impractical wristwatch. A very nice improvement on the 1st generation; easy to clip to clothing, radio, more capacity, etc.

I think Apple did start out returning the original Nano, so I can't promise that won't happen in the future. It may be Apple got so backlogged on repairs that they decided they needed to ship something. Or perhaps the opportunity cost of the tedious repairs was balanced against the customer satisfaction of sending a vastly better replacement.

That would fit my recent experiences with Apple service, including iTunes Apple Store errors (all my problem, not Apple's) and an out of warranty iMac repair. Apple service used to be merely better than the competition, but I think they've kicked it up a notch. Talk about crushing the competition.

It would be very nice if customer service were to rise from the dead across the economy. Retailers do follow Apple now ...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

GOP 2.0: What rational climate change politics might look like

"With great power comes great responsibility." Gingrich's inner geek smiled at that one. Certainly they had the power. The Democrats had been crushed by the 2012 elections. President Romney now controlled the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court -- and the filibuster had been eliminated in early 2013.

Gingrich was philosophical about the Vice Presidency; Cheney had taught him what could be done. Romney was happy enough to hand off the big one to him.

Not health care of course. That had been a trivial problem; it took only a few months to tweak ObamaCare, throw in some vouchers and a few distractions, and launch RomneyCare. The GOP base was fine with rebranding, and the dispirited remnant of the Democrats saw little real change.

No, the big one was climate change. Romney and Gingrich had never truly doubted that human CO2 emissions were driving global climate change, but pivoting the base took a bit of work. They'd begun with ritual purges; Hansen was quickly exiled to the lecture circuit. Then came the American Commission on Truth in Science. There wasn't even much tormenting of old enemies; the size of the GOP victory had taken the fun out of that. In short order the "weak mindedness" of the Democrats was exposed and the "honest and rigorous" examination of the Romney administration was completed. It was time, Murdoch's empire declared, for strong minded Americans to face hard (but not inconvenient) facts.

The hardest challenge came from a contingent that felt global warming was a good thing, even God's plan. American drought was weakening that group, but they were a constant headache.

Now though it was time for policy, and Gingrich couldn't be happier. He'd been meeting with Bill Clinton of course; the two rogues loved the evening debates. Clinton's engagement wasn't just for fun, despite the GOP's dominance there was still room for politics. America's wealthy had been irrationally terrified of Obama, but they were also afraid of runaway warming -- and they had considerable power. Trillions of dollars were at stake in any real attack on global warming, and every corporation in America was at the door. The Military was pushing for aggressive management. Lastly, Gingrich knew that power can shift. He'd seen it before.

He wrote out the options, and labeled them by their natural political base ...

  • Climate engineering: solar radiation reduction, massive sequestration projects (R)
  • CO2 pricing (by hook or crook) (R/D - political debate is how revenues are used)
  • Subsidies for public transit (D)
  • Urban planning measures (D)
  • Military strategy to manage anticipated collapse of African nations (R)
  • Military strategy to manage anticipated climate engineering conflicts with China (climate wars) (R)
  • Tariff's on Chinese imports to charge China for their CO2 emissions (R/D - but probably tied to American CO2 pricing)
  • Massive investments in solar power and conservation technologies (D)
  • Massive investments in fusion power (R)

The Climate Wars were particularly troublesome. There were simple things China could do, like pump massive amounts of sulfuric acid, that would alleviate the disaster their scientists had predicted. These measures, however, would be disastrous for the US. On the other hand, war with China was unthinkable.

Gingrich new he had to put a price on Carbon and he had to get China to avoid the most dangerous (for the US) forms of climate engineering. The rest was in play. This was what Great Men were made for ...

See also:

Gordon's Notes


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Weight loss - a state of the science review

Tara Parker-Pope, who describes herself as fat, has written an excellent state-of-the-science summary on obesity in America. I've excerpted two references I particularly appreciated. The first one was discussed years ago among 'personalized medicine' conferences -- genomic information doesn't always work as expected (emphases mine) ...
The Fat Trap - Tara Parker-Pope -
... In February, The New England Journal of Medicine published a report on how genetic testing for a variety of diseases affected a person’s mood and health habits. Over all, the researchers found no effect from disease-risk testing, but there was a suggestion, though it didn’t reach statistical significance, that after testing positive for fat-promoting genes, some people were more likely to eat fatty foods, presumably because they thought being fat was their genetic destiny and saw no sense in fighting it... 
... The National Weight Control Registry tracks 10,000 people who have lost weight and have kept it off. ... Anyone who has lost 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year is eligible to join the study, though the average member has lost 70 pounds and remained at that weight for six years... 
... There is no consistent pattern to how people in the registry lost weight — some did it on Weight Watchers, others with Jenny Craig, some by cutting carbs on the Atkins diet and a very small number lost weight through surgery. But their eating and exercise habits appear to reflect what researchers find in the lab: to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally. Registry members exercise about an hour or more each day — the average weight-loser puts in the equivalent of a four-mile daily walk, seven days a week. They get on a scale every day in order to keep their weight within a narrow range. They eat breakfast regularly. Most watch less than half as much television as the overall population. They eat the same foods and in the same patterns consistently each day and don’t “cheat” on weekends or holidays. They also appear to eat less than most people, with estimates ranging from 50 to 300 fewer daily calories....
Most of my friends think I have never had a weight problem -- but my mother is obese. I have no trouble gaining weight, it's the easiest thing in the world. I love good bread and good french pastry (fortunately near impossible to find outside of Quebec).

What I do to control my weight is a less disciplined version of what what the "one-in-a-thousand" people in the National Weight Loss Control registry do every day of their lives. I exercise more than my peers, I eat less than my peers, and I have to watch my weight constantly. Each year I age I have to eat less. (Though I think that may plateau after age 60 or so.) The only thing I have going for me there is that I love to exercise and my knees still work. [1]

Great holiday reading :-).

[1] Note to the young - human knees are a friggin' disaster. I thank my geekiness that I never played football or even soccer. Alpine skiing is nuts. It's surprisingly hard for an active person to have good knees by age 50.

American slavery - the Bachman quote

Long ago Emily and I took a guided tour of Jefferson's home. He was described in glowing terms. In those days Jefferson was still a legend.

Historians don't think of Jefferson that way any more. He is recognized as a moral failure, a man clever enough to know the evil he lived with and too craven to deal with it. A man who sired children with his slave and left them to history's discovery.

America is very, very slowly beginning to look at slavery. Peter Birkenhead's Salon article is a minor marker of this process. It has a number of damning quotes from today's GOP, but the best of all comes from Minnesota's own Michele ...
Why we still can't talk about slavery - Civil War - 
Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable? But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” –U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann
Oh Michele, you are a classic.

For much more, see TNC (his book is on the way).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Peculiar consequences of wealth concentration

There is enormous, incomprehensible, wealth in the world. Increasingly, across all nations, it is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

This has obvious consequences, but I'm sure there are surprising consequences too.

Emily and I remember a boat tour of island estates of eastern Florida. Each estate costs millions, but they were empty. Only caretakers visited, though we were told each had owners.

Owners who bought them, but had better things to do. Or maybe nothing good to do at all.

That is a problem with modern wealth. It's easy to spend a few million relatively well. Beyond that -- what is it good for? A yacht is nice if you like boats -- but then it gets boring. You can hire people to manage hassles, but then you have to manage people. A private jet? A mansion? Private artwork? Wild sex and drugs?

It would be different if we could buy lifespan -- and maybe one day that will happen. Not yet though -- at least not much if any more than the average citizen of a wealthy nation.

All that money can be used for is to play, to compete, to make more money. A game in which there is little meaning to losing, and little meaning to winning ...

Ferret flu: An existential challenge to anti-Darwinist Republicans?

The good news is that it's still hard to design a lethal plague. The 'cost of havoc' is higher than I once thought.

Yes, influenza can be weaponized by guiding Darwinian natural selection - but that takes years of patient work and advanced technologies. It's beyond the grasp of, say, Anonymous.

So this research is good news - for most of us.

Isn't it a problem for the anti-Darwinist wing of the GOP though? The group that opposes the teaching of natural selection? How do their Senators get their heads around this issue?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Greece, America and GOP 2.0

Krugman tells us Germany and the EU must bail out Greece lest the entire EU crash and burn. Germany is unenthusiastic. Michael Lewis makes Germany's lack of enthusiasm understandable ... Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World Michael Lewis

… government owed … $1.2 trillion, or more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek ….

… In just the past twelve years the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled … The average government job pays three times the average private-sector job ...

… The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against annual wage bill of 400 million ...

… The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as "arduous" is … fifty for women …

… In 2009, tax collection disintegrated, because it was an election year ...

… as estimated two thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year ...

…. Greece has no working national land registry ...

… all three hundred members of the Greek parliament declare the real value of their houses to be the computer-generated objective value … "every single member … is lying to evade taxes"...

Lewis describes Greece as a "perfectly corrupt society". Greece seems to have hit the limits of corruption; where the only honest people are either perversely oppositional or autistically incapable of deceit.  It's easy to see why Germany wants to put Greece through a world class social reengineering program.

Wow. Good thing we Americans aren't so corrupt. Good thing we don't have vast corporations paying no taxes. Mercifully our corporations aren't hiding trillions of dollars abroadOur politicians don't use charitable donation scams or generate profits through insider trading that's illegal for all but Congress critters.

No way do we have the kind of widespread fraud and abuse of the weak that can lead to economic collapse.

Seriously though, if Greece is a nine on a ten point scale of democratic collapse and societal bankruptcy, how do we score? Are we a six? Do I hear a seven?

More importantly, how do we get back to a reasonable "four"? Greece is getting schooled by Germany (whose bankers were as stupid as any on earth), but nobody is going to school the US. All of Greece is barely New Orleans; we're too big to be taught.

We are going to have to reform ourselves. Occupy Wall Street can help, but to reform government we need to solve the problem of the Republican Party.

Both our political parties are corrupt, but the Dems are at least connected to science and logic. The GOP is no longer a part of the reality-based community; whatever Romney and the like may really think they have to pretend to be delusional.

We can't salvage our democracy with only one working political party. We need a reformed GOP. Some party has to do the bidding of the powerful -- lest the powerful tear the nation down. We don't need the GOP to become a shining beacon of integrity, but we do need them to be connected to logic and arithmetic and falsifiable predictions.

This isn't inconceivable. I can't imagine voting for a modern Republican, but only fifteen years ago I voted for a Republican Governor named Arne Carlson. Arne is still around, and he represents a faint voice of sanity in the modern GOP (emphases mine, note that "Pawlenty" is considered a "moderate" by modern GOP standards, but to Carlson he's a far right extremist) ...

MinnPost - Gov. Arne Carlson Blog: Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

... the Republican Party went from moderate to what I call “the new Right”. But it was more than a shift in political philosophy. Leaders like Sutton and Pawlenty and numerous others saw the party as representing not only a different and more narrow philosophy but also as having the power to rigidly enforce that philosophy on its elected members. Orthodoxy prevailed over representativeness and the result has been that cooperative governance with Democrats, Independents and Republican moderates is not possible. It is either the way of the “new Right” or not at all.

Politics is no longer a contest of competing ideas with respect for dissent but increasingly the imposition of an authoritarianism that all too often is cloaked in patriotism and religion. In this environment, the party and its beliefs are paramount and elected officials serve the party...

... my memory of Republicanism in Minnesota goes back to a party that was always building a better community … So many of our leaders came out of the progressivism of Harold Stassen while still committed to the conservative virtues of prudent financial management. Policies ranging from consumer and environmental protection to human rights to metropolitan governance bore the fingerprints of an endless array of community oriented GOP Governors from Elmer Andersen to Harold LeVander through Al Quie and on.

In addition, Republicans produced an endless array of truly talented legislators from all over Minnesota who came to our capital city to govern and always with an eye to the future. Simply put, Republicans, like their counterparts, the Democrats, felt that good politics stemmed from the competition of good ideas that produced quality governance.

And in this mix, leaders from every walk of life and every profession from medicine to agriculture participated. There seemed to be a sense of obligation to give something of oneself in order to build a better community for our children….

...The Republican Party both in Minnesota and nationally has a choice to make. Does it want to build a true Bedford Falls with a commitment to the well being of the whole or does it want to lead us to “Pottersville” where the quality of life rests with the privileged few?

We're in a bad place, but we can work our way out. Occupy Wall Street can help with some things, but they can't help with the critical mission. The critical mission is to reform the GOP; and only Republican voters can do that ...

So how do we help them?

Spider brains and the evolution of computation

Brains have a big return on investment ...

Tiniest of Spiders Are Loaded With Brains, Researchers Find - NYTimes

... In the smallest spiders, Dr. Eberhard and his colleagues found, the central nervous systems filled nearly 80 percent of the cephalothorax, or body cavity, including 25 percent of the legs.

“The brain tissue of the nervous tissue is metabolically expensive,” he said. “These little spiders are paying a very large price to keep these brains functioning.”

At times, that price includes a deformed body cavity bulging with brain matter, which may in turn compromise the size of the digestive system, Dr. Eberhard said....

Were spider brains this big 200 million years ago? Across all organisms, are brains bigger than they once were? Across all worlds, where does computation stop having positive evolutionary returns?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The "War on Chrismas" is not entirely delusional

The American "War on Christmas" movement seems thoroughly silly ....

Reminder: Tis the Season Not to Be an Ass – Whatever’s about as silly as it ever was, considering that Christmas has conquered December, occupied November and metastasized into late October. To suggest that the holiday is under serious threat from politically correct non-Christians is like suggesting an earthworm is a serious threat to a Humvee. This is obvious enough to anyone with sense that I use The War on Christmas as an emergency diagnostic, which is to say, if you genuinely believe there’s a War on Christmas, you may want to see a doctor, since you might have a tumor pressing on your frontal lobes.

Seems silly, is silly.

And yet, I agree with TNC that Rick Perry is not completely delusional ...

Rick Perry and the Politics of Resentment - Ta-Nehisi Coates - Politics - The Atlantic

... What strikes me is the sense of being under siege, a constant theme in conservative politics. It is as if time itself is against them. And they know it. The line "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian" stands out. Who is ashamed of this? This is a predominantly Christian country, and one of the most religious in the West. People don't "admit" their Christianity here. They proclaim it -- as the president has done repeatedly.

But what if there's something else? What if the conservatives are more perceptive and honest than the moderate liberals? I love Grant and Lincoln, but they were dead wrong in claiming that emancipation did not promote "social equality." Meanwhile the bigots who asserted that emancipation meant that Sambo would be "marryin yer daughters" were right. I wouldn't be shocked if Grant and Lincoln knew this, but also knew that to admit as much would be suicidal...

Yes, to most of the world the US seems to border on theocracy. But I was born into a true western theocracy, and it fell apart in less than 10 years ...

Quiet Revolution - Quebec History

The Quiet Revolution is the name given to a period of Quebec history extending from 1960 to 1966...

... The first major change that took place during the Quiet Revolution was the large-scale rejection of past values. Chief among these are those that Michel Brunet called “les trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française: l’agriculturisme, le messianisme et l’anti-étatisme” [the three main components of French Canadian thought: agriculturalism, anti-statism and messianism]. In this respect, Quebec entered resolutely into a phase of modernisation: its outlook became more secular (as opposed to religious), much of the traditionalism that characterised the past was replaced by increasingly liberal attitudes; long standing demographic tendencies, associated with a traditional rural way of life (high marriage, birth and fertility rates), were rapidly reversed ...

Quebec seemed stuck in the past -- until it lurched into the future. Societies can change very quickly.

Consider the case of the 2012 Presidential campaign. The GOP's presidential candidate will be theologically non-Christian (though culturally mainstream Protestant). The Dems candidate will be mainstream Protestant but raised partly in Islamic Indonesia.

That seems different, even if the current candidates aren't as theologically extreme as Jefferson, Adams or Madison. I would not be surprised if the religious attitudes of 2020 America were similar to those of 2000 Britain.

The religious right is right to be afraid, but wrong to think there's a conspiracy they can fight. Their foe is history, and it's hard to fight history. Just ask al Qaeda.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

US carrier locking of post-contract iPhones - a critique

AT&T will not unlock an iPhone under any circumstances. Together with their SMS pricing this has odd results (including a glut of former iPhones).

Verizon and Sprint claim they'll allow unlocking, but the reality is more complex  (emphases mine)...

How U.S. Carriers Fool You Into Thinking Your iPhone 4S Is Unlocked - Forbes

... What consumers need to understand is that there are actually four different versions of the iPhone 4S: Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and Apple. Only the Apple phone, available from their stores or on-line, is fully unlocked and can be used on any carrier. The other phones are permanently locked and cannot ever be used on another carrier in the U.S. Even if you spend $800 for an unlocked phone as I did and dedicate it to a single U.S. carrier, you are locked into that carrier forever if you want to keep using the iPhone. Neither Apple or the other carriers will fully unlock your carrier phone.

Apple declined to return phone calls and emails to discuss this matter. However, the high level technical support supervisor that I spoke with at length indicated that she personally thought that customers should be warned about the different versions of the phones and ramifications of buying a phone directly from a carrier rather than Apple. A senior spokesperson for Verizon told me that all Verizon phones are locked to their network and she did not quite understand the problem. I am willing to bet that Verizon customers would precisely understand this issue, even if she did not.

So if you paid retail for your iPhone 4S and purchased it from Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or Best Buy, you will never be able to use that phone with a different carrier. In my view, this is a scam by these companies. I think the cellular providers should tell their customers up front that locked phones really mean that you are locked into the carrier forever. While all of these phones are iPhone 4S with the identical hardware, the difference is that if you purchase your phone directly from Apple, it is truly a universal device and will allow you to change carriers without the penalty of making the phone worthless.

I would urge the Carriers, FCC, or Courts to enforce the following rules to protect cellular customers in the United States: consumers buying new cell phones must be informed of the existence of any SIM LOCK (also known as a network lock) on their phone before sale; wireless phone companies must unlock handsets upon request, without fee, when a consumer purchases a new phone outright (unsubsidized) without a contract; wireless phone companies must unlock handsets upon request, without fee, when a consumer comes to the end of their contract, or at any time thereafter. Carriers must fully unlock their phones (as does Apple with the iPhone 4S) and not partially unlock the phone to block access to other carriers and deny consumers the right to choose any provider anywhere...

Carrier locking of iPhones is a nasty trick on consumers. It reduces the value of a post-contract iPhone; I wonder if a clever lawyer could sue carriers for theft. Another lawyer might find the shared policies a sign of illegal collusion or price-fixing among carriers.

Senator Franken - this is right up your alley!

See also:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Did canine distemper arise from measles in the new world?

(I wrote this 9/2011, but I was mistakenly left as a draft until now.)

Six years ago I read that new world dogs (canis familiaris) died in large numbers after the European invasion.

So what killed the Amerindian dog?

I assumed it was some European plague, and I suspected distemper.
I'd guess distemper. Recently I read that wild African dogs are now dying of epidemic distemper. Seems to fit. The Euros carried viruses that killed many of the native americans, it's not surprising that their dogs would have done the same thing.
Recently I read of a twist to this story
Evidence of a New World Origin for Canine Distemper -- Uhl et al. 25 (1): 613.4 -- The FASEB Journal 
.... The historical, epidemiological, paleopathological and molecular evidence supports the hypothesis that canine distemper arose in the New World from MV after the European conquest....
The Europeans brought Measles from the old world. In the new world it produced massive epidemics with astounding mortality. Tens of millions of native Americans died of Measles and other Old World diseases.

As is seen with other plagues, under these circumstances the measles virus jumped species. It went from humans to their dogs. It may have been even more lethal in the dogs of the 1500s.

Why didn't it then go back to Europe and wipe out the European dog? Did the virus adapt to its new host so it became less lethal? Could a historian who knew what to look for find evidence of massive die offs in European dogs in the 16th century?

I suspect we'll find out in the next year or two.

Syphilis - again a New World invention?

Decades ago physicians were taught that syphilis was a New World disease. The Europeans brought smallpox, and Amerindians returned syphilis. This was not a comparable exchange, smallpox and its kin killed most of the Amerindians (and another disease killed New World dogs). Syphilis, even at its worst, was not quite so deadly.

By the 1980s though, when I studied medicine, we were taught that syphilis was probably an Old World disease.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Dell has ended their Netbook line.

That leaves Google's Chromebooks, which aren't exactly exciting.

I wasn't just a little wrong about Netbooks, I was incredibly, unbelievably, totally wrong. Again.

I mean, this is friggin' ridiculous.

What happened?

I suppose it was the pocket computer. People with iPhones and the Android equivalent are already paying for most of what a Netbook can do. It doesn't make sense to pay for an extra monthly data plan, and a Netbook without net access is kind of a bust.

That leaves Windows notebooks, which are cheap but crummy. And MacBook Airs, which are not cheap but very amazing.

There's still the grade school and perhaps junior high school marketplace, but the iPad and Android equivalents are squeezing there too.

The Netbook looks like an evolutionary dead end. Maybe we'd have taken that road, but the iPhone blew a hole in it by mid-2007. I was writing in 2009; the bloody 3G was out then!

Damnit Netbook, you made a fool of me.

See also:

Google, Blogger and the Machine

Does anyone reading this still happily use Blogger?

If so, please comment below or comment on this companion G+ public post.

I'm testing a theory, related to this old Marissa Mayer quote:

Two Schools of Thought: The Key Difference Between Apple and Google

... "It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where,” Marissa Mayer once told an upset team of designers about a product design she rejected. “It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.”...

More when I get my results.

No, I don't need a denominator.

Update: Fixed a bad link.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Will Friedman win Salon's hack list 2011?

Last year Friedman came in third. Will he win this year?

Welcome to the 2011 Salon Hack List

Update: Darn! Friedman has been retired. Too predictably hackish to put on the list any longer.

And you thought the Jobs bio made him seem nasty ...

The Jobs bio makes him look pretty nasty, but apparently some of his nastiest bits didn't make the cut ...
AppleInsider | Steve Jobs refused to talk philanthropy with biographer
... any comments that were hurtful to individuals and served no purpose in the book were left out ...

Monday, December 12, 2011

A family doc's perspective on the best way to die

As a former family doc, I loved Ken Murray's essay on how doctor's die.

Is it true?

I suspect it's mostly true of family docs and some surgeons who are older and whose children are grown. I don't think it's true of younger physicians, especially those with children. My physician friend Tom fought his glioma very hard. He probably got an extra 1-2 years out of his suffering, and for his young family that was worth a lot.

I think I'd put myself through a lot to get my young kids a year or two.

When the kids are grown though, my physician wife and I have always imagined the kind of management Ken describes. Like most physicians, we're skeptical about how much medicine can really do for most end-of-life conditions. There's a difference between treatments that are statistically beneficial and treatments that make a really important difference.

After all, we know how the story ends.

Organizing human cognition: Lessons from CERN

There's a hierarchy in big time science schools, and physics holds the crown. (Math majors are in a different league.) Physicists are, face it, smarter than the rest of us -- and they know it.

Our only consolation is that they often work for a pittance.

So, from my perspective as a corporate ant, it's fascinating to read John Conway's description of how physicists organize their collaboration on history's biggest physics project (emphases mine)...
Making the (Higgs) Sausage | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine
For the past year, physicists at the LHC experiments CMS and ATLAS have been analyzing ever–increasing data samples from the huge machine. Rumors are now circulating about what the experiments might announce at next week’s presentations at CERN regarding the search for the Higgs boson.
... As you probably know, each of the two big experiments has over 3000 physicists participating, from all over the world. Many, but by no means the majority, are resident at CERN; most are at their home institutions in Europe, North America, and Asia and elsewhere.
The main thing that allows us to collaborate on a global scale like this is video conferencing. We used a system called EVO, developed at Caltech, which allows us to schedule meetings and connect to them from a laptop or desktop computer, or even dial in by phone ...the experiments have gravitated toward having meetings in the late afternoon, Europe time, which makes it early morning for people like me in California.
.., In CMS, our whole system of producing physics results has a sort of pyramidal structure. Each experiment has a number of physics analysis groups which meet a weekly or biweekly, typically, and have two “conveners” who set the agenda and run the meetings. These convener positions are typically held by senior people in the collaboration such as professors or senior lab scientists, for two years at a stretch, one convener changing out each year. They report to an overall physics coordinator and his or her deputies.
Within the physics analysis groups are subgroups devoted to sets of analyses which share common themes, common tools, or similar approaches. Each of these subgroups in turn is led by a pair of conveners who establish the ongoing analyses and guide them to eventual approval within physics analysis group.
We have what I think is a pretty impressive internal website devoted to tracking the progress of each physics analysis. From a single website you can drill down into a particular physics group find the analysis you want get links to all the documentation, and follow what’s happening. In parallel, there is a web system for recording the material presented at every meeting.
The goal of every analysis is to be approved by its physics group, so it can be shown in public at conferences and seminars. This requires having complete documentation including internal notes with full details of the analysis, and a “public analysis summary” which is available to the public, and which often serves as the basis for a peer–reviewed paper which soon follows.
Every analysis is assigned an analysis review committee of three to five people with experience in the topic, who act as a sort of hit squad, keeping the analyzers on their toes with questions and comments at every stage of the analysis, both on the actual analysis details and on the documentation. After all, if we are not our own worst critics, someone else will gladly fill the role!
In parallel with processing the data that we record, we run full simulations of well–known standard model collision processes which represent our background when we are doing searches for new particles. There is a big organizational challenge in doing these simulations, which run on a worldwide grid of computers devoted to CMS data analysis. We make use of the Open Science Grid for this in the US, the EuroGrid in Europe, and other clusters scattered all around the world, comprising tens of thousands of computing nodes.
I'd love to see comparisons to organizational structures used in aerospace projects. There's nothing like this large scale organization in the industry I work in.

This framework for harnessing cognition reminds me of the original "computers" - humans who did large scale arithmetic calculations prior to the development of log tables. It's easy to imaging who this would map onto a cognitive unit made up of, initially, humans and AIs.

PS. Historical footnote: CERN was where Tim Berners-Lee, working as an independent contractor, led the development of the first web site and browser.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Is Gingrich our only hope?

Bruce Bartlett, a reformed Republican, says Gingrich is our only hope ...

Economic Experts Gather In DC To Explain Why Politics Has Doomed Us | TPMDC

... The most we can hope for is that a complete crazy person like Newt Gingrich gets the Republican nomination, the Republicans lose so badly that they lose control of the House and don’t get control of the Senate and then maybe in a year we can finally talk about doing something rational ...

Rationalists for Gingrich!

On the topic of reformed Republicans, there's a post deep in my backlog about what a reformed GOP would look like. I hope I get to it someday. Briefly, a reformed GOP would be reality-based, and would respect basic logic and arithmetic. There's lots of room for political debate within a framework of reason ...

Hungary a tyranny?

Krugman delivers an astonishing opinion, almost as a footnote to a blog post ...

Peripheral Stories - Krugman

... And I spent part of yesterday talking with people in Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs, who wanted to talk about Hungary. It’s hair-raising — and not just because of the economics. What will the EU do when one of its members slides into dictatorship?...

The comments come quickly ...

... Orban has established the rule of arbitrary tyranny in one and a half years. He appointed apparatchiks to key posts with unchecked authority for 9 or 12 years. These positions are:

1. Chief Prosecutor, who was given the right to select even the judges for trials of his choosing.

2. Chief Judge, with the right to appoint/promote/demote/dismiss judges

3. Chief of the Media, with the right to take away the licenses of radio stations and fine opposition outlets out of existence.

4. Head of the Financial Control Office.

He also stuffed the Constitutional court with Party and Personal faithful, enlarging it with from 8 to 15, and forbidding the Court to review cases that have anything to do with money.

It took a mere 3 weeks for Orban to push through a new constitution that restricts people's right to hold referendums, to appeal to the Constitutional court.

Hungary lives in fear now. You can be put in detention without trial for up to 3 years. You can be fired for political reasons and the unemployment rate is 12%.

and in response ...

As a Hungarian, let me correct the picture of my country as one "sliding into dictatorship." This is far from reality. Our government is indeed concentrating and extending its power as far as possible in a democratic system and is definitely doing so beyond good taste. Bearing a 2/3 majority they can even modify the constitution and they use this weapon without hesitation and without seeking consensus. This truly weakens our democracy somewhat, so harsh criticism is well deserved, but Hungary is not turning into a dictatorship, this is simply nonsense.

But where is all that nonsense coming from? Well, Hungarian politics is difficult to see clearly for a foreigner. The reason is the huge advantage of the Hungarian left (which is practically an alliance of liberals and former communists) of having a well-built international network which gives them an access to foreign media that the right just does not have. Hence, no matter who is in power, the foreign opinions about Hungarian matters are dominated by leftists' views. The key players in this game are renowned Hungarian leftist intellectuals residing in Western-Europe. Whenever it is not their team in power they always scream dictatorship - that is what they did with earlier conservative governments as well! Oh, and if the left were telling the truth, we would have a right-wing military dictatorship for 17 years by now, as this is what they "forecasted” before the 1994 elections...

Meanwhile, back home, Newt Gingrich must now be considered a real contender for the presidency.

Humanity dances on the edge of the knife. It's a habit.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Il crime

The use of a font where these two characters have the same appearance is a data crime and should be punished by audit: lI.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Wikipedia's problem

A marketing firm is caught manipulating Wikipedia. The interesting bit is their response ...
BBC News - Wikipedia investigates PR firm Bell Pottinger's edits
... Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, the owner of Bell Pottinger, said an internal review had been launched.

"I can't see any bad headlines for our clients," he told the BBC. "You won't find anybody, including journalists, who doesn't do exactly the same thing."...
"Everyone does it, so don't look at us."

I hope journalists will dig deeper into the state of Wikipedia and how the "pay-to-edit" problem will be managed going forward. I suspect there are are some reasonable answers, mostly building on Wikipedia's existing frameworks for managing malign edits. Problem is the same as the spam wars and the (new) voice-bot wars -- the costs keep rising.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Ghost story

It's not hard to do the numbers.

There are billions of people in the world and trillions of stories. Every day someone has a one in a million weird event.

Today was my turn.

It happened while I was using Google maps to visit my aunt's new residence in San Francisco. I clicked the zoom button for more detail.

Suddenly I was looking at dark green forest. I wasn't in San Francisco any more.

I zoomed out, and I found I was visiting the wilderness of British Columbia's Mount Garibaldi. It look something like this:

Screen shot 2011 12 06 at 7 32 49 PM

I zoomed in and out and suddenly I was back in San Francisco.

No big deal, just a glitch in the maps.

Except I have a connection to that part of the world. My brother Brian Faughnan vanished not far from there in July of 2002. He left his Whistler youth hostel room to go high alpine exploring - solo, off trail. Yes, that's at the far end of the risk spectrum.

There was a search but we never found a body. We searched Rainbow Mountain, because he could walk to that and he'd spoken of it. We did make a few inquiries about Garibaldi though. It's a beautiful destination, and he could have hitched a ride there.

So perhaps I was visiting his grave. It is certainly a beautiful and dramatic resting place.

Curious, I googled Garibaldi and Faughnan and tuned up a journalist's story I didn't remember and a post by Matt Gunn who met him in Vancouver before he was lost:

RainbowMountain - Missing Person/Fatality
Brian Faughnan went missing in the whislter backcountry in the summer of 2002. An extensive search failed to turn up any evidence about what happened. I met brian a few days before his disappearance while working at MEC and answered some questions he had about good hiking and scrambling destinations. We discussed rainbow mountain, which is where the search team believes he went missing. This story is a real tragedy and reminds me of the inherent danger of hiking alone.

There is a sequel to the story. I still wear a technical shell we found amongst Brian's gear. It's very faded, but it works. Tonight I thought I'd left it at an ice rink; so the kids and I went to look. We found it in my gear, but, for the first time in a while, we talked about my brother.

My 14 yo was five when Brian was lost, but he remembers more than I thought. He even mentioned Rainbow Mountain. We spoke about my brother for a while.

One of the very hardest things I've ever done was to call my 5 yo son from Vancouver and tell him we hadn't found his Uncle Brian.

These are tales for the dark nights of winter.

Update 12/6/11: I shared this story on Facebook the night I published it. A friend of Brian's, who lives in Vancouver responded that she new Matt Gunn. Then Matt Gunn replied.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The AI Age: Siri and Me

Memory is just a story we believe.

I remember that when I was on a city bus, and so perhaps 8 years old, a friend showed me a "library card". I was amazed, but I knew that libraries were made for me.

When I saw the web ... No, not the web. It was Gopher. I read the minutes of a town meeting in New Zealand. I knew it was made for me. Alta Vista - same thing.

Siri too. It's slow, but I'm good with adjusting my pace and dialect. We've been in the post-AI world for over a decade, but Siri is the mind with a name.

A simple mind, to be sure. Even so, Kurzweil isn't as funny as he used to be; maybe Sir's children will be here before 2100 after all.

In the meantime, we get squeezed...

Artificial intelligence: Difference Engine: Luddite legacy | The Economist

... if the Luddite Fallacy (as it has become known in development economics) were true, we would all be out of work by now—as a result of the compounding effects of productivity. While technological progress may cause workers with out-dated skills to become redundant, the past two centuries have shown that the idea that increasing productivity leads axiomatically to widespread unemployment is nonsense...

[there is]... the disturbing thought that, sluggish business cycles aside, America's current employment woes stem from a precipitous and permanent change caused by not too little technological progress, but too much. The evidence is irrefutable that computerised automation, networks and artificial intelligence (AI)—including machine-learning, language-translation, and speech- and pattern-recognition software—are beginning to render many jobs simply obsolete....

... The argument against the Luddite Fallacy rests on two assumptions: one is that machines are tools used by workers to increase their productivity; the other is that the majority of workers are capable of becoming machine operators. What happens when these assumptions cease to apply—when machines are smart enough to become workers? In other words, when capital becomes labour. At that point, the Luddite Fallacy looks rather less fallacious.

This is what Jeremy Rifkin, a social critic, was driving at in his book, “The End of Work”, published in 1995. Though not the first to do so, Mr Rifkin argued prophetically that society was entering a new phase—one in which fewer and fewer workers would be needed to produce all the goods and services consumed. “In the years ahead,” he wrote, “more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilisation ever closer to a near-workerless world.”

...In 2009, Martin Ford, a software entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, noted in “The Lights in the Tunnel” that new occupations created by technology—web coders, mobile-phone salesmen, wind-turbine technicians and so on—represent a tiny fraction of employment... In his analysis, Mr Ford noted how technology and innovation improve productivity exponentially, while human consumption increases in a more linear fashion.... Mr Ford has identified over 50m jobs in America—nearly 40% of all employment—which, to a greater or lesser extent, could be performed by a piece of software running on a computer...

In their recent book, “Race Against the Machine”, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agree with Mr Ford's analysis—namely, that the jobs lost since the Great Recession are unlikely to return. They agree, too, that the brunt of the shake-out will be borne by middle-income knowledge workers, including those in the retail, legal and information industries...

Even in the near term, the US Labor Department predicts that the 17% of US workers in "office and administrative support" will be replaced by automation.

It's not only the winners of the 1st world birth lottery that are threatened.

 China's Foxconn (Taiwan based) employs about 1 million people. Many of them will be replaced by robots.

It's disruptive, but given time we could adjust. Today's AIs aren't tweaking the permeability of free space; there are still a few things we do better than they. We also have complementary cognitive biases; a neurotypical human with an AI in the pocket will do things few unaided humans can do. Perhaps even a 2045 AI will keep human pets for their unexpected insights. Either way, it's a job.

Perhaps more interestingly, a cognitively disabled human with a personal AI may be able to take on work that is now impossible.

Economically, of course, the productivity/consumption circuit has to close. AIs don't (yet) buy info-porn. If .1% of humans get 80% of revenue, then they'll be taxed at 90% marginal rates and the 99.9% will do subsidized labor. That's what we do for special needs adults now, and we're all special needs eventually.

So, given time, we can adjust. Problem is, we won't get time. We will need to adjust even as our world transforms exponentially. It could be tricky.

See also:


Italy, Europe and the world will pay a high price for the long reign of Silvio Berlusconi.

Government is like parenting. Good parenting is somewhat helpful, but bad parenting is enormously destructive.

Corruption matters. Elections matter.