Saturday, April 30, 2005

Reengineering Islam In an unseen front in the war on terrorism, America is spending millions to counter the hate of radical Islamists (4/25/05)

When I was a naive young Watson Fellow, I thought I'd come up with a great way to describe the efforts then underway to accelerate the fertility transition in many countries facing carrying capacity problems. I developed a "theory" I called "social engineering". I even wrote a fairly awful paper describing my theory; it was then that I learned that the term was not new, and it had some pejorative aspects.

Despite all that, I think the concept is a useful one. I think it applies to Washington's attempts to direct the evolution of Islam.
... After repeated missteps since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has embarked on a campaign of political warfare unmatched since the height of the Cold War. From military psychological-operations teams and CIA covert operatives to openly funded media and think tanks, Washington is plowing tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to influence not only Muslim societies but Islam itself. The previously undisclosed effort was identified in the course of a four-month U.S. News investigation, based on more than 100 interviews and a review of a dozen internal reports and memorandums. Although U.S. officials say they are wary of being drawn into a theological battle, many have concluded that America can no longer sit on the sidelines as radicals and moderates fight over the future of a politicized religion with over a billion followers. The result has been an extraordinary--and growing--effort to influence what officials describe as an Islamic reformation...

...The White House has approved a classified new strategy, dubbed Muslim World Outreach, that for the first time states that the United States has a national security interest in influencing what happens within Islam. Because America is, as one official put it, 'radioactive' in the Islamic world, the plan calls for working through third parties--moderate Muslim nations, foundations, and reform groups--to promote shared values of democracy, women's rights, and tolerance,
I approve of course. I outlined the problem and the approaches a few years ago. It's about time, though it remains to be seen how competently this will be executed.

Savoonga Alaska, a portrait in the Washington Post

Savoonga has a zip code of 99769. You can see a map here and a picture here. Population 640, of which 2% are "Irish" (12 or so).

I once spent two months on the northern tip of Newfoundland -- St. Anthony. That felt remote, but compared to Savoonga it was the height of urban living.

The Washington Post has a story on life in Savoonga. It's fascinating reading. The journalists traveled out as a bit of a comic lark, but they returned a bit changed.
... AT THE SMALL AIRPORT IN NOME, we had seen posters warning that it is a serious crime to be caught smuggling alcoholic beverages of any kind to St. Lawrence Island, which is home to Savoonga and Gambell, its sister village 40 miles away. The island is dry and has been for some time, part of a desperate effort to control a problem that has gotten painfully out of hand.

Savoongans are only a few generations removed from a near-Stone Age existence. Details from the distant past are murky, but in the late 1870s much of the population of the island was wiped out in a holocaust of complex origins thought to involve illness, climate changes and behavioral factors. What is indisputable is that the commercial whalers of that era brought some modern ways to the island, along with disease and alcohol. Genetically, in both cases, the natives had no defenses...

...Out there in the enveloping whiteness, it had been possible to lose yourself, fishing with Eskimos in the Bering Sea the way it has been done since the age of the igloo. There was no village, there were no dead kids, no fog of denial, no generation in agony, literally bored out of its mind. There were no soul-wrenching choices between survival of self and survival of a culture. There was just an exhilarating ritual, as old as a civilization, irreducible, unencumbered by a sense of guilt, not subject to misunderstanding or misinterpretation through cultural chauvinism. It was clear and it was clean. It was possible to comprehend the joy of surviving by your skills and savvy on the bounty of the Earth alone, in defiance of whatever hell nature and fate throw at you. And it was possible to understand why, lost in that moment, you could want to live that way forever.

Thank you Mr. Hilleman - for saving our children Obituary: Maurice Hilleman, pioneer of preventive medicine, died on April 11th, aged 85

You've heard a lot about Michael Jackson. You've never heard of Maurice Hilleman. Funny, eh?

The Economist chose Maurice Hilleman for their obituary this week. They did the same thing for Pope John-Paul II, but Mr. Hilleman did much more for humanity than the Pope. Miles City, Montana doesn't have much to brag about -- seems they ought to find the money for a monument somewhere ...
Apr 21st 2005

A STORY that Maurice Hilleman liked to tell to illustrate his work as a developer of vaccines concerned his daughter Jeryl Lynn. In 1963 at the age of five she caught mumps, a highly infectious disease of childhood that is usually benign but can be a killer. Mr Hilleman used swabs to collect the mumps virus growing in her throat, and preserved it in a jar of beef broth. He produced a form of the virus that was too weak to cause disease but strong enough to trigger the body's natural defences and make the person immune. The weakened strain, named after Jeryl Lynn, has become the standard vaccine to prevent mumps. The disease is now rare, at least in rich countries.

Identifying the problem, collecting data, finding a solution: Mr Hilleman developed some 40 vaccines, among them for measles, hepatitis A and B, chickenpox, meningitis and pneumonia. He developed the one-shot vaccine that can prevent several diseases, such as MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)...

... Mr Hilleman's greatest contribution to a healthy world may have been his work on the safe mass production of vaccines that can be stored ready for use against the pandemics that since antiquity have regularly swept across continents, such as the 1918 flu outbreak that killed more than 20m people. In 1957, when flu swept through Hong Kong, Mr Hilleman identified the virus as a new form to which people had no natural immunity and passed on his findings to vaccine-makers. When the virus reached the United States a few months later 40m doses of vaccine were ready to limit its damage. Mr Hilleman established that the flu virus is constantly mutating, making it difficult to provide a reliable vaccine...

...Miles City sounds primitive rather than simple. It had been a frontier town and the older inhabitants still told stories of Indian battles. Young Hilleman was poor. His mother and twin sister had died during his birth and he and his seven surviving siblings had been brought up on a farm by relations. At the age of 18 he was working in a shop.

For a young man who felt that life must have more to offer than selling goods to cowboys and their girlfriends, there were two glimpses of a more interesting world. One was his homemade radio, which could just pick up talk and music programmes broadcast from distant Chicago. The other was the local public library, where he found a copy of Darwin's “On the Origin of Species”, which had avoided the censorship of the town's fundamentalist church.
Now that's one heck of a life.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Obesity increases dementia risk: Winner of stupid medical article of the month

BBC NEWS | Health | Obesity increases dementia risk

I have a bad feeling this news story actually reflects the article. I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that obesity causes dementia; it will be very, very hard to extract a dementia/obesity relationship from obesity/IQ/wealth and IQ/dementia relationships. I'd be astounded if the authors were able to control for an obesity/IQ correlation.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tiger and parental control software

The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > From Apple, a Tiger to Put in Your Mac
On the other hand, some of the most groundbreaking new Tiger features are barely mentioned in Apple's marketing. For example, the new parental controls let you, the wise authority figure, specify which e-mail correspondents, chat buddies, Web sites and even programs are O.K. for your children.
Apple lists 200 Tiger features, and leaves this one out?! Absolutely weird.

This features by itself is worth $60 to me. It covers more than half the cost of Tiger (educational or Amazon special). Sheesh.

BTW, if you want Tiger, and wouldn't mind a new machine, consider buying a Mac Mini. Compared to a month ago, it's like buying a quality machine for $350 or so.


iMac G5 (Part 8)

Macintouch has been collecting reports of hardware failures with the ambitious iMac. The motherboards are failing (possibly due to a manufacturing defect in the capacitors), the monitor is failing (though this may be comparable to the industry LCD display failure rate) and the power supplies are failing.

Apple's customer support has ranged from average to mediocre to abysmal.

Apple has not made any statement nor has it issued a recall.

The iMac is an ambitious device. It combines a notoriously "hot" CPU (the iMac G5s are nowhere near as energy efficient as comparable Intel CPUs) with a "quiet" design and an integrated display in a compact space. That's a lot to get working. It may be a failed design.

Unless Apple does something special (recall, acknowledgement of problems and description of solutions) I would not buy a current model G5 iMac. The Mac Mini looks like a very good device (though some have analog output problems) and the new G5 towers look promising (they are very big). I would buy either -- except I want the G5 and I don't want a large tower. So, for people like me, waiting is the order of the day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Neutrino speculations

The New York Times > Science > Tiny, Plentiful and Really Hard to Catch

Another open question is whether neutrinos play a role in the imbalance of matter and antimatter. If the early universe had contained equal amounts of the both, everything would have been annihilated, leaving nothing behind to form stars and galaxies.

Among quarks, which form protons and neutrons, physicists have observed a subtle matter-antimatter imbalance, called CP violation, in the behavior of particles known as mesons. "That CP violation is completely inadequate to explain the universe that we see," Dr. Kayser said.

So physicists suspect that there must be CP violation elsewhere and that the oddity of neutrinos suggest they could be a source. That, in turn, leads to speculation of yet more new types of neutrinos - very heavy ones that existed only in the very early universe - and the decay of those heavy neutrinos created the preponderance of matter.

Then come even wilder ideas - that neutrinos play a role in the mysterious dark energy that is pushing the universe apart or that neutrinos could be used for interstellar communication.
Interstellar communication? A future SETI project no doubt.

The article describes the Soudan mine neutrino detector. We took the mine tour once with 4 yo and a 2 yo. Our 4 yo was acting up so we missed the pre-trip orientation. We went out with our group expecting a sedate ride in a mine train -- as in our previous mine tour experience. They stuffed us in a metal box, turned out the lights, and dropped us into the earth. You'd be surprised how quiet children can be when their survival instinct kicks in.

Not to mention the bats, the background radiation, and the little trick with the the jackhammers in the dark (no sunlight at the bottom of the earth). Yes, I really recommend the mine tour. Tell 'em I sent you.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Open Source Culture: From Flickr to Wikipedia to ... errr ... Faughnan's Notes

Open Source Culture | MetaFilter

Will a mass of 'good enough' (and free) content overwhelm the 'very good'? Good set of links.

Apple's iMac problem -- bad news all around

TidBITS: iMac G5: Up In Smoke

Apple has two problems with their iMacs - unreliable power supplies and capacitor failures. Both are described in detail by an experienced Mac journalist who had to replace his iMac. The worse news is that the iMac's automated diagnostics came up with the wrong answer -- and Apple's customer services is now pretty darned awful.

I suspect the new iMacs will be safe to buy, but I wouldn't touch any of the existing models. Shame on Apple for following the stonewall strategy; shame that it usually works.

Building a police state, one day at a time | A "volunteer" police state

A group of non-Bush supporters are prevented from joining a Bush social security event by "secret service agents" -- apparently because of a "no blood for oil" bumper sticker. The event turns out to have been publicly funded. The agents may, or may not, have been officially 'secret service'.

This was standard operating procedure during Bush campaign events. There must never be any critics near Bush.

It's not surprising, but for the sake of historians it's good to document these things.

Identify theft: a summary of recent cases

ID theft is inescapable | Channel Register

A fairly good summary of recent identity theft related crimes. The deluge is coming. Ahh well, it's our fault for electing dolts to govern us.

Since government isn't going to help us, we need some kind of a Libertarian solution. I wish I could think of one.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Great awakenings: Number Four in 2015?

Second Great Awakening - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

One popular theory on great awakenings is that they occur during times of profound transformation. They're a kind of counter-revolution, though the 2nd GA was thought to have mutated so as to eventually support rather than oppose the transformations of the 1830s.

The 1830s were shockingly turbulent times. Across the US the Euro invasion was in full force, with new lands being overrun daily. Communities were very transient, growing and vanishing with a speed seen only in China today. Clerics went from 30 year tenures to a mere 4 year visit. The industrial revolution was gearing up; steam engines, agricultural transformation, the cotton gin, new weapons. Darwin was doing his basic research (though he'd not yet published). The American economy was going through boom and bust.

So it's easy, in retrospect, to see why religious ecstacy swept through various regions, leaving behind burned out zones of exhausted spirituality. It took about 30 years for the 2nd GA to run its course -- smack into the civil war.

So are we in a 4th GA? That's the great question. Perhaps our times are not yet turbulent enough; but it is likely they will get there. Given our current burst of fundamentalism, and given the rough waters ahead, I think a 4th GA is quite likely in the next two decades. Perhaps it's time to resign oneself to President Frist ...

A thoughtful discussion of millenial American fundamentalism The Tribulations of "Revelations"

There's too much dense thinking here to excerpt. This is simply a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of early 21st century American fundamentalist millenialism. His thesis is that the movement has been coopted by a peculiar secular agenda. I'm not sure the two are so distinct; the concept of God's blessing being fundamentally material is older than the Book of Job and not all areligious.

You too have Alzheimer's Process

Entrez PubMed: Search related to stress and mild cognitive impairment

Middle-aged? Had trouble remembering the name of that troublesome Senator? Oh yes ... Frist.

Sound familiar? Of course it's worse when you're low on sleep, stressed, etc. Really, it's quite normal. Your friends and colleagues, with a few remarkable exceptions, are similarly afflicted. Exceptionally productive individuals, with great contributions ahead of them, have trouble with distraction and focus in middle-age. They'll use date books, calendars, task lists and more -- things they didn't used to need. Use Google to find missing words and to remind one of things. Avoid learning new confusing and complex software. Lose track of documents (full text search is handy). Put the umbrella on the door handle, put the car keys on the item that must not be left behind.


It doesn't help, of course, that middle-aged life can be exceedingly full. Complex family needs, complex parental obligations, complex finances, lots of stress, increasing responsibility at work as one nears the Peter Principal (what's that word, ahh, this one will do) asymptote, a brain overloaded with memory, experience, associations.

Understandable. Normal. Typical. So you can stop reading now. (The following is slightly speculative. I find it oddly reassuring, but most won't.)

You should stop reading because, when you pin an Alzheimer's specialist or researcher into a dark corner, and beat them with a rubber hose (actually, a beer works too), they'll confess that it's probably Alzheimers (omit the apostraphe, it's a pain). Not the disease really, because a disease suggests something exceptional or atypical. This process is universal and lifelong, starting probably in the teenage years. What we call Alzheimer's "Disease" is probably "normal" aging of the brain. Just as we know aging rates vary with stress (telomeres shorten with stress) and genetics, so too does brain aging likely vary with stress, injury (concussion especially) and various unidentified environmental impacts.

The timing of symptomatic manifestations (i.e. disease), from forgetfullness to dementia, is determined by a combination of fundamental reserve (how much does one start with at age 19 [1]), biological brain age, and adaptive techniques. Some people become work disabled in their fifties, a luck few will be able to carry out their routine daily life readily until they've over 100. Most of us will be substantially impaired in our late 70s, and will be work-impaired in our 60s.

So, now that you understand this, (Phew ... I won't get Alzheimer's! I already have it ...) how does should you use knowledge? (I told you not read this far.)

Well, we probably ought to talk about it. Unless we can slow the fundamental aging of the brain (there's hope, actually) we shouldn't expect to raise the retirement age much. As the boomers age, we may also want to consider environmental adaptations in the workplace, such as simpler and more reliable software, better search tools, no instant messaging (sorry young-uns), less email, fewer interruptions, schedule brainless meetings in the afternoon only (when middle-aged brains are sluggish anyway) ...

For the truly tough (life is not for wimps), it might be useful to (I suggest doing this privately) track one's decline and plot out the point when one will have to switch careers or make other accommodations. There's a business opportunity here for a web site that would provide anonymous yearly testing and maintain a projection curve. It will be a while before most of us are ready for this step. Denial is not a bad thing.

Oh, and maybe we'll finally get a useable and reliable PDA -- one made to fulfill Engelbart's dream of the cognitive extender (aka crutch).

Meanwhile, be supportive of Alzheimer's Disease research. It's not just for your parents ...

[1] If the Alzheimer's process is global, but initial reserves are assymetric, then one would expect symptomatic disease to by likewise assymetric. So if one starts with strong visual-spatial reasoning but weak categorical memory, the memory will be the first to go. One would also expect persistent strengths to compensate for focal deficits, just as they do in developing brains.

Orrin Hatch - the arational defender of steroid abuse

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Muscle Flexing in Congress
By all accounts, Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who is a proven power player in defending his home state's diet supplement industry, managed to keep DHEA on the shelves of nutrition centers. DHEA has been widely banned for Olympic and professional athletics. But an investigative report by The Times detailed the supplement's survival in the marketplace - even though it metabolizes into testosterone products banned under the law.

Senator Hatch defends DHEA as a special case, as an 'anti-aging pill' that deserves to be legal. Capitol Hill negotiators who saw no such virtue complain that Senator Hatch baldly threatened to block the entire steroid control proposal unless DHEA was exempted.

DHEA's Washington lobbyists happen to be the senator's son and a former longtime staff aide to Mr. Hatch. Asked whether he'd been lobbied by his son, Senator Hatch replied, 'Not that I know of.' Actually, the senator is such an aggressive defender of the supplement industry that lobbying him is a redundancy. Lawmakers should look to their bench in embarrassment and reconsider the exemption.
Hatch has been very consistent about this sort of thing for over 20 years. I don't think he's particularly corrupt, he's a simple man with some persistent delusions. Oh, and he has a lot of power. Blame it on Utah.

Update 4/24: After writing this, another angle occurred to me. Orrin Hatch is not a young man. He believes DHEA is an "anti-aging" drug and he believes it is harmless. It is thus rather likely that Hatch uses DHEA himself. Since most quality physicians would consider this a harmful act, Hatch may qualify as a steroid abuser. In particular, he may have become dependent on the mildly euphoric qualities of oral steroids. He's unlikely to approve legislation that may lead to limited access to his drug of choice.

Enlightened hedonism: tsunami donation by tourism

The New York Times > Travel > After the Tsunami, Rebuilding Paradise

Want to help countries recover from a natural disaster? Be a noble hedonist.
...The hardships of the Thai people seemed to be on the minds of visitors who sat in the lounge chairs along the [Puket] beach.

'That's the reason we came now,' said Gordon Brind, 51, who was there in late March on vacation with his family from Britain. 'We were here last year and we decided to come again after the tsunami. Everyone was donating in the U.K. to tsunami funds, and in other countries, too, I'm sure. But the main part of it, really, is that they must have work to live.'
Enlightened hedonism is the best donation. On the other hand, earthquake risk will remain elevated until there's silence for a time (Bayesian analysis). Hmmm.

The Bush budget's "sunset commission" Bush's Most Radical Plan Yet
If you've got something to hide in Washington, the best place to bury it is in the federal budget. The spending plan that President Bush submitted to Congress this year contains 2,000 pages that outline funding to safeguard the environment, protect workers from injury and death, crack down on securities fraud and ensure the safety of prescription drugs. But almost unnoticed in the budget, tucked away in a single paragraph, is a provision that could make every one of those protections a thing of the past.

The proposal, spelled out in three short sentences, would give the president the power to appoint an eight-member panel called the "Sunset Commission," which would systematically review federal programs every ten years and decide whether they should be eliminated. Any programs that are not "producing results," in the eyes of the commission, would "automatically terminate unless the Congress took action to continue them."
Bush did something similar in Texas. The commissions were made up of people opposed to the agencies that regulated them; astonishingly they eliminated their enemies. The annoying thing is no so much that Bush wants to return America to the pre (Teddy) Roosevelt era, but rather that he's so sneaky and underhanded about how he operates.

The Bush method relies upon a supine or dysfunctional media, a media more focused on crowd pleasing side-shows than on radical transformations of government. By hook or by crook (or both), Bush has the media he needs. This administration has mastered the fundamental art of magic -- distracting with the right hand while the left hand does the real work.

Well, the ten people who read this blog, and the thirty that read Rolling Stone, now know. I doubt any voted for Bush.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Uplifting the dog

Print: The Chronicle: 4/15/2005: Clever Canines

With the remarkable exception of a Vernor Vinge novel, dog-like critters don't get much play in science fiction. Dogs don't get no respect. So when David Brin wrote the "uplift" series about cognitively enhanced cetaceans, he didn't mention dogs. Meanwhile, in the real world, canines are being "uplifted"...
Clever Canines
Did domestication make dogs smarter?
Budapest, Hungary

Vilmos Csányi's department has literally gone to the dogs. Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.

And, not infrequently, they go to work in the laboratories, where Mr. Csányi and his colleagues are trying to determine just how much canine brains are capable of...

... Mr. Csányi's team has been studying canine cognition for the past decade and, in the process, has built a body of experimental evidence that suggests dogs have far greater mental capabilities than scientists have previously given them credit for. "Our experiments indicate a high level of social understanding in dogs," he says.

In their relationship with humans, dogs have developed remarkable interspecies-communications skills, says Mr. Csányi. "They easily accept a membership in the family, they can predict social events, they provide and request information, obey rules of conduct, and are able to cooperate and imitate human actions," he says. His research even suggests that dogs can speculate on what we are thinking.

The latest findings to come out of the department suggest that dogs' barks have evolved into a relatively sophisticated way of communicating with humans. Adam Miklósi, an ethology professor, set out in a recent experiment to see if humans can interpret what dogs mean when they bark. He recruited 90 human volunteers and played them 21 recordings of barking Hungarian mudis, a herding breed.

The recordings captured dogs in seven situations, such as playing with other dogs, anticipating food, and encountering an intruder. The people showed strong agreement about the emotional meaning of the various barks, regardless of whether they owned a mudi or another breed of dog, or had never owned a dog. Owners and nonowners were also equally successful at deducing the situation that had elicited the barks, guessing correctly in a third of the situations, or about double the rate of chance.

... dogs' interest in communicating with humans to solve problems appeared to be innate, probably an evolutionary byproduct of their domestication, says Mr. Csányi...
I've written about this before. The canine is a very interesting genus; remarkably adaptive to its host (us). We may best understand ourselves by better understanding them. Sometime I must write about my not- entirely-in-fun theory that dogs created civilization by allowing women and geeks to defend themselves against the alpha male.

I've only known one dog very well. I never got the feeling that she was sentient in the same sort of way I think I am, but she was certainly a person.

An interesting overview of Cyc and an update on the AI agenda

New Scientist Whatever happened to machines that think? - Features

If you believe humans think (debateable, interestingly), and if you believe humans don't contain supernatural elements (souls [1]), then humans are biological thinking machines. Hence thinking machines. Since humans routinely create humans, we can create thinking machines.

So the interesting question becomes, can humans create non-human thinking machines, perhaps a mixture of the biologic and abiologic?

I bet yes. But, just as with Peak Oil, I can't say when. Probably within 100 years.

I tend to think it will be a very bad thing for my grandchildren, but that's just a hunch. I hope it won't be a very bad thing for my children. If I thought a 2nd Christian/Muslim Fundamentalist Dark Ages would delay this development, I might be a Bush supporter.

Alas, the competitive advantages of thinking machines are so great I can't imagine anything short of the annihilation of all human civilizations everywhere significantly delaying their appearance. That is 'destroying the village in order to save it' -- so I don't support the Bush/bin Laden agenda.

[1] Philosophical arguments against "strong AI", such as Searle's "Chinese Room", are essentially arguments for the existence of the soul, and thus for the existence of a deity. So "strong AI" debates, like the Fermi Paradox are "big question" topics.

MetaFilter "peak oil" update

April 22: Earth Day or Peak Oil Day? | MetaFilter

A good update on where we are with respect to Peak Oil. The Simmons link, including this one, is quite good (btw, he incidentally notes what the ANWAR debate is really about -- not the publicly stated expectations, but rather the dream/nightmare that very large reserves will be found, the extraction of which would likely have devastating local consequences).

I've been a "Peak Oil" guy since I did my environment engineering stuides at Caltech in 1980. The question is, of course, not "if", but rather "when", and "how" the transition will be made. Back then we thought the 1990s or so, but it looks like it will be somewhere between 2005 and 2020. I'm cautiously optimistic that rich countries would cope; I fear for the less rich nations. Of course in the post-9/11 world it ought to be obvious that if Peak Oil causes social disruption in poor nations, that the rich will not escape unscathed.

Now if that odd research on fusion-in-a-bottle works out ...

Update 5/4/05: The April 30, 2005 issue of The Economist did a review of the Oil industry, and specifically addressed the Peak Oil question. They are oil optimists They don't actually make a prediction about when Peak Oil will occur; but on is left with the impression that The Economist thinks oil will go out of fashion before a maximal production level is reached. Certainly nothing before 2030! So those looking for anti-Peak Oil ammunition have a readable resource for their arguments.

How will American "Christians" respond?

. . . Smearing Christian Judges (
...The present war within the Christian fold is perhaps more threatening to the republic than any of the previous intramural disputes. Right-wing religious zealots, working in partnership with the secularists who have advised President Bush, are a threat to the most fundamental of American principles. The founders of our nation welcomed and planned for spirited debate over public policies, including the role of the judiciary. But as sons of the Enlightenment, they looked to found a republic in which the outcome of those debates would turn on reason and evidence, not on disputed religious dogma. They planned wisely for principles that are now under wide assault.

All Americans, of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion, need to be on the alert to preserve those principles. The burden falls especially heavily on the mainstream Christians who are slowly awakening to the gravity of the challenge facing them. Too long tolerant of their brethren, too much given to forgiveness rather than to confrontation, they need to mount a spirited, nationwide response to what constitutes a dangerous distortion of Christian truths and a frightening threat to the republic they love.
I emphasized "enlightenment". (BTW, by "intramural" I'm sure he speaks in terms of religion, I hope he doesn't think we're facing the challenges of the 1830s. Or maybe he does ...)

To some extent Gaston oversimplifies -- as do all editorialists. The Catholic church is America is not particularly right-wing, but a significant segment is effectively aligning with the descendants of their historic enemies (not the first time such odd alliances have formed!). There's no mention of the Mormons, but they have an uneasy theological relationship with Catholics and Protestants alike.

Reading the full article, by the way, it seems Gaston divides Americans into secular and Christian. I'm sure he knows better, but it's a common pattern. Sigh.

Americans have, unfortunately, already made up their minds. The 2004 elections were hard fought, only someone in deep denial could have imagined that a vote for Bush was not a vote for right wing religious fundamentalism. Bush won a majority; our nation voted for the fundamentalists. It's a bit late for Bush voters to be having regrets. We who resist are a minority, we fight a rear-guard battle of delaying tactics hoping that the majority will change their mind in 2006 and 2008. If Frist is president in 2008 we will truly become a Christian theocratic state; after which the Catholic-fundamentalist Protestant alliance will disintegrate in a very ugly way.

Has Bill Gates become a fundamentalist?

The New York Times > National > Microsoft Comes Under Fire for Reversal on Gay Rights Bill

Hmm. First Gates supports Bush over Clinton in the 2000 elections -- thought then it seemed to be over the Fed's antitrust win, which Bush pulled after he won. More recently the Gates Foundation supports the creationist agenda. Now Microsoft retreats from a Gay Rights Bill.

Yes, it could all be commercial calculation -- except the creationist funding. That changes the equation a bit. I wonder if either Gates and/or Ballmer have undergone a mid-life conversion of sorts.

The slow advancement of ambulatory medical practice

Medical Notes: TOC

Eons ago, when I created the personal notes I'm linking to above, I was a real physician (GP basically, usually called an FP nowadays). Now I work in healthcare IT, but I continue to do the CME (continuing medical education) required to retain my licensure -- though I wouldn't see real patients without some supervised retraining. It's been more than 10 years since I was a country doc.

I've just completed two days of the Minnesota Academy of Family Practice's CME program.As I reflect on my notes, it's easiest for me to compare what I read to what I practiced in 1994 (I've done lots of CME since then, but it's in day to day practice that book learning becomes knowledge). I'm struck by one remarkable observation -- things haven't changed all that much.

I'm not talking about out-of-date docs practicing the medicine of their residency days. The faculty are state-of-the-art academics, including many subspecialists, all introducing the latest best practices. It is however true that a course like this only samples a few subjects. We didn't cover HIV management for example -- an area in which there's been great change. Like oncology, most HIV management is really a specialists domain. Where FPs care for cancer and HIV patients, we are usually working someone else's plan.

Some of the more remarkable changes in the past 10 years, are, in fact, retreats. We used to know how to manage the menopause (ERT), now we really don't. (Testosterone is popular now for female sexual dysfunction -- tell me that won't come to grief.) We used to try hard to identify reversible dementia -- no-one talks much about that any more. Alzheimer's is part of aging -- we are all touched by it in some measure, there are no effective preventive interventions, no good treatments (yet), just good management approaches. PSA used to be wonderful, now it seemed to a bit gauche.

The major breakthrough, compared to 1994, was in the management of erectile dysfunction. That's a pleasure to hear about (I'm not being ironic, it's great to be able to do something about this age-old problem), but there wasn't much else in the same league. Type II diabetes management is finally catching up to what many of us suspected 10 years ago (insulin is a double-edged sword), but the changes are not revolutionary. The preventive cardiologist and endocrinologist want everyone on statins, but there's still some nervousness in the audience about effects on neuronal membranes. Sure -- Lipitor for the diabetic or the patient with known heart disease -- but do want ever American male with a waist over 40" on high dose Lipitor?

Given my lack of practice and my aging brain, I suspect that 1994 JF with 1994 knowledge would do better on today's exams than I could. Yes, stroke management is somewhat changed and the old antibiotics don't work so well (be afraid -- they don't have easy replacements), but much of day to day healthcare seems to be changing more slowly than most people imagine. One big change was the source of much complaining -- noone likes their medical record computer system very much.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Planning a family bike outing via Google Maps

Google Maps - ice cream

Our family bike outings are structured around rewards -- of which Dairy Queen is the optimal currency. Since I'll be solo tomorrow in a new area with our 3 young children and my son's friend I needed som advance scouting. A bike trail map gave me the general idea, Google Maps located the Dairy Queens around the target zone. I found I could trace the bicycle trails from the satellite images; the trails are narrower than streets and they never have cars on them. Sometimes the trail narrows into invisibility when the trees are thick, but it can be seen emerging a bit later. This particular image is centered on the intersection of the 'Gateway/Vento' trail and the Lake Phalen cross trail. Using Google's satellite navigation I'm able to trace the bike trail route we'll take and identify problematic cross-streets.

I've already asked Google to think about how they could add bike trails to these maps. Perhaps regional bicycle groups could submit data in a pre-defined format so that Google could display bicycle and skating trails over their maps.

Now you can go camping with a digital camera

The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > Professional Cameras, Made for the Amateur. Go Ahead, Say Cheese.

The new Nikon D70s ought to work quite well, even on a one week camping trip.
Battery life is nearly endless; the Rebel XT's new smaller battery is nonetheless still good for 600 pictures a charge, compared with perhaps 200 on a typical digital camera. The D70S's new battery extends this to a delirious extreme: each charge can power the camera for a staggering 2,500 photos. You can go weeks between charges.
Remote photography was one of the last strongholds of film cameras.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hydrogen sulfide gas causes mice to enter a hibernation-like state

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mice put in 'suspended animation'

Once every two weeks I read something that makes my jaw drop and my eyes bug out. This is happening more often, so either I'm getting more sensitive with age or the world is moving way fast. This announcement qualified.
...The researchers from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle put the mice in a chamber filled with air laced with 80 parts per million (ppm) of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) - the malodorous gas that give rotten eggs their stink.

Hydrogen sulphide can be deadly in high concentrations. But it is also produced normally in humans and animals, and is believed to help regulate body temperature and metabolic activity...

....Dr Roth and his colleagues found that the mice stopped moving and appeared to lose consciousness within minutes of breathing the air and H2S mixture.

The animals' breathing rates dropped from the normal 120 breaths per minute to less than 10 breaths per minute.

During exposure their metabolic rates dropped by an astonishing 90%, and their core body temperatures fell from 37C to as low as 11C.

After six hours' exposure to the mixture, the mice were given fresh air. Their metabolic rate and core body temperature returned to normal, and tests showed they had suffered no ill effects.
Mice can enter a similar state when they are starving. Human's don't have a physiologic state like this, so I'm betting this won't work in humans. Nonetheless, it is stunning.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Google's search history function - at last

Google - My Search History

About 8 years ago I wrote Alta Vista asking them to do this. I'm sure my email got a lot of attention :-):
My Search History lets you easily view and manage your search history from any computer. This feature of Google web search enables you to find information you thought you lost. And over time, you'll see an increasing number of relevance indicators in your search results that help you find the information you want.
And one ring to bind them ...

PS. Google services are tied to a Google identity. Unfortunately I have two identities -- one I use with Google Groups/Usenet and one bound to my Gmail account. Of course there's no way to merge the two. Google strongly favors having a single identity; I've run into a number of problems due to my "multiple identity disorder".

The limitations of lifestyle changes

The New York Times > Week in Review > The Body Heretic: It Scorns Our Efforts

Other than smoking cessation, the health benefits of lifestyle changes for middle-aged adults has probably been oversold:
At most, Dr. Kramer said, the effect of changing one's diet or lifestyle might amount to 'a matter of changing probabilities,' slightly improving the odds. But health science is so at odds with the American ethos of self-renewal that it has a hard time being heard. Here, where people believe anything is possible if you really want it, even aging is viewed as a choice.
Genetics and experience have determined the health fate of most people by middle-age. Other than smoking cessation, other interventions may have limited benefit. Maybe weight loss and excercise could help, but very few adults can start managing weight or activity effectively so "late" in life. In any case, much of the damage done cannot be reversed.

Smoking cessation, drugs and surgery -- that's the message for the middle-aged.

Now for the young -- there we ought to be focusing on lifestyle changes, particularly exercise. Alas, our public policies and our social behaviors are not helping.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fallows on what's cool in tech

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > Techno Files: An Update on Stuff That's Cool (Like Google's Photo Maps)

Skype, Google Maps and more. A fun overview.

The Land of Rand

The New York Times > Business > Your Money > The Insurance Scandal Shakes Main Street

Another day, another massive corporate scandal:
[Doctors and lawyers discover they don't have malpractice coverage after all ...] [two of the] men had coverage from a company called Reciprocal of America. Their lives, and those of thousands of other doctors and lawyers in the South and the Midwest, have been in flux since Reciprocal cratered about two years ago amid a tangled web of business transactions that regulators describe as fraudulent...

... Regulators contend that Reciprocal, aided by outside business partners - including General Re - used financial gimmicks to mask serious problems and benefit insiders for more than a decade, until the company foundered...

... Reciprocal's former chief executive, Kenneth R. Patterson, and a former executive vice president, Carolyn B. Hudgins, have already pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges...

... Executives involved in the dizzying matrix of offshore accounts, secret transactions and financial sleight of hand that defined Reciprocal's business often struck deals in luxurious surroundings, even as Reciprocal itself was falling apart, according to the lawsuits. Executives, the lawsuits say, sometimes convened at fancy resorts and on other occasions cemented deals while cruising Chesapeake Bay aboard the Scottish Lass, a yacht owned by a Reciprocal executive. Reciprocal managers referred to the summer boating excursions as 'Chesapeake Audits,' according to one lawsuit.
And how about that AIG (emphases mine):
Mar 17th 2005 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
Regicide in the insurance industry

FEW leaders of big American companies dominated their firms as completely as Maurice “Hank” Greenberg; few stood so large in their industry. It is often said, only half in jest, that American International Group (AIG) had a flat management structure, with 90,000 employees all reporting to Mr Greenberg...

... The most commonly held theory is that Mr Greenberg was laid low by transactions he personally arranged in 2000 with General Re, a reinsurer now owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, that had the appearance of boosting AIG's reserves without actually doing so...

... This is not AIG's only problem. Four former employees have pleaded guilty in a bid-rigging case centred on Marsh & McLennan, the world's largest insurance broker. (Marsh's chief executive, Jeffrey Greenberg, Hank's son and formerly his chosen successor at AIG, had to resign last October. Hank's other son, Evan, also once his designated successor, is chief executive of ACE, another large insurer being investigated in the bid-rigging scandal.) In the past two years, AIG has reached settlements, without admitting guilt, with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice over the sale of insurance policies to PNC Financial, a bank, and Brightpoint, a technology company. The regulators had said that these masked financial performance rather than providing insurance.

Regulators are also scrutinising Mr Greenberg's attempts to put pressure on specialists on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to support AIG's share price in 2001, while it was consummating the acquisition, paid for with stock, of American General. Mr Greenberg's efforts included lobbying the NYSE's then chief executive, Richard Grasso. At the time, Mr Greenberg sat on the compensation committee of the NYSE. Mr Grasso's pay is the subject of its own investigation...

... During most of Mr Greenberg's tenure, AIG was the rare insurer that managed to combine fast growth with apparently low risk

The question now is whether AIG is finally losing its aura of impregnability. During most of Mr Greenberg's tenure, AIG was the rare insurer that managed to combine fast growth with apparently low risk. Wall Street analysts fell over each other to praise the company and it was one of the very few to enjoy top credit ratings from all the main agencies. This enthusiasm sprang partly from admiration for AIG's remarkable performance, but there was a darker side as well. Mr Greenberg was infamous for browbeating not only analysts who questioned AIG, but their bosses too. One analyst who told The Economist that AIG's shares were over-valued relative to its competitors received an unscheduled visit from the company's lawyers, who brought a pre-written retraction for him to sign (he declined). The company parcelled out its legal work among all the top law firms. This created a conflict of interest for any such firm representing anyone in legal action against AIG...

... With the agencies pondering and regulators probing, there may be more reason for analysts, investors and others to ask questions about the details of AIG's business. Although AIG has responded to criticism by becoming more open in the past two years, its operations remain fairly murky... because AIG pools its results from foreign operations, it is difficult to understand precisely how, and where, it makes money...

... AIG's opaque compensation scheme for senior managers, administered through a Panamanian corporation named Starr International, will ensure some loyalty. There are, it is said, several billionaires besides Mr Greenberg in its top ranks and others worth hundreds of millions. The scheme has some odd quirks, in as much as Starr International is controlled by Mr Greenberg and it is not clear that he must surrender this role...
Okay, so we have Enron and its ilk, AIG and its brethren, the SEC knee-capped by Bush, and a stench of corruption oozing about American capitalism. Not to mention the problem with index funds. Which is why this NYT Magazine article is so timely:
... A law professor at the University of Chicago, [Richard A.] Epstein was notorious in legal circles for his thesis that many of the laws underpinning the modern welfare state are unconstitutional. Thomas tried to assure Biden that he was interested in ideas like Epstein's only as a matter of ''political theory'' and that he would not actually implement them as a Supreme Court justice. Biden, apparently unpersuaded, picked up a copy of Epstein's 1985 book, ''Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain,'' and theatrically waved it in the air...

... As Epstein sees it, all individuals have certain inherent rights and liberties, including ''economic'' liberties, like the right to property and, more crucially, the right to part with it only voluntarily. These rights are violated any time an individual is deprived of his property without compensation -- when it is stolen, for example, but also when it is subjected to governmental regulation that reduces its value or when a government fails to provide greater security in exchange for the property it seizes. In Epstein's view, these libertarian freedoms are not only defensible as a matter of political philosophy but are also protected by the United States Constitution. Any government that violates them is, by his lights, repressive. One such government, in Epstein's worldview, is our government. When Epstein gazes across America, he sees a nation in the chains of minimum-wage laws and zoning regulations. His theory calls for the country to be deregulated in a manner not seen since before Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. [jf: would Epstein argue that the ancestors of slave owners are owed reparations?]
Which brings one back to the Land of Rand. Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher was the public face of what we now call 'Libertarianism' (she called it Objectivism); Rand's most famous living disciple is Alan Greenspan. Rand wrote like a journeyman romance or science fiction novelist; like most science fiction novels her stories are remarkable for the utter absence of children and the disabled. In Rand's world the "market" rewards the "fit" and punishes the "unfit", and good is what the market defines (the roaring sound you hear is the spinning of Charles Darwin's body). Rand, Lenin, and Marx seem to share both atheism and a fetish for recreating God and Devil as Market and State -- though the assignments varied.

Rand's philosophy can best be summarized in two words "caveat emptor". Let the buyer beware. In an Objectivist world there are few if any rules, save those that arise from a mystical market that's magically sustained by ... ummm... errr ....

Roughly (very) speaking then, Randian Libertarianism is a cross between 'God as Market' and early 20th century social darwinism. The Bush party is likewise very committed to social darwinism with a Calvinist spin, and has a strong 'God as Market' wing (the christian conservatives belong to the rather similar 'Market as the Will of God' coalition). From a different direction we have silicon valley bazillionaires who are often fond fans of Rand (her books are a paeon to their wonderfulness). Putting all of that together, and given the news of the past five years, it's fair to say that the US is becoming the Land of Rand.

I don't think this will work very well for the weak.

The reform of Manhattan - how important was abortion?

The New York Times > Opinion > John Tierney: The Miracle That Wasn't

The city of New York (Manhattan, Bronx, etc) went from one of America's most violent cities to one of our safest towns. Why?

Tierney describes a debate on the question between Steven (Freakonomics) Levitt and Malcom (Tipping Point) Gladwell. Alas, Tierney assumes one is pretty familiar with the particulars of the debates. My tentative reconstruction is that during the early 90s it was believed that social policing was a critical factor that "tipped" the murder rate from a persistently high rate to a relatively low rate. More recently some have argued that New York's early legalization of abortion, and the high rate of abortion in Manhattan, played a critical role.

My completely uninformed suspicion is that this is a multifactorial equation (shocking, I know). Any of the significant factors (policing techniques, police numbers, new software, long sentencing, decreasing unemployment, rising home costs, demographics/abortion rates, crack use, abortion rates, social attitudes) could be important, and in isolation might be considered solelyl responsible. Perhaps the question, and maybe this is what the debate are really about, is whether the equations are linear or non-linear. A linear regression means that the crime rate will change in a smooth and continuous fashion (though possibly exponentially), a non-linear model means that the the transitions may be "sticky" -- that crime rates may persist at one "pole" or another. I've historically favored non-linear explanations, but I don't have that strong a bias (and it's completely uninformed anyway -- non-linear is just "sexier".)

The policy questions are:

1. What is the most cost effective and socially acceptable way to replicate this drop? Is there one intervention to begin with (since all the terms of the equation interact)?
2. What does New York need to do to keep murder rates low?
3. How big a factor is abortion? If abortion use falls and birth rates rise, is there any way to keep murder rates low? Could any other form of birth control compensate? (Abortion has been an infamously popular form of birth control in locations where it's easily available -- such as Russia.)

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Bill Frist: Theocrat

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Bill Frist's Religious War

Bill Frist has declared himself. He is a theocrat of the christian fundamentalist variety.
Senator Frist is to appear on a telecast sponsored by the Family Research Council, which styles itself a religious organization but is really just another Washington lobbying concern. The message is that the Democrats who oppose a tiny handful of President Bush's judicial nominations are conducting an assault 'against people of faith.' By that, Senator Frist and his allies do not mean people of all faiths, only those of their faith.

The problem with index funds

The New York Times > Business > Media & Advertising > While Shares Fell, Viacom Paid Three $160 Million

I've long been an index fund investor. Historically, that's where the smart money has gone. But are times changing?
The top three executives at Viacom Inc. received total compensation last year valued at about $52 million to $56 million each in salary, bonus and stock options, the company disclosed yesterday.
And then there's AIG, a company that threatens to make Enron look good and send Warren Buffett into retirement.

The power of index funds is that they benefit from low operating costs and the distributed "intelligence" of the market. But what if corruption is rampant in the economy, and more than a few companies are making a transition from symbiotic to parasitic relationships? If that's true, then index fund investors are simply feeding funds to corrupt organizations. But where are the index fund managers? Vanguard and Fidelity, large index fund managers, had their chance 4 years ago to help clean the mess, but they chose to stand aside.

Perhaps we'll discover that index funds work best in a relatively honest and transparent marketplace. Maybe we'll learn that funds like Calvert will become more effective in a relatively corrupt marketplace. Perhaps and maybe are great weasel words, but we'll be accelerating moves into Calvert (though I hate adding complexity to my investment world).

Friday, April 15, 2005

Introduction to blogs and bloglines

tecosystems: How to Get Into Blogs, 101

This tutorial focuses on my preferred blog reader: the bloglines web client. I'll be pointing quite a few people here. Most Wished For: iPod madness

Amazon has a new feature -- a summary of the the 'most wished for' items across their customer base. A ridiculous percentage of the top 25 electronics items are iPod related. The full iPod lineup is in the top 10, accessories populate much of the rest of the top 25.

Clearly, the iPod craze has reached a kind of lunatic level. It has nowhere to go but down now ...

BTW, I do like my iPod.

Tours open now for the virtual world: Google maps and eyeballs

Notes: Interesting Google Satellite Maps

This page will likely be slashdotted soon, but it will return eventually. A number of people are discovering interesting things in Google's satellite images. It's the spying equivalent of open source -- many eyes means much discovery.

In 10/01 I proposed the DOD outsource satellite imagery of Afghanistan to US desktops. Let millions of eyes spy the terrain and analyze the data. I also suggested using large numbers of automated drones circulating in controlled areas, and allowing thousands or millions to view the data on their desktop. There are obvious risks to such a strategy, but I think they might be manageable (ex. mix fake data with real data to confuse spies, etc -- only the DOD knows what's real) ...

This phenomena is the merest beginning of the brave new world of mass surveillance and virtual tourism -- tourism that will mix the real world with the virtual. Imagine hundreds of 'avatars' "flying" and exploring the imaged terrain of the grand canyon -- with older and new images seamlessly mixed together.

PS. Of course Verner (singularity, fast times at fairmount high) Vinge and David (transparent society) Brin have already described all of the above and more. It is amazing to see it all starting however.

Update: I'm so slow in my old age. Way behind the curve. I think Google needs to post a sign on their lab page: Danger, singularity ahead.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Data Lock: Money cannot convert my Quicken file

This is the computer equivalent of a metal door slamming shut: "Your Quicken file could not be converted."

I've given up on Intuit & Quicken. The alternatives are:
1. Abandon this category of software. Revert to a mixture of web apps and spreadsheets (back to the 70s, more or less).
2. Switch to Microsoft Money (update -- this was awful. Passport mania)
3. Try Moneydance (update -- this didn't work)
4. Try QuickBooks Pro (still considering, see Update 4/15/05)
Microsoft has a trial download of Money 2005. I took it for a spin. Whizzy install -- it's gone .NET (for better and worse). When I tried to convert my Quicken files, however, I got this helpful message: "Your Quicken file could not be converted." (Now that's a helpful error message!) My complex Quicken database evidently caused Money to keel over.

Researching this error message led me to a description of what someone with a dataset comparable to mine went through to convert: A User's Experience of Intuit Quicken to Microsoft Money Conversion. Brrrrr. I don't have time for all of that!

So the bottom line is that Microsoft Money's conversion capabilities are pretty limited. I guess they only work for the simplest setup. It's probably better for me to start over in Money and forget about what's in Quicken; I may generate a few reports as PDF files

PS. There are similarities between this experience and a vastly more complex and expensive worldwide problem -- but that starts to get into my work life.

Update 4/13/05: I decided I really didn't want to go with Microsoft Money. It wasn't the silly error message or the cutesy UI that got to me, it was all the 'Passport' stuff and the hardcore ties to Microsoft's online services. Like Intuit, Microsoft is trying to bind customers to a range of services -- rather than focusing on delivering profitable value.

Which led me to Moneydance ($30). Moneydance is a small company product (Java app) that runs on Linux, Mac and Windows. It doesn't have 1/10th the features of Quicken or Money, but I really liked this language:
Compatible, standards-based reliability
Moneydance uses industry standard technologies such as OFX, QIF, SSL/TLS, Java, and XML to ensure compatibility with other software and services. In addition, with our open API and Extension Developer Kit you can be sure that third parties will always be able to integrate their services with Moneydance.
I think I can live with this. I'll give it a try. If it works reliably it may be all I need for now. Quicken was never any good at tracking stock transactions anyway. There's a free demo version that can handle 100 transactions.

And yes, MoneyDance is actually pretty ugly. Compared to Quicken or Money, however, it's a joy to look at.

Update 4/14/05: I uninstalled Money and gave MoneyDance a light test with an OFX import. It failed miserably. Once again proof that I'm death on software. Despite the many glowing reviews on the net I ran into 2 significant bugs within 3 minutes and a bizarre usability issue. (Import 400 credit card transactions -- and find I have to approve them one at time.) I uninstalled MoneyDance.

Update 4/15/05: I have a copy of QuickBooks Pro 5.0 or so. I think it's mid-90s. It was a crummy accounting package, but as a personal finance product I thought it had some advantages over Quicken. It doesn't handle investments, but Quicken doesn't do well with those anyway.

A serious use for a Pentium III - Linspire

Linspire 5-0: Surprisingly capable Linux desktop OS - Tech News & Reviews -

Most of the Linux installs I work around are major server projects. I figured Linux on old software was history. This credible reviewer, however, had a good experience with Linspire on a PIII. Hmm. I was planning to toss the 486 running Win98, but it sure sounds like it would run Linspire ...
... it took me a grand total of 21 minutes to boot my old Pentium III laptop, put in the Linspire CD, reboot, install 5-0, reboot again, adjust the time, date and sound level, and then start computing...

...The digital version of 5-0 sells for $49.95 or $89.95 with a one year CNR subscription.  The boxed version of Linspire will sells for ten dollars more ($59.95/$99.95) at more than a thousand retailers nationwide later this month.

The National Day of Reason: Thur May 5, 2005

National Day of Reason: Home Page

Sign the petition!

Unitarian Jihad

SF Chronicle, Jon Carroll
The following is the first communique from a group calling itself Unitarian Jihad. It was sent to me at The Chronicle via an anonymous spam remailer ...
We are not alone. (via metafilter)

There really are TWO swiss army knife manufacturers

Slashdot | New Mac System Specs

Amidst a Slashdot discussion of rumored apple systems, the answer to a longstanding mystery. There really are two different "authentic" swiss army knives.
The Compromise of 1908

The company from which Wenger emerged had been a supplier to the Swiss Army as early as 1893, and its competitor, Victorinox, since 1890. Wenger is in the French-speaking Jura region, and its competitor is in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz. To avoid friction between the two cantons, the Swiss government decided in 1908 to use each supplier for half of its requirements. So while Victorinox can lay claim to be the 'original', Wenger can state that its Swiss Army Knives are the 'genuine'. In any case, both have been manufacturing Swiss Army Knives for over 100 years and both must meet identical specifications laid down by the army.

How to select the right seat on an airplane - Your Enlightened Guide to Airplane Seating

I need to add this to my business travel links page.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The neocon view of Iraq: Hong Kong with oil

Harper's Magazine: Baghdad year zero: pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia


Tracing one's deep ancestry: interest for adoptees?

Boing Boing: Trace your genetic ancestry back to Africa for $100 with National Geographic
National Geographic has developed a five-year genographic study where participants can join in and track their genetic lineage to a common African ancestor. The $100 test will tell you the route that your ancestors took and when, and both the DNA and genographic results will be made available to individual participants on the net...

.. You'll receive a personalized genetic analysis, including an online overview of your deep ancestral history. The analysis reveals where and when your haplogroup originated and how they lived. You'll also receive a dynamic map, specific to your lineage, on which to trace your relatives' journeys across the planet.
I believe this is part of a research program as well; selling personalized views of the data is a brilliant way to fund the research. I wonder if future versions of this data would eventually be of particular interest to adoptees who cannot identify their birth families. Something to display on those hideous 'family tree' days in addition to the family tree of one's adoptive family.

BTW, The National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey is already quite fascinating.

Christian Reconstructionism and the American congress

Remember the good old days, when Clinton used to drive some very whacky people over the edge? Sigh. I now regret the wicked delights of watching the lunatics go rabid. They're still crazy, they're still rabid, but now they have power. We need to watch the politicians named in this article. [emphases and links are mine, by way of background, review this and this and this] News | In theocracy they trust
By Michelle Goldberg

April 11, 2005 | According to David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, Terri sobbed in her mother's arms after the courts condemned her to death. "Terri Schiavo was as alive as any person sitting here," he said. "Anything you saw on the videos, multiply times two hundred. I mean completely animated, completely responsive...

Gibbs was speaking to a banquet of religious right activists and conservative operatives last Thursday, the first night of the Confronting the Judicial War on Faith conference in Washington. The 100 or so people in the audience had converged on the Washington Marriott from 25 states...

... The event was remarkable in bringing together lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers with unabashed theocrats. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., shared the stage with prominent adherents of Christian Reconstructionism, a Calvinist doctrine that calls for the subordination of American civil law to biblical law.

Other strains of the religious right were represented as well -- Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s conservative niece, was there, as was Catholic anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Justice who lost his job after he refused to remove a two-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse, received an adulatory welcome. There was Tom Jipping, a counselor to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch who used to work at Concerned Women for America, and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. All were united by a frantic sense of crisis symbolized by Schiavo, who has become a mythical figure, martyred and quasi-divine, in the stories that percolate through America's evangelical subculture.

... ideas offered at the conference ranged from ending the filibuster and impeaching all but the most right-wing judges to abolishing all federal courts below the Supreme Court altogether. At least one panelist dropped coy hints about murder.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, originally scheduled as the keynote speaker, was called away to Pope John Paul II's funeral, but he delivered a laudatory welcome via video. DeLay accused the judiciary of having "run amok," and said that to rein it in, it would be necessary to "reassert Congress' constitutional authority over the courts." His endorsement was one of many signs that this intense conclave, with all its apocalyptic despair and exhilarated calls for national renewal, represented something more than a frustrated eruption by the febrile fringe. However odd the ideas emanating from the conference seemed to a secularist, they are taken seriously by people with real power in our nation. Indeed, they're taken more seriously than such oft-derided relics as "separation of church and state," which the conferees treated as a devilish heresy.

The Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration [jf: by which they mean establishment of a theocratic state] is a new coalition whose membership includes major figures in the religious right. Jerry Falwell, Schlafly and Ray Flynn, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, are among those on its executive committee...

... The sense that America is on the cusp of chaos was nearly universal at the conference, leading to calls for a radical restructuring of American government. On panel after panel, speakers -- including Michael Schwartz, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn's chief of staff -- demanded the impeachment of judges who disagree with the doctrine of Antonin Scalia-style strict constructionism. Several asserted the right of the president and Congress to disregard court decisions they think are unconstitutional. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was excoriated with the kind of venom the right once reserved for Hillary Clinton.

On a Friday panel titled "Remedies to Judicial Tyranny," a constitutional lawyer named Edwin Vieira discussed Kennedy's majority opinion in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down that state's anti-sodomy law. Vieira accused Kennedy of relying on "Marxist, Leninist, Satanic principals drawn from foreign law" in his jurisprudence.

What to do about communist judges in thrall to Beelzebub? Vieira said, "Here again I draw on the wisdom of Stalin. We're talking about the greatest political figure of the 20th century … He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him whenever he ran into difficulty. 'No man, no problem.'"

...The affair finished with a rousing speech by recent Republican senatorial candidate Alan Keyes, who drew enthusiastic applause when he said, "I believe that in our country today the judiciary is the focus of evil."

... With each new lunacy perpetrated by religious fundamentalists, progressives tell each other that any second the pendulum will swing the other way and some equilibrium will return to our national life. They've been telling each other that for more than four years. But the influence of religious authoritarianism keeps growing...

...One conference speaker was Howard Phillips, the hulking former Nixon staffer who helped midwife the new right. Years ago, Phillips, along with Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, recruited a little-known Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority. Though he was raised Jewish, Phillips is now an evangelical Christian who told me he was profoundly influenced by the late R.J. Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. "Rushdoony had a tremendous impact on my thinking," Phillips said. As time goes on, he said, Rushdoony's influence is growing.

Christian Reconstructionism calls for a system that is both radically decentralized, with most government functions devolved to the county level, and socially totalitarian. It calls for the death penalty for homosexuals, abortion doctors and women guilty of "unchastity before marriage," among other moral crimes. To be fair, Phillips told me that "just because a crime is capital doesn't mean you must impose the death penalty. It means it's an option." Public humiliation, he said, could sometimes be used instead.

Herb Titus, another Rushdoony follower, also spoke. He was the dean of the law school at Pat Robertson's Regent University...

... The pope's funeral gave DeLay an excuse not to show up in person, and Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn, both initially listed on the conference Web site, also dropped out.
These are people who could sit down to dinner with bin Laden and readily come to a mutual agreement about how society ought to be ordered. They might have some issues about cosmetics, but on the fundamentals they would find common ground. They are not going to go away.

Bangladeshi heroes in Liberia

When I was a child, East Pakistan became Bangladesh in a terrible civil war. The breadbasket of South Asia became famous for famine and starvation. I was told to empty my plate in sympathy for starving Bangladeshi children (as an adult this makes no sense, but somehow it worked for my mother). A bit later Kissinger called it the "basket case" of the world.

In 1981 I lived for two months in Bangladesh. I was in the latter part of a one year Watson Fellowship focusing on fertility management (I think in 1980 the population was about 93 million, now it's 140 million but the fertility rate is down to 3.15 children/woman and life expectancy now is over 60 years). Bangladesh then was considered almost as much a candidate for Malthusian collapse as Rwanda -- but even then they'd had remarkable success for a poor Muslim nation in encouraging smaller families. (Rwanda went on to have a true Malthusian crisis.)

Of all the remarkable places I visited during that year, Bangladesh was the most surprising and startling. Yes, it was very poor. I recall how startled I was to see domestic fights and spouse beatings take place in public; where else can the homeless fight? There was hunger and beggars and misery. There was also a very beautiful countryside, the world's best fruits in the public markets, fascinating old dusty libraries from the 19th century and quite a bit of energy and hope.

Which is all by way of explaining that I've tracked Bangladesh from afar over the past twenty years, and cheered on the often quiet successes of that nation -- despite immense challenges. I like buying clothing and devices made in Bangladesh, and I like reading this article describing the contribution Bangladesh has made to restoring some measure of hope in a truly desperate place -- Liberia.
Rebuilding failed states, From Chaos, Order

From The Economist print edition

ONE and a half years ago, Liberia was a failed state. Two separate groups of drug-emboldened teenage rebels controlled most of the country. A gangsterish president, Charles Taylor, was losing control even over Monrovia, the capital, where all sides were firing heavy artillery into office blocks and looting strategic spots such as the brewery. In August 2003 (see article), The Economist reported from that unhappy city that “famished townsfolk have already eaten their neighbours' dogs and are reduced to scrounging for snails.”

Today, thanks to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force, Liberia is calm. Some 15,000 blue helmets are keeping the streets more or less safe. There are still road blocks, but not the old sort, where militiamen stretched human intestines across the road as a signal to motorists to stop and be robbed. The UN road blocks are typically manned by disciplined Bangladeshis, of whom the locals vocally approve.

“They are very nice,” says Richard Dorbor, an office assistant in Buchanan, Liberia's main port. During the civil war, rebels looted the town clean: Mr Dorbor points to the dark patch on the wall where the kitchen sink used to be. But then the Bangladeshis came, overawed them and disarmed them, without a single casualty.

“In any group, there are good boys and bad boys,” says Colonel Anis Zaman, the Bangladeshi commander in Buchanan, relaxing in cricket whites on a Sunday. “With the bad boys, you have to be firm. You say: ‘If you want to be funny, look at our APCs [armoured personnel carriers] and machineguns. We can be funny, too. So let's just put down the guns and talk.'”

.... By far the most cost-effective way of stabilising a failed state, however, is to send peacekeepers. Mr Collier and Ms Hoeffler calculated that $4.8 billion of peacekeeping yields nearly $400 billion in benefits. This figure should be treated with caution, since it is extrapolated from one successful example. In 2000, a small contingent of British troops smashed a vicious rebel army in Sierra Leone, secured the capital and rescued a UN peacekeeping mission from disaster.

Not all interventions go so well. But a study by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, suggests that the UN, despite its well-publicised blunders, is quite good at peacekeeping. Of the eight UN-led missions it examined, seven brought sustained peace (Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Sierra Leone and East Timor), while one (in Congo) did not. An earlier RAND study had looked at eight American-led missions and found that only four of the nations involved (Germany, Japan, Bosnia and Kosovo), were now at peace, while the other four (Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq) were not, or at any rate, not yet....

... The annual cost of all 11 UN peacekeeping operations today is less than America spends in a month in Iraq.

... For an illustration of how utterly the Liberian state has decayed, consider the once-busy port at Buchanan. The railway that once brought iron ore there from an inland mine has been swallowed by the bush. The iron-ore processing depot on the quayside has been stripped to its girders, as have most other buildings. A single ship sits at an odd angle in the harbour, with a tree growing out of its deck. Four swaggering youths in flip-flops accost your correspondent and demand to know what he is doing. They introduce themselves as three majors and a colonel from the Liberian security forces.
Incidentally, the anonymous author of this article (the Economist does not have bylines) is one hell of a journalist. I think I've read other articles by this scribbler -- they often feature brief comments on bone chilling scrapes with near death.

Korea - the newest land of tomorrow - Consumer Power - Man's best friend

Once upon a time Japan was the land of the future; William Gibson famously crowned it so. Alas, Japan is now passe, on its way to being as dull a backwater as America. Korea (specifically, South Korea) now rules the future:
Man's best friend
Mar 31st 2005
From The Economist print edition
Not a dog, but a mobile phone

... South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. That is why Meg Whitman, the chief executive of eBay, the biggest online auctioneer, sees the country as a “window into the possibilities” of what might happen when high-speed broadband services are widely adopted in other places too.

In 1960, South Korea had only one telephone for every 300 people—barely one-tenth of the world average at the time. Today, more than 90% of households have a fixed-line phone, three times the world average. Moreover, three-quarters of the population carry mobile phones, which means that pretty well everyone has one, apart from tiny tots and a few elderly people. With government encouragement and the benefit of a densely populated, mainly urban environment, South Korea has been relatively easy to wire up. The country boasts one of the highest internet-penetration rates in the world, with more than 31m of the 48m population now having access to the web, most of them via high-speed services. Apartment blocks display government notices by the front door certifying the speed of their internet connection.

Those connections are about to get even faster. In January, the government licensed the country's three main telecoms firms, SK Telecom, KT and Hanaro, to offer a new high-speed wireless internet service called WiBro. From next year, this will allow mobile users to surf the internet at much higher speeds than they do now, as well as more reliably. Somewhat alarmingly, the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) says it will work even in a car travelling at 60km an hour.

For the country's consumer-electronics makers, this vibrant home market is an invaluable development laboratory. Samsung Electronics, South Korea's biggest consumer-electronics company, has already produced a mobile phone especially for watching high-quality video. Its rival, LG Electronics, has even unveiled one with a built-in personal video recorder, which automatically switches to “record” if the user needs to take a call. Lots of other new gadgets are coming, including phones that can read the radio-frequency identification tags that will eventually replace the barcodes attached to goods. These phones, says the MIC, could be used to check the expiry date of fresh produce, say, or pick up a signal from a poster advertising a new movie, which would then prompt you to download a preview. [jf: The Economist omits mention of the 8MPixel cameraphones that drive US digicam fans mad with envy.]...

... South Koreans in their teens and 20s increasingly look on e-mail as an old and formal means of communication, according to one study. “You would exchange e-mails with your bosses, but not your friends,” says a young South Korean marketing assistant. The arrival of more features could reinforce this trend further: a new Samsung phone uses voice recognition to convert speech into text.

However, some of the new features that mobile phones will offer look like being universally popular. Walk into the experimental coffee bar at the MIC's offices in Seoul, and the screen of a handset lights up with the menu. You can order two cappuccinos, pay electronically and receive a receipt, all on the handset. Mobile phones are already configured for some basic e-commerce activities such as downloading music, and in Asia a few can already be used to make some purchases in shops...
Remember the Palm Economy? Back then the PDA was going to be wallet, key, etc (using IR rather than radio). It came true in the end, but not for Palm, alas.

Koreans will be the first to give infants unique numbers based on some statistical property of their DNA, that shall be their lifelong digital signature and personal identifier ... (yes, of course, their phone number too).

Gmail's flaw: crummy spam filtering

Gmail is very impressive, save for one rather serious flaw.

Their spam filtering is really, truly, awful. This is quite surprising -- most of us thought Google would do a great job of spam filtering. Astoundingly, they're far worse than Yahoo, Spamcop, or my personal ISP ( Recently my inbox has had 25 spams a day -- compared to 3-4 spams in the same mail stream (my messages bifurcate) managed by Nor is VISI producting too many false positives; they do pretty well.

Until GMail gets its spam filtering under control I can't recommend them to anyone.

The 8 person Alzheimer's study: immunoglobulin

Health News Article |

In a non-randomized, non-blinded, uncontrolled phase-1 6 month safety study of immunoglobulin therapy in 8 people with Alzheimer's, 6 showed improvement in cognitive measures, 1 stayed the same and 1 worsened.

The main reason there's "excitement" about this result is that it's a reworking of an immunization intervention that looked very promising but had toxic side-effects. Practically, since immunoglobulin therapy is FDA approved for other conditions, if this intervention does have value it could come to market much sooner than many other novel therapies.

The overall good news, as a scientist noted in an NPR interview, is that we can induce Alzheimer's in mice and we can cure it in mice. Of course we can cure a lot of things in mice that we can't treat in humans, but the research scene is encouraging.

If we can substantially delay the onset of Alzheimer's type dementia in the boomers, then both the social security and medicare problems will "go away". It will not be hard then to extend the retirement age to 70.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why humans should not be trusted with dangerous toys

5,000 labs told to destroy vials of pandemic flu strain
At the urging of global health authorities, scientists were scrambling Tuesday to destroy vials of a pandemic flu strain sent to labs in 18 countries as part of routine testing.

The rush, urged by the World Health Organization, was sparked by a slim risk that the samples could spark a global flu epidemic. The vials of virus sent by a U.S. company went to nearly 5,000 labs, mostly in the United States, officials said....

...It was not clear why the 1957 pandemic strain, which killed between 1 million and 4 million people, was in the proficiency test kits routinely sent to labs...
This is what happens when one has to deal with human beings. They make silly bureaucratic mistakes. Twenty years from now it will be samples of the 1915 pandemic strain sent to high school bioengineering classes by mistake.

How the heck are we going to survive the next 100 years?

Plenty of Earths, older galaxies -- so where are the little green men?

The BBC has two science articles that update terms in the Drake Equation.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Plenty of Earths await discovery
These scenarios of past extinction and future birth increase to about two-thirds the proportion of the known exoplanetary systems that are potentially habitable at some time during the main-sequence lifetime of their central star.
and BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Telescope catches early starlight
Astronomers have seen the light coming from what could be some of the very first stars to shine in the Universe.

These ancient objects burst into life probably no more than 600 million years or so after the Big Bang itself.

The discovery, announced at the UK National Astronomy Meeting, suggests the evolution of galaxies got under way much earlier than previously believed.
Together these articles seem to reduce the likelihood of the "rare earth" resolution of the Fermi Paradox. By implication they strengthen the case for other hypotheses, such as short-lived civilizations.

Personally, I like the singularity version of the short-lived civilization hypothesis. I must note, however, that the Designer Hypothesis, of which Genesis is one version, is likewise strengthened.

PS. Wikipedia is most impressive.

Minneapolis WiFi: Panic and terror stalks St. Paul

Minneapolis envisions citywide Wi-Fi
Minneapolis is about to become an unwired city, creating a universal wireless Internet access network available to every citizen, visitor, business and municipal facility within city limits.
GYAUGHKK. I live in St. Paul. This is an outrage. The communist empire of Minneapolis is again humiliating its noble, hard working neighbor. It's bad enough that Minneapolis has a far superior set of bicycle paths and trails, yet again their light rail, yet again that our traitorous "democrat" mayor endorsed Bush, but this is the ultimate humiliation.

Impeach Kelly!!

Monday, April 11, 2005

How the mighty have fallen -- USA 2005, Japan 1945

Jess Bravin had a remarkable article in last Thurday's Wall Street Journal (available for free to the public) on a set of war crimes decisions issued shortly after World War II which contain striking resemblances to the cases pending today — both cases involving alleged Al Qaeda members, and cases involving U.S. servicemembers accused of abuse.
The US government in 2005 is following the legal reasoning and policites of the Japanese dictatorship of 1945. The US government of 1945 followed very different policies, and found the Japanese dictatorship of 1945 guilty of war crimes.

Were Bush to face trial before the US government of 1945, he would have been found guilty of war crimes.