Thursday, September 29, 2005

Comparative advantage: a one line summary

Recently I gave a talk on outsourcing clinical content creation (hospital care plans, standardized order sets, etc) to a physician audience. I was able to work in a reference to Wikipedia and comparative advantage and to relate Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage to outsourcing. This basic economics works pretty well with a clinical audience; they especially liked my concise summary of Ricardo:
It's not that you can't do the work better than someone else, it's rather that you have better things to do ..

American torture - a study in camels

The right wing is fond of declaiming slippery slopes and the camel's nose. I happen to think this is one of their better strategies -- I agree with social conservatives that humans are very poor at detecting that they've slid onto the smooth road to hell.

So where's the evangelical right wing when it comes to torture? What would our new Supreme Court Chief Justice say?

Emphases mine. Note the stages of torture acceptance.

By Ted Rall Thu Sep 29,10:40 AM ET
Or, We Are All Torturers Now

... An army captain and two sergeants from the elite 82nd Airborne Division confirm previous reports that Bagram and other concentration camps in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan are a kind of Torture University where American troops are taught how to abuse prisoners who have neither been charged with nor found guilty of any crime...

... The latest sordid revelations concern Tiger Base on the border with
Syria, and Camp Mercury, near Fallujah, the Iraqi city leveled by U.S. bombs in a campaign that officials claimed would finish off the insurgent movement. After the army told him to shut up over the course of 17 months--tacit proof that the top brass condones torture--a frustrated Captain Ian Fishback wrote to two conservative Republican senators to tell them about the "death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment" carried out against Afghans and Iraqis unlucky enough to fall into American hands.

... By 2004 a third of Americans told pollsters that they didn't have a problem with torture.

... By Monday, September 26, the story of torture at Camps Tiger and Mercury to which New York Times editors had granted page one treatment two days earlier had vanished entirely. Only a few papers, such as the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times, ran follow-ups.

In his 2000 book "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture" John Conroy presciently describes the surprising means by which democracies are actually more susceptible to becoming "torture societies" than dictatorships ... Conroy goes on to describe the "fairly predictable" stages of governmental response:

First, writes Conroy, comes "absolute and complete denial." Rumsfeld told Congress in 2004 that the U.S. had followed Geneva "to the letter" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The second stage," he says, is "to minimize the abuse." Republican mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh compared the murder and mayhem at Abu Ghraib to fraternity hazing rituals.

Next is "to disparage the victims." Bush Administration officials and right-wing pundits call the victims of torture in U.S. custody "terrorists," ...

Dick Cheney called victims of torture at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (who, under U.S. law, are presumed innocent) "the worst of a very bad lot." Rumsfeld called them "the worst of the worst."

Other government tactics include charging "that those who take up the cause of those tortured are aiding the enemies of the state" (Right-wing bloggers have smeared me as a "terrorist sympathizer" because I argue against torture); denying that torture is still occurring (numerous Bush Administration officials claimed that Abu Ghraib marked the end of the practice); placing "the blame on a few bad apples" (the classic Fox News-Bush trope); and pointing out that "someone else does or has done much worse things" (the beheadings of Western hostages by Iraqi jihadi organizations was used to justify torturing Iraqis who didn't belong to those groups).

Citing the case of widespread and proven torture of arrestees by Chicago cops, Conroy noted: "It wasn't a case of five people...doing nothing or acting slowly, it was a case of millions of people knowing of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators, and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused. Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things out.
An old story, oft retold. This is how nations fall.

Krugman and others have commented that Bush has transformed the American economy into something that resembles Argentina. Argentina has also had a history of governmental torture, and of social complicity. Maybe we should study Argentina a bit.

As for myself, I'll have to join a march or something. One day I may have to explain to the children what I was doing when America went over a cliff.

Building a personal voice notes internet service

I wrote about this in my text blog: Gordon's Tech: MaxEmail & GMail = a great way to pass voice messages around. Using web based email to view and manage voice messages from oneself to oneself makes the old dictaphone obsolete ....

Salon summarizes the DeLay / Abramoff story News | The Hammer falls

Concise and interesting. Very pre-Teddy (Roosevelt).
At its height, the first great political machine of the 21st century worked like this: In Congress, Texas Rep. Tom DeLay controlled the votes like a modern-day Boss Tweed. He called himself 'the Hammer.' His domain included a vast network of former aides and foot soldiers he installed in key positions at law firms and trade groups, a network that came to be called the 'K Street Project.' He gathered tithes in the form of campaign cash, hard and soft, and spread it out among the loyal. He legislated for favored donors. He punished those who disobeyed, and bought off those who could be paid.

Conservative activists, who had grown up in the heady days of Reagan's America, patrolled the badlands of American politics for new opportunities. None did it better than Jack Abramoff, a former president of the College Republicans, who had a taste for expensive suits. Abramoff opened a restaurant, Signatures, where the powerful came to be seen and, in many cases, treated to free meals from a menu that included $74 steaks. He pulled in tens of millions of dollars from Indian tribes and the Northern Marianas Islands to help fund other operations -- skyboxes at the MCI Center where DeLay could hold his fundraisers and all-expense trips to Scotland where DeLay and friends could play golf.

Others were drawn into the web as well. Abramoff kicked down money to his old college buddy Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader whose role was to keep the right-wing ideologues in line. He hired Ralph Reed, a former advisor to the Christian Coalition, who helped keep the religious right on good terms with the Republican leadership. He hired Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, as his assistant. He leaned on former lobbying colleagues, like David Safavian, who was working in the Bush administration and could do favors for his clients. Susan Ralston, Abramoff's former gatekeeper and executive assistant, went to work for Karl Rove in the White House.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Online gambling - 1905

Online gambling - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There's a history section to be written for this Wikipedia article. If I could validate family lore I might add a section on an example of 'prior art' in online gaming.

Prior to WW I my paternal grandfather worked running telegrams in Liverpool. Punters would submit their bets via Telegram (electric telegraph) prior to race-time. My grandfather, then a child, ran them to the track. I don't know if punters received their winnings via Telegraph, but it's quite possible.

Indeed there is little truly new under the sun. Practically speaking, I wonder if this 'prior art' might invalidate some pesky process patents.

PS. Thanks Mum!

On grief - New York Times Magazine

We all know, or will know, a bit of the feeling. The call about the parent who's died. The brother missing. This story is well told and worth reading.
NYT Magazine: After Life - New York Times (Joan Didion)

Nine months and five days ago, at approximately 9 o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. Our only child, Quintana, then 37, had been for the previous five nights unconscious in an intensive-care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's Singer Division, at that time a hospital on East End Avenue (it closed in August 2004), more commonly known as 'Beth Israel North' or 'the old Doctors' Hospital,' where what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock. This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself....

...Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of "waves." Erich Lindemann, who was chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1940's and interviewed many family members of those killed in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire, defined the phenomenon with absolute specificity in a famous 1944 study: "sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.
The essay does not discuss what happened to Quintana. Unfortunately, Google tells us. Per Wikipedia: "[Quintana] Michaels died of complications from acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, in New York City at age 39." About 20 months after her sepsis admission. I wonder if she ever went home.

There's an old expression that goes something like "count no man fortunate before his death". It is a truism in psychology that pessimists make more accurate judgments about life and control. Perhaps there are no optimists and pessimists -- but rather the more and the less delusional ...

For what it's worth, I have for some years paused at various times, and thought "this is the blessed moment, it will be forever as it is now, safe in the past".

Monday, September 26, 2005

Iraqi strategy: the Bush view versus the military view

Ignatius (WaPo) claims that the US military has a strategy for Iraq, and that it's very different from what Bush says. It would be nice to know if it's merely different from what Bush says publicly, or whether it's quite different from what Bush says privately (and probably believes).

The military is concerned about eroding public support. Maybe they'd get somesupport if their strategy was presented directly and honestly. It at least seems plausible -- if hardly idealistic. The Bush rhetoric is insane, and even the American public has trouble with an insane strategy.

I think the military strategy boils down Afghanistan II. It's letting the Iraqis fight it out, while moving US forces off the scene. The US would provide air support, but would otherwise strive for invisibility. No more 'hearts and minds'. Whatever government emerged is Iraq's problem, and human rights and democracy are nowhere on the radar. The goal is 'stable' Iraq and a base for future US military operations in the region, but no "permanent bases".

Note the prediction of a very sharp force reduction. That fits with the story that Blair told the Japanese that the Brits would leave in May of 2006.
A Shift on Iraq(emphases mine)

The Generals Plan a Slow Exit
By David Ignatius
Monday, September 26, 2005; Washinton Post

... The commanders who are running the war don't talk about transforming Iraq into an American-style democracy or of imposing U.S. values. They understand that Iraqis dislike American occupation, and for that reason they want fewer American troops in Iraq, not more.

...I had a rare opportunity to hear a detailed explanation of U.S. military strategy this weekend when the Centcom chief, Gen. John Abizaid, gathered his top generals here for what he called a "commanders' huddle." They described a military approach that's different, at least in tone, from what the public perceives. For the commanders, Iraq isn't an endless tunnel. They are planning to reduce U.S. troop levels over the next year to a force that will focus on training and advising the Iraqi military. They don't want permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. Indeed, they believe such a high-visibility American presence will only make it harder to stabilize the country.

The commanders' thinking is conveyed by a set of "Principles for a Long War" for combating the main enemy, al Qaeda and affiliated movements. Among the precepts they discussed here: "use the indirect approach" by working with Iraqi and other partner forces; "avoid the dependency syndrome" by making the Iraqis take responsibility for their own security and governance; and "remove the perception of occupation" by reducing the size and visibility of American forces. The goal over the next decade is a smaller, leaner, more flexible U.S. force in the Middle East -- one that can help regional allies rather than trying to fight an open-ended American war that would be a recruiting banner for al Qaeda.

... There were 412 suicide bombings in Iraq from January through August, killing about 8,000 Iraqis, according to U.S. statistics. The number of suicide attacks in August was eight times higher than a year before.

To combat this insurgency, Casey has moved to joint U.S.-Iraqi operations, such as the recent offensive in Tall Afar in northwestern Iraq. As part of this Iraqification approach, Casey has embedded 10-man U.S. adviser teams with every Iraqi brigade. The advisers can mentor Iraqi troops but, perhaps more important, they can call in U.S. air support...

President Bush and other administration officials continue to speak about Iraqi democracy in glowing terms, but you don't hear similar language from the military. ... "I think we'd be foolish to try to build this into an American democracy," says one general. "It's going to take a very different form and character." The military commanders have concluded that because Iraqis have such strong cultural antibodies to the American presence, the World War II model of occupation isn't relevant. They've sharply lowered expectations for what America can accomplish.

...The generals devoutly want the American people to stay the course -- but the course they describe is more limited, and more realistic, than recent political debate might suggest.
We need to get Bush off the stage and have Abizaid address the nation. This is an alternative Iraqis might support, and it may be better than US directed partition or an unrestrained civil war. It is, of course, a disaster by the standards Bush set on his invasion.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Once there were real Republicans

Once the Republican party was a respectable group. Bruce Bartlet was one of them. You didn't have to agree with them, but you had to respect them.

Here he cries for his lost party:
MaxSpeak, You Listen!: THE TRUTH HURTS

... The chilling conclusion, therefore, is that virtually 100 percent of all federal taxes, on a present value basis, do nothing but pay for Social Security and Medicare. Unless there are plans to abolish the rest of the federal government, large tax increases are inevitable.

Let me be clear that I am no advocate of higher taxes. I’m the one who drafted the Kemp-Roth bill back in the 1970’s and I have spent most of my career looking for ways to cut tax levels and tax rates. But that was predicated on an assumption those supporting tax cuts also wanted to downsize government. I never saw tax cuts as a substitute for spending cuts, but more as sugar to make the medicine go down. My ultimate goal was to reduce both taxes and spending.

Unfortunately, few in my party seem to share this philosophy any longer. For many, tax cuts have become a substitute for spending cuts. It truly amazes me how often I hear people on my side talk about cutting taxes as if this is the only thing necessary to downsize government. They seem genuinely oblivious to the fact that the burden of government is largely determined by the level of spending, not taxes. Nor do they understand that in the long-run, all spending must be paid for one way or another. Increasing spending today, therefore, absolutely guarantees that taxes will have to be raised in the future...
Emphases mine. The Republican Party has become insane.

Bartlet wants a Value-added tax (consumption taxation). What we ought to be debating is how to raise taxes, but the Republican Party is far from that state.

HIV Denial: the tragic price of a delusion

Red State Moron: A simply tragic story.

It's a tragic story well worth reading.

Christine Maggiore, a wealthy and fairly healthy HIV positive woman, writes a book denying the reality of AIDS/HIV. She breast feeds her two children and declines their immunizations. Her co-conspirators include a set of quack physicians -- among them Dr. (Heidi-father) Fleiss and Los Angeles child protective services. (Case law, established in the care of Christian Scientist and Jehovah's Witness children is reasonably clear that the state has an obligation to intervene on behalf of a child in these circumstances.)

Recently, following a brief illness, her young daughter dies of AIDS associated pneumonia. She is devastated but remains convinced her daughter's death is unrelated to HIV infection. (The children's father is not mentioned in the story.)

This lies in the perplexing intersection between cultural beliefs, faith, and mental illness. Ms. Maggiore's beliefs have a delusional quality, but they are not so different from those of Christian Scientists and many alternative medicine practitioners. It is not a simple matter (witness a very well done book on a Hmong child's illness and her care in Minnesota), but here the state failed this child. We have very effective therapies for HIV disease in children. This child should never have been infected, but once infected she should not have died [1]. The state should protect Ms. Maggiore's remaining child from the actions of her loving but misguided mother. Ms. Maggiore, unfortunately, has the legal resources to ensure that will be very difficult.

Her physicians, with the exception of one who noted his own failings, should be removed from their specialty societies and their licenses revoked.

Great reporting in the original story by the way.

[1] Update 9/26/05: On reflection, I'm getting this opinion via the newspaper article. I suspect our treatments are in fact not universally successful.

On human memory

I've been thinking again about human memory -- that hacked and refactored offspring of scent storage.

I've only a lay knowledge of the neurosciences, but from what I read I suspect the picture that's emerging is both fascinating and disturbing. I think the emerging consensus is:

1. We don't really remember very much at all. We have 'hints' and 'fragments' and 'aspects' in our memory, but most of what we think we "remember" is in fact recreation and synthesis from often very sparse hints. This is why it's trivially easy to create false memories, and why witness testimony is so unreliable.

2. All of our cognitive structures are crude and defective, but memory structures are particularly archaic and limited and evolve very slowly -- if at all.

3. The 'creative and synthetic capacities', imagination, the ability to invent based upon pieces of information, began as a hack to extend the limited capacities of our memory subsystems. By implication creative and synthetic people may have memories that are in one sense "better", in another "untrue".

4. If memory evolution is the rate limiting step in our cognitive capabilities, then we can think of language and socialization as a way to create a distributed memory service (each person could specialize in one social narrative, and key myths and technologies could be transmitted from one specialized parental store to a child).

5. The ability to read and write was a transcendental leap around the limitations of memory. When we fully understand how reading occurs we will be stunned by what a fantastic "hack" reading is. It will be seen as a collection of frail mutations and perverted subsystems.

6. Some people have exceptional memories ("photographic"). Is this a new mutation or does it have a downside? I tend to suspect the latter or I think it would be far more common. It is very worthy of study.

All of which places things like 'brain memory chips' [1] and continuous capture of one's lifetime audiovideo stream in a different historical context -- just another step around an archaic subsystem that can't keep up with the evolving brain. In our home we've taken one step along that path by constantly cycling family images on the computer displays -- creating not-utterly-authentic memories of a life of uninterrupted joy.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Balance the budget? It was trivial, thanks.

National Budget Simulation
Old budget was $3748.1268 billion
($2673 billion in spending, $1075.1268 billion in tax expenditures and cuts).

New budget is $3122.95 billion
($2542.55 billion in spending, $580.4 billion in tax expenditures and cuts).

You have cut the deficit by $625.18 billion.
Your new deficit is $-224.17 billion.
A piece of cake. Mostly I got rid of foolish programs and nonsensical deductions and reversed the Bush idiocy. It's not that hard to balance the budget!

The lost war: Wellstone was right

Time reviews the war: Saddam's Revenge -- Sep. 26, 2005. Essentially they say we've lost.

I suppose it depends on how one defines losing. I still think Rumsfeld (the idiot) intended from the start to partition Iraq, and that may still come to pass. In terms of our stated goals, however, I agree that we've lost. Time to bail and try to prepare the good guys to survive the civil war.

There are a few lessons we can draw. One is that, as my wife notes, in a fight between Saddam and Bush the Yalie would be minced meat. The other is that Paul Wellstone was right and I was wrong.

I felt the invasion was likely to be badly executed (especially after we lost Turkey!), and that Bush had gone to great lengths to ensure we'd have no allies but Blair -- but that it was plausible that we had no choice. (On reflection, it was actually Blair who persuaded me. Even then I thought Bush was a dolt and Rumsfeld was worse, but I trusted Blair.)

Paul Wellstone, our senator, didn't buy it. He'd supported (along with all other Americans) the Afghan invasion, but on Iraq he voted No. He died shortly thereafter in a plane crash (no, it really was an accident). We traded Wellstone for Norm Coleman. Kind of like trading your Lexus for a Ford Pinto.

I should have listened to Paul. I'm sorry Paul, you were right.

Palm stops flogging its ex-horse

This was a mercy killing.
Technology News Article | SEATTLE (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp. (MSFT.O: Quote, Profile, Research) and its longtime rival in the mobile software market, Palm Inc. (PALM.O: Quote, Profile, Research) are set to unveil on Monday a cell phone that will run Microsoft's software, sources said on Friday.
The Palm Platform had great promise once. My Palm III astounded and delighted me; more so even than my iPod. There was genius made real.

The genius passed. Maybe it was the loss of a few unrecognized key contributors. Maybe it was greed. Maybe it was Microsoft. Whatever the cause, after the Vx the Palm Platform careened downhill. SONY introduced PalmOS devices that lost data when the battery died. Palm stopped working on sync problems, and never developed a robust way to sync and home and work. Netscape, Novell and Lotus died, leaving the corporate PIM to Exchange/Outlook. Sync didn't work, and Palm was years late in responding. Executives stopped carrying Palms. Palm never revised their software to fit XP's (or OS X's) multi-user environment. Palm licensees began to fork the desktop application, confounding multi-device households.

The final straw was abandoning Grafitti (Grafitti Two is Jot, it's technically unrelated).

Today's Palm Platform is a shadow of its former self, a shuffling zombie. Farewell Palm, you now join the Newton in the halls of 'hardware that deserved better'.

Apple, the ball is now in your court. Again.

Friday, September 23, 2005

As expected - routine torture of Iraqi prisoners for fun and amusement

This is in keeping with the historic record of what humans do with those in their power -- in the absence of rigorous oversight and the presences of extreme stress:3 in 82nd Airborne Say Abuse in Iraqi Prisons Was Routine - New York Times
... We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, and pull them down, kick dirt on them," one sergeant told Human Rights Watch researchers during one of four interviews in July and August. "This happened every day."

The sergeant continued: "Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did it for amusement."

At least one soldier said he had been acting under orders from military intelligence personnel to soften up detainees, whom the unit called persons under control, or P.U.C.'s, to make them more cooperative during formal interviews.

"They wanted intel," said one sergeant, an infantry fire-team leader who served as a guard when no military police soldiers were available. "As long as no P.U.C.'s came up dead, it happened." He added, "We kept it to broken arms and legs."

The soldiers told Human Rights Watch that while they were serving in Afghanistan, they learned the stress techniques from watching Central Intelligence Agency operatives interrogating prisoners.

The Army captain who made the allegations gave Human Rights Watch and Senate aides his long account only after his efforts to report the abuses to his superiors were rebuffed or ignored over 17 months, according to Senate aides and John Sifton, one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who conducted the interviews.
American 'exceptionalism' is rank nonsense. We are no more or less virtuous than other humans -- and that's not a high standard. In the absence of rigorous oversight and discipline bored men torture for fun.

This is a part of the consequences of Rumsfeld's decisions to under-resource the occupation, and it is consistent with the culture he promulgated. Rumsfeld should have been fired long ago. Bush should be impeached for not firing Rumsfeld.

Wikipedia - becoming astounding

Years ago I tried to find a clear and useful reference on 'comparative advantage', a foundational theory in economics. I was frustrated by a great deal of noise, and at that time the Encyclopedia Britannica didn't help.

Today I tried again, and Wikipedia had a good summary. I knew Wikipedia was good, but it's becoming astounding.

Update 9/25: See the comments. Brittanica actually has a reasonable article. Hard to believe that's new, so either I misremembered using them or I bobbled my old search. So I'll still say Wikipedia is amazing, but I should have been nicer to EB.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Educational apartheid in America -- noble intent, crummy article

The public schools in many american cities are utterly dismal and largely black: Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid JONATHAN KOZOL / Harper's Magazine v.311, n.1864 1sep2005.

It's an eloquent albeit long-winded article, but why is it dismal? Because when I search on the string 'property tax' I get no hits. How can someone write an article on public schools in America without discussing how they're funded?

Katrina has been called America's shame, but it's only third best. America's true and staggering shame is the funding of eduction through local taxes, particularly property taxes. Satan could not have invented a better method of perpetuating poverty. (Second best shame? Health care of course.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A covert source of Krugman columns -- post NYT OpEd paywall

The Unofficial Paul Krugman Web Page

I don't know how long this site will stay up, but it's republishing Krugman's columns.

Google secure access

The interesting part of Google's latest 'dropping of the dime' (wireless SF network service):
Gordon's Tech: Google secure access -- and one ring to rule them

Google secure access, combined with Gmail, is turning Google into a vast identity management service. Next up is providing backup service and Google's PayPal annihilator.

There's no way Google won't be taking out PayPal. eBay must be in panic mode now. I like Google and despise Microsoft, but I hope Microsoft isn't completely zombied by their claustrophobic bureaucracy. We will need a counterbalance to Google someday soon.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Remote Desktop Connection for the Mac -- pretty good, but not perfect

I've used Remote Desktop Client for Mac intermittently over the years, but now I have a 100MBps switched connection between my 20" iMac and my XP box. Not only that, but the standard apple kb is really more a PC kb than a Mac kb. So I figured I'd try again.

Annoyingly, even with all this horsepower, there's still keystroke lag. In fact, RDC felt about as fast when I used my G3 iBook and a slow 802.11b connection. I guess the rate limiting step is neither local CPU nor network. Overall, not worth the bother for two machines that are side-by-side.

I still need to test out Apple's VNC implementation, but I gather it's even slower.

I'm tired of waiting for Apple or Microsoft to finally jump into the thin client market. They're taking their time ...

Very disappointing news on schizophrenia

Study Finds Little Advantage in New Schizophrenia Drugs - New York Times

The article might have been titled - no great meds for schizophrenia:
The study, which looked at four new-generation drugs, called atypical antipsychotics, and one older drug, found that all five blunted the symptoms of schizophrenia, a disabling disorder that affects three million Americans. But almost three-quarters of the patients who participated stopped taking the drugs they were on because of discomfort or specific side effects.
I suspect the 75% discontinuation rate is similar in older meds.

I'm disappointed. I was still seeing patients when the first of these meds came out, and I was very pleased with the benefits some of my schizophrenic patients seemed to receive.

We desperately need more basic science and clinical research in the treatment and management of schizophrenia -- one of the most terrible of all diseases.

Good-bye NYT, Hello WaPo

The NY Times (and NYT contributions to the IHT) OpEd page has gone behind a paywall. I wouldn't mind paying $20 a year for the columnists, but they want $50. For that I'd have to be getting the entire newspaper -- or they'd have to negotiate a package with something else (ie. Slate + NYT OpEd, Britannica + NYT OpEd, etc). I'm surprised they're charging so much for so little.

It will be interesting to see if they win this battle, or cave on price, or add something better.

Meanwhile, I've switched my news page link to the Washinton Post (WaPo).

Weird SPAM from SPAMIS -- using my email address

Another weird twist in the old spam and identity theft saga. This spam is a message from "me" to me. I didn't send it though, it's spam. The header says it originates in, but of course that could be faked (thought that site is pretty weird).

Getting spam from someone who's hijacked my email address is not new, but this appears to be spam from someone who has an axe to grind with Microsoft. They're not trying to get rich, they're spamming the world to attack Microsoft.

I have a bad feeling this sort of thing will catch on. Sigh.
Date: Sep 16, 2005 9:59 AM
Subject: BREAKING NEWS: Microsoft Plans to Outsource Over 10,000 Jobs to China



----- ---- --- -- - -
Public Service Announcement Brought to You by SPAMIS :
Strategic Partnership Against Microsoft Illegal Spam
----- ---- --- -- - -

Thanks to Individual and Server Contributions, SPAMIS is Now "FULLY READY"
to Begin Increasing Microsoft Public Service Announcement Emails to 20 Times
the Amount of Internet Email Users by 25 Times the Current Sending Rate &
Speed When a Certain Activity Transpires to "ANY" Past, Present or Future
SPAMIS Member(s) and/or "ANY" SPAMIS Affiliate(s).
[ SPAMIS / PO Box 1259, Seattle, WA 98101 - USA ]
So what's the 20x bit about? Some kind of blackmail scheme?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

If Bill Clinton were president for a day ...

Bill Clinton talks about what he'd do, were he president for a day:
Clinton's worldview -

...If I had 24 hours, I would at least lay down where I think we ought to go in the Middle East to finish the business between the Israelis and the Palestinians after the withdrawal from Gaza.

I would put a healthcare plan before the Congress that would end this insane system we have that's bankrupting the American economy and is leaving huge numbers of people out. And I would do my dead-level best to change the energy and environmental direction that the current government has.

And of course, now I would have to give them a budget plan to get rid of the deficit I got rid of once, and now - (chuckle) - he's brought it back.

Those would be the things I would do in my day as president.
Deep sigh. Bang head against wall. Contemplate future cave-based historians weeping at the election (bad) and re-election (unforgivable) of George Bush II.

Clinton gives more detail on globalization, employment and the Bush tax cuts:
...On trade, the fundamental problem is that in this decade America has found no new source of jobs. Now when you do a trade deal, the benefits normally cover 90% of the people and the real burdens only fall on maybe 1% of the people. The problem is that the benefits are diffused and the burdens are concentrated. America should, whenever we do trade agreements, have an economic impact statement in which we cost out how much it's going to hurt the people who lose their jobs and their livelihoods and then invest in them and make sure they are restored and they can do something new, something different and they can manage this transition; otherwise, you are always going to have politicians who don't want to do that for ideological reasons, being protectionists.

Instead, they gave me four tax cuts. So you got this ragged edge of the American economy because even though we've been having pretty good growth on the numbers over the last couple of years, we're not generating jobs, we're not generating new income. And if we had, for example, decided to do what I just suggested, gone into on aggressive clean-energy future, we would have created millions of jobs just doing that - but we didn't.

So all of our growth is in corporate profits, housing (because interests rates have been low so there's a huge housing boom in America but that always bursts sooner or later) and consumer spending, financed because the Chinese buy our debt along with others every year.

The other big problem is the legitimate concern in America, or a genuine concern, over the Chinese military build up - and whether China is basically being nice now but some day, once they get the most modern military equipment in the world, is going to provoke some sort of a showdown with Japan, which will draw us in, and throw the world into a turmoil. And there are people in the Pentagon who push that line every single day. Just like there are people in the military in China who, every single day say that someday we're going to have to confront the Americans. They're too aggressive, They're too over-reaching. The Japanese are becoming militant again.

They key is: Where are the people? And where are the leaders? There will always be people who will have an institutional interest in finding an enemy - and finding division. And I don't think we've answered that question yet. So yeah, I'm concerned about it.
We live in a dark age of American politics. It's Taft all over again.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

More encouraging news from brain science: your frontal lobes are toast

Assuming you're middled aged that is: PLoS Biology: Gene Expression in the Aging Brain.

Recent articles claim that while the average age of non-neural tissue is 10 years, brain tissue age matches chronologic age. (Yeah, a few years ago there was a claim that brain tissue actually regenerated, but that's looking like wishful thinking now.). Now it appears the frontal lobes, the seat of judgment and foresight, wear out fastest.

Brain rot. It affects all of us, and it starts in our twenties. By our forties our brains are definitely hurting (quick, get into management!) and by our sixties we're ready to retire -- except, oops, we can't any more.

There will be a lot of fighting for those grocery bagging jobs @ 2020.

In the meantime, despite all the 'use or it lose it' cliches, it's worth noting that this decay of the frontal lobes (aka, the person) may be related to protein oxidation -- which is related to mitochondrial activity. Perhaps it's better to give those lobes a rest. Stop reading this blog and turn on the TV! Or better yet, go to bed.

Flying over Africa with Google Earth and National Geographic

I'd mentioned earlier that Google has web National Geographic's Africa flyover to Google Earth.

Today, using the map from the Natl Geographic Sept 2005 supplement I tried it out. Here's one link I followed up on:
Megaflyover @ National Geographic Magazine

The houses, like others we have seen in the older parts of the western side of the Djado Plateau, are built from blocks of salt collected in the oasis. They were stacked into an unbelievably complex maze. The houses without roofs reveal room after room, some only a few feet square, hundreds of rooms. What they were used for is beyond me. Like other old habitations, this one looked like a ghost town. There were no people milling around or pots and pans around fireplaces or clothing hanging on lines. These old salt castles are fast melting into the desert they came from. Newer towns are built of mud brick and have satellite dishes and telephones.
I thought they'd have a larger volume of higher resolution images, but this is all still miraculous to an old timer like me.

I'd like to talk with someone who lived in a solt village, but I probably never will. (Though there are probably only six degress of separation between that villager and me.)

Tracking references with Bloglines and Google Blog Search

I tried the Google's blog search on one of my blogs to see how much they index:
Google Blog Search: blogurl:
Superficially it looks quite up to date (latest was yesterday), but they only go back to July 2005. From what I read that's their current limit, but they will extend backwards over time.

Once they get all my posts indexed this will be a great service for searching my own site. In the meantime, it will be intersting to compare the results of these searches to searching on usenet or the web.

You can subscribe to the search results as an RSS feed, so if there's a topic you want to follow you can add that as a search to your blog reader.

For example, this is a link to a search that finds recent references to Gordon's Notes (as you can see, there are few links!). At the bottom of this page is an Atom feed link that references the same search.

I took the URL from the Atom feed link and entered it in my Bloglines collection. So now when I review my blogs there's an entry that will track any references to Gordon's Notes. Kind of neat, really.

The New Balance 991: Cult of the Geek Running Shoe

What running shoe does a geek wear?

The requirements are steep.

It must come in different widths, to suit the neaderthal geek and the anorexic geek. It must never change, so one can order a new version of the same shoe online every 2-4 years. It must be suited to bicycle pedals, frisbee toss, walking the dog, work and lounging. It ought to be very plain, but have highly reflective materials for night time safety. Did I mention it must never change?

There's really only one choice. The New Balance 991. Astoundingly, still made in the USA (by prisoners? illegal aliens?). Worn by Steve Jobs. They made some minor cosmetic changes 4-5 years ago and haven't modified it since (the outcry must have been terrible).

My last pair still worked, but it was getting extremely shabby. It took a few minutes online to get the new ones, which fit exactly the same way the old ones did. The only delay was looking for a C width, but (alas) nowadays they only come in B, D, 2E and 4E. I stuck with my B width, which works very well. The size range is quite impressive:
New Balance:
2A: 8-13,14,15,16
B: 8-13,14,15,16
D: 7-13,14,15,16
2E: 7-13,14,15,16
4E: 7-13,14,15,16
You know you're a geek when you mail order the same running shoe every 3 years. I intend to be cremated (recycled?) in a pair.

Google Earth Integrates National Geographic Africa: this is so bloody amazing

Here's the quiet announcement on Google's Blog:
Google Blog: The illuminated continent: "Have you ever dreamed of Africa while reading National Geographic? The exotic photographs and thoughtful articles take you there with a magical sense of place. Today we embraced that magic by releasing Google Earth data layers that index National Geographic stories, images, journals, and even a live webcam in Africa.

Just start Google Earth, enable the National Geographic layers, and begin exploring.

Across Africa, you will see the familiar yellow National Geographic logo. Zoom in to see the title of each feature article or photograph. Click the icon and a pop-up balloon shows a photo and description along with links to the content. Follow those links to read the entire story right where it happened. Not only will you learn about Jane Goodall's Fifi, you'll see her home. Joining the stories and images are layers for National Geographic Sights & Sounds multimedia resources, a live WildCam in Botswana, and a collection of Mike Fay's Megaflyover images.

The Megaflyover images are stunning. Mike spent more than a year taking 92,000 high resolution photographs of the continent. That project is described in Tracing the Human Footprint, an article in the September 2005 National Geographic. He selected 500 of his favorite scenes of people, animals, geological formations, and signs of human presence and annotated them in Google Earth. Look for the red airplane icons as you fly over Africa. Each of these marks a spot where a high resolution image awaits your own personal voyage.
I bought that issue of NG for the articles and the map. I kept the map, now this will be a fantastic complement.

Maybe I'm not too old to work at Google. If I dye my hair, get plastic surgery, move the family to California ...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

An evolutionary biology blog on the ASPM and Microcephalin papers

Excellent commentary on an anthropologist's blog. Evolutionary biology is one of his key interests. I'll add him to my bloglines list.

John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : Recent human brain evolution and population differences

See also my prior post.

The joy of bugs -- Access and Excel

It's been a while, but I experienced the joy of using advanced features of Microsoft software.
1. Create link to Excel spreadsheet in Access database.
2. Sort, view data in Access.
3. Click on properties button, get warning that properties can't be changed.
4. Click cancel (ok, i won't bother)
5. Lose connection to Excel spreadsheet
6. Discover spreadsheet is now gibberish
7. Regret not creating other copy prior to step #1
I suspect I could not duplicate this I tried, but I'm not going to try. This is the price one pays for using features of Microsoft products that are not tested by millions every day ...

Hold off on iTunes 5.0 updates until Apple fixes the bugs

Gordon's Tech: iTunes 5 - don't upgrade

The Mailinator Spam Map - where spam comes from

Mailinator:Spam Map

The US and China of course, but Brazil is big too.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Whatever happened to parental controls on software?

I'm intrigued by things that we need that vanish, particularly in software. It's an interesting form of market failure.

Ten years ago one could buy very good third party 'shells' for Windows 3.1 and Mac Classic designed to allow children to work in a controlled software environment.

Now there's nothing comparable for OS X and XP. I knew XP had nothing to offer, but I was a bit more optimistic about Tiger: Gordon's Notes: Tiger and parental control software,

Alas, Tiger isn't all that much better than Panther -- it looks like there are decent parental controls, but if you try to use them you soon learn that they are fundamentally unworkable. I suspect they never really tested them with parents and children. They're not useless, but they don't really protect the child's environment from the child -- and it's a pain to recreate that environment.

So OS X is better than XP, but not good enough. Annoying.

The children in the cages - sentencing Ohio

The BBC has a short piece on what I expect is getting coverage on tv: BBC NEWS | World | Americas | Eleven US children 'found caged'.

Astoundingly, I will reserve judgment.

Putting children in cages is probably not a good idea. These parents probably have, at best, some significant issues (the article does not reference other aspects of abuse or neglect). I wonder though, how well the state of Ohio supports the care of what appear to have been special needs children (presumably even before the cages).

It would be a good thing if this story were to lead to a thoughtful and considered discussion of the care of special needs children, and increased research funding to study which interventions and approaches have the better short and longer term outcomes.

Alas, that would be unlikely.

In a better world, we'd judge the state of Ohio as well as these parents, and possibly sentence every adult in the state to a day of community service. (Minnesota, of course, is likely no less guilty.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Nasty, snappish and dull -- the president of the USA

I'm not sure we've had many "nice" presidents. Still, some have been more agreeable than others. Clinton is generally considered, even by his political enemies, to have been a decent sort -- despite a famous temper.

In contrast, Bush has long had a reputation, in some circles, for being a nasty and vengeful man. Now that reputation is spreading -- despite the vengeance so many have felt.
Washington Post - Dan Froomkin - Now They Tell Us

Judging from the blistering analyses in Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere these past few days, it turns out that Bush is in fact fidgety, cold and snappish in private. He yells at those who dare give him bad news and is therefore not surprisingly surrounded by an echo chamber of terrified sycophants. He is slow to comprehend concepts that don't emerge from his gut. He is uncomprehending of the speeches that he is given to read. And oh yes, one of his most significant legacies -- the immense post-Sept. 11 reorganization of the federal government which created the Homeland Security Department -- has failed a big test.

Maybe it's Bush's sinking poll numbers -- he is, after all, undeniably an unpopular president now. Maybe it's the way that the federal response to the flood has cut so deeply against Bush's most compelling claim to greatness: His resoluteness when it comes to protecting Americans.

But for whatever reason, critical observations and insights that for so long have been zealously guarded by mainstream journalists, and only doled out in teaspoons if at all, now seem to be flooding into the public sphere.
The last paragraph is the most interesting. Bush's nature was common wisdom among journalists. They, however, did not put that impression into print. One wonders ... why not? Fear, perchance?

Gore did not have trouble understanding his speeches.

This Newsweek article provides more background. On careful reading this article is actually pretty sympathetic and emphasizes that Bush, once he recognized the scale of the problem, was deeply troubled and engaged. Even I can believe that. The fundamental problem remains however that Katrina played to all the weaknesses of this administration, and those weaknesses spring from George Bush. If he wants to rescue his legacy, he needs to shake up his administration and bring in the disloyal.

Update 9/13:

I was pleasantly surprised that someone left a comment on this post. I think of this as a mono-blog. The poster is correct that no-one in the Bush administration is willing to go on record as saying Bush is nasty, vengeful and distracted. On the other hand, almost no-one denies he is vengeful, so lack of commentary is not surprising. O'Neill was an insider who said all of this of course, but he was so thoroughly obliterated by Bush's gang that even his mother doesn't remember him very well.

As a proxy I offer the words of Molly Ivins, who's known Bush since before he stopped drinking. She adopts what is becoming the critics consensus on Katrina -- this is what you get when you staff government with people who hate government:
Some of you may have heard me observe a time or two -- going back to when George W. was still governor of Texas -- that the trouble with the guy is that while he is good at politics, he stinks at governance. It bores him, he's not interested, he thinks government is bad to begin with and everything would be done better if it were contracted out to corporations.

We can now safely assert that W. has stacked much of the federal government with people like himself. And what you get when you put people in charge of government who don't believe in government and who are not interested in running it well is... what happened after Hurricane Katrina.

Many a time in the past six years I have bit my tongue so I wouldn't annoy people with the always obnoxious observation, "I told you so." But, dammit it all to hell, I did tell you, and I've been telling you since 1994, and I am so sick of this man and everything he represents -- all the sleazy, smug, self-righteous graft and corruption and "Christian" moralizing and cynicism and tax cuts for all his smug, rich buddies.

Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.


Meet the Fakers - Kristoff - New York Times

Feudalism redux.
... the world's richest 500 individuals have the same income as the world's poorest 416 million people.
Here Kristoff means combined income. It is an astounding ratio, almost 1 to a million. Assuming many people can be "bought" for 10 times their income, each of these 500 lords could pay for 50,000 vassals and still retain half their income. That's a pretty large barony.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Diminished responsibility: the next cultural battleground

My wife and I were chatting about the genetics of cognition when conversation turned to one of the great emotional touchstones of the conservative momement -- "individual responsibility"

My wife tells me of a conversation she had with a neuroscientist who studies brain maturation in adolescents. After the neuroscientist explained about the extraordinary transformations and faults of the adolescent brain, my wife remarked on the obvious connection to diminished responsiblity. The scholar was appalled "but they are still responsible for their actions ...". My wife, who is far nicer than I, changed the subject.

Like much conservative language "individual responsibility" is best understood as a denial rather than an affirmation, in particular it is a denial of the concept of 'diminished responsibility'. Republicans hate the idea that age, brain maturation, retardation, or other disorders of cognition should in any way mitigate punishment. This is why, for example, they are keen to execute children (ok, teenagers). If one treats children differently from adults, then why not hold retarded adults to a different standard than average adults? The age exemption is a big step down a slippery slope to the terror of relativism.

But what are the roots of this terror? I'm not sure. There is, however, a theological component. If humans can see that a person's responsibility may be diminished in proportion to their consciousness, then could a deity do no less? Who then, would ever go to Hell? Either no-one goes, or as CS Lewis suggested -- God judges each person on the basis of what they did with what they were given. If that were so, many New Orleans looters could bask in paradise, and many born-again Republicans whither in damnation.

Scary thought indeed.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The evolution of the human brain: ASPM, microcephalin and FOXP2

First the article summary, then the discussion.
The Globe and Mail: Is your mind changing? Scientists think so

In two papers published today in the journal Science, Dr. Lahn and his colleagues report that the specific gene mutations they have found appear to have swept across certain areas of the globe so quickly that they are practically the norm. With prevalence rates higher than 70 per cent in Europe, for example, the researchers argue that chance alone cannot explain the changes, which first sprung up at the same time that modern humans developed culture and language...

...Testing 1,184 DNA samples from around the world, the researchers found, for example, that the frequency in West and sub-Saharan Africa is less than 10 per cent...

...They found that a particular series of mutations in the microcephalin gene appears to have been passed on and is now, surprisingly, carried by large numbers of people from different ethnic backgrounds. They estimate this series first emerged about 37,000 years ago, around the time modern humans settled Europe and began producing art.

The changes they found in the ASPM gene are far more recent, springing up about 5,800 years ago, coinciding with the rise of cities and the first record of written language.
This is one in a series of fascinating findings over the past few years, but the research is only beginning. I've blogged previously on the ASPM gene (it's undergone many mutations compared to chimps) and the timing of language and alleged gene relationship (including FOXP2), most recently there was the Ashkenazi IQ article.

The timing of the most recent alleged ASPM mutation is new to me. The African/European gene frequency data is a wee bit controversial, in almost all genetic measures, however, there's a lot more variation in Africa than Europe (founder effect).

This is new science, and we know that about half of the conclusions of major studies are reversed within 5-10 years. It's premature to put too much weight on it. I do suspect, however, that science will tell us that potential IQ is related to only a handful of genes, that we'll learn that all human brains have an extremely high defect rate, and we'll learn that our notions of 'responsibility' are based on faith rather than evidence.

I also agree with the researchers that people will pay a great deal to increase the intellect of their offspring -- more than they'll pay to make them tall or pretty or long lived. I think deliberate manipulation rather than natural selection will drive further changes to these genes.

Update 9/15: The ASPM variant is about 5700 years old. Amerindians crossed into the Americas at least 10,000 years ago. It turns out that virtually no Amerindians had this gene.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Distemper and the death of the american dog

I was sure I'd blogged on this years ago, but I can't find anything. Odd. (Update 7/11/13 - it was 11/2004)

The point of this blog is to discuss the possibility that distemper wiped out the native american dog as it's doing in the african dog. First the back-story. This article is a good place to start:
Humans Brought Domesticated Dogs to New World More Than 12,000 Years Ago, UCLA Biologists, Colleagues Report

... these data suggest Native American dogs have not genetically contributed to modern dog breeds,' Wayne said. 'DNA sequences from hundreds of dogs from dozens of modern breeds from throughout the world do not show traces of American ancestry. Native dogs may still have living descendants in some unsampled New World population, but their absence for a large sample of modern dogs reinforces the dramatic impact that the arrival of Europeans had on native cultures.
This UCLA article focuses on research showing early Americans traveled with dogs into the new world over 12K years ago, but it also mentiones that native American dogs died out shortly after the Euro invasion.

Why do the Native dogs disappear? I don't buy the explanation of selective breeding. Dogs ain't picky and I can't believe early American practiced rigorous canine birth control. It had to be the canine equivalent of smallpox -- a disease that was nasty and prevalent in the crowded swamp of industrial europe but was lethal in the healthy empty world of the americas. But what disease?

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.

PS. Humans and dogs have coexisted for a long time, it is extremely likely that we have altered each other's evolution (symbiotes and parasites always alter each other's genome). BTW, I thought I'd blogged on my wild speculation that it was the domestication of dogs that allowed humans to develop technology and agriculture (geeks and women can domesticate dogs and use a powerful and loyal ally to defend themselves against thuggish alphas) -- but I can't find that either. Sigh. Aging brain.

Update 7/11/2013: Years after I wrote this I suspected it was wrong. After all, wolves weren't wiped out, and dogs and wolves interbreed. More recent studies show that the pre-Columbian dogs were not completely replaced. Their mortality may resemble that of pre-Columbian humans of the new world. I still wonder about the distemper/measles connection.

See also:

The NYT Magazine reviews the war on terror

Taking Stock of the Forever War - New York Times
'Declaring war on 'terror,'' as one military strategist later remarked to me, 'is like declaring war on air power.'
A superb quote. The title of the article is taken from a famous science fiction story. This article is required reading for all citizens.
Four years after the collapse of the towers, evil is still with us and so is terrorism. Terrorists have staged spectacular attacks, killing thousands, in Tunisia, Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca, Jakarta, Madrid, Sharm el Sheik and London, to name only the best known. Last year, they mounted 651 "significant terrorist attacks," triple the year before and the highest since the State Department started gathering figures two decades ago. One hundred ninety-eight of these came in Iraq, Bush's "central front of the war on terror" - nine times the year before. And this does not include the hundreds of attacks on U.S. troops. It is in Iraq, which was to serve as the first step in the "democratization of the Middle East," that insurgents have taken terrorism to a new level, killing well over 4,000 people since April in Baghdad alone; in May, Iraq suffered 90 suicide-bombings. Perhaps the "shining example of democracy" that the administration promised will someday come, but for now Iraq has become a grotesque advertisement for the power and efficacy of terror.
The author off-handedly points out that we've lost the Iraq war we started, and, incidentally, so have the Iraqi people. I'm not sure history will indict Bush for the decision to invade Iraq -- though I suspect it will. I am sure, however, that he will be indicted for not firing Rumsfeld and moving Rove aside.
The sun is setting on American dreams in Iraq; what remains now to be worked out are the modalities of withdrawal, which depend on the powers of forbearance in the American body politic. But the dynamic has already been set in place. The United States is running out of troops. By the spring of 2006, nearly every active-duty combat unit is likely to have been deployed twice. The National Guard and Reserves, meanwhile, make up an unprecedented 40 percent of the force, and the Guard is in the "stage of meltdown," as Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired, recently told Congress. Within 24 months, "the wheels are coming off." For all the apocalyptic importance President Bush and his administration ascribed to the Iraq war, they made virtually no move to expand the military, no decision to restore the draft. In the end, the president judged his tax cuts more important than his vision of a "democratic Middle East." The administration's relentless political style, integral to both its strength and its weakness, left it wholly unable to change course and to add more troops when they might have made a difference. That moment is long past; the widespread unpopularity of the occupation in Iraq and in the Islamic world is now critical to insurgent recruitment and makes it possible for a growing insurgent force numbering in the tens of thousands to conceal itself within the broader population.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Finally -- blogger knows BlogThis is broken.

It took about 5 email exchanges but Blogger now understands the BlogThis! bug and acknowledges it.

They really need to improve the way they process bug reports. This was a 100% trivially replicable bug and it must have affected thousands of users; but it took over 3 weeks for them to understand it. It turns out that it probably impacts everyone who enables title and URL display in their blogs.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Specialization and the wealth of nations

Econbrowser provides a pithy summary of what makes countries wealthy: specialization.
Econbrowser: On the nature of economic recessions

The level of prosperity in an advanced economy results from a high degree of specialization of labor, capital, and most importantly, the institutions (shops and firms) that coordinate their activities. What happens in an economic recession is that the market's success at coordinating this specialization breaks down. Firms and workers suddenly find that the activity for which they are uniquely suited is no longer in demand, and the degree of specialization makes it infeasible to redirect these productive inputs immediately to other sectors. These sudden demand shifts can occur, for example, if sharp energy price changes and the uncertainty accompanying them produce dramatic changes in consumers' purchases of items such as cars.
Small companies, startups, and some privately owned companies may yet value generalists and "personalities", but I believe most well run large publicly traded companies will be increasingly designed around modular, interchangeable, specialist units of labor. These labor units may be aggregated and outsourced, or replaced by similar units -- as the market requires.

Just as in nature, there are many paths to success. Standardized specialized labor units may be the dominant paradigm for very efficient 21st century corporations.

Medium lobster defends the President

Bush is not without intelligent allies:
More importantly, one must recognize that there are limits to what powers the federal government should exercise in a crisis. Yes, it is the right and duty of the president to override state drug policy, to determine who can or cannot marry, to indefinitely detain citizens without due process and to torture and kill prisoners as he sees fit, but disaster relief is a matter that should be left to the states.

Fafblog: With Great Power Comes Little Else
This blog is fair and balanced, and so is Fafblog.

Mars - the water planet

What do we need to get some public excitement going here?

Glaciers. Buried seas. Equatorial ice belts.

What are we waiting for -- Dejah Thoris sunbathing?

Come on. Darnit. Show some excitement. Organic dust in comets. Water on Mars.

I hope there's more imagination in China. Someone's got to go there ... (Since they may have to be elderly, maybe I'll get to make the trip someday ...)

Escape from voice mail hell - a database of tips on how to get a human being

A wondrous net resource, a database of techniques that will bypass voice mail systems and get to a human being. Another advance in the eternal war between vendors and customers.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Firefighters deployed to New Orleans -- to walk beside George Bush

I'd like to see some substantiation, but perhaps if enough blogs cite this the press will follow-up for us:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: The Best Use of Firefighters: Props in a Photo-Op

... As specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas....
The allegation is that Bush is all hat and no horse.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Hairworm: another creepy mind controlling parasite

In this case the 'mind' is that of a grasshopper: Parasitic Hairworm Charms Grasshopper Into Taking It for a Swim - New York Times. The hairworm compels its host grasshopper into jumping in the water. Hopper drowns, long creepy worm exits.

I've blogged on a number of these stories -- biologists seem to find examples of parasite mind control or physiologic overrides everywhere they look. Makes me wonder again if we were different back when we had worms.

Which reminds me of Toxoplasmosis. I've been skeptical, but my skepticism is waning.

Which makes me think of HIV. Toxoplamosis is very common in HIV infected persons. Almost ubiquitious. If it does alter behavior, perhaps by making humans more careless and less inhibited, then toxoplama infection in HIV might have the side-effect of spreading HIV (and thus feathering its own bed). Creepy.

Update 9/27/05: On further consideration -- what about Syphilis? That treponeme has enough DNA and species adaptation that it would be a natural host controller. It would be logical for syphilis infection to increase promiscuous behavior ...

Molly Ivins has an article archive at working for change

I used to read Molly at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, but they moved to registration only readership. I've just learned she can be read without registration here: Molly Ivins Archive.

I'll have to add her back to my news page.

FEMA Disabled: LA Times via DeLong

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Why FEMA Was Missing in Action

Old story. Slash budget, appoint flunky. The bureaucrats that actually do all the work, and know what to do, quite.
The agency's core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%. The agency's staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735.
I know a few federal bureaucrats. Impressive people. Dedicated public servants. Scrupulously apolitical -- as they must be in public. They're the equal of the private sector executives I know. They can take other jobs. Under Bush they've been taking those other jobs.

New Orleans: The Problem of the Weak

Ayn Rand had a simple solution for the "weak" -- they died. She had more than a passing love for social darwinism.

This is not rare. It is deeply embedded in the modern Republican party: Gordon's Notes: What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?. A variant of this, that wealth is God's blessing upon his chosen, is at the core of theocratic capitalist fundamentalism.

New Orleans is the lesson for America on what this principle means in practice. The elderly, the young, the disabled, the poor -- the weak and those who love them -- they were stuck. The lack of systems to protect them, the slow response to their distress, is all consistent with Rand's Objectivism and Bush's odd blend of libertarianism and theocratic capitalism. I'm sure racism played some role, it's a part of every aspect of our life -- but I think that the deeper issue is a universal disdain for "the weak".

The catch is, if one accepts Ayn Rand's worldview, one must be comfortable with the suffering of "the weak". Those inclined this way will find many powerful allies. Perhaps they will adopt a badge so that all may know who they are.

Evacuate and abandon the children?

Well, they do allow children on New Orleans evacuation buses. Pets, however, are forbidden.

Reading the Washington Post this morning (no link, Blogger is barely functioning right now) at least a few families are resisting evacuation because it means abandoning their pets to certain death.

My doggie is gone, but were she were alive I would not leave her without a significant struggle (It's a bit more complex now since our kids need me alive too, but I'd try to save everyone.)

Is there some middle ground that could be taken for late evacuation? Some shading of the rules? Something like "come back when you're done with everyone else"?

Heck, most dogs are better bus companions than my kids.

Update 9/6/05: A Humane Society story tells us sometimes the rules do get bent ...

...Moret Williams and Sebastian left New Orleans together. Sebastian floated on an air mattress at his owner’s side as Moret Williams waded through polluted, neck-deep floodwater, pulling the mattress along with him. Man and beast managed to reach an elevated portion of Interstate 10, but the helicopters that were taking evacuees to buses weren’t allowing pets on board.

“There was no way I was leaving without him,” Moret Williams says, and so he did what so many have had to do in the past week: He improvised. He put Sebastian in a large black trash bag and begged him not to make noise.

Amazingly, the dog obeyed, though he did squirm at one point—a point that could have ruined the whole plan. “He bumped against the pilot,” Moret Williams says, a small smile creeping onto his face. “The pilot just goes, ‘I didn’t see nothing.’”

They need donations. I'll do one in honor of our old doggie.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Commie liberals defend Hastert

Gillmore, a liberal sort, defends Dennis Hastert:
Why Isn't House Speaker's Observation On the Table? | Bayosphere
Washington Post: Hastert Tries Damage Control After Remarks Hit a Nerve. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert began his day yesterday explaining that he really does not want to see New Orleans bulldozed, and he ended it defending his absence from the Capitol when Congress approved a $10.5 billion hurricane aid package. In between, a former president hinted he would like to throttle the Illinois Republican.
It was undoubtedly a hasty and off-handed remark, but why should Hastert's initial reaction be so easily dismissed?

The only reason New Orleans came to exist at all as a major city was people's determined effort over the past several centuries to ignore reality. Motivated in large part by commercial greed, powers-that-be thumbed their collective noses at geography, weather and just about every other rational notion of city-building, putting New Orleans in a bowl, below sea level, that was sinking further every year.
We commie liberals are notorious for ripping into right wing theocrats. We're certainly laying into Brown and Chertoff and Bush. So why give Hastert a break? DeLong, for example, has said nothing ...

Truth is, unlike most of America, we do believe in reason. Hastert, oddly enough might have been making sense (stuck clock you know ...).

If our best computer models were to predict a 20% probability (made up number) of a cat 5 hit within 10 years (global warming, etc), then is it reasonable to rebuild below Lake Ponchetrain? Would it make more sense to give every household a $100K housing certificate and low interest 50 year loans and enocourage rebuilding better homes elsewhere? The losses of community would be staggering, but there is some cost at which rebuilding doesn't make sense.

Blogger is coming apart at the seams -- again

Blogger: Create your Blog Now -- FREE

From November of 2004 to February of 2005 Blogger was in pathetic shape. Then they recovered. I was about to post a congratulatory note, when they went under again -- about 3 weeks ago.

This can't be impacting every blog, but I'm experiencing two kinds of problem:

1. With both Firefox and Safari, on OS X and XP SP2, a BlogThis! post created immediately after authentication is defective. The body is empty and the what should have been in the body is stuffed in the URL field.
2. With Safari on Tiger and Panther, a few seconds after creating a post, and starting to write, the post is wiped out. (I haven't seen this with Firefox yet.)
3. In Firefox the WYSIWYG editor takes minutes to appear.

Blogger's support for Safari is actually declining -- it was quite a bit better in the middle of last year. I think their support for Firefox is weakening too. I don't use IE at home, so I can't test there. Since Blogger is a Google company, it suggests all is not well in Google-land. If I had shares, I'd be selling a few.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

American Shame: Money for empty Alaskan islands, nothing for the levee

United States of Shame - New York Times

Maureen Dowd continues to show signs of talent. She's the first I've read to connect the dots between underfunding levees in New Orleans and Bush rewarding corrupt senate allies in Alaska.
Ron Fournier of The Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. But President Bush and Congress agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-filled highway bill with 6,000 pet projects, including a $231 million bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.
That Alaskan region is actually not uninhabited; but the people living there don't particularly want the bridge.

Maureen continues in fine form ...
Michael Brown, the blithering idiot in charge of FEMA - a job he trained for by running something called the International Arabian Horse Association - admitted he didn't know until Thursday that there were 15,000 desperate, dehydrated, hungry, angry, dying victims of Katrina in the New Orleans Convention Center.

Was he sacked instantly? No, our tone-deaf president hailed him in Mobile, Ala., yesterday: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

It would be one thing if President Bush and his inner circle - Dick Cheney was vacationing in Wyoming; Condi Rice was shoe shopping at Ferragamo's on Fifth Avenue and attended "Spamalot" before bloggers chased her back to Washington; and Andy Card was off in Maine - lacked empathy but could get the job done. But it is a chilling lack of empathy combined with a stunning lack of efficiency that could make this administration implode.

When the president and vice president rashly shook off our allies and our respect for international law to pursue a war built on lies, when they sanctioned torture, they shook the faith of the world in American ideals.

When they were deaf for so long to the horrific misery and cries for help of the victims in New Orleans - most of them poor and black, like those stuck at the back of the evacuation line yesterday while 700 guests and employees of the Hyatt Hotel were bused out first - they shook the faith of all Americans in American ideals. And made us ashamed.

Who are we if we can't take care of our own?

Friday, September 02, 2005

Can we buy Bush a subscription to Scientific American?

I doubt Bush would know what "Scientific American" is. It's not that he's dim, it's that he's deeply anti-intellectual and fundamentally anti-science. So it's not surprising that non-one in his administration seems to have been aware than the New Orleans disaster was well understood.

The fixes are not cheap ...
They Saw It Coming - New York Times
September 2, 2005

... (I wrote an article for Scientific American in 2001 that described the very situation that was unfolding) but because I knew that a large-scale engineering plan called Coast 2050 - developed in 1998 by scientists, Army engineers, metropolitan planners and Louisiana officials - might have helped save the city, but had gone unrealized.

The debate over New Orleans's vulnerability to hurricanes has raged for a century. By the late 1990's, scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans had perfected computer models showing exactly how a sea surge would overwhelm the levee system, and had recommended a set of solutions. The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees, had proposed different projects.

... Fed up with the splintered efforts, Len Bahr, then the head of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Coastal Activities, somehow dragged all the parties to one table in 1998 and got them to agree on a coordinated solution: Coast 2050. Completing every recommended project over a decade or more would have cost an estimated $14 billion, so Louisiana turned to the federal government. While this may seem an astronomical sum, it isn't in terms of large public works; in 2000 Congress began a $7 billion engineering program to refresh the dying Florida Everglades. But Congress had other priorities, Louisiana politicians had other priorities, and the magic moment of consensus was lost...

... Cut several channels in the levees on the Mississippi River's southern bank (the side that doesn't abut the city) and secure them with powerful floodgates that could be opened at certain times of the year to allow sediment and freshwater to flow down into the delta, re-establishing it.

Build a new navigation channel from the Gulf into the Mississippi, about 40 miles south of New Orleans, so ships don't have to enter the river at its three southernmost tips 30 miles further away. For decades the corps has dredged shipping channels along those final miles to keep them navigable, creating underwater chutes that propel river sediment out into the deep ocean. The dredging could then be stopped, the river mouth would fill in naturally, and sediment would again spill to the barrier islands, lengthening and widening them. Some planners also propose a modern port at the new access point that would replace those along the river that are too shallow to handle the huge new ships now being built worldwide.

Erect huge seagates across the pair of narrow straits that connect the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, which lies north of the city, to the gulf. Now, any hurricane that blows in from the south will push a wall of water through these straits into the huge lake, which in turn will threaten to overflow into the city. That is what has filled the bowl that is New Orleans this week. But seagates at the straits can stop the wall of water from flowing in. The Netherlands has built similar gates to hold back the turbulent North Sea and they work splendidly.

Finally, and most obviously, raise, extend and strengthen the city's existing but aging levees, canal walls and pumping systems that worked so poorly in recent days.

Practice the controversy

Fafblog! the whole worlds only source for Fafblog.

'No no, Giblets,' says me. 'Not if we 'practice the controversy.' Everyone's beliefs can find a place in pluralistic medicine!'
Brain surgery without science. Modern Republicans are the true Deconstructionists.

Battle hardened BBC reporters are stunned

BBC NEWS | Americas | Reporters' Log: Katrina's aftermath

These are the words of several veteran BBC journalists who've covered battle scenes and disasters the world over:
...The historic French quarter is reduced to a disaster zone and is beginning to look like a war zone. Some people have lost everything and are now beginning to lose their minds.

... If Bush set foot here he'd see something which no longer resembles the country he was elected to govern.

... There's a very aggressive police presence. They don't stop and talk to the refugees at all and they don't communicate with them. They just speed by in their pick up trucks and their cars pointing shotguns out of the window as they go. It's quite extraordinary behaviour.

.. I went to the superdome and there are about 15,000-20,000 people. The pace of evacuation there is unbeliveably slow....

... Elsewhere at the Convention Centre, there isn't a bus in sight. The only thing you see out of 2,000-3,000 people is police cars going through pointing shotguns. These are unbelievable conditions. Words begin to fail me.

... It is total mayhem. I have been to many disaster zones in Asia and a few in Africa and I must say considering the resources available here and all the rhetoric we've heard from Washington the situation here is much worse than comparable situations for these sort of crises in the Third world. It is quite frankly an indictment.

... I think people here would tear Bush apart if he came here, verbally if not physically.

But Bush has to show his face, be visible and show leadership. I am beginning to feel this could be a very serious political moment for him.

... There are now 1400 national guard troops arriving in New Orleans each day over the next few days. This is just in one city. Washington authorities say people will notice a show of force in the area. There will be a change. Hundreds of people will be moved out of refugees and evacuated out.

But that doesn't answer the question of why it has taken so long. And a lot of American commentators are saying - well these are scenes from the developing world rather than the world's only superpower....

... If it weren't for the water this could be Baghdad, with troops wearing body armour, trying to regain control from armed gangs.

Bodies are crudely wrapped where people died. These are the poorest, who couldn't leave the hurricane, and now have nowhere to go. In a hospital the most needy were lined up for evacuation. They waited, but the promised helicopters didn't come. The world's richest country is not able to help its sickest people.
Sometimes shame is the only way to reach a delinquent. America should be deeply ashamed.

William Gates: Destroyer of wealth

In OS X when you drag a bunch of documents to the printer icon, they print. In XP when you do that you get a dialog asking if you really want to print multiple documents. Then Word starts printing. And then it hangs. Eventually something happens, then it aborts.

I run into various bugs like this with XP all the time. Once you move away from the routine stuff people do every day, you find that Microsoft products often don't work. Word is the worst, Excel is the best, and XP is in between.

It wasn't invention or excellence that made Microsoft so dominant. It was ruthless economic warfare by a brilliant strategist and tactician who understood how to leverage every possible aspect of file format and API lock-in, and had no interest in the niceties of ethical business practice. I respect that brilliance and focus, but the combination of Microsoft's utter dominance, and their mediocre products, has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity. Bill Gates has destroyed more wealth than any other capitalist in history.

New Orleans: did the disaster plans include operating under fire?

We'll be figuring out what went wrong for years. The analysis will move faster if honest senate hearings take place, but I figure the Bushies will block those. Still, it will happen.

My gut sense is that a large number of people, starting with George Bush, should lose their jobs. However, there is a mitigating wild card:
Fifth Day of Disaster Begins With Fire

Chris Lawrence of CNN reported on the fire from a rooftop on a police station, where he said officers were 'barricaded' because of people 'shooting at the station'.

'It's very hard to tell [what's happening],' he said. 'The Fire Department can't get near the building without a police escort.'
My employer sent very important and appreciated truck loads of supplies to some of our hospital customers. Those trucks required poice escorts.

Dud disaster scenarious anticipate urban warfare? Does that helps explain, in part, why FEMA has failed so catastrophically. Beyond, of course, having their budgets stripped for Iraq and "Homeland Security".

Update 9/2: I think another factor that was not considered was how many of those who remained required medical attention. The victims of 9/11 were largely vigorous, healthy, middle and upper class men and women. The victims of Katrina are often disabled, sick and elderly -- and there are many infants and children. The combination of a population with a high proportion of vulnerable persons and an urban warfare environment together may have produced a disastrous effect outside of what planners were considering. Even in the nations struck by the Indonesian tsunami would not, by virtue of less advanced medicine and a younger demographic profile, have had such a high proportion of sick and elderly persons (also, they didn't display our talent for urban warfare). I wonder if the Kobe earthquake would have been a better lesson. I recall that Japan's response to that disaster was considered to be mediocre and inadequate.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hell to pay: The day after tomorrow

Guardian Unlimited | World Latest | New Orleans Police Told to Stop Looters

A UK newspaper reports on New Orleans:
...On some of the few roads that were still open, people waved at passing cars with empty water jugs, begging for relief. Hundreds of people appeared to have spent the night on a crippled highway...
Infant bodies abandoned in shelters. People in attics and rooftops days after the hurricaine. Evacuating functional hospitals because of roving armed gangs. Weapons everwhere.

Elsewhere ...
Charity Hospital evacuated its “healthiest patients” last weekend, but about 600 staff members and “immobile and unmovable” patients including amputees, stroke patients, and ICU patients still await evacuation. The facility remains without power or the use of phones, X-ray machines, CT scans, or computers. Physicians are transporting additional medical supplies by canoe from three nearby medical centers.

HCA has hired 20 private helicopters to evacuate patients at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic and carry food and medical supplies to the hospital, but officials report that “progress is slow” because only one or two patients can be airlifted at a time.

The hospital association said Tulane is in a “bad security situation” because of looting from individuals seeking prescription drugs.

...The head of the hospital association says Chalmette Medical Center is surrounded by water and unable to evacuate “hundreds of patients, staff, and family” because the roof is full of people, leaving nowhere for helicopter transports to land.
and from the convention center ...
Probably the most disturbing thing is that people at the convention center are starting to pass away and there is simply nothing to do with their bodies. There is nowhere to put them. There is no one who can do anything with them. This is making everybody very, very upset.
Not Mogadishu.

New Orleans.

Hell to pay.

Why so many stayed, and what they saw T-P Orleans Parish Breaking News Weblog

Detail that can't be obtained elsewhere:
..."The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks," Phillips said sobbing. "And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs. She wasn’t bloated or anything, just perfect."

... Phillips’ downstairs neighbor, Terrilyn Foy, 41, and her 5-year-old son, Trevor, were unable to escape, Phillips said. By late Monday the surging waters of Lake Pontchartrain had swallowed the neighborhood. The water crept, then rushed, under the front door, Phillips said, then knocked it from its hinges. In less than 30 minutes, Phillips said, the water had topped her neighbors’ 12-foot ceiling and was gulping at hers.

"I can still hear them banging on the ceiling for help," Phillips said, shaking. "I heard them banging and banging, but the water kept rising." Then the pleas for help were silenced by the sway of the current, she said.

... For Phillips, evacuation seemed too costly. She and her family evacuated for Hurricane Dennis earlier in the summer. The few days in Houston cost her $1,200...

.. "I know this storm killed so many people," Phillips said. "There is no 9th Ward no more. No 8th or 7th ward or east New Orleans. All those people, all them black people, drowned."

.. Like so many other survivors, Phillips and family were picked from the flood and dropped off downtown, which was slogged with thigh-high waters, but had the Superdome and some hotels giving solace to refugees.

By early Tuesday evening, officials estimated that about 20,000 people were packed inside the Superdome. Most were hopeless, hungry and increasingly desperate, witnesses and officials agreed. Rumors of murder, rape and deplorable conditions were circulating.

"After all we had been through, those damn guards at the Dome treated us like criminals," Phillips said. "We went to that zoo and they gave us no respect."

The family slogged down Poydras Street to the Hyatt. The hotel didn’t have electricity or water, and nearly every glass window on the Poydras side had been blown out by the hurricane, but it was secure. Ranking officials from City Hall across the street had been evacuated there, including Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass.Evacuation is impossibly costly for people with few resources. It is understandable why so many poor residents, virtually all black, decided to risk staying.