Monday, October 31, 2005

Joel Spolsky explains why splogs (spam blogs) are proliferating

Splogs are proliferating because they get their revenue stream from Google's custoemrs:
Joel on Software

When you connect the dots, what seems to be happening is that scammers are doing four things.

1. First, they create a lot of fake blogs. There are slimy companies that make easy to use software to do this for you. They scrape bits and pieces of legitimate blogs and repost them, as if they were just another link blog. It is very hard to tell the difference between a fake blog and a real blog until you read it for a while and realize there's no human brain behind it, like one of those Jack Format radio stations that fired all their DJs, or maybe FEMA.
2. Then, they sign up for AdSense.
3. Then you buy or rent a network of zombie PCs (that is, home computers that are attached to the Internet permanently which have been infected by a virus allowing them to be controlled remotely).
4. Finally, use those zombie PCs to simulate clicks on the links on your blog. Because the zombie PCs are all over the Internet, they appear to be legit links coming from all over the Internet.
Again, evolution in action. How do the ID folk understand our world? Without natural selection, all of this ingenuity seems miraculous. (Ok, so there's some intelligence involved, even if it is nasty in nature.)

My stuff appears in splogs. Verrry annoying. Eventually most folks will welcome the safe and sterile world of Microsoft's Palladium.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Odd moments in tech history -- the analog laserdisc

Emily and I were reminescing today, as pre-elders tend to do, about payphones, record players, and other all-but-lost things. (Our daughter tells us that her pre-school has a "big-CD player", which we believe is a record player.) All of a sudden, perhaps for the first time in 20 years, I remembered the Laserdisc.

Talk about oddities in tech history. This was an analog media read by a laser beam; basically a record player in which the stylus was light itself. It was primarily used to distribute movies in the late 70s and early 80s. Wikipedia claims there are still a few million players in use, but even the hardcore fans admit the era has passed.

I remember a talk given by a very bright researcher at the National Library of Medicine. They were engaged in a large imaging project, and were storing the images on Laserdisc. I wish I could recall the numbers, but at the time there was a huge advantage over any available digital store. A comparable library, the Bristol Biomedical Library Archive, held 20,000 hi-resolution images. I think each image had an information density comparable to a 35mm slide. In my limited experience capturing the full information content of a 35mm slide can generate a 40MB TIFF. So the Videodisc held the analog equivalent of 800 GB of digital data, or almost a Terabyte of digital data. Even today a TB is a lot of data; that's almost as much as all my home drives combined. Analog storage has its advantages.

An original observation about alternative medicine: there's no internal conflict

I've been enjoying Photon's series on quackery, but most of it is familiar, albeit entertaining. This chapter, however, was new to me:
A Photon in the Darkness: How to Succeed at Quackery (Without Even Trying): Part 3

Professional Courtesy:

No matter how much you loathe your fellow quacks or think that they have the intellect of a peach pit (after the laetril has been extracted), never, never criticize or question their quackery. This is the classic situation of people living in glass houses. Throwing stones will do nobody any good.

If you want an example of how to behave, go to one of the many quack conventions. There you will see speakers get up and say things that are absolutely incompatible with what the previous speaker has said - but they won't make any mention of it. And if the two are in a panel discussion, they will say only nice things about the other's quackery.

This is in distinct contrast to real medical conferences, where voices are raised, snide comments made and embarassing questions are asked. This sort of unseemly and impolite behavior can only be tolerated when there is real data to support what people are saying. In the world of quackery, that sort of frank discussion and argument would tear apart the delicate fabric of our fortunes. Under no circumstances are you to ever, ever even vaguely suggest that the Emperor has no clothes.
This deserves attention. Disputation based on data and logic is a hallmark of science. Intelligent Design evangelicals, however, dare not fight with (if there are any) secular Intelligent Designers. Massage therapists cannot criticize chiropractors. All must agree to live in peace, for if one fights, all are shown to be empty.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

NYT has a good overview of concierge medicine

The NYT has a good review of boutique or concierge medicine. I was surprised by how relatively low the concierge fees are -- $1000 to $2000/year (For a reasonably wealthy person this is not much money.) One the other hand, if one also gets insurance payments for the visits and services a 600 person panel this can make for a pretty decent income.

I don't see patients any longer, but personally I preferred taking care of the non-wealthy. Still, one could mix a 'concierge practice' with 1-2 days a week of charity care (forget the insurance companies for the non-wealthy, too much hastle).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Gwynne Dyer's erratic web site has a set of new articles

Dyer, historian, essayist, and big thinker has added another four or five articles to his web site.

I wish, I wish he'd learn what a feed is.

Implications of the dyslexia gene

The long anticipated is upon us.
Be the Best You can Be: A gene for dyslexia

At last. If this holds up the implications are vast. We will be able to clearly identify one subtype of a common learning disorder. We'll be able to identify variations in the associated phenotype, and match therapies to the gene. We will gain vast insights into the bizarre miracle of reading (note to intelligent design folks -- the evolution of reading is much more interesting than the evolution of the retina).

This gene modulates the "migration of neurons", it is presumably one of a class of genes that determines the very structure of the human brain. Alter these genes, alter that which makes a human.

Wonderful news.

Less wonderful if it becomes part of a prenatal profile that may lead to abortions. This is a future we knew was coming.

The next big thing in telemedicine: doctor visits in virtual worlds

The New York Times has an article in the travel section on vactions to virtual worlds (mirrorshades allowed):
A Virtual Holiday in the Virtual Sun - New York Times

...On FairChang Island, for instance, one of the 1,000-plus 'regions' of Second Life (each covering 16 virtual acres), a simple mouse-click allows members to purchase virtual sailboats that can be sailed around the waters of the virtual world. Prices start at less than a penny, and the money goes to the 'resident' who created the item. Payments are made using a virtual currency called 'Linden dollars' that can be bought and sold freely with real money on eBay and other sites.

In contrast to most virtual worlds, Linden Lab doesn't mind having its currency bought and sold, and even grants Second Life members ownership of the intellectual property rights to whatever they create in the world. But to create anything of permanence, members must 'own' a plot of virtual land (on which they must then pay monthly fees).

A robust economy has sprung up as a result, with one of the most profitable areas being the virtual real estate business. Large tracts of land can be 'purchased' at auction in Second Life, often for more than $100 an acre, then subdivided and sold at a profit.
So how long will it be before someone sets up a virtual doctor's office? A place to go and receive medical advice. How long before someone then sets up a legal office to adjudicate disputes? How long before the first subpoena is delivered to Second Life requesting the physician's realworld identity to initiate a lawsuit? How long before they realize the physician was a high school dropout? Or a very savvy cyberdoc who's identity can't be traced?

This is soo interesting.

Update 10/30: The answer to "how long" is not very. In a comment on this posting James reports:
... I went to a talk last year where John Lester from Mass General talked about the virtual support group he has running in the second life virtual world...
John isn't a physician, but clearly the game is afoot. Thanks James!

How to be a successful quack

I came to this one via skeptico. I loved the insights on waiting rooms and avoiding insurance compensation (dentists, who are clearly not quacks, have been lucky to avoid the insurance quagmire that trapped physicians). The only recommendation I'd add is to avoid therapies that have obvious toxic side-effects. Never use a herbal remedy that actually has noticeable activity. Don't do chiropracty on the neck.

Overall a wonderful guide to success in quackery: A Photon in the Darkness: How to Succeed at Quackery (Without Even Trying). There are lessons aplenty there.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

google base - slouching towards life

I couldn't figure out what the "Google Base" appearance was supposed to have been, until I came across a reference to

A 2002 article that detailed Google's direction.

August 2009: How Google beat Amazon and Ebay to the Semantic Web ( was written in 2002. Fascinating bit of prescience, particularly if you're a knowledge-engineer sort (odd community). I'm adding this author to my bloglines list.

An expert's speculation on what life is like in Bush's place

It's rare to get the perspective of someone with this kind of perspective:
TPMCafe || What It's Like

... The exodus and incapacity were inevitable [from Bush's original team]; replacing Bush's stand-up guys and gals with suck-ups and sycophants was not. After he was re-elected, with the clouds of scandal still all `round, Bill Clinton lured John Podesta back to the White House. Podesta, who is as tough as a bar of iron, became deputy chief of staff, and then chief of staff. He was indispensable in maintaining the focus of both the President and his staff. When Abner Mikva left, Clinton recruited a new White House counsel, Charles Ruff, who was strong and steady, and put together the most impressive team of lawyers ever to grace the West Wing. When Mike McCurry stepped down, he was replaced by bulldog Joe Lockhart. Clinton also promoted Rahm Emanuel and Doug Sosnik, veteran campaigners, and convinced me to leave my beloved Austin to become Counselor to the President. Not because I was possessed of some special wisdom or insight, but because I knew him well and was not afraid to give him bad news.

Mr. Bush would do well to augment his current staff, a C-Team if ever there was one, with some stronger characters. But to read the Bush-Miers correspondence is to gain a disturbing insight into Mr. Bush's personality: he likes having his ass kissed. Ms. Miers' cards and letters to the then-Governor of Texas belong in the Brown-Nosers Hall of Fame. You can be sure the younger and less experienced Bush White House aides are even more obsequious. The last thing this President wants is the first thing he needs: someone to slap his spoiled, pampered, trust-funded, plutocratic, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life cheek and make him face the reality of his foul-ups.

And so they wait. And they sniff the royal throne. They tell the Beloved Leader he's the victim of a partisan plot (although how the Bush CIA, which referred the Plame case for prosecution, became ground zero of Democratic liberalism escapes me). They assure him all is well. But all is not well. People are looking over their shoulders. The smart ones have stopped taking notes in meetings. The very smart ones have stopped using email for all but the most pedestrian communications. And the smartest ones have already obtained outside counsel...
Bush must have many strengths, but his weaknesses seem to be profound. Maybe it does come from a life of wealth, and the world of the CEO. The CEO is not a democrat; s/he is at best a wise king, at worst a tinpot dictator. FDR, also a child of privilege was the wise king. Bush seems more the tinpot dictator, one who curries the praise of fools, shoots the messenger, and ruthlessly executes the disloyal. Is Rove no different?

PS. I don't believe there will be any indictments from Fitzgerald's grand jury.

We could be worse. We could be chimps.

The more we learn about chimps (BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Chimps fall down on friendship), the less "appealing" they seem. Violent, murderous, xenophobic, misogynistic, sadistic -- our closest living siblings make us seem relatively decent.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Visiting the first church of scientology and Hubbard's offices

When I was a youngling wandering southern california eons ago, one of my hobbies was visiting cults. From old photographs I can see I had a rather innocent and even vulnerable looking face, and cultists were always keen to recruit me. I found them quite fascinating, and over time I became familiar with the "marks" (troubled and lost youth typically), the true believers ("marks" who've joined up) and the handlers (those one level above the believers). I even met a few of the "operators" -- those who are in the cult for power or perks, not for belief. The latter were quite good at spotting my true nature, and would quickly turf me back to the street (my face was misleading).

Nowadays, 25 years later, I fear I no longer have a face that appeals to cultists. Fortunately a friend of mine, no younger than I, still does. So it came that he and I enjoyed a tour of the very first church of Scientology in Washington DC (1701 20th Street NW), and then took a unique guided tour of the unmarked building that was Scientology's first headquarters, around the block at 1812 19th Street Nw, Washington, DC 20009. This latter building is not marked in any way. I believe it is usually visited by Scientologists, but for some reason we were invited. Our hosts were gracious and personable, though I suspect that one of them (quite senior in the church) suspected my true nature. We did not deceive them and admitted to being physicians, but we were very quick to (honestly) state that we were not psychiatrists. In Scientology's doctrine psychiatrists are the closest thing to Satan, and while our guests might tolerate heretics Satan himself would be too much. It probably helped that both of us now work in health care software companies and no longer see patients.

My friend did tell an earlier younger host that we had, of course, often treated patietns with psychiatric medications, but fortunately she appeared not to hear.

So it is that I read of Hubbard's life, or at least the sanctified version thereof. It was a fascinating life. A brilliant, romantic, and precocious youth, a restless wanderer and adventurer, a college drop-out who churned out reams of pulp fiction (science fiction, adventure fiction, even romances -- all under varied pseudonyms). I could see many of the books in his offices and scan some of his 1950s writings (which were more direct and clear than his later writing). [Update 3/06: Alas, it's a life more fictional than I'd thought. Did Hubbard know what was fact and what was imagination? See more below.]

I think I could also tell when he developed what I'd guess was his schizophrenia-like disorder, his unusual thinking patterns [1] about about age 20 -- a very typical age of onset.

There were many fascinating aspects of the tour. Despite the name of the church, there were no science texts in Hubbard's collection -- nothing on biology, geology, medicine, physics, astronomy, chemistry, electricity, etc. He evidently read history, a bit of philosophy, science fiction and mystical stories -- but not science. Most curiously he had a copy of one of Freud's popular books on psychoanalysis; not marked with any bloody ink and mixed in with his other texts. Nowhere was there mention or reference to any women in his life other than his mother.

There's a remarkable series of 'e-machines', and a fascinating letter mentioning that the first e-machine was the descendant of 40 preceding years of research in psychogalvanometry (there are no Google links to that term, and only a handful of obscure links to the 'psychogalvanometer'. I am amazed there's not more on what was apparently a fad from 1910 to 1950).

Reading the books and literature a few themes emerge, which I think capture the flavor of Hubbard's mind. First and foremost there's his well known hatred of psychiatrists. He refers to the German (psychology), the Viennese (psychoanalysis) and the Russian (psychiatry - most foul). The intensity of his hatred may have some delusional qualities, but he lived in the era of Soviet dissidents imprisoned in psych facilities, frontal lobotomies, etc. The connection he made between the Soviets and psychiatry is particularly interesting.

Throughout his life he revisits themes that have, to someone who's cared for schizophrenic patients, a familiar feeling. He believed that Niacin was a good treatment for substance abuse and radiation poisoning, apparently because it induced facial flushing that he connected with sauna-induced vasodilation. His early books focus on radiation exposure, cellular memory (single-celled organisms 'learn' and pass their learning on to their descendants), and multiple lives. There's some suggestion of an antipathy to Christianity but a sympathy for Buddism; yet the newer Scientology churches display a modified Christian cross.

I was most interested in his use of language, and in his concerns about the meaning of words (shades of his science fiction colleague AE Van Vogt, who later signed up with scientology). His use of 'flub' for "error" is characteristic. He seemed very bothered by words having multiple meanings, and preferred that a word have only a single precise meaning. A children's book on learning makes a somewhat odd transition from a general discussion on learning styles to an perseverant discussion of the dangers of words that could be misunderstood. His concern with the meaning of words, and with the power of words to cause physical harm or effects, has a magical and tortured quality. It is ironic in a man who was a stupendously prolific writer and typist (90 words a minute!).

It is a fascinating tour of an increasingly powerful church (or cult -- a nascent religion). I can believe they easily have 300,000 members, and if each contributes $5,000/year (courses and contributions) that's a tax-exempt cash flow of $1.5 billion/year. Enough money to buy many US senators and politicians. Impressive!

It will be very interesting to see how Scientology evolves.

Update 10/27:

[1] The more I thought about Hubbard's mental status, the less ready I am to give him a label as "simple" as "schitzophreniform disorder". Given his extraordinary bursts of productivity, I could as easily and as amateurishly "label" him as "mania with delusional components". There is clearly something odd about his fixed beliefs and obsessions, and particularly his themes of struggles with the "unconscious" and his focus on words and their slippery meanings. I get the impression of someone fighting to master a mind coming apart, and ending in some odd truce that worked quite well the rest of his life.

I'm not confident, however, that even a professional psychiatrist would know quite how to categorize Hubbard in our current ill-defined taxonomies of psychiatric disorders. It would be very interesting to know more about Hubbard's family history, and whether any particular disorders were prevalent in his parents, cousins, etc.

As my friend noted, the relationship between the delusional disorders, religiosity, and the propensity to create religions is complex, interesting, and intensely controversial.

Update 3/2/06: Rolling Stone has a wonderful story on Scientology. It adds a bit of detail to his biography (note- I went to Caltech):

... After the war, Hubbard made his way to Pasadena, California, a scientific boomtown of the 1940s, where he met John Whiteside Parsons, a society figure and a founder of CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A sci-fi buff, Parsons was also a follower of the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Parsons befriended Hubbard and invited him to move onto his estate. In one of the stranger chapters in Hubbard's life, recorded in detail by several biographers, the soon-to-be founder of Dianetics became Parsons' assistant -- helping him with a variety of black-magic and sex rituals, including one in which Parsons attempted to conjure a literal "whore of Babalon [sic]," with Hubbard serving as apprentice.

Charming and charismatic, Hubbard succeeded in wooing away Parsons' mistress, Sara Northrup, whom he would later marry. Soon afterward, he fell out with Parsons over a business venture...

Wow. I bet JPL doesn't put that bit in their official history.

Update 5/14/07: While tagging my scientology posts I came across this unpublished 2005 reference to a CT article on L Ron's creative biography. It reminded of Kim Jong-il's equally momentous list of achievements. I suspect the resemblance is not coincidental.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Summary of the Scowcroft interview

Apparently when you're 80 years old, you feel free to be blunt at certain times. DeLong quotes another blogger with many excerpts of a very long rant from a senior old-guard Republican.

Don't donate your used PC -- it's not worth anything

I once went to some effort to recondition and setup a used PC for a family that didn't have one. Even as I set it up, I knew this was dumb. They couldn't afford a network connection, they didn't have a printer and couldn't afford a new one, and they didn't have the background or resources to maintain the high quality computer I gave them. Since they couldn't affort to pay to dispose of it, I was just creating more toxic waste. (I'd said I'd come get it ... but that was dumb too.)

As in the twin cities, so to in Africa. Even if all those donated PCs were in terrific shape, most of them would soon be worthless. PCs are annoying resource intensive life sucking leaches that cost far too much to maintain and keep healthy. And here I'm speaking of a Mac. Wintel macchines are far worse.

Stop donating computer hardware. It's a waste. Spend the time and effort lobbying for decreased tariffs and support increased trade. Support acts that can decrease poverty. Donate to CARE.ORG. Donate high quality t-shirts. Just don't send computer gear.

Digital Rights Management and the DMCA shall make criminals of us all

By providing half a solution, then stopping, Apple leads a reasonably honest soul to the twilight zone: Gordon's Tech: Controlling Apple AirTunes with SlimServer, or how I was turned to the Darkseid. Beware, if you walk the 'media server' road you too will be led to the rebel alliance ...

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Leon Kass: presidential advisor on the forgotten place of women

Leon Kass is Bush's bioethics advisor. DeLong and Kieran Healy quote Kass's philosophy of the woman's place. Really, he says, it all went wrong when the Pill was developed ...

This is the president's advisor. These guys are a parody of themselves. At this rate I'll soon be expecting Bush to find a way to stay on after his term runs out ...

Colonel Wilkerson on the cabal running American foreign policy

Colonel Wilkerson is a military academic who followed Colin Powel into government. He lectures here on US foreign policy ( He rambles a bit. He liked George Bush I and accepted the Clintonians with grudging respect. He acknowledges must US presidents are far from brilliant. Then he gets down to the brassy tacks (emphases mine):
And you’re talking about the potential for, I think, real dangerous times if we don’t get our act together. Now, let me get a little more specific. This is where I’m sure the journalists will get their pens out. Almost everyone since the ’47 act, with the exception, I think, of Eisenhower, has in some way or another, perterbated, flummoxed, twisted, drew evolutionary trends with, whatever, the national security decision-making process....

... The complexity of crises that confront governments today is just unprecedented. Let me say that again.

The complexity of the crises that confront governments today are just unprecedented. At the same time, especially in America, but I submit to you that in Japan, in China and in a number of other countries soon to be probably the European Union, it’s just as bad, if not in some ways worse.

The complexity of governing is unprecedented. You simply cannot deal with all the challenges that government has to deal with, meet all the demands that government has to meet in the modern age, in the 21st century, without admitting that it is hugely complex. That doesn’t mean you have to add a Department of Homeland Security with 70,000 disparate entities thrown under somebody in order to handle them. But it does mean that your bureaucracy has got to be staffed with good people and they’ve got to work together and they’ve got to work under leadership they trust and leadership that, on basic issues, they agree with.

And that if they don’t agree, they can dissent and dissent and dissent. And if their dissent is such that they feel so passionate about it, they can resign and know why they’re resigning. That is not the case today. And when I say that is not the case today, I stop on 26 January 2005.

I don’t know what the case is today. I wish I did. But the case that I saw for 4 plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberration, bastardizations, [inaudible], changes to the national security [inaudible] process. What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense and [inaudible] on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.

And then when the bureaucracy was presented with those decisions and carried them out, it was presented in such a disjointed incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn’t know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.

Read George Packer’s book The Assassin’s [inaudible] if you haven’t already. George Packer, a New Yorker, reporter for The New Yorker, has got it right. I just finished it and I usually put marginalia in a book but, let me tell you, I had to get extra pages to write on.

And I wish, I wish I had been able to help George Packer write that book. In some places I could have given him a hell of a lot more specifics than he’s got. But if you want to read how the Cheney Rumsfeld cabal flummoxed the process, read that book. And, of course, there are other names in there, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas [jf - Feith], whom most of you probably know Tommy Frank said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.

And yet, and yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere. That’s not making excuses for the State Department.

That’s telling you how decisions were made and telling you how things got accomplished. Read George’s book...

...They’ve [jf - defense contractors] got every Congressman, every Senator, they got it covered. Now, it’s not to say that they aren’t smart businessmen. They are, and women. They are. But it’s something we should be looking at, something we should be looking at. So you’ve got this collegiality there between the Secretary of Defense and the Vice President. And then you’ve got a President who is not versed in international relations. And not too much interested in them either.

Why is cell phone software so bad?

Pogue asks why is cell phone software so bad?
Problems With Cellular Phone Software Design - New York Times

“I recently read your article about the ‘iTunes phone,’ the Motorola ROKR. You say that it uses the same operating system as the popular RAZR phone, but I do not know exactly what you mean when you state that the Motorola Razr's software design is ‘not, ahem, as universally adored as its physical design.’ If you have a moment to spare, I would appreciate some elaboration about the specifics of your observation.”

Good question. Just about everyone I know who has a RAZR phone complains about the software design. I’ve asked two of them why they despise it so much.

One person pointed out that you must create separate entries for "Bob cell," "Bob home," etc., which is a pain to scroll through.

Another says that the software actually crashes periodically, which is never a good thing.

I’d be interested in hearing from other people, though, about what they don’t like about the Motorola phone operating system. And other phone makes, too, for that matter!
I wrote him:

I've been through a few cell phones, and I agree the internal software is generally quite poor. My recollection has been that Nokia did
pretty well and Samsung quite poorly. My Palm (Rest in peace) based Samsung i500 is perhaps the most infuriating -- because it comes so
close to being right, but falls painfully short.

There are some fundamentally hard problems in designing this kind of software, but the biggest issue is that the utility and elegance of the software is not a factor in consumer buying decisions. Indeed good software may have a perverse effect of making a customer so content with their phone they are reluctant to buy a new one!

As long as consumers don't buy based on the usability of their cell phone, money spent on better and more elegant software is money down the drain. Nokia has never gotten credit for the elegant usability of many of their older phones.

So who should we blame? We have met the enemy ... and he is us.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Petition Microsoft to support OpenDocument

Demand OpenDocument - Petition

What science fiction character am I?

Taking this "personality test" I learn I am ....
Marcus Cole
An honest and chivalrous adventurer that pursues just causes, you would sacrifice much to help others.
I am a Ranger. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge and no-one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One.
Marcus is a character in the Babylon 5 universe.
Hmm. I think I'm whimpier than that ...

World of hurt - Kashmir

A BBC journalist writes of a week in Balakot, Kashmir. This is one of the most beautiful places on earth, so so I was told long ago. It's beauty comes from the same forces that created this earthquake.

Now, ten days later, I read that the death toll and logistic problems of this disaster may exceed those of the tsunami of years (oh, months?!) past. Earth seems less motherly these days, our reign more tenuous. In a world approaching 8 billion lives any upset will kill tens of thousands. Global climate change alone promises disaster aplenty.

Time to send more money to I'm going to suggest CARE start selling 'gift certificates' this holiday season; make a donation, get a nice card, give that as a Christmas/holiday gift.

Update: This is what I sent CARE.ORG:
This December I'd like to be able to give CARE gift certificates. Here's how it works.

You add a new feature to your donation area. It's a place to enter a person's name. I make a donation. You mail me a nice certificate with a name on it saying 'A gift to CARE has been made in your name to help ......'.

I give those as gifts.

For greater ease, support multiple certificates. I enter a donation (say $200) and then enter 10 names. I get 10 cards.

Minimum card value is $20.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Net history -- the oldest domain name in the universe

In March 1985 the domain name was assigned to a LIPS hardware/software company. It was the first assigned domain name, preceding even the more famous BBN.COM.

The company is gone, the assets were bought by a gentleman who was likely an employee. The domain name, however, still works.

Net history. Now that this is making the blog rounds his site is going to get pounded ...

SIDS is rare now, so it's back to the tummy for babies

When Polio went away, so did parental commitment to polio vaccines. Since vaccination has a free-rider component (if everyone else's child is vaccinated, the risk/benefit ratio for vaccinating one's own child may be inverted) this isn't completely irrational. Of course it doesn't work; too many people accept the free ride and the disease returns.

A similar thing is happening with SIDS (A Quiet Revolt Against the Rules on SIDS - New York Times). Disobedient parents giggle over their naughtiness on web sites, telling stories of babies sleeping on their stomachs. So SIDS will return (but infant heads will be rounder).

Willful denial of risk is dumb, but very human. On the other hand, a calculated assumption of a measured risk of infant death is rational, albeit inhuman. We expose our children to significant risks when we drive them to day care, for example. Anyone with a swimming pool in the backyard, or a gun in the house, or a seat on the back of a bicycle is already exposing their child to risks that dwarf the average child's risk of SIDS. We make many compromises in our mortal lives, rationally trading an increased risk of infant death for a night's sleep is by no means extreme. It's just that we usually don't think that way.

What we really need is the 'holy grail' of preventive medicine -- risk adjustment. We need better ways to assign a "SIDS-risk" to an individual child based on birth history, genetics, health status, parental smoking, etc. Then we can place 'sleep on the stomach' into a risk spectrum. For the healthy full term child of a non-smoker with no family history of SIDS and no current respiratory infections the risk of sleeping on the stomach may be comparable to the risks of driving to day care. That is, non-zero, but comparable to other accepted risks. On the other hand for a preterm infant of a smoking mother with a family history of SIDS and a URI it may be comparable to riding on a bicycle seat in heavy traffic.

Maybe children will one day wear a bracelet that signals their risk-adjusted SIDS probability every evening ...

Andromeda unleashed

I came to this one via a physics blog. Caltech has some gorgeous images of Andromeda from the Spitzer space telescope. Scoll down to the link to 21MB high resolution JPEG.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Astronaut, cosmonaut, yuhangyuan

I need to learn how to pronounce yuhangyuan -- Chinese for "travelers of the universe". Meanwhile, in the US, our government has committed itself to unraveling science.

It's good to know that, even as the US begins its long decline, other nations will carry the torch.

Are large institutional investors betting the US market will continue to flatline?

I continue to read cheery essays on why we should invest in the market for our self-funded retirements. I also notice that, overall, our family investments have flatlined for about 6 years. Reminds me a bit of how things were in the US of the 1970s, or Japan of the 1990s. Greenspun makes an interesting assertion that one smart investor seems expect this trend to continue ...
Philip Greenspun's Weblog:

Harvard has picked a new investment manager for its $26 billion in liquid assets (the university is weathier than this but much of its wealth is in real estate). According to this New York Times story, Mohamed A. El-Erian is "an emerging markets bond specialist" from "the bond powerhouse Pimco". Choosing someone like this to manage its money is essentially a vote that public equities (stocks) will continue to perform poorly for some years to come. How is it possible for stock prices to remain stalled while corporations earn reasonably good profits and only pay out a small percentage of those profits as dividends (the average S&P 500 company pays out 32 percent of profits as a dividend)? Looting and dilution by managers granting themselves stock options. So Harvard, which has been mostly right since World War II and earned more than 19 percent in the last fiscal year, seems to be betting on the continued looting of American corporations by their managers and is apparently planning to put its money to work in foreign countries and via debt instruments.
The US feels more and more like 1989 Japan.

Good news on war

This is good news for a hurting world.
BBC NEWS | Americas | Wars 'less frequent, less deadly'

The Human Security Report found a decline in every form of political violence except terrorism since 1992.
Civil wars are now the most common form of war, but they have been less lethal than wars involving nations.

Life in the new world -- don't even think of being in any way different

A nerdly sort looks too different. So he's arrested. Eventually released, a large quantity of his personal possessions are removed from his home and not returned.
Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Suspicious behaviour on the tube

This Reuters story was written while the police were detaining me in Southwark tube station and the bomb squad was checking my rucksack. When they were through, the two explosive specialists walked out of the tube station smiling and commenting: 'Nice laptop.' The officers offered apologies on behalf of the Metropolitan police. Then they arrested me.
Don't look different. Look like everyone else. This is our world now.

Stop net fraud - make the banks pay for the externalities

I said this in the mid-90s, when I was peripherally involved in exposing one of the early international credit card frauds (today's operators are much more clever than those guys were). Bruce Schneier has been saying it for years.

The only way to reduce net fraud (phishing, identity theft, etc) is to make the banks and financial intermediaries pay more of the real cost of these frauds (the 'externalities' of victim suffering). The banks have known for over 10 years what they need to do, but the costs are substantial. Even if a bank wanted to put better security in place, they can't. If they tried they'd be forced out of business by any competitor who didn't introduce the same procedures. The only way the banks can do this is if they're all forced to move together. That takes governmental action.

Here's Schneier:
Crypto-Gram: October 15, 2005

Earlier this month, California became the first state to enact a law specifically addressing phishing. Phishing, for those of you who have been away from the Internet for the past few years, is when an attacker sends you an e-mail falsely claiming to be a legitimate business in order to trick you into giving away your account info -- passwords, mostly. When this is done by hacking DNS, it's called pharming.

Financial companies have until now avoided taking on phishers in a serious way, because it's cheaper and simpler to pay the costs of fraud. That's unacceptable, however, because consumers who fall prey to these scams pay a price that goes beyond financial losses, in inconvenience, stress and, in some cases, blots on their credit reports that are hard to eradicate. As a result, lawmakers need to do more than create new punishments for wrongdoers -- they need to create tough new incentives that will effectively force financial companies to change the status quo and improve the way they protect their customers' assets. Unfortunately, the California law does nothing to address this.

... The actual problem to be solved is that of fraudulent transactions. Financial institutions make it too easy for a criminal to commit fraudulent transactions, and too difficult for the victims to clear their names. The institutions make a lot of money because it's easy to make a transaction, open an account, get a credit card and so on. For years I've written about how economic considerations affect security problems. They can put security countermeasures in place to prevent fraud, detect it quickly and allow victims to clear themselves. But all of that's expensive. And it's not worth it to them.

It's not that financial institutions suffer no losses. Because of something called Regulation E, they already pay most of the direct costs of identity theft. But the costs in time, stress, and hassle are entirely borne by the victims. And in one in four cases, the victims have not been able to completely restore their good name.

In economics, this is known as an externality: It's an effect of a business decision that is not borne by the person or organization making the decision. Financial institutions have no incentive to reduce those costs of identity theft because they don't bear them.

Push the responsibility -- all of it -- for identity theft onto the financial institutions, and phishing will go away...

If there's one general precept of security policy that is universally true, it is that security works best when the entity that is in the best position to mitigate the risk is responsible for that risk. Making financial institutions responsible for losses due to phishing and identity theft is the only way to deal with the problem. And not just the direct financial losses -- they need to make it less painful to resolve identity theft issues, enabling people to truly clear their names and credit histories. Money to reimburse losses is cheap compared with the expense of redesigning their systems, but anything less won't work.
Since this will take governmental action, if you don't like identity theft, vote against Bush.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Condi Rice: we invaded Iraq to change the world

Apparently the Bush administration now confesses that their motivation in invading Iraq was unrelated to a direct threat from Iraq but was rather an attempt to change the middle east:
Obsidian Wings: Killing Innocent Iraqis to Try to Protect Ourselves

...Condi argued that after 9/11 we had two choices: we could go after and eradicate bin Laden and Al Qaida and then turn toward protecting ourselves against other threats, or we could go after the roots of Islamic terrorism and change the landscape in the Middle East. She argued that no one who understands the Middle East could imagine the landscape there changing until Saddam Hussein was out of power.
Obsidian Wings puts it well. If that was the standard, then Bush et al are guilty of war crimes.

You can't do things that directly and indirectly kill about 100,000 civilians because you want to change the geopolitical landscape. That's wrong in so many different ways. Ursula LeGuinn dealt with this in a clever short story some time ago. I don't remember the title, but the premise was that a utopian society's happiness was guaranteed only by torturing and executing one innocent person a year. Wrong solution.

I can imagine reasons I'd accept for invading Iraq, even in the absence of an overt direct threat, but Condi isn't making those arguments. Moreover, if one must act in these circumstances, one must be willing to pay a high price in american lives and money to reduce the collateral damage.

Splogs (spam blogs) infest the web

Once blogs became searchable, it was inevitable that spam blogs would emerge. Now they're showing exponential growth.

These are computer generated blogs; the structured nature of a blog, and the RSS interfaces, make it trivial to create software that constructs new blogs from bits and pieces of original work. Spam blogs are to real blogs as some blogs are to OpEd pages -- merely amplifiers. They are relatives of web pages that parasitize and repackage Amazon postings and sales. I expect the best of them will fool many readers, and may even be interesting in a random sort of way.

I knew this was coming because a young coder friend of mine is drawn to the dark side, and he told me he'd done some work in this area. Sigh. I do hope he finds a better outlet for his talents.

Again I wonder how the anti-Darwinists can make any sense of a world where evolution occurs in human timeframes.

Heroes among the bureaucrats

Ayn Rand's fantasy was that the giants of industry would move away, leaving the parasitic world of incompetent bureaucrats to collapse behind them.

In Bush World the 'giants of industry' become incompetent political appointees, and the bureaucrats heroically walk away.

I've known quite a few giants of industry, and quite a few Washington bureaucrats. From my perspective they each have their place, but I think the giants are easier to replace. Indeed, the replacements for the giants would often be improvements.

Is in trouble?

Is in good health? I've been wondering lately. I've been a customer since the initial launch, back before they were sending customers mugs. Over that time I've seen some performance and customer service issues, but their core software systems have been remarkably reliable. Lately, however, I'm running into bugs. Mostly they're cosmetic or irritating, like a wish list that can't be accessed (server error). Most recently, however, I have an order that's stuck in limbo. It can't be cancelled, but it doesn't ship. It is 'being prepared for shipping' - apparently they're mining the metals to build it.

Amazon's always tweaked their UI (annoying), but lately the tweaks have been moving backwards. I used to usually be able to sort a search result by ranking, sales, etc -- but that ability is increasingly constrained. Also, Amazon hasn't removed negative reviews, but they are increasingly obscured.

My sense is they've lost some important software people. Maybe it was an outsourcing move. Maybe some relatively senior people vested and left. Maybe they've downsized. Whatever they've done, it's not working ...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Why does Miers horrify a part of the GOP? Because to see her is to see Bush

Obsidian Wings objects to Miers feeble writing abilities. Should an inability to communicate, or to reason clearly, disqualify someone from the Supreme Court?

The assertion that Miers lack of writing ability should disqualify her would be more persuasive if, for example, George Bush were capable of clear writing, or even of clear speech. Molly Ivins has written on this. George Bush used to be quite articulate speaker, but in later years he lost the ability to speak clearly. It appears this is not simply an affectation, he simply can't do it any more.

I've sometimes speculated that Bush suffers from some complex and probably undefined progressive environmental and genetic organic brain syndrome. Eight years ago Bush was still a very capable person, I suspect his condition has progressed. Perhaps as a consequence of his own disability, Bush does not value rationality and clear reasoning. He may feels Miers' spiritual and emotional/reactive behaviors are much more important than her cognitive or linguistic abilities. In other words, he accepts the very lefty-liberal squishy idea of 'alternative intelligences'.

Miers is Bush as he would be on the supreme court. It would not surprise me if he expects to go there himself some day; Miers is his precedent.

This pattern of appointing people that are in his mold (athletic, anti-intellectual, evangelical, emotional, charismatic -- ESFP on the old Myers-Briggs) is very Bush (nee Andrew Jackson, king of the spoils system). This can be seen in the infamous list of his 15 most incompetent appointees and especially in his very troubled scientific/technical appointees (they don't last).

The horror for Republicans is that the more they look at Miers, the more they see Bush. That's why this is tearing apart the 'know-nothing' party.

Katrina - what happened in the prisons?

The lost and forgotten. The criminals. You know, your kids.

Democracy Now! | After the Hurricane: Where Have All the Prisoners Gone? More Than 500 From New Orleans Jail Still Unaccounted For

Will anyone ever know what happened there?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Feverish update on the Fitzgerald investigation

Since the mainstream media doesn't really cover Fitzgerald's grand jury investigations, one must subsist on the speculative fever of bloggers: Obsidian Wings: The Plot Thickens.... Beats reading nothing at all! Bush's hatred of Fitzgerald must be a thing of terrible beauty.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Firefox is less supported now than it was a year ago

I'm finding more sites like this AMEX site. Firefox worked well on the American Express site until they redesigned it, now it doesn't work (I'm using 1.5b2, maybe it still works with the release version?). I'm seeing that more often now. I have a sneaking suspicion the new generation of Microsoft's web tools break non-IE browsers. Shocked, shocked I am.

This might explain why Firefox use is declining.

There's no place on the AMEX site to complain of course.

[Update 10/11: My caveat about 'maybe it's the beta' may have needed more emphasis. My sister-in-law reports the site still works with the release version of Firefox. I've submitted a report to Firefox on this site.]

Minnesota was almost a creationist state

I live here, read the papers, and had no idea this was going on. I learn about it today in FLORIDA blog posting. We have the most unbelievably incompetent newspapers in creation.

Minnesota was almost a creationist state; religious fundamentalists came, very quietly, with a hairsbreadth of writing creationist "science" standards:
Florida Citizens for Science - A Brief History of the Minnesota Academic Standards in Science.

What is the inconvenient fact about Miers?

Shrillblog welcomes the foul National Review into the world of the anti-Bush shrill, and tells the Lovecraftian tale of Miers:
Shrillblog: Corner of Shrillness

Harriet Miers... the crawling chaos... I am the last... I will tell the audient void...

And it was then that Harriet Miers came out of the West Wing. Who she was, none could tell, but she was of the old Bush-loyal Texas blood and looked not like a member of the Federalist Society. The state Republican Party chairmen knelt when they saw her, yet could not say why. They said she had risen up out of decades of loyal Bush service, and that she had heard messages from places not of the reality-based community. Into the lands of the judicial branch came Harriet Miers, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. Conservative men advised one another to endorse Harriet Miers, and shuddered. And where Harriet Miers went, rest vanished, for the small hours were rent with the screams of conservative activists betrayed and undone. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the Bush functionaries almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of conservative judicial activists might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky...
It doesn't make sense though. There must be an 'inconvenient fact' somewhere, something our journalists prefer not to mention -- less they ruin the party?

My guess? It's religious fundamentalism. The great alliance that forged the modern GOP was a dark blood oath sworn between regulated industries (new military-industrial-regulated complex) and christian fundamentalists. Miers is first and foremost a christian fundamentalist. I think the MIR complex is losing its love for Bush (the only thing worse than taxes and regulation is a trashed world), and Miers's fundamentalism is the last straw.

It's a thought. There's got to be an inconvenient fact, something neither side in the battle wants to bring up, somewhere ...

Editing memories and a thought on how AA might work

The Economist's science writers have a particular interest in research on the nature and manipulation of memory; a science which seems to be advancing quickly. This article has an excellent overview of some of the latest techniques for memory deletion, and the possible benefit for addiction (misuse, of course, is inevitable). -

Abolishing addiction
Sep 15th 2005
From The Economist print edition
A new way to treat drug abuse (in rats, at least)

A DRUG addict's brain alters in response to the drugs he takes. There is the instant change that provides the chemical high, of course, but there are also more subtle, long-term modifications. It is these that turn a user into an addict. Some of them are responses to the drug itself. But some are responses to the circumstances in which the drug is taken. Such things as viewing the paraphernalia of drug taking, for example, serve to remind abstinent addicts of forbidden pleasures and tempt them to relapse.

Two pieces of research just published in Neuron, a specialist journal, suggest that it is possible to impair the brain's memory of such associations—at least, if the brain concerned is a rat's. Courtney Miller and John Marshall, of the University of California, Irvine, have worked out how to disrupt the memories that cocaine-taking rats develop for the place where they get their fix. And a team led by Jonathan Lee, of the University of Cambridge, has prevented rats from using environmental cues to seek cocaine.

Three regions of the brain are thought to be linked to addiction: the prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. All three have a multitude of receptors for a chemical called dopamine, which is part of the nervous circuitry involved in the perception of desire, and all are involved in the laying down of long-term memories.

That process, surprisingly, is not a one-off event for each memory. Every time a memory is recalled, it seems to be actively refiled afterwards—a process known as reconsolidation. This is why people are vulnerable to suggestion when recalling memories of, for example, childhood abuse. Observing this, Dr Miller and Dr Marshall wondered if they could manipulate the refiling process to abolish a memory altogether.

To do so, they first had to establish the memory they wanted to abolish. They did this by putting their rats into an apparatus containing two chambers and teaching them to associate one of those chambers with cocaine use. (Rats are at least as keen on Bolivian marching powder as humans are.) The two “rooms” had different colours, textures and smells, so the rats could easily tell them apart. In normal circumstances, when trained rats were allowed to chose which room to enter, they preferred to spend most of their time hanging out in the cocaine chamber even when no cocaine was available.

Having established this preference, Dr Miller and Dr Marshall then sought to abolish it using a drug that inhibits the production of a protein called Extracellular Signal-related Kinase. This protein, which is generated in the core of the nucleus accumbens, causes long-term changes in gene expression that are thought to be involved in the storage and retrieval of memories, including those of drug use.

Two days after being trained to associate one of the chambers with cocaine, the rats were divided into three groups. Some were given the inhibitor drug and then returned to their cages. Some were given it and then returned to the two chambers. And some were first returned to the two rooms, giving them the opportunity to remember the cocaine chamber, and were then given the inhibitor drug. In these tests, rats in the first group—who had not been given the opportunity to retrieve their memories of cocaine when they received the treatment drug—preferred to spend time in the cocaine chamber. But rats in the other two groups showed no particular preference for either room. Their previously strong memories had become disrupted.

Dr Lee and his colleagues, meanwhile, were studying the amygdala. This part of the brain serves as a “Pavlovian” learning machine that associates a pleasurable event, such as being fed, with a neutral event, such as the sound of a bell ringing. Dr Lee's rats learned that they received cocaine when they poked their noses into a particular hole. At the same time, a light went on. The rats were then put into a similar set-up, but this time they received no cocaine when they poked their noses into the hole, and there was no light.

Dr Lee and his team then treated their rats to shut down the gene that produces a protein called Zif268, which seems to have a similar role in the amygdala to that of Extracellular Signal-related Kinase in the nucleus accumbens. (They did this using pieces of “anti-sense” DNA that attach themselves to the gene in question and stop it being read by the cellular machinery that transcribes genes.) Several days later, the rats were returned to the test site, but this time two levers had been installed in it. One of these levers did nothing. The other lit the light associated with cocaine use. The rats who had not received the treatment pressed the lever that lit the light many more times than did the rats who had received the injection, suggesting that only they remembered the light's association with cocaine.

Both teams of researchers believe that the amnesia they have induced relates only to memories of drug use, because those were the memories that were being recalled at the time the inhibitor drugs were given...
Which led me to wonder again how and why AA might work -- when it does work. My guess is that it works by editing memories -- specifically by reinforcing the most negative memories associated with an addiction. Since contemporaneous memories seem to conflict for neuronal resources, emphasizing the negative while removing reminders of the positive might lead to an altered balance, one that prejudices against the original experience.

Monday, October 10, 2005

At least 26,000 people have run afoul of 'no fly' lists

Many, many americans are mired in the purgatory of Homeland Security "no fly" or "mega-search" lists: Wired News: Stuck on the No-Fly List

What's new is there's a form to submit -- at least if one is "no fly". We've spent tens of millions of dollars on the no-fly and 'search always' lists. A bright medical student would know in ten minutes they wouldn't work. If one is testing for a rare disorder (terrorist), a test that's right 99% of the time will fail miserably. The overwhelming number of 'positive results' will be false positives.

This is what comes from assigning unqualified persons to lead government agencies.

Arctic oil - now ANWR makes sense

ANWR has never made much sense to me. Why so much fuss over a site thought to hold only a few months of US oil consumption?

As a general rule, whenever a ferocious public debate doesn't seem to make sense, there's an inconvenient but fundamental fact that both sides recognize and both don't want to discuss. In the case of abortion that fact is probably the extent to which abortion is birth control for the 'underclass'. In the case of ANWR it's that geologists believe there could be a huge amount of oil in the arctic:
As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound - New York Times

Last year, scientists found tantalizing hints of oil in seabed samples just 200 miles from the North Pole. All told, one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources lies in the Arctic, according to the United States Geological Survey.
This is an awkward fact for both sides, so it's not mentioned. Environmentalists want to point out how little oil there seems to be in ANWR, oil companies don't want to admit they intend to rape the entire Arctic -- and ANWR is only a tiny beachead.

The interesting question is why journalists don't seem to care to reveal the 'awkward fact'. They're often very capable people, they probably know what it is. Why don't they write about it? Is it because they fear to spoil the party? I'd love to know.

By the way, the Times series on global warming is commendable journalism. Note the byline on this particular article: "Clifford Krauss reported from Canada for this article, Steven Lee Myers from Russia, Andrew C. Revkin from New Hampshire and Washington, and Simon Romero from Norway. Craig Duff contributed reporting from Canada, Norway, Russia and Alaska." Craig likes to travel.

How the Republican party morphed into the know-nothing party - the republican war on science

The GOP made a deal with two devils: regulated industries and religious fundamentalists. They shared an antipathy to science, and the GOP acquired that antipathy. From an author's comments:
TPMCafe || On the Origin of The Republican War on Science

...The modern conservative movement, which now dominates the Republican Party, has many key constituencies, but among those are religious conservatives and regulated industry. These two interest groups want very different things, but their desires frequently stray into scientific areas. For instance, religious conservatives want to challenge the way that evolution is taught in public schools, while business interests--ranging from tobacco to some fossil fuel companies--want to challenge the science demonstrating health or environmental dangers resulting from their products, or the way they go about doing business.

Catering to these constituencies, as the Republican Party has increasingly done, has inevitably led politicians and political appointees to humor what essentially amounts to their scientific lobbying. This has happened even as such lobbying has itself become state of the art, encompassing strategic, think tank driven campaigns designed to skew what's actually known on hot button scientific issues with big political ramifications, such as evolution and especially global warming. Both of these trends have converged under the Bush administration, a fact that goes a long way towards explaining the current crisis over the politicization of science.

There are other factors as well: Conservatives' distrust of government easily translates into a distrust of government-funded science or the science produced by federal agencies. Conservatives' distrust of academia easily translates into a willingness to dismiss cutting-edge science coming out of our leading institutions of higher learning. Roll it all up into a ball and I think you get precisely what we're seeing today: Repeated abuses and distortions of scientific information by the political right. That's not to say no one on the left has ever misused or distorted science. It's just that we now encounter a systematic problem from the GOP, one that's the combined result of history, ideology, politics, and the simple fact that Republicans are running the entire government (a situation that lends itself to abuses of power)...
I emphasized the comment on how lobbying has become so much more powerful than it once was. Evolution in action ...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Manchurian President

I've joked for years that Bush was either a KGB plant designed to destroy the US or the agent of an alien civilization seeking to slow our hectic scientific development. It appears others have similar thoughts. This is from a very right wing UK business publication that used to slavishly worship his Bushhood (via DeLong):
George Bush, the Manchurian candidate --

... This newspaper is second to none in its pro-American sentiments; in the early Bush years it devoted much ink to defending the President against the often malevolent and ignorant attacks of a congenitally anti-American European media. But we know a lost cause when we see one: the longer President Bush occupies the White House the more it becomes clear that his big-government domestic policies, his preference for Republican and business cronies over talented administrators, his lack of a clear intellectual compass and his superficial and often wrong-headed grasp of international affairs – all have done more to destroy the legacy of Ronald Reagan, a President who halted then reversed America’s post-Vietnam decline, than any left-liberal Democrat or European America-hater could ever have dreamed of. As one astute American conservative commentator has already observed, President Bush has morphed into the Manchurian Candidate, behaving as if placed among Americans by their enemies to do them damage.

... His presidency is unlikely to recover, as The Business pointed out at the time. Of course, Mr Bush is not the only one to blame for the country’s inadequate reaction to Katrina; but given the scale of the natural disaster, the buck was always going to stop with him. As far as most Americans were concerned, it did: suddenly they saw the same incompetence of a commander-in-chief who had created a deadly quagmire in Iraq played out in the streets of one of their own cities. A president who, whatever his other shortcomings, had claimed leadership skills and competent administration was stripped bare. It was not a pretty sight and the response to his political plight was typically Bush: he announced his intention to throw a massive $200bn into reconstructing New Orleans. This merely completed Mr Bush’s demise among America’s wisest conservatives, who have always regarded his big-government conservatism as the greatest betrayal of all. Nor is it just the White House that is contaminated by it: when senior Republican leaders in Congress, who have presided over an orgy of public spending and pork-barrel, claimed that there was no fat left to cut in federal spending and that “after 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared it down pretty good”, it was clear that the inmates had indeed taken over the asylum.

... There is now a distinctive fin de regime stink about Republican Washington. Karl Rove, the President’s eminence grise, has been called to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA officer’s name. The cronyism of Ms Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court is now the rule in DC, not the exception: for example, Julie Myers, another inexperienced Bush lawyer, has been nominated to run the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She has no convincing qualifications for this post, a vital one in an age of terror; but she is the niece of retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers and the wife of the Department of Homeland Security secretary’s chief of staff...

... Then there is the case of Tom DeLay. The Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives since 2002 has been indicted with “conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme” and charges of conspiring to launder money. He has been forced to step down from his job as majority leader until the matter is resolved. Republicans claim the charges are politically-motivated and should be thrown out – Ronnie Earle, the Travis County District Attorney who has brought the indictments, is a Democrat – but even if Mr DeLay is cleared, the once fresh-faced Republicans who were ushered in on the tail coats of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994 now look tired and complacent.

President Bush and his entourage are cultural conservatives, rather than radicals in the mould of Reagan, who was driven by his belief that freeing individuals and liberating the economy would produce a new and better society. The attitudes of Team Bush are driven more by upbringing, emotion and simple religious faith rather than an intellectual belief in the superiority of private action and the market economy...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Gamma ray bursters and the Fermi paradox: Earth has 1 billion years left

Worried about avian flu? Distract yourself with a far worse and quite inevitable catastrophe -- the sterilization of our galaxy.

One of the standard solutions to the Fermi Paradox is that are we are not overrun by visitors because technological societies are either short-lived or rarely form. The Gamma Ray burster is often proposed, particularly in science fiction, as a plausible transgalactic killer. A burster sterilizes quite a bit of the surrounding galaxy.
Wired News: Gamma-Ray Burst Mystery Unraveled
By Robert Zimmerman
02:00 AM Oct. 04, 2005 PT

Astronomers have long theorized that merging neutron stars produce massive explosions capable of wiping out nearby solar systems for thousands of light-years around....

Now a flurry of research is coming to a head that offers the first detailed view of the origin of so-called short gamma-ray bursts, revealing a picture that is consistent with the merging neutron star theory. That means the universe could be far more hazardous than previously thought, given the number of known and probable neutron star pairs in relative proximity to Earth.

... As astrophysicist Tsvi Piran stated at a Hubble Space Telescope symposium in 1999, "Every gamma-ray burst apparently signals the birth of a black hole."

Steve Thorsett of Princeton University has calculated the consequences if such a merger were to take place within 3,500 light-years of Earth, with its energy aimed at the solar system. The blast would bathe Earth in the equivalent of 300,000 megatons of TNT, 30 times the world's nuclear weaponry, with the gamma-ray and X-ray radiation stripping Earth of its ozone layer.

Three such binary systems have been discovered, and one, PSR B1534+12, presently sits about 3,500 light-years away and will coalesce in a billion years.
Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, so a 3,500 light year kill zone is only a modest portion of the galaxy. Alas, PSR B1534+12 is not alone. As far as we can tell we live in a reasonably quiet galactic neighborhood; if we have a killer nearby they are likely fairly common elsewhere.

The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. We find evidence of life 3.5 billion years ago. If we have one billion years left to live [1] then our world of life is a senior citizen. Of course a billion years is a little while. Time enough, assuming no runaway nanotech, for quite a few life forms to develop technological civilizations on earth.

So perhaps there's a silver lining here. Maybe this research suggests that galaxies have a stable middle age of about 4-5 billion years before the gamma bursters go off across the disc, sterilizing the galaxy. In other words, gamma bursters may be concentrated in time, not evenly distributed across the galactic timeline. If my terribly amateur interpretation is not far off, conditions are not so terrible for the development of interstellar civilizations.

On the other hand, if that's true, where are they? Well, there are other explanations for the fermi paradox ...

[1] We used to have 3-5 billion until the sun fizzled, but that more remote problem is far more manageable than a gamma burst.

Rogues gallery - 15 Bush appointees of remarkable mediocrity

I know some very capable civil servants and bureaucrats. They must weep in their beer when they contemplate their Bush-regime masters. I think it's time to reconsider the theory that Bush is a deep, deep KGB plant -- the last weapon of a dying USSR.

This appointee is typical:
TNR: Welcome to the Hackocracy

...12: Paul Hoffman
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior

Paul Hoffman is an avid angler, hunter, skier, and horseman. So it was only natural to tap this former chief of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, Wyoming, (population 9,000) to help run the National Park Service. Sure, Hoffman had no parks experience other than recreating in them and, as head of the Cody Chamber, advocating for more snowmobiles in nearby Yellowstone National Park. But he had spent four years in the 1980s working as the state director for then-Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney. Since arriving at the Interior Department in 2002, Hoffman has demonstrated a knack for thinking outside the box. In April 2003, he went against the wishes of the staff of Yellowstone and asked the U.N. World Heritage Committee to remove the park from its "In Danger List." Last year, he overruled geologists at the Grand Canyon National Park and instructed the park's visitor centers to stock a creationist book that explained how God made the canyon 6,000 years ago, ordering up a flood to wipe out "the wickedness of man." And, this year, Hoffman pushed for wholesale revisions to the Park Service's management policies. Instead of giving priority to protecting natural resources, Hoffman proposed that managers emphasize multiple uses for their parks--including snowmobiling, Jet-Skiing, grazing, drilling, and mining. After Hoffman's proposed reforms set off a firestorm of criticism from Park Service employees and members of Congress--"The inmates are in charge of the asylum," one Park Service retiree complained--the Bush administration claimed that Hoffman's suggestions were "no longer in play" and that he had merely been playing "devil's advocate."
kw: incompetent, inept

How to survive the coming pandemic?

Darn. I have long though a rural refuge would be a good idea, but perhaps I've waited too long. This writer is convinced it's time to prepare for the worst: Pandemic - Personal Pandemic Preparedness Plan.

Hmm. We put food and water in the basement for Y2K. We wondered about stocking Cipro during the Anthrax days. SARS had us thinking about infection control gear [1]. Bush convinced us Sadaam would blast us with smallpox [2].

And now avian influenza. Somehow Katrina seems to have boosted the anxiety level another notch.

I do agree that we're heading into a world of lower security and higher risk. I do believe that it will be increasingly reasonable to make 'survival kits a part of one's home (it'll be easier when Walmart stocks them). I don't however, think this avian influenza will devastate wealthy nations. I think between the immunizations and travel restrictions and meds we'll contain it -- and the recently resurrected 1918 virus had lethality tricks this flu still lacks. [3]

Still, it's an interesting article to read to pick up a few tips for possible future use. I won't be acting on all the recommendations myself, however.

[1] I have yet to read a decent explanation of what happened with SARS -- and I've been looking. It feels very odd that I still don't understand why SARS was so lethal for health care workers, or how it came under control. My longstanding theory was that there was a far less lethal immunizing coronavirus circulating around the same time.

[2] Why does no-one remember the WMD scare was about smallpox? Why does no-one remember the aborted project to immunize health care workers pre-invasion? Why has no journalist every investigated whether the Iraq-smallpox scare was contrived? Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a parallel universe ... (Some people got very ill from that vaccine, I think some might have died.)

[3] Were the 1918 flu to strike today I think we'd get it under control, and based on the gene sequence it was nastier than this avian flu.

How to build a successful academic career

I dimly remember this work from years back. It's a collaborative reference on how to build an academic career, from graduate school to tenure and beyond. It's confusingly called Networking on the Network, it would have been better called Career building for the young scientist.

I did a masters degree as an old guy --- too old to for the modern tenure wars, even if I'd wanted to do PhD. Even so, this would have been a useful article to have read prior to entering grad school. (The MD degree is nothing like a graduate school experience.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

The senatorial hall of shame - 9 who voted against the McCain no-torture bill

Nine names that should live in infamy. Trust none of them.
Brad DeLong's Website: The Pro-Torture Senators

Wayne Allard, Colorado
Kit Bond, Missouri
Tom Coburn, Oklahoma
Thad Cochran, Mississippi
John Cornyn, Texas
James Inhofe, Oklahoma
Pat Roberts, Kansas
Jeff Sessions, Alabama
Ted Stevens, Alaska
Even Norm Coleman (MN), a man widely thought to be in Bush's pocket, voted against torture.

Scandal update from Molly Ivins

Molly summarizes the state of the Bush scandals. Festering fecund swamp of corruption is too kind. At this rate the Republicans will make the Russian parliament look relatively honest.

I like this last little detail in the story:
WorkingForChange-Flim-flam and hoo-hah

Rep. Roy Blunt, the man Republicans chose to temporarily replace DeLay while he's under indictment, tried to alter a Homeland Security bill in 2003 with a last-minute provision to benefit the cigarette company Philip Morris. Philip Morris had not only contributed heavily to Blunt's campaign, it also employed both Blunt's girlfriend and his son. DeLay gets indicted, and the Republicans replace him with another DeLay.
How did these people get like this? I'm guessing it's in part a potent blend of arrogance and a weird pseudo-religion that confuses the marketplace with God. These folks figured wealth is a marker for virtue, and that they didn't have to fear corruption because they were incorruptible. By the time they realized wealth is unrelated to virtue, and that they were in fact eminently corruptible, they'd sold their souls.

Lucifer would understand.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Salon reviews the Assassin's Gate

It took us over 10 years to fully realize we'd messed up very badly in Vietnam. Iraq took about two years. I guess that's progress. I doubt our victims are impressed. Books | The road to hell

Most of the American left lined up against the war in Iraq. But some did not. Among the liberal intellectuals who supported the invasion was George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His new book, 'The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq,' proves that holding strong opinions about a subject does not prevent a journalist of integrity from reporting the truth, even if it flies in the face of what he had believed. 'The Assassins' Gate' is almost certain to stand as the most comprehensive journalistic account of the greatest foreign-policy debacle in U.S. history.

A funny thing happened to Packer: He went to Iraq. Reporting is a solvent that dissolves illusions quickly if one has an open mind, and Packer brought that and much more. His first-rate reporting from occupied Iraq, and his superb work covering the corridors of power in Washington, offers an extraordinarily wide-ranging portrait of the Iraq war, from its genesis in neoconservative think tanks to its catastrophic execution to its devastating effects on ordinary Americans and Iraqis. Anthony Shadid, in 'Darkness Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War,' offers a deeper portrait of the Iraqi people, but he does not have Packer's majestic scope. 'The Assassins' Gate' is the best book yet about the Iraq war...

...The dangerous absurdity of this scheme (elements of which appeared in a later book by Perle and Bush speechwriter David Frum, modestly titled "An End to Evil") did not prevent it from being accepted by high officials of the Bush administration. "A few weeks before the start of the Iraq War, a State Department official described for me what he called the 'everybody move over one theory': Israel would annex the occupied territories, the Palestinians would get Jordan, and the Jordanian Hashemites would be restored to the throne of Iraq," Packer writes. The neocons were out-Likuding the Likud: Even Ariel Sharon had long abandoned his beloved "Jordan is Palestine" idea. That Douglas Feith, one of the ideologues who subscribed to such lunatic plans (the departing Colin Powell denounced Feith to President Bush as "a card-carrying member of the Likud") was in charge of planning for Iraq is almost beyond belief...
I trusted Tony Blair. My mistake. Greatest debacle in US history is a high standard. There's the Philipines for example. Time will tell whether Bush made the greatest error, or only 2nd or 3rd greatest.

Evolution in action: email worms keep getting smarter

I wonder how the creationists explain the evolution of email social engineering schemes? This was the most clever I've encountered yet. The German mail header, the grammatical errors, the explanation, the story about the zipped image -- all designed to lull the recipient into a trusting state. The only mistake is the To line, which looks like a glitch in the worm:
Subject: I've got your mail on my account!
Date: October 6, 2005 3:01:30 AM CDT

First I must say, my English is very very bad! Sorry about this.

Ok, I've got an email in my box, but this email is not for me, because,,, I'm not the recipient! The recipient are YOU !!!

This must be an email provider error, but I don't know!
I have made a Screenshot about this mail and saved in a zipped jpeg graphic file for you.

ok then,
There's constant experimentation and variation in these infected emails. If something succeeds, then its emulated and extended. The To: line glitch above will be revised. I find this example of real-time natural selection quite remarkable.

I did try opening the zip (on my Mac of course, I figured the risk was about zero). The Mac wouldn't open the corrupted zip file. On a PC it would probably initiate the infection.

The National Review - a sober conservative publication - 1957

DeLong extracts this lovely gem from the archives of the National Review, a conservative rag much beloved in the Bush administration.
Brad DeLong's Website: From National Review's Archives - 1957

... The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own.

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numberical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Presumably the National Review has changed a bit since then, but I bet that 50 years from now, assuming anyone is reading anything, their writings of today will look just as asinine.

The vast gap between action and insight - US homeowner edition

The gap between action and insight is a fundamental tenet of anthropology and of sociology. When you ask someone what they do, or why they do what they do, their honest responses are often contradictory or nonsensical. The anthropologist's task is to understand the fundamental cause for behavior and to reconcile that with the stated explanation.

Nowadays economists wrestle with this topic. DeLong provides a delightful example:
Brad DeLong's Website: What Do Homeowners Expect

Its fair to observe (as a commentor did at Matrix) that 'only 10% said their spending had increased with the value of real estate, yet 50% had taken out loans against their equity. Is there a contradiction here?'

That's more than a contradiction; Its the entire underlying premise for why I believe a) Real Estate has been the key driver to the US economy; and 2) why so many people -- professionals included -- do not have a firm grasp on the underlying economy.
If the respondents were self-aware and rational, then at least 50% (more, since spending may increase even if one doesn't take out an equity loan) would have answered that real estate values had increaed their spending. That awareness gap is very human, but also worrisome.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The fate of the vanishing American middle-class

The American middle class is vanishing:
The Big Picture: Top of the Top

To review: The Middle class is getting squeezed by outsourcing, decreasing industrial sector, increasing energy prices, weak personal income gains, non-commodity inflation, the worst savings rate ever, all the while accumulating massive debt, both personal and governmental. The good news is their tax burden has fallen, albeit at 1/10 the rate of the wealthiest Americans....

..."Other data show that among major world economies, the United States in recent years has had the third-greatest disparity in incomes between the very top and everyone else. Only Mexico and Russia, among major economies, have greater disparity."
I've seen other economists refer to the American middle-class as a post-war phenomenon, meaning it was an artifact of WW II rather than a stable feature of the US economy. I don't think, however, that's true in all weathy nations.

So why does anyone but the wealthy vote for George Bush? As near as I can tell about 70% of his base vote for religious reasons, 5% vote because they expect to gain economically, and 25% made a big mistake. That's oddly reassuring, it means that 75% of Bush's base voted rationally (if someone believes Bush is God's messenger, it would be intensely irrational not to vote for him).

How will this all turn out? I think we're too aged a nation to for 1960s style upheaval, but I do think it will be interesting to see how a socialist/green party does in the next election.

Hikers who disappear in the wilderness

Solo hikers going off-trail in the wilderness are vulnerable to disappearing. Some are never found:
NYT: Lost in the Beartooth Mountains

...Hiking in true wilderness on trails with a companion is mildly risky -- probably comparable to bicycle commuting. Hiking off trail with a companion is risky -- maybe more like motorcycle touring or parachuting. Hiking off trail alone in rugged country is very risky -- I'd guess comparable to hang gliding or mountain climbing with companions. That doesn't mean people shouldn't do it, but it's important that they understand and weigh risks appropriately. In Brian's case the decision of the BC government to remove hiker logs from the trailheads made his solo off-trail hike even more risky than he could have planned on

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Google socks Microsoft -- a big bet on OpenOffice and open file formats

RED HERRING | Sun and Google announce a seemingly dull agreement to sponsor a portion of each other's products.


This is huge. Sun has nothing to offer Google except OpenOffice. This is a huge shot by Google against Microsoft's core business. Google is saying "mess with us and we'll destroy your lifeline". Microsoft needs to feed off the Office trough, Google has now declared that OpenOffice will be a very serious contender -- even in the US marketplace.

The immediate big winner is the OpenOffice file format. I'll be switching my Mac over to a wordprocessor that uses that file format -- NeoOffice/J (but I need to test the file format interoperability first!).

Monday, October 03, 2005

Why I hate science - Bicyles are bad for men

The concerns about bicycles saddles producing nerve damage and male impotence really started in the mid-90s. My grad school biomedical engineering project proposal was for a saddle that measured pressure points. Nonetheless, I hoped the problem would turn out to be overrated.

Not so. Traditional bike seats are bad for many men, and fancy saddles don't necessarily help:
Serious Riders, Your Bicycle Seat May Affect Your Love Life - New York Times
...Dr. Schrader advocates saddles that do not have noses. After finding that traditional saddles reduced the quality of nighttime erections in young policemen who patrol on bicycles, he has persuaded scores of officers in several cities to use noseless seats and is now studying the officers' sexual function over six months.
If Dr. Schrader is seeking funding, I suspect he'd find a lot of donors from the bicycling world. He need only put up an Amazon donation link ...

Quicksand really can trap people

I had the definite impression that Quicksand's treachery was a Hollywood fantasy. Not quite so. True, one does not sink into the pit -- but neither is it at all easy to get out.
The Truth About Quicksand Is Beginning to Sink In - New York Times

... Sand grains in quicksand are usually loosely packed, with the clay acting as a fragile gel holding the grains together.

Hit with sudden force from, say, a hapless victim, the quicksand gel turns to liquid. Then salt causes clay particles to stick to one another instead of the sand grains, with the result that a victim ends up surrounded by densely packed sand.

The force needed to pull out a person immersed in quicksand is about the same needed to lift a car, Dr. Bonn said. The trick for escaping is to slowly wiggle the feet and legs, allowing water to flow in. People float in quicksand so it is also impossible to sink all the way in, but quicksand usually forms at river estuaries, so a captive could drown at high tide.
Now you know how to escape.

Only in the movies

20 Things That Only Happen In Movies - Nostalgia Central: "33. All beds have special L-shaped sheets that reach to armpit level on a woman but only up to the waist of the man lying beside her."

Breeding dogs for longer lifespans

The female offspring of a Poodle cross?

Google Groups :

Abramoff and the mystery of the murdered casino owner

Before the inmates took over the asylum, they used to rant about black helicopters ferrying cocaine to Clinton's underground world government headquarters in Arkansas.

Now those same inmates are making this type of conspiracy theory respectable. Abramoff's former business partner, and alleged co-conspirator, has an undeniably suspicious association with the gangland murder of a Florida casino owner:
Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: September 25, 2005 - October 01, 2005 Archives

Just to refresh everyone's memory about what happened last week, three reputed mob soldiers were arrested in Florida for the February 2001 gangland-style murder of Gus Boulis, founder and one-time owner of Sun Cruz, the Florida casino boat line. Jack Abramoff and Adam Kidan muscled Boulis into selling them Sun Cruz. And it is for fraud in that acquisition that both were indicted last month.

... It's also been a matter of public record for more than four years that around the time of Boulis's murder, for no clear reason, Kidan paid roughly a quarter million dollars to one of those three men now under indictment for the crime.

...That money did not come out of Kidan's pocket. He may have authorized the payments. But those checks came from Sun Cruz itself, the company Kidan and Abramoff then co-owned.

... Abramoff and Kidan were in pretty close and regular contact in how they used Sun Cruz's money for the DC lobbying operations. At a minimum Abramoff might be able to shed some light on whether there is some innocent explanation for the money that went to the guy who's been indicted for Boulis's murder...