Thursday, December 29, 2005

The evolution of social darwinism

The Economist's year end issue is a winner. Not only does it have a delicious cover (note the expressions of the last two males in the chain), it also prominently features a review of human evolution. One would think they're getting bored with their pet George.

The story of evolution taught me something (emphases mine):
Evolution | The story of man |

...It was [Herbert] Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, “survival of the fittest”. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin's masterwork, “On the Origin of Species”, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution. As a result, he became one of the band of philosophers known as social Darwinists. Capitalists all, they took what they thought were the lessons of Darwin's book and applied them to human society. Their hard-hearted conclusion, of which a 17th-century religious puritan might have been proud, was that people got what they deserved—albeit that the criterion of desert was genetic, rather than moral. The fittest not only survived, but prospered. Moreover, the social Darwinists thought that measures to help the poor were wasted, since such people were obviously unfit and thus doomed to sink.
Spencer was the champion of the proto-Calvinist doctrine of Social Darwinism. So it turns out that Calvinism (the weak suffer because they offended God) preceded Social Darwinism (the weak must suffer because that's the way the race gets stronger) preceded Darwin (who was a compassionate man who suffered not a little). Historians of Science love this sort of thing.

Calvinism is again the state religion of Bush's America, and Social Darwinism is again the governmental philosophy (welfare only preserves the weak), but Darwin himself is forbidden. Odd.

How will the meme of social Darwinism next mutate?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A topical review of Quantum Mechanics

Dennis Overbye of the NYT has writen a review of quantum mechanics. It's a good overview, but I think it understates how weird the last 10 years of QM physics have been. It's almost as though he wanted to protect his readers.

I've been personally spooked by the practical use of quantum entanglement in encryption. That's too much like hacking the universal calculator. It feels like we have some big shocks ahead.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Writing to learn: Blogs and and the worldmind

Scott Rosenberg claims learning theory shows most people learn by writing (teaching works for me as well). It is the act of making someone one's own that causes it to stick iin memory. He makes a logical connection to blogging:
Scott Rosenberg's Links & Comment

...If this is true -- and, based on my own experience, I believe it is -- then we can view the explosion of writing in weblogs, of millions of people mastering ideas by writing about them, and spinning narratives in order to fix them in memory, as a vast exercise in the pursuit of collective self-knowledge. Yes, of course there are heaps of trivial pursuits, too; they keeps things lively. Only puritans would wish to eliminate them.
So hobby blogs aren't merely a wasteful pile of vanity; they're also a learning exercise. Alas for me, the learning I may thus be doing has no obvious connection to income.

On a slighly related tangent, however, I do think these blogs are doing something interesting in a different learning domain -- it feels as though blogs are amplifying, filtering, and extending the emergent intelligence of the net. Hence Google's affection for blogs; Google lives off the crude mind of the net. (also Adwords). If the net was a simple entity with a base IQ of 10 a few years ago, perhaps blogs have pushed it to 13 ...

Skynet cannot be far away :-).

Why Apple won't fix AirTunes -- is it the microwave?

I fought a hard battle with Apple's AirTunes (Apple's wireless audio streaming) a few weeks ago.

It was very frustrating. The devils of Digital Rights Management, AirTunes fundamental inadequacy, and the lack of a fast-user-switching compatible tool for remote control of iTunes finally defeated me. SlimDevices and its ilk seemed like far better solutions, and I figured this spring I'd strip out the DRM on the music I paid for and switch to a non-Apple solution. At the moment though, my wife's Nano and some good playlists suffice.

Today I decided spring was too soon. I was streaming some music using AirTunes. A rare event, but I do it on occasion. All was well, until the music vanished. I wondered what was up; then I realized the microwave was running. It's not all that old a model, but it is death to our 802.11b LAN. That's bad for routine web work, but it's fatal for streaming music -- especially the minimally compressed AirTunes stream.

Maybe streaming MP3 or AAC directly, or enabling communication robustness (microwave resistance) would help. Or maybe wireless audio streaming won't really work until we switch to entirely new forms of wireless networking (ultra wideband, etc). If so, then this may explain why Apple has left AirTunes twisting in the wind ... They may have reason to believe it's not fixable.

How to Ship Anything

Joel Sposky is smarter than just about anyone. Sigh. So when he has a problem shipping stuff from his business, he invents a shipping system.

Handy to keep around in case you ever decide to set up a business that ships things: How to Ship Anything - Joel on Software.

The secret of happiness

The secret of happiness is ...

And the days are getting longer too ...

Update 3/11/09: See also
Happiness is a selective memory (framing effects)
Manipulating memory by photo display

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unleashing the NSA: The real story.

I called this on the 19th:
Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report - New York Times

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.
I'm sure most journalists had the same thoughts I had, but of course they actually have to gather evidence. They moved very quickly to put this story together.

This is oddly reassuring -- because it makes sense. The "bypass FISA" story didn't hold water if the NSA was indeed targeting individuals. Echelon-style monitoring of all traffic, however, cannot be approved under existing law. It required an executive order.

The great thing about the Bushies is that they make conspiracy theories real, and whacky delusions almost plausible. The Patriot II debate this January should be quite interesting.

Hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast

George made the wrong call. A wonderful sendup of It's a Wonderful Life: Arts & Entertainment | All hail Pottersville!.

Ideological transformations and the elderly

Salon has an interesting story of ideological transformation. It feels like a classical tale: Arts & Entertainment | The real war on Christmas

...The thing is, though, I know better than to bring up politics with my dad. Ever since he started listening to talk radio for hours out of the day, he's slowly lost his ability to objectively look at the facts and draw his own conclusions. If Rush, Hannity, Dennis Prager or O'Reilly say it, my dad believes it as surely as he believes anything. Thanks to this abdication of rational thinking, both of my parents completely bought into the Swift Boat liars, still believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, and recently decided to move to Montana, which my mother described as 'the real America' to me and my siblings. When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor, my mom's impression of him, having worked with him as a model in the 1960s, mysteriously transformed from 'a steroid-shooting lech' to 'a total gentleman, who was always taking his supplements, which were injected in those days.'

They both ended up voting for Tom McClintock, not because Arnold was so clearly incompetent, but because he wasn't a 'real' enough Republican for them. These are the same people who took me to nuclear-freeze rallies almost every weekend when I was in elementary school. These are the same people who introduced me to the teachings of the Buddha and Gandhi. The same people who smoked pot in front of me, introduced me to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and taught me to throw a Frisbee when all my peers were learning how to throw a football.
They are, of course, the same people. I would bet they are both very directed towards groupthink and tribalism. At one time that meant smoking pot in front of children [1], today it means taking O'Reilly as their guru. I would wonder too if both are desperately seeking simplicity, a trend that grows with age and the sadly normal senescence of the human brain (our brains are in bad shape by the time we hit retirement age).

Is there anything new here? It's tempting to think of Rush and O'Reilly as new, but the hate mongers of the 1930s to 1950s did quite well with the same radio Rush and O'Reilly use. Imitation and the urge to emulate dominant tribe members is quintessentially human. Alas, senescence has always been with us. So, no, this is not new.

[1] Many of us, of course, drink wine in front of children. I suppose it's not so much the substance as the intent of its use; I still suspect his parents were demonstrating the judgment flaws that later led them to Bush. Of course by writing this article about his family, their son has demonstrated a similar lack of wisdom.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sixty years of peace

David Brin quotes from a quoting from a Democratic Leadership Council Report:
Contrary Brin: Some Good News... for a change...

...Between 1000 A.D. and 1945, the longest period of uninterrupted peace among great powers was the 51-year stretch between the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the Austro-Prussian war of 1866. Europe's present peaceful stretch hit 60 last spring and shows no signs of strain...
India. China. One day, Africa. Fantastic hope. Immense risk.

It feels as though we live on the tipping point, though other generations have felt the same way.

The NSA unleashed: widening suspicion that the NSA was doing broad data intercepts

I've added a few update links to my posting:Gordon's Notes: Unleashing the NSA: What's the real story?. More than a few mainstream journalists appear to have come to the same conclusion. It doesn't make sense that Bush would bypass the courts to do something they were already routinely approving. He had to be doing something the courts wouldn't have approved without new legislation. The most likely explanation is massive data and voice monitoring, extending the historic Echelon project into the US.

We should put a 'BCC. NSA' at the end of every email :-).

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Beyond Dover: legal costs, tort changes and wealth for lawyers

In theory, since the Dover Decision will not be appealed to a higher court; it is only a precedent for Pennsylvania. Some speculate the legal costs will deter future creationist efforts to alter science curricula [1], but I suspect the battle has only just begun (emphases mine):
Schools Nationwide Study Impact of Evolution Ruling - New York Times

... The Dover school district is now liable for the legal fees incurred by the plaintiffs - which plaintiffs lawyers say could exceed $1 million. The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as wells as lawyers with Pepper Hamilton, a private firm.

Eric J. Rothschild, a Pepper Hamilton lawyer, said in a news conference after the ruling that holding the Dover board to a financial penalty would convey to other school districts that "board members can't act like they did with impunity." But Mr. Rothschild said the fees were still being totaled, and he left open the possibility that the lawyers might go after individual board members who voted for the intelligent design policy to pay the legal costs....
The next thing we'll see is that the GOP will put legislation in place to provide tort immunity for those who challenge the science curriculum. That legislation will then be challenged in the Supreme Court, which may well then find it to be unconstitutional.

The religious right will simultaneously use this defeat to claim that liberals and "the elite" (i.e. Jews and intellectuals) are launching a war on "Faith" (ie. fundamentalist christianity), with a particular emphasis on the financial implications of the Dover defeat. They will use a distored version of the judgment, and the usual appeals to tribalism and fear, to raise hundreds of millions to finance further assaults across the public school system.

If I were a lawyer with an interest in this domain, I'd be buying new office space. In the meantime, school board elections should get a lot more attention from everyone.

[1] Note to the usual dolts -- the judge has no problem with incluuding ID/creationism in philosophy, history, social science, and/or religious studies curriccula. Neither do I. Indeed I recommend it. Of course one will need to include Hindu (population), and Animist (first Americans) perspectives as well as biblical ones.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Unleashing the NSA: What's the real story?

We have been told that Bush secretly loosened restrictions on the National Security Administration.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
Okay, old news. Europeans, who've been monitored by Echelon for decades, must find this all very amusing.

Problem is, it doesn't make sense. Even Bush's fervent supporters acknowledge his reasons for bypassing the secret courts that used to mediate these actions don't hold water. All the monitoring anyone's discussed publicly is perfectly doable without new law or new presidential powers. Sure, Bush could be nuts -- but I don't think he is. So what's the story that the New York Times either missed, or, more likely, has decided not to discuss?

Here's my guess. The NSA couldn't use the FISA process because they weren't really spying on individual people. No identified target, no warrant. Instead the NSA was doing in the US what they've done overseas for decades -- monitoring voice and data traffic to selected nations. Trolling, in other words. That's what Bush had to authorize; it goes well beyond FISA. The whole business about targeted monitoring is just a smokescreen.

Anyone else have a theory that makes sense?

Update 12/20: Others are drawing similar conclusions. (The date on my posting is off, I originally posted on 12/19.)
Update 12/21: Respectable sorts (WaPo) suggest this was really about monitoring based on phone and email targets rather than identified senders.
Update 12/21: Slate publishes an article by a longtime NSA watcher that puts things in a (dark) perspective.
Update 12/23: Another editorial today in WaPo is saying the same thing, though they abbreviate it as "monitor everyone". The editorial points out that a clause in Patriot I may be interpreted to allow this expansion of the NSA's mission.
Update 12/24: That didn't take long. The NYT has confirmed my suspicion. Now it makes sense. Monitoring traffic across the USA goes well beyond the FISA mandate, it required an executive order. Echelon America indeed.

Newsweek is talking about impeachment ...

The Bush spy scandal
, and the implication of "what else has he done that we don't know about" is starting to outrage even those who've handled other Bush transgressions with kid gloves:
Bush’s Snoopgate - Newsweek National News -

... This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974...
It is unlikely that the Dems will take Congress, but this is indeed why the articles of impeachment were created. Not to punish a philandering spouse, but to remove a power mad president.

Revolt of the Professionals (WaPo): Will reason return?

David Ignatius claims the professionals are in revolt (WaPo). One of the many disturbing aspects of the Bush regime is its deep disdain, even hatred, for intellectuals. This shows in their attitude towards scientists, economists, sociologists and just about anyone with an agenda of evidence and rationalism. The Bush regime favors instinct, emotion, faith and conviction. Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot all felt the same way.

Ignatius claims the professionals are striking back. Maybe. It's a nice thought, and the judgment in Dover does give one some (irrational) hope. Of all the things Bush has done, perhaps the strangest for me is that I now remember Newt Gingrich with a tepid fondness. Yes, he's a bit of a nut. Yes he's ruthless and vengeful. He did, however, have some marginal respect for reason.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Judge Jones is not amused: Intelligent Design takes a Dive in Dover

Judge Jones was not amused ( Indeed, he comes across as very annoyed at having to listen to the inanities of the ID crew's desperate attempts to hide a fundamentally religious agenda. I get the sense he felt they were insulting the intelligence of everyone in the courtroom.

Jones says, as does every reasonable person, that there's nothing wrong with "teaching the controversy" -- in social studies class. Or, for that matter, in a state sponsored religion class (that's a different court battle). Not, however, in a science class.

The new post-ID Dover school board is unlikely to appeal. A landmark decision indeed.

Update: The Loom has some great commentary.
Update 12/23: eSkeptic has a thorough background analysis. This trial was a legal massacre. This is a bigger setback for ID than I'd realized. The plaintifs have created a template for the annihilation of "ID as science".

Monday, December 19, 2005

Left head bites right head -- Gmail filters blogger comments to spam box

Gmail is mostly impressive -- except for the spam filtering. Creakly old Yahoo mail, or even my local ISP, does a much better job at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Gmail errs in both directions. It puts spam in my inbox, and not-spam in my spambox. It invariably filters comment submissions from blogger into the spambox -- even though both Blogger and Gmail are Google properties. Google's a multi-headed monster, and the heads aren't necessarily on good terms.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Credit to the young scientists of South Korea

In a sad but not unfamiliar story of fame and failure, a once famed and now infamous South Korean scientist is suspected of faking a series of breakthrough articles. His scientific career is finished, though one hopes he will use his talents to good aims in other areas.

South Korea is said to take his downfall very much to heart, but there's another angle to the story:
Scientist Faked Stem Cell Study, Associate Says - New York Times

... Although the new disclosures are being presented as a blow for South Korean science, they can also be seen as a triumph for a cadre of well-trained young Koreans for whom it became almost a pastime to turn up one flaw after another in his work. All or almost all the criticisms that eventually brought him down were first posted on Web sites used by young Korean scientists.
Now there's a story that deserves to be told. The difference between science and the Alternative, is a system for challenge and disproof. (South) Korean scientists showed real skill and leadership in exposing a scientific fraud. They deserve to be honored.

Winner of the Homeland Security Incompetence Award

Bruce Schneier, security guru, rails against the extraordinary stupidity of a "watch list" for airline passengers:
Wired News: Airline Security a Waste of Cash

... Consider CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight. These are programs to check travelers against the 30,000 to 40,000 names on the government's No-Fly list, and another 30,000 to 40,000 on its Selectee list.

They're bizarre lists: people -- names and aliases -- who are too dangerous to be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent that they cannot be arrested, even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act. The Selectee list contains an equal number of travelers who must be searched extensively before they're allowed to fly. Who are these people, anyway?

The truth is, nobody knows. The lists come from the Terrorist Screening Database, a hodgepodge compiled in haste from a variety of sources, with no clear rules about who should be on it or how to get off it. The government is trying to clean up the lists, but -- garbage in, garbage out -- it's not having much success.

The program has been a complete failure, resulting in exactly zero terrorists caught. And even worse, thousands (or more) have been denied the ability to fly, even though they've done nothing wrong. These denials fall into two categories: the "Ted Kennedy" problem (people who aren't on the list but share a name with someone who is) and the "Cat Stevens" problem (people on the list who shouldn't be). Even now, four years after 9/11, both these problems remain.
Can I weep now?

This is similar to the same problem of deciding that two health records belong the the same person. That's a hard problem, but if you use a combination of attributes (various identifiers, SSN, age, address, name) from reasonably robust sources you can make some trade-off between false matches and false non-matches. Having a national identifier (passport number) or even a state identifier (driver's license) makes the problem a bit simpler.

The reason using this in airport screening is completely stupid is:
  1. Intelligent terrorists don't want to be matched, so they'd obfuscate data they provided. Duhhhh.
  2. If name and age are the only identifiers, and the goal is to avoid misses at all costs, the error rate (false accusation) will be incredible. I'd imagine well over 10,000 to 1 (10,000 mistakes for every success, probably it's more like 1,000,000 to 1).
  3. There's no mechanism to deal with mistakes, and the outsourced vendors don't pay a price for their errors.
The matching part of this could be made to work -- through a draconian system of biometric authentication. Even then, as Schneier points out, this would only identify known terrorists, and it would still leave the option of using non-terrorists as unwitting accomplices.

Read Schneier's essay. This is a stupid program proposed by idiots and implemented by dolts. It wins the prize.

nthposition online magazine

"Follow Me Now" lead me to an article in nthposition online magazine. It's quite a fascinating production, but I'd never heard of it. There's so much out there in the shadows of the Net. Alas, their RSS feed appears to be quite broken. I sent them a note.

If you're interested in literature, fine arts, and the world - take a look!

Update 12/21/05: Alas, they have lost the tech person who built the site -- so they can't fix the feed problem. If you know anyone who'd like to volunteer, they're looking!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The internet and "white flight"

"White flight" was an old term for the departure of euros from Birmingham, Detroit and many other American cities during the 1960s and 1970s. I suspect it wasn't merely a matter of melanin deficiency, I think many middle-class folk with adequate melanin also decided to decamp for less troubled spots.

My sense is the same thing is happening with the internet, and with email in particular. Over the past few years my neighbors have increasingly given up on email -- particularly outside of the workplace. They usually can't explain why, but if you drill down it's spam, viruses, worms, etc. It just wears people down. They stop checking their email regularly, and then the spam pile-up is even worse. Eventually they give up on email. They may even give up on the net entirely.

The Internet is simply becoming a "bad neighborhood". I don't think that reality is getting factored into enough business plans. I would not be surprised to see a decrease in internet use over the next few years, even as the net is increasingly used for media distribution ....

Eating the egg -- earth and humanity

Monbiot writes for the Guardian. He's sometimes interesting, but more emotional than analytical. So it's noteworthy that he's starting to confront some ugly realities about CO2 emissions and energy alternatives:
George Monbiot: Worse Than Fossil Fuel

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44 *10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.” In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states – such as ours – which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces.

The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. But they’re not going to like it. I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact...
Minnesota is big on biodiesel, but it's really a side-show. Sigh. Not much has changed since the energy crisis of the early 1980s, when OPEC gave us a preview of "peak oil". One of the best books of that era was an analysis of the scope for conservation without impacting lifestyle. I wish I had a copy of that book, I suspect that, by and large, we've implemented many of the recommendations.

Even so, with some lifestyle changes (smaller homes, denser communities) that aren't all negative, we still have a lot of room to conserve. I suspect we could reduce our consumption 20% or more without new technology and without making our lives miserable; maybe we'd even lose some weight. It's sad that Bush has foreclosed this option for the US ...

Roy Moore, Alabama, and Christian Reconstruction

Orcinus writes about Roy (10 Commandments) Moore, Alabama, and the Christian Reconstruction movement. My one Alabama contact assures me Roy won't win the governorship, but the article is still well worth reading. Christian Reconstruction (think "Left Behind" and "The Crusades") is a fringe movement, but like many fringe movements it influences much mainstream thinking. I am so tired of theocracy.

Gwynne Dyer has 3 new essays up

Gwynne Dyer, the last man to enter the internet age, will be the last man to get an RSS feed. In the meantime, he has 3 new essays on his pleasantly spartan web site:
Dyer 2005

28 November Kyoto and the Blair Switch
2 December Japan, China "Congagement"
5 December Rice and Count Metternich
8 December The Last Anti-American
As usual, each essay provides unique historical and geopolitical insights. For example:
The flights were presumably carrying Muslim detainees between the US-run prison camps in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, other secret CIA camps that allegedly existed in Poland, Romania and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and places like Egypt and Syria in the case of those destined for major torture or death. Thousands of detainees may have been carried on these "ghost flights" over the past four years, and Lawrence Wilkerson, a former US army colonel who served as chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002 until early this year, told the BBC last week that between 70 and 90 prisoners have died in "questionable circumstances."
Incidentally (somewhat relevant to the 12/8 essay), the USA Today had an article buried in the paper about how some pompous wretch in the Bush administration was suggesting Canada's Prime Minister tone down his anti-American rhetoric lest he endanger US-Canadian relationships. Either this was an attempt to help Martin by suggesting Bush dislikes him, or the Bushie wants to see just how seething anti-American rhetoric can get. Hmm. Devious or stupid. That's always the question with the Bush administration ... (I personally suspect both are sometimes true.)

Blind spots, tech commentary and complexity

"Digital music" (odd term, CDs are digital - really should be "lossy compressed music") is "big". So it wasn't surprising that NPR spent an hour or so this morning with a tech columnist talking mostly about "MP3" (meaning AAC, MP3, MP4, etc etc) players. What was a bit surpising, and annoying, was that the expert seemed to have never of heard of something called "iTunes". He compared Dell's MP3 player to the iPod as though the devices existed in isolation and felt they were of roughly equal value.

His advice was thus fairly worthless. An "MP3 player" today is only as good as the desktop software it works with; for the moment the billions of CDs in circulation keep iPods and their competitors bound to XP or OS X. (There are lots of ways this could change dramatically, but that's another story.) iTunes is a brilliant piece of software, and much of the success of the iPod is due to iTunes. He was comparing jet engines instead of jets.

I see this kind of glaring omission reasonably often. Is the complexity of our world ovewhelming the "experts", or is this simply an old story -- the popular 'expert' is selected more often for entertainment value than expertise ...

Samsung - hiring 5000 engineers for DRAM work?

This is astounding:
Among Makers of Memory Chips for Gadgets, Fierce Scrum Takes Shape - New York

...Samsung also said it would hire 5,000 more engineers to increase research and development of new chips...
Five thousand engineers? That's not a typo, though the hiring is over 7 years. Even so, if they mean real engineering school graduates that's a heck of a lot of brainpower. That's 50 years output from a typical engineering school. They'd have to pillage the engineering powerhouses of the world: India, China, Taiwan, South Korea ...

I can't see how they could effectively use that many engineers ...

Illogical design - the Narwhal's tusk

Only evolution could produce such as klduge, such a hack, as the Narwhal's tusk:
It's Sensitive. Really. - New York Times

The find came when the team turned an electron microscope on the tusk's material and found new subtleties of dental anatomy. The close-ups showed that 10 million nerve endings tunnel from the tusk's core toward its outer surface, communicating with the outside world. The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights.
The tusk started out as a tooth; the research was led by an adventurous dentist. It makes a bizarre sort of sense; anyone with an exposed tooth root or broken tooth knows how sensitive teeth can be to temperature. Invert the tooth, put the soft tissue on the outside, and you have a weather sensor.

Evolution works with the tools at hand. The Narwhal is now Darwin's poster child.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A plausible summary of the state of Iraq

This feels plausible.
BBC NEWS | Middle East | Danger cannot dent Iraqi optimism

... So here, courtesy of the BBC poll, is a snapshot of Iraq today: a country whose people often seem close to civil war, yet feel overwhelmingly safe in their own neighbourhoods.

Iraqis are scathing about the performance of the American, British and other troops, yet believe it's too soon for them to leave.

People are so worried the country is falling apart that they want a strong government to take control, yet believe that in a few years' time things will be really good here.

These findings are only useful if you bear in mind how complex and varied Iraqi society is.

Often, when I write my online column about Iraq and try to explain about life in this country, someone will write in and say something like: 'My son is a soldier in Iraq and people there keep telling him what a wonderful job the US is doing', or alternatively: 'Iraqis just want to get rid of all foreign troops, period.'

Both things are true; it's just that different Iraqis are saying them. Unless you understand who they are - and why - it's impossible to make out what is happening in the country.

And in the meantime the one thing that everyone can agree with is that life is much more dangerous in Iraq than it was when our last opinion poll came out.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wozniak agrees: Apple's software quality is truly abysmal

It pains me to acknowledge that Microsoft's software quality in the past year has been substantially superior to Apple's. It's not just their relentlessly buggy software releases, it's the vast weight of half-implemented OS features. OS X services? AppleScript? Automator? Those absurd widgets that don't run on the desktop as they should? Quartz Extreme? No reliable and useable way to address a user session via AppleScript? Most of all, the churn in the OS that breaks applications with each update (that is supposed to improve post 10.4).

It turns out that someone with far more credibility than I feels the same way. Wozniak is an OS X user, but he's also a legendary engineer (emphases mine, broader implications below):
The Cardinal Inquirer - Talking with The Woz

Do you think that is at all similar to the computer industry, where engineers develop a product and someone else sets the price?

It's very much like that, but sometimes the engineers are - yeah, no, I think it's very similar, very similar. Sometimes the engineers are true artists and really care what they're doing, doing a really great job. Although, I don't know how much I can even say that because the big companies, Microsoft, Apple and AOL, they tend to turn out the crappiest products, you know, software-wise. The ones that have the most bugs, the most items that are supposedly in there but don't work. The most things that are left out because they aren't finished. The most things that are inconsistent with the way they did their last program. I get the worst, worst software almost always from Apple.

You think so?

Oh yeah. I get third-party stuff and it's almost always just better, cleaner and more understandable. It works better and does what you'd expect instead of, you know, buggy things or not what you expect.

Is OS X is problematic in that way?

I don't even call it a problem; it's just something you learn to work around. It's like, there was such a cleaner, good approach to it and they did this stupid thing. But remember, the people who wrote the OS X weren't the people who developed the Lisa and Macintosh. Those guys are gone.

Do you see this problem getting worse or better over time?

Worse. And part of it is because the software gets huge and complex and we're always moving to the new things rather than fix old things. I think a lot of it is because people just get complacent with what they have.
The Woz and I are about the same age (except he's a gazillionaire), maybe some of our reaction is generational. I think the young-uns have grown up in a world where things don't work reliably -- they're accustomed to routing around defects. Aged want things to work the first time and every time.

The one ray of hope is the small software companies. Maybe it's because there's often one person who's architect, analyst, engineer and QA. Maybe it's because these firms live or die by their reputations. I agree with Woz; it's the small shops that produce products that work.

Aside from the complacency of those who've grown up with unreliable and unstable systems, the complexity factor is hard to overstate. Despite enormous efforts, we don't have a handle on building reliable complex systems; the cost of reliability still seems to rise exponentially with complexity. An airplane is reliable, but the cost of that reliability is very high.

Beyond complexity, we have crummy software for the same reason we have a singularly crummy American government. In both cases, the aspects that sell aren't the things the customer really needs on an ongoing basis. We won't get better software until we get smarter consumers. I think that may eventually happen.

It's probably also true that we need to move from buying software to renting it, but that step requires very reliable data interchange. The combination of software rental and proprietary data formats is far worse than unreliable software.

Friday, December 09, 2005

More speculations on the evolutionary biology of acne

A comment on a blog posting
It's a humorous post, but the evolutionary biology of acne is, to me, quite fascinating.

The best theory I've heard of (or maybe I invented it, I'm not sure) is that the primary value is to render fertile young women less attractive, and to avoid male assault and early pregnancy. This theory would say acne is males is a side-effect of males and females sharing the same genes; it would have no adaptive advantage for males. We know from other gene studies that there are many genes that have such gender-specific value.

What is the relationship then with 'nerdiness' and pimples in males? I would wonder about a correlation between maternal androgen levels, maternal mate selection, and intrauterine androgen exposure affecting adolescent male aggressiveness. So the connection would be subtle, but both the 'nerdiness' (lack of aggression) and the acne would be indirectly a result of maternal adolescent acne."

Incompetent Design: a scientist points out the flaws in humanity

Seed: The Other I.D. points out that humans are very badly "designed".

Fun and interesting, no surprise to a physician of course. I enjoyed the comment on facial plumbing (aka sinuses). They are a disaster. I remember in medical school a lecturer earnestly explaining the role of the sinus as 'changing timbre of the voice' or 'warming inhaled air'. Bah!!

Now I'd like to see a physicist comment on the flaws in the universe. It seems far too hostile to life for my tastes (and yes, I do acutely follow discussions on finely balanced fundamental constants.)

Agnostics for Lewis - Narnia the movie

I do declare I am philosophically agnostic, and to the extent I have speculations about deities they are neither traditional nor comforting. I also declare that CS Lewis' theology has always struck me as primitive and inconsistent. I have, however, read and appreciated many of his books. Primitive yes, but also wise. Very wise.

So I was hoping the Narnia movie would be well done. I am pleased to read a review in the NYT which ends with a remarkably effective and encouraging paragraph:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Review - Movies - New York Times

... For me, the best moments in the film take place in the wardrobe itself, which serves as a portal between England and Narnia. When the children pass through it for the first time, I felt a welcome tremor of apprehension and anticipation as the wooden floor turned into snowy ground and fur coats gave way to fir trees. The next two hours might not have quite delivered on that initial promise of wonder - we grown-ups, being heavy, are not so easily swept away by visual tricks - except when I looked away from the screen at the faces of breathless and wide-eyed children, my own among them, for whom the whole experience was new, strange, disturbing and delightful.

Gmail is getting better: new features

I've been very impressed and pleased with Gmail -- despite the significant privacy issues. It's true that my maximum mailbox is no longer growing (it stopped growing at about 2.6GB, so now I've used 17% -- if it were to stay at 2.7GB I'd run out in a few years), but Google is adding a lot of interesting new features. The new RSS/mail integration model is very interesting, especially given Google's disappointing standalone RSS client. Here's the current list. Note the use of Google Tooblar to integrate the desktop with the Gmail application suite (edits, emphases, comments mine):
About Gmail
  • View your favorite RSS feeds right in Gmail as “Clips” along the top of your Gmail screen. Display clips from blogs, news sites and other online sources. Pick from the latest headlines, random popular feeds, or add any RSS/Atom feed you want. [Example, RSS feed that monitors email activity in a separate Yahoo "spam" account ....]
  • When you get Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or .pdf attachments, you can view them as a web page in HTML by clicking the "View as HTML" link right next to it.
  • Gmail automatically detects addresses and tracking numbers, and displays useful information for them alongside your messages.
  • Virus scanning... [of course I'd imagined they always did this. Shame on me.]
  • Export your Gmail Contacts and save them in a file for back-up or to use in another account or service ... [noble]
  • Saves to ‘Drafts’ as you’re composing. Never lose a half-written email again. (huge)
  • Google Toolbar ... Search your mail or instantly go to your Inbox from any web page with just one click.
  • Google Desktop lets you search your computer for files, music, photos, chats, web pages you've seen, and now, your Gmail messages too. Even if you’re offline. [jf: so read access to Gmail repository when offline -- that's big. Too bad Yahoo Desktop Search is so superior to GDS.]
  • Gmail contacts are pre-loaded in Google Talk.
  • Customize the address on your outgoing messages to display another one of your addresses instead.
  • Gmail Notifier for Mac OS X even supports plug-in development.
  • Gmail now gives you over 2.5 gigabytes of free space (and growing every day)! [but mine has stopped growing]
  • Rich text formatting
  • Send up to 10MB of photos, works with Picasa
  • Gmail now works with Picasa, Google's free
  • Basic HTML view lets you access your Gmail messages from almost any computer running almost any web browser. Learn more
  • Free POP access and automatic forwarding
  • Move all your contacts from Yahoo! Mail, Outlook, and others to Gmail in just a few clicks.

Cheating on Amazon: positive reviews are far more "helpful". John G Faughnan's Home

This doesn't quite rise to the Freakononomics level, but I've written enough Amazon reviews to see a clear trend. My positive reviews are rated as "useful' far more often than my critical reviews. This may represent human limitations, but it's trivially easy for persons associated with a vendor or retailer to downrate critical reviews and uprate positive reviews. I'd say this qualifies as cheating an a reasonably impressive scale.

Of course when I look at a product on Amazon, I always sort so the most negative reviews are the top. I find that the "useful" attribute is ... ummm ... useless.

PS. Amazon did not post my review of the Digital Rebel XT -- in which I mentioned the rebate directions were rather confused. I think Amazon is getting more selective about critical reviews of top selling items. That's another sort of cheating.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Intelligent Design - a simple voice of clear reason

Ahh. The sweet sound of Reason:
Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker - New York Times

... Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor, said: 'I teach at the largest Baptist university in the world. I'm a religious person. And my basic perspective is intelligent design doesn't belong in science class.'

Mr. Davis noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. 'But they are, and everybody knows they are,' Mr. Davis said. 'I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced.'
The NYT claims that the Intelligent Design mask is being stripped away. We'll see. Perhaps I've underestimated the American public ...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Philip K Dick - a primer

Metafilter has a nice intro to an extraordinary thinker: The Other SF Prophet Meat | MetaFilter

In the first essay Dick writes:
...The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?"

Schizophrenia and the increased attractiveness of the non-conformist

Why is schizophrenia so common? It's a terrible disease, yet it's quite prevalent. Why hasn't evolution selected against it? How can schizophrenia have any adaptive advantages?

A single small and probably unreliable study claims a correlation between schizophrenic traits, being "non-conformist", (they say "creative", but they aren't talking about inventors and scientists) and have more sexual partners. The implication is that a mild dose of schizophrenia is good for one's mating opportunities, and that's enough of an advantage to keep the genes around in the population -- even when a full dose is horrible.
Science & Technology at Scientific Creativity Linked to Sexual Success and Schizophrenia

Psychologist Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England and his colleagues recruited 425 British men and women through advertisements in a small town newsletter and specialty lists for creative types. The researchers surveyed this group with questions designed to measure various schizophrenic behaviors, artistic output and sexual success, among other aspects of their personal history.

Results of that survey showed that people who displayed strong evidence of "unusual experiences" and "impulsive non-conformity"--two broad types of schizophrenic behavior--had more sexual partners than their peers did and were more likely to be involved in artistic pursuits, either professionally or as a hobby. Those who professionally pursued the arts had the highest average number of partners--5.5--compared to just over four for the less creative study participants.

... the finding, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (B), offers some insights into why schizophrenia, which seems to be passed from generation to generation and affects roughly 1 percent of people, does not disappear from the general population. In the study, even non-creative types who revealed an urge to resist conformity had more sexual success. In short, some of the traits associated with the debilitating mental illness can actually increase a person’s desirability...
There's something about this story that reminds me of how parasites spread themselves by altering their host's behavior. Could one think of a schizophrenia gene as a parasite that spread itself for altering host behaviors? Probably not, but it's a funny similarity.

The study is pretty slender stuff, but one can imagine several ways in which "non-conformity" might be adaptive -- even beyond more sex partners. It would be interesting if schizophrenia were the price we pay for keeping some non-conformists around...

When science is rejected: AIDS and the failure of South Africa

This is the saddest news I've read in some time.
BBC NEWS | Africa | Controversy clouds World Aids Day

... South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has long been lukewarm over the usefulness of anti-retroviral drugs, refused to back their use.

In an interview, she said that anti-retrovirals offered no cure, and that she might use food supplements or traditional medicines if she became infected.
Logic, empiricism, and science are an integrated package. When Bush endorses teaching intelligent design in American schools he strengthens people like Tshabalala-Msimang. When republican senators exempt herbal remedies from FDA safety standards required for pharmaceuticals they strengthen people like Tshabalala-Msimang.

Whatever good Prime Minister Mbeki has acheived in his entire life, it will all be outweighed by the tragedy of his HIV policies. He will be remembered as a catastrophe for South Africa.

Global climate change, not global warming

Europe is unnaturally warm given its far northern latitude. Edmonton Alberta often hits 40 below, but Edinborough gets very little snow. The secret to Europe's wamth is a warm ocean current. That current may go away in the next few decades (extensive editing below, the article was badly written and/or edited):
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Ocean changes 'will cool Europe'

... Researchers from the UK's National Oceanography Centre say currents derived from the Gulf Stream are weakening, bringing less heat north.

Their conclusions, reported in the scientific journal Nature, are based on 50 years of Atlantic observations.

... The key is the Gulf Stream. After it emerges from the Caribbean, it splits in two, with one part heading north-east to Europe and the other circulating back through the tropical Atlantic.

As the north-eastern branch flows, it gives off heat to the atmosphere, which in turn warms European land.

"It's like a radiator giving its heat to the atmosphere," said Harry Bryden from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) at Britain's Southampton University.

"The heat it gives off is roughly equivalent to the output of a million power stations," he told reporters.

... "We saw a 30% decline in the southwards flow of deep cold water," said Harry Bryden.

"And so the summary is that in 2004, we have a larger circulating current [in the tropical Atlantic] and less overturning."

... Computer models of climate have regularly predicted that the North Atlantic conveyor may well reduce in intensity or even turn off altogether ...

... if it turned off completely, Europe would cool by perhaps four to six degrees Celsius.

... The findings will have resonance beyond the shores of the UK and Europe, as extra heat left circulating around the tropical Atlantic could have major impacts on weather systems in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.
On the other hand, warming trends might make the cooling much milder. This is why scientist don't write any more about 'global warming', they write about 'global climate change'. Even if the world on the whole gets warmer, some areas may get far colder (Europe) even as others warm up enormously (Alaska). In other areas violent weather may predominate (more warm water in the Caribbean means more hurricaines ...). We have to be ready for anything, and everything!