Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The New York Times finds a spine?

It won't last, but today the shrunken residue of a once great newspaper shows a tiny hint of a vertebral column:
Spies, Lies and Wiretaps - New York Times

... Mr. Bush made himself the judge of the proper balance between national security and Americans' rights, between the law and presidential power. He wants Americans to accept, on faith, that he is doing it right. But even if the United States had a government based on the good character of elected officials rather than law, Mr. Bush would not have earned that kind of trust. The domestic spying program is part of a well-established pattern: when Mr. Bush doesn't like the rules, he just changes them, as he has done for the detention and treatment of prisoners and has threatened to do in other areas, like the confirmation of his judicial nominees. He has consistently shown a lack of regard for privacy, civil liberties and judicial due process in claiming his sweeping powers. The founders of our country created the system of checks and balances to avert just this sort of imperial arrogance.
They've done this before -- threatened to show some courage. In each case they've collapsed into equivocation.

If the NYT dedicates itself to exposing Bush/Cheney, and limiting the damage they're doing, and if they pound home time and again the fundamental issues without being misdirected -- then I'll say they have a spine. Until then, they're spineless.

Idiot America

David Brin led on this one, but Pharyngula is taking up the flag: Idiot America.

I don't think it's just America, though we've led the way in the western world. The rejection of the enlightenment, and the ridicule of expertise is pretty much universal -- from Washington to Tehran to Moscow. Beijing possibly being the exception.

Too bad the original Esquire article is behing a Paywall, but Pharyngula has excerpted the juicy parts. I hope he connects up with David Brin.

A creek in the congo: Future Shock

Sometimes I think the world isn't changing very quickly. Mostly 2006 seems much more like 1986 than I'd expected back then.

But then I enter our dog's name (Kateva) and come up with a map of a creek in the Congo and a link to a Google Earth image. This is the result of 3 separate web services.

Suddenly 2006 seems much less familiar.

Monday, January 30, 2006

DeLong on Franco

Odd that we should be thinking of Francesco Franco these days. DeLong ends a posting on Spain's tyrant with a guide to spotting fascism:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

German philospher Ernst Nolte's classic Fascism in Its Epoch set out six key characteristics of fascism:

1. Strong belief that--through social darwinism--morality is ultimately tied to blood and race, understood as descent and genetic relationship.

2. Strong rejection of the classical "liberal" belief that individuals have rights that any legitimate state is bound to respect

3. In its place, an assertion that individuals have duties to the state, seen as the decision-making organ of the collectivity.

4. A rejection of parliamentary democracy and other bottom-up institutions to assess the general will.

5. The assertion that the general will is formed by the decrees of the leader.

6. A strong fear of twentieth-century Communism, and an eagerness to adapt and use its weapons--suspension of parliaments, mass propaganda, rallies, street violence, and so forth--to fight it.
In China, it is common to criticize the regime by allusions to historical figures. DeLong was posting on Chinese New Years. Coincidence or subtlety?

Newsweek has the scoop on the NSA

This Newsweek article is Pulitzer prize winning material. The fact that so many insiders were willing to talk, albeit off the record, tells us just how scared Bush appointees are of what Bush and Cheney are doing to America. It's not just commie pinko traitors like me who are starting to fear Dick Cheney more than Osama bin Laden (emphases mine):
Palace Revolt - Newsweek Politics - MSNBC.com

... Addington's [jf: Addington is Cheney's Chief of Staff, a real bad actor] problems with Goldsmith were just beginning. In the jittery aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration had pushed the top-secret National Security Agency to do a better and more expansive job of electronically eavesdropping on Al Qaeda's global communications. Under existing law—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, adopted in 1978 as a post-Watergate reform—the NSA needed (in the opinion of most legal experts) to get a warrant to eavesdrop on communications coming into or going out of the United States. Reasoning that there was no time to obtain warrants from a secret court set up under FISA (a sometimes cumbersome process), the Bush administration justified going around the law by invoking a post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing use of force against global terror. The eavesdropping program was very closely held, with cryptic briefings for only a few congressional leaders. Once again, Addington and his allies made sure that possible dissenters were cut out of the loop.

There was one catch: the secret program had to be reapproved by the attorney general every 45 days. It was Goldsmith's job to advise the A.G. on the legality of the program. In March 2004, John Ashcroft was in the hospital with a serious pancreatic condition. At Justice, Comey, Ashcroft's No. 2, was acting as attorney general... Goldsmith raised with Comey serious questions about the secret eavesdropping program, according to two sources familiar with the episode. He was joined by a former OLC lawyer, Patrick Philbin, who had become national-security aide to the deputy attorney general. Comey backed them up. The White House was told: no reauthorization.

The angry reaction bubbled up all the way to the Oval Office. President Bush, with his penchant for put-down nicknames, had begun referring to Comey as "Cuomey" or "Cuomo," apparently after former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who was notorious for his Hamlet-like indecision over whether to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s. A high-level delegation—White House Counsel Gonzales and chief of staff Andy Card—visited Ashcroft in the hospital to appeal Comey's refusal. In pain and on medication, Ashcroft stood by his No. 2.

A compromise was finally worked out. The NSA was not compelled to go to the secret FISA court to get warrants, but Justice imposed tougher legal standards before permitting eavesdropping on communications into the United States. It was a victory for the Justice lawyers, and it drove Addington to new levels of vexation with Goldsmith.

Bush was driving this as much as Cheney. But what's with Ashcroft being heroic?

Why would a virus fatten an animal?

We know parasites such as toxoplasma change the behavior of their hosts [1]. That seems to make nice evolutionary sense. But why would a virus induce obesity in some animals?
Contagious obesity? Identifying the human adenoviruses that may make us fat | Science Blog

Ad-37 third virus implicated in animal obesity

The theory that viruses could play a part in obesity began a few decades ago when Nikhil Dhurandhar, now at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at LSU, noticed that chickens in India infected with the avian adenovirus SMAM-1 had significantly more fat than non-infected chickens. The discovery was intriguing because the explosion of human obesity, even in poor countries, has led to suspicions that overeating and lack of exercise weren't the only culprits in the rapidly widening human girth. Since then, Ad-36 has been found to be more prevalent in obese humans.

In the current study, Whigham et al. attempted to determine which adenoviruses (in addition to Ad-36 and Ad-5) might be associated with obesity in chickens. The animals were separated into four groups and exposed to either Ad-2, Ad-31, or Ad-37. There was also a control group that was not exposed to any of the viruses. The researchers measured food intake and tracked weight over three weeks before ending the experiment and measuring the chickens' visceral fat, total body fat, serum lipids, and viral antibodies.

Chickens inoculated with Ad-37 had much more visceral fat and body fat compared with the chickens infected with Ad-2, Ad-31 or the control group, even though they didn't eat any more. The Ad-37 group was also generally heavier compared to the other three groups, but the difference wasn't great enough to be significant by scientific standards.

The authors concluded that Ad-37 increases obesity in chickens, but Ad-2 and Ad-31 do not. "Ad-37 is the third human adenovirus to increase adiposity in animals, but not all adenoviruses produce obesity," the study concluded.

There is still much to learn about how these viruses work, Whigham said. "There are people and animals that get infected and don't get fat. We don't know why," she said. Among the possibilities: the virus hasn't been in the body long enough to produce the additional fat; or the virus creates a tendency to obesity that must be triggered by overeating, she said.
It certainly makes sense to try and figure out how host adiposity could benefit a virus, but for no good reason I suspect a tendency to produce fat is a side-effect that's irrelevant to the virus.

[1] BTW, why do some dogs compulsively eat grass? Since grass eating is associated with Giardia infection, one might consider that bug. Or maybe a parasite who's life cycle involves deer ticks and who causes colitis in dogs ...

Newsweek: the price of questioning Dick Cheney

One of the most fascinating and important stories to be reported in the last several months. This should be read closely.
Palace Revolt - Newsweek Politics - MSNBC.com

...These Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, Goldsmith and the others fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors. These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men.

The rebels were not whistle-blowers in the traditional sense. They did not want—indeed avoided—publicity. (Goldsmith confirmed public facts about himself but otherwise declined to comment. Comey also declined to comment.) They were not downtrodden career civil servants. Rather, they were conservative political appointees who had been friends and close colleagues of some of the true believers they were fighting against. They did not see the struggle in terms of black and white but in shades of gray—as painfully close calls with unavoidable pitfalls. They worried deeply about whether their principles might put Americans at home and abroad at risk. Their story has been obscured behind legalisms and the veil of secrecy over the White House. But it is a quietly dramatic profile in courage. (For its part the White House denies any internal strife. "The proposition of internal division in our fight against terrorism isn't based in fact," says Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney. "This administration is united in its commitment to protect Americans, defeat terrorism and grow democracy.")

The chief opponent of the rebels, though by no means the only one, was an equally obscure, but immensely powerful, lawyer-bureaucrat. Intense, workaholic (even by insane White House standards), David Addington, formerly counsel, now chief of staff to the vice president, is a righteous, ascetic public servant.

... Addington and a small band of like-minded lawyers set about providing that cover—a legal argument that the power of the president in time of war was virtually untrammeled. One of Addington's first jobs had been to draft a presidential order establishing military commissions to try unlawful combatants—terrorists caught on the global battlefield. The normal "interagency process"—getting agreement from lawyers at Defense, State, the intelligence agencies and so forth—proved glacial, as usual. So Addington, working with fellow conservative Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan, came up with a solution: cut virtually everyone else out. Addington is a purist, not a cynic; he does not believe he is in any way ignoring or twisting the law. It is also important to note that Addington was not sailing off on some personal crusade; he had the full backing of the president and vice president, who shared his views. But, steeped in bureaucratic experience and clear in his purpose, Addington was a ferocious infighter for his cause...
Cheney's chief of staff. Remember the name Addington. Remember too that this war is the Long War -- projected at over 20 years by the DOD. Twenty years of presidents and their staff growing increasingly accustomed to unlimited power. What's the chance American democracy could survive that? Who's the greater threat to our future -- Zawahiri or David Addington?

The more we learn of the Bush regime, the more disturbing they appear.

The Google Ghost in my Machine - a disconcerting moment

I had a disconcerting moment today. I typed a few characters in my Google Toolbar and saw a list of strings to select from. They were search terms I'd entered last night on a different machine.

It's not a great mystery. I have Google's toolbar installed on all four of the machines, and six of the 8 browser instances (there's no toolbar for Safari), that I use regularly. Since I authenticate with Google that means they all share my search history and, evidently, the search strings that show up as I enter text in the search field.

I'm not sure how far back Google keeps this history, but I'm getting the feeling it's rather long.

I could wipe this list via my Google account; they're really not awfully useful to me. I won't though, my searches are rather prosaic and I'm curious as to where this will lead.

So not a big deal by itself, but it gave me a momentary glimpse of the world ahead -- a world in which my digital identity grows and follows me. A disconcerting world for someone born in the last millenium.

One day, shall I look in the digital mirror, and realize that it's a mirror no longer?

I've just had a cyberpunk moment.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Why the Farangs smell

About 25 years ago I used to commute by bus from Pradu-Naam to the UN building in Bangkok. The bus was crowded and bloody hot. I had to put my arm up to hold on. The Thais downwind of me looked kinda green.

Farangs (foreigners, basically Euros), you see, not to put to fine a point on it, stink. The Thai, on the other hand, have relatively little body odor. Now we know why. It's in the ear wax...
Japanese Scientists Identify Ear Wax Gene - New York Times:

...They write that earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, whereas the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have greater body odor.
I feel better now. It really wasn't my fault.

BTW, as a physician I much prefer wet ear wax. Removing the dry stuff from a child's ear is a royal pain.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fox news: in the pay of Philip Morris

DeLong echoes another corruption story - Fox News' science reporter was on the take from Philip Morris. His primary contribution was mocking claims about the health implications of environmental tobacco smoke.

A corrupt person, working for a corrupt news organization. Fox is low.

On the bright side, it's nice to know Philip Morris is as vile and evil as ever. I was afraid they'd gone soft.

Medicare Part D, Chimps and Bonobos

A prediction -- when the analysis is done the Bush drug plan (Medicare Part D) will be found to be largely a transfer of resources from the Weak to the Strong.

Which leads to the next thought. Is there any GOP program that's not a transfer from the Weak to the Strong? Is 'No Child Left Behind' an exception of intent, if not of implementation?

Transfer from the Weak to the Strong is a reasonably common primate thing; and of course it's perfectly Spencerian. Ironic then that the GOP should be the home of Darwin hating Christian Fundamentalists, but then they're really Yahwites in disguise.

Which leads, inevitably to the last thought. Humans, Chimps and Bonobos are all members of Genus Pan. To what extent can the Bush base be thought of as Chimps, and the pacifist Left be considered Bonobos? I'd bet, given descriptions of both primates, that 80% of the Bush base would say they were more like Chimps (strong, dominant, patriarchal, might survive humanity), and 95% of the pacifist Left would aspire to be Bonobos (matriarchal, cooperative, group sex, transgender, soon to be extinct, etc).

Which leads to the last plus one thought. Would functional MRIs of amygdala response differentiate between Bush fundamentalists and the pacifist Left? Is the Left/Right split more than politics? Maybe it's about speciation .... :-)

Can primates trust strangers?

Chimpanzees are generally hateful, and almost all primates are fundamentally xenophobic. Brain scans suggest humans (genus Pan) are programmed for fear and hatred of the Other. Will peace require genetic reengineering?

Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist, has written a review of human nature, published, oddly enough, in Foreign Affairs. It's fascinating. Primates turn out to be more flexible than had been though; dystopia is not inevitable. Humans may be particularly malleable.
Foreign Affairs - A Natural History of Peace - Robert M. Sapolsky

...In exploring these subjects, one often encounters a pessimism built around the notion that humans, as primates, are hard-wired for xenophobia. Some brain-imaging studies have appeared to support this view in a particularly discouraging way. There is a structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala, which plays a key role in fear and aggression, and experiments have shown that when subjects are presented with a face of someone from a different race, the amygdala gets metabolically active -- aroused, alert, ready for action. This happens even when the face is presented 'subliminally,' which is to say, so rapidly that the subject does not consciously see it.

More recent studies, however, should mitigate this pessimism. Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.
Emily wonders if the amygdala has the same response to the "deformed" and disabled. One can imagine the same mechanism underlying analysis of genetic fitness of potential mates.

Sapolsky describes recent studies of primate culture; their behavior can be changed. In some environments male Baboon nerds can mate well, particularly if the tyrants are fighting elsewhere. There is hope, though I suspect the genetic reengineering option will be on the table if we're still around in 70 years.

I wonder how Baboons would do with dogs? I suppose they'd eat the dogs fairly quickly and messily, but I've long wondered how dogs changed alliances in human primates.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Scary moment in the digital life: a corrupted image

I recently used iPhoto Library Manager to merge two iPhoto 5 libraries of several thousand images apiece. I did this in preparation for migration to iPhoto 6; IPLM has a longer track record with iP 5 than 6, so I chose to merge before upgrading.

Thus far it seems to have gone well, which is pretty impressive since #$!$! Apple doesn't support Library imports or merges in $!@#$!@ iPhoto. I'm still looking for problems and I'll report on my experience soon. I did get some malrotated images, but I expected that. OS X had some bad bugs with EXIF headers that Apple never admitted to but fixed; I expected older images to malrotate on import. I reverted to original and fixed them.

One image among thousands failed to import. IPLM produced a handy error message. I tracked down the image -- it was corrupt. Preview and GraphicConverter wouldn't render it and if I tried to open it in iPhoto the app locked up. (How stupid is that?)

Unnerving. I expect this image went bad years ago. Could have been a disk crash, could have been a rude copy of iPhoto, could have been a network copy glitch -- heck, it could have been cosmic rays. My regular backups only go back a few months, so they wouldn't help. I do have some CDs and DVDs that would probably cover this problem, but it would take a while to track those down. Fortunately I happened to have older versions of some iPhoto Libraries on my external drive, and I found a good copy in minutes.

This is exceedingly annoying. We are so far from having really good backup solutions. I depend on redundancy -- a primary automated network backup that runs daily and several different approaches to backup that are done irregularly. Odd are that if one method fails, the very different "backup backup" methods will work. It's the same principle applied to designing the space shuttle's control system.

Backups have saved me at least a dozen times over the past 20 years or so. They're very demanding to manage however.

The NSA affair: it's about how they selected their intercepts

Cringely's sources say pretty much exactly what I guessed last week (in part from his prior column, but also from connecting other dots) -- the technical aspects of the NSA affair are about social network analysis of phone metadata.

So Bush is right when he claims only a few calls are tapped, but what he doesn't talk about, and what reporters don't ask him, is how the NSA decides which phones to tap. It's the process of figuring out who to go after that's technically interesting, but the real story is about the ability of President to override Congress. That's a constitutional question that will go to the supreme court, and that's why Kerry and Kennedy are trying to filibuster Alito. I don't think they'll succeed, but I'm glad they're trying.
PBS | I, Cringely . January 26, 2006 - The Falafel Connection

... After last week's column, a number of readers wrote to explain that the National Security Agency's problem with complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) had to do with the sheer volume of wiretaps involved, which they guessed numbers in the millions or billions. Evidently, these worried readers think, the NSA has been long listening-in to ALL of our calls, and thought that might not go down well with the secret court that issues FISA warrants.

I don't think so.

The NSA has a very advanced program called Echelon for monitoring radio communication around the world, and probably intercepts a lot of phone calls that way, but for FISA-type wiretaps they tend to use the same outsourcing firms the phone companies use, and these generally tiny outfits can only handle a few thousand taps per year each.

By the way, if you are wondering whether YOUR phone could be easily tapped, just check to see if your phone company offers three-way dialing, because that's the feature we're talking about. If you can get it, they can get you. And if you are wondering whether VoIP service can't be tapped, the answer is both yes and no. For the moment, SIP services like Skype can't be tapped but that will change soon. And if you are a Vonage or Packet8 user, well they already have your number.

Here's what is most likely going on with the NSA and FISA from a guy who used to work for the NSA:

"What I think is going on here is that they're using social network analysis. They get some numbers or endpoints of interest, and start out with classical traffic analysis, which can all be done (as I think you pointed out) with pen registers or their moral equivalent. They look for other numbers, and follow the graph of connections by transitivity.

"It's well known that any graph of associations in the real world tends to generate cliques, and that the clique size for a social group of any sort tends to actually be fairly small. This is the 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' effect. But in a social network, there will also be people with many edges coming to them, and many paths in the transitive closure of the graph of their relationships, and those people are often 'centers.'

"In fact, just that sort of analysis was done -- after the fact -- of the 9/11 hijackers (in this week's links).

"I would guess that the SNA is used to identify people of interest -- although there would be some false positives, like if they all rented apartments from the same rental management firm, or all ordered from the same we-deliver falafel place. But someone who shows up in the transitive network of a lot of calls from overseas, and is also a high edge-count in the SNA graph, is definitely someone to be interested in. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's when they apply for a FISA warrant and start actually intercepting."

So what we have the NSA doing is probably data mining, calling records in order to identify the people they want to order intercepts on. They are doing it without warrants because they like being sneaky, don't think they could get past the FISA court a warrant for 100 million calling records, and because the FISA law from 1978 probably doesn't distinguish between a pen-trap and an intercept.

If that's really the case, this doesn't sound quite as bad as we've feared. I feel better thinking that they are culling calling records rather than listening-in to my conversations. And it makes a lot more sense, from a pure technical capability standpoint.

So why couldn't they just tell us? Why couldn't they have simply amended the FISA law to take such activities into account? Because they like to be sneaky, tend to distrust even the people who pay them (that's us), and because they for some reason think that the bad guys won't figure this out for themselves.


But is it really Duh? Either al Qaeda is a lethal threat, and thus smart enough to figure this out on their own, or do they have got a thin bench full of dolts who couldn't think their way out of a paper bag?

Either way, Bush is wrong. If al Qaeda is a lethal threat, then they've already figured this out and we could pass laws making this legal without tipping them off. On the other hand, if they have a thin bench, then we don't need the Long War and we shouldn't be shredding the Constitution.

Challenger: 20 years

Twenty years ago seven amazing people died when the space shuttle Challenger "exploded" (it didn't). James Oberg was a senior NASA insider at that time. He critiques some myths that have grown up around the tragedy.

I was not surprised by his critiques, in each case they matched what I remember reading during and after the investigation of the disaster. It's true that most commentators didn't dwell on the fact that the cabin was intact when it hit the water, but even that wasn't a secret.

I was surpised by the myths, especially the one that "environmental regulations" had led to a sealant problem. I guess 20 years is long enough for legends to start.

I was in the Mojave desert when the first shuttle flight landed. I remember worrying about the damned tiles -- they'd broken loose in orbit (shades of later tragedy). In those days I dreamt about becoming a mission specialist and flying, but really I knew the competition was too stiff. Everyone who has flown, and many who just waited for a slot, are among the most exceptional human beings one can know.
7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster - Space News - MSNBC.com

Twenty years ago, millions of television viewers were horrified to witness the live broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds into flight, ending the lives of the seven astronauts on board...

...spaceflight historians believe that each element of the opening paragraph is factually untrue or at best extremely dubious. They are myths, undeserving of popular belief and unworthy of being repeated at every anniversary of the disaster.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Long War and the Quadrennial Defense Review: 20 years of the imperial president?

Bush's justification of his assertion of new presidential powers is that we're at War. What he doesn't emphasize is that he's thinking about a rather Long War ...
Early Warning by William M. Arkin - washingtonpost.com: "Goodbye War on Terrorism, Hello Long War

One phrase contained in the draft Quadrennial Defense Review document circulating amongst defense experts is sure to be a part of your life for years to come: The long war.

Defense experts want the long war to be the new name for the war on terror, a kind of societal short hand that will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Cold War, promoted to capital letters, an indisputable and universally accepted state of the world.

'This generation of servicemembers will be in what we're calling the Long War,' Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this week.

'Our estimate is that for at least the next 20 years … our focus will be … the extremist networks that will continue to threaten the United States and its allies.'
A War against Evil could go on a long time, or until the End Times anyway. Given what Bush has done so far, is it inconceivable that he and his supporters will decide he should be able to run again? Yes, that's nuts. Of course. Forgive me...

Building a business without VCs

Kawaki's blog is still superb. He's gotta run out of steam sometime.

In some recent postings he confirmed my uninformed prejudice that VCs are a bit ridiculous, and are really only suited to a small minority of entrepreneurs.

Here he considers the alternative: The Art of Bootstrapping.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Adopting a mutt - new age

We're adopting a dog. Things have changed since we picked up Molly more than 15 years ago at the Delta County pound. Back then there was no web, now we have petfinder.com and computer generated breed recommendations.

Impressive. The breed recommendations were pretty much what I'd have guessed. On the other hand, the Delta pound had some beautiful mongrels, and their mutts weren't $250 each.

They should, however, include a longevity question in the breed selector. I'm going to see if I can get them to add that in.

Defining the Drake equation: how common are rocky planets?

A new imaging technique allows visualization of a very large rocky planet orbiting a red dwarf:
Scientists spot a new Earthlike planet - Space.com - MSNBC.com:

The planet and star are separated by about 2.5 astronomical units.

The finding means planet hunters are one step closer to detecting their holy grail: a habitable Earthlike planet that can sustain liquid water and support life.
The distance sounds comparable to our asteroid belt. I wonder if that's coincidental.

The significance of the discovery may be the proof of the microlensing technique. We probably have years to go before we can begin to put more meaningful numbers into the Drake Equation, and thus constrain the solutions to Fermi's Paradox.

A retrospective look: the war on terror

I don't read Juan Cole regularly, but I thought his recent retrospective on the 'War on Terror' was well timed. In September of 2001 I was certainly asking myself -- was 9/11 a fluke, or was al Qaeda really something new? Did they "get lucky", or could they repeat?

Early on the safest guess was that they were something new. I still think that the falling costs of havoc have changed the old equations. Richard Reid, though made me wonder. Clearly al Qaeda was scraping the bottom of the barrel when they used him. Since then we've seen more evidence that al Qaeda's bench is weak. They can get lots of fairly ordinary people to commit suicide, but they seem to have trouble holding and recruiting the elite operatives that would make them truly dangerous.

In retrospect, al Qaeda's "success" on 9/11 seems to have had a large element of chance. They were "unlucky" on a prior attack on the WTC (the basement bombing) and they were almost supernaturally "lucky" on 9/11. Having Afghanistan as a base was critical, and being left relatively alone helped them too. They don't loom so large now, in large part due to the US military action in Afghanistan. Since then, however, Bush has seemed to be acting as an agent of bin Laden -- helping rather than hurting him. Cole expands:
Juan Cole - Informed Comment Top Ten Mistakes of the Bush Administration in Reacting to Al-Qaeda
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

... On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it?...

Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous... They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation.

The Bush administration and the American Right generally has refused to acknowledge what we now know. Al-Qaeda is dangerous. All small terrorist groups can do damage. But it is not an epochal threat to the United States or its allies of the sort the Soviet Union was (and that threat was consistently exaggerated, as well).

In fact, the United States invaded a major Muslim country, occupied it militarily, tortured its citizens, killed tens of thousands, tinkered with the economy-- did all those things that Muslim nationalists had feared and warned against, and there hasn't even been much of a reaction from the Muslim world. Only a few thousand volunteers went to fight. Most people just seem worried that the US will destabilize their region and leave a lot of trouble behind them. People are used to seeing Great Powers do as they will. A Syrian official before the war told a journalist friend of mine that people in the Middle East had been seeing these sorts of invasions since Napoleon took Egypt in 1798. "Well," he shrugged, "usually they leave behind a few good things when they finally leave."

Because they exaggerate the scale of the conflict, and because they use it cynically, Bush and Cheney have grossly mismanaged the struggle against al-Qaeda and Muslim radicalism after September 11. Here are their chief errors:

1. Bush vastly exaggerates al-Qaeda's size, sweep and importance, while failing to invest in genuine counterterrorist measures such as port security or security for US nuclear plants.

2. Bush could have eradicated the core al-Qaeda group by putting resources into the effort in 2002. He did not, leaving al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden to taunt us, inspire our enemies and organize for years after the Taliban were defeated. It would be as though Truman had allowed Hitler to broadcast calls for terrorism against the US from some hiding place as late as 1949.

3. Bush opened a second front against Iraq before he had put Afghanistan on a sound footing.

4. Bush gutted the US constitution, tossing out the Fourth Amendment, by assiduously spying on Americans without warrants. None of those spying efforts has been shown to have resulted in any security benefits for the United States. Bush says that he wants to watch anyone who calls the phone numbers associated with al-Qaeda. But some of those phone numbers were for food delivery or laundry. We want a judge to sign off on a wire tap so that innocent Americans are not spied on by the government.

5. Bush attempted to associate the threat from al-Qaeda with Iran and Syria. Iran is a fundamentalist Shiite country that hates al-Qaeda. Syria is a secular Arab nationalist country that hates al-Qaeda. Indeed, Syria tortured al-Qaeda operatives for Bush, until Bush decided to get Syria itself. Bush and Cheney have cynically used a national tragedy to further their aggressive policies of Great Power domination.

6. Bush by invading Iraq pushed the Iraqi Sunni Arabs to desert secular Arab nationalism. Four fifths of the Sunni Arab vote in the recent election went to hard line Sunni fundamentalist parties. This development is unprecedented in Iraqi history. Iraqi Sunni Arabs are nationalists, whether secular or religious, and there is no real danger of most of them joining al-Qaeda. But Bush has spread political Islam and has strengthened its influence.

7. Bush diverted at least one trillion dollars in US security spending from the counter-terrorism struggle against al-Qaeda to the Iraq debacle, at the same time that he has run up half a trillion dollar annual deficits, contributing to a spike in inflation, harming the US economy, and making the US less effective in counterterrorism.

8. Counterterrorism requires friendly allies and close cooperation. The Bush administration alienated France, Germany and Spain, along with many Middle Eastern nations that had long waged struggles of their own against terrorist groups. Bush is widely despised and has left America isolated in the world. Virtually all the publics of all major nations hate US policy. One poll showed that in secular Turkey where Muslim extremism is widely reviled and Bin Laden is generally disliked, the public preferred Bin Laden to Bush. Bush is widely seen as more dangerous than al-Qaeda. This image is bad for US counterterrorism efforts.

9. Bush transported detainees to torture sites in Eastern Europe. Under European Union laws, both torture and involvement in torture are illegal,and European officials can be tried for these crimes. HOw many European counterterrorism officials will want to work closely with the Americans if, for all they know, this association could end in jail time? Indeed, in Washington it is said that a lot of our best CIA officers are leaving, afraid that they are being ordered to do things that are illegal, and for which they could be tried once another administration comes to power in Washington.

10. Bush's failure to capture Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri allows them to continue to grandstand, to continue to frighten the public, to continue to affect financial markets, and to continue to plot. Al-Zawahiri almost certainly plotted the 7/7 London subway bombings himself, and gloated about it when he issued Muhammad Siddique Khan's suicide statement. Misplaced Bush priorities are getting our allies hit. The CIA is reduced to firing predators at villages because our counterterrorism efforts have been starved for funds by the Iraq quagmire. If al-Qaeda does pull off another American operation, it may well give Bush and Cheney an opportunity to destroy the US constitution altogether, finally giving Bin Laden his long-sought revenge on Americans for the way he believes they have forced Palestinians and other Muslims to live under lawless foreign domination or local tyranny.
If al Qaeda is not an ephocal threat, do we really need to surrender our freedom, and change the balance of American government? Are we throwing away our freedom for no good reason?

My best explanation for Bush is that he's a deep KGB plant -- or an agent of a malign alien civilization. Next that he's incompetent. Lastly that he's the human expression of a rather scary desire of many Americans for the Great White Father. However, America elected him (once), and America elected his party to control the House, Senate and Supreme Court, and now America may choose to support his reinterpretations of the Constitution. If Bush is not challenged, history will judge that Americans took this road voluntarily and consciously. Thus will a great dream die.

Smile for the satellite: Google Maps update

Six inch imagery at some spots.
Official Google Blog: New year, new imagery

... added extensive 6-inch imagery for many parts of the U.K.

... added two more zoom levels in Google Local's Satellite mode!

Take a look at people standing at the gates of Buckingham Palace in London, or jump over the pond and see the Statue of Liberty in New York, and then maybe drop down to the southern hemisphere and check out the boats sailing past the Sydney Opera House.
Our home isn't available at the very highest resolution, but check out this random shot from Boulder, Colorado. The altitude, clear air and high resolution imagery means it's easy to tell cars from trucks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A use for blacklists: Political spam

I've never had much use for blacklists. Most spammers don't use valid email addresses.

Times change. Political parties and candidates do use valid email addresses, and they are spamming me like mad. Oh what a fool I was to give my email address along with money to various democratic party candidates. (Lash, lash, lash.)

This guy is typical: spam email with no way to get off the list. Of course he won't get my money, but he's a fringe candidate anyway.

So now my blacklists and bounce tools will get a workout. It's nice to know blacklists are good for something.

Cervical ribs and cancer risk

I remember being taught that cervical ribs were a relatively harmless congenital anomaly. True, it's been years since I practiced clinical medicine, but is this widely known? Is it true?

There isn't much variation in cervical vertebra number, though. There is an exception: sometimes, the 7th cervical vertebra is found to undergo a partial homeotic transformation and forms a pair of ribs, which are normally found only on thoracic vertebrae. Humans develop cervical ribs with a frequency of about 0.2%; do they also develop cancers? The answer is yes, with a frequency 125 times greater than the general population.

The power of the contest: Booting XP on a MacTel

[Update 1/24: Colin added an Amazon donation link and I kicked in $20.]

A very clever person has created a several thousand dollar prize for getting XP to boot on a MacTel box -- out of thin air:
The Contest

My MacBook is shipping on the 15th of February. I told my boss that this would replace my IBM desktop and I could boot Windows XP on it. I am still confident it can be done. I am pledging $100 of my own money and offering anyone else who would like the instructions on how to Dual boot these two operating systems the ability to donate some of their money into the pot as a reward for the person / group that can make dual-booting Mac OS X and Windows XP happen on an Intel Mac.
He started with $100 in seed money, and is now raising serious funds. There are thousands of geeks who seriously want to do this. Apple, for unknown reasons, is not helping (security?, strategy?, support concerns?, Digital Rights Management?). The primary obstacles are drive format and the MacTel's BIOS replacement.

Unfortunately he only accepts PayPal or I'd kick in $20. Happily he's added an Amazon link to the PayPal option so I kicked in $20 (I despise PayPal.) The contast has now gotten enough attention that it's a matter of both money and glory. I would not be surprised to see some silicon valley millionaires sweeten the pot considerably.

We've seen contests used in aerospace, human powered vehicles, and other settings. In a connected world, where the costs of reaching millions of people is very low, the power of these contests is likely to grow. If this particular effort succeeds, it may, in retrospect, be a truly historic event.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Google news now learns what you like

Google News is "out of beta", meaning Google is committing to it for at least a few years. Google news now "learns" what you might like to read. Another small step for Skynet.
Official Google Blog: And now, News:

You can sign up for Personalized Search to view and manage your history of news searches and the articles you've read. When you're signed in to your Google Account, you'll receive recommended news stories based on the previous stories you've read. These recommendations will be highlighted just below the top news stories on the page, in a clearly marked section. You can also get a full page of recommended stories by clicking on the section. All of this is done automatically using algorithms.
Update. It took a few minutes for Google news to start showing the new section, but now I have an extra news section that looks like this:
Recommended for jfaughnan@gmail.com » Learn more
UK support for rights groups raises suspicion in Kremlin
Guardian Unlimited - 1 hour ago - Russian non-governmental organisations, yesterday expressed concern that spying allegations against British diplomats ...
Los Angeles Times - Telegraph.co.uk - The Moscow Times - all 376 related »

Sudan seeks to end split at African Union
Financial Times - 1 hour ago - By Andrew England in Nairobi and Reuters. Sudan said yesterday it was willing to withdraw its candidacy for the ...
Reuters - News24 - Voice of America - all 425 related »

Saudi Araba in Energy Deal With China
Houston Chronicle - 13 hours ago - By ALEXA OLESEN Associated Press Writer. BEIJING — Saudi Arabia and China inked a deal on energy cooperation on ...
Financial Times - Arab News - Hindu - all 339 related »
The stories listed are moderately interesting to me; it will be neat to see where this goes.

Travelers tales: a list of favored cities and times

Obsidian Wings, a politically moderate security-focused blog, drifted into the topic of fun business travel and places. It's the comments that make the piece. Many of the comments are about places that would require a time machine to visit.

I can vouch for some of these lost places -- Chiang Mai in 1981, Jerusalem in 1983. I regret not having visited Kashmir when I might have @1981 -- the way the war is going there I won't ever see it. I'm told old Laos was a rare gem. Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. Shanghai before the boom. Koh Samui when it was hard to reach.

A time traveler would have no end of wonderful cities and places to visit. Many were most wonderful for a short period of time, modernity has come fast and hard to much of the world. I can't deny the urgency of poverty, but I suspect one day many Chinese will deeply regret what has been destroyed. In my home town of Saint Paul/Minneapolis an awful lot of local history and charm was plowed over for roads and trains from 1950 to 1970.

Travel while you can. You cannot cross the same river twice (or even once).

PS. If once read a book titled '1,000 Places to See Before You Die'. It was awful. Really 1,000 hotels to visit before you die. The author apparently never left her room. I have to admit, I remember some of those hotels fondly -- but really ...

iTunes users are Democrats?

iTunes grown (14% of net users) is huge news for Apple. iTunes embedding is fundamental to Apple's success. They may have crossed the "tipping point". Most interesting, however, is that their user base appears to be democrat:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Apple iTunes users growing fast

Curiously, the market research firm also found that iTunes users comprise a readily identifiable audience in terms of their likes and dislikes for certain goods and services.

For instance, Nielsen said, iTunes users were 2.2 times more likely to own a Volkswagen than the average internet user. Audi and Subaru were also popular with regular users of the Apple store.
Marketers usually consider ownership of these vehicles as a very reliable market for someone who votes Democrat first.

Microsoft needs to go for the Republicans.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Parasite and master

I'm addicted to these stories of parasites controlling their hosts. Were we less fussy when we carried worms? Is OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) an adaptive response to the lassitude and carelessness worms create? (In other words, OCD is the disorder that emerges when the worms are gone, when the worms are present the same neurologic structures counteract the worm effect).

The big focus now is on Toxoplasma. How does this lovely litte brain infesting critter change our behavior? What's the curious relationship to some schizophrenia-like conditions? Carl Zimmer, one of our best science writers, summarizes the stor to date: The Return of the Puppet Masters.

Parasites are cool.

The transformation of the American economy

Another economist wonders what the heck Americans are going to do with themselves:
Exporting Expertise, if Not Much Else - New York Times:

.. The share of the economy devoted to medical care services has grown by eight percentage points in the past four decades, with commensurate changes in employment. But this isn't necessarily great news for the economy. With exceptions like online consultations and robotic surgery, medical care services are not as easy to export as, for example, medical equipment.

The leisure and recreational industries have also expanded, with the share of employment up by four percentage points. Here, too, exporting is difficult: after all, gambling, artistic performances and restaurant dinners usually take place on site.

More promising, management and professional services like law and finance resumed their strong growth after taking a hit in the recession. These areas are the ripest for exporting. Need some business advice? No problem. Want some derivatives structured? Great. First, however, we need to train those consultants and bankers.

... We are becoming a nation of advisers, fixers, entertainers and high-tech engineers, with a lucrative sideline in treating our own illnesses...
In my own world I've seen job opportunities for US citizen software engineers shrink radically in just a few years. On the other hand, it's very hard to outsource plumbing.

This is great news for most of the world. The best thing we can do for most of humanity is to facilitate globalization, but we should balance that with aid to those in the US who will be displaced. The trick is figuring out how best to provide that aid.

In the Futures market both "US Socialism" and "Servants are US" are up 20 points.

Republican strategy: energize the wackos

It is fundamentally reassuring that Republican operatives consider their base to be raving loonies who should be brought out of the asylum only for elections:
Crooked Timber: Wackos:

Michael Scanlon … explained the strategy in an e-mail to a tribal client.

“Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them,” he wrote. “The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right, Christian radio, e-mail, the internet and telephone trees.”
I prefer the rule of cynical and evil people with good sense to the rule of wackos. Karl Rove is of the Scanlon camp -- but where's George?

Keeping the Elderly on the Road, but Out From Behind the Wheel - New York Times

A year or two ago, bicyclists on the roads of Montreal were dropping like flies on a windshield. Elder drivers were churning out road kill.

Montreal has narrow roads, and an aged population (the remnants of the engish quebecois) in the west end of the island. Aging sucks. Visual perception is a complex processor intensive internal simulation of the external world. Aging hits perception everywhere -- the lens stiffens, the vitreous opacifies, the retina atrophies, the brain rots. Perception goes. Let's not discuss the impact of cell phones (hey, it's the only way I can call my mother).

We compensate in our forties and fifties by driving more cautiously and by avoiding sleep deprivation and mind-altering substances (except caffeine). This only goes so far. By age 65 the tide has turned ..
Keeping the Elderly on the Road, but Out From Behind the Wheel - New York Times

... People 65 and older account for more accidents per miles driven than any group other than teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

... In 1988, Ms. Freund watched a motorist run over her 3-year-old son, Ryan, as he played in front of their house. The 84-year-old driver later told investigators that he thought he had run over a dog. The accident left Ryan in a coma, but he eventually recovered. Ms. Freund went on to study the issue of elderly drivers while in graduate school.

By the time she left the University of Southern Maine with a degree in public policy, she had refined her idea. She knew that older drivers' cars often got little use. Using the model of a reverse mortgage, a home equity loan that enables people to tap into the value of their homes, Ms. Freund applied the formula to cars.

Under her program, elderly people trade in their cars and the value is booked into an account from which they can draw to receive rides. On average, $7 to $8 is deducted for each ride. Family and friends can add to the account by donating cars or cash, or their time as volunteers.

Taking cars away from the elderly is not an easy business. Nobody is great at it, neither physicians nor licensing boards not families. Most American cities are so car centric it would be less bothersome to lose a leg than a car. This problem will get worse every year for the next 30 years; we'll hear more about it. We need to put a lot of "smarts" in cars and in the transit environment to compensate for what we're losing. Maybe gas at $12/gallon will help ...

How to write a business plan

The most useful summary I've read on how to do a business plan. Valuable for your next startup or for justifying an internal project or acquisition.

Kawasaki is going to burn out on his blogging soonner or later, but I hope he keeps his work online. At the moment his is among the best entrepreneurial writing online. (Joel Spolsky and Paul Graham are two other favorites.)
Let the Good Times Roll by Guy Kawasaki: The Zen of Business Plans:

... "# Pitch, then plan. Most people create a business plan, and it's a piece of crap: sixty pages long, fifty-page appendix, full of buzzwords, acronyms, and superficialities like, “All we need is one percent of the market.” Then they create a PowerPoint pitch from it. Is it any wonder why that the plans are lousy when they are based on crappy pitches? The correct sequence is to perfect a pitch (10/20/30), and then write the plan from it. Write this down: A good business plan is an elaboration of a good pitch; a good pitch is not the distillation of good business plan. Why? Because it's much easier to revise a pitch than to revise a plan. Give the pitch a few times, see what works and what doesn't, change the pitch, and then write the plan. Think of your pitch as your outline, and your plan as the full text. How many people write the full text and then write the outline?
# Put in the right stuff. Here's what a business plan should address: Executive Summary (1), Problem (1), Solution (1), Business Model (1), Underlying Magic (1), Marketing and Sales (1), Competition (1), Team (1), Projections (1), Status and Timeline (1), and Conclusion (1). Essentially, this is the same list of topics as a PowerPoint pitch. Those numbers in parenthesis are the ideal lengths for each section; note that they add up to eleven. As you'll see in a few paragraphs, the ideal length of a business plan is twenty pages, so I've given you nine pages extra as a fudge factor.

# Focus on the executive summary. True or false: The most important part of a business plan is the section about the management team. The answer is False.* The executive summary, all one page of it, is the most important part of a business plan. If it isn't fantastic, eyeball-sucking, and pulse-altering, people won't read beyond it to find out who's on your great team, what's your business model, and why your product is curve jumping, paradigm shifting, and revolutionary. You should spend eighty percent of your effort on writing a great executive summary. Most people spend eighty percent of their effort on crafty a one million cell Excel spreadsheet that no one believes.

# Keep it clean. The ideal length of a business plan is twenty pages or less, and this includes the appendix. For every ten pages over twenty pages, you decrease the likelihood that the plan will be read, much less funded, by twenty-five percent. When it comes to business plans, less is more. Many people believe that the purpose of a business plan is to create such shock and awe that investors are begging for wiring instructions; the reality is that the purpose of a a business plan is to get to the next step: continued due diligence with activities such as checking personal and customer references. The tighter the thinking, the shorter the plan; the shorter the plan, the faster it will get read.

# Provide a one-page financial projection plus key metrics. Many business plans contain five year projections with a $100 million top line and such minute levels of detail that the budget for pencils is a line item. Everyone knows that you're pulling numbers out of the air that you think are large enough to be interesting, but not so large as to render urine drug-testing unnecessary. Do everyone a favor: Reduce your Excel hallucinations to one page and provide a forecast of the key metrics of your business--for example, the number of paying customers. These key metrics provide insight into your assumptions. For example, if you're assuming that you'll get twenty percent of the Fortune 500 to buy your product in the first year, I would suggest checking into a rehab program.

Search engines for Patriots

The same government that gave us the extra-legal NSA searches, has also extracted mass search data from MSN, AOL, and Yahoo -- but not Google.

Nobody is all that shocked. When you're online, everyone knows you're a pervert. Expectations of privacy are amusing. As is this satirical web search service:
Patriot Search - Our Search Syntax

The Terrorist Operator

By typing terrorist:true preceding any search query, you tell us and the governments of the world that you are in fact a terrorist, or involved in terrorist activity, or planning to get involved in such activity, or that you once met a terrorist (or you met someone who met a terrorist). If you are no terrorist, you can type terrorist:false. Please note that 'true' is the default value if you
omit the 'terrorist' operator -- after all, everyone is a potential terrorist.
The Bushies just like to watch.

Cringely surveys the Bush surveilance program

Why did Bush bypass FISA? The story he gives doesn't hold water; FISA would have supported his stated goals. So either Bush is mad with power lust or he needed to do something else. Most of us suspect a combination of both, but really more of the latter. He wanted to do untargeted surveilance of some sort. That's the strong consensus of the mainstream geek security community.

The next question is whether the NSA was studying the content of messages, or whether they were studying "message metadata". If it was the latter, they could apply social network tools to study communication networks (directed graphs) and correlate message length and duration with other parameters. The message metadata might then be used to target further surveilance and/or intercepts, with our without FISA approval. Interstingly, depending on how the post-Nixon laws were written, metadata surveilance may have been omitted -- providing a loophole the NSA could exploit.

A secondary question is whether this is a good use of resources. Schneier argues it wasn't, that the available evidence suggests a high level of false positive probes and a lot of wasted attention -- not to mention harm to the 'false positives'. I confess analyzing metadata to focus seconary probes sounds plausibly effective to a novice like me, but this is Schneier's domain.

Now Cringely, one of my favorite tech gurus, weighs in (the title of the article is based on surveilance of the weekly conversations between Hitler and ITT during WW II, a rather shocking and suspect business): (emphases mine)
PBS | I, Cringely . January 19, 2006 - Hitler on Line One

To this point what we have been considering are technically called "intercepts" -- listening to phone calls and recording the information they contain. Most phone taps in the U.S. aren't conducted that way at all. On top of the approximately 3,500 CALEA and FISA intercepts conducted each year, there are another 75,000 domestic phone taps called "pen/traps" by the telephone company.

While interceptions capture the voice portion of a telephone call or the data portion of an electronic communication, such as the content of e-mail, pen/traps capture just the outgoing digits dialed (the pen register portion of the technology) and the numbers of the incoming callers (the trap and trace portion of the technology). In CALEA terms, these are "call-identifying information." [jf: metadata]

Court authorizations for interceptions are difficult to obtain for many reasons. Pen/traps are easy to obtain. While the government has to obtain court authorization to install a pen/trap, the role of the court in this review and approval procedure is merely "ministerial" -- primarily a form of record-keeping. The government has a very low hurdle to meet to obtain judicial approval for pen/traps, and if that hurdle is met, the court MUST approve the order. Pen/traps are very useful in a criminal investigation, and inexpensive compared to a court-approved interception. So, it is not surprising that there are so many more pen/traps than there are interceptions.

To get this far, I had to talk to a lot of former and current telco people, and one thing I learned is that they generally don't like having to do either type of phone tap. Under both laws, telephone companies that do this kind of work are supposed to be reimbursed for it, yet many phone companies never send a bill. Whether that is because of patriotism or fear of liability, I don't know. Many phone companies also outsource their phone taps to smaller firms that specialize in that kind of work. These firms handle the legal paperwork, and generally more than pay for themselves by billing the Feds, too, on behalf of the telco.

It feels a little creepy to me knowing that our telephone systems can be accessed at will by "rent-a-tap" outfits, and that the technology has advanced to the point where such intercepts can apparently be done from a properly-authorized PC.

Is all of this worth worrying about? What led me on this quest in the first place was the fact that I simply couldn't understand why the Administration felt the need to go beyond FISA, given that the court nearly always granted warrants and warrants could be done retroactively. But does it really matter? I didn't know whether to be outraged or bored, and I feared that most Americans were in similar positions.

Given that this is all about National Security, we'll probably never know the full answer. Even if the proper research is conducted and answers obtained, they won't be shared with you or me. But here's a hint from a lawyer who used to be in charge of exactly these compliance issues for one of the largest RBOCs: "While it is true the FISA court approves nearly all applications submitted to it, this is due primarily to the close vetting the DOJ attorneys give to applications before they are submitted to the court. In fact, the FISA appellate court noted that the DOJ standards had been higher than the statute required. I am unaware that the court has 'retroactively' approved any electronic surveillance that was not conducted in an emergency situation. There are four emergency situations enumerated in the statute. Even in an emergency, the government has to apply for approval of what they have already started or in some case finished and these applications have to meet the same strict standards as any other application."

So the probable answer is that the several hundred NSA communication intercepts wouldn't have qualified for submission by the DoJ to the FISA court, and some of those might not have qualified for FISA court orders even if they had been submitted. It looks like the difference between using a rifle or a shotgun, with the Bush Administration clearly preferring the shotgun approach. Only time will tell, though, if what they are doing is legal.
So Cringely argues that it's harder to get intercepts than FISA's record shows, and that there's a low hurdle for monitoring metadata. Interesting. It is interesting that the "dirty work" has been outsourced by phone companies; I suspect those independent firms are staffed by people with some interesting but unstated employment records. The technique of outsourcing the dirty work to the "private sector" has allowed many agencies, including the FBI to bypass the law.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The historical demographics of Iraq: Why don't we know them?

As predicted, the ethnic coalition called "Shia" won the Iraqi election. The ethnic group called "Sunni" are unhappy. They are thought to now constitute about 20% of Iraqis, but western media commonly report that they think they are a majority.

Doesn't anyone find this curious? Evidently not. I tried a Google search on "demographics history Iraq Sunni population fertility" and found nothing of value. Why hasn't some bored journalist spent a day researching this with a librarian?

Iraq is a very young country, with a "slightly" older city - Baghdad. The demographics will be a bit tricky to sort out, but it could be done. My bet is that the Shia population within the rough bounds of modern-day Iraq has been increasingly very quickly over the past 100 years, while the Sunni population has been growing much more slowly due to higher Shia fertility and immigration. This is a typical pattern in which one ethnic group is wealthier and dominant; the sub-group reproduces faster. (For all I know humans are programmed this way.)

I'd further wager that the Sunni's have historically dominated this region, and that about 100 years ago they were about half the population. Lastly I'd bet that the Shia and Sunni represent slightly different genetic populations as well as religious traditions.

Of course I'm probably wrong about all of the above. I have no data. That's the point. How can we have a government so incompetent that the answers to those questions are not well known?

PS. Extra credit: explain how climate shifts and human induced deforestation contributed to the 9/11? Hint: Afghanistan was once relatively fertile.

PPS. I grew up in Quebec. Why would the above seem obvious to me?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Gore speech

[Update 1/20: BlogThis! did something quite nasty to the encoded search string. Could be yet another bug. I hope I've fixed it.

As of 1/19/2006 there are over 400,000 Google hits on Al Gore We the People Must Save Our Constitution.

Not bad for a speech that the mainstream media has utterly ignored.

There's something about Gore journalists dislike. We suffer for their folly. Whenever I feel some regret about the collapse of the print newspapers, I remember how journalists covered the Gore campaign. Their current peril is not desirable, but it does have a silver lining.

... The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.

Where we disagree is on the proposition that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government in order to protect Americans from terrorism. When in fact, doing so would make us weaker and more vulnerable.

And remember that once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its mistakes and reveal errors, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police its activities. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws...

Rumor has it that the first murder is the hard one. After that, they get easier. The Bush administraiton is a serial constitutional murderer.

PS. David Brin described an alterantive universe in which Gore became President. It was a far better place, except the media hated him and the right wing was launching an indigenous American terrorist movement.

The new doctor shortage - Michigan

The pipeline to produce physicians is so long, and the costs to students so great, that it is not at all surprising that we go through boom and bust cycles. In my career I've seen family practice cycle from startup to boom to bust. Unsurprisingly the cycle may be shifting again, though I wonder what role Michigan's economic and liability issues play in their pending shortage:
Crain's Detroit Business

... The Michigan Department of Community Health on Wednesday said it will create a data clearinghouse of medical professionals to help the state’s health care providers deal with a looming physician shortage.

According to a recent state survey, about 37 percent of Michigan’s physicians are 55 or older, and more than 38 percent of physicians say they plan to practice medicine for only one to 10 more years. A separate state study indicated that Michigan will need to fill more than 100,000 professional and health care jobs in the next decade.
Normal boom/bust cycles, atypical demographic cycles, and the possibly permanent decline in the appeal of primary care practice may conspire to make this coming shortage more severe than most.

The obvious approaches are to train more paramedical staff (NP and PAs), to encourage immigration of more physicians, to do more outsourcing of services overseas (radiology, dermatology, etc), and to move more care to 'disease management' programs. I am confident all these approaches will be tried and all will have a role. I also suspect that, within 10 years, we will reinvent the GP/FP/General Internist/Pediatrician once again -- though possibly under a different "brand".

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The publicly traded politician - and other reform proposals

Wow, political reform is back again. For a week. I read one semi-serious proposal that I quite liked. It reminded me of something. Took me a few minutes to remember what.

It turns out that in 1996 I wrote a web page with two radical and semi-serious approaches to reforming politics. The old pages are topical again ...
Campaign Finance Reform: Voluntary Mandated Sharing:

... Campaigns need money. Powerful people need good things. Both needs can be satisfied by transforming politicians into publicly owned corporations. After meeting standard accounting requirements, a politician would be sold through an IPO. The usual futures and options markets would develop. Standard reporting and accounting regulations and SEC enforcement would apply. Cheaters would be delisted, and thus be effectively removed from future campaigns.
Read the page for the other proposal.

A critical military analysis of the war on terrorism

Crooked Timber does a nice job of excerpting a longer post by a military historian
Crooked Timber: � Shadows and Fog

.... To summarize, then—sorry about that—a too-hierarchical, too-orthodox U.S. Army, and U.S. military in general, leans heavily on lumbering equipment, high technology, and major ground offensives against an enemy that relies on tactics that are often not even conventionally military in nature; we mass artillery against threatening letters and infrastructure sabotage. In equipment, doctrine, tactics, and leadership structure, we’re organized for the wrong enemy, in ways that can’t be easily or quickly changed.
The entire excerpt is quite interesting -- well worth reading. The original is a bit long.

BTW, the latest rumor is that Cheney is trying to get Saudi Arabia to fund a UN authorized Egyptian force to save the Iraqi Sunnis after the US pulls out. Blocking Iran is a not small fringe benefit.

The drug discount debacle -- one illustrative story

Just one tiny story in the midst of the immense drug discount card debacle.

The U Share - Medicare-Approved Prescription Drug Discount Card site is one of many associated with the "benefit". It lists, for example, commonly prescribed medications. Alas, any elder (or family member) navigating the list of covered drugs would be perplexed when they clicked on the 'next' button and got a page error. The site builder forgot that UNIX is case specific, and the URL uses an upper case letter when it needed a lower case letter. Of course there's no link to a webmaster to tell them what the bug is.

No feedback loop. Runaway complexity. Debacle squared.

Getting an ovation for your speech

I've never gotten a standing ovation for a speech or lecture, but I'm no Guy Kawaki. When I do some of what he says here, however, I do get applause. I can live with that.

A terrific list of tips. Use them for your next lecture, presentation, or even speech.

Kawasaki's blog, by the way, is terrific. I recommend starting from the very beginning.

Exercise and Alzheimer's: How to fix the demented media

I read yet another bulletin declaring that "exercise can prevent alzheimer's". Sigh. The elderly who exercise 3 times a week are 50% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. All that means is that it's worth funding more research. My bet is that a loss of commitment to exercise is an early indicator of a dementing process.

Some of the stupidest coverage came from the Wall Street Journal. I was feeling annoyable today, so I did a quick study. Someone who needs a pub should write this up as a letter to Lancet. I bet they'd get a nice cite.

I googled on the news: exercise alzheimer's - Google News:
Exercise Research
WOWT, NE - 18 hours ago
... More research is needed to better understand how exercise may help protect against diseases like Alzheimer's, but for now researchers say one thing is clear ...
Research Notebook
OregonLive.com, OR - 6 hours ago
... years, 158 had developed dementia, including 107 diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease ... older adults who exercise Another study that looked at physical activity in ...
Study: Exercise May Reduce Risk of Alzheimer's Disease
ABC News - Jan 16, 2006
... Researchers emphasize that this study is not proof that exercise reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease, but they say the results are consistent with several ...
Alzheimer's Disease May Be Prevented With Exercise
Fashion Monitor Toronto, Canada - 23 hours ago
... The six core strategies to prevent Alzheimer's disease include exercise, diet, a program of vitamin and herbal supplementation, regular brain stimulation, a ...
Exercise Not Enough to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease PR Web (press release)
all 3 related »
Exercise Significantly Reduces Risk of Dementia in Senior Citizens
SeniorJournal.com, TX - Jan 16, 2006
... growing evidence that exercise – particularly if it starts early and is maintained over time - is beneficial in preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease ...
Health Roundup: Alzheimer’s And Exercise, Sibling Drinking ...
NBC 10.com, PA - Jan 16, 2006
... The things that reduce our risk for Alzheimer's are: exercise, reducing our cholesterol with statins, eating a lower fat diet and lowering our blood pressure ...
Exercise associated with reduced risk of dementia in older people
EurekAlert (press release), DC - Jan 16, 2006
... Additional study also may provide information on the possible merits of varying types of exercise. For information about Alzheimer's disease, visit the ...
It turns out that about half of the top-ranking Google results used "may" and a few even used "associated with" (they get five stars). The rest, alas, were as dismal as the Wall Street Journal.

So here's how to shame the media into doing better. JAMA should run a report after each report of a finding associated with reduced cancer, dementia, etc. The journalist can simply execute a Google News search and extract the titles. Titles are then ranked for words like "may" and (best) "associated with". Report the results by dividing press into "Good", "Bad" and "Ugly" categories.

After six months on the "Ugly" list, the Wall Street Journal gets a special prize.

Eventually, they improve.

Good-bye cross country skiing

The first time I tried cross-country skiing, I wasn't done healing from chest surgery. It made my tentative pole plans particularly poignant -- I paid for each slip. Maybe that's why I remember that 1970s day particularly well. It was the start of a great relationship. I was never a competitive skier, but I loved skiing the skinny skis on skinny woods trails (classic only please -- no highways for me). It was a great sport for an outing in Montreal's big city parks, and a spectacular sport in the stubby Laurentians.

In those days we had months of decent snow cover in Quebec. In the early 1980s, I even had one very memorable ski outing in the San Gabriel mountains overlooking Los Angeles. Things were turning though. In central Pennsylvania, where I did my residency training, the nordic ski resorts were closing by the late 1980s. Since then it's been mostly downhill.

This winter looked like it might be an exception; we some great snow cover in the twin cities before Christmas. I saw a park packed with skiers. Alas, the weather has returned to form -- gray and mild. The Twin Cities now has the climate of central Indiana or Iowa.

There will still be snowy days in Saint Paul, and even some days below zero, but the world is moving on. Global Climate Change may mean Europe gets much colder, but for the northern US it mostly means milder weather.

I don't think our kids will ever cross country ski -- unless we move to altitude or to Houghton Michigan. I do miss it though.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

iPod and iTunes: an unexpected effect

Results 1 - 30 of about 524,000,000 for ipod [2]

I have a love/hate relationship with Apple, as compared to a hate/hate relationship with Microsoft. I cannot deny, though, that Apple has brought one good new thing to an old dog -- music.

The iPod/iTunes combination has transformed an all-but-forgotten CD collection (bought, inherited [1], married) into something I'm getting to know. This is novel for me -- I was never a knowledgeable listener. It's the iTunes playlist, rating, listening, refining interaction that's helped me learn the collection, and the iPod technology has let me integrate it into a compressed modern existence.

Years ago I liked Joni Mitchell -- but I confess I'd never really paid much attention to her music. She's fallen a long way since I started hearing the lyrics. Joan Baez, on the other hand, has returned from the depths. The more I hear him, the more I like Springsteen - including his unfashionable mature work. Stan Rogers wears well. Rock, country, folk, jazz, classical, eventually opera. Names that are familiar, and those that almost no-one listens to. New and old. There's a lot to explore in 500 years of music.

The difference, which radio of any form cannot bring, is learning the music.

[1] The inheritance of digital music libraries will be an interesting story to track. There's a lot of music out there on CD, and it's not clear that new technologies will greatly change our listening experience. Unlike video, audio recording started to converge on human perceptual limits over 15 years ago. The staggering volume of what's already been purchased by families, and rarely discarded, may be as big an issue for the industry as digital file sharing. The fact that iPod/iTunes greatly enhances the value of existing music collections is very ominous for the music industry. Short of preventing encoding of extant CDs, is there anything the industry can do to escape this trap? I suspect recent falling digital music sales may be in good part due to users rediscovering old collections.

[2] A half-billion hits on Google? That's a lot of splogs!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Iran's program: what's so complicated?

The WSJ has another somewhat dull article on Iran's nuclear weapons program. There's been remarkably little informative discussion.

Iran wants a nuclear weapon and they'll likely get one sooner or later. Many nations would like Iran to get its nuke as far in the future as possible, ideally after a regime change. All the efforts being expended are to delay the acquisition date. The only real question is whether China and Russia will cooperate. That cooperation will depend on a lot of trading and swapping with the US and Europe.

One can argue that Bush's cavalier attitude towards treaties of all types, and the NPT in particular, hasn't helped. I don't have much of an opinion either way. Once Pakistan had its bomb (mostly built pre-Bush), and once the US invaded Iraq, the die was pretty much cast.

All this chatter about treaty obligations etc etc is mostly irrelevant. I can imagine that if China and Russia fully cooperated that Iran's nuclear program could be delayed for a few years, which might just allow for a less whacky Iranian President. (Maybe we'd get a less whacky US president too.)

Update 11/18/06: It looks like Russia is going to block sanctions, so it's pretty much game over now. There's nothing quite like fundamentalist zealots with nuclear weapons. At least Iranian fundamentalists don't seem to have the end-time enthusiasms of our religious extremists.

If Al Gore had been our president, would engagement with Iran have prevented the "election" of their current nut-case president? We'll never know.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Why the democrats should filibuster Alito

Not because of Roe v Wade. Because Alito supports Bush signing a bill banning torture while issuing a 'signing statement' that he is not obliged to abide by it:
The Imperial Presidency at Work - New York Times

...Both of the offensive theories at work here - that a president's intent in signing a bill trumps the intent of Congress in writing it, and that a president can claim power without restriction or supervision by the courts or Congress - are pet theories of Judge Samuel Alito, the man Mr. Bush chose to tilt the Supreme Court to the right.The administration's behavior shows how high and immediate the stakes are in the Alito nomination, and how urgent it is for Congress to curtail Mr. Bush's expansion of power. Nothing in the national consensus to combat terrorism after 9/11 envisioned the unilateral rewriting of more than 200 years of tradition and law by one president embarked on an ideological crusade.
A filibuster would likely fail, but it is a noble cause and, given where Bush is going, history may judge it well.

Hard core libertarian praising Ted Kennedy?

Wow. The end times must be near. A friend with libertarian sympathies sends me a link to a libertarian pundit -- praising (albeit through clenched teeth) Ted Kennedy's criticisms of Alito:
Agreeing With Ted Kennedy by Anthony Gregory:

... How sad it is that we have come to the point that we have to rely on Ted Kennedy to be the voice of reason on some of the most fundamental issues of the day. How frightening it is to be agreeing with Ted Kennedy and disagreeing with nearly the entire rightwing on these issues, all while most of the talking heads ignore them nearly completely...
Rockwell's Kennedy quotes are great, and, yes, I agree the media ignored them. The mainstream media is plumbing new depths of inadequacy every day; blogs are helping but they're no replacement. We are hurting because the Fifth estate is in the toilet.

As to Alito, forget Roe vs. Wade. Alito is bad because he believes the American President can have the powers of a tyrant -- at least when the president is Republican. I rather doubt his sentiments would extend to a Democrat.

Douglass' judgment upon Lincoln

[correction: I was guilty of the great faux pas of spelling Douglass with one s.]

DeLong has put together an excellent post, combining Lincoln's words from his debates with Frederick Douglass 1876 judgment of Lincoln:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined...
Douglas was a terribly eloquent writer. I do recommend reading the entire post.

Listen to Stanford lectures on iTunes

Jon Udell pointed me here. You can listen to Stanford lectures -- but only on iTunes. I gather Apple is cosponsoring the project. Jon is rightly concerned about the iTunes lockin; he connects it to the DRM plague. I'm confident Microsoft will sponsor something similar -- with a lock-in to Windows Media Player.

In fairness though the lock-in part is not really DRM, it's the same old technique that made Microsoft the most dominant corporation in the past century. Apple's very good at it too, just not as clever as Microsoft.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Medlogs is looking good on Bloglines

Jacob Reider and his cohorts recently added an RSS feed to their RSS aggregator: Medlogs.com - The News Aggregator for Medical Topics.

The initial version didn't render well on Bloglines -- it included a section of unwanted descriptive text. Jacob has just fixed that it looks quite good now.

I now get my medlogs in the same space as my other syndicated reading. (So is Bloglines a meta-aggregator, since it's getting a feed from an aggregator?)

You can't win - the trap of the home office depreciation

On the advice of an accountant, I depreciated my home office. Bad mistake. When you sell, there are lots of headaches. Grrr. The infuriating part is that if even if you deducted expenses, but not depreciation, the IRS taxes you as though you claimed the depreciation.

Between Digital Rights Management and the IRS I'm ready for a life of crime.
Depreciation Appreciation 101: The Ins and Outs of Deducting for a Home Office - New York Times


... The I.R.S. allows you to take a home office deduction if you meet certain conditions, and about 30 million taxpayers manage to meet them. The rules are pretty clear for the self-employed. The home office has to be the primary place of business, used exclusively and regularly for that business. If your office fits that definition, you can write off a percentage of the utilities, the mortgage, repairs and maintenance and, of course, all the office equipment and furniture stuffed into it.

... when you sell your home for a profit you have to recapture the depreciation you took on that office and pay taxes on it. For example, say you bought a house for $500,000 and used 10 percent of it for an office. (You figure that out by measuring the square footage of the office and dividing that by the square footage of the entire house.) You are allowed to depreciate 10 percent of the purchase price of the house each year using what the government succinctly calls the "39-year commercial property straight time depreciation schedule." That adds up to about $6,000 in depreciation over five years.

You later sell the house for $750,000. The $250,000 in profit is excluded from tax. But the $6,000 you took in depreciation over the years must be reported as a gain on Schedule D, in the gains and losses section. It is taxed at a 25 percent rate.

What if you take other home office deductions and skip the depreciation? Nancy Mathis, an I.R.S. spokeswoman, says that will not help. "Even if you don't take this depreciation, it will be treated as if you did when it comes times for calculating the basis of the home sale and capital gains exclusion." The I.R.S. will not say why it makes that assumption, but accountants surmise it is because the government cannot keep track of home-office owners who might depreciate some years and then stop right before selling in hopes of avoiding the extra tax.

Here's something to think about: If you rent, you avoid this entire frustration when claiming a home office deduction.

Now for the more complicated question: Remember that the government allows a single person to exclude $250,000 of capital gains on a home sale and a married couple, $500,000. If you claimed 10 percent of your home as a home office and wrote that off over the years, when you sell the house, do you owe capital gains tax on 10 percent of the profit? This is what is tripping up Mr. Sigal, the chemical engineer.

The government used to say, you owe the tax on the portion of the residence that is used for commercial purposes. But it gave taxpayers a little gift when a new rule took effect in 2002. The home office inside the structure of your house is no longer considered commercial property. Everything is covered under the capital gains exclusion. If your accountant is not up to date on that, ask him or her to check it out.

Indeed, Mr. Sigal does not owe as much as he was told and a new accountant confirmed that he owes taxes on only the $2,000 of recaptured depreciation.

But in changing the rules, the I.R.S. also made things more complicated. Funny how that happens. That no-tax rule applies only if the home office is part of the structure of the main residence. "If it is a separate building," said David Gitel, a New York City tax accountant, "you are out of luck." When you work out of a detached garage or shed, you must compute the profit that is attributable to that structure and pay a capital gains tax of 15 percent on it, plus the tax on the depreciation recapture.

In that case, what you can do is make what is called a 1031 exchange. Don't do it without guidance from an accountant, but buy another piece of commercial property within 190 days and you can avoid paying taxes.

Given how complicated it is, many people might ask whether it is worth the bother to deduct a home office on Schedule C, the form for private businesses. Would it be easier to just write off most of the expenses as nonreimbursable business expenses on Schedule A?

You probably are deducting your interest payments and your property taxes on Schedule A anyway. The benefit to using Schedule C - you'll need two other forms, 8829 and 4562 - is that the mortgage, the taxes and other costs of running the home office decrease the income you made from your home-run business. That means there is less that is assessed the 15.3 percent self-employed Social Security tax. "You get more out of it on Schedule C," Mr. Gitel said.

But if you don't qualify for a home office, Schedule A is the place to deduct business expenses. A good tax accountant will make easy work of this. Tax software, like the Premier edition of TurboTax, can do it, too, and will also walk you through the process of depreciation recapture in a series of interview questions.

You can deduct other things if you have a home business. In addition to a share of utility bills, you can deduct an extra phone line, any business equipment you buy or the business use of the car.

You can hire your spouse as an employee and provide medical insurance. He or she puts you on her medical plan and your business swallows the cost as a business expense, reducing your taxable income. Retirement accounts for private businesses are also quite generous and another good way to shield income.

As for Mr. Sigal, he has a home office in his new condo. But this time he is cutting his taxes by deducting business expenses that were not reimbursed by his employer.
In Minnesota, when you sell, you're asked if you ever took the home office deduction. I'm told savvy people give the same answers as Judge Alito -- I can't recollect that.

I do like the bit about the spousal insurance though.