Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Where has the money gone? To the very American oligarchy.

DeLong liberates Krugman from the NYT pay-prison (emphases mine):
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

From Krugman, NYT:
So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that. A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we're talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn't give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it's probably well over $6 million a year....

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story. Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society? Yes, and not just because a rising economic tide has failed to lift most boats. Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project....
So when does the revolt occur? Will we see a reinvented Al Gore return at the vanguard of a populist rebellion?

Tonight, on NPR, I heard a naive young woman describing a book she'd written about the financial hurdles faced now by her Gen Xrs. Specifically, she and her husband couldn't really afford to live in New York City, but that thought didn't seem to have occurred to them -- so they ran out of cash. What she's really experiencing, of course, is life when the returns on productivity are increasingly concentrated in an Argentinian-style oligarchy. The fact that she wasn't advocating a populist government tells me things will need to get quite a bit worse before most folks catch on.

Psychoanalysis as alternative medicine: Tommyrot in the NYT OpEd page

I was thinking of Freud the other day. A great thinker, a great writer, and a flawed human being to be sure, but he started out as a scientist. I wonder if some of his very early work as, I think, a neurologist, may still hold up. Most of his time, however, was dedicated to psychoanalysis.

It was of that work that I wondered -- was there anything in there of value? Was it anything but a massive diversion and distraction from a deeper understanding of the human mind? I wondered if any modern scientist had dug through Freud's writings looking for any testable hypotheses that could hold water today. Then I came across this awful OpEd by Adam Phillips in the NYT:
A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Measure - New York Times

PSYCHOTHERAPY is having yet another identity crisis. It has manifested itself in two recent trends in the profession in America: the first involves trying to make therapy into more of a "hard science" by putting a new emphasis on measurable factors; the other is a growing belief among therapists that the standard practice of using talk therapy to discover traumas in a patient's past is not only unnecessary but can be injurious.

.... One of the good things psychotherapy can do, like the arts, is show us the limits of what science can do for our welfare. The scientific method alone is never going to be enough, especially when we are working out how to live and who we can be.

... the attempt to present psychotherapy as a hard science is merely an attempt to make it a convincing competitor in the marketplace. It is a sign, in other words, of a misguided wish to make psychotherapy both respectable and servile to the very consumerism it is supposed to help people deal with.

... its practitioners should not be committed either to making money or to trivializing the past or to finding a science of the soul.

... No amount of training and research, of statistics-gathering and empathy, can offset that unique uncertainty of the encounter.

... Psychotherapists are people whose experience tells them that certain risks are often worth taking, but more than this they cannot rightly say. There are always going to be casualties of therapy.

Psychotherapy makes use of a traditional wisdom ...
Let me get this straight. Recent studies suggest some of the key therapies of psychotherapy are potentially harmful. Rather than investigate this further, Philips makes an appeal to "art", "traditional wisdom" and the fight against "consumerism" (which apparently includes the hard cold light of reason).

Wow. What pretty, pathetic, balderdash. Philips is using arguments that even the alternative medicine cult world has largely abandoned. He's basically arguing against reason and measurement. Those psychoanalysts working hard to figure out how to maximize benefit and minimize harm have my deep sympathies -- having someone like Philips on the NYT Op Ed page is a real slap in the face.

The tragicomic security failures of the financial services industry: Acxiom's story

The security situation in the financial services industry has passed beyond shocking into darkly comical. For about four years the personal data, effectively the digital identities, of millions of Americans were sold for less than a dollar apiece to criminal organizations. The source was Acxiom, a little-known financial services company that provides transactional services for the credit card industry. This very poorly written story also has some interesting details on how extraordinary the financial data mining industry has become: (I've edited it as much as I can to help make it a bit more coherent):
Data Thief Exposes Flimsy Security, Nets 8 Years

Posted on 02/24/2006 @ 16:55:34 in Security.

The former owner of an email marketing company in Boca Raton, Florida [Scott Levine] will be spending eight years on a forced sabbatical for filching one billion data records from Acxiom, one of the world's largest managers of personal, financial, and corporate data.

According to the Cincinnati Post, Acxiom handles "14 of the 15 top credit cards companies, five of the six biggest retail banks and seven of the top 10 car makers. All share the credit card and other information of their customers with Acxiom."Other customers include TransUnion and the City of Chicago. In addition, Acxiom maintains nearly 850 terabytes of storage across five football fields worth of data centers worldwide, including the US Europe, China and Australia. Among other things, they process over a billion US postal records a day.

Acxiom claims it "continually gathers data from thousands of public and private sources," enabling it to offer the "widest and latest selection of data possible" with "the most informative, accurate and recent demographic, socio-economic and lifestyle data available-at the individual or household level."

And all that data's not being collected for posterity. Acxiom offers it to direct marketers, among others, to identify the best prospects. For example, its CPI score, which is updated monthly, tracks an individual's economic life and "quantifies the size of a specific consumer's economic footprint, indicating the historical consumer purchasing and relative amount of marketing activity surrounding that individual."

... Daniel Baas... was the systems administrator for a small shop that did business with Acxiom. He was tasked with downloading his company's files from Acxiom's FTP server.

Gregory Lockhart, the US Attorney in Charge said, "Baas committed a crime when he exceeded his authorized access, looked for and downloaded an encrypted password file, and ran a password cracking program against the file."

... Baas illegally obtained about 300 passwords, including one that acted like a "master key" and allowed him to download files that belonged to other Acxiom customers. The downloaded files contained personal identification information.

Millions of records worth US$1.9 million.

... Baas burned CDs full of Acxiom's data from 10 December 2002 through New Years [year?], Acxiom said it had no idea its security had been breached till the sheriff called nearly eight months later.

During the course of the Baas investigation, technicians stumbled over another illicit data miner... Scott Levine, owner of Snipermail... yet another Acxiom customer with a password.

The feds claimed that Levine cracked Acxiom's password system so he could filch other peoples' data. From January through July 2003, he abused this authority, ultimately downloading a billion records with a purported street value of US$7 million. ..

... Despite all this, you might say Scott Levine is lucky. His original indictment in July 2004 carried 144 counts. But by the time his jury was finished a year later, the US prison system's latest inductee was found guilty of just 120 counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer, two counts of access device fraud, and one count of obstruction of justice.
So there were two separate identified break-ins of which one led to one conviction on two counts. There were no consequences for Acxiom's crummy security -- after all, they were the "injured" party. The inability of the jury to convict more broadly is typical of these crimes; they are too complex for most trials. Given the history it is reasonable to assume there were other unidentified break-ins.

Bruce Schneier has written for years that nothing will happen until the financial services companies are held directly liable for their security.

There's a lot of enthusiasm in many quarters for electronic health care standards and transactions. Often the security of financial industry transactions is upheld as an indicator that privacy and security issues will be managed well. Pardon my skepticism.

Discarding receipts: IRS accepts scanned images

It's a bit quirky, but my Brother MFC 7820N device is now working as a networked scanner to my Mac and XP machines. I can put something on the flatbed or sheet feeder, press a button and walk away. In under a minute the document is scanned to a reasonably sized black and white 300 dpi 8.5x11 PDF stored on my OS X box. [1]

So now I wonder if I can toss the paper receipts -- at least for tax purposes. The IRS says yes (more on NeatReceipts below):
Welcome to NeatReceipts

Does the IRS accept digital receipts?

Yes. According to ruling Rev. Proc. 97-22, the IRS allows one to prepare, record, transfer, index, store, preserve, retrieve, and reproduce books and records by either electronically imaging hard copy documents to an electronic storage media, or transferring computerized books and records to an electronic storage media that allows them to be viewed or reproduced without using the original program.

Can I throw away my receipts once I have captured an acceptable image?

Yes. According to ruling Rev. Proc. 97-22, the IRS permits the destruction of the original hard copy books and records and the deletion of original computerized records after a taxpayer completes testing of the storage system.
NeatReceipts, incidentally, is a wonderful business idea. They provide custom software and a portable scanner for automated scanning and processing of receipts. I don't know how it works in practice; it has at least two big drawbacks from my perspective. For one it's XP only, and I'm trying to minimize the use of XP at home. For another I don't want yet another scanner. I have a multi-function device with a document scanner, a flat bed scanner, and a Nikon negative scanner. I just can't handle the hassle of another device to fuss with.

[1] I have to be logged in to the account that receives the transfer and I have the firewall disabled, I am trying to figure out what ports are in use so I can reenable the firewall -- but this machine is fairly protected anyway. I can't get things working as well with the XP box, it seems to ignore my configuration settings. I don't have confidence in the software I'm using -- there's no business model to make it robust and reliable. I do have confidence in PDF as an image format so I'll probably switch to something else some day.

The National Parks: Reason 143 to despise Bush

Even if I didn't have 142 other reasons to intensely dislike the GOP and GWB, their attack on the national parks would do all by itself:
Crossroads in the National Parks - New York Times

The Interior Department has extended the period in which the public may comment on the National Park Service's controversial plan to rewrite the management policies for the national parks.

.. The main problem with the proposed revisions is that, taken together, they shift the management focus from the park service's central, historic mission — preserving natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations — to commercial and recreational use of the park for today's generation. As many members of the House and Senate have pointed out in letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, air quality and wilderness are especially at risk since the policy appears to invite greater use of snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles.

... President Bush's new budget calls for a $100 million cut in park appropriations. Viewed cynically, deliberately underfinancing the parks could create the necessary cover for opening the parks to more commercial activity — the last thing the parks need. It also makes a mockery of one of the few campaign promises George W. Bush ever made about the environment: his promise in 2000 to end the maintenance backlog in the national parks. The sharpest cuts — some $84.6 million — would come from money for construction and major maintenance, the very area Mr. Bush promised to address.

... Despite efforts to cram snowmobiles down the public's throat, snowmobile use in Yellowstone has dropped this year, falling well below the 720 machines that are allowed into the park each day. Visitors — including former snowmobilers — are increasingly choosing to use snow coaches, the specially equipped buses that are vastly cleaner than even the cleanest snowmobiles. And Yellowstone is seeing a greater variety of visitors in winter than it used to see when snowmobilers dominated the park.

This battle — as well as the larger battle over the parks' true purpose —isn't likely to end soon. Off-road vehicle groups are doing their best to pressure an already pliable park service leadership in Yellowstone and Washington into increasing access...
The tragedy of the motor brigade is that by winning they destroy what they love -- the wilderness. The Yellowstone story has impressed me though -- given better alternatives they choose the snow coaches to preserve quiet and clean air. That result was predicted by Clinton-era surveys, but of course Norton/Bush disregarded it.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hacking the universe: counterfactual computing

You can measure something -- without actually doing the measurement.

You just threaten to do the measurement. The answer then appears.

It smells like a variant of 'spooky action at a distance'.

That's my summary of counterfactual computing. It will do for me until the Scientific American article comes out, which I will read and fail to comprehend.

This all feels as though we're hacking the infrastructure upon which our "program" runs.

If this stuff turns out to actually have real world implications the next forty years will be even less predictable than expected.

PS. Cosmic Variance has a serious attempt at an explanation.

Drug testing in sports: time to give up?

A few years ago JAMA featured a series of articles on drug testing for atheletes. I don't recall the details, but I do remember concluding that this was a doomed effort. The drug use was getting very sophisticated, and the tests couldn't keep up. Careful users could stay within the published bounds, and eventually every athelete's metrics would converge on the very limits of the test regimen. (This ought to be an amusing study by the way -- plot the narrowing of the distribution of lab values over time.)

Salon reports the end is now:
Salon.com | King Kaufman's Sports Daily

4. Officials administered a reported 1,200 drug tests, a 71 percent increase over the last Winter Games, in 2002. And there was one positive. One. In Salt Lake, seven athletes tested positive out of 700 tests.

So, thanks to the crackdown by world anti-doping forces, we've gone from 1 percent of the tests coming up positive to 0.0083 percent. Problem solved! Glad we cleared that up.

Drug tests performed on the Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes following the raid on their quarters that reportedly turned up dozens of syringes and unlabeled drugs came up negative. The International Olympic Committee says the investigation is ongoing.

Positive tests are not required to punish athletes for drug use, the IOC says. It takes circumstantial evidence into account.

That's probably wise, because drug testing is obviously one of the most abject, spectacular law enforcement failures since Prohibition.
Either that or the Olympics are now suddenly a collection of the cleanest, most drug-free saints ever gathered in one place. On second thought, yeah, I'm sure that's it.
The drug tests still serve a purpose. They set an 'upper bound' on how performance enhancing drugs can be used -- users cannot exceed maximal physiologic outcomes.

In a sense the drugs now compensate for the fundamental inequities of genetic gifts ... So in the interests of fairness we should make the most sophisticated drug regimens and monitoring systems universally available to all atheletes. When they are are equallly tuned, including the use of cognitive modifiers, then the outcome of competition will be chance and training ...

Defining a disease: how often are atypical presentations due to multiple agents?

It's been a long time since I was a real doctor, but occasionally I play one when the kids are sick (my wife is still a real doctor). In the latest episode our six year old had a week of vomiting, persistent fevers, hand and foot complaints and rashes that, to tired and worried parents, looked a bit like Kawaski's Disease. Happily a set of bloodlettings cured him and he never made the diagnostic criteria.

So what did he "really" have? "Bad adenovirus" is the story our most excellent pediatrican gave, though he admits he really doesn't know. In reality, of course, there's no reason why he had to have just one virus. There's nothing about being infected with, say, an enterovirus, that makes one immune to infection with an adenovirus. Likewise a strep infection, for example, does not prevent coronavirus infection. They're all around us in Minnesota at this time of year.

We're used to thinking about multi-organism infections in the context of HIV and ICUs, but they must happen reasonably often in the ambulatory setting. How many unusual presentations, including some with persistent injury or even death, are really the result of coincidental simultaneous viral (or bacterial) infections that together produce far more disease than each would alone? How often does a pathogen cause a commensal to become pathogenic? Our models of disease are, like all models in science, only approximations. We haven't had the instruments to further refine these models, and thus to reconsider the nature and definition of infectious diseases. It will be interesting to see how these things change as we get cheaper and better rapid tests for viral and bacterial infections.

Of course I'm sure all of these speculations are old hat in the infectious disease and microbiology communities, but my background is in primary care. I think changing from a simplified model of disease to a multifactorial and 'emergent' model, will have some interesting consequences in many domains. (I've omitted mention of additional genetic and environmental interactions because that's kind of obvious ...)

PS. Incidentally, when reading about KD both my wife and I were struck yet again about how feeble the descriptions of disease are in the biomedical literature. Most of the descriptions are a list of uncorrelated and unsequenced complaints and findings, as though combinations and temporal evolution were irrelevant -- when in fact those are often the key 'signatures' of a disease. If I didn't know better I'd say our medical writers are encrypting their knowledge, but in fact this I know there's no conspiracy here. It's simply that the audience doesn't demand better.

By comparison layperson stories are often much richer; one parent's website featured a terrific slideshow and description of the evolution of their daughter's successful treatment that shamed every medical text we reviewed. Osler's descriptions of disease in the early 20th century are far better than what we read nowadays.

Some curmudgeon needs to write a paper about this!

PPS. And then there's the remarkable paucity of data in most reviews and articles on the prevalence of cardiac aneurysms in treated Kawasaki's Disease. Come on gang! Applied biomedicine could use a kick in the old pants ...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

What's really going on with the "Port" story?

Google has about 2380 articles about the port story. That's a heck of a lot of noise. None of it makes much sense. There isn't enough there to justify all the fuss. Sure, US port security sucks. Sure this is an incredible sign of incompetence five years after 9/11. That's the fault of the GOP and the Bush administratiion, not the port management company. Dubai is as good an ally as the near-friendless US has these days. The friendless part is also the fault of the GOP and the Bush administration. Sure foreigners are buying up fundamental US assets, but that's because our governmental finances are a complete mess. That's also the fault of the GOP and the Bush administration.

No news here.

So what's really going on that so many Senators have their knickers in knot? It has to be something that no-one is ready to talk about. I have two suggestions:

1. Sure Dubai is an ally. So was Iran under the Shah. Dubai is not a democracy. Maybe security analysts suspect it's ripe for revolution. Maybe Senators know that. It's a rather impolitic thing to say. This is one way in which Duba is not the UK.

2. Follow the money. (This one comes via Emily.) No deal of any size is done in the US today without a kickback to the GOP. They got a percentage, somehow, womewhere. The deal was done pre-Abramoff, and now the GOP is afraid this one might get attention.

Or maybe the answer is #1 and #2 and something else. The one thing I'm betting on is that it isn't anything that's being talked about.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Google to PayPal: your days are numbered

Google's official blog features a remarkably bland post on payment systems that includes a remarkably coy phrase:
Official Google Blog: An update on payments:

... We expect to add payment functionality to Google services where our users need a way to buy online....
There's no mention of when this will be released. My bet would be that we'll see the announcement within 3 weeks.

[note: in the original version of this post I wrote 'eBay' instead of 'PayPal'. I meant the latter.]

Friday, February 24, 2006

Another update on America 1984

Hilzoy of obsidian wings has extensive commentary on a recent New Yorker Article on America's torture program. The torment of the "20th hijacker" is truly impressive. Stalin would have approved.

What I want now is an international panel of wise women and men, trustworthy group of outsider, to pronounce judgment on America. Is it "happening here"?

Air America: On Groundhog Day

I'm a bit behind on my email. I just found this in my inbox (thanks K.):
This year, Groundhog Day and the State of the Union Address fall within two days of each other. As Air America Radio pointed out, "It is an ironic juxtaposition: one involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, and the other involves a groundhog."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Newsweek shreds Bush, but is he incompetent or delusional?

Shrillblog sent me to this massacre of the Bush administration by Bill Hirsch, a senior editor at Newsweek:
Hirsh: Bush’s Poor Leadership in Terror War - Newsweek Politics - MSNBC.com

... What a contrast to four years ago, when the rapid collapse of the Taliban caught bin Laden by surprise as he sought to escape the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora. It was probably the last time, we must now conclude, that the terror impresario was surprised at all. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, records in his new book 'Jawbreaker,' (Crown, 2005) bin Laden told his followers, 'Forgive me,' and apologized for getting them pinned down by the Americans (Berntsen's men were listening on radio). Bin Laden then asked them to pray. And, lo, a miracle occurred. As Berntsen stewed in frustration over the Pentagon’s refusal to rush in more troops to encircle the trapped “sheikh,’ bin Laden was allowed to flee. And not only did Bush stop talking about the man he wanted “dead or alive,” the president began to shift U.S. Special Forces (in particular the Arabic-speaking 5th Group, which had built close relations with its Afghan allies) and Predator drones to the Iraq theater.

It is time to have an accounting of just how badly run, and conceived, this 'war on terror' has been...

...Al-Qaeda’s leaders worried about a military response from the United States, but in such a response they spied opportunity: they had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and they fondly remembered that war as a galvanizing experience, an event that roused the indifferent of the Arab world to fight and win against a technologically superior Western infidel. The jihadis expected the United States, like the Soviet Union, to be a clumsy opponent."

Not in their fondest dreams did they realize how clumsy...

... How then did we arrive at this day, with anti-American Islamist governments rising in the Mideast, bin Laden sneering at us, Qaeda lieutenants escaping from prison, Iran brazenly enriching uranium, and America as hated and mistrusted as it ever has been? The answer, in a word, is incompetence ... So catastrophic was Bush's decision to shift his attention and resources to Iraq, when bin Laden was panting at Tora Bora, that one is tempted to rank it with Adolf Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941...

... bin Laden and Zawahiri have been fortunate in their enemies. Had the Bush administration been more competent, these two would have long since been bloody pulp, perhaps largely forgotten. Luckily for the rest of us, the Al Qaeda revolutionary program is so abhorrent that most of the world still has no choice but to stick with us, through thick and thin—and dumb and dumber. How long we can test the world’s patience is another matter. Alan Cullison’s 2004 article based on Zawahiri’s private thoughts is again instructive here. "Al Qaeda understood that its attacks would not lead to a quick collapse of the great powers,” he wrote. “Rather, its aim was to tempt the powers to strike back in a way that would create sympathy for the terrorists. ... One wonders if the United States is indeed playing the role written for it on the computer." What I wonder is, how many more years will we have to wait for Rumsfeld to figure that one out?
Hirsch led the 9/11 coverage for Newsweek. He takes this story seriously.

I'm not sure incompetence is the correct charge however. I think the problem is deeper. Bush is very competent at getting what he wants, but he's delusional. He gets what he wants, but it doesn't produce the results he expects.

We are led by the a faith-based delusional regime. It wouldn't be so bad if God seemed to favor them, but based on how things are going the evidence suggests God doesn't like GWB very much ...

Breakthrough in Crohn's disease?

Newspapers announce disease breakthroughs all the time, but this smells different ...
BBC NEWS | Health | Fresh theory on cause of Crohn's

...The UCL team also tested Crohn's patients' response to bacteria by injecting a harmless form of E. coli under their skin.

This resulted in a huge increase in blood flow to the inflamed area in healthy volunteers - but a much smaller increase in the Crohn's patients.

The researchers found this abnormally low blood flow could be corrected by treatment with Viagra.

The researchers believe that, because Crohn's patients have weakened immune systems, they are unable to destroy bacteria that penetrate the intestinal wall.

Thus the bacteria are left to build up in the tissue, stimulating the secretion of inflammatory chemicals that trigger the symptoms of Crohn's...

Wow. A new theory, some supporting evidence, a new therapeutic direction... This doesn't happen too often. Crohn's may be another of those mysterious diseases that were once thought to be infectious, then auto-immune, and are now again considered infectious.

Will ulcerative colitis turn out to have an utterly unrelated mechanism? And what does this do to one of my favorite research programs -- using worms to treat inflammatory bowel disease?

Keeping fingers crossed ...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ugly people are the under class

The ugly are the natural underclass, often born to the homely and inclined to suffer ...
Economist's View: "I'm too ugly to get a job"

..Not only are physically unattractive teenagers likely to be stay-at-homes on prom night, they're also more likely to grow up to be criminals, say two economists... "We find that unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and very attractive individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average-looking," claim Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University...

-- comments --

.... Attractiveness in most species is a marker for overall fitness. The beautiful, on average, probably have better genes than homely folk like me. [jf: So do their parents, so they are also typically wealthier ...]

I remember well one summer watching a group of first year Harvard med students entering class. The ugliest among them was prettier than almost all of my McGill med school class. Clearly, physical beauty was a part of their selection process (probably filed under "leadership potential"). Why not?
On the other hand, if I were better looking I'd have been even worse behaved as a young man than I was. There's something to be said for having decidely average looks.

For a more interesting question -- what is the relationship between acne, the appearance of young females, and the probability of being raped? What is the adaptive advantage of female acne?

What can we do about this? If we're around in a hundred years maybe we'll be wise enough to sort this out -- or we'll have engineered homeliness out of the human species.

Michael Brown: more than a cartoon

Michael Brown, former head of FEMA, talks about what it's like to be mocked by a million strangers...
A Conversation With Michael Brown

...You're talking about your turf battles within the Department of Homeland Security. You think you should've left earlier.

Frankly, I should've given up. In hindsight, there were points where I knew I was losing the battle....
I searched my blog, it appears I never said anything about Michael Brown. I think I'll pat myself on the back. I had a hunch there was more going on than the initial media coverage. It's well worth reading for a sense of how suffocating and alienated Washington can be.

All Gore, I miss your reinventing government efforts.

Monbiot on a world without privacy

Monbiot writes for the Guardian. He's a reliably left-wing future-is-scary sort of guy. Mostly I think he's off-base or uninteresting, but I follow his blog postings because every month or two he is interesting and unique. This time he writes about implantable RFID chips and the gradual transformation of society:
George Monbiot: Children of the Machine:

... There will be no dramatic developments. We will not step out of our homes one morning to discover that the state, or our boss, or our insurance company, knows everything about us. But, if the muted response to the ID card is anything to go by, we will gradually submit, in the name of our own protection, to the demands of the machine. And it will not then require a tyrannical new government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step, we will have given it up already.
I fought this back in the 1980s and early 1990s. I gave up; even before 9/11 it became clear that either people couldn't understand this topic or didn't really care. We live now in a world that would have shocked citizens of 1980s America, but the transition has mostly gone without remark.

Monbiot conflates loss of privacy with loss of freedom. David Brin (Surveillance society) has done a good job of showing that they're not necessarily identical. Privacy loss is necessary, but not sufficient, for a loss of freedom. Practically speaking, however, the falling cost of havoc and the a separate drive to protect economic interests means freedom will likely follow privacy.

Is there anything to do? Sure there is. There are better worlds. Will Americans take another path? No, we re-elected George Bush. Will Europeans? Seems not. Canadians? No. Maybe in New Zealand ...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Blog of Death: R. Hunter Simpson

Blog of Death does obituaries for those of lesser fame. They do concentrate the mind.
The Blog of Death: R. Hunter Simpson

Humanitarian R. Hunter Simpson died on Dec. 31 of brain cancer. He was 18.

Simpson was the son of Brooks and Anne Simpson, and the grandson of corporate magnate W. Hunter Simpson and Dottie Simpson, who was certified by the Guinness World Records as the oldest woman to experience zero gravity. Although Hunter was born to wealth and privilege, he opted to live a simple and charitable life.

Simpson graduated last June from Bellevue High School in Bellevue, Wash., where he won the Brandy West Award, an honor given annually to a student who exemplifies character and leadership. While he participated in the wrestling and lacrosse teams, Simpson still found the time to prepare and give away hot meals for the homeless. During summers, he built homes for the poor in Tijuana, Mexico.

When he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2005, The Make-a-Wish Foundation offered Simpson a final wish. Instead of choosing something for himself, however, he gave the wish to New Horizons Ministries, a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian ministry that serves Seattle's street youth. His wish provided the organization with furniture and clothing.

In the last months of his life, Simpson attended Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He saved up his meal-plan money by subsisting on two cups of soup a day. Last month, he used the remaining credits on the plan to purchase $900 worth of food from the school cafeteria -- which he then gave to homeless children in Seattle.
Gliomas are vile things.

Five stars worth knowing about

Astronomers have identified five stars that they feel are the best candidates for extra-terrestrial intelligence:

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Top stars picked in alien search

Beta CVn: a Sun-like star 26 light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici (the hound dogs)

HD 10307: has almost the same mass, temperature and iron content of the Sun

HD 211 415: has about half the metal content of the Sun and is a bit cooler

18 Sco: a near match for the Sun in the constellation Scorpio

51 Pegasus: a Jupiter-like planet has been found here; may also host planets like Earth
I'm hoping someone will show them on a map of the galaxy soon. Twenty-six light years is awfully close.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

IP addresses to run out in 2005 ... oops

When searching for an old post of mine on how to write emails, I came across a link to this 2003 BBC Technology article:
BBC NEWS | Technology | Tackling the net's numbers shortage:

BBC ClickOnline's Ian Hardy investigates what is going to happen when the number of net addresses - Internet Protocol numbers - runs out sometime in 2005.
Ahh. The perils of prediction...

PS. I uncovered yet another nasty Blogger bug this morning (BlogThis! behaves very badly when one switches from a blog that exposes the url field to one that hides it). Lord that service has problems. Google is mortal indeed.

Miscommunication made easy: email

I suspect there are numerous problems with this study of undergraduates, but it is amusing:
Wired News: The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.

... The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.
On the one hand undergraduates are notorious about leaping to conclusions and one wonders how incented the writers were to do their job well. Sarcasm and irony are extremely hard to communicate.

On the other hand, I admit to having written many emails that were misconstrued. And those are only the ones I heard about. The researchers may be about right. Some general guidelines for corporate email:
  1. Assume anything sent by email will be read by the entire world.
  2. Don't do irony, don't do sarcasm. They're hard to do. Mark Twain was misunderstood.
  3. Keep email short. As a rule if it's more than three paragraphs send a document attachment. (People read documents differently from email, in particular they often print them. Seems to help.)
  4. You can try emoticons, but remember #2. Humor doesn't work well either!
  5. If you ever pause for to wonder if your email is impolitic, it is probably lethal. Delete it at once and burn the hard drive.
  6. If it takes too long to craft the email, phone instead.
  7. Configure your email program so that mail is not sent immediately, but is instead queued for sending. There've been quite a few times I edited something I'd sent to that queue.
  8. Assume your email will go to the wrong person and that they'll misinterpret it. This is commonplace with Outlook thanks to its braindead systems of at least 3 (4 I think) completely distinct and inconsistent methods for autocompleting email addresses.
I have more email "best practices" at work. I'm going to try and dig up my references and add them here.

Update 2/20/06:

Steve Robbins wrote an excellent article on 'email best practices' for the Harvard Business Review. The key takeways are very clear subject lines (revise them!) and being very careful about using the CC option. The person who should take action should be the primary subject, key interested parties the CC line. (If there's no action required, why the heck are you sending the email?). Prune the CC line on longer messages.

When in doubt use forwarding rather than CC. Never BCC unless it's to yourself.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Better decisions without the prefrontal cortex

Ok, I thought all this business about snap judgment decisions was nonsense. I regret to state that maybe I was wrong about that. This research study is seriously interesting:
BBC NEWS | Health | Sleep on it, decision-makers told

A Dutch study suggests complex decisions like buying a car can be better made when the unconscious mind is left to churn through the options.

This is because people can only focus on a limited amount of information, the study in the journal Science suggests.

The conscious brain should be reserved for simple choices like picking between towels and shampoos, the team said.

Psychologists from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands divided their participants into two groups and devised a series of experiments to test a theory on "deliberation without attention".

One group was given four minutes to pick a favourite car from a list having weighed up four attributes including fuel consumption and legroom.

The other group was given a series of puzzles to keep their conscious selves busy before making a decision.

The conscious thought group managed to pick the best car based on four aspects around 55% of the time, while the unconscious thought group only chose the right one 40% of the time.

But when the experiment was made more complex by bringing in 12 attributes to weigh up, the conscious thought group's success rate fell to around 23% as opposed to nearly 60% for the unconscious thought group. [jf: so they did better with more attributes? That sounds flaky.]

... the study found that people can think unconsciously and that for complex decisions unconscious thought is actually superior.

The team argued the problem with conscious thought is that the brain can only focus on a few things at the same time, which can lead to some aspects being given undue importance.

Lead researcher Dr Ap Dijksterhuis said: "The take-home message is that when you have to make a decision, the first step should be to get all the information necessary for the decision.

"Once you have the information, you have to decide, and this is best done with conscious thought for simple decisions, but left to unconscious thought - to 'sleep on it' - when the decision is complex."

Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told Science the study built on evidence that too much reflection could be detrimental in some situations.

"What may be really critical is to engage in [conscious] reflection but not make decision," he added.
Well, there are a few things that seem flaky. The success rate with 12 variables seems unnaturally high. Still this is not entirely implausible. The seat of the conscious mind is roughly the prefrontal cortex, and the human PF is a massive bio-hack with a kludged connection to the rest of the brain. In particular the PF has real problems with multi-variable analysis. On the other hand, the older brain solves these problems all the time (social dynamics, hunting, etc). So it might make sense that it could this well.

In retrospect, smart test takers use techniques consistent with this theory. We read the whole test and scan the hard problems, then go work the easy problems. When you get to the hard problems, the answers may have already come to mind.

I wonder if this goes some way to explaining why some children and adults with poor prefrontal cortex functions (low measured IQ, severe ADHD) may make surprisingly correct decisions given complex problems. If their unconscious reason is less impaired than their PF cortex ...

Alzheimer's: there's not much you can do about it

A recent study found that Alzheimer's onset was very similar in identical twins, irregardless of environmental risk factors. Within the considerable limits of twins studies, that suggests AD onset is genetically controlled. (Note that the relationship may be indirect. Head trauma is strongly associated with AD and is also related to genetically determined serotonin "levels".)

Now another study suggests "education" (brain exercise) does not alter the fundamental disease process:
Bloomberg.com: U.K.

... The new study shows that the brains of more educated people can tolerate changes for longer periods of time, meaning signs of decreased mental agility typical of Alzheimer's disease appear later. When those signs do appear, the disease progresses faster than it does in less educated patients.

``The amount of nerve connections and information hubs are likely to be more numerous and more efficient in people who are highly educated,'' said lead author Nikolaos Scarmeas in his study. ``The subsequent impact is likely to be greater than it would be in less educated brains, because of the higher levels of accumulated damage.'
The "educated" experience the same dementing process as everyone else, but they have further to fall before they meet the diagnostic criteria for dementia. Genes and brain injuries can speed or slow the fundamental dementing process. I strongly suspect the "education" marker is spurious and that IQ is really the primary protective effect, and IQ is probably almost entirely determined by genes and intrauterine environment [1].

So you can mostly relax. There's nothing you can do to slow the onset of Alzheimer's except try to avoid head injuries. Wear a helmet. Don't box or play football.

If there's any hope for folks with unlucky genes, it will come from drugs.

[1] Sure, lots of very good and smart people claim otherwise. I've read their stuff and my personal non-expert opinion is that it's wishful thinking. Nowadays most of the people who make serious claims about environmental impacts on IQ are thinking of the intrauterine environment.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

No XP booting on MacTel boxes

The Register lays down the line: Why XP will never officially work on a Mac. Actually the title is misleading, the author it should read "unofficially and practically" work on a Mac. Apple could make XP work, but it nobody else is likely to provide a dual boot option.

The bounty guys tried, but this one looks bad.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

iPod review

Apple - iPod

1. None of the 3G accessories work: FM tuner, dictation device, remote control, nada.
2. no firewire sync
3. chargers and cradles are useable
4. no remote, no charger, no case, no firewire cable -- great margins!
5. substantially slower sync

Costly hotels and awful clock radios

On occasion, and neither by preference nor choice, I stay in an expensive hotel. Most of these places show odd market failures of one kind or another, but the most striking one for me is the clock radios.

They are usually incomprehensible and remarkably cheap. This one featured some Timex branded monster that plays CDs (who carries CDs these days?) and looks like it was assembled by a justly resentful Chinese prisoner. The prize, though, is the alarm. Despite two disgusted efforts, I couldn't figure out how to set the darned thing. It reminded me of configuring the Hayes codes on the first generation of error-correcting modems.

I can only guess the Hotel manager has never actually stayed in her hotel.

Even if they were the same price, the alarm clock alone would send me to the Residence Inn.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Naughty but nice - Philip Morris' Arise

Kudos to Monbiot, writing for the Guardian. He exposes a wonderful tobacco company scam -- using a front company called Arise to secretly fund European "scientists" to write about joys of tobacco addiction:
Guardian Unlimited | Science | Exposed: the secret corporate funding behind health research

... In 1998, as part of a settlement of a class action against the tobacco companies in the US, the firms were obliged to place their internal documents in a public archive. Among them is the one I came across last month. It is a memo from an executive in the corporate services department of Philip Morris - the world's largest tobacco company - to one of her colleagues. The title is "Arise 1994-95 Activities and Funding". "I had a meeting," she began, "with Charles Hay and Jacqui Smithson (Rothmans) to agree on the 1994-1995 activity plan for Arise and to discuss the funding needed. Enclosed is a copy of our presentation."

This showed that in the previous financial year Arise had received $373,400: $2,000 from Coca-Cola, $900 from other firms and the rest - over 99% - from Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, RJ Reynolds and Rothmans. In 1994-95 its budget would be $773,750. Rothmans and RJ Reynolds had each committed to provide $200,000, and BAT "has also shown interest". She suggested that Philip Morris put up $300,000. Then the memo becomes even more interesting.

"The previous 'Naughty but Nice' Mori poll proved to be very effective in getting wide media coverage. The exercise will be repeated this year on the theme of 'Stress in the Workplace' ... A draft questionnaire was already submitted to [Tony Andrade, Philip Morris's senior lawyer] and [Matt Winokur, its director of regulatory affairs] for comments." "We decided to hold" Arise's next conference in Europe, it continued, because of "positive European media coverage". Philip Morris had appointed a London PR agency to run the media operation, set up Arise's secretariat and help to recruit new members. Arise's "major spending authorisation and approval would be handled by an 'informal' Budget Committee involving PM, Rothmans and possibly RJR and BAT".
It was a very successful venture, generating tons of friendly European press. I cannot help but admire the sheer evil genius Philip Morris so often shows. They have the marketing department from Hell (perhaps literally?). It's like watching particularly effective black widow spider devouring its failed mates.

One Professor Warburton has finally had his reputation completely savaged. A small bit of justice long delayed.

Cheney hunts domesticated birds

Shooting a hunting partner? Dumb maybe. A dementia marker maybe. But not a crime.

Blasting domesticated ducks and calling it hunting? That's a crime.

I wonder how Cheney hunts deer? I'm thinking tying them down first.

No decency: Guantanamo episode XIV

Once upon a time the phrase "have you no sense of decency" had some power. Nowadays the answer would be a redirection into an unrelated domain and some comment about breaking eggs.
BBC NEWS | Middle East | No surprises in the war on terror:

Let's recapitulate briefly. According to the US Department of Defense, only 8% of the prisoners at Guantanamo were al-Qaeda fighters, and only 5% of them were captured by the Americans themselves.

The overwhelming majority of the others were handed over to the Americans by people who could reasonably be called bounty hunters.
The United States knowingly elected a government that has no sense of decency, no sense of shame.

Nike.com: worst web site in the history of the universe

Nike.com is all flash based, back buttons don't work, links don't work, search engines don't work. It's slow and painful and just plain stupid. How can such a wealthy company produce such a trashy site? And what does that say about their business future?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Kinsley on the the Islamic rage cartoons

I hadn't read much of value about the cartoons of Mohammed, so it's worth pointing to an interesting commentary: The Ayatollah Joke Book - So, the Prophet Mohammed walks into a bar … By Michael Kinsley. Kinsley seems to be saying that this is indeed a fundamental conflict between freedom and fundamentalism. He's probably right. And yet ...

It's a crowded world these days. There are over 8 billion of us, and the low cost of communications means we're all in each other's faces all the time. Maybe someone has the theoretical right to pronounce the rightness of English rule in a Quebecois bar on St. Jean Baptiste day -- but it's hardly polite or wise. Today we're all sitting side-by-side in the same bar.

Sometimes we just have to fight. We are genus Pan after all. Mostly though, we should do what I do when some idiot cuts me off the freeway. I drop way back and give him lots of room. He's just declared what he is, and I need to respect his limitations.

Same thing here. The Muslim world is not a happy, successful, or vibrant place these days. More success may yet come, but for now we need to respect limitations.

Friday, February 10, 2006

In defense of religion - an atheist speaks

Ok, so technically I'm not an atheist really. Our universe is weird enough that I can imagine it having fallen off some assembly line of a "prior" megaverse, rolling off to the discard heap on the side. I guess that would make me agnostic.

But I'm close enough to atheist for most purposes. So it might seem odd to my three regular readers that I should now be standing in defence of religion, particularly when I so enjoy reading the work of assertive atheists like Dennet (Dissecting God), Pharyngula, and Dawkins. I even have a few rationalist credentials of my own, and no-one would think me a friend of 'ID' or its ilk.

Defend religion, however, I do. As I wrote in a rather unpopular comment on a Pharyngula blog (hey, it's not my fault the universe is fundamentally nihilistic!), reality is overrated. I mean, really -- these proselytizing atheists need to get out more. Everyone dies, humanity's prospects are poor, pain and suffering are almost universal, grief is always an eyeblink away, and even our local universe appears to be destined for a long dismal demise without hope of any sort. The Fermi Paradox is not encouraging.

Oddly enough, despite believing all this, I'm actually a reasonably happy person. My life is sure challenging (though others face far greater challenges), but I like it. Mostly I just deny reality; I think humans are hardwired to do that. So the roller coaster is running for a brick wall -- all the more reason to savor the ride. I suspect Dawkins and Dennet are rather similar.

Where I part company with the proselytizing atheists is I don't think everyone's made the way I am. ("Thank God" my friends would say.) If it takes religion to be happy, purposeful, and to keep despair at bay, then I say go for it. I'd prefer religionists chose Buddhism or Christianity over modern American Yahwism (the religion of the American right), but I admit I don't have a lot of influence there.

Now Dawkins would claim religion is the root of much evil. Maybe. But really, we'd have to study a control group without religion. I suspect our chimpanzee nature is really the greater root of evil.

Some of the most compassionate and kind people I know are quite religious, or very spiritual. I like those people and I'm not about to attack something very important to them. In any case, I greatly enjoy most religious writing, art and architecture -- any relationship to "reality" is irrelevant. The works are real, their authors were real.

But, some atheists might say, don't we have the "right" to reciprocate when Bush et al imply atheists can't be true Americans? Ok, I make an exception for Bush. He's immune to our criticisms anyway. Otherwise, however, the answer is "no". Just lie low, take the scorn, and look for allies among the non-dominant religious groups and among agnostic humanists like me. Atheism is a fundamental threat to the religious person because it attacks a central defence against despair, the converse is not true. Religious ideas and work can be very attractive to the atheist, they are not threatening in and of themselves. I sometimes even enjoy listening to radio evangelists, if only because some of them really do address the concerns and issues of 'the Weak'.

It's a harsh and nasty universe. Be gentle. As far as I know, we are all we've got.

From skijor to dog scooter - adapting to global climate change

We used to have a husky-collie mix who loved to skijor. Molly's rolling in celestial dead fish these days, but as of a week ago we have a blue-eyed black furred mongrel pup (Kateva). Kateva's been looking for her harness since she arrived.

Alas, snow is a rare thing in these parts nowadays. Yeah, I spent last night shoveling off the rink, but there's not enough to ski on, and it won't last anyway. Skijoring is very last millenia for most of America. We need something else for the snowless sled dog.

Enter the Dogscooter. Actually, this labor-of-love vendor site also sells carts and sulkies. I discovered it in a Google search, for canine chariots, only to belatedly realize that I'd featured it on my old skijoring page about 5 years ago. It looks like great fun, and all for less money than a decent pair of inline skates. Kateva may not see a lot of snow, but she'll still get her miles in ...

A brief education in modern genetics

If your last genetics class involved wrinkled peas, you need to read Pharyngula's (a distant colleague actually, he's a tenured U of MN prof and I'm a very part-time adjuct faculty person there) modern genetics 101: evolution of a polyphenism.

Clinical practice hasn't changed much in the past 20 years, but genetics has seen a few updates ...

Power corrupts: the tyranny of the lowly immigration officer

Lowly bureaucrats in the immigration services, emboldened by increased powers and stressed by the threat of harsh punishments, are abusing "foreigners" (emphases mine):
Seized With Heavy Hand at Border, for Paperwork Errors - New York Times

...Though there are no statistics on such cases, the lawyers say they are seeing harsher treatment in situations involving paperwork errors or minor infractions. A political climate more hostile to foreigners, fears of being faulted for leniency and a lack of coordination among immigration agencies, they say, are leading officers to go overboard in cases that fit the government guidelines for prosecutorial discretion.

"I'm desperate," Emily Arroyo, the mother of the second grader, said last week, after prosecutors refused an immigration judge's suggestion that they drop the two-year-old deportation case against her son, José Arroyo Rodas. Instead, they demanded that she buy him a one-way ticket to Canada by next week.

"I'm American — they're making me leave my country, too, because of course I'm not going to let him go alone," said Ms. Arroyo, a hairstylist raised in Guatemala, who calculates that she has spent $10,000 in legal fees trying in vain to fix José's paperwork problem. But on Wednesday, hours after this reporter asked United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Washington for comment about the case, an agency spokesman, Marc Raimondi, said that prosecutors reviewing the matter had found that it met the guidelines for prosecutorial discretion. "A dismissal recommendation to the immigration judge is planned," he said.

... case like José's only confirms that without exceptional outside attention or high-level intervention, rigidity prevails, said Diane M. Butler, a Seattle lawyer who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association committee that works with Customs and Border Protection.

Most officers, she said, "are trying to do the right thing" but lack training in how to apply discretion. But, in some instances, she added, officers seem newly emboldened by campaigns against illegal immigration to express their resentment of foreigners by denying or delaying entry whenever possible. She said her business clients reported remarks like, " 'You're just trying to take jobs away from Americans.' "

Other immigrant advocates say that low-level employees often act out of fear. "The people on the front line are told that if they make a mistake, their jobs are gone," said Amy L. Peck, an immigration lawyer in Omaha who heads the association committee that works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "So that translates into this rigid — what one could also describe as extreme — policy of turning away and not using discretion in cases that scream for it."
Immigration officials combine the power of police, judge and jury. Such power is an intoxicating drug, especially for those with little experience in its use. Low level immigration staff suffer from both the intoxication of power and the fear of punishment for errors -- and errors are impossible to avoid in their job. Being human they have to make mistakes, and naturally they now err towards punishing the innocent.

The story caught my attention, however, because of some personal experiences. Even as a melanin-deficient euro immigrant from Canada I was told by an immigration security official that I was marrying my Yankee girl simply to enter the US (I managed to avoid laughing -- I'm not that dumb). I learned when overseas that there was a sharp rise in quality towards the top of the consular hierarchy, with very smart and capable people at more senior levels and remarkably ineffectual sorts lower down. My family has also run into minor but scary issues when traveling due to our motley family mix (the trick there is to avoid the immigration worker who's ethnicity matches the non-euro children -- and to carry documentation beyond a full set of passports).

The solution is to put more high level, higher paid staff in place to provide backup and make judgment calls. The folks at the bottom will need to err on the side of rigidity and suspicion, but they need to have experienced senior staff on call at all times to help make corrections. In the meantime, never ever look cross-eyed at any immigration or transportation official.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Countries can't downsize

The Big Picture: BusinessWeek Cover Story: Disingenuous or Denial had this rather interesting comment:

... In a nutshell, countries can't downsize. Bizweek (and others) are trying to suggest that America as a whole is benefiting from this enlightened leverage of IP and low cost manufacturing availability. Not true, not by a longshot.

The reality is that there is a small contingent of folks in the US reaping the benefits of the iPod economy, and a much larger group of folks feeling the brunt of wage stagnation even as downward pressure on manufactured goods gets offset by upward pressure elsewhere (the natural result of a static inflation policy). America is not like a jack-be-nimble startup, or even like a General Electric where Neutron Jack can lay off 100,000 workers.

As borders dissolve, opportunity spreads more evenly. This is very good for rich world players with leverage (knowledge, know-how etc) and developing world players looking for a leg up (88 cents an hour better than 0 cents an hour). It is very bad for rich world wage workers who were previously insulated from developing world competition.

A great short essay. The pithy phrase is worth bearing in mind.

Google vs. PayPal: world's shortest fight

Based on my personal PayPal experience, I think of them as a great solution for shady operators. It turns out I'm not alone in my feelings about PayPal (and eBay). A rumor that Google might enter the transactional marketplace has generated a remarkable Slashdot consensus; PayPal's natural customer base want PayPal to be crushed like a bug.

Companies can last quite a while when their customers hate them -- if switching costs are high.

In this case, the switching costs are not high. If Google makes this move PayPal is toast.

Of course I've overestimated the significance of Google's moves before. Google Base has not set the world aflame, in part due to a lack of a security model. I did say, however, that the next step was the payments system. (Yeah, I wasn't the only one to draw that obvious conclusion.)

NSA traffic analysis: the seduction of data and the creation of conspiracy

I heard a part of the senate hearings on the NSA intercepts today. The GOP Senator was lobbing softball questions at the Bush attorney, who answered them well and carefully. Of course none of the questions were about the more interesting issue -- how the intercepts are selected and whether that process is legal. Cringely, who's done some good summaries to date, adds a bit more to the picture:
PBS | I, Cringely . February 2, 2006

... last thought comes from an old friend of mine who is conservative in the very best sense and knows what he is writing about:

"Traffic analysis, at the NSA? I'm tempted to be sarcastic, but I won't be. As you might know, I started a company a few years ago with a former NSA guy -- somebody who was a cryptographer and Russian linguist on those submarines that snuck into Soviet harbors to tap their phone lines -- and we applied traffic analysis to Internet discussion groups to identify opinion leaders, conversation trends and so forth. We used a lot of techniques that were developed or applied to law enforcement. And we didn't use anything that violated anybody's security clearances... really!

"(My company) was acquired by a business intelligence company funded by the CIA venture capital outfit. Apparently the stuff I invented is now in the hands of a couple of intelligence agencies, including Homeland Security.

"I'll tell you what I think the most troubling thing about all this is. It's easy to see whatever pattern you're looking for. It's like curve fitting in the stock market -- looks beautiful historically and maybe even in the short run, but it's a disaster in the making. So we have these guys running the country who saw a non-existent pattern in Iraq that justified a war ... and now we're going to give them software that will make it easy to create the illusion of patterns of conspiracy.

"Your friend from the NSA was right, but it's worse than he suggests. It's not just that social network analysis casts a wide net. It's that without oversight by people who really grasp the mathematics and have some distance from the whole thing, they're going to see patterns where there aren't any.

"They have a history of that."

The history of lie detector testing is informative. Current lie detector technology is very unreliable. It falsely implicates and falsely absolves. It's only somewhat better than a random guess, and some observers do better without the technology. Nonetheless, it is immensely abused by law enforcement. We can expect the NSA, FBI, and CIA to make the same mistakes with traffic monitoring technologies. Geeks don't get promoted in these agencies, and only geeks understand the limitations of this technology.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bush's apparatchik in NASA: obnoxious youth

A few weeks ago we read that some NASA 'public affairs' officer had been attempting to silence of NASA's senior climate researches. Apparently Dr. Hansen wasn't following the part line; he needed a handler present lest he talk too honestly to the press.

What we didn't hear, and what's buried at the back of recent NYT article, is a feature of that apparatchik that made him particularly annoying -- he's a kid, a presidential appointee with zero credentials. A classic Soviet era apparatchik...
NASA Chief Backs Agency Openness - New York Times

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen's public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.

... Mr. Deutsch did not respond to e-mail or phone messages. On Friday evening, repeated queries were made to the White House about how a young presidential appointee with no science background came to be supervising Web presentations on cosmology and interview requests to senior NASA scientists.
Bush's team appoints a flunkee to be their apparatchik for NASA. Said flunky starts drafting very annoying memos, implying dire consequences to those who disobeys. He's particularly concerned about affirming intelligent design and blocking talk of global climate change. An interesting story. So why did it get buried at the little read end of a NYT article?

The more I see Bush in action, the more convinced I am that he's a KGB implementation of 'The Manchurian Candidate'. It was a rogue mission by a Putin clique in the KGB, and it was thought to have failed. Their vehicle was far gone in alcohol and drug abuse. Miraculously he turns his life around and becomes president. Putin is astounded but he activates the original programming. Bush begins to transform the US into a satellite of the Soviet Union ...

Friday, February 03, 2006

How amantadine became useless

Symmetrel (amantadine) and Flumadine (rimantadine), have lost their value against this year's strain and should be shelved. Ok, but why?

That's the interesting question, and most of the media reports I've seen don't address it. NPR did, however. It turns out that over the counter cold remedies in China and Russia often contain amantadine. Sigh. That's so sad, and so stupid. Very human.

Of course the same thing is true of antimicrobials, they are widely available over the counter in many nations. The difference is that pathogenic bacteria don't travel nearly as quickly as flu viruses. The CDC expected we'd get a few more years of life out of amantadine/rimantadine, but resistance spread more quickly than expected.

The ACLU's estimate of NSA activity

So what's the NSA up to that Bush couldn't use the FISA courts? The current consensus is that the most controversial things they're doing are:

1. Using messaging metadata and algorithmic analysis to target individuals for wiretaps that would otherwise not be identified.
2. Applying wiretaps to the individuals identified via #1 based on evidence (algorithmic ratings) that, by itself, would be very insufficient to justify a wiretap.

If you listen to what Bush says, he focuses on the intercepts, not on the legality of how the intercepts were selected.

The upshot of this is they're probably monitoring a lot of journalists, and a lot of family members of the true targets. They may learn interesting things in the monitoring of journalists, such as the identity of anyone in the government, NSA, or CIA who's blabbing about the NSA's programs.

The ACLU fills in the details:
American Civil Liberties Union : Eavesdropping 101: What Can The NSA Do?

Data mining is a broad dragnet. Instead of targeting you because you once received a telephone call from a person who received a telephone call from a person who is a suspected terrorist, you might be targeted because the NSA's computers have analyzed your communications and have determined that they contain certain words or word combinations, addressing information, or other factors with a frequency that deviates from the average, and which they have decided might be an indication of suspiciousness. The NSA has no prior reason to suspect you, and you are in no way tied to any other suspicious individuals %u2013 you have just been plucked out of the crowd by a computer algorithm's analysis of your behavior.
If we don't put a stop to this, we will pay a very high price. I really do believe that, at the moment, the Bush administration is a greater threat to our future than al Qaeda (in large part, of course, because the non-Iraq part of the 'War on Terror' did make sense and al Qaeda appears to be both weak and to have a very thin bench team).

Bush on cutting imports: really, it was a joke

Rarely does the leed of an newspaper article cut so deeply (via Shrillblog):
KR Washington Bureau | 02/01/2006 | Administration backs off Bush's vow to reduce Mideast oil imports

WASHINGTON - One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally...
Bush's people feel they've proved beyond a reasonable doubt that 20% [1] of the voting American public are blithering idiots. Maybe they give him lines like these to test the resilience of this hard-core non-sentience. Perhaps they're trying to tell us "stop me before I kill again".

[1] Bush's approval rating is usually about 42%. About half of his hard core base feel he is serving messianic duties. I don't agree with that, but if that's one's belief then it's not idiotic to support him. That leaves my 20% estimate.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

How often will sentience evolve on earth? From anthropology to the Fermi Pardox - via the Drake Equation

Hawks reviews research that suggests that "modern" evolutionary innovations are more likely to be repeatable (non-singular) than "ancient" innovations. He connects this to the Drake equation, the companion to the Fermi Paradox that attempts to estimate the prevalence of technological civilizations in our galaxy. He points out that since the only instance of sentience we know of is quite recent, it is likely that sentience is not a particularly singular innovation.

Personally, I'd bet we're not the first. Stephen Baxter wrote an immensely underappreciated science fiction novel (Evolution) that painted a rather persuasive picture of how sentience might come and go across the history of life on earth -- only once and briefly producing interplanetary technology (after this transiently spacefaring species passes, there's not much left for others to work from).

Hawks is inclined to think we're the first, but most likely not the last. Indeed, if we live out this century, I think it's likely we'll create other sentiences, both biological and otherwise. If we don't make it, the biological ones will still emerge some day, some place. Maybe they'll do a better job that us.

Back to the Drake Equation. The more we start to shift our estimates for the terms of the Drake Equation, the more the Omega term, L, looms larger (sorry). This term is often estimated based on the Fermi Paradox. Wikipedia (currently) has an excellent discussion of this relationship:

The remarkable thing about the Drake equation is that by plugging in apparently fairly plausible values for each of the parameters above, the resultant expectant value of N is generally often >> 1. This has provided considerable motivation for the SETI movement. However, this conflicts with the currently observed value of N = 1 — one observed civilization in the entire universe. Other assumptions give values of N that are <<>

This conflict is often called the Fermi paradox, after Enrico Fermi who first publicised the subject, and suggests that our understanding of what is a "conservative" value for some of the parameters may be overly optimistic or that some other factor is involved to suppress the development of intelligent space-faring life...

... L = the expected lifetime of such a civilization

Estimated by Drake as 10 years.

The value of L can be estimated from the lifetime of our current civilization from the advent of radio astronomy in 1938 (dated from Grote Reber's parabolic dish radio telescope) to the current date. In 2005, this gives an L of 67 years.

In an article in Scientific American, Michael Shermer estimated L as 420 years, based on compiling the durations of sixty historical civilizations. Using twenty-eight civilizations more recent than the Roman Empire he calculates a figure of 304 years for "modern" civilizations. Note, however, that the fall of most of these civilizations did not destroy their technology, and they were succeeded by later civilizations which carried on those technologies, so Shermer's estimates should be regarded as pessimistic.

The Wikipedia article estimates a low value for "safe" earth like planets, I read the most recent findings as much more encouraging but I'm far out of my expertise range.

If "safe" planets turn out not to be rare, then we're back to Drake's solution to the Fermi Paradox -- a 10 year lifespan for a technological civilization. My bet is that the small number is not so much L, as it is fc*L, so even if L is not short something happens to technological civilizations that causes them to lose interest in both physical exploration and communication with the likes of us. Something that produces a communicative sentience for no more than 10-40 years.

The passing of the Telegram

Western Union no longer sends telegrams. If I'd known they still sent them, I'd have tried to send one just for history's sake. Typewriters, telegrams, carbon paper ... these are some of the things I used to know.

The secret to better crime results: don't record the data

The St. Paul Police department is practising the time-honored method of improving one's results -- don't record troublesome data points. It works as well for crime measurement as it does for Texas schools.

In this case some low life smashed our rear van window -- in bright daylight outside our local library. When they were called, the police said they don't do police reports on this kind of crime.

What is not measured -- did not happen. It works for Bush, and it works for the local police.

Ampulex and the cockroach slave: another Zimmer zinger

Karl Zimmer is a great help to those on diets. Read his articles just prior to lunch.
The Wisdom of Parasites. The Loom: A blog about life, past and future

... As an adult, Ampulex compressa seems like your normal wasp, buzzing about and mating. But things get weird when it's time for a female to lay an egg. She finds a cockroach to make her egg's host, and proceeds to deliver two precise stings. The first she delivers to the roach's mid-section, causing its front legs [to] buckle. The brief paralysis caused by the first sting gives the wasp the luxury of time to deliver a more precise sting to the head.

The wasp slips her stinger through the roach's exoskeleton and directly into the cockroach's brain. She apparently using sensors along the sides of the stinger to guide it through the brain, a bit like a surgeon snaking his way to an appendix with a laparoscope. She continues to probe the roach's brain until she reaches one particular spot that appears to control the escape reflex. She injects a second venom that influences these neurons in such a way that the escape reflex disappears.

From the outside, the effect is surreal. The wasp does not paralyze the cockroach. In fact, the roach is able to lift up its front legs again and walk. But now it cannot move of its own accord. The wasp takes hold of one of the roach's antennae and leads it--in the words of Israeli scientists who study Ampulex--like a dog on a leash...
We have insufficient respect for the Emergent Designer (ED) -- the pseudo-deity of evolution. The ED is not a cuddly sort. Its humor is bleak indeed.

How many human psychiatric disorders (think OCD) are the result of adaptive mutations that compensate for a parasitic influence, but subsequently become disorders when the parasite is absent?

Google's feet of clay: Gmail and spam

Google's share price had a minor hit the other day when they "disappointed" on earnings. I can't make sense of their valuation, even though I do think they're a great company.

I can, however, point out that one of their flagship products, Gmail, has serious issues. For historical reasons I get to see how five different spam filtering systems work: Yahoo, Earthlink, Spamcop, the open source systems used by many smaller ISPs, and Gmail's system.

Gmail is not just slightly inferior. It is qualitatively inferior. It is so bad it's mindboggling. The other four all work quite well, making relatively few false positive or false negative errors. Gmail errs in both directions, misclassifying spam as mail and mail as spam.

This isn't new. They've had the same problem for over a year. The only reason I stick with them is their fantastic UI and amazing search capabilities, but if Yahoo ever updates me to their new UI I may switch (I can redirect my mail flows fairly easily since I control the routing domains).

Why doesn't Google invest in the open source systems that work for everyone else? The scale they work on is rather different from that of a small ISP, so they may face impossible scalability challenges. I wonder though, if arrogance plays a role -- the belief that their algorithms will devise a better solution. If it's really arrogance, then their share price may fall more than 10% over the next year.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The best commentary on the state of the union address

Fafblog is marvelous ...
Fafblog! The State of the Universe Address

...Would you take all that away by letting isolationist courts tax the Jesus fetus? Never! Because history is written in courage, and courage will remember us in the future how we were today: pandering, desperate and barely coherent!
My prediction on the Bush health care plan ...

The smart Republican (they're all dead now, but they once existed) thing to do would be to eliminate the corporate tax break for health insurance and apply the funds to a mixture of subsidies and individual tax breaks. That would be a Reagan type of move -- the guy who brought us the Earned Income Tax Credit. (I used to think Reagan was an idiot. True, he was demented during his second term, but compared to Bush II he was a brilliant pillar of light.)

Instead, Bush the Incoherent will introduce a meaningless tax credit that will complicate the tax code, transfer wealth from the Weak to the Strong, worsen the deficit, and have no material impact on healthcare.