Friday, June 30, 2006

Barack Obama is a fool

Pharyngula has done a great service, he's revealed that Barack Obamais a fool. Wow, it's good to learn that now.

Gaming Amazon reviews: 17/17 found this helpful

Looking over my Amazon reviews, it's hard to avoid an obvious correlation. My occasional very positive reviews get extremely high "helpful" ratings, but my frequent negative reviews get a more mixed set of "helpful" ratings.

Now some of that may be human nature -- most people buying things want to hear good news, not bad news. I do wonder, though, how much gaming is going on ...

(BTW, I always look for the bad ratings first. They are the ones I value highly. It's easy to tell which are thoughtful and well done.)

Take the Net: Own the last mile

Cringely promotes the idea of a historic figure -- the Visi Calc programmer:
PBS | I, Cringely . June 29, 2006 - If we build it they will come

... The obvious answer is for regular folks like you and me to own our own last mile Internet connection. This idea, which Frankston supports, is well presented by Bill St. Arnaud in a presentation you'll find among this week's links. (Bill is senior director of advanced networks with CANARIE, which is responsible for the coordination and implementation of Canada's next generation optical Internet initiative.) The idea is simple: run Fiber To The Home (FTTH) and pay for it as a community of customers -- a cooperative. The cost per fiber drop, according to Bill's estimate, is $1,000-$1,500 if 40 percent of homes participate. Using the higher $1,500 figure, the cost to finance the system over 10 years at today's prime rate would be $17.42 per month.

What we'd get for our $17.42 per month is a gigabit-capable circuit with no bits inside - just a really fast connection to some local point of presence where you could connect to ANY ISP wanting to operate in your city.

'It's honest funding,' says Frankston. 'The current system is like buying drinks so you can watch the strippers. It is corrupt and opaque. We should pay for our wires in our communities just like we pay for the wires in our homes.'

The effect of this move would be beyond amazing. It would be astounding. No more arguments about Net Neutrality, for one thing, because we'd effectively be extending our ownership and control of the wires all the way to the ISP interconnect. Of course you'd still have to buy Internet service, but at NerdTV rates the amount of bandwidth used by a median U.S. broadband customer would be less than $2.00 per month. Though with that GREAT BIG PIPE most of us would be tempted to use a lot more bandwidth, which is exactly the point.
I'm in.

Google's strategy: a summary

Google Blogoscoped is getting better all the time. I like this synopsis of Google's strategy:
Google Checkout Is Live

It looks like Google aims to become the software layer below all web content. A webmaster can now create a shop site by outsourcing the data publication to Google Base, getting extra publicity through Google AdWords, adding Google features through Google Account Authentication, add site search with the Google Web API, and allow shoopers to buy stuff with Google Checkout without having to handle credit card information. Community sites can make revenue via Google AdSense, share the revenue through the AdSense API, and outsource blogs (Blogger), web pages (Google Page Creator), groups (Google Groups), calendars (Google Calendar), videos (Google Video), images (Picasa Web Albums), maps (the Google Maps API) and so on. The foundation for all of this, really, is user trust in Google, and the question: will they screw with my data or not?
I'm still waiting for Google backup.

Heroes in Georgia: Ms. New and Mr. Carter

A respected Georgia high school teacher, one of only two credentialed teachers in a rural community, takes an extremely radical position. She teaches about evolution ....
Evolution's Lonely Battle in a Georgia Classroom - New York Times

... Pat New, 62, a respected, veteran middle school science teacher, ... a year ago, quietly stood up for her right to teach evolution in this rural northern Georgia community, and prevailed.

She would not discuss the conflict while still teaching, because Ms. New wouldn't let anything disrupt her classroom. But she has decided to retire, a year earlier than planned. "This evolution thing was a lot of stress," she said. And a few weeks ago, on the very last day of her 29-year career, at 3:15, when Lumpkin County Middle School had emptied for the summer, and she had taken down her longest poster from Room D11A — the 15-billion-year timeline ranging from the Big Bang to the evolution of man — she recounted one teacher's discreet battle.

She isn't sure how many questioned her teaching of evolution — perhaps a dozen parents, teachers and administrators and several students in her seventh-grade life science class. They sent e-mail messages and letters, stopped her in the hall, called board members, demanded meetings, requested copies of the PBS videos that she showed in class...

...On May 5, 2005, she filled out a complaint to initiate a grievance under state law, writing that she was being "threatened and harassed" though "I am following approved curriculum." She also wrote, "If we could get together within 24 hours and settle this and I feel I have support to teach the standards, then I would tear it up."

Suddenly the superintendent was focused on standards. Mr. Moye called the state department's middle school science supervisor and asked about evolution. "Obviously the State Department of Education supports evolution," Mr. Moye said in an interview....

... In January 2004, when they were about to be adopted, Kathy Cox, Georgia's education superintendent, announced that she would remove evolution from the standards because it was too divisive an issue. That set off a huge protest that included former President Jimmy Carter and Governor Sonny Perdue, a Republican. Within days, Ms. Cox reversed herself.
The strong implication is that the superintendent would have stopped her teaching evolution, save that it was a state standard.

It's the standard part that makes this a peculiar story. I'm used to thinking of education in the southern US as utterly miserable -- but Georgia has a state standard that supports biology education?! I recall that we even had a struggle (kept VERY quiet) in Minnesota to keep natural selection in the curriculum.

Clearly Ms. New is a hero, but it's nice to hear of yet another righteous act by the noblest American - James Carter. (Yes, credit to Republican Perdue too -- Carter just happens to be an old hero of mine.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Would Gates have preferred Jobs? Yes, claims the Economist

It's annoying. No sooner do I stop subscribing to the evidently moribund Economist than they start showing flashes of their lost audacious insight. Emphases mine.
Economist: Ozzie the Wizard

THE co-founder, chairman and “chief software architect” of Microsoft, the world's largest software company, would deny it on his life, but the one person Bill Gates admires most for his geeky prowess—and might have chosen to succeed him as software architect—is almost certainly Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, Mr Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer and victim of Mr Gates's predatory business instincts during the 1980s and 1990s, cannot be considered available, since he is busy leading Apple's renaissance as a builder of gadgets and software that, in the opinion of his fans, put Microsoft to shame. So Mr Gates spent years courting the geek he admires second most, a software pioneer named Ray Ozzie.

After many overtures, Microsoft last year bought Mr Ozzie's company, Groove Networks, and thus brought Mr Ozzie and his brother Jack inside the Microsoft tent...

... As a kid in suburban Chicago, Mr Ozzie was already soldering all sorts of dangerous circuits together in a guest bedroom, but it was at college in the 1970s that he discovered his passion, which was, as he once put it, “to augment relationships” among human beings through technology. The catalyst was his encounter with PLATO, ... he devoted his next three decades to writing software that enables “collaboration”.

His single biggest breakthrough came in the 1980s, when Mr Ozzie personally wrote a million of the first 3.5m lines of code for the first successful collaboration software, Lotus Notes...

... Mr Ozzie's company, Groove, was not a commercial success this time, but Mr Gates and others in the industry nonetheless saw the idea and recognised its potential. Last April Messrs Gates and Ozzie joined forces.

One reason why Mr Gates is so drawn to Mr Ozzie is that, as Mr Gates has said, “Ray is incredible at thinking of the end-user experience,” an area where Mr Gates, whose own genius is weighted towards business strategy rather than software finesse, has a less stellar reputation. Another reason is Mr Ozzie's personality, which is the opposite both of Mr Gates's and Mr Jobs's. Mr Gates has a squeaky voice and sounds perennially on the point of irritation; Mr Jobs pushes his colleagues as Ramses did his pyramid-builders and appears to have a similar self-image. Mr Ozzie, by contrast, wears a permanent Buddha-like smile, speaks in a soothing, deep voice and delivers even harsh appraisals with reassuring charm...
I've read many articles on the Gates transition. This and Cringely's are the only two worth the print. I presume the Jobs reference is tongue-in-cheek, but it is oddly plausible. Gates strategic brilliance (used to Evil ends, of course) and Jobs user experience genius would have been an utterly astounding combination. Of course they would never have been able to collaborate ...

Note the reference to PLATO, the face that launched a thousand ships. Old software never dies, PLATO was reborn as Notes and Groove and more. It was revolutionary.

I cannot resist the geek compulsion to imagine Bill Gates. I think of him as ruthless, with a compulsive desire to see things 'as they are' rather than as they are imagined to be. I imagine this is what has allowed him to kill ventures quickly. Did he realize his own weaknesses stood in the way -- and that for Ozzie to succeed he would have to leave? I wonder then how long Balmer will last.

Incidentally, Jon Udell, a deep thinker I've long admired, has had a longstanding relationship with Ozzie. It's hard to imagine Jon working for Gates, but it wouldn't shock me if he joined Ozzie. That would make for some interesting times.

PS. The Economist has also added links to 'article background' on their web site. It will be interesting to see what they do with these. They are web only, and the one for this article was well linked.

Google Checkout arrives - and it's Microsoft Wallet

Anyone remember Microsoft Wallet? It was a feature of IE 1.0, and I think it was part of Windows 3.1. Microsoft Wallet later became a Microsoft initiative to own identities, and provide a global account that would work across merchants. That triggered quite a furore.

And now the long rumored Google Checkout has arrived. It turns out to be a lot like Microsoft Wallet and Microsoft's identity management initiatives. Google's been owning my digital identity in stages, and now they've made the big leap -- they own my credit card information (AMEX, just to be a little safer). As yet Google is not a bank and there's no eCash/PayPal -- just credit cards. The interesting question is what this looks like for merchants. Do they have to get a standard credit card account or does Google step into the picture there?

Google masks email accounts on purchase, cutting down on corporate spam. That's worth something. The list of supported vendors is pretty small, the biggest is, GNC and Dick's Sporting Goods. CD Universe has a $10 coupon code.

Now that Google has my credit card I am fully owned. I might as well tatoo Google on my forehead. That's the way of the modern world. You can be owned by Amazon, eBay (that would be hell), Microsoft or Google. Pick your poison. Since I don't believe Google is anywhere near as dominant as Microsoft, I'm riding that pony.

In terms of impact, so far Google is clearly competing with Amazon. Depending on what they're doing for vendors they may be after eBay as well. The purchase history screen has a 'review sellers' section, that implies Google will be doing identity and reputation management of sellers. That's where eBay blew it (big time), I trust Google has learned from that.

Update: The NYT fills in the merchant side. eBay is toast (yes!). The Google subsidy will open up eCommerce for items priced between $1.00 to $2.00.
... for merchants, the service comes with a twist: Google will waive some or all of the transaction fees for companies that buy advertising from it. That may give the service a leg up on competitors like PayPal and several smaller companies that help online merchants accept credit cards.

It will also add another entry to the list of businesses that have been shaken up by Google's innovations, a list that already includes publishing, advertising and desktop software.

Google is charging merchants 20 cents plus 2 percent of the purchase price to process card transactions, less than most businesses pay for credit card processing. Banking industry executives say that credit card processors typically pay MasterCard and Visa a fee of 30 cents and 1.95 percent for every purchase, so Google will be subsidizing many transactions.

What is more, for every $1 a company spends on search advertising, Google will waive the fees on $10 worth of purchases. Factoring in the 2 percent fee, that represents a rebate of at least 20 percent of advertising spending.

...Mr. Bresee said Backcountry would have people watching the performance of Google Checkout around the clock.

"If they convert at the same rate, and the fees are lower, we will put up the biggest Google Checkout button you have ever seen," he said.

RJR and the Elegance of Pure Evil

Can Evil of a certain sort have its own elegance? The idea is repulsive, but there's something about this story that produces the same sensation as elegant design. In world of infinite shades of gray, the tobacco companies are capable of a uniquely pure form of evil. Methamphetamine pushers do terrible things, sure -- but they are almost always victims too. Wrong, but not so purely evil. Even terrorists often believe they serve a noble cause.

Companies like RJR tobacco though -- they are rich. They are strong. They serve Evil with the same flair and style as Milton's Satan. Which answers my question -- Milton showed that Evil could have its own elegance and cachet. RJR is simply demonstrating that again (emphases mine, note that in better times the Secretary of HHS had a spine ...)
The Flavor of Marketing to Kids

Joseph A. Califano Jr. is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration. Louis W. Sullivan is president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine. He was secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.

Twenty years ago RJR created Joe Camel, who blew smoke rings over Times Square and was so heavily promoted that more children recognized this cartoon character than Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse...

All the while, RJR maintained that it did not market to children. But with the release of internal company documents years later, one of RJR's key papers, "Younger Smokers -- Ages 14-25," revealed the company's interest in marketing cigarettes to young smokers.

Now RJR is marketing the sweet smell and taste of flavored cigarettes that mask the harshness of natural tobacco, which can deter some first-time smokers, especially children. These cigarettes are packaged in shiny tins with cool new names, flashy advertising and candy flavors ranging from watermelon ("Beach Breezer") to berry ("Bayou Blast") to pineapple and coconut ("Kauai Kolada").

As Reynolds has known for decades, 90 percent of adult smokers become addicted as kids, and the younger a child begins to smoke, the likelier the child is to become a regular smoker. Moreover, the age at which kids first try cigarettes has been declining and now stands at just under 12. By masking the regular tobacco flavor and scent, flavored cigarettes make it even more appealing for a 12- or 13-year-old to take that initial puff and keep smoking until he or she gets hooked.

Reynolds introduced these cigarettes in 1999, slipping a pellet into the cigarette filters to give the smoke a candy flavor. But flavored cigarette sales really exploded in 2004, thanks to eye-catching advertisements in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone -- all popular reading material for boys and girls...

Reynolds's claim that it flavors cigarettes to give adults an alternative to traditional smokes is belied by the findings of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. That research institute found that, compared with adult smokers over 25, more than three times as many teens who smoke light up flavored cigarettes.

Reynolds now sells five Camel Exotic Blend flavors: Dark Mint, Mandarin Mint, Twist, Izmir Stinger and Crema. In addition, RJR has marketed 15 Limited Edition Camel Exotic Blends over the past five years, including Winter Mochamint, Midnight Madness and Twista Lime.

... Buoyed by its success in pushing candy-flavored cigarettes, Reynolds has now introduced alcohol-flavored smokes. To make them appealing to our kids, Reynolds has marketed them with names based on gambling lingo as well: ScrewDriver Slots, BlackJack Gin, Snake Eyes Scotch and Back Alley Blend (a bourbon-flavored cigarette).

... From 1997 through 2004 the number of children who smoke went down as court cases and public outrage curbed tobacco advertising to children. But in 2005 the youth smoking rate increased. Is it just a coincidence that our success in persuading kids to stay away from tobacco is slowing just as the marketing of flavored cigarettes is picking up?
They have to hook the kids. It's that or become extinct. RJR is serving their shareholders. I'm sure I own their stock in some of my index funds.

Yep, that's right.

Pure, unadulterated, Evil. Think the GOP (they are the government) will do anything about it?

PS. Sports Illustrated has tobacco ads? Good Lord. To think my son gets copies at school ... Time to do something about that ....

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Political theory and the original position

The first few paragraphs were ok, but eventually this essay on how to structure a society glazed my oculars. I reference it because it's a window into what political theorists talk about -- and it's fundamentally a topic I care about (albeit without the rigor).

The theorist, a certain Mr. Rawls, is making a rationalist case that the "best" way to structure society is such that:
I. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all.

II. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
In other words, Mr Rawls is specifying a resolution to the "Problem of the Weak". His proposal is a compromise between Marxist views (from each according to their strength, to each according to their need) and Libertarian views (to each according to their strength). Liberalism, in other words.

Works for me.

Gwynne Dyer: at least four June articles online

Gwynne Dyer's very peculiar web site has four new articles on Peru, conspiracy, Nigeria, Zarqawi and China. All interesting of course.

What does this guy have against subscription and notification (aka syndication)?

One extract:
... There must be a major terrorist threat; otherwise, the government is wrong or lying, the
intelligence agencies are wrong or self-serving, the media are fools or cowards, and the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting terrorism...

Self sustaining entities: corporations and the Spanish Inquisition

One of the puzzles of classical economics is why we have corporations. In theory corporations induce overhead and distortions to a pure market of buyers and sellers of goods and services.

I suspect modern economics has many good answers as to why corporations survive and flourish, but I am innocent of deeper knowledge. I am thus free to speculate in the great blogging tradition.

My hunch is that corporations have some of the self-sustaining properties of (super)organisms (which modern biology actually considers rather corporate); in essence they have a will of their own beyond the wishes of their shareholders, stakeholders, customers, board and executives. I don't think this emergent intelligence is much above that of the proverbial amoeba, but it's enough to get by in the emergent ecosphere of cash (eg. energy) flow.

Now, I admit that's whacky. But there's a tangential connection to a different story told by reputable folk:
BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - The Spanish Inquisition

... Efforts to suppress religious freedom were initially ad hoc until the establishment of an Office of Inquisition in the Middle Ages, founded in response to the growing Catharist heresy in South West France.

The Spanish Inquisition set up in 1478 surpassed all Inquisitorial activity that had preceded it in terms of its reach and length. For 350 years under Papal Decree, Jews, then Muslims and Protestants were put through the Inquisitional Court and condemned to torture, imprisonment, exile and death.

How did the early origins of the Inquisition in Medieval Europe spread to Spain? What were the motivations behind the systematic persecution of Jews, Muslims and Protestants? And what finally brought about an end to the Spanish Inquisition 350 years after it had first been decreed?
I have more to say about the Catharists, Dualism, the Graviton and consciousness [1], but the here I'm writing about the conclusion of these eminent scholars. They felt that the Spanish inquisition was so "successful" for so long because it took on a life of its own. The Catholic church and French aristocracy set up an effective apparatus (Bushies take note) for suppressing a proto-insurgency. In France it did its job and moved on, but the unique ecosystem of medieval Spain was much more welcoming.

In Spain the inquisitorial apparatus served many purposes beyond those of the church, it became what I (not they) would call a self-sustaining corporate enterprise [2]. In other words, it developed a mind of its own; the Inquisition served enough powerful people in enough ways that it stayed in business. A business run, as it turns out, by lawyers rather than theologians. (You'd think the Church would have recognized Satan's henchmen, but they're notoriously weak at that sort of thing.)

There's a theory of history to be written that tells the story of such self-sustaining 'corporate' entities across time, space and culture. Probably to be told by a neo-Marxist ....

[1] Actually, the draft of that post is rather conventional, despite the odd connections.
[2] I do have to note that the speakers seemed to dance around how much anti-semitism underlay the beginnings of the Spanish inquisition, though much of it took place after Spain had expelled all Jews. On the other hand they point out that Spain's precipitate decline over the next 500 years was in some measure due to that expulsion, abetted by their all too robust Inquisition.

The WSJ, the American Right, and the Protestant view of sinful poverty

A brief and amusing excerpt in Crooked Timber, quoting from an off-web article by a former WSJ journalist, tells us quite a bit about the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the sin of poverty and disability, the corrupting effect of Henry Beecher's Protestantism, and the human capacity for wilful ignorance

It is all of a piece with 'The Problem of the Weak'. The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, a large segment of the GOP, the religious right and the Libertarian party all implicitly advocate a common solution.

Great post, and some excellent comments as well.

New York Times for free? Use the library

FMH writes about the hidden power of the library account:
Follow Me Here... : 06/25/2006 - 07/01/2006

... I just logged onto the Brookline (MA) library site and discovered I have free searchable access to the full text of all New York Times and Boston Globe articles, for starters. I have paid, oh I don't know, $3 or $5 to the Times or the Globe when I have needed to download an article in the past...
University students and some alumni organizations provide similar benefits. FMH points out that one can often obtain an out-of-area library cards for a small amount of money. In practice the library databases and access systems are often archaic and painful to use, but there's a chance that will improve.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The brilliant Hilter/Coulter quiz

The Hitler - Coulter quote quiz is brilliant. I did assign 11/14 correctly, but I relied on writing style, reference to Americans, etc. If not for those tricks I'd have been guessing randomly.

Coulter's language, like so much of American hate radio, really is eerily similar to Hitler's.

It's useful to try the quotes while substituting "Jew" or "Bourgeois" or "Intellectual" or "Intelligentsia" for "Liberal". Works well with any of those.

Stross on imagining 2016

Charlie Stross is a talented science fiction writer. Here he writes about what it's like to to imagine the world of 2016 - merely 10 years ahead. Emphases mine.
Charlie's Diary: Thoughts from the coal face

... The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

6. History inserts itself into our lives, seamlessly. When did you last get through a day without hearing some kind of off-hand reference to 9/11 or the Iraq war? Kids these days are learning about Margaret Thatcher in history lessons at school. In ten years time there'll be some other iceberg-like intrusion of History into the zeitgeist: the question is, what? (My money's on something energy or environment related, and big.)

7. Trying to get into the head of a 28-year-old British professional circa 2016 — the people this novel is about — is an interesting exercise, even though people of this generation are easy enough to track down right now: the trouble is, if I ask them questions now, I'm asking a bunch of 18 year olds. Whereas what I'm interested in is what they'll be thinking when they're 28 ...

You were one year old when the Cold War ended. You were thirteen when the war on terror broke out, and eighteen or nineteen when Tony Blair was forced to resign as Prime Minister. You graduated university owing £35,000 in student loans, at a time when the price of entry into the housing market in the UK was over £150,000 (about 4-5 times annual income; the typical age of first time buyers was 35 and rising by more than 12 months per year). Unless you picked the right career (and a high-earning one at that) you can't expect to ever own your own home unless your parents die and leave you one. On the other hand, you can reasonably expect to work until you're 70-75, because the pension system is a broken mess. The one ray of hope was that your health and life expectancy are superior to any previous generation — you can reasonably expect to live to over a hundred years, if you manage to avoid succumbing to diseases of affluence.

For comparison, when I graduated university in 1986, I had no student loans, first homes cost £30,000— or about 2-2.5 times annual income — and the retirement age was 60-65. So it should be no surprise if the generation of 1988 has very different expectations of their future life from the generation of 1964.

8. Agatha Christie once said, "when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." Yet these were the prevailing parameters from 1945 to the present. I might equally well say that when I was eighteen I never expected to be so poor I couldn't afford a four bedroom house, or so rich that I could afford a computer. What terms of reference will these people use to define their relative affluence and poverty? Motor cars and domestic robots? (Too facile.) Children and immortality treatment? (Too crudely obvious.) Privacy and ubiquity? (Too abstract.) ...

Noblesse Oblige and the Problem of the Weak: Buffett and Gates

Noblesse Oblige was a good thing once. Now that we are entering neo-feudal world of Lords and Servants we need it again. Warren Buffett is a believer:
A $31 Billion Gift Between Friends - New York Times

... more than anything, what Mr. Buffett's $31 billion gift to the foundation that Mr. Gates runs with his wife, Melinda, shows is a common disdain for inherited wealth and a shared view that the capitalist system that has enriched them so handsomely is not capable alone of addressing the root causes of poverty.

'A market system has not worked in terms of poor people,' Mr. Buffett said yesterday, in an interview taped earlier in the day for 'The Charlie Rose Show' on PBS.

As for any thought he might have had in giving the bulk of his billions to his three children, Mr. Buffett was characteristically blunt. 'I don't believe in dynastic wealth,' he said, calling those who grow up in wealthy circumstances 'members of the lucky sperm club.'
I am not happy with the software Bill Gates brought us; I remember too well the excellent alternatives of the 1980s to think that Microsoft's monopoly has been a good thing. He earned his fortune ruthlessly and dishonestly. He has a lot to make up for.

I can believe, however, that he is lonely. He is intensely clever, notoriously harsh, and unfathomably rich. All of those things bring loneliness. Given Gates wealth and power it is fortunate for all of us that Warren Buffett, a more balanced man, beame his friend and mentor. Gates has time to balance the scale.

I wish the New York Times had explored Buffett's sentiments in more detail. I suspect he's thinking about the "Problem of the Weak". This is good.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Cosmologic roundup: meaning and nothingness

Jim Holt, one of my favorite science writers, has written a pretty introduction to modern cosmology. He makes the rounds of the famous, and even introduces a bit of Bayesian cosmology via the Copernican principle.

He has a light touch with the biggest possible topics. It's a fun read, don't resist.

The BBC's new blog: something different?

The BBC is launching a new blog -- of course I'll subscribe. They've have an amusing and intriguing story about about how they're approaching this:
BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | Down with blogs... so here's another

...the editors across BBC News have got together to start their own blog. Called 'The Editors', it launches on Monday. The hope is that it will become a discussion forum for all sorts of issues and dilemmas surrounding our news programmes.
The BBC is becoming a major force in new media -- rather under the radar of much of the US. They're quiet little (big) radicals over therer ...

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Bush timetable for leaving Iraq

The good news is that the Bush plan is rather similar to what I and a zillion others write -- it's time to leave Iraq.
U.S. General in Iraq Outlines Troop Cuts - New York Times

... after criticizing Democratic lawmakers for trying to legislate a timeline for withdrawing troops, skeptics say, the Bush administration seems to have its own private schedule, albeit one that can be adjusted as events unfold.

If executed, the plan could have considerable political significance. The first reductions would take place before this falls Congressional elections, while even bigger cuts might come before the 2008 presidential election.
Of course Bush says something different ("stay the course" blah, blah), but if Bush says it's sunny an umbrella is obligatory. Follow the body, not the puck.

The cynical electoral timing is a nice touch, also predictable. On balance the plan is a good thing.

Greenland's day after tomorrow

If Greenland's galciers melted all at once, sea level would rise 21 feet. That won't happen, but the glaciers are melting faster than climate models predicted.

Computer simulations always start out with large assumptions -- like treating a glacier as a homogeneous block of ice. If the data doesn't fit the model's predictions, scientists study what's really happening and refine the models. It sounds like glaciers have complex internal structures that can cause non-linear responses to external warming.

It will be interesting to see what the next generation of models look like. We cannot assume they will show things getting warmer everywhere. Even if all of Greenland's glaciers don't melt, a large melt will introduce a new and large chaotic element to global climate change. Currents shift, precipitation varies, contintents rise ...

We'll have to wait for the simulations. Ohh, and a carbon tax might be a good idea too ....

Bank record spying: why I didn't read about it.

Another story about domestic spying. Another Cheney attack on the media.
Cheney Assails Press on Report on Bank Data - New York Times

Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday vigorously defended a secret program that examines banking records of Americans and others in a vast international database, and harshly criticized the news media for disclosing an operation he said was legal and "absolutely essential" to fighting terrorism.
I can't force myself to read about this.

I assume that any and all laws, regulations and practices that "protect" our privacy have been swept aside. I assume that the data will be used for other purposes than fighting terrorism. I assume there are no effective protections or regulations. I assume the people doing this don't understand sensitivity, specificity, response curves or positive predictive value. I assume their laptops will be stolen. I assume their data mining is no better than Google's -- and Google's spam and splog detection is very bad. I assume that Americans don't understand any of this and don't care. I've read that it's extremely unlikely that either house of Congress will switch hands this November.

Things will have to get much worse before they get better. So there's not much point in reading this ...

Friday, June 23, 2006

DeLong does cosmology: The anthropic principle

DeLong has a readable and amusing defense of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Now if he'd only bring in Bayes' theory.

Doing evil with Google stuff

I can't improve on the original posting or the title. Educational, amusing and inevitably prophetic:
The Devil's Guide to Google

Here’s how to become a totally evil, worm-like creature with Google’s array of services in under a month ...
I know a smart young developer who's traveled this dark road. It's hard for some to resist the combination of the technical challenge and the money.

On a different note, I've posted elsewhere about the 21st century employment opportunities for the outsiders and for the "weak", I couldn't help but notice that 'click jockey' is a position that could be filled by someoneone with fairly severe cognitive and physical disabilities. An oddly positive feature of an otherwise dark world.

bin Laden's ratings collapse

Pascal Riche has pulled together five bits of encouraging news from a recent poll:
Finally Some Good News | TPMCafe

... 1) Support for Osama bin Laden is declining around the Muslim world. This is especially the case in Jordan, where just 24% express at least some confidence in bin Laden now, compared with 60% a year ago.

... 3) By lopsided margins (91% among Muslims in France; 82% in Spain; 71% in Great Britain; and 69% in Germany) Muslims in Western Europe express favorable opinions of Christians.

5) ... 86% of the French have a “favorable opinion” of Jews (77% among Americans, 45% in Spain, 1% in Jordan). And 71% of the french Muslims have a favorable opinion of Jews as well.
It would be good to know why bin Laden's support has plummeted in Jordan, but I'm guessing it was bin Laden's support for Zarqawi that did him in (rather than, for example, his lack of operational effectiveness). Zarqawi's insane hatred of the Shia, and his bombing of a Jordanian wedding party, did bin Laden no favors.

Of course it's not clear how serious or long-lived bin Laden's support for Zarqawi really was. My guess is that bin Laden did make a mistake, and the US amplified the connection. Not all propaganda is a bad thing, even if it may have been as much "emergent" as planned.

This poll is very encouraging. I was particularly struck by the universal anti-semitism among Jordanians vs. the far lower prevalence among french Muslims.

The aesthetics of execution

This is stone simple. Why did the this NYT journalist have such trouble getting to the point?
Doctors See Way to Cut Suffering in Executions - New York Times:

... because drugs like Pavulon can mask suffering, many states outlaw them for animal euthanasia.

Execution by barbiturate alone would take longer than the current method, Dr. Dershwitz said. Although prisoners would quickly lose consciousness and stop breathing, they could not be pronounced dead until electrical activity in the heart had stopped. That could take as long as 45 minutes.
Pavulon is a famously effective paralytic agent. It doesn't reduce pain or diminish consciousness, it simply makes movement impossible. It's used in executions to make the experience less unpleasant for witnesses.

Depending on who the witnesses are, the victim may care more or less about their discomfort. One approach would be to give the condemned a menu of options, from explosive attached to the skull to pure barbiturate to a mix of drugs. With informed consent, of course.

Or we could decide that this is really a very stupid business. As I've noted before, if we're going to execute people we need, at an absolute minimum, to assign lawyers randomly to rich and poor alike.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Gender gap in academic performance and the age of menarche

We know the age of menarche has decreased in Korea from age 17 to age 12.7 between 1920 and 1986. I think 12.7 is the average age in wealthy nations.

Between 1982 and 2000 Canadian medical school admissions, which are largely grade based, shifted from 50% female to 75% female. The gap in academic performance among median high school students may be even greater. At age 19 boys are far behind girls.

I wonder if the two trends are related.

Homeland security and the Great LA Quake of 2008

If LA had Magnitude 8 quake next month, would we be ready?
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Quake fears for south California

...If all the strain was released at once, it would have enough energy to unleash a magnitude-8 earthquake - roughly the size of the devastating 1906 quake in San Francisco.

...Quakes are predicted to occur on the southern part of the fault every 200-300 years. And according to Professor Fialko, the observed movement on the fault is on a par with the maximum amount of shift the fault has ever experienced between quakes.
I put the "IF" in bold because it sounds like a Magnitude 8 quake is a worse case scenario. It might be more likely that only a part of the slippage would occur. All the same, it would be good to know if LA is ready. It could be tomorrow, it could be 2008, but it sounds like sooner than 2016. I wonder if they've published a probability curve ...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The road to hell: General Formica's version

We all know that the road to hell is gradual. A little bit here, a little bit there. In time the unthinkable becomes commonplace, even acceptable. When that happens, you have arrived. General Formica has arrived.
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Him Now

[The New York Times wrote ...]
.... General Formica found that in the third case at a Special Operations outpost, near Tikrit, in April and May 2004, three detainees were held in cells 4 feet high, 4 feet long and 20 inches wide, except to use the bathroom, to be washed or to be interrogated. He concluded that two days in such confinement "would be reasonable; five to seven days would not." Two of the detainees were held for seven days; one for two days, General Formica concluded.
[Spencer Ackerman responds:]

... Here are two such questions you can puzzle over from your home or office. Take all the shelving out of a typical filing cabinet. (My own office cabinet happens to be slightly smaller than the cell described here.) Now lock yourself in it for two days. You may notice you can neither stand up straight nor lie down, and crouching gets really uncomfortable extremely fast. Remember that as an Iraqi detainee, the Geneva Conventions apply to you. Now ask yourself: Why would Formica consider such treatment "reasonable" for two days? And if someone put an American soldier in such conditions for two days--or authorized doing so--what should happen to that person?
This is what's known as torture. If anyone doubts that, I urge them to try the filing cabinet experiment. I particularly urge Ann Coulter to try the filing cabinet.

General Formica feels that two days of this would be quite reasonable. General Formica has finished his journey. America is well down the same road.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Ecoomist saves the whales

The Economist, a journal that’s been on death’s door these past few years, shows signs of life in the June 17th issue. There's a semi-sentient review of the ailing American middle class [1], an obituary of one of the 3 men who recently committed suicide in our Cuban concentration camp, and the best suggestion I’ve read on how to regulate the hunting of cetaceans (ie. whaling).

They suggest that when the international whaling commission eventually permits hunting, that kill rights not be allocated by quota. Instead they should be allocated by bid. They predict that whaling opponents will buy up all the hunting rights, shutting down the industry forever. After all, the hunters can only bid a fraction of the tiny market for whale meat, opponents would raise hundreds of millions from Americans alone.

Brilliant. This is the sort of thing they used to be able to do regularly.

[1] Paul Krugman, btw today makes a good case today that the end of the American middle class caused the end of bipartisanship in American politics.

Cringely's cruel verdict on Gates

Cringely is well known as one of the most interesting and well connected tech pundits. That's not to say he's always right, in this league batting 300 is respectable.

Here he empties both barrels into Microsoft and Gates.
PBS | I, Cringely . June 15, 2006 - Taking One for the Team

... Microsoft has spent five years and $5 billion NOT shipping Windows Vista. This reflects a company deliberately built in the image of its founder, Bill Gates -- a single-tasking, technically obsolete executive with no checks or balances whatsoever who fills the back seat of his car with fast food wrappers. So Bill has to go, because as an icon, he's great, but as a manager, he sucks.

Part of this is Gates, personally, and part of it is his entourage -- a meritocracy based as much on historical proximity to Bill as anything else. That inner circle has to go, too, and if it doesn't go -- and go immediately -- the required change won't really happen because the one true Bill will just be replaced by a dozen or more Bill clones.

... while Ozzie and Mundie are each capable of failure, it is important to remember that GATES HAS ALREADY FAILED, so coming back isn't really an option, though he may not yet get that.

... The other attribute that Microsoft has historically lacked is ethics, which also comes directly from the cult of Bill, with its infinite shades of gray. Microsoft has to this point generally thrived by stealing technology from other companies. But now it is at the point where there isn't that much left to steal, so Microsoft is faced with operating in a whole new manner -- actually inventing stuff. This requires discipline -- not just discipline to do the work, but discipline not to backslide and steal a little of this and that when the going gets rough.

... So IF THEY DO IT THE RIGHT WAY, look for Gates to move his office to the Foundation immediately, look for several dozen of his closest and oldest associates to leave the company in the next four to six weeks, and look for Steve Ballmer to leave, too, within a year....

I think he underestimates Gates' unique talent for shooting his own horse, but I also think that Microsoft's last real technical achievement was Windows 2000. Microsoft is cursed by its monopoly -- without real competition there's no way for the company to direct itself, and it's demoralizing to get paid well for crummy work. Gates would be a happy man today if the Clinton admistration had succeeded in dividing up the company; his support for Bush blocked that option. That was a Faustean bargain with classically satanic consequences.

I bolded the comment about the challenge of invention. From 1990 to 2005 the best corporate strategy was to be quick to copy. I think it still works in many industries, but it's been tapped ou t in the Wintel world. Apple's too alien to steal from effectively and Dell, HP and Microsoft have crushed all the innovators. Both Dell and Microsoft are now staggering because they've effectively crushed internal innovation ...

The SonicCare Elite, revenge, and the price of consumption

This morning I was reading Sandra Tsing Loh's Atlantic essay on women, money and class. It's mostly entertaining, though I think she lost her way at the end. The bit that caught me eye was brief:
... there’s a new mistress of the shabby pavilions, a new Queen of Cheap! She is New York writer Judith Levine, and I so enjoyed her new book, Not Buying It, that I’ll be “gifting” my copy on this Christmas, in turn, to each member of my penurious family.

Nauseated not just by her own maxed credit cards but by her weakness in a hyperconsumerized world, Levine decided to try to survive, for one year, on just “essentials”—a strategy that saved her $8,000 (out of a gross income of $45,000). Yes, there was a diabetic cat requiring expensive veterinary care, and no, Levine’s vanity (which I respected her for fessing up to) would not allow her to give up her $55 haircuts. But beyond that, the strictures were urban-spartan. She and her partner, Paul, were to buy no clothes or shoes. There would be no restaurants, movies, gifts. They could buy groceries, but not fancy ones. Toilet paper, yes; Q-tips, no (this impressed me—I consider Q-tips essential).

Levine’s yearlong Visa-free journey reveals a hitherto-invisible realm. Without the whirl of buying, vast quantities of time open up—and not just from a lack of purchased entertainment; consuming itself takes time. (In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz illustrates how we can fritter our days away even on trying to choose the best price for something on the Internet).
Yeah, the price of ownership is high these days. What really irks me is the hidden inflation of Things that Break. (The way we measure inflation ignores the reality that our new stuff doesn't last -- so even it it's cheap to buy once we need to buy it two or three times. Ask me about the $25 back yard sprinker ...). Even when one might arguably come out ahead (AMEX buyers assurance), the time hit is awesome.

So I put down the magazine and picked up my $150 super-duper gum-protecting Sonicare Elite 7500 Power Toothbrush -- and the switch didn't work. It's been flaky for a week or so. The camel's back snapped and the damn thing hit the garbage. Of course, in the digital age, some revenge is a negative Amazon review:
... I bought this for more than $150 at my dentist. It worked well for about a year, though it does get pretty disgusting beneath the top half without fairly intensive cleaning.

After about a year of use, however, the switch broke. It wouldn't turn off or on reliably. Now I'm SURE Philips would have happily replaced it under warranty. The problem is, I can't be bothered with a toothbrush that adds that much complexity to my life. An iPod breaking is bad enough, a $100 plus toootbrush breaking is the proverbial straw.

It also didn't magically prevent the age and gene related recession of my gums -- if it had I'd suffer the time drain. As it is, it's back to the old toothbrush. I'll spend the time I save on better gum care.
I can't afford to buy sh*t. Since there's often nothing else for sale, I just say "no" more and more.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The most useful comment on Gates' retirement

From a man who knows where some of the bodies are buried:
Joel on Software

As of now, Microsoft stock is surprisingly quiet given the announcement that Bill Gates will step down. It should probably be going down. Ozzie is smart but not in the same class as Bill Gates. And it's really Ballmer that needs to go.
Ballmer. Needs. To. Go.

In Our Times: recent favorites

China: The Warring States Period: Terrific show, increased my knowledge and understanding of China by orders of magnitude. Chin: cruel but effective. Han: Chin with a velvet glove. Warring States: Renaissance Italy writ big. Missing thing: no tradition of empirical argument -- argument by authority -- that was bad. The principle of collective punishment and it's efficacy (will it return in the era of affordable havoc?). The most peculiar Mobists. Bragg displays fuzzy thinking about Chinese medicine.

The Rise of the Mammals: Great professorial group, fun interchanges. From reptile to theraspid. Life underfoot. The placentals and the marsupials. The advantages of cold weather and higher oxygen levels. (But why do mammals really leave fewer fossils?)

and here's how to put them on your iPod. Beware, an addiction is a terrible thing.

PS. If you enter "In our Times" in Google, you get the right thing. In Windows Live (Microsoft) search you get junk.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

It's not anyone's fault. A social transition.

It continues. It began with abandoning the soul. Without magic, what is a man but genetics and experience? If everything a person is is a product of chance, what does responsibility mean?
That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs in the Family - New York Times

... A growing understanding of human genetics is prompting fresh consideration of how much control people have over who they are and how they act. The recent discoveries include genes that seem to influence whether an individual is fat, has a gift for dance or will be addicted to cigarettes. Pronouncements about the power of genes seem to be in the news almost daily, and are changing the way some Americans feel about themselves, their flaws and their talents, as well as the decisions they make.

For some people, the idea that they may not be entirely at fault for some of their less desirable qualities is liberating, conferring a scientifically backed reprieve from guilt and self-doubt...
We're slouching towards wisdom. Eventually, after much back and forth, if humanity survives, we will have a very different understanding of responsibility and punishment. An understanding which most of humanity today would consider bizarre, even repulsive. I bet 40 years.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The selfish benefits of blood donation: 650 calories

Isn't the web wonderful? It took a minute to answer my question:
Interesting Facts about Blood Donation

You burn about 650 calories by donating one pint of blood.
That's a 40 minute run at 7 mph for me. I can't run that long at that speed.

Google knows all: Gordon's Notes, anonymity and neural networks

A while back I changed the name of this blog from my name to my middle name and I removed my name from the web page. I wanted to reduce the likelihood of someone researching me and finding the blog. Not a big deal, but it worked.

Then I added links from the blog pointing to my personal web page.

Today Google has again associated me with the blog. Sigh. I guess the association got a bit too strong.

It's all very reminescent of the neural network work that Hopfield taught us about in the early 80s. Google has built a neural network with connections that strengthen and weaken based on entraining. It's a network for defining 'relationships of interest'.

Hmmm. Truly, SkyNet cannot be far away.

Cirrhosis and coffee: cause or effect?

This is a huge correlation:
New Scientist Breaking News - Could coffee protect your liver against alcohol?

People drinking one cup of coffee per day were, on average, 20% less likely to develop alcoholic cirrhosis. For people drinking two or three cups the reduction was 40%, and for those drinking four or more cups of coffee a day the reduction in risk was 80%.
If it holds up it's great science. That doesn't mean coffee helps. It may mean that as the liver becomes more dysfunctional it can't process coffee and users don't tolerate it any more. In fact the coffee could even be harmful.

The Sunday Times (London): exceptional detail on the pursuit of Zarqawi

If this guy isn't making things up, he has some talkative inside sources. I've never read anything close to ths level of detail about special forces operations, including the names of task force 77 members (UK and US) who died hunting Zarqawi. I'd read bits of this before, but nothing close to this level of detail.
How Iraq's ghost of death was cornered - Sunday Times - Times Online:

....Early last week intelligence pinpointed the isolated safe house surrounded by date palm groves in Hibhib, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. It had been sold only a fortnight ago to a Sunni family for about 70m Iraqi dinars.

A Predator drone tracked Rahman as he drove from Baghdad to Hibhib on Wednesday afternoon, while a reconnaissance team from Task Force 77, including a small number of British SAS soldiers, moved stealthily into the village and installed themselves 100 yards from the house. Quietly, they signalled to American commanders that they had found their target.

The decision was made to call in an airstrike, while troops from the 101st Airborne began sealing off the village in case anything went wrong.
Zarqawi's ability to escape had impressed the team...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Glaciers then and now

Special Collections: Pairs of glaciers

You can click on the imges in the pairs to see the past and current images. Astounding.

I first visited a famed Canadian glacier in Banff in 1978. Even then it had receded from the visitors center, built decades earlier on the glacier's edge. When I returned in 1994 it was almost out of sight. The tourist site doesn't mention the meltdown, however:
This glacier can be easily observed from Canadian Highway 93 and specialized buses take tourists out onto the glacier from the Icefield Centre. Investigations of its terminal, recessional and lateral moraines have recorded the movement of the glacier over the past few centuries. The glacier has advanced and retreated several times during this period. Historical records, maps, and photographs dating back to 1897 show that over the last 125 years the glacier has retreated about .93 miles (1.5 km). In 1870, the glacier was about 1.5 times its present total volume and 2.5 times its area. Tree-ring studies indicate that around 1715 the glacier had advanced more than any time in at least the preceding 350 years. The 1715 advancement would have the glacier’s terminus spreading across Highway 93 and reaching the Icefield Centre. Figure 6 shows the relative location of the glacier in 1960 to Highway 93. The Centre is located on the other side of the highway.
In 300 years, at the current melting rate, it will be gone. Probably sooner.

Points for Bush

Since I think of him as the worst thing to hit the world in while, I am obliged to give him style points.
Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Bush met all day Monday with top advisers and his Cabinet at Camp David, excusing himself after an after-dinner discussion about Iraq that included Cheney and his top military and intelligence officials. At about 7:45, Bartlett said, Bush told the officials that he was 'losing altitude' and wanted to go to bed to read a bit before falling asleep. Instead he helicoptered to Andrews Air Force Base.
And then flew to Iraq. Definite style points. Rove is in good form.

Youth only ringtones - fast times in fairmount high

Adults use high pitched sounds to drive teenagers away, teenagers use the same technology to produce inaudible ringtones.
A Ring Tone Meant to Fall on Deaf Ears - New York Times

In that old battle of the wills between young people and their keepers, the young have found a new weapon that could change the balance of power on the cellphone front: a ring tone that many adults cannot hear.

In settings where cellphone use is forbidden — in class, for example — it is perfect for signaling the arrival of a text message without being detected by an elder of the species.
I wager this will work best in the pre-headphone age group -- probably under age 13. The interesting aspects of this are:

1. It sounds a lot like one of my favorite science fiction stories: Fast Times in Fairmount High.
2. The same technology that has allowed worldwide rapid dissemination of low cost weapon designs [1] has allowed the emergence and dissemination of this technology. Such things took far longer back in The Day.

The World's IQ, and particularly the effective IQ of youth, is rising. For better and for worse. Elders of the world, treat the young well. They may be vengeful ...

[1] So-called "IEDs", which are no longer "improvised" -- as well as recipes for building destruction).

Monday, June 12, 2006

Link aggregation and alumni organizations: avoiding the fraud and diversity problems

I was thinking this morning of the problems that affect all intellectual products that emerge from community efforts -- from link aggregation web sites to Wikipedia to Google's search data.

All suffer from two problems: fraud and diversity. They have something in common with each other (and with biology of course).

Fraud is the creation of material that pretends one agenda, but serves another. Spam blogs, or splogs, now infest Technorati. They are a degraded product. Authentication and reputation management are the technical approaches to this problem.

Diversity is trickier. One man's meat and all that. Darwinists and anti-Darwinists, scientologists and rationalists, alternative medicine and science-based medicine, jihadists and humanists -- we all have rather different interests.

Sometimes I do want to see what the jihadists or the scientologists are saying -- but not usually. How can one approach this problem?

Google tackled it by creating products like Google Scholar, which rely on sources that are authenticated and on age-old filtering and reputation management systems. Google scholar is great, but it doesn't help me figure out what iPod clock radio to buy.

Amazon now gives more points to their authenticated reviews and attempts to manage reviewer reputations. Their system, however, has been extensively corrupted by vendors (IMHO). It is still true that negative reviews, when cross-checked by positive reviews for refutations, are very valuable (though I'm sure rivals are now faking negative reviews as well).

I think there's another avenue to explore -- alumni organizations. This will vary by institution. I'm an alumnus of McGill University, The University of Minnesota, the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi (sort of :-), Williams College, Michigan State University, a few other places, the Watson Foundation, and Caltech. All but the last couple are too diverse to provide any useful filtering and validation. Caltech, an institution that's at least 99% rationalist, and (to a lesser extent), the Watson Foundation, would be very interesting.

I wonder if I can persuade the Caltech alumni organization to start doing some authenticated implementation of one of those link aggregation web sites. Maybe I could sell it as a marketing tool, and the Ad Word revenue might help a few students ....

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Surviving a rock concert: how much NRR?

We went to a Springsteen concert to benefit Kerry about 2 years ago. We definitely lost hearing. We're going again tonight, and the questions is whether to wear NRR 22 or NRR 30 plugs. This etymotic site has safe periods for use of their musician professional ear plugs (safe length is for NRR 20):
Etymotic fitting guide (PDF)

112 db Blues bar/Rock concert 5 MINS. 1.25 HRS.
Above 125 dB you are at risk for any period without maximum protection
Hmm. I think for a multi-hour Springsteen concert I'll put NRR 20 in one ear and NRR 30 in the other ...

Update 6/11: Well, it turned out to be a Zydeco New Orleans Folk Rock concert and we weren't all that close to any speakers. Hardly a real test - nothing like the Rock the Vote concerts. The NRR 20 material is a waxy glob that fills the external ear. Unbelievably geeky, but of course that didn't bother me. Unfortunately it made the music rather leaden. I opened a space on the right ear and that seemed to suffice without causing too much damage (I think).

As a concert it felt muddled. This type music really doesn't scale to a major venue -- it's way too intimate. On the other hand, it would have been great on Prairie Home Companion.

Sprinsteen must be getting bored of rock and roll, but it's really his natural home.

Robert J Lurtsema: how fleeting is fame

When my wife was an undergrad at Wellesley College, she awoke to bird song that moved to increasingly rousing strings. That's how Robert J Lurtsema started his morning show, Morning Pro Musica.

I thought there'd be an mp3 somewhere of that show, and that I'd use it for our iPod alarm. Alas, Lursema died in another era. Even his memorial site was no help. It's still up, but the links are almost all bad. WGBH has removed the mp3 sample that page mentions.

He was pre-digital and is now all but forgotten.

Update 1/30/07: Thanks to a gracious comment (see below), we now know where to find a recording of "Dawn Chorus".

Update 8/5/09: There's a new location for the Dawn Chorus.

Update 6/19/2012: Lurtsema, I've learned from comments, was known for silent pauses. That's a bit unusual on radio. A commenter (The Grouse) wrote to correct one explanation for those: "... Lurtsema's famous pauses and these being to smoke ... but people I spoke with who worked with him say that this is utter poppycock. It was just the way his intriguing mind worked."

How to REALLY anger customers: Griffin Technologies

This is how to really anger your customers. First you ship a product with a very high defect rate. (Some versions of Griffin's AirClick had a very high defect rate in the remote transmitter -- the defective units had a 3 foot rather than 60 foot range.)

Then when users go the web site for support, you have them hop through a few hoops, enter their message, and give them a WEBSITE ERROR page when they submit.

Wow. They'd have to do a really, really, good job apologizing to get my business back.

Haditha: the defense

The WaPo presents the defense: Marine Says Rules Were Followed. A 'sweep' gone bad, no real coverup.

I suspect it will turn out to be a unit on the edge that attempted to execute a 'sweep' (hunting down suspected insurgents in supportive homes) and botched it -- killing too many with too little discipline. There was then a de facto coverup, supported by a desire of all involved not to look too closely. That's my bet anyway ...

Iran and the murder of the Iraqi Shiites

Talk about an explosive accusation, casually presented. A fascinating bio of Zarqawi claims he was no friend of bin Laden or Sadaam, but he was supported by Iran -- despite his fanatical and genocidal hatred of Shiites.
The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

... We know Zarqawi better than he knows himself,” the high-level Jordanian intelligence official said. “And I can assure you that he never had any links to Saddam. Iran is quite a different matter. The Iranians have a policy: they want to control Iraq. And part of this policy has been to support Zarqawi, tactically but not strategically.
Supposedly Zarqawi took periodic refuge in Iran, though perhaps not in the past 1-2 years. Makes one wonder if his demise came after Iran decided his usefulness had ended.

It dose say something about Iran's approach to the 'great game'.

Update 6/11: It occurred to me shortly after posting this that if I were running US psyops, I'd go to great lengths to plant the story that Iran was running Zarqawi. Of course this doesn't mean they weren't, but if I were behind the story, I'd plant it this way ...

Zarqawi and the serendipity of fame

Hitler, famously, was a seemingly unremarkable man. It is easy to believe that in another world, he would have worked in a pawn shop. His peculiar talents had a bit of an "autistic-savant" nature -- extraordinary abilties embedded in an average mind.

Zarqawi sounds like that. There's no doubt he had an odd set of talents. Mary Ann Weaver (a western woman wandering in the bad spots of the world) was preparing a bio of Zarqawi, which The Atlantic has rushed to press with his death:
The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

... I learned that the first of al-Zarqawi's two wives had lived in the house until recently. She was his cousin, whom he had married when he was twenty-two. They had four children, two boys and two girls. But not long before my visit, al-Zarqawi had sent an unknown man to drive them across the border to be with him in Iraq. His second wife, a Jordanian-Palestinian whom he had married in Afghanistan, and with whom he has a son, was reported to be with him in Iraq as well. Al-Zarqawi's mother, Omm Sayel, whom he adored, and who had traveled to Peshawar with him when he joined the jihad, died of leukemia in 2004; although he was the most wanted man in Jordan at the time of her death, al-Zarqawi returned to Zarqa in disguise to attend her funeral....

...Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan..

...Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive—which, of course, it was. (Bin Laden’s mother, to whom he remains close, is a Shiite, from the Alawites of Syria.)...
When pursuing fanatical killers, be sure to stake out the funerals of their mothers. They seem to be uniquely devoted to their mothers, who love them despite some glaring defects. Unconditional love has its disadvantages.

Zarqawi was not a particularly interesting person, but I am quite interested in what creates successful thugs like him. War is a part of the equation, as it was for Hitler. In this sense War is a bit like some awful fungus, that makes spores of veterans that spawn more War. A troubled youth, a capacity for fanatacism, a blindly supportive mother ...

And, yes, the mothers. bin Laden's mother is Shiite. Zarqawi wanted to kill all the Shiites. And we learn this only now? Sometimes I think the greatest conspiracies are not about what is said, but rather about what is not said.

As my wife would say, the mother is always to blame ...

WGA: Windows Global Acquisition

Microsoft owns your PC:
Washington Post - HELP FILE

Q The last round of software updates from Microsoft consisted only of something called "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications." What is that?

A This program tries to verify that you have paid for Windows XP. It normally does this by putting together a profile of your PC's hardware, then checking a Microsoft database to see if your copy of XP hasn't already been used on a different hardware profile.

But recently, the company began installing Notifications automatically via Windows Update. It doesn't just scan your system once; it repeats the test every 90 days. If it cannot validate your copy of XP, it will nag you to buy a license.

Notifications also looks for new instructions from Microsoft every day. The company says these daily checks (which it plans to slow to once every 14 days) let it adjust the program's behavior if problems arise. That raises an alarming point: Notifications is pre-release software, tested without users' consent.

Worse yet, Notifications -- unlike other Microsoft updates -- cannot be uninstalled...
This sounds a lot like what SONY did when they covertly installed their unremovable Digital Rights Management spyware. Microsoft sneaks in 'Notifications', you can't remove it, and Microsoft's security firewall, oddly enough, doesn't warn you of its activity.

It's so gratifying to see Microsoft return to its roots. All this nonsense about open file formats was a bit puzzling. Microsoft will only open file formats if they can find a way to get even greater control of their customers. They want, and need, to move to leasing software and a completely unbreakable system lockdown. They'll throw in the PC for free, similar to the way cell phones are sold. This is completely consistent with the needs of their primary customers -- corporations.

Apple would do the same thing if they could, but they have a snarly, bitchy user base. The best they can manage is hardware lockdown -- only they make the hardware. They don't use open file formats (heaven forfend!), but their iWork XML formats can be parsed. They'll follow Microsoft, but here they can't lead.

In the long run I think Apple's world is more promising. Hardware lockdown doesn't conflict with small companies writing software that serves end users directly. Microsoft must control all the software, all the time. Apple only needs to obsolete all existing hardware every three years. (Good thing they've instituted a recycling program ...)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Fulminating about Ann Coulter

Orcinus is ranting about Ann Coulter. I can't manage to get too excited about her. She's an entertainer, a social phenomenon, and a recursive parody of herself. If wee Ann Coulter is enough to tip us into fascism, then we're completely doomed anyway.

Sure she's got people who truly believe her. Really though, I suspect many of her "fans" know she's cracked, but enjoy her ability to enrage some rationalists.

And that, I think, is my first and only post on her.

Japanese American Inernment

History worth revisiting.

Haditha: details on how Kilo Company cracked

Salon has more details on how and why Kilo company cracked at Haditha:
"You want to shoot them" | Salon News

...Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, who was not involved in the incident but photographed the carnage and helped move the bodies, told the Los Angeles Times that the victims "ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood."...

... Interviews with Crossan and another Marine who earlier served in the same platoon (3rd platoon, Kilo Company), as well as with military experts and psychologists, help provide some of the context for the reputed events at Haditha. The portrait that emerges is of an exhausted and overextended unit that participated in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Iraq war. The unit had fought at Nasiriyah during the initial invasion of Iraq, and in late 2004 engaged in 10 days of house-to-house combat during the battle for control of Fallujah. And last year -- in the months before the civilian deaths in Haditha -- at least 20 Marines were killed in ambushes and bombings in the town.

Betty McCollum voted against the toxic HR 5252 bill

Congrats and thank you to my House representative, Betty McCollum of Minnesota (Democrat). She voted against the recently passed toxic bill HR 5252: Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006:
109th Congress, 2nd session, House vote 241 | Congress votes database |
Interesting site, btw. This is from the Washington Post's Votes Database.

We will pay the price of this bill for years. In particular, the GOP has just given away our Internet to the cable and phone companies. I am sure they will be richly rewarded.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Back to Iraq 3.0: Zarqawi Analysis

The best analysis I've seen thus far on Zarqawi's death is from from Back to Iraq 3.0. Chris has been pessimistic about the future for Iraq, but he is cautiously optimistic today.

It's not just, or even primarily, the death of an evil man. It's the 17 raids that occurred at the same time. It's the appointment of a Sunni minister and a non-militia Shiite minister. It's the way he was apparently killed, as part of a bigger painstaking process of isolating him and boxing him in. It's the suggestion that Zarqawi was betrayed by Sunnis that had come to hate him, and were ready to strike a deal. It's the belief that many Sunnis wanted to deal, but were afraid of Zarqawi's vengeance.

I've read a claim by historians that there's a time in many conflicts when the parties have worked through their initial enthusiasm for murder, and are ready to reconsider their goals. I remember when this happened in Lebanon, after a long civil war.

On another front, it is said that both bin Laden and Zawahiri had likely come to hate Zarqawi and that they will celebrate his death. Perhaps true, but the hunt for Zarqawi took up a lot of scarce military and intelligence resources. Now they will be redeployed.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Medical cyanoacrylate use: why is the best summary on Dan's Data?

I stopped seeing patients about 7 years ago, but towards the end of my clinical career I started using cyanoacrylate to close wounds. What I find odd about this useful description of cyanoacrylate use is that it appeared not in a medical journal, but in an eclectic Australian blog written by a non-clinical geek polymath. What does that say about 21st century expertise and knowledge communication?
Dan's Data letters #152 - page 3

... I've used plain superglue occasionally as a wound closer, though; never for anything very dramatic, but it does indeed do the job quickly and neatly for small cuts. Many model-makers have dealt in this way with X-Acto knife cuts without leaving their workbench.

If you've got a more sizeable injury, hardware store superglue can still work well, but only if you know what you're doing, which you very probably don't if hardware store superglue is what you're using. The idea is to stitch the edges of the wound together with the glue, not just squirt it in there. Glue in the wound will only make things worse, not least because cyanoacrylate sets fast when it's wet (when used for ordinary applications, it sets because of contact with water vapour in the air; this is also why it bonds to skin so well), and gets hot when it sets fast...

Incidentally, not a lot of people know about the water-sets-superglue thing. If you need superglue to set fast, you can spritz it with a little water from a spray bottle. In a pinch, you can just spit on it, but that won't give you a good quality joint.

The water spritz won't work as nicely as regular "superglue accelerator", available from hobby shops, but it doesn't smell weird either, and it gives you more time to locate the parts - accelerator works so fast that the standard way of using it is to put the glue on one part and the accelerator on the other, then bring them together.

Entertainment can also be gained from an excessive quantity of water-thin superglue (also from hobby shops, who have far more cyanoacrylate products than you'll find at the hardware store) and a similarly excessive quantity of accelerator, in a disposable vessel like a spraycan lid. The reaction is quite enthusiastically exothermic; do it in a well-ventilated place, and not on your nice carpet.

Paradoxically, cyanoacrylate is also slightly water soluble, which is another reason why it's good for wound closing; the moistness of the skin will slowly encourage the glue to flake off (as it will if you get glue on your fingers while working on something; time is the only safe way to remove superglue, though shaving it off with a safety razor can be diverting, and leave you with no fingerprints). The glue will dissolve faster when the water's warmer, which is why model car people who want to get superglued tyres off of wheels do it by boiling the wheels.
See, now you know how to remove your fingerprints too. Handy next time you want to break into NSA headquarters and revise your identity records.

Lost artifacts: Hyphenation and typing

Gomers like me often comment about how our children are puzzled by bits of old technology, like rotary phones, typewriters, record players, and moon walks. How many, however, have noticed the disappearance of the typographic hyphen?

Even the Wikipedia article on hyphenation partly misses the mark (the author is doubtless too young to make the connection to the typewriter):
Hyphen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

...When flowing text, it is sometimes preferable to break a word in half so that it continues on another line rather than moving the entire word to the next line. Since it is difficult for a computer program to automatically make good decisions on when to hyphenate a word the concept of a soft hyphen was introduced to allow manual specification of a place where a hyphenated break was allowed without forcing a line break in an inconvenient place if the text was later reflowed. Soft hyphens are most useful when the width is known but future editability is desired, as few would have the patience to put them in at every place they believed a hyphenated split was acceptable (as would be needed for their meaningful use on a medium like the Web).
In the days of typewriting, hyphenation was frequently done to give text a smoother appearance. Nowadays we either live with the ragged right margin or expect the wordprocessor to adjust spacing to give a smoother right margin. When writing for media that reflow text there's no way to manually insert a typographic hyphen, and I'm not aware of web authoring software that inserts tokens for soft typhens (I don't know how many browsers would support them anyway, and the impact on rendering speed would be annoying).

I think the typographic hyphen has passed into history -- unmourned. Really, there ought to have been a service.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Copyright madness: don't take photos that are TOO good.

Don't take pictures that are too good. You may not be able to print them. On a related front, campaign donors have once again snuck a clause into some congressional business that would make it illegal to put one's personal CD collection onto an iPod.

This is all good. I take the millenialist approach here -- the worse things get, the more likely the savior will appear. We need the rights holders to really go crazy, and go crazy as quickly as possible, so that the average gal on the street blows her top.

Come on SONY, I know you can help push this over the top ...

Monday, June 05, 2006

The transhumanists - a portrait

The early women's suffrage movement, I recall, had its share of eccentric personalities. A mainstream gentleperson of the late 19th century, despite some sympathy for the movemement, might consider the spokespersons quite cracked.

Replayed today some of the leaders would still seem as odd as most movement leaders, but almost all of their vision has been fully accepted. The future manifests itself from the outside, and its carried by some whacky vectors. (Some would put me in that category, but really I'm quite boring.)

I think of that when reading Saletan's mildly amused but sympatheticessay on the transhumanists. There are some whacky people speaking there. In 1906 they'd have been whacky people advocating a woman's right to control fertility, in 2006 they're whacky people redefining humanity, in 2106 they'd be whacky people advocating .... ok, whacky somethings ... ok, so it'd be a miracle if anything is still communicating then ...

A good essay. I suspect about 80% of what they say will be mainstream one day, assuming there is a stream.

BTW, Who is Saletan? I had the impression somehow that he was a Bush supporter, but now I'm thinking I was confused.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

People not like you and I ...

Three alleged humans have solved a five dimensional Rubik's "cube". A solution takes "thousands" of twists. I'd like to see these folks on TV somewhere ...

Relational and feature memory

Researchers of memory now think of it in terms of relational and feature memory.

Sounds good to me. I've long thought I was pretty good at remembering relationships between things, and average at remembering attributes or features of things. Researchers now believe these are handled by different neural subsystems.

Where do you hide a 300 mile crater?

A mile beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet. Theory is that a 30 mile meteor smacked the earth 250 million years ago, splitting Gondwana's plate and causing the Permian-Triassic extinction.

The surprising part is that 30% of land vertebrates survived! Land critters are hard to kill, 90% of sea critters died.

The crater sounds pretty real, its relation to the extinction is said to be more controversial.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Digest: Oddly revealing

I find this oddly revealing, and a bit poignant.

I'd noted earlier that one good feature of the Da Vinci code is that it's causing some christians (probably just Catholics really) to examine the history of how their religion developed. In contrast to the often terrible and bloody history of the Catholic church, the history of Catholic thought is somewhat encouraging. So I was curious when I came across a version of that history at my parents house, in a pamphlet written by Catholic Digest. (I'm an agnostic/pantheist/atheist, but my mother is Vactican II Catholic - hence the pamphlet. I also grew up learning at my Quebec Catholic high school that the Children's Crusade was a noble endeavor, so I have a well-earned skepticism of church propaganda.)

The Catholic Digest represents one aspect of the modern Catholic church. I'd guess it's relatively mainstream. The pamphlet is a response to the Da Vinci code.

It's very well done, and it's quite fascinating, even erudite. Where else can one read, in about 3 brief pages, about early Jewish vegetarian Christians (the Ebionites), Marcion who felt that Yahweh was completely unrelated to the God of Jesus (isn't that obvious?), adoptionists who felt Jesus was born human and adopted by God, Docetists who claimed Jesus was faking suffering, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of Barnabas, and Athansias of Alexander? And, of course, those Gnostics.

Pretty good stuff.

So the weird part? You have to order the pamphlet or pick it up at your local Catholic Church. In a few minutes of looking I couldn't find a web version on the Catholic Digest website. I'd naively thought it would be a big link on page one, or at least a link from where they sell the pamphlet.

My best guess is that they want the money for the pamphlet, so they didn't put it online. My next guess is that they really don't want it to be read without the intercession of a priest (or, since priests are rare these days, some other intercessor). Ironically, and I say this with sympathy, both attitudes are historically very Catholic.

It's a shame really. I hope they relent and put the text online, with links to additional educational material. On the other hand, they know their flock better than I. Perhaps they fear that could be more dangerous than a bestseller (which I'll probably never read, but which I now have great respect for).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Was the 2004 Election Stolen?

Robert F Kennedy Jr is not a rigorous thinker. His writings on autism are perfectly awful. So I'd prefer to have read about GOP election fraud from another source:
Rolling Stone : Was the 2004 Election Stolen?

... The mounting evidence that Republicans employed broad, methodical and illegal tactics in the 2004 election should raise serious alarms among news organizations. But instead of investigating allegations of wrongdoing, the press has simply accepted the result as valid. ''We're in a terrible fix,'' Rep. Conyers told me. ''We've got a media that uses its bullhorn in reverse -- to turn down the volume on this outrage rather than turning it up. That's why our citizens are not up in arms.''

The lone news anchor who seriously questioned the integrity of the 2004 election was Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. I asked him why he stood against the tide. ''I was a sports reporter, so I was used to dealing with numbers,'' he said. ''And the numbers made no sense. Kerry had an insurmountable lead in the exit polls on Election Night -- and then everything flipped.'' Olbermann believes that his journalistic colleagues fell down on the job. ''I was stunned by the lack of interest by investigative reporters,'' he said. ''The Republicans shut down Warren County, allegedly for national security purposes -- and no one covered it. Shouldn't someone have sent a camera and a few reporters out there?'
My guess is that the GOP had established a strong "ends justify the means" culture, and that their people took whatever measures were necessary. I'm not sure it required all that much coordination, all it took was a culture of victory at all costs. Was there fraud? It would be odd if there weren't - this is America after all. Was ther enough fraud to throw the election to Bush? Maybe, but I'll reserve judgment pending a more reliable source. Was it coordinated fraud? No clue.

Some of the most interesting evidence, by the way, comes from statistical analysis. The probability that all the exit polls would have erred to Kerry rather than Bush is said to be absurdly low (60,000 to 1)...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hyper-G: the road not taken

Charles Stross blew me away when he casually linked to BYTE's 1996 Hyper-G article. Hyper-G was Gopher's answer to the web ...
...Information Landscape offers an interactive, 3-D representation of the database structure. Users can 'fly' over the information hierarchy, represented as a virtual landscape.

... The color and height of specific landmarks, for example, represent document type and size. Two-dimensional maps are also standard. Any changes made to documents and databases are immediately reflected in both representations.

... Documents have attributes ... -- for example, author, keywords, and creation date -- that can be used in searches.

-- An underlying object-oriented database ensures data consistency and integrity.

You can appreciate some of Hyper-G's features only if you use a generic Hyper-G browser. Currently, two are available: Amadeus for Microsoft Windows and Harmony for the X Window system ... A client application for the Macintosh will be available soon. Generic clients are not really meant to compete with Web clients; besides the advanced navigation features, the main reason for using a generic client is authoring capability, so you can modify documents.
Ahh. Yes. The road not taken. No broken links (that's the database), real metadata (semantic web - 10 years ago), information visualization, built-in authoring ...

Oh well, it wouldn't have scaled. The web worked because it was crappy enough to scale (loosely coupled) and wonderful enough to be useful. Still, points to Stross for remembering the glories of the mid-90s. Now THAT was an era of innovation.

I was also surprised to learn that BYTE is still around in some form and that the 1994-1998 print archives are online. BYTE at its best was impossibly good, at its worst it was better than anything we have today. When we lost BYTE we lost 10 points off the world's collective tech IQ. Turns out Pournelle is still there, and still trying to get his computers to work. Don't confuse the web site, no matter how noble, with the print version. Do, however, read some of the 1995 to 1996 print archives. Those were the glory days ...

Charles Stross on the future of the identity card

Charles Stross writes science fiction. He's terribly bright. He's written a short essay on how identity cards, like our REAL ID, will work (not) in about 10 years. Some of it is more plausible than others (I think American's won't resist as much as his characters do), but it's persuasive.

I need to add him to my reading list and bloglines list.