Saturday, September 30, 2006

How hot will it get? Hotter than ever.

Another analysis of historical temperatures has come out. The Look has summarized the article and presented the graph. The graph is a bit hard to interpret because it spikes so severely between 1900 and 2002. We're not talking hockey stick, we're talking rocket.

The easiest thing to do is follow the blue line for the 2001-2005 mean. The earth was super hot 400,000 years ago, and we're still about 1 degree C short of that. That was the hottest earth in 1.35 million years - as far back as we can go. If we don't do some radical CO2 reduction however, we'll blow by that record (pass it by a whopping 2 degrees C) and move out of the range of human evolutionary history.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Cut and run? Ok, maybe limp.

This is blackly funny. A GOP House candidate parrots Rove's tired 'cut and run' line, forgetting who his Democrat opponent is ...
WorkingForChange-Beyond the pale:

... In Illinois' 6th Congressional District, long represented by Henry Hyde, Republican candidate Peter Roskam accused his Democratic opponent Tammy Duckworth of planning to 'cut and run' on Iraq.

Duckworth is a former Army major and chopper pilot, who lost both legs in Iraq after her helicopter got hit by an RPG. 'I just could not believe he would say that to me,' said Duckworth, who walks on artificial legs and uses a cane.
I hope Duckworth is savvy enough to have gotten a chuckle out her opponent's stupidity...

Paul Graham: a big thinker in the world of software development

A brilliant colleague of mine recently recommended I review some of the writings of Paul Graham, in particular a famous essay Hackers and Painters and also the rest of his essay collection. The essays are primarily about creating a software business, also an interest of mine. You know he has to be good, because he recently returned to OS X.

Beyond the direct interest of Mr. Graham’s work, a few observations about the new world:

  • The famous essay, which has been widely read, has never been published except on the web.
  • My Graham doesn’t bother with RSS feeds, but two fans have created unofficial but “blessed” feeds that point to new essays. In our new world, there are creators and communicators and creator/communicators. All roles are valued. I added Joseph Grossberg’s feed to my Bloglines collection, then from there found an interesting comment by another blogger, and added him as well. Thus does the network grow.

My colleague, btw, is a creator but not a communicator…

Avandia (rosiglitazone) for Rat Alzheimer's Prophylaxis?!

I'm sure it's too late to buy stock in GlaxoSmithKline today, but it might be worth shorting it when disappointment sets in.

This FuturePundit article describes a rat study demonstrating that a "PPAR delta agonist" prevents progression of rat Alzheimer-disease like dementia. Sounds like they're talking about Rosiglitazone (Avandia), a Thiazolidindione class drug [1] that's alleged to work in diabetes by stimulating PPAR Delta receptors and thus enhancing intracellular glucose uptake.

The theory is that defects in insulin uptake into neurons play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease, and the plaque and tangles we see are secondary processes arising in glucose starved brain cells. Improve uptake is alleged to slow disease progression.

I follow this domain casually, and this "type 3 neuro-diabetes" theory of Alzheimer's seems new to me, but of course being middle-aged I've probably forgotten about earlier readings.

Interesting for sure. In the unlikely event it actually worked GlaxoSmithKline would have hit the jackpot and the US debt bomb would be defused. Anyway, if it's really promising we'll know within the year.

[1] All of this stuff is pleasantly new to me, I'm getting far enough removed from medical practice I actually get to read about new physiology periodically. That's fun.

PS. I've always been suspicious that exercise really helped prevent Alzheimer's disease. It would fit with this though, if exercise had some global effect on insulin response and glucose uptake ...

PPS. All members of this class of medication cause weight gain ... Isn't that a deliciously nasty choice? You can be thin and demented, or hefty and not demented ...

Update 4/21/2010: Didn't do so well in human trials!

The Hall of Shame: 6 Democrats join

Histories Hall of Shame will include the Bush administration and all but two every GOP Senators in office today. It will also include six democrats. Five are anonymous drones, but it is astonishing how far Lieberman has fallen. This was a man who once had a reputation.

10/2/06: Correction: Lincoln Chafee opposed and Olympia Snowe did not vote. My apologies to these two.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

What DeLong reads

DeLong responds to yet another decrepit journalist decrying the blogosphere. Those articles are both ridiculous and boring, I'm surprised DeLong has the energy to respond.

Along the way, he tells us what the reads. He rates the FT and the WSJ (news only, not the rabid and demented editorial pages) above the Economist, then runs through his blogs. Happily, I read at least half of them. DeLong is more avidly political than I, so my list leans more to science, technology and OS X than his. Still, I'm pleased to read at least half his favored set!

Now I need to start reading the Finacial Times ...

Guardians of the Enlightenment: Join SEFORA, promote the rationalist bill of rights

SEFORA is special interest group -- for scientists, engineers, and rationalists. Non-partisan, but it's obvious what's inspired them. My spouse and I have joined, even though we didn't make the illustrious first thousand. SEFORA (Scientists and Engineers for America) asks candidates to endorse a rationalist bill of rights -- and promotes candidates that sign up:

# Federal policy shall be made using the best available science and analysis both from within the government and from the rest of society.

# The federal government shall never intentionally publish false or misleading scientific information nor post such material on federal websites.

# Scientists conducting research or analysis with federal funding shall be free to discuss and publish the results of unclassified research after a reasonable period of review without fear of intimidation or adverse personnel action.

# Federal employees reporting what they believe to be manipulation of federal research and analysis for political or ideological reasons should be free to bring this information to the attention of the public and shall be protected from intimidation, retribution or adverse personnel action by effective enforcement of Whistle Blower laws.

# No scientists should fear reprisals or intimidation because of the results of their research.

# Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.

# The federal government shall not support any science education program that includes instruction in concepts that are derived from ideology and not science.

# While scientists may elect to withhold methods or studies that might be misused there shall be no federal prohibition on publication of basic research results. Decisions made about blocking the release of information about specific applied research and technologies for reasons of national security shall be the result of a transparent process. Classification decisions shall be made by trained professionals using a clear set of published criteria and there shall be a clear process for challenging decisions and a process for remedying mistakes and abuses of the classification system.
I can't imagine any Republican who could sign up for this, so SEFORA will inevitably be supporting Democrats.

We knew what was happening. The Fall of America, part VII.

If you’re a Chinese high school student of 2018 reading this as part of your essay on “how did 21st century America betray its ideals”, you should not believe that bunk about “regular Americans didn’t know what was happening”. If Americans didn’t “know” what was happening, it was because they chose not to look.

So don’t buy it. Guilty we are. We did not deserve the legacy we inherited. I hope your China will find a better path …

Antiterrorism Bill on Detainees, Geneva Conventions - Rushing Off a Cliff - New York Times,

….These are some of the bill’s biggest flaws:

Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.

There is not enough time to fix these bills, especially since the few Republicans who call themselves moderates have been whipped into line, and the Democratic leadership in the Senate seems to have misplaced its spine. If there was ever a moment for a filibuster, this was it.

We don’t blame the Democrats for being frightened. The Republicans have made it clear that they’ll use any opportunity to brand anyone who votes against this bill as a terrorist enabler. But Americans of the future won’t remember the pragmatic arguments for caving in to the administration.

They’ll know that in 2006, Congress passed a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy, our generation’s version of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Update 9/28: I bolded the part about the "spineless democrats", but on reflection this is a perfect Rovian trap. The man has no limits. If only we were better than Rove knows we are, but I fear his low opinion is justified. He's right that Americans will fall for his trap. Perhaps Democrats can do nothing but remain silent and vote against the bill.

Update 9/29/06: There's some "law" of the Internet that forbids comparisons to the Nazi era. Is there an appeal process by which one can obtain exemption from the law? I think we should invoke it. Really, though, I'm not sure the Nazis went in for this kind of Orwellian process. It's not even clearly Soviet. Maybe more tinpot dictatorship ...

FolioViews and ICD-9: a billion dollar tale never told

The more decrepit one becomes, the more "odd stories never told" one accumulates. This is one of those stories, a tale of a seemingly minor technical decision made 20 years ago -- with vast economic, social and scientific consequences that almost nobody recognizes today. It's a story about what happens when data moves into software and how proprietary data formats can shape a world -- unrecognized by anyone. It's a story of the mutability and immortality of software, and about data lock. It's boring, obscure, and I really don't know it all -- but I'm one of the few people that can guess some pieces of it. So, I'll tell it now, and hope corrections in the comments section.

In the 1980s a company named Folio Corporation produced a DOS information management software packaged called "FolioViews". They called it an InfoBase, and it was one of several semi-structured information managers that, in today's terms, were a cross between a database, a textbase, a content management system and and ontology editor. I was quite fond of that class of software, the most famous of which was probably Lotus Agenda. There were several similar, immensely powerful, and long forgotten applications on Mac Classic.

I remember that product because I used to write software reviews for the Journal of Family Practice in the 80s, and I wrote on FolioViews/DOS. (Back then JFP was still a scientific journal, not a throwaway.) FolioViews made a rocky transition to Windows 3.x, I wasn't as impressed with the Windows version, but, oddly enough, I have all the manuals. The software is gone.

That's where I thought the story ended, around 1993. It didn't though.

FolioViews was picked up by a number of governments, government contractors, publishers, CD-ROM vendors and legal firms around the world. It became a vertical market product. Somewhere along the way it was purchased by NextPage and buried (a search on their web site yields nothing about FolioViews). It probably lives a zombie existence there as a potential source of software patent litigation; many of these 1980s software packages implemented designs and ideas that were later patented independently, the old software can invalidate later patents.

Ahh, but what about the economic implications? That's a twisted tale. Somewhere along the line FolioViews became the standard means of editing and publishing ICD-9 and ICD-10, which started life as data sets used by epidemiologists and healthcare researchers. (For all I know it's used for CPT also, but that's murkier.) Here's the catch. ICD-9, in the US at least, became, by default, the only "standard" way to talk about diseases, disorders, and patient conditions. It became the flawed foundation of health care payment rules (along with CPT, DRG, etc etc), clinical decision support systems and EHRs (including one I helped create).

ICD-9 is the primary source of everything we know about what health issues Americans have, a fundamental constraint on the accuracy and capabilities of decision support systems, and a major obstacle to smarter/better healthcare systems. ICD-9 is also built and maintained in FolioViews -- but it's not distributed that way. It's distributed as a paper book (or a PDF, same difference). Fragments of ICD-9 are also published as database-like tables -- but that's only a fraction of it. The complete ICD-9, which exists only in FolioViews, is a rich and baroque mixture of classification, ontology and document -- mostly we don't have it.

Fundamentally, ICD-9 is locked away in the FolioViews Infobase somewhere in the offices of a federal contractor. My 1990s FolioViews manual tells me FolioViews can export wordprocessing documents or the proprietary "Folio Flat File" -- but that's it. Data Lock. Big time. FolioViews had its own peculiar and powerful way of managing data, and even if FolioViews had some sort of useable export facility it would be a non-trivial job to recreate it. It's not clear that there's an equivalent modern software environment that could recreate FolioViews. It might be easier to hire people to translate the WordPerfect output into a purpose-built environment -- except that really we need to dump ICD-9 and ICD-10 and do a SNOMED-derivedICD-11 (but that's another story).

So here we are, twenty years later, living with the consequences of a modest decision made when DOS was king. In a sense, a large portion of American healthcare is a captive of FolioViews, software who's fundamentals, including file formats and data structures, are lost in the mists of ancient computing. Something to think about the next time you wonder why software vendors struggle mightily to produce reliable and interoperable systems to support both clinical practice and financial obligations. The reasons may be more mysterious than you can imagine ...


Update 12/13/06: Interesting twist. A renamed descendant of Folio Views is used by the Mormon church (LDS) to distribute census/genealogy data. FolioViews was indeed a groundbreaking piece of software in its DOS incarnation, so unique it cannot be quite killed. Incidentally, I found this usenet discussion as a side-effect of how I track my usenet postings and follow-up. I add the semi-unique string 'jfaughnan' as metadata to my postings, and I have standard google query embedded in a my news page that retrieves postings. Since 'jfaughnan' appears in the URL for this blog, my standing query turned up the usenet posting referencing the blog. A very new age sequence of circumstances.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Answering the stupid question: what would YOU do in Iraq

Apparently in right wingnut circles and spineless journalists there's a call for "democrats" (meaning rationalists in this context) to come forward with their "solutions" to the Bush/GOP catastrophe in Iraq.
Shrillblog amplifies a Kevin Drum response. In brief, this is the GOP's Vietnam. There isn't a fix any longer, there are only less bad alternatives. The less bad alternatives are basically versions of retreat under fire, possibly with a continued presence in the north. It appears that Iran has won, the US lost an immense amount of money and thousands of lives, and the Iraqi people lost much more. If there are better options they will need to come from the Iraqi people and with an internationalized support rather than direct US support.

Politically, the sad truth is that the American people are not ready to hear this. A recent MN opinion poll show that less than 50% believe that the Iraq war was bungled. The numbers are a large increase from a year ago, but that's still not enough.

Given the impossibility of being frank, and the hopelessness of the GOP and the Bush administration, a non-suicidal rationalist politician will say relatively little. (Betty McCollum, our local representative, is rather honest -- but her seat is so safe I think the GOP opposition might be on the lam somewhere).

The irritating thing here is not the GOP ploy -- it's a perfectly reasonable ploy. It's the spineless journalists who play along with it ...

The Fall of Microsoft?

I've proclaimed the Fall of Microsoft before. The last time was OS/2 3.x, which was so clearly superior to both Win 98 and Win NT that it seemed sure to succeed. That's when I learned a lasting lesson about business strategy (including the Black Arts) vs. technical excellence. (I think of OS/2 every time my XP box slows to a grinding halt, tied up by its utterly lousy multitasking engine.)

Now I'll do it again. No, it's not Vista. Sure Vista will be a massive turkey, but we know about that. It's Word and Outlook/Exchange.

Word I've written about. It's fundamentally awful when used as anything but a sophisticated typewriter. Yeah, the help files and the grammar/spelling checking are good -- but that's about the end of it.

In some ways though, the Outlook/Exchange combination is even worse. Word I can work around the bugs, but Outlook/Exchange is just nasty. I got my latest jolt today when performance and reliability issues (sync errors with Exchange) forced me to switch to cached mode -- which is far faster. Except that my Sent folder had vanished, and I had several cryptic/worthless Outlook sync error messages that pointed to dead addresses.

No harm done of course. I keep my data in non-synched offline PST files and past experience had taught me to backup my Sent folderm, and anything else that's synched with the Exchange server, prior to switching modes. So I didn't really lose any data.

The point is though, that Outlook/Exchange and Word are two of Microsoft's core money spinners. Over the years they keep getting worse, not better. Microsoft can't seem to fix it. They've moved into a parasitic mode, siphoning the juices of the corporate customers who can't escape data lock. That mode will work for a long time, but it's a Faustian bargain. Once a corporation, or an organism, becomes a parasite, reversion to free range existence is very rare.

This time, the Fall may be for real ...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Brer Clinton: the rage returns

Incredibly, for it's surely suicidal, right wingnuts are allegedly trying to resurrect the shade of William Clinton. This is a bit like having your enemy sick a dog on you -- except its your dog. Maybe we should call him Brer Bill 'Briar Patch' Clinton.

Or perhaps it's not incredible. Maybe it's 'suicide by cop'. The wingnuts know they're destroying the nation, so they're asking us to stop them before they kill again.

Not that I'm a Clinton fan. Through some terrible strain of self-destructive arrogance he gave his enemies the perfect weapon, and they used it to put Vlad Bush in office. That was a historic failure. Still, to remember a competent president with a competent administration ...

David Brin, expanding on Russ Daggatt, provides a minor demonstration of what a potent weapon the wingnuts have handed the forces of reason.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

System failure: No Contact orders in Minnesota

Another story of a women killed by boyfriend/husband. The sad story didn't suggest much that could be done differently, until near the very end ...
Two slayings renew calls for vigilance

... The Minnesota Legislature this year increased the penalties for violating no-contact orders, making repeated violations a gross misdemeanor. Kluz said that Lee is the 15th woman to be killed in Minnesota this year in a domestic violence situation.
Huh? A gross misdemeanor? Repeat required? That was an increase?!

Why is it that the noteworthy part of any article is always about 3/4 of the way to the end?

Most of the time there doesn't seem to be any obvious response to tragedies like this one, but the "gross misdemeanor" suggests an obvious fix. Maybe a GM at the judge's discretion on the first violation, but otherwise a felony and arrest.

Not your father's immunology - and odd implications thereof

Nor your father's definition of the human.

In the past few weeks we've read of toxic viral payloads in sometimes commensal bacteria, we're read of viral infections that are a critical part of placental formation in at least one mammal, and we've read about T-Reg cells, such as:
  • mice without T-Regs developed a fatal inflammatory bowel disease -- not due to autoimmune attacks on bowel cells, but rather due to immune attacks on normally tolerated bowel bacteria
  • the best response (mice again) to some parasite infections is to keep a few of the buggers around so the immune system stays tuned. T-Regs help with that.
  • T-reg activity may increase in pregnancy in some women to manage tolerance of the foreign fetus
This must be starting to at least make its way into medical school infectious disease lectures, and of course there are lots of implications for a range of auto-immune diseases (Is ulcerative colitis an auto-immune attack on GI bacteria, why do parasite infections seem to suppress UC, what's the relationship between cutaneous T-Reg cells, vitamin D, sunlight exposure and multiple sclerosis, etc).

Eventually we'll change the way we treat infections, and probably abandon the idea (still persisting) that patients need to take all their antibiotics to kill all the pathogens. We may eventually move to the long mooted concept that managing infections is about managing the "human" (meaning nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA, bacterial DNA, Viral DNA, a few prionic forms and lord knows what else) superorganism and its ecology rather than the traditional view of an attacking "pathogen".

Hmmm. What could this approach imply about managing terrorism?

Why do humans lose their childhood memories?

One of the curiousities of human memory is that childhood, for most people, is largely lost. I think I'm not atypical in having a few memories I suspect are genuine, another set based on what I've been told, and mostly no memory at all.

The assymetry between parent and child is one of the more poignant aspects of parenting; one party remembers much of a rather important relationship, the other remembers little.

Why do adults not retain childhood memories? Is there an adaptive advantage to forgetting, or is it simply a side-effect of the way the human brain develops?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Protecte expensive checked gear, fly with a gun

Well, ok, a starter pistol. The pistol means your checked gear qualifies for weapons handling. It's safe from theft and abuse, and it'll arrive with you.

If we end up having to check our laptops and cellphones starter pistols will be commonplace on planes (well, in the locked secured gun case actually).

Safari must die.

I love Safari. I love the elegance, the performance, the efficiency, the security, stability and features of Safari. I love the Cocoa services and the beautiful UI and the excellent printing. It's a great product from a great team.

Safari must die.

I've known that for months, years maybe. Still, I held out hope. Hope died when I created a Gmail account for my wife last night. There's a button to click to test username availability; in Firefox it updates the page, in Safari it does nothing. I became so frustrated by the process I quit and did it using Firefox.

Safari was the right choice in its time. Back in the day was no way Apple could rely on IE, and Phoenix (later Firefox) was either unborn or unproven. Apple was right to start work on their own browser. Then came Google, and Ajax and, painfully, slowly, widespread support of Firefox as well as IE.

Now Safari is wrong. Being smaller, faster, better, more standards compliant is not enough. The best man doesn't always win the race. Safari cannot contend against Google, Yahoo, and every up and coming Web 2.0 solution. Most of all, Safari cannot defeat Google.

Gates, in his robber-baron heyday, had one great gift even I admired. He would shoot the horse he'd ridden when it faltered. He shot OS/2 (in the back), he shot pre-web MSN, he shot a lot of things. When he stopped shooting Microsoft went into decline.

Jobs shot the Newton (in the forehead). He can shoot Safari.

Maybe keep Webkit for Apple products, but use Firefox's Gecko engine and identify to websites as Mozilla/Firefox. We've got Camino and soon Firefox/Cocoa; Apple should work to make Apple's branded browser the best Firefox there is. Make it beautiful, make the printing work, make it Rendezvous and Keychain and spotlight and Cocoa and Webkit and Photocasting and Address Book friendly. Above all, make it Firefox/Mac -- even if you still call it "Safari".

Death to Safari. Long live Safari/F.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bombing to the stone age - why now?

Google news is picking up a lot of stories about the alleged US threat to bomb Pakistan "back to the stone age"...
KRT Wire | 09/22/2006 | White House denies threat to bomb Pakistan `back to the Stone Age'

With the United States and Pakistan united in a war against terrorism, the suggestion Friday that the United States once threatened to bomb the Pakistanis 'back to the Stone Age' landed like a diplomatic bombshell...
Hmm. Puzzling. I thought everyone assumed Pakistan signed up with the US because of do-or-die ultimatum -- they sure didn't do it for love. Musharaf's version seems a bit direct, but maybe Armitage is like that.

So no surprise there. The surprising part is Musharraf is talking about it now, and that the topic is getting so many Google hits. I wish someone who knows Pakistan would explain why now, and what Musharraf might be up to ...

Brad DeLong read my blog!


My wife will be very impressed. Seriously, she's a big DeLong fan too. We're just two geeks in a pod.

She'll be back from her urgent care shift soon. I have to figure out how best to spring this on her. Maybe I'll casually leave the laptop open to DeLong's page so she scans it while winding down ...

In my previous universe, Bush/Rove used more than nukes to sell their invasion

Salon has a laudatory review of a book by the inestimable Frank Rich on the tragic history of the Bush II (aka Vlad) regime. This sort of book is presumably written for future history students writing essays on the Fall of America, it’s unlikely to have much impact on anyone living now. The picture is indeed dire, with the usual mention of how imminent nuclear attack was used to build support for the way and Bush’s reelection:

Why we are really in Iraq | Salon Books

…What reason could team Bush come up with for attacking Iraq? 'Abstract and highly debatable theories on how to assert superpower machismo and alter the political balance in the Middle East would never fly with American voters as a trigger for war or convince them that such a war was relevant to the fight against the enemy of 9/11 ... For Rove and Bush to get what they wanted most, slam-dunk midterm election victories, and for Libby and Cheney to get what they wanted most, a war in Iraq for ideological reasons predating 9/11, their real whys for going to war had to be replaced by more saleable fictional ones. We'd go to war instead because there was a direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and because Saddam was on the verge of attacking America with nuclear weapons…

Dire as this story is, things were worse in my old universe. In my universe smallpox and biowarfare threats were used as well, and they were even more persuasive than the fear of nuclear weapons. Much was made of mobile labs that turned out to be nothing much at all. In that alternate timeline this led to a massive smallpox immunization program that was widely debated and partly implemented. In that reality some of the vaccination volunteers were seriously harmed by side-effects.

In this universe, however, that clearly never happened — or someone besides my wife and I would remember it. Bad as things are here, in the reality I used to inhabit they were actually worse …

Google Spreadsheets: the next Gmail?

Google hit a home run with Gmail, despite my personal problems with its spam management.

Looks like they may be equally serious about Google Spreadsheets, judging by what they're adding. For many home users this is plenty of functionality, this will probably be my wife's spreadsheet and a shared workspace for quite a few things we do (lists, schedules, etc).

It's time for me to create an internal family page with links to key web apps and services that we'll use on our home network and remotely -- a kind of shared application space.

Videochat family reunions: Cringely on Apple's strategy

Cringely is no Jobs-sycophant, but he can't help wetting himself over what he thinks Apple's going to do next. (I say that fondly because I love Cringely's column.)

Sometimes he's way over the top (retinal laser headmounted displays), sometimes he's spot on. He's always interesting. Today he's skirting the edge of plausibility with a column on Apple's possible media, VOIP, iChat, video-conferencing, HDTV play. Whoa. Makes me want to wait on Mum's Mac Mini purchase until after the January iTV announcement -- just in case.

If Apple could really do this they'd sell of a lot of HDTV units for someone. I fear, however, that the bandwidth requirements would kill most home WAN connections. of course Cringely had another column recently on why homeowners should pay for fiber to the home ...

Immigration and African American incarceration

Mankiw, a libertarian economist intellectual who once worked for George (torture) Bush, points with interest to an article alleging a strong and possibly causal correlation beween "immigration, black wages, black employment rates and black incarcerations". This is something many have suspected, but evidence is hard to come by. The same, I believe, will be found to be true for other groups including white collar workers (maybe without the inarceration effect, they have more room to fall).

Mankiw is right that this will likely have a big influence on the immigration debate. It's not proof, but that's hard to come by in economics.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sleep and brain development - in flies

Fruit Fly sleep is proportional to neuronal development. Dull flies sleep less, smart flies more. It's especially important that young flies get social stimulation -- and sleep.

I wonder what this says about homework in young children, or sleep deprivation in middle-aged parents?

Stop reading this blog and go to sleep.

DeLong explains why China is paying for our toys and homes

Why does China keep sending us spending money? What's in it for them. DeLong tries to explain it ...
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Brad Setser on Similarities Between Amaranth and the People's Bank of China...:

... The Politburo and State Council may understand it. They may be thinking as follows: 'We grow at 8% per year as long as we can keep export-led industriallization going. When export-led industrialization stops and we have to substitute domestic-demand-led industrialization, our growth rate is likely to fall to 5%. Thus each year we keep this juggling act going raises China's GDP--permanently--by about RMB 500 billion a year, an increment to the present value of China's total national wealth of RMB 10 trillion. To keep the juggling act going requires that we spend RMB 3 trillion a year buying dollar-denominated securities that will be worth only RMB 2 trillion when we sell them. That looks like a benefit-cost ratio of 10:1. So let's keep juggling as long as we can.

That maybe what they are thinking in the Politburo and the State Council.
I think this falls into the category of "bizarre ways market systems route around structural anomalies". If we think of the market as a massive optimization algorithm, and we think of structural anomalies in infrastructure, law, resource allocation, etc as obstacles, then we can imagine China's subsidy of US consumption as the result of solving an allocation problem despite structural anomalies.

Deviant, but gets the job done.

The Economist did a recent review of the rise of the 'developing world' (now greater than 50% of world output); I've not finished the series but it will be interesting to see how it intersects. The part I've read predicts greater upheavals than the 1st industrial revolution. This fits.

Ray Charles: It was a good ... What the?!

I'm listening to Ray Charles and Willie Nelson singing "It Was A Good Year" when I realize the last "good year" is 35. Next is the "dregs of my life". Wow. That's really harsh.

Special Harvard admissions for the wealthy: why I approve

One would think a commie like me would disapprove of the practice of special Harvard admission for the wealthy and privileged. Not so. Like the non-legacy admit Mankiw quotes I consider this a reasonable form of corruption, one with benefits for non-legacy funding. (I attended Williams College for "free", doubtless due to a similar sort of corruption.)

How can a socialist-commie-traitor approve of class-based privilege? It's the flip side of my dislike of the enthusiasm for 'merit based' rewards, and is really a sign of my twisted nature. After all, what is "merit" but the results of a genetic and social lottery? Get good genes, have the fortune of a supportive family (or not, in Newton's case), a few good teachers, and you have merit. The converse -- non-merit. To be born/adopted to wealth and privilege is a great gift, probably greater than winning the genetic lottery, but it's not substantively different.

So, all praise to those who enter Harvard by chance-given talent, but also to those who enter on the promise of their parent's future donations, and those who enter by compensation of their economic misfortune. It is all of the same.

BTW, a similar reasoning applies to reforming political corruption. The wealthy would never really accept having the same influence as a common voter; political corruption is the means by which the powerful get just enough extra influence so that they tolerate democracy. The problem we have now is that the "powerful" are being over-compensated with influence, for much the same reason that CEO's are over-compensated for their "leadership". We don't want to eliminate corruption in politics, we merely want to stop over-compensating the wealthy. They'd tolerate a democracy with less corruption that what we now live with.

Spam: blacklists are back, and the war may be turning

I didn't expect to have anything good to say about the spam wars after my recent Gmail meltdown. Surprise.

It began when I finally accepted that Google is a set of adaptive algorithms rather than a traditional corporation. That meant I could sit back and rethink things. Google was malfunctioning because I had redirected an unfiltered mailstream at Gmail, and Google seems to be effectively doing something I'd asked for years ago: selective filtering based on the managed reputation of an authenticated sending service. In this case Google was treating the 'sending service' as my redirector (which I don't think authenticates), rather than the distal source of the email. That meant acquired a reputation, from Google's perspective, as a really bad place.

Well, I can't be too mad if they're doing what I'd long urged everyone to do. It would have been nice if I'd known about it earlier, but them's the breaks. Don't do redirection to Gmail and expect it to like you for long.

So I turned off all the redirects, forwarded from Gmail to my ISP (VISI), flowed and to VISI's Postini service, and finally dropped all my email lists. Lists are very 20th century, this is the age of subscription/notification (Atom/RSS). Good-bye lists. The world calmed down.

With all the lists gone, and postini churning away, it was interesting to see what spam got through. Lots of political solicitations (Note to dems: you can get my money again when you stop spamming me) and various incredibly annoying newsletters. What they all had in common were that the domains were real. Yes, spam with persistent, verifiable, domains.

Some had unsubscribe links and some of those even worked -- though my experience with the political spam is that one's email gets back on their lists shortly after it's removed (recycled by the trading of addresses), just as in the world of physical junk mail. No matter, because with persistent and verifiable domains, personal blacklists work.

I've blacklisted 9 domains, all of whom have failed multiple unsubscribe attempts, and with postini and these few filters, my spam is gone. (Note Gmail filters will do this easily too).
I have less spam in my inbox than I've had for five years. Wow. Sure my postini spambox has hundreds of entries, but I've reviewed them -- all spam, no false positives.

The war, dare I say, is turning. Next step, once I've verified with spamcop, is going to be to redirect my mailstream through spamcop and back into Gmail, which will then be receiving a "purified" stream. I'm hoping Gmail will "learn" that the domain has been "rehabilitiated". Gmail can forward copies to my VISI account, so I'll be back to having a local store of my email as well. Updates to follow.

Update 9/22/06: Spamcop approved my plans and Gmail is back in the loop. This is the current setup:
  • several less used email accounts, including an ancient mindspring account, all forward to
  • my email forwards to my address where the heavy filtering occurs. I
  • my spamcop address forwards to my gmail address, that's where I keep a set of blacklist filters as above
  • my gmail account keeps a copy and forwards to my address
  • I use POP and IMAP on various machines to view and collect email from
So the mail I'm forwarding to Gmail is now cleansed by spamcop, which does a pretty darned good decent job. This also means that is no longer the proximal forwarding account, so what spam there is should count against it. BTW, a good tip for creating a "secret" mailbox like the visi account I use for POP services -- use GRC Passwords to create the username, something like "1E22F67AFD3116925A". That prevents spammers "guessing" the username and putting spam through.

Update 10/4/06: Since my original post, a few updates:
  • spamcop does a decent job, but not quite as good as VISI's postini. I may try moving their spamassassin settings up a notch (default is minimal, spamcop is very domain focused)
  • I added a Gmail filter so that email sent directly to my Gmail address gets a unique tag. Since only spammers and Gmail use that address it helps me quickly identify spam. More importantly, it's safe to mark email sent directly to my Gmail account as spam. If spam gets redirected to my Gmail account I delete it, I don't mark it "as spam". I think if I mark redirected email as spam Gmail assigns a poor reputation to the redirector, which I don't want.
  • I'm now getting about 3-4 spams in my Gmail inbox daily, of which 75% is spam that passed through the spamcop filters. I'll see if I can improve that a bit but it's tolerable.
Update 9/6/09: An updated version of the problem. In the years since I wrote this I've taken Spamcop out of the picture, but a new quirk may have arisen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Memo: no more phones for Joel

Sprint sent Joel Spolsky, entrepreneur, CEO, blogger, writer, uber-greek and smart person a phone to review. That was a mistake ...
Joel on Software

... The phone they sent me, an LG Fusic, is really quite awful, and the service, Power Vision, is tremendously misconceived and full of dumb features that don’t work right and cost way too much...
Joel is a good writer and he clearly loves his topic -- he rips Sprint and LG along several new dimensional planes. It's funny, but mixed in the swordplay is a serious point. Sprint is a complete mess. You don't screw up this badly without having a very dysfunctional organization. If I were on Sprint's board, I'd take this essay as justification to fire the CEO and bring in someone who can clean house.

Which brings me the second coming of the geeks, aka Apple's iPhone. Regular folks like the RAZR, but it doesn't move the geeks. Nothing does. All the phones are lousy. The network owners, like Sprint, are idiots. The iPhone shines like a beacon of hope, presumably carried on Apple's network (leased capacity). I'm sure it will be perfect... *

* Note to early adopters. Go ahead. Don't be worried about Apple's history of doing hardware alpha testing on their first set of customers ...

(Hat tip: Jim L)

One Republican in ten accepts evolution

Scientic American's Skeptic, Michael Shermer, tries to sell Evolution as good theology. It's a bit of a pointless exercise, and a feeble one at that, but the introduction included some remarkable numbers:
Science & Technology at Scientific Darwin on the Right -- Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution

According to a 2005 Pew Research Center poll ... 60 percent of Republicans are creationists, whereas only 11 percent accept evolution, compared with 29 percent of Democrats who are creationists and 44 percent who accept evolution. A 2005 Harris Poll found that 63 percent of liberals but only 37 percent of conservatives believe that humans and apes have a common ancestry.
Wow. One in ten Republicans lives in the world of the rational. Democrats are four times as likely to be a part of the world of logic, reason, and evidence. You can make a very good guess about someone's political party if you ask them about Darwin.

I think this helps explain why so many GOP voters think Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. They live in a world well removed from mere evidence.

Update 9/21/06: The Royal Society takes on Exxon. Commetn: the GOP war on science is fueled by the GOP voter's antipathy to science.

Howel-Evans syndrome on Wikipedia

Nobody but a researcher, geneticist, or the few physicians who treat an afflicted patient, needs to know anything about this Howel-Evans disorder. I came across it because my real-world work involves medical ontology/knowledgebase maintenance, and I needed to know what this thing was.

So my eyes bugged out when the first hit I got was on Wikipedia, and it was an excellent description, probably written by a bored dermatologist (though I must admit that dermatology is more lively than industrial ontology):

Howel-Evans syndrome - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Howel-Evans syndrome is an extremely rare condition in which the skin of the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, are affected (hyperkeratosis). The effects on the palms and soles is called tylosis, and in Howel-Evans syndrome, there is a predisposition to oesophageal cancer, particularly squamous cell carcinoma.

Howel-Evans syndrome was described in 1996 as being identical with palmoplantar ectodermal dysplasia type III...

Wikipedia is an honest-to-goodness 21st century wonder.

Your universe on drugs

The New York Times > Science > Image > Graphic: Separated at Birth lies two images side by side, one rather small, one a bit big.

To understand the title of this post, by the way, you had have beeen a young person in 1978 or thereabouts.

[pointer: Brin]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gordon's Notes: a graph

The HTML DOM Visualizer Applet will render websites as a graph. Careful - it sucks cycles. My G5 iMac went into windtunnel mode as long as the page was up.

Here's a graph of Gordon's Notes. I don't know how to interpret it, but I do wonder about that tight dnese cluster in the top left.

By comparison, here's Gordon's Tech. Very similar though rotated. I did it twice to see if I'd missed something. I'd guess the big cluster is OS X related ...

By comparison, my old web site has very few pages (though they're much longer than blog postings):

Ok, so that wasn't all that useful ...

Generals won't join Rumsfeld's staff?

Amid the all-too-plausible fears that the GOP is going to invade Iran, comes something that surprised me:
INTEL DUMP - National Insecurity?

...However, his appointed successor REFUSED To accept the Army's highest position, preferring to retire rather than work with Rumsfeld and the Bush administration. Many other generals also refused the Army's highest position, and for the first time in US history an already-retired general had to be recalled to active duty to become chief of staff, an unprecedented show of no confidence in Rumsfeld and the administration by the officer corps of the US Army...
If this is true, it's been kept pretty quiet. If the US Army leadership fears and despises the Secretary of Defense, isn't that news?

Philip Morris, Exxon and the Climate Change Deniers

George Monbiot, a journalist for The Guardian, has written a book about junk science and the global climate change "deniers" (by which he means skeptics who deny reason). He's excerpting the book on his blog.

The story is appalling of course, but it's also darkly hilarious. Even I, with my twisted admiration for the sheer unrelenting evil of the tobacco lobby, didn't expect this one. I really did laugh.

Sure Exxon and Cheney and Bush and all the usual evil, corrupt and stupid men and women have been promulgating junk science (it became junk science when all of the rationalist skeptics decided the case was made). Sure a surprising number of British journalists are even dumber than David Brooks (hard to imagine). But Philip Morris funding climate change deniers?!? That's hilarious.

Why? Monbiot claims it was somehow related to Philip Morris' attack on science, in alliance with the GOP of course. Science can be so inconvenient. Personally, I think it's just sheer evilness. The executives of Philip Morris are so steeped in evil they just can't help themselves any longer. They are compelled to be bad.

Guilty of dishonor of the first degree: America

I wrote of the Aher case in Jan 2004 and again in Feb 2005. The Canadian investigation confirms that Mr. Aher was falsely accused of terrorism by Canadian officials, and that the RCMP may have tried to cover up their error. The judge could not rule directly on the legality or morality of the American action, but the very end of a NYT article summarizes things fairly well:
Canadians Fault U.S. for Its Role in Torture Case - New York Times:

... On Sept. 26, 2002, the F.B.I. called Project A-O and told the Canadian police that Mr. Arar was scheduled to arrive in about one hour from Zurich. The F.B.I. also said it planned to question Mr. Arar and then send him back to Switzerland. Responding to a fax from the F.B.I., the Mounted Police provided the American investigators with a list of questions for Mr. Arar. Like the other information, it included many false claims about Mr. Arar, the commission found.

The Canadian police “had no idea of what would eventually transpire,’’ the commission said. “It did not occur to them that the American authorities were contemplating sending Mr. Arar to Syria.”

While the F.B.I. and the Mounted Police kept up their communications about Mr. Arar, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs was not told about his detention for almost three days. Its officials, acting on calls from worried relatives, had been trying to find him. Similarly, American officials denied Mr. Arar’s requests to speak with the Canadian Consulate in New York, a violation of international agreements.

Evidence presented to the commission, said Paul J. J. Cavalluzzo, its lead counsel, showed that the F.B.I. continued to keep its Canadian counterparts in the dark even while an American jet was carrying Mr. Arar to Jordan. The panel found that American officials “believed — quite correctly — that, if informed, the Canadians would have serious concerns about the plan to remove Mr. Arar to Syria.”

Mr. Arar arrived in Syria on Oct. 9, 2002, and was imprisoned there until Oct. 5, 2003. It took Canadian officials, however, until Oct. 21 to locate him in Syria. The commission concludes that Syrian officials at first denied knowing Mr. Arar’s whereabouts to hide the fact that he was being tortured. It says that, among other things, he was beaten with a shredded electrical cable until he was disoriented.

American officials have not discussed the case publicly. But in an interview last year, a former official said on condition of anonymity that the decision to send Mr. Arar to Syria had been based chiefly on the desire to get more information about him and the threat he might pose. The official said Canada did not intend to hold him if he returned home.

Mr. Arar said he appealed a recent decision by a federal judge in New York dismissing the suit he brought against the United States. The report recommends that the Canadian government, which is also being sued by Mr. Arar, offer him compensation and possibly a job.

Mr. Arar recently moved to Kamloops, British Columbia, where his wife found a teaching position.

The FBI lied to the RCMP, then abducted Mr. Aher and sent him to be tortured. There has been no statement, no apology, no offer of compensation from the Bush administration.

Insofar as we are all American citizens, even those of us who've jeered, heckled, berated and campaigned against the neo-GOP and the Bush administration, we share in the responsibility for the kidnapping, torture of this man. In a way, the failure to apologize is almost as loathsome as the policies that led to the crime.

We are guilty of dishonor in the first degree, and we should be pilloried in the stocks.

Update 9/21/06: Hilzoy is very familiar with this case. He brings in some more details on the role torture played in producing the false claims against Mr. Aher. It's easy to understand why Venezualan crackpots win applause every time they mock Bush.

DRM means the vendor must own the hardware: lessons from iTunes and phones

Heh, heh. Saw this one coming a mile away. With the DRM update in iTunes, iTunes phones won't play newly purchased DRMd music.

Digital rights management means that whatever plays the content (music, video) must be updated every time the DRM is updated -- and the latter occurs every time a weakness is discovered in the DRM mechanism. Such weaknesses are inevitable (some are driven simply by faster hacking hardware), so updates will occcur every few years.

So every few years all the hardware that works with the DRMd media must be updated. That takes time and money, and sometimes it just won't work. The hardware is obsolete. It works best if the owner of the DRM also owns the hardware.

So if your phone is going to play Microsoft's DRMd music, it needs probably be a Microsoft phone. If it plays Apple's FairPlay DRMd music (btw: AAC is the format, NOT the DRM, AAC is not an Apple product) it better be an Apple phone.

Interesting how these things work.

Google solicits search feedback: working with an algorithmic mind

Even as Google has been infuriating me by (probably algorithmically) filtering out my comments and questions to the Gmail Google groups help forum, the google-mind is asking for my feedback in other domains. When I'm signed in to personalized search, the bottom of the screen now has a discrete feedback link to this form:
Dissatisfied with your search results?

Thanks for helping us improve our search. While we aren't able to respond directly to comments submitted with this form, the information will be reviewed by our quality team
The Google mind is divided. In a similar vein, Google seemed to have removed the feedback form I used to complain of splog misidentification, but when I submitted my mislabeled blog URL for clearance via the old method the CAPTCHA sign of doom vanished immediately instead of the old 3 day wait.

Working with an entity that functions by alogorithm, rather than by traditional human thought, is ... different. I cannot model Google the way I can sort-of-model a human; to work with Google I need to understand the underlying algorithms and resulting emergent behaviors. The Google-mind is not sentient (quite yet), but it has emergent behaviors that are starting to feel as complex as those of my dog -- albeit far less appealing than those of Kateva.

Managing algorithmic entities with emergent behaviors will be a new skill for the emerging generation, much as using a PC was for my generation, using a phone was for my parent's generation, and driving a car was for my grandparents.

See also.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why antibiotics make some GI infections more dangerous

Back when I was a real doctor, perhaps 10 years ago, it was a mystery to me why some GI infections became so much more dangerous when treated with antibiotics. I knew enough to follow the treatment guidelines, but not why. The explanations I read were unconvincing.

Now I've heard a convincing story, courtesy of The Loom. The lethal toxins are produced by viruses, and bacterial death by antimicrobials unleases the viruses:
The Loom : Why Tainted Spinach And Antibiotics Are a Bad Match

Like other microbes, Escherichia coli O157:H7 carries a number genes that were delivered to it by viruses. In some cases, the viral DNA has mutated to the point that it cannot produce new viruses, and so the genes can only be passed down from one generation to the next. In other cases, the viruses are dormant but still independent. In response to stress, Escherichia coli starts making new copies of the virus, which then burst out of their host. Antibiotics are among the stresses that trigger the viruses to escape. It's a good strategy for the virus, because it can escape from its host before the antibiotics kill the bug. It's not so good for the host [jf: the bacteria], of course, and can be pretty bad for us as well. That's because the toxins in Escherichia coli that can cause organ failure are actually carried by the viruses. The genes only become active as the host begins making new viruses. That means that if you take antibiotics for infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7, you may wipe out the infection, but you may also trigger organ failure...
Our GI immune system has presumably evolved to kill the bacteria without triggering release of the viruses. A tricky and complex maneuver. Antimicrobials are less discriminating.

Hmmm. Multiple-system organ failure and sepsis must be imagined rather differently now than it was back in the day. Doubtless reasearchers have been looking for similar viral payloads in a wide range of infections. The trick may be to slow bacterial replication without stressing the viruses too much, so that the human immune system can survive long enough for a quieter means of bacterial assassination.

PS. Speaking of The Loom, I think of it and about 70 of my other favored blogs everytime I read about how the blogosphere is full of blather and nonsense. Such claims are so absurd that, on reading them, I not only turn the article aside I put the author into a metaphorical trashbin.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Be evil: Gmail, spam, data lock and a digital identity bill of rights

My Gmail acount is dying of dysfunctional spam filtering. Too bad. Well, I can just delete it and start over. After all, I've always been careful to keep a local repository of all my email -- I don't have to try to download via POP tens of thousands of messages. I don't even need my Gmail address, I only ever give out personal email addresses that redirect to Gmail. I've been so careful to maintain a layer of indirection ... or have I?

Ahh. Not so fast. Google checkout (purchase records), Picasa Web Albums (just paid $30 for the 9GB storage), Google Earth (I have the upgrade account, also $30 or so), my search history, my Google spreadsheets, my Google Apps -- there's are now 15 services inextricably linked to my Google digital identity -- and Gmail is the core of that identity. Soon my blogs, including this one, will move to that identity. Some of this data can be extracted, much cannot.

So can I keep the Gmail account in a sort of moribund state, setting spam filtering to an extreme level? No, Gmail doesn't allow one to control spam filtering. Yahoo email does, Gmail does not. You get the default.

It's a nasty situation. I'm wed to Google, but my bride is demonstrating sociopathic tendencies. Divorce is very expensive. Such are the perils of "data lock", but ownership of digital identity is worse than conventional "data lock" -- it starts to smell a bit like indentured servitude.

We need a digital identity bill of rights. I'll write more on this, but here are two a list off the top of my head:
  1. Digital identity must be portable using a well defined public standard.
  2. Digital identity must be independent of services. In other words -- there's a layer of indirection between my digital identity and my email account, my credit card account, my eCash account ...
Only two requirements, but it's a start. It means that neither Google nor Microsoft nor my credit card company nor my checking account can own my digital identity. They may host my digital identity, but I need to be able to migrate it, with appropriate authentication, to another host without breaking the associated services.

Google, unwittingly or with full knowledge, is now Evil. How can Google become less evil? They could adopt the Digital Identity Bill of Rights. The first step would be to separate a user's Gmail address from Google's digital identity, the next step would be to adopt and define an open standard so that Google customers could opt to migrate to another Digital Identity host.

If Amazon, Yahoo, or even Microsoft were to adopt this Bill of Rights, they'd get my business. I think Amazon would be my first choice.

Update 9/22/06: But then things began looking better ...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Will winner take all work?

The Winner-Take-All Society is a world in which most of the productive surplus of a society is concentrated in the hands of a few winners -- irregardless of whether they win by virtue, luck, malice, talent or some combination thereof. This is our world.

In our world it is not unusual to see a CEO exercise over $30 million in stock options. That money could have gone to shareholders, or to existing employees, or to customers, or to business partners, or to recruit and retain new talent -- but it went to the winner.

This makes sense if one accepts the notion that the CEO is the company, and that success or failure is determined by the CEO. This is a popular notion; it is widely accepted by a vast array of journalists, consultants, senior executives, writers of best selling business books, the Harvard Business Review and, of course, CEOs.

It might be true. I have no great evidence to the contrary -- but I have doubts. In the world of medicine observational studies are notoriously unreliable and misleading; real data comes from genuine experimentation -- experiments that can't be done in the world of billion dollar corporations. If one believes that modern business is as complex in some ways as living organisms, it's likely we don't have any real evidence to support the belief that the CEO is the company.

There's room for a contrarian opinion -- that companies that do well are the product of hundreds, or thousands, of significant contributors -- most of whom are invisible -- and numerous external uncontrolled variables we can call "fortune" and "circumstance". If you buy this story, then there's a problem with winner-take-all.

The problem is that those contributors are human, and they have the human compulsion to "punish cheating". They will, unconsciously or consciously, respond to "winner take all" in a myriad negative ways. in time this will affect the performance of the corporation, though, not, perhaps, the winnner's take.

This is fundamental human biology -- it cannot be readily changed. Winner take all carries the seeds of its own destruction.

Update 9/16: I didn't expect a supporting argument from a sports article.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Defining Moment for America -

From DeLong and Discourse.Net - widespread astonishment that the Washington Post has one surviving person of character. The proof of this mystery person -- this editorial:
A Defining Moment for America -

PRESIDENT BUSH rarely visits Congress. So it was a measure of his painfully skewed priorities that Mr. Bush made the unaccustomed trip yesterday to seek legislative permission for the CIA to make people disappear into secret prisons and have information extracted from them by means he dare not describe publicly...
Too bad The Economist continues to fail miserably. My 20 + year subscription ends next month. I'm sure they'll miss me ...

Cringely on Apple's media play: not based on advertising

Cringely is the most interesting commentator in the PC world, and writes for PBS. Bizarre. Anyway, here he has a particularly good column -- he points out something I hadn't noticed and nobody else has commented on. Apple's media play isn't based on advertising ...
PBS | I, Cringely . September 14, 2006 - Swimming With Sharks

.... Contrast this with Google or Yahoo and even with Microsoft in recent years when everything seemed to be moving to being ad-supported. Where is advertising in Apple's strategy? It is nowhere to be found.

By selling outright, Apple doesn't need ad sales to succeed, reducing its risk. It also reduces downloads, I am sure, but that's not all bad. Even if the system were heroically successful right from the start, it might have technical problems. By ramping slowly with retail sales only, Apple can hope to keep ahead of the demand curve.

Just as Apple isn't Microsoft relying on working with the TV networks and cable channels, Apple isn't dependent on advertising, either. PVR (personal video recorder) functionality and advertising can easily be added at a later date if that is justified by market conditions or revenue expectations. Yet for Microsoft or Google going the other way -- from free with ads to paid -- it is that much harder a task.

When Apple needs more revenue from its movie business it can always add commercials. When Apple needs more revenue from its hardware products, it can always sell a PVR upgrade for $99. The ongoing profit potential is immense...
This is dog-that-didn't bark stuff. Absence is harder to notice than presence, but Cringely is right. Fascinating, and complementary to the strategies of Apple's new best (boardroom) friend - Google.

The entire column is worth a careful read.

Bears and Humans: intersection of problem solving capabilities

We are quicker than most animals at solving most problems, but the gap is not as large as we often think ... (yes, this smells like an urban legend, but I liked Schneier's comment on persistence ...)
Crypto-Gram: September 15, 2006:

Human/Bear Security Trade-Off

I like this example from SlashDot: 'Back in the 1980s, Yosemite National Park was having a serious problem with bears: They would wander into campgrounds and break into the garbage bins. This put both bears and people at risk. So the Park Service started installing armored garbage cans that were tricky to open -- you had to swing a latch, align two bits of handle, that sort of thing. But it turns out it's actually quite tricky to get the design of these cans just right. Make it *too* complex and people can't get them open to put away their garbage in the first place. Said one park ranger, 'There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.''

It's a tough balance to strike. People are smart, but they're impatient and unwilling to spend a lot of time solving the problem. Bears are dumb, but they're tenacious and are willing to spend hours solving the problem. Given those two constraints, creating a trash can that can both work for people and not work for bears is not easy.
The lesson, other than humility about human cognitive abilities, is that attackers often have far more persistence and commitment than defenders. Measures that work against persistent attackers (password rules, etc) so annoy defenders they become impractical.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Whatever happened to Amazon's lousy service?

Is this the sign of new trend? At one time Amazon had a reputation for awful customer service; only a wizard could locate their hidden customer service number.

No longer. Their product return service is fully automated and very effective. Most impressive, is their eStara powered online phone service. When a USPS package went misssing recently it took only one or two clicks to get eStrata to call me back. The problem was resolved almost immediately.

Impressive, and expensive. Amazon is making a big bet that customer service counts. Maybe the pendulum is swinging at last. Dell is no doubt taking notes.

Blumenthal's indictment of Bush - the worst ever (Salon)

Salon has reprinted the introduction to Sidney Blumenthal's new book, "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime. The introduction is a fairly lengthy indictment of GWB beginning with the days he was considered a “moderate” to the conclusion that he’s probably the worst president in the history of the United States.

It’s probably true that Bush was always this bad, but many people who knew him before seem to think he’s really changed. I’ve often wondered about some unusual organic brain disorder or a significant head injury with post-traumatic deficits.

Garrison Keillor on homeland security

It’s not just funny. I think he spent quite a while thinking this through. It’s a good short course in what’s wrong with our security model, though he’s wrong about the profiling. Competent terrorist would use plain looking euros, we’ve just been lucky current crop is no more competent than the Bush administration…

Guns on a plane |

... Sept. 13, 2006 | And now you can't bring your cup of coffee on board the airplane. It's the latest new rule laid down by the nation's security wizards…

But we ditch our venti latte in the trash barrel (goodbye, four bucks) and board the flight, and there we read in the paper that aggressive CIA questioning of an al-Qaida bigwig -- stripping him, turning the air conditioner to 40 degrees, blasting him with Red Hot Chili Peppers music -- broke him, so he ratted on Jose Padilla, a terrorist who set out to make a dirty bomb and who believed that by swinging a bucket of uranium in a circle over his head he could separate plutonium. It's like a cartoon.

The way to stop terrorists on planes is to encourage passengers to bring loaded firearms aboard: guys in orange vests sitting in exit rows with deer rifles on their laps…

This way, if some guy in a burnoose sets up a chemistry lab in Row 24 and mixes hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid and acetone in a big beaker that is packed in 15 pounds of dry ice to keep it cool, and cooks up some triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, the passengers will be able, in the several hours it will take him to make the deadly explosive, to bring him under control, assuming the fumes haven't knocked Ahmed out. And they could nab the mastermind too, the monocled guy in first class petting the white cat.

It all began with the name Homeland Security. Somebody with a tin ear came up with that, maybe the pest exterminator from Texas, or Adm. Poinduster, because, friends, Americans don't refer to this as our homeland…

"Homeland" was a word you heard shrieked by a cruel man flicking his riding crop against his shiny black boots: "Zie homeland -- ve shall defend it at all costs, achwohl!" Americans live in Our Country, America, the nation of nations, the good old USA.

… God forbid, somebody shows up at an airport somewhere in the world with an explosive tucked up in his lower colon. The Achtung people will come up with some new security procedures that will effectively kill airline travel, and then this enormous bureaucracy can turn its attention to the nation's highways. Pull over at the checkpoint, get out of the car, open the trunk, take off your shoes, put your hands on the top of the car, turn your head to the right, and cough.

They can search each laptop for possible terrorist-type writing and confiscate cellphones, white powder, shoelaces, car keys, pencils, anything sharp or cylindrical or made of glass, and interrogate people randomly, putting them naked into cold rooms with ugly music played at top volume. It's all fine with me. I'm a liberal and we love ridiculous government programs that intrude on personal freedom. But where are the conservatives who used to object to this sort of thing? ...

I think we know where those old conservatives are nowadays

Tidbits notices: iTunes and families don't go together

Ahh. Someone who has readership finally noticed this. The problem with most tech geeks is they don’t seem to have families, or even longterm relationships. They don’t seem to notice that you can’t merge iPhoto Libraries or that iTunes is fundamentally designed for a single user environment (see also and this). The Tidbits group is older, and so they noticed …

TidBITS - Apple Updates iPods, Introduces Movies, Previews iTV

... As far as we can tell, iTunes 7 in no way improves the situation of a family that wants to have a single music archive that's shared by multiple computers. Built-in sharing works poorly because only one computer can make playlists, rate songs, and so on, and maintaining a shared music folder on a centralized server works acceptably, but each computer must add new music manually. The one new feature here is that iTunes now supports multiple libraries like iPhoto does; hold down the Option key when launching iTunes to create or switch between libraries. The only real utility we can see to this feature, though, is having a relatively small library on a laptop for travelling, but having another library that points at a shared storage folder when you're at home. ...

The technical problem is bigger than it looks. iPods are also designed to hold contacts, photos, etc. Those are all user-specific. So you want sync to be user specific, but also support shared Libraries with personalized and shared playlists. A bit tricky … but there’s a shark in this pool.

You see, we only think we buy music for a family. The copyright holders would say we buy it for ourselves. If your son wants to hear “Yellow Submarine” he should buy his own copy. DRM rights, you see, are personal, not familial. Feel that noose?

So sharing iTunes Libraries is a bit trickier than it looks …

How bad is the new GOP? Old GOP stalwarts yearn for defeat

Shrillblog detects the end-times. Old-time GOP stalwarts seek defeat, and likely lust for Clinton:

Shrillblog: Breaking News: Shrillness Singularity Discovered!

…George H.W. Bush speechwriter Christopher Buckley, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush advisor Bruce Bartlett, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, Cato Institute Chairman William A Niskanen, conservative constitutional lawyer and activist Bruce Fein, Ronald Reagan speechwriter and former National Review editor Jeffrey Hart, and Chairman Richard Viguerie all write in to say...

… They hope the Republicans lose in 2006 ...Well, let’s be diplomatic and say they’d prefer divided government—soon …

I’m sure they weren’t quite so direct as the above paraphrasing implies, but anyone from the old-time respectable GOP must feel the same way.

The Bush/Cheney/Rove/Rumsfeld GOP practices an authoritarian populism familiar to students of history and of South American politics. It’s not the GOP I grew up with. I didn’t like Reagan or Bush I, but that was before I experienced Rove’s GOP. Now even Reagan, demented though he was, shines like a beacon in the harbor. (Were it not for his unforgivable crime of handing a gun to his enemies Clinton’s retrospective radiance would blind unprotected eyes).

It’s difficult, and painful, to remember what competent governance was like. An entire generation of young voters has no experience with government that’s worthy of the name.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Using Google co-op for health information.

Somehow I missed Google Co-op. Here it's being used to define resoures health information. These collaborative bookmarking, path sharing projects are all the rage, though until now I've not found one that worked for me.

The Google Co-op project is intriguing of course, it's getting hard to keep up with all of their inventiveness -- is Google trying to advance The Singularity all by itself?

Needless to say, the memex had this feature. Vannevar Bush's 1945 prototype for the WWW+ involved the sharing of links, connections and paths in a collaborative development effort.

PS. Visiting my all-but-forgotten site I was intrigued to see the vanity feature -- an ancient link to Gordon's Tech under the old name is on a few other people's lists. I'll have to add all of my blogs and key pages there to see how many others have been found ... Clearly, I've not thought enough about these emergent collaboration sites ...

The magic of the blog: critique a product, the CEO responds

In addition to this opinion blog, I write a tech blog that’s mostly a reference for myself and friends, a little read special needs blog, and an announcements blog for a local special needs hockey team. These have miniscule readerships, but the web works in strange ways.

Recently I wrote two posts on products I use quite a bit. One was an affectionate announcement of the long (long) anticipated release of an iPhoto product I love, the other was a comparison: Gordon's Tech: SmugMug + PictureSync vs. Google Picasa Web Albums.

Within 12 hours of the original posts comments appeared from both the CEO of SmugMug and the author of Keyword Assistant.

Is this a sort of ‘long tail’ variant? Something interesting is going on in our world at the level of feedback loops.

Now if only we could fix planetary heating this way …

The insanity of using SSN as a password

When corporations outsource various HR functions, the disparate contractors all need an identify management process. They can get IDs easily enough, but not passwords. So they need to give everyone a password.

Typically they use a password that consists of some combination of one’s name and a portion of the SSN. For the past few years they’ve routinely used the last four digits of the SSN. Of course since everyone in the world uses the last four digits for authentication that information is now widely distributed and cannot be considered even remotely confidential.

So today one of these vendors asked me for the last six digits of my SSN.

I think you can guess where this is going. We have 3 digits to go.

Blithering idiocy.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Ten Greatest Privacy Disasters

This is a handy list to review. It started on Wired, Schneier then pointed to this comment he liked: Concurring Opinions: The Ten Greatest Privacy Disasters.

I agree with Solove's opinion on the list, the SSN problem was not the identifier, but rather the essentially fraudulent way it was presented to the public and managed ever after. In essence the US implemented a national identifier while constantly denying it had a national identifier. This is a far worse situation than if we had an official identifier with a body of law to protect us from both private and governmental abuse.

I also agree about his comments on omissions. TIA never died, it only mutated, splintered, and went underground where it's harder to monitor and control. A bit like al Qaeda I suppose, which is interesting from a systems analysis perspective.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Anthrax: remember that?

Funny, Bush never talks about the anthrax terrorist. He also never talks about his rather suspiciously timed smallpox immunization campaign, and the injuries that caused.

A few remember - at least about the anthrax. Tara Smith write about Anthrax--where are we, almost 5 years later?. Turns out, we seem to be where we started. Some good links. Nice to see she reads the illustrious Mr. Schneier.

TS links to the excellent wikipedia article. A mystery indeed.

Ramsey County Elections: Primary Tuesday 7am-8pm

Ramsey County Elections kindly includes a sample ballot. I could start by ruling out every elected official who's spammed me, but that would eliminate most of the ballot.

Or I could vote on the Republican slate and support one of the whackos running against Mark (GOP? What's the GOP?) Kennedy for US Senator ...

Alas, I'll try to figure out the DFL ballot. The endorsed candidates are here; the state DFL was once a bit loony, but I think they've calmed down (even as I've become a bit of raving loon myself - Bush does that to some).

Looks like it'll be:
Senate: Klobuchar
District 4: McCollum (ultimate safe seat)
Governor: I dislike Mike Hatch, the DFL endorsee. I may have to vote for Becky Lourey, an amazing person who is not the obvious choice to oppose Pawlenty.
Secretary of State: March Ritchie. Also a big spammer.
Attorney General: Steve Kelley (DFL endorsed) is among the worst of the spammers. Grrrrrrrrrr.
County Commissioner District 5: Rafael Ortega, the incumbent.
Judge 28-2nd District Court: Jay Benanav. The incumbent, Otsby, was a Pawlenty appointee. Given that Pawlenty is a much smarter version of George Bush, Benanav is a much better choice.

Refining the Drake equation: earth like planets more common?

One of the explanations of the Fermi Paradox is that earth-like planets are very rare, so technologic civilizations are very rare. This was the premise of a 6/17/2000 Scientific American article that inspired my interest in this topic. Since then, however, every discovery in plantetology has increased the prevalence estimate for earth like planets. Now new models of planetary formation suggest gas giants support, rather than oppose, the formation of earth like planets:
A Plethora of Alien Seas -- Berardelli 2006 (908): 1 -- ScienceNOW

.... The researchers found that when gas giants migrate, they fling lots of rocky debris away from the star and into the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. There, the debris frequently coalesces into Earth-sized planets.

This kind of early evolution also perturbs the disk, causing comets outlying billions of kilometers away to dive toward the star. Enough of these ice balls hit the terrestrial planets to deliver large quantities of water. "We were very surprised to learn that these planets are water-rich and probably covered in global oceans," he says.

The findings suggest that thousands of planetary systems within the Milky Way could harbor Earth-like planets, says Rory Barnes, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Still, he cautions that the key question is how many planetary systems have hot Jupiters...
Of course, when you increase the value of one term in the Drake equation, given the 'great silence', you decrease another term. The one that keeps shrinking is the lifespan of technological civilizations interested in travel, exploration, and communication. The civilizations must either all die or all lose interest in communication. (The other explanation for the great silence is the one favored by odd couple of religious fundamentalists and simulationists -- it's by Design.)

Friday, September 08, 2006

TouchGraph AmazonBrowser

TouchGraph AmazonBrowser V1.01 is a graphical network browser for Amazon products. I came across it via Amazon's Solutions Catalog. There's other fascinating stuff there.

Tom Tomorrow - 10/22/2001

Tom Tomorrow is a genius, and brave as well. Comics | This Modern World

"They can't shake the foundations of our secular humanism ..."

The joy of blogs: DeLong vs Mankiw

Greg Mankiw is a very smart Republican economist who worked for Bush and perhaps voted for him (ok, not so smart). Brad DeLong is a smarter economist who despises Bush.

That's the background. The joy is reading the dialog between the two. This one goes to Brad, but Mankiw has his go0d days. His discussion of Healthcare is quite rational and he's strong when he points out that even if inequality is a 'winner take all' phenomena that doesn't mean one should rule out social policy to reduce it:
This analysis, however, does not tell you what to do now. Even if rising inequality is exogenous, the government could still respond to it by making the tax code more progressive. That is a coherent policy viewpoint, driven as much by political philosophy as economics, about which reasonable people can disagree. I am the first to admit that the study of economics by itself does not tell you how to balance efficiency vs equality. And it certainly does not tell you whether it is more noble to be an egalitarian or a libertarian.
In the DeLong vs. Mankiw battles the two often agree on the economics but disagree on policy and values -- but DeLong is usually more careful about what he writes. Mankiw can be sloppy, as with a recent post on reproductive rates and social conservatism.

Still, Mankiw is a Republican I can live with, and I'd even respect him if I knew he didn't vote for Bush in 2004.

Aging or Cancer: pick your poison

If you slow the rate of biologically programmed aging, you increase the rate of cancer. Unless you can reduce the number of times cells divide (but who knows what tradeoff that has ...):
Gene Found to Switch Off Stem Cells During Aging - New York Times

September 6, 2006

Biologists have uncovered a deep link between lifespan and cancer in the form of a gene that switches off stem cells as a person ages.

... The gene involved in the new finding has the unmemorable name of p16-Ink4a but plays a central role in the body’s defenses against cancer. It produces two quite different proteins that interact with the two principal systems for deciding whether a cell will be allowed to divide.

One of these proteins had also been noted to increase substantially with age. The cells of a 70-year-old person produce 10 times as much of the Ink-4 protein as do those of a 20 year-old, Dr. Sharpless said. To help understand why this was so, Dr. Sharpless genetically engineered a strain of mouse in which the gene was knocked out.

... All three teams report essentially the same result, that in each type of tissue the cells have extra ability to proliferate when the Ink-4 protein can no longer be made. At the same time the Ink-less mice are highly prone to cancer, which they start to develop as early as one year of age.

... a calorically restricted diet is one intervention that is known to increase lifespan and reduce cancer, at least in laboratory mice. The reason, he said, is probably because these diets reduce cell division, the prime source of cancer risk...

... Dr. Morrison said it had long been known that older patients don’t do as well in bone marrow transplants as younger ones, and the new finding might explain why.

... The researchers say they do not yet know what stimulus makes cells increase their production of the Ink-4 protein as a person grows older. Their suspicion is that the usual factors implicated in aging, such as mutation and oxidative damage to tissues, would turn out to play a role in making cells produce more Ink-4...
Note the implication that you can now measure someone's biological age by their Ink-4 protein production. I've long thought that aging was non-linear, that we age in bursts (much as the folk story of 'he aged a year in a day'), possibly triggered by environmental events. It would be interesting to plot weekly Inf-4 levels in 20 individuals over the course of 2 years.

This is not a surprising result. As long as I can remember biologists have suspected that there was a tradeoff between aging rates and cancer.

This seems to fit with the most surprising lay article I've recently read, the discovery that lifespan seems random, that longevity is not hereditable. I'm still fascinated with that result, even though I don't entirely believe it (dogs are my favorite example, there longevity is clearly hereditable and even breed specific). I'm guessing aging rates are hereditable, but they don't translate into longer average lifespan because of the resulting increase in cancer rates (and vice-versa, lower cancer risk doesn't translate into longer lifespan because of faster aging). Still, that's not a complete answer; I think a combination of biological research and simulation modeling will be needed to understand why lifespan is not significantly inherited.