Sunday, October 29, 2006

Larry Summers calls for smart populism

Larry Summers, formerly a treasury secretary and more recently of Harvard fame, now writes for the Financial times (emphasis mine): / Comment & analysis / Columnists - The global middle cries out for reassurance

... Let us be frank. What the anxious global middle is told often feels like pretty thin gruel. The twin arguments that globalisation is inevitable and protectionism is counterproductive have the great virtue of being correct, but do not provide much consolation for the losers. Nor can they rally support for policies that maintain, let alone promote, international integration.

Economists rightly emphasise that trade, like other forms of progress, makes everyone richer by enabling them to buy goods at lower prices. But this offers small solace to those who fear their jobs will vanish.

Education is central to any economic strategy, but there is a limit to what it can do for workers in their 40s and beyond. Nor can education be a complete answer at a time when skilled computer programmers in India are paid less than $2,000 a month.

John Kenneth Galbraith was right when he observed: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” Meeting the needs of the anxious global middle is the economic challenge of our time.

In the US, the political pendulum is swinging left. The best parts of the progressive tradition do not oppose the market system; they improve on the outcomes it naturally produces. That is what we need today.

There are no easy answers. The economic logic of free, globalised, technologically sophisticated capitalism may well be to shift more wealth to the very richest and some of the very poorest in the world, while squeezing people in the middle.

Just as the Federal Housing Administration’s effort to make owner-occupied housing more available after the second world war was a crucial part of the policy approach that permitted the Marshall Plan to go forward, so also our success in advancing international integration will depend on what can be done for the great global middle.

Our response will affect not just the livelihoods of millions of our fellow citizens but also the prospects for continuing global integration, with all the prosperity and stability it has the potential to bring.
Summers is effectively echoing Krugman's call for the "smart populist" -- the heir to Teddy and Franklin. I have no ability to predict how the US electorate will respond. I would not have favored a populist six years ago, but Bush has broken me. If populism is the only other option, bring it on.

PS. Kudos for Summers for pointing out the obvious. Education is not a complete solution -- or even much of a partial solution.

GCH1 and chronic pain

This is not a gene you want your insurance company to know about:
Science & Technology at Scientific New Gene May Help Predict and Treat Chronic Pain:

... The gch1 gene turns up in human pain, too. In a study of surgical disk removal for back pain, those with one copy of a gch1 variant--30 percent of the total--reported less frequent pain after surgery, the group found. Three percent of those studied had two copies of the variant and were at even lower risk for chronic pain. Similarly, in studies of temporary pain, people were less sensitive to pinches, heat and pressure if they possessed one or two copies of the gch1 variant. The protective variant becomes more active when chemically stimulated, suggesting that it kicks in after nerve damage and inflammation, and seems to work by influencing nitric oxide synthesis, the researchers report. 'We really think we've uncovered a completely novel pathway with a novel regulator of pain,' says Woolf, who founded a biotech to find inhibitors of the GCH1 enzyme. About 30 percent of people overall have the variant gene, he notes.
I suspect this won't pan out -- too simple. Even so, it's one bit of genetic information that might be best kept secret.

Why does evolution allow gay and lesbian humans?

Scientific Most Desirable Mates May Not Sire Prolific Offspring suggests evolutionary paradoxes like gay males may be related to gene-gender competition. A gene that helps one gender compete for mates may be "injurious" (in terms of reproductive output) to offspring of the opposite gender.

The phenomena has been demonstrated in fruit flies, now evolutionary biologists will be looking for examples in other animals, including (of course) humans.

I'll be watching to see if they're able to tie this into the peculiarity of the 'demographic transition' in which wealthy humans have fewer offspring than less wealthy humans. (Yes, I've read all the old economic explanations. I don't believe them.)

If this mechanism is in place it may contribute, says Pitnick, to maintaining a great deal of variation in the genome, opposing the conformity sexual selection seems to produce.

Curing data libels by poisoning the well

Our alleged sins and misdemeanors are widely available; worse yet, some of the sins are untrue. (Schneier on Security). Banks, airlines, marketers and Homeland Security don't care about the untruths -- as long as they are not too widespread. A few casualties can be ignored.

There is little hope of rescue from government, our rulers are hopelessly corrupt. Is there a way out?

There may be lessons in the techniques of spammers. They are increasingly adept at "poisoning the well"; feeding spam detectors messages that reduce their specificity. The spam detectors begin rejecting too many non-spam messages. The only quick fix is to make the detectors less sensitive, so more spam slips through.

Imagine if a group of mercenary black hats were to insert vast amounts of false data into huge numbers of credit records. If the error rate becomes too high, the information becomes worthless. There are then two options; either the industry gives up on reputation management (unlikely) or they invest in ensuring information is correct and verified. Either option is better than the current situation.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Berners-Lee on the future of HTML

The other day I asked my HINF studens who Tim Berners-Lee is. Nobody knew. I was tempted to fail everybody, but in addition to lacking that power I knew I was simply being an old curmudgeon. The world moves on, and Berners-Lee is an anti-celebrity. Even his blog doesn't identify him, save by the letters "timbl". I guess that's the way he wants it.

Today TBL affirmed what I've read elsewhere -- the XML version of HTML was stillborn.
Reinventing HTML | Decentralized Information Group (DIG) Breadcrumbs

... Some things are clearer with hindsight of several years. It is necessary to evolve HTML incrementally. The attempt to get the world to switch to XML, including quotes around attribute values and slashes in empty tags and namespaces all at once didn't work. The large HTML-generating public did not move, largely because the browsers didn't complain. Some large communities did shift and are enjoying the fruits of well-formed systems, but not all. It is important to maintain HTML incrementally, as well as continuing a transition to well-formed world, and developing more power in that world...
This is gracefully conceding to the inevitable. Guided evolution will be the future ...

Spolsky's guide to interviewing and hiring - version 3

Spolsky has rewritten his hiring guide: The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing (version 3.0) - Joel on Software.

These guides can be somewhat uncomfortable reading for the insecure; I don't feel I'd meet Joel's rigorous standards. On the other hand, allowing for the fact that most of the world is less perfect that Joel's planet, it's a concise and well written reference for your next candidate interview. Even if that candidate wouldn't get hired by Joel.

Family Medicine Notes and Pycnogenol: Is Jacob testing me?

Jacob wrote:
Family Medicine Notes

Pycnogenol for ADHD?
Not clear what's up with this .. here's a placeholder for more review ..
I tried to reply, but his comment system is broken. (Requires TypeKey authentication but doesn't support it ...). So, Jacob, here's the comment:
Uh, Jacob - you are testing to see if I'm reading, right?

This substance has never been screened for toxicity, drug interactions, side-effects, etc. If it actually has enough pharmaceutical activity to rival Ritalin it scares the pants off me. Ritalin is an unreasonably safe medication, almost nothing of like effectiveness is that non-toxic.

Interesting from a drug development perspective.

Terrifying from the viewpoint of an rationalist and ethical clinician.

The Retreat in detail: An emerging plan

A lead editorial in the Guardian lays out, in some detail, the expected retreat from Iraq. UK forces will leave, no matter the conditions, by the end of 2007. It's a reasonable outline, with no guarantee of avoiding civil war or anarchic genocide. The key is to pay for an arab speaking army to help secure Baghdad. That idea has turned up in a few places and seems to be the best possible outcome at this time.

Time to be very nice to Turkey and Egypt ...

Cheney: a breath of foul stench

There's something refreshing about Cheney's honesty. It's like the cold breeze out of freshly opened crypt. Then the stench hits ...
Cheney Doesn't Back Waterboarding

HENNEN : I’ve had people call and say, ‘Please, let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives.’ Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?

CHENEY: I do agree. And I think the terrorist threat, for example, with respect to our ability to interrogate high-value detainees like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, that’s been a very important tool that we’ve had to be able to secure the nation. Khalid Sheik Mohammed provided us with enormously valuable information about how many there are, about how they plan, what their training processes are and so forth—we’ve learned a lot. We need to be able to continue that. . . .

HENNEN: Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

CHENEY: Well, it’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.
Simulated drowning is not torture, therefore we don't torture. Wow, what a stroke of brilliance. It works for everything. I'll try it the next time I get a speeding ticket. "Officer, driving 110 mph in a 55 mph zone is not speeding, therefore I do not speed."

An excellent Mankiw discussion on Gas taxes and other externality taxes

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Alternatives to the Pigou Club is a serious dialog around a recent WSJ article he wrote. I suspect the WSJ article drove the WSP editorial page into a blinding rage, note how Mankiw doesn't even bother to address whatever blather they produced. Instead he lays out all the alternatives and does a persuasive job of ruling them out.

We need a big carbon tax.

Note Mankiw is a Libertarian by leaning.

Read the comments too.

What we've learned from torture

More information is coming out about the use of torture and physical abuse in US secret prisons on German soil. An article in Stern led this comment:
Shrillblog: Tim F. Joins Us!

Tim F: The only positive thing that I can draw from this sad period of American history, now we know who are the closet sadists and the authoritarian followers waiting for the right regime under whose thumb to subsume their will. Smile for the camera, guys.
It's a good statement. Now we know. All of that "never again", "not here" stuff -- it's finally gone from the American dialog. It didn't take much -- barely a shove knocked us off our Potemkin pedestal.

I suppose the bright side is that every country now knows they will spared annoying lectures about virtuous behavior. If any American official tries it, the hilarity will be genuine. Nice to know there's a silver lining.

Research for Alaskan FP residents: Vitamin C and hand infections in Fishermen

A colleague of mine is a serious fisherman. He spends weeks in remote Alaska, hanging out with professional and insane amateur fisherfolk. The fish are big and sharp, and hand cuts are routine. He tells me the cuts develop quite an array of persistent local infections, presumably due to the exotic bacteria -- but there's a preventive therapy. A routine megadose of vitamin C will prevent the local infections.

I wasn't able to find any Google references to this, and we have pretty good evidence that vitamin C does nothing for colds or any other form of infection, so it seems a longshot. On the other hand, it's also easy to study and it appears to be a genuine folk practice (like copper bracelets for arthritis -- which also do nothing). It seems like it could be a nice research product for an Alaskan family practice resident, or for an interested local physician. Persuade some fishermen to join a randomized double-blinded trial of vitamin C vs. placebo and study their hand infections. The truly intrepid could experiment on themselves of course, which would get around the informed consent issues.

If you do the study, let me know!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Journalists matter: Gina Kolata on CT scans and lung cancer screening

I was amazed to read Gina Kolata's NY Times article on CT scans and lung cancer screening. Why the surprise? It's very good. Sober, measured, informative. I'm not accustomed to good reporting on this type of story. Journlists matter, and Kolata is one of the very best writing on healthcare topics.

Oh, the conclusion? Looks interesting, probably insurers will pay, risk and benefit is not yet known, better studies will have results in 1-2 years. I'd say 65% probability this will turn out to be a weak screening test.

The future of the manager

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Post-Managerial Capitalism?

Worth reading for anyone thinking about where capitalism is going next.

Google's Goals: Skynet 1.0

From Google's internal goals document
Google's Internal Company Goals

...Google wants to have the world’s top AI research laboratory...
Decades ago I wondered if there was any way we'd dodge the great crisis/opportunity/singularity of fundamentally abiologic sentience. I decided back then that it was inescapable unless our technologic civilization collapsed (the bright side of al Qaeda's agenda?). The only uncertainty was when. There's such enormous economic and military advantage to moving along the sentience curve that no moratorium or restrictions could possibly stand.

I think this admirable goal of Google's deserves notation as a minor milestone along that path.

PS. Note to future sentimentally-inclined abiologic sentiences researching their history -- have mercy on my descendants please...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The genome of the bee: like and unlike the human

The Loom has a terrific post on the recently sequenced bee genome. Emphases mine. A must read for everyone. Bees are sometimes like flies, sometimes like us  …

The Loom : To Bee

... The honeybee genome is the product of billions of years of evolution, as is the genome of every other living species. Humans and honeybees share a common ancestor that has been estimated to have lived 600 million years ago. While our ancestors evolved into fish and then moved on land, the honeybee's ancestors evolved into crustacean-like ocean-dwelling animals, some of which moved ashore and became insects. Early lineages of flying insects had fixed wings, represented today by dragonflies. The ancestors of honeybees evolved folded wings, and one lineage of the folded-wing insects evolved larvae about 300 million years ago. This lineage gave rise to many of the most common insects today, including beetles, ants, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, and bees. ...

… One of the biggest surprises of the honeybee genome project is how much like humans they are--at least compared to other insects. Fruit flies and mosquitoes have undergone a much faster rate of evolution than honeybees. In addition, they have also lost many genes that honeybees and other animals--including humans--have preserved. The genome team identified that 762 genes in the honeybee that are also found in mammals but have been lost in flies. (This is the nice thing about studying genomes: there's nowhere for missing genes to hide. If they're gone, they're gone.)

The similarities between honeybees and humans go beyond retained genes, however. Many of their genes work much like ours. The honeybee's body clock, for example, uses the same system of genes we do, while fruit flies use a different set. It appears that the common ancestor of insects and humans had two systems of genes for telling time. Fruit flies lost one system, while honeybees and vertebrates lost the other….

I want to know how their immune system works. There’s intense interest in how bees fight bacteria, viruses and other parasites.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Recommended: Hawks essay on human evolution

John Hawks has written a short and interesting essay around an older work:
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2006 10

On a bit of a writing junket for his book, Mankind Evolving, in 1963 Theodosius Dobzhansky put an essay in Current Anthropology titled 'Anthropology and the Natural Sciences -- The Problem of Human Evolution'...
I hope this will become a full article. It's an interesting insight into modern thinking on human evolution and it's another illustration of how the work of great minds ages well. Worth reading.

KIBRA and the feeble memories of euros

People with the T allele of the KIBRA gene have better memories. The distribution of this allele breaks down by ethnic ancestry:
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2006 10:

.... In populations of European ancestry, the T allele is the minor one with a frequency of 25%, as also shown in this study. In contrast, in Asian populations the T allele is most frequent (75%) and in African-American populations, the T and C alleles are almost equally frequent (54% and 46%, respectively). Therefore, it would be interesting for subsequent studies to assess KIBRA's relation to memory in populations of non-European ancestry.
I struggled memorizing my med school anatomy. Now I know I'm a disadvantaged paleface with a crappy memory subsystem. Maybe this explains why China has been able to bear the burden of a rather challenging system of writing.

Hawks explains that the KIBRA gene also plays a role in estrogen receptor activity, so KIBRA variations probably have a wide range of phenotype results. Evolution is going to be balancing conflicting optimizations. There's probably a way to use the math developed for microeconomics to model those optimizations ...

iPods and hearing loss: A misleading report

The reporting on a recent study of iPods and hearing loss is incomplete if not misleading ....
Hazards: A Study Gauges the Risks for Ears With iPods - New York Times:

... The researchers, who are audiologists, concluded that the average young person could listen to a player at 70 percent of full volume for four and a half hours without much risk. They also said that if people used the earphones that come with the devices they could listen to music at an 80 percent level for 90 minutes a day without great risk.

But listening to the music full blast for just five minutes can affect hearing, they said...
iPod output depends partly on volume settings and partly on the music's intrinsic "recording/encoding levels". So device volume setting is only a part of what determines energy output. They might have done better to recommend both electronic level equalization and volume limitation together.

Geriatric iPod users (age > 40, younger folk don't tolerate the dorky look) may wish to use noise canceling headphones. With noise canceling headphones a volume setting of 40-50% produces a good listening experience, with the default ear buds a comparable experience requires a volume setting of 70-80% in a standard office environment. Users who can tolerate them may use occlusive earphones to get a similar effect -- but beware otitis externa! Also, you won't hear the fire alarm ...

Closed ear phones are helpful, but probably don't deliver enough value to offset the associated bulk and inconvenience.

How to referee a paper

Aeons ago I used to referee papers. I dimly recall enough to say that this is a very useful guide: Marginal Revolution: How to be a good referee

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fallacies: I'll have more time in a few months

I recently posted about 42 errors in reasoning. I'm wonder how this fallacy fits in: "I'll have more time in a few months".

Sometime in the past six months I read that many busy people expect that their lives will be less busy sometime in the "near future". It turns out that this rarely happens; at a given phase of one's life all randomly sampled times are approximately equally busy. In terms of task management, if there's a project one is to busy for right now, it is fair to assume that one will not have time for it in the near to medium future.

Clearly this cannot always be true. I recall some relatively quiet periods in my life only ... ummm ... 20 or 30 years ago. Ok, so the rule holds.

I'd like to find a reference on this, if anyone knows of it please tell me in the comments.

Fallacies: 42 errors in reasoning

Nizkor, a holocaust memorial site, has republished Michael Loabossiere, author of the 'Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0'. The result is a list of 42 types of reasoning errors, known as logical Fallacies. This is an excellent reference the next time you have to deconstruct an extremely annoying chunk of illogic. Among my favorites are 'Middle Ground', 'Begging the Question', 'False Dilemma', and 'Poisoning the Well'.

Virtualization and DRM are mortal enemies: Vista Licensing

Microsoft's Vista licensing will make use of Parallels (OS X) and other non-Microsoft virtualization solutions prohibitively expensive.

Other than enriching Microsoft's virtualization solutions and breaking all the competition, why would a convicted monpolist do this? Isn't Microsoft risking a return trip to the courts? (True, they found a way around those pesky American courts, but there's still Europe.)

Virtualization breaks Microsoft's Digital-rights-management and licensing models. If you authenticate your XP license in a virtual enviroment, then it will be authenticated in that virtual environment no matter the underlying hardware. So, one license, many machines. It's the same problem with their software license, their DRM copy protection etc. You can have one machine run a dozen instances of Word, and as far as each instance knows it's the only copy running.

Virtualization is a terrible threat to Microsoft's basic business. This will be war.

Iraq is not Vietnam. It's much worse.

Kaplan, who supported the invasion of Iraq, says Iraq isn't Vietman, it's much worse. Also, "civil war" is too optimistic a phrase. Anarchic collapse is a better name.

So all those who raised the specter of Vietnam owe Bush an apology. We should have been raising the specter of Rwanda.

Personally, I have only a limited mental model of what's going on in Iraq. I obviously have no trust at all in our GOP government and there appear to be no reliable and uncensored information streams left in Iraq.

In the very unlikely event that the GOP loses control of the Senate, we might get some data I'd have some confidence in -- primarily senate testimony of US military command based in Iraq. In the meantime American citizenry is flying blind. All we can say is that we need to get the GOP out of the Senate and ideally out of government. If we can't do that, we can't do anything.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The startup library: Graham, Spolsky and more

Y Combinator: Startup Library. They didn't include anything from Kawasaki. All worth reading; of course one will need to ignore some of it ...

Assertive atheism: a 21st century cult

The Nov 2006 (14.11) issue of Wired headlines the assertive atheism movement most closely identified with Richard Dawkins. I've seen aspects of this over the past few months, especially in blogs like Pharyngula. The Wired article clarifies something that had puzzled me -- the aggressive attitude of the Dawkinites towards rationalists who are respectful of religious sentiment. To the Dawkinites, such sympathy is heresy.

The journalist ends up deciding heresy is an odd partner to rationalism, and that the Dawkinites have more than a few aspects of the religions they abhore. I agree. To be quick about it, I part company in many respects from this 21st century cult:
  1. I've not seen any persuasive evidence that the nastiness in humanity is particularly related to religion. Sure many theists are nasty, but the simplest explanation is that humans are nasty. Our nervous systems are an evolutionary kludge that barely holds together, we have a lot of chimpiness to us, we're just nasty, brutish and of variable height.

  2. We don't have a robust theory yet of the early history of the universe (quantum gravity and more), so there's still room for at least a designed universe. There's also those pesky theories that our "world" is a simulation, these speculations might yet be testable. There's not really any difference between an entity outside of a simulation and a supreme being. Lastly, there's the Fermi Paradox - the last, best, argument for design.

  3. There does not appear to be any rational derivation of ethics, rather we create ethical systems as a post hoc explanatory framework for our actions. We don't really know how well the bulk of humanity (not just the "brights") would do when all "ethical" systems are equally valid and arbitrary.

  4. It's a tough universe. Hellish for many. Really, the truth is overvalued. A comforting story is nothing to sniff at; denial is not just the proverbial river. Sure Dawkins claims he's fine staring reality in the face (I wonder how clear his vision is?), but most of us do not do so well.

  5. I like studying human religious systems -- from cult to traditional doctrine. That gives me some sympathy for the practice as well as theory of religion.

  6. Many of my favorite people are theists. I don't like to cause them suffering.

  7. Dawkins is mean. Rude too. Not nice. Nice is good, especially given our fundamental natures.

Zimmer on complexity: and evolution - National Geographic

The exceptional Mr. Zimmer has a publicly available NG article on complexity and natural selection: From Fins to Wings @ National Geographic Magazine.

The bigger the palette, the more colors can be painted ...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

How closely does Vista track OS X?

David Pogue is writing a book about Vista:
Pogue’s Posts - Technology - New York Times Blog:

.... I copy and pasted the ENTIRE discussion on iCal from my Mac OS X book into the Vista book. After only about 15 minutes of editing, it was an incredibly complete, witty writeup of the new Windows Calendar.
Now that's flattery.

Business method patents will make heroes of hackers

In 1998 a US appeals court made a terrible mistake. They ruled business methods could be patented ...
Patent law is getting tax crazy - Business - International Herald Tribune

As the American tax law gets more and more complicated, lawyers have come up with one more way to make life difficult for taxpayers: Now you may face a patent infringement suit if you use a tax strategy that someone else thought of first.

"I can't even imagine what it will be like in 5 or 10 years," said Dennis Drabkin, a tax lawyer with Jones Day in Dallas, "if anytime a lawyer or accountant gives tax advice, they have to find out if there is a patent on this." He notes that researching patents, and then licensing them, would just make tax compliance more costly.

Drabkin is chairman of an American Bar Association task force on the issue. He said that at one conference where tax strategies were discussed, participants later got a letter warning that using one idea mentioned would be in violation of a patent.

Why would Congress pass a law allowing such a thing? The answer is that it did not. But a U.S. appeals court ruled in 1998 that business methods could be patented, and since then the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued 50 tax- strategy patents, with many more pending.
Congress should reverse the court's mistake -- no matter how loud the screaming. Alas, there's about zero chance of that happening, our polity is far too corrupt.

The combination of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), business process patents, and digital-rights management is going to make us all either miserable or criminal. Hackers will be heroes yet.

Our senator, Norm "Coal" Coleman: serving his future employers

Clearly, Minnesota's GOP senator, Norm Coleman, does not expect to be re-elected. He's already planning for his next job with the coal industry:
Coleman is knee-deep in global-warming fray:

... Sen. Norm Coleman is suggesting that Congress strip California and all other states, along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, of much of their authority to control carbon dioxide emissions...
For decades California has given America a cleaner environment. It's too big a market to ignore, and it rarely makes business sense to produce one product for California and another for Nebraska. California rules become de facto national rules.

Some folks don't like that. Norm Coleman, a relatively smart member of the amoral wing of the GOP, is likely doing their bidding.

If the GOP retains its lock on power, Coleman will earn his next job, and retain his title as the 'shame of Minnesota'.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Apple and Dell: Profit vs. Share

Daring Fireball, an outspoken Mac blogger, makes a startling comparison:
Daring Fireball: Jackasses of the Week: Gartner Analysts Mark Stahlman and Charles Smulders

.... I’ve said it before and will say it again: the interesting “share” number for Apple’s computer business isn’t their share of the total units sold; it’s their share of the total profits in the PC hardware industry. For example, Apple trails Gateway by three-tenths of a percent in U.S. market share, but Gateway reported a loss of nearly $8 million in net income for its most recent quarter. Apple just reported a quarterly net profit of $546 million. Now, sure, a few hundred million of that comes from iPod sales, but whatever Apple’s profit from Mac sales, it’s a lot better than an $8 million loss.

Or look at Gartner’s beloved Dell. Their PC market share is at least five times higher than Apple’s. And their most recent net income? $502 million. Five times the market share, but less profit. And counting Apple’s iPod profits seems fair to me in this comparison, because Dell’s number includes all that money they’re making from those DJs...
The DJ comment is tongue in cheek of course, but it's a remarkable comparison. Apple's media coverage is not as disproportionate as we might think ...

David Brin on The Manchurian President

I used to joke that Bush was either a deep KGB plant or the pawn of an extraterrestrial civilization seeking to destroy the US. David Brin, a scientist and science fiction writer, appears to take this theory a bit more seriously:
Contrary Brin: The Past Shines Light on the Future

... It is simply impossible to do this much harm to a mighty nation, and have that effect be inadvertent...

... This simply could not have taken place simply as a matter of incompetence. Not even if you throw in ruthless, kleptocratic venality (through crony contracts, for example). That explanation fails because, three layers down from the political appointees, there exists a vast sea of civilian and military civil servants. The most amazing collection of human competence that has ever been assembled!

I never cease to be amazed by how little attention is paid to this level, the vastly knowledgeable and professional US Officer Corps and the collected experts and diplomats and scientists and other skilled workers who fill the vast federal pyramid. For they are key! Under normal circumstances, they would be able to keep things going, at least at a competent-simmering level, even in the face of dingbat idiocy from above!

That is, if it were merely dingbat idiocy!

Oh, but is ANYBODY looking into the possibility that it isn't? We have paid professional paranoids whose JOB it is to look into such possibilities.

I wonder if they are...
Ok. for the record, I don't think GWB is the Manchurian President with a controller rig beneath his jacket, and I don't think David Brin has gone mad. I think David was just a bit excited and overstated his case.

My take is that America was never as robust as many of us had thought, and that we really were more dependent on good governance than we realized. Truly abysmal government has exposed our underlying issues. It didn't really take a vast conspiracy, just persistent incompetence and a flat learning curve.

This is, however, an illuminating example of the state of the American intelligentsia. We're going bonkers watching one of the worst governments in American history dismantle the nation ...

Air Strikes in Iraq: 75,000 dead

Gwynne Dyer, military historian and intellectual eccentric [1], has analyzed the Lancet study (600,000 dead - about 60% of the US civil war dead in a comparable population) of Iraqi post-invasion mortality. He shreds the usual criticisms, but also makes a unique observation:
The most disturbing thing is the breakdown of the causes of death. Over half the deaths -- 56 percent -- are due to gunshot wounds, but 13 percent are due to air strikes. No terrorists do air strikes. No Iraqi government forces do air strikes, either, because they don't have combat aircraft. Air strikes are done by "coalition forces" (i.e. Americans and British), and air strikes in Iraq have killed over 75,000 people since the invasion.

Oscar Wilde once observed that "to lose one parent...may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." To lose 75,000 Iraqis to air strikes looks like carelessness, too.
I have a dim memory that "carelessness" in the context of military operations in a civilian environment can be considered a war crime. I believe that's where Dyer is going with this.

Maybe Kissinger can replace Rumsfeld and the circle will be complete ...

[1] Anyone who displays their publications on the web as .txt files is, by today's standards, eccentric.

Twelve years in the desert - the GOP after 1994

From the glorious victory of '94 to the decaying party of 2006, it's been an even sleazier fall than I'd recalled... (emphasis mine, these stories are coming too fast to track)
Queer and loathing on Capitol Hill |

... after he shut down the federal government twice and was cited for ethics violations, Republicans on the eve of the impeachment trial of President Clinton forced Gingrich's resignation. (They had private knowledge: Gingrich promptly abandoned his second wife for the mistress he had maintained on the House payroll for years.)

The next designated speaker, Bob Livingston, resigned almost at once when pornographer Larry Flynt threatened to release tape recordings of Livingston's moaning with a mistress, which Flynt had purchased from the scorned woman...

... DeLay was the Republican Stalin, the ruthless consolidator and centralizer. His "K Street Project" forged an iron triangle of lobbyists, special interests and Republicans whom he believed would rule forever. But DeLay overreached and was indicted for corruption...

.... these and other [GOP staff] aides have been exposed as a network of mostly closeted gays who advanced and protected one another while working for politicians whose careers were propelled by gay bashing...

...Last week, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty to bribery, caught in the tangled web of Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff...

... Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, renowned for his conspiracy theories and personal hunt for WMD in Iraq, came under investigation for corrupt practices. His daughter, whose lobbying firm, Solutions North America Inc., worked on behalf of friends of Slobodan Milosevic and a Russian gas company out of her father's congressional office, was raided by the FBI....

... Karl Rove's assistant Susan Ralston (formerly Abramoff's assistant) had resigned for facilitating Abramoff's access to and favors for and from Rove and others, including Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman and former White House political director. This week another Republican congressman, John Doolittle of California, announced he was turning cooperative witness in the continuing federal investigation.

... Rep. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, a "traditional values" Republican who settled out of court in a $5.5 million suit filed by his mistress for attempting to strangle her...
Clinton, surrounded by crazed but hapless enemies, gave them the weapon they needed to destroy him. Gingrich crafted a great victory, only to see his heirs devastate the empire he built. Really, the play writes itself.

Win or lose in November, the GOP is a debauched party.

CNET trashes IE 7

A surprisingly harsh review: Internet Explorer 7 by CNET. I thank heaven I switched the family to Firefox/Safari some time ago. (I'm partial to Camino myself and I may switch the family from Safari to Camino shortly.)

The corpse of habeus

Note to future cyber-archeologist. This was a lot like watching a train wreck. Horrible and fascinating. The nasty part was we were watching from the seats towards the back of the train ...
A Dangerous New Order - New York Times

Once President Bush signed the new law on military tribunals, administration officials and Republican leaders in Congress wasted no time giving Americans a taste of the new order created by this unconstitutional act.

Within hours, Justice Department lawyers notified the federal courts that they no longer had the authority to hear pending lawsuits filed by attorneys on behalf of inmates of the penal camp at Guantánamo Bay. They cited passages in the bill that suspend the fundamental principle of habeas corpus, making Mr. Bush the first president since the Civil War to take that undemocratic step...

Rove et al have assembled a massive attack strategy to use on any democrats who point out that Bush is taking steps that are necessary, though not sufficient, for the creation of a police state.

It is the great shame of America that today's public would almost certainly fall for Rove's trap. Democrats are thus, by necessity, fearful and silent. To paraphrase a notorious scoundrel, we go to the elections with the citizens we have, not with the citizens we wish we had.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Not the best galaxy to be visiting ...

The Antennae Galaxies/NGC 4038-4039. Looks rough. More here.

Phillip Carter on Iraq: concrete proposals

Philip ("Intel Dump") Carter is a lawyer and veteran who recently volunteered to serve again in Iraq. He's back safely in the US and now has written an article on tactics and strategy for Slate: How to avoid civil war in Iraq

I don't know if Phil wrote this title - I think at 60% of the American civil war's death rate the Iraqi conflict could be called a civil war. However, if Phil did write that Iraq was not yet in a civil war I'd take his word for it. He's a respectable guy.

His Slate article makes concrete recommendations. They come down to investing more money, taking more risks, and planning for a very long methodical counter-insurgency. These are unlikely to be popular proposals...

Don't do rebates

If a rebate is over $100, and if it's offered by a reputable company, and if I would have made the same purchase in the absence of the rebate, then I will sometimes bother to claim my rebate. I don't give much value to rebates when comparing prices; I'll take a $5 price drop over a $50 rebate.

All of which is to explain why I appreciated this post: Rebates to become more of a scam. The author has uncovered a patent application outlining advanced techniques to encourage "breakage" -- the failure of a rebate holder to get their money back. The patent deserves to fail since all of the techniques have been practiced for years, but it's nice to see them documented.

Bottom line - the only reason to bother with rebates is if you enjoy the game of getting paid.

Extra credit question: How does merging 'sick' and 'vacation' time into one time-off pool resemble a rebate scheme?

Winona and why I ended our Britannica subscription

We're a taking family trip to Winona, a town of about 28,000 south of the Twin Cities. Naturally, we review the Winona, Minnesota - Wikipedia entry prior to departure. It's excellent, as usual. We're ready to go exploring.

Coincidentally, I ended our five year old Britannica subscription yesterday. It hasn't been very useful lately -- ever time I've turned to it I've found better answers the net. The final straw was realizing that they still can't render pages correctly in Gecko (Firefox/Camino/Mozilla). That's a sign of rigor mortis. The old EB needs to either go entirely paper, or sell themselves to Google for a song.

Update 10/24/06: See the comments. It looks like the Gecko rendering flaw, which I saw when using Camino, was either an aberration or a Camino bug -- an EB engineer says they actively test using Gecko/Firefox. I believe him/her, so I think my Gecko comments were unfair. I mention in the comments that I've long regretted that EB's management never worked to develop an active community of users, with an open forum, to provide ideas and feedback on the site and its development.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Buddha preserve us - Sunni vs. Shiite

I don't have terribly high opinions of our political leadership, so I was surprised to learn there was room at the bottom.

Jeff Stein, National Security Editor at the Congressional Quarterly, asked a number of law enforcement officers and politicians to distinguish Sunni and Shiite. The results were dismal; I did note however that the examples given were all Republicans. Maybe they just need some time off to study ...

The better science museum: Mall of America's Dinosaur Walk

We have a science museum in Saint Paul, but really it's been a bit disappointing for our kids. Now if they'd take notes from the Mall of America's Dinosaur Walk, we'd be regulars. I was quite impressed with this commercial project, though I fear it's too sincere to make money.

Worth a visit if you're a native with kids. The web site has a $1.00 off coupon.

Lessons from the iPod: Talent deep and wide

The lesson from this Wired report is that it was talent wide and deep, constant communication, rapid iteration, and ready resources that allowed the iPod to be produced. This story feels true to me because it features both serendipity and a plausible process. Emphasis mine.
Wired News: Straight Dope on the IPod's Birth

... Ive told the Times that the key to the iPod wasn't sudden flashes of genius, but the design process. His design group collaborated closely with manufacturers and engineers, constantly tweaking and refining the design. ''It's not serial,'' he told the Times. ''It's not one person passing something on to the next.''

Robert Brunner, a partner at design firm Pentagram and former head of Apple's design group, said Apple's designers mimic the manufacturing process as they crank out prototypes.

'Apple's designers spend 10 percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming,' he said. 'They spend 90 percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.'

To make them easy to debug, prototypes were built inside polycarbonate containers about the size of a large shoebox.

The iPod's basic software was also brought in -- from Pixo, which was working on an operating system for cell phones. On top of Pixo's low-level system, Apple built the iPod's celebrated user interface.

The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, 'The wheel is the right user interface for this product."

Schiller also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius that distinguishes the iPod from the agony of competing players. Schiller's scroll wheel didn't come from the blue, however; scroll wheels are pretty common in electronics, from scrolling mice to Palm thumb wheels. Bang & Olufsen BeoCom phones have an iPod-like dial for navigating lists of phone contacts and calls. Back in 1983, the Hewlett Packard 9836 workstation had a keyboard with a similar wheel for scrolling text.

... Jobs insisted the iPod work seamlessly with iTunes, and that many functions should be automated, especially transferring songs. The model was Palm's HotSync software....

... "They discovered in their tool chest of registered names they had 'iPod,'" he said. "If you think about the product, it doesn't really fit. But it doesn't matter. It's short and sweet."...
Much of the talent and infrastructure described in this article is thought to still be in place - an encouraging prospect. It costs a lot to keep something like this together, few companies can manage it. I'd like to know how big Apple's development teams are.

A note on the Palm/HotSync reference. It's hard to believe nowadays, but once upon a time Palm was an example of elegant hardware and software integration. I'm glad Apple's engineers remembered the glory days of Palm, and used that as an inspiration. It is best to remmeber Palm as it once was, not the decaying travesty it became ...

DeLong: Why didn't Mexicans get more from NAFTA?

Comparative advantage is the cornerstone of globalization and the justification for even unilaterally lowering trade barriers and tarrifs. If there had been a Nobel prize for Economics in 1820 Ricardo (note from bio: eloped with a Quaker and became a Unitarian!), who developed the theory, would have won it. Comparative advantage is why neoliberals backed NAFTA; we figured it had to be very good for Mexico. The problem now is that while it might have been good, it hasn't been great:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: My Talk at the Center for Latin American Studies on NAFTA

... the 3.6% rate of growth of GDP, coupled with a 2.5% per year rate of population and increase, means that Mexicans’ mean income is barely 15% above that of the pre-NAFTA days, and that the gap between their mean income and that of the US has widened. Because of rising inequality, the overwhelming majority of Mexicans live no better off than they did 15 years ago. (Indeed, the only part of Mexican development that has been a great success has been the rise in incomes and living standards that comes from increased migration to the US, and increased remittances sent back to Mexico.)

Intellectually, this is a great puzzle: we believe in market forces, and in the benefits of trade, specialization, and the international division of labor. We see the enormous increase in Mexican exports to the US over the past decade. We see great strengths in the Mexican economy – a stable macroeconomic environment, fiscal prudence, low inflation, little country risk, a flexible labor force, a strengthened and solvent banking system, successfully reformed poverty-reduction programs, high earnings from oil, and so on.

Yet successful neo-liberal policies have not delivered the rapid increases in productivity and working-class wages that neo-liberals like me would have confidently predicted had we been told back in 1995 that Mexican exports would multiply five-fold in the next twelve years...

From an economist's perspective, the real problem is the challenge to theory of comparative advantage. If it turns out that comparative advantage is fatally flawed in the real world ...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Twin Cities Grand Rounds: The Missing Maps

If you bicycle around the lovely lakes of Minneapolis, you'll see an excellent map and photo montage of the famed Minneapolis lakes and the "Grand Rounds" bicycle/skating loop.

Alas, you won't find that map on the scenic byways website. Why not? I'd rather not know. The answer would only depress me.

On a happier note, you can browse the real map here:

I took some photos of the main maps. You can download the full res images. They're pretty readable.

PS. It would be great if someone could create a Google Earth link from the lake and/or the Grand Round to this set of maps.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

DeLong, Mankiw and the Problem of the Weak

DeLong explores the dark side of Mankiw, the probability that this very bright man has confused the Market with the Good:
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Dysfunctional Behavior

.... In Michael Barone's view--and could it be in Greg Mankiw's too?--poverty in America is not something to be worried or concerned about because the poor deserve to be poor. The poverty of the poor is a just outcome. Poverty is, Michael Barone says, 'not... any structural failure of society.' Instead, poverty comes 'from dysfunctional behaviors.'...
but DeLong's blade then goes astray
...The point that it is a structural failure of society if (some) dysfunctional behaviors by parents trap their children in poverty seems to whiz by both Barone and Greg without penetrating.
Alas, my reply is swamped in a deluge of likewise misdirected comments (revised version below):
... Brad, you almost had it, but you slipped badly when you wrote "The point that it is a structural failure of society if (some) dysfunctional behaviors by parents trap their children in poverty seems to whiz by both Barone and Greg without penetrating."

Ahh. Would that all outcomes and all poverty could be cured by better parenting. Do you believe schizophrenia is due to bad parenting? Mental retardation? Austism? ODD? ADHD? Cerebral palsy?

Or, for that matter, a 10th percentile IQ? There is limited evidence that IQ can be influenced significantly after a child is born. (Test scores can be increased by practice and motivation/confidence however.)

Alas, "better parenting" is a false answer, and it has trapped you. The truth is that some children are dealt four aces, some a mixed hand, and some nothing at all. Look not for justice in this world.

So then what should a society do for The Weak, The Losers, those who finish last? Shall they fester beyond the gates?

It is the Problem of the Weak that divides the dwindling number of true Christians from evangelical Yahwhites, and that divides people like me from Republicans, Fundamentalists (Weakness and Suffering is a sign of God's displeasure) and Libertarians alike ...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fear and totalitarianism

On the way home from a lecture I listened to a public radio interview with a past and future Russian dissident. He was speaking in response to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who'd crossed Putin many times. He described her compulsive courage, her perverse fearlessness. Then he was asked about his time in Gorbachev's prisons in the 1980s. He was tortured, of course. Hung by the neck until he became unconscious, expecting then to die. As he succumbed, he felt the joy of knowing he had defeated the regime. He had not broken. He was victorious.

His torturers resuscitated him and returned to their fun on other occasions, but he remained unbroken. In those days the US opposed torturing people, and the US joined in the international pressure that freed him and others. For a time he thought the old totalitarianism was gone, but now, of course it's back. He's a dissident again.

Fear, he said. Fear is everything in a totalitarian society. The torturers cannot tolerate the fearless.

Incredibly, but undeniably, the fearless exist. I assure you I am not among them, I merely stand in awe.

Will we need the fearless here? American democracy is far more fragile than we once thought it was. Anything could happen. Not yet, but if cowards like me go silent, we'll have moved a step closer.

Google Docs: sort of allows blog posting

Credit to Jacob Reider for noticing that Google Docs (formerly Writely) now supports publishing a document to a web site or to a blog. The blog posting is a curiosity for now, it supports only a single blog, there's limited metadata control, no drafts, no bookmarklet (BlogThis!), etc. The ability to post to a web site is more interesting; I think I might make use of that.

Blogger posting is merely a curiosity for the moment, but it does suggest that Google is reasonably close to integrating Writely with Blogger. Now if they decide to add Safari support ... (This post was published from Google Docs.)

Update 10/12/06: Not only is it a curiosity, it's also buggy (title fails). Don't try this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Chaos at Microsoft: the story of Windows Live Toolbar, Onfolio and Writer

Microsoft, or at least significant parts of it, must be in panic mode. There’s no other way I can explain all the mess around Windows Live Toolbar, the newly acquired Onfolio RSS client toolbar plug-in, the formerly Microsoft Gadgets that are now supposed to be in Windows Live Gallery (good luck getting that site to load) and Windows Live Writer.

What a mess. Bad links. Missing documentation. Vanishing sites. No update notification. It’s a bleedin’ impenetrable mess.

The odd thing is, I actually like and use these tools extensively. The Windows Live Toolbar brings tabs, pop-up blocking and form completion to IE (I omit the full text search tools, they’re another story). The Onfolio RSS client, which I somehow got before it vanished, is the best RSS client/reader for Windows. Free too. Windows Live Writer, despite some beta issues (beware the windows that fall behind IE!) is an excellent free authoring client. Sure Live Toolbar seemed to kill my Google Toolbar (dueling pop-up blockers for one), but it was easy to set Live Toolbar to use Google for searching. (Microsoft’s Live Search is toast.)

With this suite of blogging tools Microsof is actually very competitive. In terms of authoring they’re now ahead of what’s available on OS X. (XP has two good low cost authoring tools — BlogJet and LiveWriter. OS X has nothing that works for me on Blogger.)

So why the panic and chaos?

Iraqi death rates 60% of American civil war casualties

Iraq has about 26 million inhabitants. During the US civil war we had about 33 million inhabitants, of whom about 1 million died.
Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says - New York Times:

... A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.

The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq. That month was the highest for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion.

But it is an estimate and not a precise count, and researchers acknowledged a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths...
If we adjusted the Iraqi toll to our population of 300 million, the conflict would claim 6 million Americans lives. Would we call that a civil war? The "conflict" in Iraq is now up to about 60% of the death total of a war that most of would consider "civil".

We usually consider the American civil war to have been a massive bloodbath that still affects us. I don't think future generations of Iraqis will look very kindly upon George Bush or the nation that elected him.

Heroes don't play for fame and fortune

A hero is someone who does the right thing, despite the personal costs.
The Cost of Doing Your Duty - New York Times

... In 2003, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift was assigned to represent Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni citizen accused of being a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda — for the sole purpose of getting him to plead guilty before one of the military commissions that President Bush created for Guantanamo Bay. Instead of carrying out this morally repugnant task, Commander Swift concluded that the commissions were unconstitutional. He did his duty and defended his client. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the tribunals violated American law as well as the Geneva Conventions.

The Navy responded by killing his military career. About two weeks after the historic high court victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Commander Swift was told he was being denied a promotion. Under the Navy’s up-or-out system, that spelled the end of his 20-year career, and Commander Swift said last week that he will be retiring in March or April....
We call a man a hero when he falls on a grenade. Charles Swift didn't pay for his convictions with his life, but he paid for them with his career. For some people, that would come close to a major injury. He's a hero.

Note to the naive: when you're a true hero, you routinely pay a high price. If you're a theist you may expect a future reward (or not, depending on the mood of the deity), if you're not a theist then heroism is usually perverse and illogical.

Not all of the irrational behaviors of humans are despicable. Some are admirable. To the perverse, anyway.

Carter on Korea: Eat dirt

Jimmy Carter, a quiet but strong voice of reason, looks at a bad situation and tells us what the only remaining option is. Emphases mine.
Solving the Korean Stalemate, One Step at a Time - New York Times

... One option, the most likely one, is to try to force Pyongyang’s leaders to abandon their nuclear program with military threats and a further tightening of the embargoes, increasing the suffering of its already starving people. Two important facts must be faced: Kim Jong-il and his military leaders have proven themselves almost impervious to outside pressure, and both China and South Korea have shown that they are reluctant to destabilize the regime. This approach is also more likely to stimulate further nuclear weapons activity.

The other option is to make an effort to put into effect the September denuclearization agreement, which the North Koreans still maintain is feasible. The simple framework for a step-by-step agreement exists, with the United States giving a firm and direct statement of no hostile intent, and moving toward normal relations if North Korea forgoes any further nuclear weapons program and remains at peace with its neighbors. Each element would have to be confirmed by mutual actions combined with unimpeded international inspections.

Although a small nuclear test is a far cry from even a crude deliverable bomb, this second option has become even more difficult now, but it is unlikely that the North Koreans will back down unless the United States meets this basic demand. Washington’s pledge of no direct talks could be finessed through secret discussions with a trusted emissary like former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who earlier this week said, “It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

What must be avoided is to leave a beleaguered nuclear nation convinced that it is permanently excluded from the international community, its existence threatened, its people suffering horrible deprivation and its hard-liners in total control of military and political policy.

It's a common story, we know it well now. Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/etc looked at a set of bad options and chose the worst of them. Now the remaining options are few and even worse.

We can't cause North Korea to collapse if China won't play along. They won't. So basically we do what North Korea wants -- direct talks. We lose face, Kim feels chipper. Too bad. We elected, then reelected, deeply and incorrigibly incompetent people. We get to eat dirt. If we don't like the taste of it, maybe we should do a better job of being citizens.

Folders, Shortcuts, Aliases, Tags, Taxonomy and Ontology: Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Google spreadsheets has become Google Docs & Spreadsheets, it now includes Writely. Some annoyances remain, some have been fixed. What caught my eye, however is that you can now 'tag' your files -- just as you can 'tag' Gmail messages.

A 'tag' is a string associated with the file. A file can have many tags, there's some UI support for tag reuse, but it's inconsistent. You can filter views by tags. Microsoft Outlook categories are the same sort of thing, though Microsoft's implementation of categories is a baroque and buggy mess. The Google UI for adding single and multiple tags, then removing them, is awkward. They'd do well to study Keyword Assistant, a free tagging plugin written by Ken Ferry. Maybe Ken could sell KA to Google for a million or so.

This is the 'new age' approach to file organization: tag metadata and full text search. No folders - or at most (as Gmail) a few fixed folders.

There's no direct "ontology" (organization), you don't put a folder called "chairs" (note the plural) inside a folder called "furniture". If you attach the tag "chair" (note the singular) to a file, then a search on "furniture" (search within folder furniture) won't find "chair". Of course you could apply the two tags, "chair" and "furniture", but clearly this gets ridiculous. Of course one could have an external ontology (furniture:chair, etc), and it could even by an acyclic directed graph with multiple inheritance (see SNOMED), but of course that's a bit futuristic. Tags, for now, are not drawn from an external ontology, they're invented.

Tags are good. I like tags. One day we'll have the option of taking tags from external machine-useable ontologies as well as free-texting them (students, compare this to free text vs. coded diagnoses on patient problem lists) -- then they'll be even more useful. There's nothing wrong with tags, and nothing wrong with full-text search [1] -- but it's dumb to ignore folders.

Folders are a handy UI tool for creating and modifying flexible real-world subsumption (containment) relationships. Folders with aliases/shortcuts allow participation in multiple hierarchies (and with cycles too!). Sure Folders have defects, but that's no reason to toss them out. iPhoto manages to do pretty well with the combination of folders and 'tags' (keywords). Google should study that too.

Interesting stuff for the industrial ontologists among us.

[1] In theory. I've used every full text search app written for XP. Even the best of them, Yahoo Desktop Search, is awful. XP, especially XP with antiviral s/w, is hostile to this class of apps. OS X Spotlight, for all of its many flaws, is far more satisfactory. In any case, full-text search works much better on rich metadata than on traditional documents, which is why it works so well in Outlook (Lookout for Outlook) and relatively poorly on the file system.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Yahoo to test kindess of our galactic neighborhood

Yahoo implements an innovative experiment to test the general kindness and attitude of any high tech civilizations in our galactic neighborhood ...
Yahoo To Beam Digital Time Capsule Into Space - News by InformationWeek

...Yahoo and Yahoo Telemundo are creating a digitized time capsule that will beam onto an ancient pyramid in Mexico and into space.

Yahoo began accepting submissions of photos, video, sounds files, video and text Tuesday and announced that it would send the content into space and project it onto the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City.

The company said in a prepared statement that the purpose was to join the 'past and present with the universe's potential future by sharing today's culture on Earth with other life that may exist light years away.'...
We usually think our TV emissions are advertisement of our presence, but I've read those are actually pretty tough to sort out more than a few light years away. Not directional enough. A nice directional signal would get a bit further...

Perhaps fortunately, it's unlikely anything will view it.

Welcome to the new, furry, persons

This isn't great journalism. Bonobos are not the same as Chimpanzees. It is noteworthy, however, as a milestone in a journey of many centuries ...
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Chimps 'are people, too'

...According to philosopher Julian Baggini, it is possible that non-human animals like chimps could be people.

'You could say that an adult chimp has more of the characteristics of a person than a new born baby,' he says.

After all, though humans and chimps are different species, they share up to 99.4% of their most crucial DNA (the figure is difficult to calculate exactly and depends on the scientist you speak to). And to prove how similar we are to chimps, Danny takes part in a potentially humiliating experiment.

The scent of male sweat is controlled by their genes, in both chimps and men. In a blind test, three women were asked to sniff the sweat of Danny and Cody the chimp, to see which one they fancied most.

When they found out afterwards that one of the odours was from a chimp, there was laughter. When they realised that two out of three had preferred the chimp, there was nervous laughter...
I dimly recall a few biologists gingerly pointing out that we should probably be Pan sapiens rather than Homo sapiens. These things take time. We are slowly separating "person" from "human". In a hundred years there will be many species of "person".

Monday, October 09, 2006

NYT Top 25 on the day Korea tested its bomb

North Korea explodes a nuke. The world ... shrugs?
Most E-Mailed New York Times Articles in the Past 24 Hours - The New York Times:

1. MAGAZINE October 8, 2006
An Elephant Crackup?
Attacks by elephants on villages, people and other animals are on the rise. Some researchers are pointing to a specieswide trauma and the fraying of the fabric of pachyderm society...


11. FASHION & STYLE October 8, 2006
The Farewell Tour

On the college hunt, there’s plenty of time to (gulp) talk.
North Koreans Say They Tested Nuclear Device

North Korea became the eighth country in history, and arguably the most unstable and most dangerous, to proclaim that it has joined the club of nuclear weapons states.
Number 13 on the list and probably sinking already. Surely North Korea expected a bigger ... bang?

PS. This one is from Emily.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

How can we kill faxing?

How can we kill faxing?

We need to kill it. The fax is a horrid thing. It's much less reliable than it was years ago, and it was never reliable.

Faxing into my Maxemail fax service is unreliable. Faxing from my home machine to Audio-Digest CME is unreliable. Junk faxes abound and are harder to filter than junk email. Fax numbers are busy. Error reporting is lousy. Faxing is just bad. The cost to the world of fax technolology must be horrendous.

It's seemingly easy to come up with a technical solution that would unify email, fax and scanning with security and authentication. Adobe was selling a lot of this technology years ago. The adoption (chicken/egg) problem is a bit tougher. The big problem, however, is patents and intellectual property. For faxing to be replaced we need an Internet Engineering Task Force specification that's unemcumbered by licensing fees and guaranteed to be safe from legal challenge forever.

That's the hard part. Adobe is not known for IP wisdom, though their DNG (digital negative) specification might be a counterexample. It would take a government, Google, or Microsoft to come up with an open specification that vendors can adopt, ideally with Adobe's cooperation. If the muscle is sufficient, Adobe would cooperate, no matter how grudgingly.

If Microsoft would kill fax this way, I'd forgive them for killing OS/2.

Maybe I can get Cringely to write about this ...

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Four new Dyer essays

Dyer's spartan article page has four new entries:

22 September 06 Thai Democracy
23 September 06 'Normal' Japan
29 September 06 Climate: A Stitch in Time
2 October 2006 No Genocide in Darfur
Time to catch up.

The twenty-five cent solution: How Google News can save journalism

Google News is often criticized for harvesting the fruits of journalism without compensation. I suspect this is a bit of misdirection; journalism's problem is the collapse of the print advertising and classifieds business model - not news aggregation or even bloggers. On the other hand, there might be a way for Google News to save journalism.

Google has the Google Checkout and Adwords micropayment infrastructure. They could put a button next to each Google News article. Click the button, and 25 cents, the cost of a crummy newspaper, is deducted from one's Google Checkout account. Every few months, Google issues checks to the news organizations. Maybe Google also offers some nice bennies to people who donate, like extra Gmail storage or more Picasa images -- benefits that would cost Google very little.

It's a win-win-win for readers, journalism and Google.

Why 25 cents? Why not just any amount? Because larger amounts mean that wealthy persons and wingnuts can "buy" news. A twenty-five cent donation means that the vast majority of the western world with online access can potentially donate.

Would it raise enough money to make a difference? There's only one way to find out.

Update 10/5: Emily asked for more details on how this helps Google. Here's a few ways:
  1. They're being sued by a number of publishers. This might help with that.
  2. It promotes Google Checkout, which is probably a very big deal for them.
  3. If journalism is healthier, Google News is healthier, and so is the search business.
  4. It's not evil.

The No-Fly List: reason enough to dispense with the GOP

This is not a new problem. I've written about it before. The FBI's No-Fly List is a "test" for security threats. It's a test with a positive predictive value of, approximately, zero. That is, the overwhelming number of alarms are false alarms. Another story:
Marginal Revolution: Another reason to give your kid a weird name:

... Gary Smith, John Williams and Robert Johnson are some of those names. Kroft talked to 12 people with the name Robert Johnson, all of whom are detained almost every time they fly. The detentions can include strip searches and long delays in their travels.

'Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list,' says Donna Bucella, who oversaw the creation of the list and has headed up the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center since 2003. She regrets the trouble they experience, but chalks it up to the price of security in the post-9/11 world. 'They're going to be inconvenienced every time ... because they do have the name of a person who's a known or suspected terrorist,' says Bucella...
Beyond the inconvenience and cost to the innocent, this inanity results in increased security costs and increased security risk. A burglar alarm that rings every 10 minutes means that resources are misdirected from effective to ineffective measures.

This is achingly stupid. So how does it connect with the GOP? The new GOP has a strong anti-rational, anti-intellectual, anti-science streak (See: The Republican War on Science). This is fundamental, and it means stupidities like the No-Fly List are never fixed. The No-Fly List is reason alone to remove the GOP from office.

Incidentally, the current FBI is a disaster. I'd love to see the WSJ news team do an investigative review of the FBI.

Update 10/6: Incidentally, the comments on the 60 Minutes article (follow the MR link) are well worth reading. If you're on the List, your best bet is to inform security beforehand and give them all of the material they'll need (passport, etc). I loved the comment about 'terrorists with digital cameras', I can't figure out if that's satirical or genuine. Lastly, an obvious workaround, other than replacing the GOP and FBI, is for persons on the list to be offered the option to enroll in the Fed's Traveler ID program.

Almost forgot. Look for the wingnuts to accuse 60 Minutes of treason. Sigh. The 60 Minutes article is genuine journalism; and that's a profession in crisis. I'd like to see a 'donate' button on every news page so I could contribute to journalists doing great work.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The end of the American civil war: nobody left to die

This is the kind of history that grabs my analytic attention. Emphases mine … (unfortunately, DeLong forgot to credit the author)

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Study War...

... If you want to know about the American Civil War, you need to hear something like this:

Not even the deep South was strongly for secession. Those voting for delegates to Georgia's secession convention, for example, were almost evenly split--and you can bet that the African-Americans who did not get to vote for delegates were overwhelmingly against secession. Because there was no Southern consensus for secession, Lincoln was able to hold the border--Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, western Virginia, eastern Tennessee--by making it a war for the Union. And the war began with a Confederacy of 5 million whites (and 4 million African-Americans) and a Union of 21 million whites (and 1 million African-Americans).

The Union mobilized 2.6 million soldiers--24% of its total male population. The Confederacy mobilized 900 thousand soldiers--36% of its white male population. Armies would march down secured railroad lines or navigable waterways until they ran into other armies. Because they could not function far from railhead or water-based supply depots, strategic outflanking moves were rare. When armies clashed, casualties were horrendous, but decisive victories impossible. The rifled musket was too good in defense, and the large size of the armies made them too clumsy in pursuit.

The result was that the armies fought, and soldiers died in battle, afterwards of wounds, and in camp of disease. By April 1865 300,000 Union soldiers were dead, 300,000 more were disabled by wounds, about 200,000 had deserted and returned home, and 400,000 had been discharged--leaving 1.4 million with the colors. By April 1865 300,000 Confederates were dead, 300,000 more were disabled by wounds, and 300,000 had deserted or returned home--leaving next to nobody with the colors to surrender to Grant and Sherman. The war was then over.

In a world where defensive is strong, a war ends when one army is gone. What happens in a world where offense is strong and defense is weak (Nuclear weapons, bioweapons, even IEDs)? How does a war end then? How will the Iraqi Civil War end?

Children need extra hour in the day: BMJ article

Right. Another hour.
BBC NEWS | Health | Children 'need hour of exercise'

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the team conclude children need an hour of daily exercise and to eat healthily.
Ok, here's the problem. Until a few hundred years ago we got plenty of exercise and not that much food. We didn't exercise to stay healthy, we exercised to survive.

Now, to survive, we must learn. A lot. We must work - sitting. School is long. Walking to school is dangerous for most and rare.

My family probably makes this 3 hour a week rule for our kids (despite the fervent protestes of the 7 yo), but we don't have TV. We're positively weird and hyperkinetic and the kids don't get all their homework done. If we were to do all the homework we wouldn't make it on the exercise. (Note: the top 20% of children can do exercise and homework and probably even TV -- but that leaves the rest of us.)

There are too many requirements, not enough time. To meet this rule we'd have to either shrink homework, expand the school day (money), or substitute school exercise (recess, gym) for didactic time. Or have fat kids with diabetes. Or upgrade the human genome. This is basic math ...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Billions of planets and the prevalence of disease: Fermi looms

On of my favorite themes is back. The number of earthlike planets in the galaxy is a major component of the Drake Equation, and thus a contributor to the Fermi Paradox (aka, the mystery of the "great silence"). New data means astromers are starting to talk seriously about making estimates of the number of earthlike planets, and the number may be high:
New Planets Astound Astronomers in Speed and Distance - New York Times

... The results, astronomers said, confirm that planets occur across the galaxy with the same frequency that they do in the neighborhood around the Sun.

“We’ve learned now that planets are everywhere,” said Alan P. Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the team.

“We’re beginning to be able to calculate how many Earths there are, how many planets are habitable, if not inhabited,” Dr. Boss added...

.... Dr. Boss noted that astronomers now had found in the Milky Way all the types of planets that are in our solar system: gas giants like Jupiter, ice giants like Neptune and rocky “super-Earths” orbiting other stars. “Everything we were looking for,” he said, “just not in the arrangement we were looking for.”

As potential planets are found in increasing numbers, Dr. Boss said, the odds increase that planets and planetary systems like Earth’s would be found.

Mario Livio, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and a member of Dr. Sahu’s team, said, “There are literally billions of planets in our galaxy.”

As these numbers mount, the hoary old Fermi Paradox will inevitably worm its way out of the whacko cult of Fermi (in which I'm fully enrolled) into the greater gestalt. The more we see, the less unique our solar system appears, with exception. We know of only one world with sentience and technology. If such things were common they'd be inescapable.

In medical terms, a disease is prevalent (common) when it either occurs frequently (colds) or lasts a long time (obesity) or both. If technological civilizations are as rare as they seem to be, they either occur extremely rarely, or they don't stay as we are for very long. The "occur rarely" number shrinks as the number of earthlike planets grow. That leaves the other one.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Will the mobile phone dam burst in the US

D-Link has announced it will sell a $600 "unlocked" GSM phone in the US: D-Link Introduces V-CLICK Dual-Mode GSM / Wi-Fi Phone. Oh, yeah, it does WiFi too.

Will this break the dam erected by US mobile companies? As of now the US is a "developing nation" in terms of its mobile technologies, a result of an oligopolistic market. If vendors can make money selling interesting hardware, and if one or more national GSM providers cracks under the strain and offers GSM cards for the device that work, then the dam will burst. The big losers would be the non-GSM vendors. Bye-bye Sprint.

This phone may be irrelevant as a device, but it's fascinating as the first shot of what will be a great non-violent battle...

The limits of case-control studies: breast feeding and intelligence

Everyone who's ever written about breast feeding and intelligence presumably knew that IQ is largely determined by parental genetics and/or early environment and presumably tried to control for that. It appears they didn't control well enough:
Breast-feeding has no impact on intelligence

... The researchers found that although breast-fed children scored higher on IQ tests this was because their mothers tended be more intelligent, better educated and provided a more stimulating environment at home....
What's interesting here is not the apparently lack of effect of breast-feeding on IQ. That was always highly suspect and breast-feeding appears to have other advantages anyway (though I suspect those are overstated for cultural-political reasons). Nor is the inevitable confusion between correlation and causation particularly interesting. That's so commonplace it's boring.

No, the interesting part is that despite enormous statistical sophistication, we still have a lot of trouble drawing reliable conclusions from case-control studies. I wonder if a case-control study result is really any more robust than extrapolating from experimental studies on animal populations. Maybe we need to downgrade case-control and upgrade experiments involving non-human animals...

Physics speaks up: The trouble with Smolin

Lee Smolin has written a surprisingly popular book that's critical of the dominance of string theory in modern physics. It sounds like a solid book, but it's odd that it's so popular. I'm not sure why it's gotten so many reviews, etc. In some circles it seems to fit the "political correctness" conspiracy theory that "the truth" is being denied by incumbents who probably vote democrat.

In any case, Cosmic Variance has a gentle response, saying that Smolin is reasonably correct about the dominance of string theory, but his enthusiams for alternate theories are unpersuasive. String theory has won some interesting results, and the alternatives are doing less well than Smolin suggests.

It's an excellent review, and a readable introduction to what's topical in modern physics. We are dealing with the very tough problems; we're pretty much stuck waiting for either a new conceptual breakthrough or some unexpected experimental results.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The cursed gender: Take II

Again. BBC NEWS | Americas | US killer in sex abuse confession.

Gordon's Notes: The cursed gender

... It is hard to imagine a long future for my gender, at least not without some substantial genetic re-engineering.
Males should certainly not be allowed to own weapons. Maybe the NRA would accept a law that required all women to carry weapons, and no males.

In the longer term, if we survive as a technological culture, I'm rasonably sure males will either be upgraded substantially or eliminated completely.

In the short term, I'm interested in the psych profiles of the latest batch of men killing students, children, principals, teachers, etc. If we had better mental health care and related laws, could any of this be prevented?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Explaining the RNA Interference Nobel: Zimmer scores

NPR had a sadly incoherent discussion of this year's Physiology Nobel. It's a shame they didn't just read Zimmer over the radio: The Loom : A Nobel Prize for The Shadow Network.

Is there some point in the evolution of these complex interacting networks that the system starts to collapse of its own complexity? Does evolution then have to choose new directions, such as abstract systems for memetic evolution (aka, sentience)? Just asking ....

What would a collapsing evolutionary end-point look like anyway? Probably just a pile of viruses ...

Deconstructing human programming: The amygdala and the rostral angular cingulate cortext

Another step towards understanding the programming of the naked plains ape ...
FuturePundit: Brain Circuit Found That Resolves Emotional Conflicts:

... the amygdala generates the signal telling the brain that an emotional conflict is present; this conflict then interferes with the brains ability to perform the task. The rostral anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the frontal lobe, was activated to resolve the conflict. Critically, the rostral cingulate dampened activity in the amygdala, so that the emotional response did not overwhelm subjects’ performance, thus achieving emotional control....

On the bright side

On the bright side, hideous aliens from another galaxy haven't yet invaded our planet, reduced our cities to smoking rubble, and enslaved all survivors.

Oh, wait, if they have that would explain a lodftrdfaad urrrrkkkkk ...

New world: Lua, Brazil and Adobe Lightroom

I'm posting this here rather than in my tech blog because the significance is much broader than it might at first appear.

Adobe Lightroom is a major development from a leading software firm. It turns out that about 40% of it is written in "Lua", something I'd never heard of. Adobe did this so they could write code that would run on both OS X and Windows (Credit: Daring Fireball). Ok, so what's big here?

A few things. One, Lua was developed in Brazil, and the web site has both Portugese and English versions. So, globalization. Two, open source. Three, adoption speed. Four, for the geeks among us, Lua supports software who's behavior is configured and controlled by accessible data stores -- it's adaptive in a way that's big in software now (sometimes called model-driven computing) but is as old Lisp/Smalltalk etc. And, oh, yes, bytecode again.

The world, speed, winning by giving things away, adaptive software. That's the bright side of the 21st century .... (emphases mine)
Lua: about

Lua is a powerful light-weight programming language designed for extending applications. Lua is also frequently used as a general-purpose, stand-alone language. Lua is free software.

Lua combines simple procedural syntax with powerful data description constructs based on associative arrays and extensible semantics. Lua is dynamically typed, runs by interpreting bytecode for a register-based virtual machine, and has automatic memory management with incremental garbage collection, making it ideal for configuration, scripting, and rapid prototyping.

A fundamental concept in the design of Lua is to provide meta-mechanisms for implementing features, instead of providing a host of features directly in the language. For example, although Lua is not a pure object-oriented language, it does provide meta-mechanisms for implementing classes and inheritance. Lua's meta-mechanisms bring an economy of concepts and keep the language small, while allowing the semantics to be extended in unconventional ways. Extensible semantics is a distinguishing feature of Lua.

Lua is a language engine that you can embed into your application. This means that, besides syntax and semantics, Lua has an API that allows the application to exchange data with Lua programs and also to extend Lua with C functions. In this sense, Lua can be regarded as a language framework for building domain-specific languages.

Lua is implemented as a small library of C functions, written in ANSI C, and compiles unmodified in all known platforms. The implementation goals are simplicity, efficiency, portability, and low embedding cost. The result is a fast language engine with small footprint, making it ideal in embedded systems too.

Lua is designed and implemented by a team at PUC-Rio, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Lua was born and raised at Tecgraf, the Computer Graphics Technology Group of PUC-Rio, and is now housed at Both Tecgraf and are laboratories of the Department of Computer Science.

'Lua' means 'moon' in Portuguese and is pronounced LOO-ah.
There's something really stunning about all this ... But maybe that's just me.

Pigou: where the rational left meets the rational less-left

Greg Mankiw is the the closest thing to a "rational right" person I know of. He's "close" because he once worked for Vlad Bush and because he's a Libertarian, which I think sort of qualifies as sort of on the right. (Would he work for Vlad again? He doesn't say these days.)

The Pigou Club is where he meets people like Al Gore and Paul Krugman. Follow the wikipedia link to get the background.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Neil Armstrong vindicated

Long ago we walked the moon. Yes, I know it seems unbelievable.

Anyway, Neil Armstrong, now 76 yo, has long been thought to have "flubbed" his historic catchphrase "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind"...
High-tech analysis may rewrite space history:

... In the 2005 book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Armstrong told Hansen that others have pointed out that he can often be heard dropping the vowels from his speech in his radio transmissions.

'It doesn't sound like there was time for the word to be there,' Armstrong said in the book. 'On the other hand, I didn't intentionally make an inane statement, and . . . certainly the 'a' was intended, because that's the only way the statement makes any sense.

'So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn't said -- although it might actually have been.'"
Emphases mine. New analysis suggests Armstrong did indeed include the vowel, but a communications glitch dropped it. Apparently whatever NASA was doing to conserve bandwidth tended to chop Armstrong's vowels ...

The complexity of causes: Pompey and the Fall of Rome

In 49BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and tyranny ruled Rome. Twenty years before, the laws of the Republic were swept away so that a terrifying threat could be ended...
What A Terrorist Incident in Ancient Rome Can Teach Us - Pirates of the Mediterranean - New York Times

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped...
With the acquiescence of an anxious populace, Pompey passed laws that gave him unlimited power, and he crushed the pirates with an efficiency Rumsfeld would envy. (Pompey was not incompetent.) Caesar used those laws to seize power.

Would the Republic have survived if Pompey's power grab had been thwarted? Perhaps not, the Republic had many problems. Pompey's power, however, was a leading indicator that the end of the Republic was near.