Saturday, June 30, 2007

The good news on global warming: not enough fuel

Dyer recently wrote of the CO2 "game of chicken" -- China and India vs. the post-industrial world in a race to see who can fry the world first.

FuturePundit (warning, he is irrational about global warming) posts a more optimistic view -- we can't fry the world because we don't have enough coal. His writing is referring to this blog post. If you buy this argument we can only roast the world a bit.

That's the most optimistic thing I've read all week. Of course I suspect it's not true, but one can dream ...

Why the Iraq war is a great thing for America

No, really. It's great. George Bush is a strategic genius, a farsighted visionary far beyond anything the world has seen before.

Yes, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. Millions have suffered terribly. Over 30,000 allied solders will have significant lifelong disability. Thousands are dead. A trillion dollars has been vaporized. America's shame will live a hundred years. The middle east's problems are even less tractable than they were 10 years ago. Pakistan may yet collapse, becoming an arms dealer for nuclear terrorists (ok, so that would be particularly bad).

All this, thanks to George Bush.

And, yet, this would be much worse. If the fiasco, the horror, of the Iraq war makes America more cautious, less strident, wiser ... then we may avoid war with China. If we avoid war with China, future historians may decide that Bush's fiasco was a good thing for America and for most of the world, excepting, perhaps, Iraq.

Update 7/4/07: James Fallows makes a similar point from a different angle. Brrrr. There are worse fates.

Apple victorious

I've been reading the iPhone reviews. Grumpy geek iPhone fans like Coding Horror say to wait for 3G support and a few more physical buttons next year. More desperate sorts, less enamored of Microsoft's solutions, say to wait at least until this fall. Maybe then we'll have search, cut and paste, tasks, better synchronization, an external keyboard, disk mode, fewer crashes, etc.

No matter. This review, late to the game, sums it up best. It's quite possible, if AT&T can hold itself together, and if the phone crashes no more than once every few days (with no data loss), that Apple has won. They've put a serious OS, with serious multimedia and network capabilities, on a phone with serious graphics capabilities. They've established a cross-platform distribution mechanism (iTunes) for updates, software, backups, media retail, etc. They're allied with Google (for now).

Does Apple want to raise a few millions? Sell a "task" add-on for $20 a pop. Does Apple want to raise a few hundred million? Sell games.

You did notice that Apple now has a handheld gaming platform, didn't you? (With an accelerometer too.)

It's great news for Apple stakeholders and, in the near term, it's good news for AT&T. More importantly, it's fantastic news for the decaying American mobile phone industry. There will be a desperate scramble by AT&T's competitors to deliver better products faster, and the handset manufacturer will get whatever they want. And once the 3G iPhones start appearing overseas ...

Did I mention that Minneapolis is putting in metro-wide 802.11? The iPhone will work quite nicely there, including the VOIP services Jobs is promising.

Anyone who has a mobile phone number should be very grateful that Apple, it seems, has delivered.

7/2/07: Yes, victory indeed. When a US mobile phone stokes anxiety in Korean manufacturers, something radical has happened. It's bit like Brazil suddenly launching a star ship.

7/2/07: More proof. I really didn't think Apple could do it out of the gate.

Race returns as ancestry, this time with better brains from China

A few years ago race was on the ropes, but it's back and looking as though it will persist, though possibly with a new name. The base "genetic clusters" (races) are:
  • Africans
  • Australian aborigines
  • East Asians
  • American Indians
  • Caucasians (Europeans, Middle Easterners and people of the Indian subcontinent)
(The "genetic cluster" breakdown in the graphic that accompanies the article is incomplete, the above list was taken from the article)

Not only is race back, but so are race-specific mutations affecting brain development. DAB1 is said to be "Chinese only", but I suspect the researchers are using "Chinese" as a proxy for "east asian". Anyway, the mutation sounds suspiciously like an upgrade:
Humans Have Spread Globally, and Evolved Locally - New York Times

Another puzzle is presented by selected genes involved in brain function, which occur in different populations and could presumably be responses to behavioral challenges encountered since people left the ancestral homeland in Africa.

But some genes have more than one role, and some of these brain-related genes could have been selected for other properties.

Two years ago, Bruce Lahn, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, reported finding signatures of selection in two brain-related genes of a type known as microcephalins, because when mutated, people are born with very small brains. Two of the microcephalins had come under selection in Europeans and one in Chinese, Dr. Lahn reported.

He suggested that the selected forms of the gene had helped improved cognitive capacity and that many other genes, yet to be identified, would turn out to have done the same in these and other populations.

Neither microcephalin gene turned up in Dr. Pritchard’s or Dr. Williamson’s list of selected genes, and other researchers have disputed Dr. Lahn’s claims. Dr. Pritchard found that two other microcephalin genes were under selection, one in Africans and the other in Europeans and East Asians.

Even more strikingly, Dr. Williamson’s group reported that a version of a gene called DAB1 had become universal in Chinese but not in other populations. DAB1 is involved in organizing the layers of cells in the cerebral cortex, the site of higher cognitive functions.

Variants of two genes involved in hearing have become universal, one in Chinese, the other in Europeans...

... A genomic survey of world populations by Dr. Feldman, Noah Rosenberg and colleagues in 2002 showed that people clustered genetically on the basis of small differences in DNA into five groups that correspond to the five continent-based populations: Africans, Australian aborigines, East Asians, American Indians and Caucasians, a group that includes Europeans, Middle Easterners and people of the Indian subcontinent. The clusterings reflect “serial founder effects,” Dr. Feldman said, meaning that as people migrated around the world, each new population carried away just part of the genetic variation in the one it was derived from...

... The concept of race as having a biological basis is controversial, and most geneticists are reluctant to describe it that way. But some say the genetic clustering into continent-based groups does correspond roughly to the popular conception of racial groups....

... David Reich, a population geneticist at the Harvard Medical School, said that the term “race” was scientifically inexact and that he preferred “ancestry"...
Ethnicity reflects your cultural identity, so that word is clear enough. I think "ancestry" is too vague -- Japanese and Koreans may feel they have very different "ancestry" (and in a sense they do), but they're not two "races". I think we're stuck with race for now.

So what year will we start tweaking human brains with the "best" (heh, heh) upgrades? I'm guessing 2040, because it will probably be pretty hard to get right.

Friedman on the "transparent society" (without mention of Brin)

Friedman, a celebrity whose reputation has cruelly fallen, writes about the implications of global reputations ... 

The Whole World Is Watching - Friedman -New York Times

... When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer — and each of us so much more transparent.

The implications of all this are the subject of a new book by Dov Seidman, founder and C.E.O. of LRN, a business ethics company. His book is simply called “How.”..

Alas, Friedman is not much of a reader or a researcher, otherwise he'd know of David Brin's 1999 book, The Transparent Society. Friedman, presumably recycling Seidman, predicts youngsters of today will have to carefully manage their public actions from now through adulthood, avoiding any smirch on their record that would impair their future promotion path. So predictable. He doesn't even manage to mention that the vast majority of human history has been lived in small communities where reputations were as robust as memory.

If Friedman were to open his mind a wee bit, he'd take in a bit of science fiction. Reputation management has been a recurring theme of the genre for at least 20 years. There are many alternate paths, including identity obscuration (create false paths to confuse the story, an application of fraud techniques to blur recollection), identity fraud, and tools and methodologies to support the creation of multiple transient identities. In some paths one's "True Name" is guarded as closely as in LeGuin's fantasy novels, while alternate identities are juggled throughout life. Or, most likely of all, we'll only have to worry about any of this stuff for the short period of time in which our everyday environment is even marginally comprehensible to our feeble primate brains.

Incidentally, the relationship between John Gordon and me will become one degree more obscure sometime in the next few weeks....

Friday, June 29, 2007

Four new Dyer essays

Dyer 2007

June 14 The Islamic Republic of Gaza
June 18 Kosovo and the Law
June 21 China's Shoes
June 23 The Middle East After Iraq
Some points of interest from this series:
  • In 2006 China emitted 8% more CO2 than the US
  • Cement and coal are the two reasons China puts out far more CO2 per capita than it should
  • China, India and the US are playing a monstrous game of "chicken" on CO2 emissions
  • Dyer on Israel's future: "Israel faces another generation of confrontation and quite possibly of war, and the Palestinians face another generation of military occupation. Significant chunks of the Arab world face Islamist revolutions that would bring more poverty and a new kind of oppression. It is a mess, and it's too late to fix it.
  • Dyer is as pessimistic about Kosovo as he is about Israel, and he regrets ever supporting the US attack on Serbia. He sees it as a "precedent" for the invasion of Iraq. I think he's overestimating how much "precedent" Cheney/Bush needed.
Of the four essays the China one is by far the best and the Kosovo essay the weakest.

What if modern finance doesn't know how to price mortgage derivatives?

DeLong reassures us that there will be vast transfers of money between winners and losers, but that this won't cause systemic disruption:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: CDOs: Mark-to-Model and Donner-Party Economics

[quoting from the Finacial Times:]

...Until recently, when late payments and defaults on these mortgages spiked higher, the problem drew little attention. This was because, through the magic of so-called structured finance, risky assets such as subprime mortgages could be packaged into attractive investment products. These elaborately constructed securities, called collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), are designed to yield juicy returns while also carrying high credit ratings. They have proved popular with hedge funds as well as with longer-term investors such as pension funds and insurance companies, many of which have bought billions of dollars of such securities in recent years – thus providing the liquidity that was then channelled into mortgage loans.

But heavy losses incurred at the two Bear Stearns hedge funds as a result of such financial haute couture have prompted fears that the CDO emperor may turn out to have no clothes. Such a revelation could threaten the value of investor portfolios around the globe – not just in the mortgage sector but in the way many sorts of company fund themselves. This is because unlike stocks listed on an exchange or US Treasury bonds, CDOs are rarely traded. Indeed, a distinct irony of the 21st-century financial world is that, while many bankers hail them as the epitome of modern capitalism, many of these new-fangled instruments have never been priced through market trading...

We all hope Brad is right. All the same, it's good to have a working theory to explain what may happen soon ...

DeLong on the Wall Street Journal's bizarre editorial pages

I didn't sign up for the WSJ Online because I didn't want to send any coins to anyone involved with the WSJ's editorial pages. They editorial page has been barking mad for years, and the op-ed page has been merely perverse, irrational, and wacky. Imagine my surprise when DeLong tells us that Journal insiders have the same opinion of the editorial pages ...

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Dr. Dow-Jones and Mr. Wall Street Journal and Rupert Murdoch

...Some Journal insiders--even some on the news side--say that this Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship is all to the advantage of the good Dr. Jekyll. Nobody serious believes the editorial page, they say; it serves as a comics page for the older and more-wingnutty subscribers, a source of daily comfort food for those who still denounce, "that Communist, Franklin Roosevelt," and who have always thought that the depth and duration of the Great Depression were the fault of the New Deal--that if the free-market tidal wave of falling wages and massive bankruptcies had been allowed to purge the economy for 1933 and 1934, by 1935 and 1936 all would have been well. But, this faction says, the editorial page delivers up perhaps half a million extra subscribers a year, and that money flow pays for the finest news-reporting operation in the world.

Other Journal insiders say that it is the bad Mr. Hyde that is sucking the blood of Dr. Jekyll. Nobody would pay attention to the wingnuts of the editorial page, they say, were it not for the fact that they come at the back of a very, very good newspaper. 50,000 people a month read the American Spectator, where Bartley's crew belongs. 1,000,000 people a day at least glance at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The reporters in the news division are thus in a morally ambiguous position as journalists: the stories they write inform the public, and the public they attract then turns to page A16--and is there misinformed...

I think the "blood sucker" segment is right. The WSJ editorial pages are a font of material for the certainly not-stupid but definitely barking mad wingnuts that generate AM talk radio. It's a malign influence that does far greater damage than the good done by the news page. If Murdoch ends up destroying the news pages, he'll have done us all a favor. If he ends up moderating the editorial pages, that's good too. If he does some of both then the outcome is harder to judge ...

Progress is not progressive: the Apple Newton to Palm to iPhone

In honor of the iPhone launch, The Reg has a brief informed review of the Apple's Newton. The only comments I'd add is that $600 in 1993 is about $800 now (inflation adjusted) and that in addition to having workable handwriting recognition the PalmPilot was less about 1/4 the price and 1/3 the size and weight of the Newton. The original PalmPilot was pocketable, affordable, rugged, ultra-reliable, and extremely responsive -- attributes that have been neglected since.

The most interesting part of this essay, however, is that it illustrates a principal that geeks like me, and inventors in general, struggle with on a regular basis. "Progress" is not always progressive. Key functionality can go away, and not return for decades.

The capabilities of the Newton were not only advanced for their day, they are advanced fourteen years later. Yes, in the better part of two decades, moving on to one-fifth of a century, we have not equaled the capabilities of the Newton. In particular, the ways we manage structured data and data relationships has barely changed from the 1980s; the Newton was an attempt at a far more sophisticated approach.

Of course computer scientists know all about this. Hint - never mention Smalltalk (1971) or LISP (1958, the latter inspired parts of the NetwonOS) to one of them. Geeks of a certain generation still bemoan the death of MORE 3.1, GrandView, Agenda, etc. My Samsung i500 had numerous data-oriented capabilities that the iPhone lacks. Nothing syncs with a desktop as well as the original Palm (because one company owned both ends of the sync transaction and, unlike Microsoft, built them together) and no handwriting input environment works as well as Graffiti One.

The sad truth is that what people like me want and need is not what the mass market wants and needs. The Newton was built for me, but, as some point out, that's wee bit of a small market. The Palm was built for me, but that turned out to be a small market after all. And so on.

And so we make do. Even if Apple never adds anything to the iPhone* I'll eventually give up on a vast amount of current capability and adapt to the tools that are available and supported -- even when that's a step backwards.

Bitter lessons!

* I'm hoping they omitted search because they couldn't fit Spotlight into their currently available footprint, cut and paste because something went wrong at the last minute, and task management because they want to sell a "pro" product for more money. I know, I'm pathetic.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Web (ASP) 2.0 applications: still not reliable enough

I use quite a bit of software on diverse networks and multiple platforms, including OS X, XP, GoogleOS, Yahoo, web 2.0, etc. Some is extraordinary (Windows Live Writer, Gmail), some is very good (Nisus Writer Express, Microsoft Excel, Google Maps, Google Earth, iPhoto 6), some is mediocre (Office 2007, Blogger 2.0*, Aperture) and some is miserable (Microsoft Word, Blogger 1.0, iPhoto 1-4).

Google Docs & Spreadsheets fits into the mediocre category. When it works it works well, but too often it's slow or even unresponsive. That's barely tolerable in an email application, but it's unforgivable in a spreadsheet or  wordprocessor. Google Docs and Spreadsheets only works for me in non-critical settings where there's a very strong need for document sharing and collaboration [1].

In the 1990s we thought we'd have a reliable high speed network infrastructure with low latency by the year 2001. Obviously that didn't happen. Technology has moved slowly, US markets have moved slowly, and a high level of "pollution" and "violence" on the net have reduced reliability even when the underlying technology has improved.

I think the death of the client application and locally resident data has been prematurely announced. The network isn't there yet, it may not get there for decades. Put me down as a "web 2.0" (once known as "application service provider") skeptic.

It's time to go back to paying for traditional locally resident software applications. Network data synchronization and file sharing - of course. Wide area network thin client - no.

* Google could make the BlogThis! bookmarklet functionality far better for me if they made it into a "submit draft then open post in Blogger editor" tool, but of course I'm a market of one. Blogger 1.0 was in the "miserable" category, so they've moved up.

[1] The cut and paste chaos on OS X is technically a platform problem, but it's a leading indicator of how immature these products are even when the network functions properly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Google moment: St. Jean Baptiste Day, Lachine canal, Picasa, map photo, Google Earth ...

Update 9/2/07: Alas for my enthusiasm, Google's Picasa image integration with both Google Maps and Google Earth doesn't work the way I'd thought it did. I'm not sure how it's supposed to work, I can't find any documentation. The one thing I see is that all images are not routinely available to the public even when the appropriate layers are enabled. As of 9/07 image display in Google Maps seems to barely work at all.

Forget the feeble iPhone 1.0*, Google's latest delivery is much more interesting.

Picasa web album has "map integration". It's a bit shaky in parts, and it would work better with a 32" display, but it's already pretty stunning. You can assign a public album or an individual public image to a Google Maps location through one of two methods. The snazziest method is dragging and dropping from an image palette onto a hybrid map view, but to make that one work smoothly you need either dual monitors with two views of the album or meaningful image labels.

A few minutes after you assign images to locations, the knowledge propagates to Google Earth. A KML link appears to the right of the album, and now you can click there to see the newly added images appear in the context of Google Earth [1]. Visitors to your album can presumably also see the images in the context of Google Earth or use the "map view" of the album.

Google introduced this new feature within the past few days, and coincidentally I had a perfect test album. This is unusual, since my photo albums are almost entirely private (kid pics). In this case a visit to my parents in Montreal fell on Quebec's national/provincial holiday/party -- St. Jean Baptiste day. I couldn't resist the opportunity to skate from their home in the west end (last refuge of the last of the old anglos) to vieux montreal, along Montreal's fabulous Lachine Canal linear park and extended bike/skate trail. As I skated beside the old canal I snapped pictures from my pocket Canon, sometimes while gliding. Artistic they aren't, but they are naturally geocentric. It was relatively easy to place them, and perhaps they'll be of interest to virtual tourists. (Incidentally, one of the most remarkable novelties for an ex-Montrealer of a certain age is that almost nobody was smoking. Incroyable.)

Obviously we want a GPS in our cameras so the photo/location relationships are built automatically. In the meantime, this is an easy way for interested persons to contribute to the development of Skynet's Google's world domination [2]. Having gone through this exercise once I'll know next time to take some pictures of stores, public monuments, and street signs, allowing much faster drag and drop geo-location.

Thanks Google, you're helping me get over my iPhone sorrows*.

* No cut and paste. Can't use MP3 as ring tone (even my despised RAZR allows that!). No search anywhere save within a web page. No external keyboard. No tasks...

[1] In OS X clicking may create a desktop shortcut which will launch Google Earth or it may launch Google Earth. It depends on your browser and security settings.
[2] I'm ready for the Google phone now ... I bet it will have search ...

Limits to understanding: evolved circuits, the genetic code, and the mind

DI has a fascinating review of recent research on hardware evolution. The implications are obviously relevant to a recent article in The Economist on the multidimensional/network encoding of genetic information (see also NYT on encoding meaning in topology), and on attempts to understand cognition.
Damn Interesting - On the Origin of Circuits

...Dr. Thompson peered inside his perfect offspring to gain insight into its methods, but what he found inside was baffling. The plucky chip was utilizing only thirty-seven of its one hundred logic gates, and most of them were arranged in a curious collection of feedback loops. Five individual logic cells were functionally disconnected from the rest– with no pathways that would allow them to influence the output– yet when the researcher disabled any one of them the chip lost its ability to discriminate the tones. Furthermore, the final program did not work reliably when it was loaded onto other FPGAs of the same type.

It seems that evolution had not merely selected the best code for the task, it had also advocated those programs which took advantage of the electromagnetic quirks of that specific microchip environment. The five separate logic cells were clearly crucial to the chip's operation, but they were interacting with the main circuitry through some unorthodox method– most likely via the subtle magnetic fields that are created when electrons flow through circuitry, an effect known as magnetic flux. There was also evidence that the circuit was not relying solely on the transistors' absolute ON and OFF positions like a typical chip; it was capitalizing upon analogue shades of gray along with the digital black and white...
I've written before about my teenage experience with modeling the evolved and emergent pneumatic braking system of a 20th century freight train. Evolved systems are characteristically very hard for an evolved mind to interpret. Meaning can be encoded in a baroque and illogical fashion, expressed across multiple continuous and undefined "surfaces" of representation. It may be fundamentally impossible for a mind to truly "understand" it's mechanisms, even if we are able ultimately to create another mind on a much more "reasoned" substrate.

If we eventually discover that the world of physics is fundamentally more like an evolved than a designed system, then we shall mourn the lost innocence of ambitious comprehension ...

Theory of the surge

Phil Carter points to an essay by General Petraeus's (aka the geek general) military anthropologist explaining their counterinsurgency strategy:
Understanding Current Operations in Iraq (SWJ Blog)

.... The enemy is fluid, but the population is fixed. (The enemy is fluid because he has no permanent installations he needs to defend, and can always run away to fight another day. But the population is fixed, because people are tied to their homes, businesses, farms, tribal areas, relatives etc). Therefore—and this is the major change in our strategy this year—protecting and controlling the population is do-able, but destroying the enemy is not. We can drive him off from the population, then introduce local security forces, population control, and economic and political development, and thereby 'hard-wire' the enemy out of the environment, preventing his return. But chasing enemy cells around the countryside is not only a waste of time, it is precisely the sort of action he wants to provoke us into. That’s why AQ cells leaving an area are not the main game—they are a distraction....
If Bush said it was raining, I'd leave my umbrella at home. Petraeus though ...

CV reviews the mutual constraints of cosmology and particle physics

A delightful post for amateur physics junkies: Constraints and Signatures in Particle Cosmology | Cosmic Variance. CV reviews the constraints cosmology places on modeling particle physics, and conversely suggests some cosmologic puzzles that might inspire new particle physics. This one was knew to me:

... There are a number of hints that the highest energy cosmic rays may require exotic new physics for a complete understanding. Above a certain energy (the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin (GZK) cutoff), particles from cosmological distances shouldn’t reach us at all, because they would scatter off the CMB. This has led people to speculate that any ultra high-energy cosmic rays (UHECRs) may be a signature of new particle physics. Does your theory contain any particles or phenomena that could allow this to happen, and what spectrum of UHECRs should we expect? Some of those topological defects I mentioned above may be an example...

"Topological defects". A rather significant hint I'd say. Mark is referring to:

... Does your theory contain any new topological defects, such as monopoles, domain walls or cosmic strings? If the vacuum structure of your particle physics theory is sufficiently topologically complex, then any symmetry breakings that occur may lead to trapped regions of false vacuum that cannot decay. If so, then many of the constraints mentioned for long-lived elementary particles may apply to these objects. In addition, some topological defects can form networks that redshift more slowly then matter, coming to dominate at a later time in the universe, or can generate a spectrum of gravitational radiation that is in conflict with our detailed measurements of the timing of the millisecond pulsar. If this last constraint is a problem, then it is also possible that the defects unacceptably distort the spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB)...

Keep your eyes open for wandering wrinkles in space-time. Should you happen upon one, email Mark at "once" ...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

NYT Massive Evolution Science Section

Science News 6/26/07- New York Times. It will take a while to get through ALL of this. Wow, the NYT is having a great year.

Kristof on Cheney: four must-read articles in WaPo

Kristof directs us to a pair of WaPo articles on the Prince of Darkness:
Digging Into Cheney - Nicholas D. Kristof - Opinion - TimesSelect - New York Times Blog

...Barton Gellman, one of the best reporters around, has a superb and illuminating series in The Washington Post about Dick Cheney. While Cheney himself didn’t talk, lots of people around him did — underscoring Cheney’s central role in the Bush administration’s most demented policies. The series shows that Bush is still the boss — it’s not as if Cheney is secretly pulling the strings — but that Bush tends to operate at a level of general goals...
They key point here is that Bush is the boss. Cheney is doing what Bush wants while keeping Bush's hands "clean". Here's the introduction to the 1st article:
..."Angler," as the Secret Service code-named him, has approached the levers of power obliquely, skirting orderly lines of debate he once enforced as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford. He has battled a bureaucracy he saw as hostile, using intimate knowledge of its terrain. He has empowered aides to fight above their rank, taking on roles reserved in other times for a White House counsel or national security adviser. And he has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert.

Over the past six years, Cheney has shaped his times as no vice president has before. This article begins a four-part series that explores his methods and impact, drawing on interviews with more than 200 men and women who worked for, with or in opposition to Cheney's office. Many of those interviewed recounted events that have not been made public until now, sharing notes,e-mails, personal calendars and other records of their interaction with Cheney and his senior staff. The vice president declined to be interviewed...

From the second article, emphases mine ...
... the "torture memo," as it became widely known, was not Yoo's work alone. In an interview, Yoo said that Addington, as well as Gonzales and deputy White House counsel Timothy E. Flanigan, contributed to the analysis.

The vice president's lawyer advocated what was considered the memo's most radical claim: that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line into torture. U.S. and treaty laws forbidding any person to "commit torture," that passage stated, "do not apply" to the commander in chief, because Congress "may no more regulate the President's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield."

That same day, Aug. 1, 2002, Yoo signed off on a second secret opinion, the contents of which have never been made public. According to a source with direct knowledge, that opinion approved as lawful a long list of interrogation techniques proposed by the CIA -- including waterboarding, a form of near-drowning that the U.S. government has prosecuted as a war crime since at least 1901. The opinion drew the line against one request: threatening to bury a prisoner alive...

Two more to go. Mandatory reading. Impeach Cheney.

Rahm Emanuel is the spine of the Democratic party - defunding Cheney


Calling Cheney's Bluff, The Nation: If The VP's Office Really Isn't In The Executive Branch, Then Don't Fund It - CBS News

llinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel has come up with the right response to Dick Cheney's attempt to suggest that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch.

The House Democratic Caucus chairman wants to take the Cheney at his word. Cheney says his office is "not an entity within the executive branch," so Emanuel wants to take away the tens of millions of dollars that are allocated to the White House to maintain it.

... Cheney and his staff have refused for five years to file reports that are required as part of the oversight process. Why? Because the vice president — that's the vice president — claims he is not exactly a member of the executive branch.

So what is Cheney? Because the vice president serves in the frequently ceremonial position of president of the Senate, Cheney's office now claims that he is a member of the legislative branch — and thus unburdened by any responsibility to cooperate with the Archives.

... O.K., says Emanuel.

If Cheney's a member of the legislative branch, the Democratic Caucus chair suggests, the vice president won't need all the money that currently goes to pay for his executive office, extensive staff and that secure undisclosed location that is so often his haunt. So Emanuel plans this week to offer an amendment to a spending bill that would defund the Office of the Vice President...

... "This amendment will ensure that the vice president's funding is consistent with his legal arguments," say Emanuel, a former aide to President Clinton who, like Cheney, has served in both the legislative and executive branches...

Cheney is one of the reasons I have no interest at this time in impeaching Bush. Remember, Agnew went before Nixon ...

Tires - I think we're past the tip of the iceberg now...

I think we're moving past the "tip of the iceberg" into -- Houston, we have a problem ... (Note, it's Barboza again. Give the man a Pulitzer please.) Emphases mine. Note that the US import operation involved in this employs seven people and has no assets to pursue. Brand names are: "Westlake, Compass, Telluride and YKS".

Chinese Company Denies Defect in Recalled Tires - New York Times

SHANGHAI, June 26 — A day after regulators in the United States ordered the recall of over 450,000 tires because of potential hazards, the Chinese manufacturer denied Tuesday that they are defective, saying the claims may be fabricated.

But the problem tires, which were sold for use on vans, sports utility vehicles and pickup trucks, have already been linked to at least two deaths in the United States, possibly because of a missing “gum strip,” which could allow the tire treads to separate and fall apart.

Tread separation is the defect that led Firestone in 2000 to undertake one of the largest tire recalls ever in the United States, involving millions of tires.

The Chinese company that produced the tires, the Hangzhou Zhongce Rubber Company, disputed the allegations Tuesday and hinted that the recall might be an effort by foreign competitors to hamper the company’s exports to the United States...

...The recall is the latest incident involving problem products entering the American market from China, and another case involving allegations that a Chinese manufacturer cut corners and altered its production process after winning a large supply contract.

For several months, the United States government has issued warnings and nationwide recalls involving everything from contaminated pet food and toxic toothpaste to popular toys coated with lead paint, all bearing the label, “Made in China.” ..

..“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Oded Shenkar, a professor of management at Ohio State University and author of “The Chinese Century,” referring to the spate of recalls and problem products from China. “We’re going to see more and more problems with Chinese products because there’s inadequate oversight in the manufacturing process. I’ve even heard about counterfeit car brakes being made there.”...

... On Monday, federal officials in Washington told a tiny New Jersey importer, which has just seven employees, to recall about 450,000 radial tires because some tires were missing a safety feature that prevented tire tread separation.

But the company, Foreign Tire Sales of Union, N.J., has asked the federal government for help, saying it does not have enough money to pay for the recall.

Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, insist that the importer has the responsibility for the recall, and one official said the agency was “outraged” that the tire distributor had waited nearly two years before informing regulators of suspicions about tire defects.

The recall effort comes after a lawsuit was filed in early May against Foreign Tire Sales, blaming the company for an August 2006 accident that killed two people in Pennsylvania and left two others injured, one severely.

Lawyers who filed the suit said Foreign Tire Sales had contracted with Zhongce in 2000 and that the company had received reports of problem tires as early as 2005...

...Indeed, since Firestone’s vast recall in 2000, the world’s biggest tire makers have rushed into China to build new plants or to team up with Chinese tire makers, partly because of the lower labor costs here but also because of this country’s soaring demand for automobiles.

Zhongce was once a state-owned company that in the 1950s made rubber shoe soles.

In 2006, the company had about 8,000 employees and nearly $1 billion in sales and had signed deals to supply or team up with some of the world’s biggest tire makers, including Goodyear, Yokohama and Cooper Tire, according to company officials.

The American recall, however, involves allegations that experts here say point to a common problem: Chinese manufacturers who win a contract after agreeing to produce a product following certain guidelines or specifications and then, often for cost-saving reasons, switch to a cheaper ingredient or a process that lowers costs.

Almost all the other recalls involve a similar allegation — a switch to cheaper ingredients.

In this case, a tiny New Jersey distributor sold the problem tires under the brands Westlake, Compass, Telluride and YKS.

A lawyer for Foreign Tire Sales said Monday that Zhongce produced tires for at least six other distributors in the United States and that at times it omitted gum strips from its tires.

There are no assets to go after in this case and we can't pursue Zhongce in court. I think we're left with nothing now but US federal legislation. Maybe we need to require anyone exporting to the US to have some form of "insurance" so there are assets to pursue, thereby pushing the quality issues onto the insurance and reinsurance industries.

I read a lot of economics blogs, including DeLong, and they've been very quiet about this. I'm disappointed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Netflix alert: the top 1000 films

If we can ever wrest the Netflix list away from the children, we might actually get to use this: The top 1000 films by The Guardian.

Murdoch and Nielsen: how the world works

Rupert Murdoch, a famously ruthless man of vast ambition but amorphous ideology, is likely going to buy the Wall Street Journal. He can't make the editorial pages any more absurd, so the primary concern is that he'll bias the news coverage, which has historically been excellent. I expect he'll do that by gradually eliminating all who disagree with him, and retaining those who's thinking is compatible with his. It's claimed that he did something similar with the Times of London. Assuming he doesn't also buy the New York Times (they ought to worry) this is probably good news for them.

In the spirit of the pending acquisition, the NYT has reviewed Rupert's record. The story fits with what I've read of him over the years, with one significant exception. Five journalists are writing, and nobody mentions Murdoch and China. Murdoch changed the way his properties discussed China in order to obtain entry to the world's most important marketplace. The fact that the NYT never mentioned this little episode is a wee bit scary. Did some editor cut it out? Why?

Aside from that rather large exception, the story is a familiar one. Murdoch adjusts his media focus to whoever is in power, as long as he feels that person can be bought. So either Hilary Clinton or Mitt Romney would be quite acceptable, but John Edwards is unthinkable.

The most interesting story in the piece is the attack on the Nielson research operation (emphases mine). It has a few interesting lessons, not all of them obvious. Emphases mine.
Murdoch Reaches Out for Even More - New York Times

... In early 2004, an alarm went off at the News Corporation headquarters.

Nielsen Media Research was preparing to switch to a more sophisticated technology to calculate ratings that television stations use to set advertising rates for local programming. Results of a trial run showed sharp drops in ratings for shows carried on stations owned by the News Corporation, particularly those aimed at minority viewers.

With millions of dollars at stake, Mr. Murdoch sprang into action. He hired the Glover Park Group, a consulting firm with deep ties to the Clinton administration, to run a grass-roots ground war. Charging that the system was faulty and that it undercounted minorities, the firm started an extensive advertising campaign intended to delay the rollout of the new technology and staged protests around the country that drew such unlikely allies as the Rev. Al Sharpton. Among the Democrats who wrote to Nielsen opposing the new system was Mrs. Clinton.

The New York Post [jf: a premier Murdoch property] pursued the story, running news headlines like “Nailing Nielsen” and routinely failing to mention its parent company’s interest in the outcome.

The resulting two-year campaign was unusually brazen, even by Beltway standards. Protesters massed outside Nielsen offices in New York. The atmosphere grew so charged that Nielsen’s chief, Susan Whiting, hired a personal bodyguard and the company strengthened security at its headquarters, according to Nielsen officials.

At one point, Ms. Whiting publicly accused Mr. Chernin and Mr. Murdoch’s son Lachlan of threatening to do “everything possible to discredit you and the company in Washington” if she did not back down. Mr. Chernin and Mr. Murdoch publicly denied making the threat.

But the News Corporation turned to Republican allies to put pressure on Nielsen. Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican who was chairman of the Commerce Committee’s communications subcommittee, and Representative Vito J. Fossella, a New York Republican, introduced legislation that threatened Nielsen with government oversight...

...Political contributions flowed to nearly all the legislation’s supporters. In 2005, the year the legislation was introduced, records show that the bill’s 29 sponsors and co-sponsors together received at least $144,650 in donations from the News Corporation’s political action committees and lobbyists.

Ultimately, the dispute was settled quietly. Mr. Murdoch succeeded in keeping the old rating system in place for several months in the three top markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Those months included the sweeps period, when advertising rates are set...
Interesting lesson one: If you believe the NYT story, the attack didn't achieve all that much. Murdoch took millions from advertiser who's message was probably wasted, but the system, supposedly changed anyway. So did Murdoch win or not? Was the attack all that profitable, or did it mostly produce new enemies?

Interesting lesson two: Ok, we know this one. Hilary is well integrated into the established order.

Interesting lesson three: The unasked questions are often the most interesting questions. While all this was going on, did anyone detect Murdoch's hand in the operation? Did NYT journalists twig to why the New York Post was so keen to right about Nielsen's change? Did they write about it? How about some commentary from NYP insiders? What are the mechanics of this kind of operation at the newsroom level?

Murdoch is the present and future of media control. If Americans care they can do something about it, but I think Americans, like everyone else, are overwhelmed by the complexity of the emerging world.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Message in a bottle: Michael Cinnamon, phone home

Because my brother was lost in Whistler, BC five years ago (July 12, 2002) I occasionally receive emails about other lost people. Recently I got one about a young man who's last known address was also in Whistler in 2002, though in this case, unlike Brian it seems the gentleman may have vanished deliberately.

It's hard to find someone who doesn't want to be found. Perhaps he has good reasons to stay away. It occurred to me however, that Michael Shawn Cinnamon might occasionally Google on his own name. It's not that common a name, there were no hits before I wrote this.

Now, if he Googles on his name, he'll find this "message in a bottle". He might even choose to learn why his Aunt Phyllis from Kelowna BC is looking for him now.

Update: As of 6/27/07: a search on "Michael Cinnamon" finds this post first. So the message has been sent.

Tips for talking to journalists

A few times in my life, I've done interviews for radio or video journalists. Even though Kevin Paidain thinks his tips are "rudimentary", I didn't know them. I think they work for any context, not just a science interview. Here's an excerpt (emphases mine):
The Loom : Madam Speaker, I Yield My Remaining Time to the Paleontologist from the Great State of California

... Scientists can "control" an interview better if they keep things to a few oft-repeated points, speak in plain English with colorful (but not distorting) language and use analogies and metaphors, and be upbeat. Speak in reasonably short sound bites. (Randy Olson of Flock of Dodos has a good list on this.) In a film interview, don't necessarily answer the question asked if it is not a good one (they seldom play the question in the film) but rather say what you want to say that's more or less on the topic. That actually helps the interviewer more. Repeat as necessary until the point is made, and made effectively. You might say something in a film interview but not very well, so they won't use it. Do it again. They'll wait.

Some rules: always say "off the record" in advance. Be clear when you're going back on the record. Ask in advance to check quotes (this is reasonable) but it is not reasonable to ask to edit the article. Remember that the article is what the reporter says, not what the scientist says, and yes, they do have license to interpret. It's kosher to ask what the angle of the story is early in the game, so you don't waste time explaining stuff that the reporter doesn't need (they usually don't cut you off)...
Personally I'd also recommend to write down what your key points are in advance - especially for a phone interview. It's handy to have a reference.

Choose your poison: HIV or something else

Nonbiologists like me may read this Zimmer article with mouth firmly open ...
The Loom : Pleistocene Medicine for Battling HIV

...It turns out that human TRIM5-alpha does an excellent job of wiping out this ancestral virus. Its superior performance depends on a short bit of one of the virus's genes--a bit that shows signs of having experienced strong natural selection in our hominid ancestors. But evolving a strong resistance to PtERV1 meant giving up resistance to HIV. The viruses seem to force primates to make an evolutionary choice: defend against one or the other, but not both. In our ancestors, the scientists argue, TRIM5-alpha evolved into a powerful weapon against PtERV1--so powerful that we carry no trace of the virus in our genomes. But it left us with little protection against HIV
In order to test the modern reponse to the "ancestral virus" researchers had to resurrect it from relics buried in the human genome. The practice is kind of a cross between archeology and ... ummm ... omnipotence. We may not have jet packs or sentient AIs (as far as we know, yet), but our biology is well beyond what science fiction writers of the 1960s expected ...

China: totalitarian anarchy?

The NYT has been doing an excellent job following up on China's flurry of quality and fraud issues, most recently covering the "Lead Thomas" news. Today David Barboza gives us some insight on what's going on behind the scenes after a visit to Thomas's home -- RC2, the largest toy manufacturing facility in the world ...
David Barboza - My Time as a Hostage - New York Times

AS an American journalist based in China, I knew there was a good chance that at some poozaint I’d be detained for pursuing a story. I just never thought I’d be held hostage by a toy factory.

That’s what happened last Monday, when for nine hours I was held, along with a translator and a photographer, by the suppliers of the popular Thomas & Friends toy rail sets.

“You’ve intruded on our property,” one factory boss shouted at me. “Tell me, what exactly is the purpose of this visit?” When I answered that I had come to meet the maker of a toy that had recently been recalled in the United States because it contained lead paint, he suggested I was really a commercial spy intent on stealing the secrets to the factory’s toy manufacturing process.

“How do I know you’re really from The New York Times?” he said. “Anyone can fake a name card.”

Thus began our interrogation, which was followed by hours of negotiations, the partial closing of the factory complex and the arrival of several police cars, a handful of helmet-wearing security officers and some government officials, all trying to free an American journalist and his colleagues from a toy factory.

Factory bosses, I would discover, can overrule the police, and Chinese government officials are not as powerful as you might suspect in a country addicted to foreign investment...

For American journalists, there’s a tradition of showing up at a crime scene, or visiting a place that has made news. But in China, where press freedoms are weak, such visits can be dangerous.

Last year, a young man working for a Chinese newspaper was beaten to death after he tried to meet the owners of an illegal coal mine. Local officials later insisted he was trying to extort money.

My colleagues at The Times have been detained several times. And one of our Chinese research assistants is now serving a three-year prison term for fraud. He originally had been accused of passing state secrets to The Times, a charge this paper has denied.

.... Many experts have told me that one of the most serious problems in China is that the government lacks the power to control the nation’s Wild West entrepreneurs, deal makers and connected factory owners.

Bribery is rampant, and government corruption widespread. Just a few weeks ago, the top food and drug regulator was sentenced to death for taking huge bribes from pharmaceutical companies. But it’s not clear that strong messages like that will stop the anarchy.

“China effectively has no oversight over anything,” said Oded Shenkar, a business professor at Ohio State University and author of “The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power and Your Job.”

“People have this idea they are Big Brother and everyone is under watch,” Mr. Shenkar said. “But this is not China. In China, local authorities often turn a blind eye to problems because maybe they’re invested in it.”

Indeed, the impotence of local officials was clear to me from my visit to the RC2 Industrial Park in the city of Dongguan, which is thought to be the largest toy manufacturing center in the world.

The private plant is the main supplier to the RC2 Corporation, an Illinois company. And the Hong Kong or Chinese entrepreneurs who run the facility seemed to hold great sway over the government.

We had no problem entering the complex or looking around until we met “Mr. Zhong,” a rough-looking factory complex supervisor. He scolded us for entering the grounds and taking photographs, and then invited us to a small villa on the campus, a stylish house filled with luxurious rooms, black leather chairs, a giant-screen TV, a huge stock of Cuban cigars, even a massage parlor.

This would be our prison. (Business correspondents are a more fortunate breed than war reporters.) Mr. Zhong offered an interview and a tour. But he later changed his mind and issued an ultimatum: hand over the pictures or we call the police.

Confident we had signed in properly with the security guards, who had allowed us onto the campus, we opted for the police. After over an hour, the police failed to show up, and we tried to leave, only to be nearly tackled by the factory’s ragtag army of security officers.

My translator then called the police.

The scene was farcical. We were locked inside the factory gate, surrounded by 16 security guards and 4 or 5 factory bosses. All trucks trying to bring supplies in or out of the complex were rerouted. Inside, large crowds of factory workers in blue uniforms were gawking. A crowd had also gathered outside the gates.

The police arrived an hour later, listened to both sides and then stood around. More police officers came. And more police officers stood around. It was clear they had no power to intervene.

So we called government officials, who suggested other government officials, who offered up more.

Finally, after hours of waiting, a higher-level government official arrived to settle the dispute.

He was a friendly man who admitted that he could not release us, that he didn’t have the power. We should negotiate, he said. For the next five hours, he shuttled between rooms in the villa trying to negotiate a settlement. There were shouting matches. There were demands that pictures be turned over.

After hours of squabbling, Mr. Zhong demanded we write a confession saying we had trespassed. He settled for a few sentences explaining why I had come and that I had not asked his permission to take any pictures.

The fight between government and factory during our detainment seemed to underscore the dysfunctional relationship the Chinese government has with industry.

In the endless back and forth, it was apparent that the government I often imagined as being all powerful and all seeing could be powerless and conflicted when it came to local businessmen and factory owners.

When we were released early Tuesday from a local police station, where we were sent to fill out a report, we noticed that while our translator was giving an account of the day to the police, the factory bosses were laughing and dining in another room, making the nexus of power in these parts and in this age ever more clear.
I'm visiting my parents in Montreal, and as we drove out to lunch my father told me how things worked in the 40s. Then, if you were stopped by the underpaid and undertrained provincial police, you'd offer the officer a cigarette (everyone smoked), with $5 tucked in the pack. A payment of $500 would get anyone a job on the police force - no questions asked.

Ten years earlier, in the 1930s, the Chicago business scene would have been very familiar to Mr. Zhong. Twenty years earlier Sinclair Lewis described Chinese-style factory life and practices in the US.

Times change. Only an idiot would try to bribe a Quebec provincial police officer today. It might work, or it might get you arrested. That's enough uncertainty to ensure no-one will try. (On the other hand, Bill Clintons million dollar speeches prove that bribery has not vanished, it's just become more refined.) China's changing fast, maybe the rule of law will emerge there in twenty years rather than fifty years.

In the meantime it seems easiest to think of China as 1930 Chicago with an added dash of totalitarian tradition. That means we shouldn't waste our time trying to get China to enforce food safety laws. Instead, we should make American importers legally liable for whatever problems are found, including criminal liability where that applies. That kind of pressure will force change all the way down the supply chain.

The missing Google solution: no file sharing

I make fairly frequent use of Google Page Creator (still a "lab" product), Google Documents, and, indeed, most of what Google produces including their photo sharing service. I even have 3 or 4 (it's easy to lose count) Google app domains including our family domain. I've been a Google fan since the first few weeks they had a web presence, back when everyone else I knew was still using Alta Vista (yes, it still exists).

Yeah, I 'm a fan. Google is awesome, the paradigmatic (hey, it's a good word) 21st century company. If they ever open an R&D office in the Twin Cities I'll send in my resume -- just so I can say I tried. There are some things, however, that Google has steered clear of. It's this kind of omission, the "dog that didn't bark in the night"omission, that catches my attention.

Google doesn't provide a quality service for uploading files to share on the web. Yahoo xdrive doesn't either. The old webdav services I used to use, that did provide URL (http port 80) access have faded away.

Sure, Google Pages ("lab" supposedly, but it's part of the free Google Apps service) lets you upload a file, but it doesn't scale. You can't rename a file once its been uploaded, there's no metadata save name and size, there's no real browser -- it's such a barebones solution that it underscores how reluctant they are to provide a web accessible file store.

Look at Google Apps Premier edition. Sure there's no presentation software, but that's on the way. More intriguingly, there's no file server.

So why won't Google, or xdrive, provide a file server solution with a web accessible addresses? It can't simply be fear of copyright violation -- Google owns YouTube! I wish someone better connected than I am would notice this and track it down a bit ...

Whistling past the cell phone graveyard

I expect iPhone 1.0 to induce massive gnashing of teeth among the foolish early adopters. Apple has the creativity gene, not the quality gene. If I buy one, it won't be before November -- and I can't buy one ever if there isn't a reasonably reliable solution for bidirectional synchronization of tasks, contacts, and calendars with Outlook (via .Mac or gCal would be ok - I expect Google will give us this even if Apple won't).

On the other hand, I think the cell phone industry will never be the same again after June 29th. The current crop of cell phones are, for geeks like me, a travesty. The closest thing to acceptable is the senescent and absurdly expensive Treo, now being placed on life support. So it's interesting to watch the reactions of industry insiders:
AT&T Hoping the iPhone Has Coattails - New York Times

...Mr. Lanman said Verizon already had at least 18 music-capable phones. In the next few weeks, he said, it plans to introduce a new model of its Chocolate phones that allows not just downloading of songs over the air but also transferring music from computers.

Mr. Lanman said he was not worried that AT&T would steal customers because Verizon’s network infrastructure is superior and offers better connection coverage and stability. “For Apple, I think the big risk is the AT&T network.”...

... .Edward Snyder, an equity analyst with Charter Equity Research, said that many people would be turned off by the price; older customers who can afford it, he said, will not care about all the fancy features of the iPhone, while younger ones who are excited about the device will not like the cost.

Over all, Mr. Snyder said, the iPhone will appeal to maybe 3 percent to 5 percent of wireless phone users. And he said he was skeptical that it would work as well as advertised.

“Implementing a cellphone is absolutely more difficult than anything Apple’s done to date,” he said, noting that, in particular, the phones might have trouble delivering consistently good voice communications and that the devices could suffer overall reliability problems. “Go out and buy an iPod and hold it at waist level and drop it. That’s the end of the iPod.”

“I don’t think Apple’s going to be a big player in this at all.”...

... Bill Plummer, vice president of Nokia’s multimedia group in North America, disagreed with the assertion that the iPhone would bring fundamental change to the market. He said Nokia already sold high-end phones with a wide range of functions, including the N95, which has a five-megapixel camera and a hard drive to store and play music. The phone works on either the AT&T or T-Mobile network and sells for $749.

The iPhone, he argued “is an evolution of the status quo.”...

Mr. Lanman's comments are probably the smartest. He's clearly concerned but careful about what he says -- but he's omitting the DRM problem. Downloaded music to Chocolate phones will all be DRMd; I wonder how well CD ripping works for the Chocolates, and whether they can plan non-DRMd AAC. If they can't then Verizon is pretty dumb. (AAC is not an Apple technology; neither of the "A"s stand for "Apple".)

Mr. Snyder wasn't doing too badly until he got to the part about dropping an iPod. You can drop a Nano from a rooftop and it will keep working - even if the case cracks. He's confusing a hard drive iPod with a flash iPod. I'll give him a little credit because the iPhone looks extremely fragile (titanium clamshell is more my style), but he botched this one.

Mr. Plummer's claim that the iPhone is "an evolution of the status quo" is hilarious.

In case we didn't know it already, the iPhone is clearly terrifying the cellular industry. If it does nothing else, it's already a modest success.

Update 6/26/07: Daring Fireball has a more entertaining summary of these interviews.

Rating cellular service by customer turnover

It's not a great metric, since different contractual practices will produce different churn rates, but we really don't have much data to rate cellular service providers so churn may have to do:
AT&T Hoping the iPhone Has Coattails - New York Times

...AT&T is now losing around 1.7 percent of its subscribers each month, compared with 1.1 percent at Verizon. T-Mobile’s churn is 2.6 percent, while Sprint’s is 2.3 percent....
T-mobile and Sprint look pretty bad based on this metric and Verizon is in a league of its own.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The paperless office - closer than you think

Crooked Timber tells us that US paper consumption has been falling for years. It's easy to miss these slow changes, but I can confirm that my use has been declining.

Large screen high resolution dual monitors have reduced my need to use paper as a transient "screen extender" and full text search that works (Spotlight on OS X, Windows desktop search on XP*) has increased the value of digital documents. I still take notes on paper; the more decrepit my brain gets the less bandwidth I can spare for managing computer interaction -- also it's faster.

What does get printed now is transient. It's printed, distributed, read and recycled.

* Yes, I've gone to the dark side for XP search. Google Desktop Search is not as good, Yahoo gave up the ghost, and X1 is vanishing now that Vista has integrated search.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Hume: The greatest philosopher?

I'm seeing quite a bit of Hume recently. The more I read or hear (In Our Time) the more impressed I am. Hume deserves much more attention ...
Designs, Intelligent and Stupid | Cosmic Variance

...In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him....
I wonder if Hume knew of Bonsai trees? If he did he might have come up with another explanation for the twisted state of a designed world...

See also:

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell - a review

A colleague who favors instinctive decisions urged me to read Blink! I decided to overcome my stodgy resistance to pop-psychology books and see if I should be paying more attention to unreasoned impulses. I was surprised to discover that the book is rather more ambivalent than my colleague thought (did she read the whole book?), though it is also a big muddled. Here's my Amazon review ...
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: Books: Malcolm Gladwell

The strangest thing about Blink! Is the contradiction between the contents and the cover. Did any of the people quoted on the back cover actually read the book? (Hint: Blurb writers rarely read the books they comment on.) The quotes rave about the power of snap decisions, but Gladwell is much more ambivalent. He's particularly concerned with how racial stereotypes misinform judgments, so much so that Gladwell finds he has an intuitively negative opinion of African Americans -- despite being a black man. I suspect he spent some time thinking about when he was going to introduce his Jamaican mother; the book itself is an experiment in the power of framing and bias.

Contrary to the back cover, and the subtitle of "the power of thinking without thinking", this is a book about both the power and the treachery of the unspeaking mind. On the one hand we have powerful non-verbal detection of deception and emotional context, on the other hand we have unconscious bias based on height and ethnicity, the election of George ... err .. Warren Harding and the shooting of Amadou Diallo.

I'd been expecting a superficial justification of impulsive thinking, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Gladwell's Blink! is a much deeper wrok. On the other hand, the book is also somewhat muddled. Once Gladwell moved away from domains in which natural selection has build powerful non-verbal tools, such as deception, mating and eating, his examples of good impulsive analysis became much less persuasive. The "red team" commander's success seemed to owe much more to correct and measured analysis than impulsive decisions (I'd read the story before by the way. The US military needs to retire a lot of generals.). The Cook County MI algorithm story is about the superiority of an analytic decision tree over both analytic human reasoning and non-verbal impressions. I couldn't tell what the Diallo story was trying to communicate, I think he was saying that under high stress situations human reasoning collapses (the autism connection is highly speculative and has no biological foundation). That's certainly true, but hardly novel.

In other cases I had a "Blink" type suspicion that we was cherry-picking and shading anecdotes. I'm particularly suspicious that there was more to the Cook County story than we were told -- it would be very odd for a test to be so sensitive and specific that prior probability of disease was irrelevant. In an afterword he introduces new research findings that contradict the simplistic models in the early book; that's commendable but it doesn't make the book more cohesive.

I think Gladwell lost out by omitting an evolutionary context to human thinking -- a choice that may reveal his biases. An evolutionary approach to cognition explains why the "silent mind" can do so well with decisions lizards, birds and primates evolved around, such as mating, eating, fighting and deceiving. It also explains why the non-verbal mind can make terrible mistakes when evaluating CEOs, presidents, or cell phones. He could have connected the evolution of mind with his thesis experts do best when they combine the silent mind with formal symbolic analysis (words).

I did learn one or two new things. I was impressed by the research on how easy it is to alter emotional state through priming methods. Maybe those days when everyone around me seems to be driving badly are the results of some particularly noxious talk radio show.

Ultimately Gladwell comes across, to me, as suspicious of the intuitive mind. I think he decides that non-experts should "trust" their intuition in domains where natural selection operates, but that even there they need to identify and adjust for bias based on appearance, gender, ethnicity, race, etc. Domain experts do best when they combine non-verbal intuition with analytic reasoning; they can use the intuitive input as a guide to developing a rational and defensible decision (something non-experts are said to have great difficulty with).

That sounds like a plausible path. When making expert decisions in the non-primeval world, write down that initial "Blink!" impression -- but don't trust it. Adjust for bias and use it as the basis for a time limited and bounded analysis by translating it into a defensible rationalization. Then attack the rationalization. If it survives, then credit the silent mind. If it dies, recognize the failure of the paleolithic mind in a technocentric century.

Boingo - how to run a business - into the ground

Boingo teaches us that great wealth brings great ... stupidity?

Our local airport has outsourced their wireless services to Boingo. Fair enough, I thought, I'll just get an $8 day pass. I've done that with T-mobile and they have a reasonable approach. Enter a credit card number, get access.

So, I click and wait, and wait, finally the service responds. It tries twice to sign me up for a 3 month pass, but I'm trying to keep this simple. I don't want a relationship with Boingo, I want net access.

Ok, I finally get to the day pass. Now sign up requires an email address (so they can send me spam) and an username and password. I guess they really do want a relationship.

I give 'em my spam address (only spam goes there, occasionally I retrieve product trial keys from it) and my usual username. It's in use. I probably signed up once before. Ok, I'll try another. It's in use too. This is getting annoying. I start using scatological usernames, like "idiots" and "stupidboingo" and, finally, fckboingo. In use. All of them. Including the last.

Boingo clearly has a less than delighted customer base.

I give up. Is Boingo some sort of evil psychology experiment? A Scientologist [1] plot to activate deeply buried engrams? More proof that there's no sense to where money flows? Or all of the above ...

[1] Boingo's CEO, Sky Dayton, is a prominent Scientologist.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fraud and Globalization: Toy Story III

The NYT has 3 related globalization and fraud stories in their top 25 list today, and they are 1,2,3 in the business section rankings:
This is, of course, really a story about fraud. Buyers think they're buying one thing (safe toys), but they get another.

Some useful quotes:
China manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States so far this year, including the enormously popular Thomas & Friends wooden train sets, a record that is causing alarm among consumer advocates, parents and regulators...

...Scott J. Wolfson, a second Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman, would not say how long ago RC2 discovered the problem or when it first reported it to federal authorities.

In the last two years, the staff of the consumer product commission has been cut by more than 10 percent, leaving fewer regulators to monitor the safety of the growing flood of imports.

Some consumer advocates say that such staff cuts under the Bush administration have made the commission a lax regulator. The commission, for example, acknowledged in a recent budget document that “because of resource limitations,” it was planning next year to curtail its efforts aimed at preventing children from drowning in swimming pools and bathtubs. ..


... Over the last two decades or so, American companies have generally followed a two-pronged outsourcing strategy. First, the companies have tried to move as much of their manufacturing as possible to places where wages are just a fraction of what they are here. Second, the companies have distanced themselves from their overseas production. They usually don’t own the factories and refuse to say much about them.

The current issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a fascinating cover article by James Fallows taking readers on a tour of Shenzhen, a southeastern city of eight million people (stunningly, up from just 80,000 a generation ago) that isn’t far from the factories that make the Thomas trains. Many of the world’s best-known companies — like a company that Mr. Fallows describes as a “very famous” American retailer — get products from Shenzhen. But he didn’t get permission to connect any of the individual factories in his article with a specific brand.

“In decades of reporting on military matters, I have rarely encountered people as concerned about keeping secrets as the buyers and suppliers who meet in Shenzhen and similar cities,” he wrote.

This secrecy brings a number of advantages. It keeps competitors from finding out tricks of the trade. It keeps consumers from discovering that their $100 brand-name shirt comes from the same assembly line as a $40 generic version. And it prevents activists from criticizing a company for the working conditions in a factory where its products are made. The companies get the cost advantages of outsourcing without the publicity disadvantages.

In the days since the Thomas recall was announced, the company that owns the Thomas brand, HIT Entertainment, has stuck to this script. HIT is an English company that holds the rights to a number of popular characters, including Barney and Bob the Builder, and then licenses the toy manufacturing to companies like RC2.

Except for a small link on the Thomas Web site to RC2’s recall announcement, HIT has otherwise acted as if it has nothing to do with the situation. Its executives haven’t even said that they regret having been promoting toys with lead paint in them. They haven’t said anything publicly.

When I suggested to the company’s public relations agency, Bender/Helper Impact, that this might not be the smartest approach, the agency e-mailed me a two-sentence unsigned statement. It said that HIT appreciated the concerns of its customers and was working with RC2 on the recall, but that the recall was “clearly RC2’s responsibility.”

In effect, HIT has outsourced Thomas’s image, one of its most valuable assets, to RC2. And RC2 has offered a case study of how not to deal with a crisis, which is all the more amazing when you consider that the company also makes toys for giants like Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Street.

When it first announced the recall, RC2 said that its customers would have to cover shipping costs to mail back the trains. It reversed that decision after parents reacted angrily, but it is still going to wait about two months to send the postage refunds. Why? “Because finance is in another building,” as one customer service employee on RC2’s toll-free hotline told me.

Most important of all, the company hasn’t yet explained how the lead got into the trains or what it’s doing to avoid a repeat. Like their counterparts at HIT, the RC2 executives have stayed silent...
There's not much new in either story. The last ends with a feeble hope that consumers will "punish" companies with unsafe products. They could do this, for example, by not buying toys. Gee, maybe that would work food and medicine too. If we stop buying food, toys and medicine maybe things will get better ...

I don't have that much faith in our overwhelmed populace. I have much more faith in the hunger of our lawyers. If they can find a way to sue the British based HIT Entertainment then we might see some changes. Alternatively, they can in future sue Walmart (for example) for selling items that any reasonable person would expect to be unsafe. If Walmart starts to worry about being sued, I'm reasonably sure toys from China will become much safer ...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Battle of the titans: Google, Microsoft and drawing on your screen

This is fun to watch, albeit scary. The frozen world of vector graphics (you know - maps, drawings, presentations), the long neglected alternative to bandwidth sucking 19th century raster graphics, is warming up. Is there any future for Adobe, or will they throw themselves into Google's arms? Can Apple "punch about its height" and somehow swing the market away from the dark shadows of Silverlight? Will Google pluck the long neglected W3C "structured vector graphics" from the grave?

The next few months may tell the story ...

The 36 (+10) classic mistakes of software development

This list is frighteningly familiar. I'm posting it so I can read it daily ...
Coding Horror: Escaping From Gilligan's Island

Which is why you should have every single one of the 36 classic mistakes outlined in McConnell's Rapid Development committed to memory by now....

... Making mistakes is inevitable, but repeating the same ones over and over doesn't have to be. You should endeavor to make all-new, spectacular, never-seen-before mistakes. To that end, Steve McConnell highlighted a few new classic mistakes in his blog that he's about to add to the canon, 10 years later:

Monday, June 18, 2007 - its mission

I feel this nagging obligation to try to save humans from themselves. Really, it's a nuisance; with the notable exception of my extended family and friends humans are not even a particularly attractive species. Anyway I'm stuck with it, but since I have no power this could get frustrating ... except that Google has it covered: - mission
  1. Global Development: develop scalable, sustainable solutions to poverty by focusing on economic growth in the private sector and improving access to information and services for the poor.
  2. Global Public Health: enable the world to better predict, prevent and eradicate communicable diseases through better access to and use of information.
  3. Climate Change: mitigate the effect of climate change on the poor by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving energy efficiency, and supporting clean energy sources.
Thanks Google. Now how about world peace?

Lessons for the iPhone from browsing with an old version of Internet Explorer

Have you ever refreshed an old machine with XP? It's a very tedious process. You do the install, then hours of repeated updates to get the machine to a semi-modern state.

In the midst of all this tedium you may need to fetch some code from the net.The reasonable way to do this is to download and install Firefox and use that. The suicidal approach is to skip both the five minute Firefox install AND the 12 hour Windows update process, and browse to a slightly shady web site to download something using an antique copy of Internet Explorer.

Jeff Atwood, who definitely knows better, decided on impulse to use an non-updated version of IE to fetch some code. Essentially, he figured the risk of infection was low enough for a non-critical system to justify saving five minutes. He was wrong, one of the sites he used turned out to be far sleazier than he'd imagined. His misadventures led to a good essay, so it wasn't a total loss. It's dramatic story of how quickly an old version of IE will be compromised when exposed to the wild*, but within it there's one sentence in particular I'll comment on (italics).

Coding Horror: How to Clean Up a Windows Spyware Infestation

... it's a wonder people don't just give up on computing altogether. Once the door is open, it seems the entire neighborhood of malware, spyware, and adware vendors take up residence in your machine. There should be a special circle of hell reserved for companies who make money doing this to people.

At first, I was mad at myself for letting this happen. I should know better, and I do know better. Then I channeled that anger into action: this is my machine, and I'll be damned if I will stand for any slimy, unwanted malware, adware, or spyware that takes up residence on it. I resolved to clean up my own machine and fix the mess I made. It's easier than you might think, and I'll show you exactly how I did it...

As Jeff probably knows, there's no "wonder" here because, in reality, people do "give up on computing altogether". They may still have a computer, but they don't use it very much because it's so unstable and unresponsive. Eventually it gathers dust.

The only reason my mother's computer still runs and works, despite having not been patched in the past six months ** is that she's running OS X and browsing with Safari. She's not a significant target and she mostly browses a few major news and weather sites. For most people in her situation, the computer just stops working and they don't go back.

Which may, despite all the conspiracy theories, be the real reason the iPhone is a closed system. In other words, Jobs was almost telling the truth (shocking, I know). Apple wants a closed iPhone not because a phone is a particularly bad thing to hack (though it may be), but because Apple is trying to produce a computing platform that will be relatively reliable for the average user.


* Web stories on old systems dying within minutes of net exposure are mostly baloney -- almost no-one every runs a PC with a direct IP connection. We all have NAT redirectors and de facto firewalls, even many users aren't aware they exist.

** I don't want her to deal with the patch process, and remote control and maintenance solutions for OS X have not been nearly good enough to be worth my using them. I've been betting we could get buy with my maintaining the system every 6 months or so, and that's been working well.

Update 6/25: Coding Horror (Jeff Atwood) wrote a f/u piece quoting a security expert, Adam McNeill, who analyzed how the attack occurred. Here's an excerpt:
...GameCopyWorld displays a "Find Your Love at Bride.Ru" advertisement. That advertisement "refers" to in order to display an advertisement for the DVD software produced by That advertisement "refers" to which in turn creates an [iframe] to in turn calls who attempts to deliver a series of exploits to a users system in hopes of installing a trojan dropper. The site attempts to exploit the following...
It's interesting to imagine the reaction of someone from 1994 reading that summary. The emergent sophistication of a modern security attack is fascinating and reminiscent of how prison exploits evolve. Atwood, who I think has been guilty of previously deprecating the importance of running as a non-administrator admits that a non-admin user would not have been vulnerable. He manages not to mention that OS X defaults users to non-admin status and it works very well (except for a few Adobe applications, which is a good reason not to buy them).

Stop electing judges

The numbers are looking bad: The Best Judges Business Can Buy - New York Times. We can only fight corruption on so many fronts at once, popular election of judges simply opens another front. Let's concentrate on reducing corruption in the state legislature and return to a system of appointing judges.

Yes, we could move to public financing of judicial elections, but why only for judges?

In any case, I am rarely able to find any useful information to guide my judicial votes. I end up simply voting the MN DFL party line, so the whole process is a waste.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Food labeling is being discussed now

The Feds are talking food labeling now. Lots of very wealthy and very interested parties don't want labels to describe where things come from. If you disagree, write your Elected and Appointed Officials.

If the label's not big enough, then require producers to include a URL with the details as well.

Youth baseball, education and health care performance measures

Whether you're coaching youth baseball, running a school, or taking care of patients, there's one sure-fire way to improve your rankings.

Eliminate the weak.

Oh well, we'll just run the experiment again anyway. Just because it's failed every other time it's been done there's no reason it won't work this time. Right?

Charles Stross dismantles the High Frontier

I loved O'Neill's 1976 High Frontier; I still have two of the books. The orbital colonies came first, then came microwave beaming of solar power as an attempt to justify the beautiful tori. I even had a personal connection, an aunt worked for the O'Neill Foundation for years. Once I considered presenting at one of their meetings, but I couldn't make it fit my schedule.

There's not much left of the High Frontier now. The Wikipedia entry is about one paragraph, though the old visions live on in space operas (science fantasy). Charles Stross, a first rate writer and thinker, is old enough to have fallen in and out of love with the High Frontier, and today Stross dismantles it. It's harsh reading for folks who, like me, went to college hoping to join the astronaut program, but it's familiar stuff. It's been clear for some time that biological organisms are not going to travel to the stars.

Inorganics, yes, organics, no.

I think he's a bit pessimistic about the rest of the solar system however. If our civilization manages to survive a few hundred more years the energy and environmental challenges may seem pretty doable. It just won't happen as fast as Kennedy once imagined.

Dowd asks a good question, hell freezes

At the very end of one her typically silly columns Dowd actually asks a good question:
Can He Crush Hillary? - New York Times

.... The Clinton financial disclosures raise a big question: Do we want the country run again by a couple who get so easily wrapped around the fingers of anyone who is rich? As long as a guy was willing to give them millions, would it matter if his name were Al Capone?
John Edwards. Al Gore. Maybe even Obama if he can get straight about his smoking habit and if he turns out to be relatively skeleton free...

The evolutionary biology of aging: Zimmer's links

In a quite brief post Carl (The Loom) Zimmer gives us a small set of brilliant links into the modern evolutionary biology of aging. Absolutely fascinating. I've long thought one of the most instructive examples of mammalian aging lived right by our feet, so I jumped right to the entry on Canis familiaris. It's weaker than it should be. It records the far end of canine longevity (at least 24 years, possibly 29) but misses the Great Dane -- old by six years. (One might argue breeding Danes is a crime despite their charm and beauty.)

That's a pretty impressive range for one species -- 400%. Should be some lessons there.

Wolves, by comparison, seem to live fairly readily to age 16-19 in captivity. This suggests we ought to be able to breed a mid-sized dog that would have at least 16 healthy years. That's much better than our genetically abused companions get these days. I'd like to see a derivation of the Australian cattle dog bred for long life but a more family friendly temperament.

Update: By the way. Delayed sexual maturation is a marker for longer lifespan. The age of menarche has fallen from about 16 to about 12 in the past forty years. Draw your own conclusions ...