Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The way we think: reason as an afterthought

Towards the end of an article reporting how much unnoted context alters our feelings and behaviors, a NYT article describes the implication for how we think. It's another in a long series of blows to the idea that we're fundamentally rational (emphases mine)...

The Subconcious Brain - Who's Minding the Mind? - New York Times

... an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.

This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims — automatic survival systems.

In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer. Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.

This may help explain how someone can show up at a party in good spirits and then for some unknown reason — the host’s loafers? the family portrait on the wall? some political comment? — turn a little sour, without realizing the change until later, when a friend remarks on it. “I was rude? Really? When?”

Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.

“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones,” Dr. Schaller said, “because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

..Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires,” he said...

Really, it's amazing we do as well as we do. Our mind seems a pretty thin veneer on a heck of a lot of evolutionary programming. I am reasonably certain, however, that self-awareness varies from person to person. In other words, consciousness, like strength, speed, and wit, is a variable. Perhaps with some training we can begin to acquire second hand access to our unconscious controllers, and subvert them. So, perhaps we cannot directly detect an unconscious motivator, but perhaps we can become better at evaluating our own behaviors. When we find ourselves skeptical, or friendly, or generous, or competitive, we might then infer the presence of an unrecognized trigger, and thus infer our unconscious goals.

More in another blog on the implications for the management of persons with behavioral problems ...

Recommender systems - so that's why they've been disappointing

Recommender systems for music and books haven't lived up to initial expectations. Netflix and Amazon give me pretty decent recommendations, but among other things they get confused between things I buy for myself and things I buy for other people DeLong excerpts Slee to suggest a host of other problems -- mostly fraud related.

There's so much money riding on recommender systems even clumsy fraud is common, so it's rather likely that subtle fraud is also common. It's the same problem Google has had, since Google's original search approach was a form of recommender system.

Useful recommender systems may first require a good reputation and identity management infrastructure, or be based on data points that cost money to create. Not coincidentally, when I'm researching Amazon the first thing I look at is the sales ranks for the product domain I'm interested in. Then, for each product that's selling well, I look at the negative reviews first. I don't pay that much attention to the star rankings or the positive reviews.

A mouse model for calcineurin-type Schizophrenia: exciting news indeed

This is terribly interesting news on several fronts. Mouse models of a variant of autism emerged about 1-2 years ago, and they've radically accelerated our understanding of that mind/brain disorder. We can reasonably expect a similar revolution from this discovery ...

MIT research may lead to better schizophrenia drugs - MIT News Office

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT researchers have created a schizophrenic mouse that pinpoints a gene variation predisposing people to schizophrenia...

..Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, director of the Picower Center for Learning and Memory at MIT and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, found that genetically engineered mice lacking the brain protein calcineurin exhibit a number of behavioral abnormalities shared by schizophrenic patients.

In a related study with researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, MIT scientists show that variation in a human calcineurin gene also is associated with schizophrenia. Calcineurin--part of a biochemical pathway in the brain linked to receptors for two brain chemicals, NMDA and dopamine--plays a significant role in the central nervous system.

This is the first study that uses animals who demonstrate an array of symptoms observed in schizophrenic patients to identify specific genes that predispose people to the disease...

... Tonegawa creates tools to explore the genetic underpinnings of the molecular mechanism for memory. Genetically engineered mice who are missing the brain enzyme calcineurin were previously shown to have an impairment in short-term, day-to-day memory formation, known as working memory. This kind of memory also is impaired in schizophrenia patients.

Further testing of these mice by Picower Center research scientist Tsuyoshi Miyakawa revealed that they also have attention deficits, aberrant social behavior and several other abnormalities characteristic of schizophrenia.

Picower Center research scientist David Gerber then collaborated with Rockefeller's Maria Karayiorgou to examine calcineurin genes in DNA samples from schizophrenic patients and their immediate relatives. The researchers found an association between a particular calcineurin gene and schizophrenia.

"This is an intriguing series of findings," Tonegawa said. "The combination of evidence from the genetically altered mice, together with the human gene studies, create a strong argument to link calcineurin with schizophrenia."...

... Alterations in multiple genes are believed to predispose people to schizophrenia. Tonegawa suspects that many of these genes may turn out to be components of the calcineurin pathway or to directly interact with the calcineurin pathway.

"Once we better understand exactly which genes are involved, we will know how proteins are affected, and we can set up a test to screen large numbers of compounds to identify ones that have desired effects on the activity of these proteins," Tonegawa said. "This can potentially lead to the discovery of new kinds of drugs for psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia."

In addition to Gerber, Miyakawa, Karayiorgou and Tonegawa, co-authors include Joseph A. Gogos of Columbia University, and Diana Hall and Sandra Demars of Rockefeller University. Authors on the mouse study include research specialist Lorene M. Leiter and Hongkui Zeng of MIT, and Raul R. Gainetdinov, Tatyana D. Sotnikova and Marc G. Caron of Duke University...

If this actually works out, Tonegawa will earn another Nobel.

Age of Parody: Steven Colbert* and the Fake Steve Jobs

We've all read that the young-uns get all their news from watching Steven Colbert, a "fake" newscaster. We also know that Colbert has the highest quality news coverage anywhere, so the young-uns aren't so dim after all.

Which brings one to the media analysis of FSJ -- aka Fake Steve Jobs. One reason this geek parody site is widely read by Mac fans is that the commentary is often quite insightful, and, of course, it's well written, reasonably funny, and generally entertaining.

I think the Soviet Union was famous for high quality parody. I hope our age of Parody has no common roots.

*PS. Since I'm kind of removed from popular culture, I first typed "Stephen Coulter". Doesn't work. In the old days I've have been stuck. Now I googled on "you tube" "steven" and "parody". First hit.

Variations on the publicly traded company: two class ownership

James Fallows tells us what the New York Times and Google have in common: two tier corporate ownership (class A and B shares). I've passed through several variations of the modern corporation, and like most veterans I know the limits of both the private and public company. Private companies are capital limited and, eventually, channel limited. Public companies survive by brute force, but have all the grace and maneuverability of a steamroller.

Lately we've seen "private equity" variations, which seem to be largely a variation on the leveraged buyouts of the 80s. I hadn't recognized, however, that Google had implemented a private/public model previously known primarily in the news industry.


I love blogs.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Caffeine and apoptosis

This is not necessarily good ...
Coffee and plenty of exercise could cut risk of skin cancer | Science | The Guardian

...A combination of coffee drinking and regular exercise may help to lower the risk of developing skin cancer, according to scientists in the US.

The two are thought to work together to kill off precancerous cells whose DNA has been damaged by ultraviolet-B radiation from the sun....

... Previous studies have suggested that exercise and coffee may each play a small role in protecting against skin cancer, but the latest research shows for the first time that when combined, the two may offer far more protection.

Scientists led by Allan Conney at Rutgers University, New Jersey, examined the effect of ultraviolet light on mice bred to be hairless, and so particularly vulnerable to the effects of sunlight.

Four groups of mice were exposed to UV-B radiation, but were given different diets and exercise regimes. One group drank caffeinated water, giving them a caffeine intake equivalent to one to two cups of coffee a day. A second group was fed pure water but allowed to exercise on a running wheel. The third group was given caffeine and access to a running wheel, while the fourth did no exercise and had no caffeine.

The scientists later took samples and checked for signs of UV-induced genetic damage. They also looked for evidence of a natural survival mechanism called apoptosis, in which damaged and potentially cancerous cells are forced to commit suicide before they can form tumours.

The tests showed that caffeine alone led to a 95% increase in programmed cell death and there was a 120% increase from exercise alone. But when combined, exercise and caffeine led to a four-fold increase in cell death, suggesting the body was able to rid itself of pre-cancerous cells much more effectively....
A 400% increase in programmed cell death?! Omigod, that's a lot. It turns out there's a burgeoning literature on caffeine and apoptosis.

Yech. I have both an affection (heck, addiction) to caffeine and a family history of skin cancer, so one might think I'd find this lighthearted good news. Alas, biology doesn't work that way. If this effect occurs in humans we're looking at a significant impact of caffeine on the fundamental behavior of cells. It would be surprising if that effect were always benign. Apoptosis of pre-melanoma is fine, but apoptosis of dopaminergic neurons ... maybe not so fine.

Fallows on the media: a 1996 article is even better today

Fallows, writing in his personal blog, called attention to an article he wrote in 1996 - before Bush, before 9/11, before the crash -- at the very height of our Glory Days: Why Americans Hate the Media. In brief, Fallows was merciless. Americans dislike the media, he concluded in 1996 because ... they had performed miserably. Everything he wrote then is true today. There are some great exceptions (some print journalists turned bloggers, Fallows himself, some astounding science writers) but there are lots of disasters. The punditry is an almost complete mess, and the beltway media is as bad today as it was 11 years ago.

Today Fallows writes "several times I have considered revisiting the whole what's-wrong-with-the-press question and have instead plugged on with other topics -- Iraq policy, China -- for reasons that boil down to: what's the point? The problems with the media are the same as I tried to describe 11 years ago -- just worse, and with new technology. But there's always tomorrow..."

The media didn't reach the basement by itself of course. Advertisers and bottom-line editors and owners drove many there, though some made it through egomania alone. Americans, above all, spent the money that justified those decisions. In consumer action as in American politics, the blame ultimately falls on the American citizen. Of course since newspapers are hemorrhaging money, maybe Americans have reformed a bit ...

Sunday, July 29, 2007

NSA 2004: the loons were right, of course

In 2004 cynical geeks were convinced that Total Information Awareness, Poindexter's program of data mining, was continuing under an assumed name. Mainstream journalists classified this as "lunatic fringe". Now, of course, the "loons" have gone mainstream.

Which brings us to Gonzales. Why hasn't he gone? Why the intense focus on GOP election rigging strategies and telecom monitoring when there are so many other GOP/Cheney/Bush crimes to investigate? It's not unreasonable to assume that there's more going on that meets the eye. Something Gonzales has to cover up, something that will come to light too soon if he's gone ...

Data Mining Figured In Dispute Over NSA
By Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 29, 2007; A04

A fierce dispute within the Bush administration in early 2004 over a National Security Agency warrantless surveillance program was related to concerns about the NSA's searches of huge computer databases, the New York Times reported today.

The agency's data mining was also linked to a dramatic chain of events in March 2004, including threats of resignation from senior Justice Department officials and an unusual nighttime visit by White House aides to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the Times reported, citing current and former officials briefed on the program.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, one of the aides who went to the hospital, was questioned closely about that episode during a contentious Senate hearing on Tuesday. Gonzales characterized the internal debate as centering on "other intelligence activities" than the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, whose existence President Bush confirmed in December 2005.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III contradicted Gonzales, his boss, two days later, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee that the disagreement involved "an NSA program that has been much discussed."

Although the NSA's data mining efforts have been reported previously, neither Bush nor his aides have publicly confirmed that, in connection with the surveillance program, the agency had combed through phone and e-mail records in search of suspicious activity.

Nor have officials publicly discussed what prompted the legal dispute between the White House and the Justice Department.

The report of a data mining component to the dispute suggests that Gonzales's testimony could be correct. A group of Senate Democrats, including two who have been privy to classified briefings about the NSA program, called last week for a special prosecutor to consider perjury charges against Gonzales.

The report also provides further evidence that the NSA surveillance operation was far more extensive than has been acknowledged by the Bush administration, which has consistently sought to describe the program in narrow terms and to emphasize that the effort was legal.

The White House, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment last night. Calls placed to the NSA, which collected and analyzed the data, were not returned.

The warrantless surveillance program, which was authorized by presidential order after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was first revealed publicly by the Times in December 2005. Bush confirmed aspects of the program at that time, defining it as monitoring communications between the United States and overseas in which one party was suspected of ties to al-Qaeda.

The Washington Post reported in February 2006 that the NSA targets were identified through data mining efforts and that thousands of Americans had been monitored. USA Today later reported that the government had the help of telecommunications companies in collecting millions of phone records.

The practice of sifting through mountains of privately collected data on phone calls and Internet communications raises legal issues. Although the contents of calls and e-mails are protected, courts have ruled that "metadata" -- basic records of calls and e-mails kept by phone companies -- are not...

I'll bet it wasn't merely international phone data. I suspect if they got a "hit" they ran through every database they could get their hands on -- and that they're false positive rates were significant. The media needs to read up on the original TIA plans, and assume that they were all implemented under different names.

Stories sunk without a trace: Feb 2004 bioweapon scare

I was searching my blog for a post and came across this old story ...
Gordon's Notes: WaPo: Chemical and bioweapon attacks on planes (2/1/2004)

... Intelligence indicating that al Qaeda terrorists are seeking to release a chemical or biological agent aboard an airliner, or transport a radiological device in cargo, was one of the factors that prompted the cancellation of six international flights scheduled for today and tomorrow...
I've long wished newspapers would routinely review stories written 2-5 years ago and tell us how it turned out...

Paying doctors: Room for huge cuts

The New York Times points out that physician reimbursement is one of the reasons that Amerian healthcare is more costly than european (or Canadian, Israeli, etc) health care.

I think they're mostly correct, though the discussion is necessarily simplified. They so point out that the discrepancy is far larger for specialists than primary care, but I think that when one adjusts for differing social costs and workload that primary care physicians in Europe and the US are similarly compensated. The gulf is entirely in the specialties, and particularly the procedural subspecialties (gastroenterology, radiology, etc.). The vastly greater compensation for specialty care in the US has shifted the physician workforce to being largely specialty based, amplifying the total cost to American healthcare. Of course lawyers in the US are probably paid several times as much as European lawyers, but that doesn't change the conclusion.

There's no way to figure out what one should pay physicians because there's no true market in healthcare; the best guide we have is people who pay cash and they tend to be atypically impoverished. It's likely, however, that one could slash US orthopedic reimbursement by 30-40% [1] and still get excellent orthopedic care once the dust settled (though the dust would take years to settle).

There's one point in the article where things went quite wrong however (emphases mine)...
...Dr. Goldman of RAND said that doctors are misleading themselves if they think the current system serves patients’ needs.

For example, if a diabetic patient visits a doctor, he said, “the doctor is paid to check his feet, they’re paid to check his eyes; they’re not paid to make sure he goes out and exercises and really, that may be the most important thing.”

“The whole health-care system is set up to pay for services that are rendered,” he said, “when the patient, and society, is interested in health.”...
I assume Dr. Goldman is not terminally naive, so he must be dissembling. I'm sure his job requires some creative dishonesty, but I wish he wouldn't. There's no real evidence that Americans, or anyone really, is happy shifting healthcare resources from treatment to prevention. Humans simply are not that rational. It's not even close. If Americans were spending their own dime, meaning we had a true healthcare market, I bet we'd spend even less on preventive care than we spend now.

Other than Dr. Goldman's misdirection I agree with the thrust of the article. We could slash healthcare administrative overhead by 70% chop 30% or more off drug costs, and cut procedural/subspecialty reimbursement by 30-40% [1] and still end up with better quality healthcare, by any measure, than we have now. We'd also, with no increase in primary care compensation, end up with a better supply of primary care physicians. The subspecialty offices, however, would have thinner carpets and rattier furniture.

[1] I originally wrote 70%, but that was the result of too quick math. The contrary argument is that, barring continued importation of non-citizen physicians, the US healthcare system is competing for talent with the corporate sector. If US corporate compensation is much higher than European compensation, then that might necessitate higher proceduralist compensation. I don't think that's true however.

The erratic non-progress of the personal information manager

The Personal Information Manager (PIM) has had a difficult 24 years, since Borland's "Sidekick" more or less launched the genre. We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of Sidekick, and I think it's fair to say a geek of 1983 would be shocked by how little progress we've made. The iPhone has no tasks. What more can I say?

The PIM has been a longstanding interest of mine. At various times in my life I've had a pre-web listserv dedicated to the personal information manager, a now-defunct blog dedicated to the Palm and its alternatives and an abandoned web page or two on related topics. I thought of the PIM as I cleaned out some old files, with clippings about (some of these were groupware too) the golden years from 1983-1994. It was in 1994 that the reign of Sauron began.
  • Arabesque's Ecco (much mourned)
  • Lotus Organizer (ok, so it wasn't too fancy)
  • Act for Windows (still around I think)
  • CrossTies (object oriented model)
  • MeetingMaker (cross-platform)
  • Lotus Agenda (a classic)
  • Attain Corp's "In Control": outliner/calendar combination
  • GrandView: calendar/task/outliner/spreadsheet
  • Ascend
  • Commence
  • Arrange 2.0 (Mac - bit of an object oriented database I think)
  • InfoDepot
  • FullContact
  • First Things First (outliner, calendar)
  • NewtonOS: a PIM that was an Operating System
Outlook came later, and the combination of Outlook/Exchange crushed the genre on the PC -- and finished off Palm as well (though by then Palm's owners had shot both feet off). Reinvention continues on the Mac, with a vast array of small vendor products that have various combinations of features of all of the 1983-1994 PIMs. On the web we have Backpack and a range of Web 2.0 apps, most of which will vanish in the next few years. Along with all your data.

Fifteen years ago I thought the salvation of the PIM would be application embedding, what we then thought of as OpenDoc. We'd have applications for projects, tasks, calendars and the like, and they'd all seamlessly interoperate with one another. That was a bit before I got into the interoperability business myself, building applications that tried to talk to one another about lab studies, diseases, genetic history, procedure history, consultations, etc. In that world software is relatively easy, the hard part is "meaning" -- having a common, or at least reasonably interoperable way to represent knowledge about things between systems. It starts with being able to generate a common data model (even if it's only used for communication), but it gets much harder than that when you need to store and create bits of data. That's when you get into really painful things, like formally maintained ontologies. (Engineers love emergent ontologies, which is more like the way our minds work, but interoperability between minds requires more CPU power than we have on the desktop.)

I think the 25 years of non-progress in PIMs springs from the same roots as 25 years of very slow progress in interoperable clinical systems (whether you want them to actually be able to share data is another matter - one of which I've blogged before). The domain of the PIM is far simpler semantically than that of the clinical record, but there's far less pressure for the grindingly hard work of common semantics and mutually agreed upon data models. I think we'll be at roughly the same point in 2033 that were were in 1983 ...

How worthless is the no fly list: 20,000:0 false to true positive

We have long history in medicine of worse-than-useless tests. Tests that produced ten false alarms for every genuine alarm, causing more harm from misguided retesting and treatment than the disease being tested for. The PSA test in men may turn out to be one of those misguided tests; at best it's a borderline test.

I can't recall any diagnostic test in modern medical history, however, that produced 20,000 false positive results and no true positives. I think for a test like that you have to go back to the pre-rational era.

The pre-rational era in which Homeland Security lives today:

Schneier on Security: Terrorist Watch List: 20,000 False Alarms

The Justice Department's proposed budget for 2008 reveals for the first time how often names match against the database, reporting that there were 19,967 "positive matches" in 2006. The TSC had expected to match a far fewer number 14,780. The watch list matched people 5,396 and 15,730 times in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

The report defines a positive match as "one in which an encountered individual is positively matched with an identity in the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or TSDB."..

How do I know they're all false alarms? Because this administration makes a press splash with every arrest, no matter how scant the evidence is. Do you really think they would pass up a chance to tout how good the watch list is?

I've written about this before, often reacting to Schneier's prior posts:
There are two classes of problems with stupidity like this. One is that it causes potential harm to all the false positives, from travel delays to targeted data mining to harassment and false arrest. The other class of problem is that it harms our security. We have only limited resources to use against our enemies, spending them on chasing false leads leaves less for the real work.

    Saturday, July 28, 2007

    Why you may want your child on the third place team ...

    If your child is keen and a strong ball player, you probably want her to join the team that will contend for the championship. On the other hand, if your child is a marginal sportsmen, you may want him on the team that will contend for third place.

    At least that's the conclusion I came to from my first season coaching (assistant/manager) a 10-12 yo ball team. In our league the teams start out reasonably equal (there are some inequalities with pitching that can't quite be eliminated), but at the end of the season there's a wide range of abilities. There are really three major determinants of success -- coaching input, chance (injuries), and natural selection.

    The natural selection bit isn't hard to game. If you drive hard, push a bit, yell a bit, tone down the encouragement, it's not hard to eliminate two or three of the weaker players. If your numbers get too low you get to bring up the very best players from the lower league -- who will play well above the weakest players you gave up. I really doubt this is done consciously; I think these coaches would be profoundly offended if the topic were broached. It's just the way the world works.

    The winning team this year had a superb coach (I've been learning from him) and, as near as I can tell, just this kind of natural selection. I suspect it's a universal rule in all team sports, no matter how egalitarian the league. On the other hand, I think in a league of nine teams a very good coach (better than I am now) can probably contend for third or fourth place with their original squad.

    BTW, the optimization problems of a full-rotation 14 player ball team roster are pretty darned impressive ...

    Friday, July 27, 2007

    Hinduism, Mormonism and more - Fundamentalist America in disarray

    How the mighty have fallen.

    Only seven years after inflicting Cheney/Bush upon the world the American Fundamentalist faces ruin on every front. Gay relationships barely draw notice (do they draw any notice?) in the Twin Cities -- at the very heart of fly-over land. The creationist movement, though far from spent, is in disarray. Polls suggest a dramatic increase in the number of Americans without religious affiliation (though still a smallish minority). Wiccans have their symbols in military cemeteries, and are an identified religious group in the military. Islam has come to Congress. So many evangelical figures have gone down to flames that scandals barely draw notice any more. Perhaps worst of all, current GOP presidential candidates range from incredibly lapsed Catholic (3 marriages?) to a flip-flopping non-Christian.

    Into the ruins comes .... Hinduism [1]. Along with Jains, Hindus challenged the display of the ten commandments in the court (though they lost that fight). Now there've been Hindu prayers in the Senate, six years after Bush's post-9/11 invocations pointedly ignored "non-biblical faiths" and non-faiths:
    Hindu Groups Ask '08 Hopefuls to Criticize Protest - washingtonpost.com

    ... Ante Nedlko Pavkovic, Katherine Lynn Pavkovic and Christan Renee Sugar -- identified in the Christian media as a couple and their daughter -- were removed from the Senate floor and arrested by Capitol Police on July 12 after they began shouting, "This is an abomination," and asking for forgiveness from God...

    ... A brief prayer was then delivered by Rajan Zed, a chaplain from Reno who was invited by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

    Several Christian organizations spoke out against the prayer, before and after it was delivered. The American Family Association circulated a petition, urging its members to contact their senator to protest the prayer. "This is not a religion that has produced great things in the world," it read. The Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue/Operation Save America issued a statement saying the prayer placed "the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ."...

    ... A focus of the Christian organizations was the perception that Hindus are polytheistic. "Our national motto isn't 'In gods we trust,' " Janet L. Folger, president of Faith2Action, said the day before the Senate prayer.

    However, the U.S. Hindu groups say this criticism reflects ignorance of the monotheistic underpinnings of their faith. Hinduism has many deities, all manifestations of one god.

    According to the foundation, there are 2 million Hindus in the United States.
    Hindusim is monotheistic? Umm, I don't think it's that simple (read the eb article by the way, it's fascinating). Mormonism, Islam (excl Sufism), Judaism, and Christianity are all pretty different theologies -- roughly equidistant from one another in some multi-dimensional doctrinal space. Hinduism is an order of magnitude away from the those four, as are Bahai, Unitarianism, Shinto, etc.

    There's no way to paper over those differences, and they are disastrous for American fundamentalists. The world is moving on, and American politicians want those Hindu, Jain, Bahai, Buddhist, Shinto votes ...

    [1] After reading the EB article it's not clear that "Hindu" is a theologically meaningful label, but I'll stick with it for this post.

    Obesity: correlation, not causation

    Wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments.

    That's my reaction to the continuing inability of even semi-informed humans to remember the distinction between correlation and causation, of fully informed specialists to "forget" the distinction ...
    Find Yourself Packing It On? Blame Friends - New York Times:

    .... The answer, the researchers report, was that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased a person’s chances of becoming obese by 57 percent. There was no effect when a neighbor gained or lost weight, however, and family members had less influence than friends.

    It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too...

    ...Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, said one explanation was that friends affected each others’ perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.

    “You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you,” Dr. Christakis said....

    Christakis knows better of course, but he also knows how to play the game. He's discovered an interesting correlation in the Framingham data set, and no doubt he thinks he's "controlled" for confounders like education, smoking, socio-economic status, exercise, hobbies, and attitudes towards food. All factors that may play a role in both friendship and obesity (and all of which are affected by genes, which is another topic).

    Grr. If the NEJM had better editors they'd publicly slap the hand of researchers who pretend to be unable to tell the difference between causation and correlation. No wonder the media gets confused.

    We have a long history of studies like this that demonstrate our ability to control for confounders is weak -- no matter what statisticians say. (Why it's weak is an interesting question.) I am very much doubt that a true study (impossible to do), one that randomized people to be "friends" would find any correlation.

    Update 7/27/07: Other variables plausibly correlated with both obesity and friendship include term pregnancy, child rearing, and marital-equivalents. There are likely several others ...

    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    Addiction and disease: My comments on the TIME Science blog

    Here's a fragment from Lemonick's blog post:

    Addiction is NOT a Disease??? - Eye on Science - Science Blog - Michael D. Lemonick - TIME

    A couple of weeks ago, Alice Park and I wrote a cover story about addiction. In it, we kept talking about the fact that addiction is a disease of the brain.

    Silly us. While that's admittedly the view of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the vast majority of addiction specialists, we forgot to talk to Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. If we had, we would just have said "never mind." Yesterday, this dynamic duo published this essay at Slate.com, in which they set the record straight.

    Satel and Lilienfeld, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, respectively, explain that addiction is no disease. It's a habit. "But like other bad habits," they write, "it can be broken." Which is to say, it's kind of like picking your nose in public, evidently, except that it's more expensive...

    And here's my comment:

    This is a deeper topic than you're suggesting. The past twenty years of neuroscience have been putting a tighter and tighter box around what "free will" can be. Much of what we are and do is determined by our genes, and the rest is pretty much set in-utero (the primary environmental component). The next 5-10 years may add another 10-15% of variation, and we don't have much control over that, do we?

    After age 10 we're pretty much on cruise control -- or so it seems.

    So the contrarians aren't really arguing about addiction, they're arguing about the fundamental basis of responsibility. If all we are and do is determined by our genes and uterine residence, then what does punishment mean?

    So their arguments are nonsensical, but their anxiety is completely understandable. If our civilization survives I am reasonably certain that within 40 years our concepts of punishment and responsibility will be dramatically different.

    Torturers may not sleep well ...

    Libya imprisoned and tortured innocent people because they were convenient scapegoats for a disastrous HIV outbreak. Libya received a $400 million ransom to free them.

    The torturers, however, may not always sleep so well ...
    Freed medics describe Libyan captivity - International Herald Tribune

    ...Asked if they were ready to testify in a Bulgarian court in a future case against her torturers, Valcheva said calmly, 'Yes, we are ready.'
    The courts will grind on. One day, a small semblance of justice will be done.

    I wonder if Cheney ever thinks about the day he gets off a plane in Germany and finds handcuffs waiting for him ...

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Please don't buy an iPhone. Yet.

    Apple's iPhone may not have launched quite as well as Apple might have hoped. I like that. Apple is more likely now to second guess some of their mistakes, like a headphone jack that, for no sensible reason, doesn't fit most headphones. Maybe they'll even create a task list, enable notes synchronization, open the phone to signed Cocoa apps, put FileMaker Mobile on the phone, provide synchronization to Google Calendar, fix the broken Outlook synchronization (255 character contact notes?!?!) etc, etc.

    On other side of the iPhone equation, AT&T may rethink pricing, and in particular rethink how much an iPhone is worth given their weak coverage and demonstrably slow and unreliable data support.

    So if you've been thinking of buying an iPhone, please hold off a bit. I very much want to buy an iPhone, but I want Apple and AT&T to suffer enough to bring it a bit closer to what I need. (Voice dialing and GPS wouldn't hurt either, but I can live without them.) If you're still feeling tempted, contemplate this list of iPhone v1.0 Bugs (AppleHound). There, don't you think you can wait another three to five months?

    You can wait a bit longer ... really. Apple's got tons of cash -- they're not going away. We just want them to suffer a bit. Heck, if the share price drops 20% you can make a good investment too ...

    Iraqi feelings theoretically meaningful?

    The very latest research suggests to some that Iraqi feelings should be treated as meaningful, even human ...

    Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die

    CHAPEL HILL, NC— A field study released Monday by the University of North Carolina School of Public Health suggests that Iraqi citizens experience sadness and a sense of loss when relatives, spouses, and even friends perish, emotions that have until recently been identified almost exclusively with Westerners.

    "We were struck by how an Iraqi reacts to the sight of the bloody or decapitated corpse of a family member in a not unlike an American, or at the very least a Canadian, would," said Dr. Jonathan Pryztal, chief author of the study...

    ... "We are, in truth, still a long way from determining if Iraqis are exhibiting actual, U.S.-grade sadness," Mayo Clinic neuropsychologist Norman Blum said. "At present, we see no reason for the popular press to report on Iraqi emotions as if they are real."

    The Onion has produced another bitter classic. I would applaud any newspaper that routinely followed "3,500 US dead" with "and over 300,000 Iraqi dead" .... (Thanks FMH)

    Monday, July 23, 2007

    Let us not mention this to our space alien visitors ...

    There's really no need to bring up this sort of thing ...
    Damn Interesting: The Thugs of India

    ...Their extreme secrecy combined with their mastery of murder made the Thugs the deadliest secret society in all of history. In the early 19th century they were credited with 40,000 deaths annually, stretching back as far as anyone cared to count. Some estimates put the overall death toll as high as 2,000,000, but with the cult potentially operating for more than 500 years before formal records were kept, the true number is impossible to determine.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007

    Flatline - escaping the hideous smiley face of junk

    I remember the hideous smiley faces of the 1970s. For years they haunted boomer dreams, but now we're trapped in the pit of the smile, deluged in cheap junk that's worth less than nothing ...
    Gordon's Notes: Riding the dragon - Fallows on China

    James Fallows .... The curve is named for the U-shaped arc of the 1970s-era smiley-face icon, and it runs from the beginning to the end of a product’s creation and sale. At the beginning is the company’s brand: HP, Siemens, Dell, Nokia, Apple. Next comes the idea for the product: an iPod, a new computer, a camera phone. After that is high-level industrial design—the conceiving of how the product will look and work. Then the detailed engineering design for how it will be made. Then the necessary components. Then the actual manufacture and assembly. Then the shipping and distribution. Then retail sales. And, finally, service contracts and sales of parts and accessories.

    The significance is that China’s activity is in the middle stages—manufacturing, plus some component supply and engineering design—but America’s is at the two ends, and those are where the money is. The smiley curve, which shows the profitability or value added at each stage, starts high for branding and product concept, swoops down for manufacturing, and rises again in the retail and servicing stages. The simple way to put this—that the real money is in brand name, plus retail—may sound obvious, but its implications are illuminating....

    So how can one escape the smile and restore "balance to the force"? One approach is fundamentally Darwinian. Strong brands invest in defect analysis and early detection, eliminating suppliers who deliver flawed product. Consumers forget about commodity products and invest in brands. Consumers miraculously develop a memory for what brands fail...

    Oops. The memory part is the problem. Do you remember what companies had melamine in their dog food? Do you think you'll remember a year from now? Diethylene glycol in the dime store toothpaste? The DVD player that broke after one month? The wireless home phone that always crackled? The noisy fan, the sloppy wrench, the flimsy toaster ....

    What other strategies are there? How else can the curve be balanced between design, brand, manufacturing and retail? How can costs be shifted from retail and brand to invest in better manufacturing and design -- anywhere?

    I think we need to look for new options. What if an insurance company were to provide insurance policies guaranteeing devices performed to spec on delivery and for two years post sale? The policy would include a large rider to cover recalls, including a prize to anyone who found a recall qualifying defect. Anything that qualified for coverage would be able to display an appropriate and meaningful "seal of approval". Consumers could choose to get the insurance or not, some might decide the "insurable" measure was enough by itself. Vendors would, of course, have to pay for the "seal".

    Perhaps this would produce a kind of "meta-brand", allowing manufacturers to outsource branding and shift investments to design and manufacturing - flattening the hideous smiley.

    Saturday, July 21, 2007

    Dyer: Five new essays

    Dyer has five new ones:

    July 1 Perspectives on Terrorism
    July 3 The United States of Africa
    July 6 The End of Cheap Food
    July 10 The New York Times vs. Reality
    July 14 North Korea: Five Wasted Years
    I'm puzzled Dyer doesn't have a larger blog profile. It's true that his web technology is medieval, but I suspect it's simply a lack of big name attention. Now if Brad were to start reading Dyer ...

    The best time to buy a plane ticket

    Buy your plane tickets on a Wednesday ...
    The Big Picture | The Cheapest Days to Buy Certain Items

    Great article in Smart Money that fits in well with recent Retail Day: how and why certain pricing strategies occur...

    Airplane Tickets
    When to Buy: Wednesday morning.
    Why: 'Most airfare sales are thrown out there on the weekend,' says travel expert Peter Greenberg, a.k.a. The Travel Detective1. Other airlines then jump into the game, discounting their own fares and prompting further changes by the first airline. The fares reach their lowest prices late Tuesday or early Wednesday....
    Of course if everyone were to follow this advice the advice would become worthless ...

    No End in Sight: Fallows rave review

    I almost never watch television. This has its benefits, but I miss a great deal. I know America's disastrous war only through print. I would like to see this documentary:
    James Fallows

    ...Next week Charles Ferguson's documentary No End in Sight opens in DC and New York, followed in August by "select other cities." It is worth making time to see this film...

    ... It covers almost exactly the same terrain, including many of the same sources and anecdotes, as did my book Blind Into Baghdad. But rarely have I seen a clearer demonstration of how much more powerful the combination of pictures, sound, music, real-people-talking, etc can be than words on a page... there are times when the experience of seeing, for instance, chaos on the streets of Baghdad transcends any mere verbal description of it....
    (I wanted to embed a clip of the movie, but they'd set it up to start playing on page load. That's obnoxious so you'll have to visit the site if you want to see it ....)

    Riding the dragon - Fallows on China

    James Fallows, one of my favorite writers, returned to China a year or two ago to feel the beating heart of the new world. He's digested a portion of his experiences in an essay for The Atlantic. After reading the essay, I think I understand why there's been so little response from the economists I respect to recent problems with just about everything we buy, eat and use (emphases mine):
    China Makes, The World Takes, James Fallows, The Atlantic July/Aug 2007

    ... One facility in Guangdong province, the famous Foxconn works, sits in the middle of a conurbation just outside Shenzhen, where it occupies roughly as much space as a major airport. Some 240,000 people (the number I heard most often; estimates range between 200,000 and 300,000) work on its assembly lines, sleep in its dormitories, and eat in its company cafeterias... From the major ports serving the area, Hong Kong and Shenzhen harbors, cargo ships left last year carrying the equivalent of more than 40 million of the standard 20-foot-long metal containers that end up on trucks or railroad cars. That’s one per second, round the clock and year-round—and it’s less than half of China’s export total...

    ...But what is of intense interest to him, he said, is a company that has built up a brand name and relationships with retailers, and knows what it wants to promote and sell next—and needs to save time and money in manufacturing a product that requires a fair amount of assembly. “That is where we can help, because you will come here and see factories that are better than the ones you’ve been working with in America or Germany.”

    Here are a few examples, all based on real-world cases: You have announced a major new product, which has gotten great buzz in the press. But close to release time, you discover a design problem that must be fixed—and no U.S. factory can adjust its production process in time.

    The Chinese factories can respond more quickly, and not simply because of 12-hour workdays. “Anyplace else, you’d have to import different raw materials and components,” Casey told me. “Here, you’ve got nine different suppliers within a mile, and they can bring a sample over that afternoon. People think China is cheap, but really, it’s fast.” Moreover, the Chinese factories use more human labor, and fewer expensive robots or assembly machines, than their counterparts in rich countries. “People are the most adaptable machines,” an American industrial designer who works in China told me. “Machines need to be reprogrammed. You can have people doing something entirely different next week.”....

    ... You are an American inventor with a product you think has “green” potential for household energy savings. But you need to get it to market fast, because you think big companies may be trying the same thing, and you need to meet a target retail price of $100. “No place but China to do this,” Mr. China said, as he showed me the finished product...

    ... Casey’s PCH has a Google Earth–like system that incorporates what he has learned in 10 years of dealing with Chinese subcontractors. You name a product you want to make—say, a new case or headset for a mobile phone. Casey clicks on the map and shows the companies that can produce the necessary components—and exactly how far they are from each other in travel time. This is hard-won knowledge in an area where city maps are out of date as soon as they are published and addresses are approximate. (Casey’s are keyed in with GPS coordinates, discreetly read from his GPS-equipped mobile phone when he visits each factory.) If a factory looks promising, you click again and get interior and exterior photos, a rundown on the management, in some cases videos of the assembly line in action, plus spec sheets and engineering drawings for orders they have already filled. Similar programs allow Casey and his clients to see which ship, plane, or truck their products are on anywhere in the world, and the amount of stock on hand in any warehouse or depot. (How do they know? Each finished piece and almost every component has an individual bar code that is scanned practically every time it is touched.)...

    ... Even some newly built facilities leave to human hands work that has been done in the West for many decades by machines. Imagine opening a consumer product—a mobile phone, an electric toothbrush, a wireless router—and finding a part that was snapped on or glued into place. It was probably put there by a young Chinese woman who did the same thing many times per minute throughout her 12-hour workday....

    ... It is conceivable that bad partnerships, stolen intellectual property, dilution of brand name, logistics nightmares, or other difficulties have given many companies a sour view of outsourcing; I have heard examples in each category from foreign executives. But the more interesting theme I have heard from them, which explains why they are willing to surmount the inconveniences, involves something called the “smiley curve.”

    The curve is named for the U-shaped arc of the 1970s-era smiley-face icon, and it runs from the beginning to the end of a product’s creation and sale. At the beginning is the company’s brand: HP, Siemens, Dell, Nokia, Apple. Next comes the idea for the product: an iPod, a new computer, a camera phone. After that is high-level industrial design—the conceiving of how the product will look and work. Then the detailed engineering design for how it will be made. Then the necessary components. Then the actual manufacture and assembly. Then the shipping and distribution. Then retail sales. And, finally, service contracts and sales of parts and accessories.

    The significance is that China’s activity is in the middle stages—manufacturing, plus some component supply and engineering design—but America’s is at the two ends, and those are where the money is. The smiley curve, which shows the profitability or value added at each stage, starts high for branding and product concept, swoops down for manufacturing, and rises again in the retail and servicing stages. The simple way to put this—that the real money is in brand name, plus retail—may sound obvious, but its implications are illuminating.

    At each factory I visited, I asked managers to estimate how much of a product’s sales price ended up in whose hands. The strength of the brand name was the most important variable. If a product is unusual enough and its brand name attractive enough, it could command so high a price that the retailer might keep half the revenue. (Think: an Armani suit, a Starbucks latte.) Most electronics products are now subject to much fiercer price competition, since it is so easy for shoppers to find bargains on the Internet. Therefore the generic Windows-style laptops I saw in one modern factory might go for around $1,000 in the United States, with the retailer keeping less than $50.

    Where does the rest of the money go? The manager of that factory guessed that Intel and Microsoft together would collect about $300, and that the makers of the display screen, the disk-storage devices, and other electronic components might get $150 or so apiece. The keyboard makers would get $15 or $20; FedEx or UPS would get slightly less. When all other costs were accounted for, perhaps $30 to $40—3 to 4 percent of the total—would stay in China with the factory owners and the young women on the assembly lines....

    So today, my mother can't buy a phone that works. I can, but I use research tools unimaginable ten years ago to find the one model available for sale at the moment that will work reliably for at least two years (A Panasonic phone was my last answer). On the other hand, I've given up on finding a DVD/VCR that's reliable, or a toaster that I can trust. In those cases, I just do without.

    It doesn't matter, and neither do the calls I and others make for more oversight, more financial consequences. After reading Fallows one fact cannot be ignored -- we are riding the dragon, and nobody in particular is steering anything. We're not getting off until the beast is full.

    Friday, July 20, 2007

    Those evil Russians - good thing we outed 'em

     Of course you know how this goes ...

    Glenn Greenwald - Salon

    In February, 2001, the Bush State Department issued a highly critical report documenting Russia's human rights abuses, both domestically and with regard to its treatment of foreign detainees. I found the document randomly today while searching for something else. Among the Russian moral outrages we protested...

    Yeah. We do all of 'em now. Routinely.

    One bright side of the GOP regime is that our righteous diatribes now cause hilarious laughter instead of irritation or embarrassment. Well, it's a bright side for people like Putin.

    John Edwards: Another man the media dislikes

    It's increasingly clear that the US media dislikes John Edwards almost as much as they disliked Al Gore. Digby draws some conclusions (via DeLong):

    Digby on the media and John Edwards

    ...Ambinder says right out that "fairly or unfairly" the press can't stand John Edwards and so they are going to bury him. This is, of course, not unprecedented, since we saw what they did to Al Gore for the same reason. The matter-of-factness of his statement still made my head spin a little, but I appreciate the candor. At least we now know what we are dealing with. (And there is no question about whether it's fair. It most certainly isn't.)

    Now, I am not especially surprised that the press corps doesn't like John Edwards. Many of these people probably didn't like guys like him in high school either and one thing we know about the political press corps is that they have never matured beyond the 11th grade. (See: chilean bass stupidity.) But I have to ask, once again, just who in the hell these people think they are and why they think they are allowed to pick our candidates for us based upon their own "feelings" about them? I don't recall electing them to anything. (But, hey, maybe we should just poll the kewl kidz and find out which candidate they "like, totally, like" and we can cancel the election and save a lot of time and money.)

    This is exactly this kind of thing that makes people like me laugh when I get lectured by professional journalists about "objectivity" and "ethics." At least I put my political biases up front. These phonies hide behind a veil of journalistic conventions so they can exercise their psychologically stunted desire to stick it to the BMOC, or the dork or whoever these catty little gossips want to skewer for their own pleasure that day. Please, please, no more hand-wringing sanctimony from reporters about the undisciplined, unethical blogosphere. Their glass houses are lying in shards all around their feet.

    Each time they've pulled this puerile nonsense in the last few years, it's resulted in a mess that's going to take even more years to unravel. And they learned nothing, apparently, since they are doing exactly the same thing in this election. If the press really wants to know why they are held in lower esteem than hitmen and health insurance claims adjusters, this is it.

    Krugman had a similar rant a while back. I don't think the '11th grade' is the full story; we need an insider to figure this one out. I do agree that the US media have about as much right as the GOP to be sanctimonious. Their star hangs low.

    Privacy and Reputation Management: An update

    I was reflecting today on what I've learned over the past year about the state of the art in data mining, data rights, trading in data rights. What I see now, and what I think is coming, suggests this is a good time to summarize the themes of privacy and reputation management (including identity management) together, with a bow, as always, to David Brin.

    It's not hard to drive to the bottom line. You should live your life as if you have no secrets. Assume that anything you write, say, do will one day be visible. Assume that every aspect of your medical history, your employment history and the time you yelled at the kids is public.

    No, we're not quite there yet. You can still assume multiple digital identities, manage them carefully, and be one small step away from Google. If you don't have a credit card or a phone or a license you can still be surprisingly hard to find, and you can probably live. The trend is clear though, barring a dramatic awakening of our stunned citizenry we will be there within 5-10 years. When we get there there will be a large retrospective effect, so that transparency will propagate backwards in time. What you can conceal now will become public then.

    That's why, today, you must assume you live in the proverbial fishbowl. Live accordingly.

    Ah, you don't want to live that way? Well, you might try taking a cattle prod to your fellow voters. Personally I don't hold out much hope however, I think we might as well get used to the idea that this battle was lost ten years ago, and focus instead on making identity theft a serious crime with penalties for the corporations that own and manage our identities.

    Blogs, identity management and brands - an illuminating story

    I'm a 'connections' kind of person. Everything is more or less enmeshed and connected to everything else, everything is recursive and emergent. It's not necessarily a strength -- complexity can be paralyzing. Reality is overrated. This connection, though, is hard to avoid. It's a connection between brands, blogs, why blog, and identity management, and the odd emergent consequences of Google.

    The story is quickly told. I ran into some operational issues with a software vendor suffering from a successful product release and I wrote about in my ultra-low subscription mildly pseudonymous tech blog. The blog has low subscription numbers, but Google seems to like it; it appears in searches and gets read. I've had some interesting experiences with posting about corporate issues -- not infrequently I get a comment back from the CEO.

    As usual, a company that searches the web for bad reviews (an industry spawned by Google and brand management, in this case the search might have been internal) found the review and sent it on to the vendor's sales organization. The twist this time was that I'd also complained directly to the vendor, under my true name (John Gordon F.). The details and timings of the problems were sufficiently similar, and my pseudonym shield sufficiently mild, that I received a direct phone call from the head of sales. She admitted their sales process was bunged up, and I said if she submitted a comment to that effect and said they were addressing the problem that I'd willingly add an addendum to my post. (She didn't actually post a comment, so I've left the post unchanged.)

    I wasn't bothered by the exposure (see a later post), but I was amused. It's a story that illuminates the modern connections between blogs, brand management (reputation management for a vendor), identity (reputation management for a person) and emergence. All favorite themes of mine.

    Incidentally, I ought to update my why blog post -- the tech blog is an amazing way to get very direct feedback to vendors.

    Thursday, July 19, 2007

    Andreesen recommends a manual for startups

    Depending on how hard I look at my day job, I vacillate between mild to strong commitment to doing my own thing. In the meantime, I collect recommendations like Andreesen's:
    blog.pmarca.com: Book of the week: Best book for tech entrepreneurs this year

    Steve Blank is a super-experienced Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur who is best known for starting E.piphany, a successful software company, and also founded or worked at a broad range of meaningful tech companies over the last 30 years including Zilog, Convergent, MIPS, Ardent (one of the most innovative mini-supercomputer companies of the late 80's), and Rocket Science Games....

    ... he's just written and published a book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, that is a very practical how-to manual for startups.

    In a nutshell, Steve proposes that companies need a Customer Development process that complements their Product Development Process. And he lays out exactly what he thinks that Customer Development process should be. This goes directly to the theory of Product/Market Fit that I have discussed on this blog before -- in this book, Steve provides a roadmap for how to get to Product/Market Fit.

    Schneier review: excellent essays on secrecy, security and the modern terrorist

    I fell behind on reading Schneier on Security. Mistake. I see a dozen posts I'd like to expand, integrated, comment on, cheer about, etc. Instead, here's the rundown:

    • Why our governments passion for secrecy is bad for our security: It's open vs. closed source. Secret stuff isn't critiqued, so stupid assumptions aren't questions. The WaPo article had this money quote: "... some members of Congress tell me that they avoid reading classified reports for fear that if they do, the edicts of secrecy will bar them from discussing vital public issues."
    • The recent flock of terrorists have been idiots. I've written about this too, though much less well. The shoe bomber (Richard Reid) was obviously cognitively impaired and probably schizophrenic -- he's been the template for the post 9/11 crop. Not all terrorists are idiots however -- Hamas has competent terrorists. Menachem Begin was a very smart (Irgun) terrorist. Whether by intent (how smart is Zawahiri anyway?) or by accident, the flood of incompetent terrorists, and our idiotic panicked responses to them, will make it easier for competent terrorists to do their work. See also: terrorism and the shoulders of giants and how talented is this group?
    • Why terrorism doesn't work. It works to create terror and disruption, but not to achieve the stated aims of the terrorists. Schneier: "The author believes that correspondent inference theory explains this. Basically, the theory says that people infer the motives of an actor based on the consequences of the action. So people assume that the motives of a terrorist are wanton death and destruction, and not the stated aims of the terrorist group..." Schneier expands on this theme in a longer related essay which reassuringly suggests Bin Laden and Zawahiri are really stupid:
    • This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism -- or Islamic terrorism in general -- is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again -- Abrahms has a page of examples in the paper -- and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. (You can see a lot of it in the comments to this previous essay.)

      In fact, Bin Laden's policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrahms lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's book Imperial Hubris:

      1. End U.S. support of Israel
      2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
      3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
      4. End U.S. support of other countries' anti-Muslim policies
      5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
      6. End U.S. support for "illegitimate" (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan

      Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he's not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists' motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he's just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden's actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

      Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

    • Commentary on the UK "plots": He's picked a great set of commentaries to review. (See also idiots, above.)
    • Improvising weapons: The comments are scary. (See also my post on talent, terrorism and the shoulders of giants.)
    • Greek wiretapping scandal. Was the engineer murdered, or did he jump? I'd not heard of this 2005 story. It happens here, of course.
    • Cameras used for congestion monitoring are now for security monitoring. Of course. Surely no-one is naive enough now not to expect this. If the data is cost-effectively available it will be used. No matter what the law once said. Laws are easy to change.

    Wednesday, July 18, 2007

    Impeach Cheney

    Impeach Cheney. Because if you impeach Bush, then Cheney becomes president.

    Doctoring under the influence: EMRs, mobile phones, and cognitive load

    My wife, a physician, commented today how annoying it was to have her personal physician staring at a laptop during the entire patient visit. It made me think of the vast literature on mobile phone use and driving. The negative multitasking impact probably varies by age and ability, but it's generally compared to a few glasses of wine.

    Is there any reason to expect that interacting with a computer is less demanding than talking on a cell phone? Does anyone have any doubt that the cognitive load of dealing with a software package (electronic health record, EMR, EHR, etc) impairs the ability to think about patient care?

    There's been surprisingly little research done on this, though I do recall a quite good opinion piece on the topic a few years ago. Fertile ground for future scholars, no doubt.

    Problems in Google-land: Gmail, Blogger and do you really trust Web 2.0?

    Last week a bad update broke Google's BlogThis! tool. It took them a week to fix it, and there was never any official notification of the problem, though Google's support people did post in response to numerous help group complaints.

    This week Gmail's spam filter is malfunctioning. The "whitelist" functionality is broken and it's miscategorizing email. I tried to post about this on the Gmail Group but the "problem" group is down (really, I'm not joking, they're out of order). Users who get large volumes of spam will inevitably lose email in the mess.

    Google has not provided any notification on any blog, or on their help page, of the Gmail malfunction. (They did provide notification us that the Gmail Help Group is down, but that's rather obvious.)

    It's the failure to notify, more than the bugs, that really concerns me. Google is not treating their customers respectfully.

    The foundation of "Web 2.0" apps (what we once called "application service provider") is trust in the service provider. The "web 2.0" model doesn't need to be perfect -- all software has bugs and local hard drives fail, so traditional "owned" software models have their own problems. The "web 2.0" model does, however, require trust, and trust requires respect.

    If Google can't respect their customers, who can? What does this say about all the other web 2.0 services that we increasingly rely upon?

    2011: The year American life changes

    When will energy costs in general, and gasoline costs in particular, fundamentally change the way middle-class Americans live and work? We know gasoline prices will rise until something changes, even if the US never implements a carbon tax.

    Of course change like this is not generally abrupt, it's a process and it's probably underway now. So, really, what I'm asking is when will the change be obvious and undeniable?

    I think a reasonable marker is the year that the baseline gasoline price hits $5 a gallon. I used to think it was $7 a gallon, but that was before I paid attention to what my commute was costing me. If the average American burns 3 gallons of gas during each daily roundtrip commute, and gas costs $5 a gallon, then each daily commute costs $15 in gasoline alone, or about $3,000 over 200 commuting days. For a family with two commuters that's $6,000 a year.

    That's a meaningful percentage, perhaps 10-13% of the average American family's after-tax income. It doesn't include the effects of cost increases for heating and cooling, lights and computers, and all the rest of our lives.

    That's a number that a middle-class American will start to notice, and it can't come out of savings. Middle-class American's don't save -- their assets are in their homes. Americans will have to change their behavior. It means smaller cars, hybrids, bicycles for some, closer employers, working at home, etc. Employers will have to change their behavior, setting up peripheral offices at transit hubs, investing in remote work support and collaboration solutions ...

    The 'working at home' bit is particularly interesting. I've been in distributed work groups on and off for years, and they're terribly ineffective for complex or innovative product work. We get far more done with less money when everyone sits in walking distance; but it's getting harder, not easier, to get people to relocate and stay relocated. Of course part of the problem is that employers have not seriously thought about how to make remote work groups effective (hint: technology is an enabler, it's not a solution). Commuting costs of $15 a day and more mean that employers will have to get very good, fairly quickly, at supporting remote work groups.

    So when does it happen? I'll pull a number out of the air, extrapolating from my amateur chart and the Copernican Principle, and guess, even without a carbon tax or the complete collapse of Iraq, that it's 2011.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    Iraq 101: Why some people may hold a grudge

    It's useful to remember that some people may hold a grudge against former Baathists ...
    The Iraq war is lost | Salon.com

    ... Abdul Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC, previously known as SCIRI), which is Iraq's leading Shiite party and a critical component of Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition. He is the sole survivor of eight brothers. During Saddam's rule, Baathists executed six of them. On Aug. 29, 2003, a suicide bomber, possibly linked to the Baathists, blew up his last surviving brother, and predecessor as SCIRI leader, at the shrine of Ali in Najaf. Muqtada al-Sadr, Hakim's main rival, comes from Iraq's other prominent Shiite religious family. Saddam's Baath regime murdered his father and two brothers in 1999. Earlier, in April 1980, the regime had arrested Muqtada's father-in-law and the father-in-law's sister -- the Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda. While the ayatollah watched, the Baath security men raped and killed his sister. They then set fire to the ayatollah's beard before driving nails into his head. De-Baathification is an intensely personal issue for Iraq's two most powerful Shiite political leaders, as it is to hundreds of thousands of their followers who suffered similar atrocities...
    It's a good overview article. The main point is that while it is true that the Iraqi government has not acted on any of the core requirements of the Bush administration, the requirements are probably unwise anyway.

    Fallows: Petraeus cannot change water into wine

     Fallows has written an excellent review of the "Petraeus will save us" strategy of Bush and the entire GOP ...

    James Fallows: David Petraeus and the "New Jesus" problem

    ... The recent astounding column by Wiliam Kristol had a similar "Petraeus will save us" tone: "What it comes down to is this: If Petraeus succeeds in Iraq, and a Republican wins in 2008, Bush will be viewed as a successful president."

    It's tempting to spend more time on that one sentence of Kristol's ("What it comes down to is this: If I can beat Roger Federer, I'll be successful at Wimbledon.") The real point involves Petraeus.

    He is a smart man. He is a brave man, not just in the obvious sense but also for reminding his troops soon after taking command in Iraq that there are still proper rules of conduct, even though we are "a nation at war."

    But -- and in the current context, this may come as a shock -- he is not Jesus, nor is he supernatural in any way. His manual of counter insurgency strategy is a big step forward from the stupid brutalize- and-alienate approach of the early stage of the Iraqi occupation. (The manual is here -- a 12 meg PDF download.) But that manual and its underlying strategy -- which I heard discussed and thrashed out by Petraeus and his colleagues at Ft. Leavenworth last spring; I think Tom Ricks was there for that conference, and I know that Kristol and Graham weren't -- is neither magical nor holy. It is not going to undo what has gone wrong in the last four-plus years. It is not going to make the Maliki government seem legitimate, and it is not even going to shape up the Iraqi security forces...

    The sources I respect think very well of General Petraeus and his idiosyncratic team of advisors, but even if he were not hobbled by Cheney/Bush he'd have an impossible mission. Throw in those towering incompetents and ...

    Incidentally, Cheney has been remarkably silent about General Petraeus. Maybe he didn't like the Petraeus anti-torture stand.

    Seeking a twin cities blog or wiki dedicated to skate and bicycle trail news

    I live in Saint Paul, the quieter of Minnesota's "Twin Cities". Minneapolis, in contrast, is a notorious den of hedonistic excess and sinful pleasure. Alas for the injured ego of we Paulites, Minneapolis also has one of the finest bicycle and skating trail networks in North America -- we're only in the top 10.

    So, really, we ought to have a local resource focusing on trail news. The trails are expanding everywhere, but also occasionally out of order -- we need something very topical. There are huge multi-lane bike trails and obscure suburban trails, packed stone trails and lovely smooth asphalt trails (inline skaters pay a lot of attention to surfaces), scenic trails and utilitarian arteries, hilly zippers and rail trails -- lots of everything. We need a Google markup map and, above all, a multi-author blog. It has to serve the needs of our major bike clubs and our inline skate club.

    I haven't found anything like this so far, but I'd welcome email on the topic to jfaughnan@spamcop.net -- including mention of a similar project in another city. In my search I found a local blog with active comments on the 2007 Twin Cities Bike Map, I posted this as a comment:

    Little Transport Press » Blog Archive » Twin Cities Bike Map

    ... I found this posting because I was looking for a blog dedicated to news and updates on twin cities inline skating and bicycle trails.

    If anyone is aware of such a blog please email me ... I’d like to see a multi-author blog and I’d be willing to contribute or help administer.

    Possible sponsors include our local bike clubs, the Minnesota Inline Skate Club and Little Transport Press (of course). It could, for example, be used to promote and develop Little Transport Press products. I’d also like to see it integrate with a shared Google Maps/Google Earth toolset for sketching out the trails and I could help with that too...

    The key is to leverage many contributors in a structured format, an open source model that leverages our emerging toolkits of blogs, maps and wikis ...

    TPM: the polls in WW II

    TPM, for the second time, deflates the theory that a lack of popular support for Bush somehow resembles a mythical lack of support for Roosevelt ...

    Talking Points Memo | Polls

    ...The key point is that many polls were taken during the war. And approval of the president's conduct of the war, understanding and belief in the goals of the war and other similar measurements all remained constant at very high levels or in some cases actually went up. One key data point you can see on the chart is the number of Americans will to make peace with Hitler -- that is, an negotiated end to the war rather than the unconditional surrender which was a key allied war demand. The number was under 10% for most of 1942 and 1943. Then it briefly surged up to just over 20% in early 1944 (roughly the time of the invasion of Italy) before falling back down to about 15% for duration of the war in Europe...

    I like the historical aspects of this most of all. BTW, TPM has moved to a proper blog format, and it's a great improvement.

    Immunotherapy for sarcoma - in the 19th century

    Damn Interesting is one of my favorite blogs, and this week's post is of particular interest to physicians (note the UK spelling of "tumor") ... 

    Damn Interesting » Coley’s Cancer-Killing Concoction

    ... The story so convinced Coley that he– perhaps cavalierly– contrived to contaminate his next ten suitable sarcoma cases with Streptococcus. His initial approach was to inject a solution of live bacteria deep into the tumour mass on a repeated basis over several months. The first patient to undergo this treatment was a bedridden man with inoperable sarcoma in the abdominal wall, bladder, and pelvis. Using this experimental method, the patient was cured spectacularly. He staged a full recovery, and survived another twenty-six years before dying from a heart attack. But subsequent results were mixed; sometimes it was difficult to get the infection to take hold, and in two cases the cancer responded well to treatment but the patients died from the Streptococcus infection.

    Coley’s discovery, as it turns out, was actually a re-discovery. The idea of a link between acute infection and the resolution of tumours was not new, and the phenomenon of infection-related "spontaneous regression" of cancer has been documented throughout history. A 13th century Italian saint was reputed to have his tumour-afflicted leg miraculously healed shortly after the malignant growth burst through the skin and became infected. Crude cancer immunotherapies working along similar lines to Coley’s early experiments were known in the 18th and 19th centuries, and may extend back to the time of the pharaohs. Ancient writings suggest that the renowned Egyptian physician Imhotep may have used a similar infect-and-incise method to treat tumours....

    I've been fond of medical history ever since I enjoyed a thinly attended history of medicine course at McGill in the 80s. I don't recall ever hearing about Dr. Coley or his early use of immunotherapy for sarcoma -- a cancer that's often incurable even now. The article implies that the treatment has been long forgotten, which is not quite true, the work of Coley is periodically revisited.

    Dr. Coley deserves a Wikipedia page, but as of 7/17/07 none exists.  Perhaps a scholar somewhere will insert one based on this article (A review of DI could be the source of several new topic pages really.)

    Monday, July 16, 2007

    Why the GOP dislikes McCain - it's not his support of the conquest of Mesopotamia

    I've read several articles about McCain's campaign collapse; all of them cited his support for Cheney/Bush's war as the main reason for his poor prospects. I never questioned this oft-repeated theory, so I was impressed when Glenn Greenwald blew it away.

    Of course Greenwald is right -- now that I've read his arguments I'm surprised I was ever so naive as to buy the party line. This is not Bush's war alone, it's the war of Bush's supporters, the hard-core dead-ender 30-percenter ... [update: decreased my"name calling" quotient] ... who are the heart of the modern GOP.

    If I were a nobler soul I'd find some sympathy for dolts like Giuliani and Romney who have to kowtow to these people, but I'm not so noble.

    Why I blog - Gordon's Notes and Gordon's Tech

    I posted this as a Cosmic Variance comment, I've revised it a bit here ...

    .. There's a meme about “commodity bloggers” and “echo chambers” that’s been simmering for a while but was fired up by a recent Jakob Nielsen post. CH has a good overview.

    I think this is a sub-meme of the “blogging” is “destroying all that is good and pure and noble in human civilization” usually alternating with the “wikipedia is destroying education” meme. (More on the latter soon, maybe...)

    Beyond these memes is an unspoken wariness about the increasingly subtle distinctions between an “echo chamber” blog and a splog — the more sophisticated splogs are eerily similar to low end commodity blogs.

    I’ve nothing else to add to the good comments on the CV thread, save perhaps that my own very low readership blogs are written for these audiences in this order:

    1. Myself. It’s how I learn and think.
    2. The GoogleMind: building inferential links for search and reflection.
    3. Tech blog: Future readers who find my posts useful to solve a problem they have that I've solved for myself.
    4. Gordon's Notes: My grandchildren, so I can say I didn't remain silent -- and my tiny audience of regular readers, not least my wife (hey, we don't get that much time to talk!).

    I, of course, agree with the obvious consensus that blogs are intended to be read by subscription tools (like bloglines) and that descriptive titles and label/categories should allow readers lots of tools to decide what to read. I do think the readers can, and will, make better use of metadata (themes, categories, labels, etc) in years to come.

    Update: I revised my "why I write" list as I thought it over a bit more.

    Update 7/17/07: Excellent comments by Rosenberg. For love, not money.

    Sunday, July 15, 2007

    Reading to kids: don't do it for the test scores

    I'd always assumed that the claim that reading to young children improved their academic performance was mostly wishful thinking, but I hadn't realized where the belief came from ...
    Freakonomics Blog � The Benefits of Reading to Children, Tested With a Data Pool of One

    ... Children from low-income households average just 25 hours of shared reading time with their parents before starting school, compared with 1,000 to 1,700 hours for their counterparts from middle-income homes.

    These oft-repeated numbers originate in a 1990 book by Marilyn Jager Adams titled, “Beginning to Read: Thinking And Learning About Print.” Ms. Adams got the 25-hours estimate from a study of 24 children in 22 low-income families. For the middle-income figures, she extrapolated from the experience of a single child: her then-4-year-old son, John …
    This is a bit like the old saw about "using only 15% of your brain" and other urban myths. This one was a useful myth, it meant that poor test scores could be blamed on parents who, obviously, didn't read to their children enough (perhaps because they were struggling to keep the roof in place) [1].

    It's fun reading to kids, though of our 3 we've had 2 that sat still for it and one who'd have needed four point restraints. Do it because it's fun, but don't get bent out of shape about it. There's no evidence, yet, that reading to children will make a significant contribution to their academic performance.

    [1] Of course even if there was a causal relationship between reading to children and test scores that would be fallacious reasoning, but we're talking about hairless apes here!

    Saturday, July 14, 2007

    Patrick Leahy is my hero. You must listen to this.

    The video is quite short. It's your duty as a citizen to listen to it.

    It is an undeserved miracle that America, in a dark time of failed citizenry, was given Patrick Leahy as head of the senate judiciary committee. He is an old man. This is his hour. Thank you Patrick, we don't deserve your service.

    The WSJ's Laffler curve fitting: thank you Mr Murdoch

    Rupert Murdoch cannot possible diminish the Wall Street Journal. It's already hit rock bottom.

    Exhibit A: A physicist reviews the diagram the Wall Street Journal published. Yes, they really published the curve, just as CV describes. Editorial page, of course.

    The WSJ is the laughing stock of anyone with any sense.

    Do your worst Rupert.

    Friday, July 13, 2007

    The OS X iPods

    Daring Fireball (48,800 bloglines subscribers*!) tells us Jobs confirmed that Apple is working on OS X based iPods. So the next generation of iPods ought to be feature competitive with the iPhone's music capabilities. That's great, but he asks the next, much more interesting, question:

    Daring Fireball: Regarding OS X-Based iPods

    ...The biggest question, as I see it, is whether Apple plans to introduce iPods that are more or less just the iPod app from the iPhone (i.e. just music and video players), or iPods that are everything but phones, with Wi-Fi networking for email, web, and more...

    By "more" I assume he means the thought that none dare speak - VOIP.

    On the one hand, one might imagine that the AT&T contract forbids a "VOiPod". On the other hand, that is a delicious thought. OS X on the iPhone occupies 680MB and requires a serious CPU and battery, so it's hard to imaging putting it on an iPod just to plays music and movies ...

    Of course there's more than one way to play video. Cringely thinks Apple will bundle a hardware H.264 decompressor chip into the next iPod. Jobs is on record as saying the current "Apple TV" is a "hobby".


    H.264 HD decompressor chip. VOIP. Apple TV. Rumors that Apple has again bought up all Flash supplies over the next few months...

    * That's just Bloglines. He probably has 2-3 times as many regular readers. That's a big enough lever to move even Apple ...